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Emotional Overload for Survivors of Abuse & Incest Recovery

Incest survivors surf a tsunami of emotions
The emotional aftermath following abuse or incest.

There are so many layers and facets that need to be looked at, In The Beginning touches on reclaiming your thoughts. The Aftermath touches on behaviors and how the two are intertwined. Each posting will touch on another layer or facet that leads us on a dark journey that leads us to a much better place. Looking at this journey as a step at a time or a layer at a time is not as overwhelming as looking at the whole journey all at once.

I mentioned in The Aftermath overwhelming emotions. I can certainly say that in the years immediately following the incest, and prior to starting counseling, I had all the predictable emotions incest survivors struggle with… and each emotion was off the charts in its intensity. I will speak about some of these emotions here. 

Rage - My anger went so deep it became a seething volcano of pure rage right under the surface, and at any second I could explode and lash out at anyone or anything around me. This level of rage was exhausting and yet, at the same time, I found a strength from its intensity that helped me want to stay alive. This was beneficial survival skill as a child of abuse but, after the fact and in counseling, I had to learn how to let go of this terrible awesome rage. And the reason I needed to let it go is so it would not destroy me. I wrote this poem it a long time ago:


Born of betrayal

Nurtured by vengeance

Rising up again and again

Only to die down and wait for


The Phoenix 1980

Rage became an incredible drain on my body and kept my stress levels at a maximum, which kept my nervous system in a constant state of overwhelm. I began doing body work like hitting pillows and screaming until I was exhausted. My caution is to find alone time when you can do this without upsetting children or family members.

I also loved to get an old phone book and just start tearing it to pieces. A punching bag at one point became another favorite for myself, and often I would visualize it being my father’s face. Later I learned I could run and run and run till I was in a state of euphoria from the endorphins, and this also became a way to get that awful rage out of my body. For a grown-up child of abuse, it is critical to release these emotions and let them go out of your body and heart. It can be scary to think: “If I let go of this anger, I will be empty and weak, and be doomed” but that's just not truth. When you let go of the rage you become lighter because it’s a terrible burden to carry, and you have to make room in your heart for better healthier emotions. 

Shame - Another emotion I felt was shame. I felt so ashamed of what had happened to me I couldn't stand to look at myself at times. My counselors were so patient with me but I finally learned that I had nothing to be ashamed of because I was an innocent child of abuse, and I did not do anything wrong. I was victimized and it was really my father’s shameful incest attacks against me that I had taken on as my own shame. It was his shame I was carrying around. I learned slowly at first, but then I became angry and said to myself I am not carrying around my father’s garbage anymore. I took my father’s shame out to the trash figuratively, but in reality I wrote about the shame and then I would tear up the paper and burn it to ash. Then I would crush the ashes and blow them into the wind to disperse forever. I would say out loud sometimes, or in my head: “Take this shame away from me. I release this shame forever. It is not my burden to carry, and may it land on the rightful shoulders and crush him with its terrible weight.” I had these shame releasing rituals many, many times over 8 years. It was very helpful to me every time. I felt even more weight lift off of my shoulders.

Grief - Another emotion I struggled so much with was an ocean of deep profound grief. This became the source of so many tears and so much sorrow and sadness, it breaks my heart right now remembering how grief-stricken I was back then. (I willfully walk back into the darkness to grab you by the hand and lead you out into the light.) For incest survivors, this emotion will become easier and easier to handle, I promise. I learned that I was grieving for the loss of my innocence… the loss of my childhood… the loss of a loving father to protect and nurture me… the loss of a loving family who should have been there for me… the loss of feeling safe… the loss of feeling peace and joy. I lost so much because it was stolen from me by an evil psychopathic pedophile father. I learned how to cry in a way that would truly release the deepest sorrows without tearing my body down more. At first when I would cry in counseling, my tears were in silence because in my home environment crying was forbidden. If you got caught crying you would be beaten soundly. I would tense up my body and begin to develop a terrible headache, then curl into myself and cry tears, but there was no comfort in this crying. It left me feeling worse afterwards. 

My counselor would say to me, "Go ahead and cry it helps you." I said, “No, crying just makes me feel worse." My counselors taught me that it’s OK to sob, rather than tensing up to hug myself or a stuffed animal or pillow, and to comfort myself through the crying. I would rock and cry and sob and let the sorrow flow out of me, to comfort myself for what I had lost. I stopped having those awful headaches. I began to feel better after crying in grief instead of worse. Once the ocean of grief was tapped, wow, I can honestly say at times I felt I would get lost in my grief and drown in my tears. I was afraid of how deep my grief went. But that never did happen, I never got lost in my grief. And now, decades later, I still feel grief from time to time but it is nothing at all like the grief I felt back then. Your emotions will be varied… some similar and some unique unto yourself. There are so many emotions to discover and wrestle with inside of you. Exploring the depths of these emotions should be done in a safe environment with a professional counselor (and lots of soft tissues). A professional that’s worked with survivors of abuse, who can be there to pull you out of it and give you skills to cope. In this way, with each emotional release you become more skilled at pulling yourself out and building yourself up stronger with each release.

There is a loss that occurs when a person is abused. We lose trust, lose innocence, just to name a few. These things are taken from them sometimes very violently. It is this loss that creates grief. Similar to the grief of someone dying but, instead of having an external representation of the loss (someone dying), the grief we feel is connected to a loss that is within us. If you want to understand more about your grief you should talk to your counselor about the grieving process in more detail. Remember, this site is not designed to replace counseling. There are many stages of grief and you may go through all or only some of the stages… we are all different.

Below is a list of the 7 stages of grief. Your loss is equal to the loss of a loved one, but it is inside of you. The grief stages we go through are a little bit different, but similar enough to help you understand the grief you feel:

You may deny the reality of the loss at some level, in order to avoid the pain. Shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This may last for weeks.

As the shock wears off, it is replaced with the suffering of unbelievable pain. Although excruciating and almost unbearable, it is important that you experience the pain fully, and not hide it, avoid it or escape from it with alcohol or drugs. Life feels chaotic and scary during this phase.

Frustration gives way to anger, and you may lash out but do this safely. This is a time for the release of bottled up emotion. You may rail against fate, questioning "Why me?"

Just when your friends may think you should be getting on with your life, a long period of sad reflection will likely overtake you. This is a normal stage of grief, so do not be "talked out of it" by well-meaning outsiders. Encouragement from others is not helpful to you during this stage of grieving. During this time, you finally realize the true magnitude of your loss, and it depresses you. You may isolate yourself on purpose, reflect on things, and focus on memories of the past. You may sense feelings of emptiness or despair.

As you start to adjust your life becomes a little calmer and more organized. Your physical symptoms lessen, and your "depression" begins to lift slightly.

As you become more functional, your mind starts working again, and you will find yourself moving forward.

During this, the last of the seven stages in this grief model, you learn to accept and deal with the reality of your situation. Acceptance does not necessarily mean instant happiness. It does mean that you are well on your way to making peace with this loss and moving forward again.

If you don't have the skill sets to cope, then a counselor can give you tips and techniques to build the skills you need to cope. Then, with each emotional release, you become more skilled at pulling yourself out and building yourself up stronger.

The importance of talking about these emotions is that emotions serve a purpose. Sometimes they just are, and sometimes they become a crutch, and sometimes they become a trap. Your goal is to experience the emotions, process through them in a healthy functional manner and move past them into the next emotion, rather than getting stuck in one emotion. Do not become trapped into hatred or rage or any emotion. If you become trapped, your GROWTH and HEALING will stop. It is common to hit a wall and have to push through it, and the reward for pushing through it is the depth of who you are becoming expands, and you gain that much more freedom from being controlled by your past. I will discuss a few more of the emotions that I struggled with, and hope that my past struggles can help serve some purpose now and offer insight.

So, as a teenager, I had all these emotions swirling around in my head and it was like total chaos inside my mind. I felt for many years I was losing my mind and tried so hard to maintain control. Below are more emotions that I personally struggled with during my recovery.

Contempt - This is contempt for others. When I was a kid and I tried to get people to help me and no one would try, or maybe try and end up making my situation much worse... well I thought adults were so stupid, and I had a lot of contempt and malice towards adults. My peers did not understand me because I was so bizarre, and I was so bizarre because of the magnitude of the abuse and how deeply damaged I was, so I felt a great deal of contempt for everyone. This level of contempt actually hampered my recovery because I didn't want to reach out to anyone. Based on past performance, it was only going to be rejected and make things worse. I did – thankfully – work past this trap. It seems like it helps you to feel good about yourself, but contempt has a hidden side to it that means you are also very upset and angry at yourself. I must encourage you, if you have a lot of contempt, to not be in this place any longer than you have to… and to work through this on an emotional and mental level. Survivors of abuse must make this a priority to resolve and move past.

Self-contempt - For so very long, I was very angry with myself and blamed myself for being a child of abuse. I felt disgust and was very mean to myself in my inner self-talk. Self-contempt is going to be very specific to your situation so specifics really won't matter here. It is a powerful emotion that can control your actions and bring your recovery to a screeching halt. I personally had to write out specific details and go over those thought patterns with my counselor. I had to lean on him for helping me sift through all the garbage thoughts and get to the core. Then, after finally reaching the core of the contempt, I used the same tool of separating truth from lies and was able to have healing in this area. Either of these can become a trap, and being stuck in this mind-set is a horrible place to be, so I place it as a high priority to work past.

Isolation - Combine the shame and secrecy, add to that the bizarre ways a person behaves due to this kind of abuse, and you can see that it was far to easy for me to become a total outsider and isolated from others. I felt so alone and misunderstood and mistreated… the loneliness was epic! I had people all around me but I could not relate to them, and didn't want to relate to them. But I desperately needed to have someone to turn to, to reach out to for help, and yet I just couldn't bridge the social skills gap nor could I bridge any of the other gaps that kept me in such a state of isolation. When I finally did find the Incest Recovery Association, I at last found a group of woman –other survivors of abuse – who could in some ways understand me… yet in other ways not, because not all abuse cases went on for so long or were as severe as mine, and some were worse. But the whole deal was finally I found a place I could kind of fit into and be kind of understood. It does take a great deal of courage to reach out to people and, if there are significant gaps in social skills like I had, reaching out can mean rejection and ridicule. But if that has happened to you, just be very brave and understand these words- it’s not your fault and it won't always feel like this. I can say that you will be able to build your social skills up and, of all the various things you will work on in your incest recovery, your social skills will be fairly easy (in comparison to some of the other issues) to overcome. So take heart in that and let go of any rejections of the past. By letting go, you have room to hold onto good things… better things in your heart.

Fear - Wow, I still have a great deal of fear in my life, and I am not going to lie about this one. I live with a lot of fear, still to this day, but it isn't paralyzing to me like it was in the past. I used to have horrible panic attacks and nightmares and was afraid of everything. Like, I was afraid to go for walks because someone might hurt me. I was afraid to be nice because someone might hurt me. I was afraid to be alone… I was afraid of the dark… I was afraid of large groups of people… and just everything. I believe that the extreme fears that used to paralyze me were a direct result of my physical body and emotional self releasing the fears of what I had lived through.

When I was living through the abuse, I could not express my fears openly and it stayed bottled up inside my mind and my body. I believe that as I began to heal and recover one layer at a time, another fresh wound was revealed and then I had to begin to recover that wound. It’s like all the hurt I went through does not come out all at one time, it comes out in layers. So, it was a positive sign of incest recovery that I was healing because I began to move through the layers and, like all these processes, it feels like you won't make it through this... like this will surely overwhelm you and you will die. But, it won't, and slowly – as your body and mind heal – your fears will not be paralyzing.

Now, in present day time with myself, I have fears still. Not as many as I did and not as intensely felt. I learned to have dream awareness and to stand up for myself in my dreams, because I had a terrible monster that would chase me when I was a younger child. I would run and it would catch me, and I would wake up screaming. Well, finally one night in my dream, I decided I had had enough of that damn monster! I turned on it and started yelling at it to stop chasing me and to be nice to me. I made that monster walk me home and protect me till I got to the front door of my home… then I turned around, and there was no more monster. It was a liberating and powerful feeling for an otherwise powerless existence. I still have nightmares and I still attempt to change the dream. Sometimes I am good at it and sometimes I wake up distressed, which might sound like not much progress but it is progress. I sleep more in peace, and have bad dreams a lot less

Anxiety/Panic - Get some help managing anxiety/panic attacks. They can be draining, horrible experiences and you don't have to suffer, ok? There are medications and tricks you can learn about controlling the thought patterns that sometimes trigger or greatly enhance an attack. If you pay attention to your thoughts right before an attack, you will be surprised to find that many times something you thought (like a memory or a specific thought pattern) led to the attack. Or, in other cases, a situation you encounter might trigger an attack. I rarely ever (as in it’s been years since the last one) have a panic attack now. I used to have them daily. I still have anxiety but I believe it is more related to daily living than actually anxiety from my childhood past. Breathing slowly, slowing down frantic thoughts, comforting yourself in healthy ways, exercise, walking, artistic expressions, prayer- lots of things like these can help to shorten the attacks and lengthen the time between the attacks. But please don't feel like you should not take medicines to help you. My gosh, you have enough to fight through in the trenches. Please take any healthy assistance. You don't have to suffer. I used medications off and on to help keep this whole thing manageable during my incest recovery.

There are many emotions to manage, and all seem to be so overwhelming. Build a strong support system, and spread out your support between lots of people so no one person gets overwhelmed being there for you. It can be very hard on people who live with us to know how to deal with us… understand us… or how to support us… so have lots of people you can talk to, and spread out your support system. Don't forget to get out of the trenches and take a break from it all.

A poem I wrote:

Child of the Rain

As life's deluge threatens to drown,

Breathe deeply through the pain & tears

Fight through all of your fears

Oh Child of the Rain

Shatter the darkness with your Radiant Light!

Storms receding, the scent of freedom in the air

Breathe deeply of joy and peace

Draw deeply the breath of life

The Phoenix 3-18-98

Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, you will rise up again whole and renewed!

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