Getting Back in Touch for Survivors of Abuse
In the Beginning, I discussed disassociating from the actual incest attacks. I learned to go away in my mind, to leave and disconnect from the physical sensations. As a child of abuse, this was a survival trick my mind used to try to protect me. It later became a trap, but it was not terribly hard to recover from because I slowly realized that I was safe now. I began to want to be in touch with my body.
For a long period of my life I stayed at a constant level of being disconnected from my mind to my body. For example, if I were talking to you and you decided to put your hand on my hand and say something encouraging: all of a sudden I would have a very sharp and distinct awareness of my hand and how small it was and how warm your hand felt. It was a bit shocking because I was not connected before you touched me, and it was the touch that helped bring me back to a connection with my body. Soft clothing… pajamas… blankets… stuffed animals. I had stuffed animals when I was in recovery. I needed to hug the stuffed animals and to love them. It was a way to comfort myself and to love myself. Even at 40, I have a stuffed rabbit and – no laughing ok? – I occasionally hug it tight. The biggest thing for incest survivors is believing you are safe, and once that really sinks into your gut it gets easier to reconnect to your body.
There is a song out for a while now that I truly love, from Natasha Bedingfield, called Unwritten. Some lyrics in the song say: "Feel the rain on your skin, no one else can feel it for you, only you can let it in." These lyrics touched my heart because I felt so deeply how much it meant to me to be touched in kindness and in love. Touch had been a terrible thing and so hurtful for 8 to 9 years of the first 12 years I was alive, and I had to escape it. But now I didn't have to anymore and touch became something I craved so deeply.
Now, I love to be hugged. I love to give hugs. I don't fear being touched and I stay connected most always now. It’s rare for me to disassociate. Like all these things, I still have the ability to slip back into old patterns, even though I do it less and less over the years. I still slip up. And when these times happen to you, please don't beat yourself up about it. Forgive yourself, be gracious with yourself, and then step back and look at the situation. As an adult child of abuse, figure out why you broke down and went back into the negative behaviors or patterns. Most always there is a trigger, something that went click and then you slipped into the old routine. Something you would do before you learned new tools and new behaviors. So work on shoring yourself up, and next time you will be better prepared… and more aware.
Eating Disorders - Wow! This is a tough, tough one to beat, but it can be beat. I hope you don't have to ever struggle with this beast but, if you do, let’s just roll up our sleeves – ok? – and get to work, because the sooner you begin the sooner you will be done and free.
OK, the loss of control I had as a child made me want to control something, so I found I could control eating. I experimented with eating then making myself puke it up. Sorry to be graphic. But that seemed like a lot of work, and so I decided to just not eat or eat very little. But even then I decided – for some reason – it was not really what I wanted to do, so I stopped. No struggle. Seemed simple, like somehow I actually dodged a bullet, right? Wrong! Check this mental time warp out...
Fast-forward to adulthood. Third baby is born and, after weaning, I develop post-partum depression. Like a light switch making an audible sound, I heard a click in my head and I could not eat. The very smell of food made me sick and gag. I might be able to eat a piece of carrot, or slice of bread or cracker, and finally I wasted my body down from 120lbs to a shocking 73lbs. I was dying. My husband at the time didn't realize because I was hiding my body in big clothes and we weren't intimate yet from birth, so he hadn't seen me naked. He walked in on me in the bathroom and was shocked.
He had to get me help, and wrote me an amazing letter that said: “I don't understand what you are going through and I don't know how to help you. But I need for you to get help because I want my wife back, and the kids need a mommy.” (This letter helped to snap me back to a sense of reality.) I thought to myself: “The kids need a mommy… what do you mean? I am their mommy!” And then, like a veil had been torn away from my eyes, I became aware of a deep ocean of grief inside of me. I was drowning in grief and I was killing myself to escape the grief. Grief that I should not have… not with a new baby, and family, and husband who loved me very much. And I loved him, and wanted to be there for him too. I went to get help, and it was so simple. My first session went like this- I went into counselor’s office… sat down, made introductions, and after a few moments of silence he said to me: “I can't help you. No one can help you. You will die unless you choose to eat. You must choose life… and if you choose life then I will be able to help you, and you will be able to eat.”
Wow… I wanted to be a mommy, and I wanted my children to have a mommy, and my love for them gave me the courage to live and to eat. I had to eat broth and very light foods at first. I had to gradually build up to heavier foods and bigger portions. I needed to be with someone to eat… I couldn't eat alone at first. Then I learned that talking like at lunch and eating was enjoyable again. Now, shoot, I love food. I have a pudgy little tummy. I need to eat a little less and work out a little more.
But back then… well, this starving myself anorexia thing nearly killed me. I nearly lost this battle. Depression is also one of the top few struggles that nearly killed me. As incest survivors, not all your struggles will be this close of a call to your life. But overcoming the big ones like this is a massive major win on the battlefield. It’s a win of such proportions that you can see the end of the tunnel finally come into view. It is that big of an accomplishment… a huge win! Revel in your victory and feel proud of yourself. OK, hugs anyone?!
Sexuality - Preface: As a little girl, I said to myself: “Somewhere there is a place where I will be safe, and people will love me without hurting me.” And I said to myself: “I must survive until I can leave and find that place.” I was 5 or 6 years old when I began to tell myself this on a regular basis. I had a little Mickey Mouse record player and would sit on the floor and listen to Disney 45's. I would rock back and forth, with my arms wrapped around myself. I would say this in my head and I would cry, but I would think: “How can I possibly survive this, it’s so hard?” But I just believed I had to survive somehow. As I became a little older, my core belief that I clung to – like life support – expanded to include this: “I want to be normal, to live a normal life, and I don't want to be like these people. I want to love and to be loved, and to be free and to be safe.” As a child of abuse, I wasn't a prisoner held in a basement or locked in a closet. But I was imprisoned by the control my father had over me, and by my helplessness. I craved freedom like I craved breathing air. I would watch little birds fly away at even a tiny hint of danger, and seeing it would make my heart ache for freedom… from the insanity, and incest, and beatings, and mind games, and to just be free.
So when I began counseling, I told my counselors (I had an individual and two group counselors. Our incest survivors group had a male and female counseling team) what had happened to me and how much I felt my mind was damaged. How broken inside I felt and how messed up my body was… from the disassociation and physical pain I lived with, on an hourly basis. I told them of my nightmares, and how much I feared being touched and how much I feared my sexuality. I told them how hard it was for me to fit in, and to maintain a job and to function. I told them how I would have panic and anxiety, and how emotional and sad I was. I told them I was afraid my father had turned me into a monster like himself. I was afraid I would be like my mother and not protect my kids – if I ever did have any one day – and I was afraid I would become an abuser myself.
I told them I wanted to get those people out of my head. I wanted to truly be healed from this and, after telling my counselor all that, I asked him: "Do you know how to do that? Because, if you don't, tell me now and don't waste one second of my time because I need this out of me. If you can't teach me or don't know how, then refer me to someone who can." My counselor kind of chuckled and said: “Yes, I can teach you. But it will be very hard work… and it will be very painful work… but I can teach you.” Then he asked me: “What was the most dangerous thing I was dealing with right now?” And that's how my first session began.
So to the point now- Part of having a normal life was – for me – having normal sex with someone I chose, who is loving to me and I loved, and not forcing me or hurting me. I wanted to be free from sexual compulsion… addictions… all the weird unhealthy stuff. It meant I would have to confront my sexuality as a young adult, and make peace with that part of me. It meant that I would have to make peace with a man touching my body. Make peace with a man being sexual with me. There are moments to this very day, during intimacy, when a sudden movement or a touch of a certain kind will create a fear in me. And if I can't catch it right then, and reassure myself right then, my mood will shift and I have to bail out of the intimacy. I accepted that my being a female meant men would have an interest in me.
My sensuous side of me was not something that I liked; at first it frightened me and confused me. I felt like it was my fault the abuse happened, but that is a lie. My looks and my body may be attractive to men as an adult woman, but it’s not my fault a man has evil in his heart and attacks me. It’s not my fault. It’s his fault for his choice to do an evil and criminal act to an innocent person. In my case, an adult – my father – with an innocent child. Four or five years of age is when I have my first memory of the incest assaults.
To be true to my core belief of wanting a normal life, and wanting to love and be loved without being hurt, I had to address my sexuality. And it’s hard to describe this to you. It’s a scary thing to do and, I would have to say, that it’s a hard thing to put your finger on but we broke it down from the different angles. What follows is a short list of some little things and some big things that are on the periphery of – and yet are a part of – my "self" and my sexuality.
- One thing was: How do I want to dress on a daily basis… what kind of look did I want to go with? Did I want to be outgoing and a little flirty? Or shut down and dress like a spinster? There was a time in my life when I would wear "freak"ish outfits, however I soon figured out that was not only unhealthy for me to do but also attracted really bad people.
- Another thing was: Am I going to be a person who is a “hugger” or do I keep so closed off that I eliminate that option?
- Another thing was: Am I going to be promiscuous and sleep with anyone – at any time – or am I going to chose better mates, to be more selective?
- Another thing was: Am I going to be a lesbian? Because – honestly – there were times when I considered never, ever, ever, again having a man to ever touch me sexually. Or was I going to be completely abstinent forever? This thought crossed my mind many times too.
- Another thing was: Forgiving my body and giving myself permission to enjoy sex now, and allowing my body to be able to climax. This was very hard for me. I encourage all survivors of abuse to be brave and make peace with yourself… and live a normal, happy, functional life full of love.
Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, you will rise up again whole and renewed!