The soul cannot forgive until it
is restored to wholeness and health.
In the absence of love - how can one forgive?

With an abundance of love, starting with one's self,
forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity.
-Nancy Richards

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Intellectual Vs. Emotional Understanding – Learning to View Myself from My Heart

Have you ever noticed that the bad experiences we had in childhood seem to repeat themselves in our adult relationships, or work environments?

Why? I wondered, did I keep finding myself in the same bad situations, responding the same way, and experiencing the same results.

My theory is experiences that replicated childhood situations - unconsciously hooked me into the hope of resolving my childhood issues. The problem was that I hadn’t developed the tools to cope with my core wounds.

All adults find themselves in environments and/or relationships that are unhealthy for them at times. It seems that people who grew up valued - in nurturing homes - respond differently than abuse survivors when they are betrayed, devalued, or mistreated. Nurtured individuals respond from a place of strength, self-love, and self-worth. Their internal image rejects mistreatment without much ado. In other words, they don’t argue, engage, or plead to be treated better. They set clear, respectful boundaries. They are more invested in their own value than they are in the need for the relationship, the job, or validation.

I, on the other hand was in familiar territory when I was mistreated. I accepted poor treatment. Not intentionally, but by arguing, pleading, and trying to change the circumstances. I didn’t guard my boundaries or even understand what boundaries were. I was more invested in the relationship, or the job, or having my value validated, than I was in my own worth, because that is what I internalized as a child.

Most often, I understand concepts intellectually, long before I internalize them emotionally. It can be years before healthy concepts make the journey from my head to my heart.

For instance, I knew intellectually that I wasn’t responsible for the actions of others – but emotionally – deep down, I believed what I learned as a child. When met with blame – I felt responsible unless the blamer agreed that I wasn’t responsible. Until I built a new foundation of self-love, self-respect and self-care, I continued to respond from a wounded heart - rather than a self-loving heart.

I was very impatient with my healing. As soon as I understood concepts intellectually, I wanted my feelings to align and be done with it. I was disappointed in myself whenever I responded the same old way, because intellectually I knew better. I had to be gentle with myself, and self-compassionate. Healing takes time.

With patience, and a great deal of healing, my heart did catch up – I started responding to familiar hurts in a new way. I developed the quiet resolve to reject that which was harmful to me and to build a foundation of self-love, self-respect and to safeguard my own well-being.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Divorcing a Parent

In 1992, after exhausting every avenue to have a relationship with my mother, I made the difficult decision to divorce her - despite resounding judgment. I was devastated when my choice resulted in the loss of my entire family of origin.

Nonetheless, I needed to separate myself from my mother, not because of my childhood abuse, but because of my continued abuse as an adult.

There is an emotional pain so severe, one cannot bear it, or live with it. It threatens your very survival.

No matter how much I loved and longed for a relationship with my mother, I couldn’t recover from my abuse as long as our relationship felt like it endangered my existence.

I believe that divorcing my mother was the only way possible to create the space required to heal and to grow the seeds of self-love, self-respect, and self-care necessary to live a healthy life.

The decision to divorce a parent is a very difficult one that should not be made lightly or in haste. If you are considering severing your relationship with a parent, I highly recommend, Divorcing a Parent: Free Yourself from the Past and Live the Life You've Always Wanted, By Beverly Engel, MFCC

Engel’s offers a compassionate and very comprehensive guide including discussing good and bad reasons to sever a relationship, what to expect if you do decide to divorce, alternatives, coping mechanisms, and much more. I found this book invaluable on my own journey.

There are no two ways about it. Estrangement is painful. Yet, with growth comes loss, and eventually emotional strength and freedom. I used our time apart to grow in ways that would not have been possible while having a relationship with my mother. Estrangement afforded me the opportunity to heal from my abuse, and eventually to feel healthy and find some peace in my life.

Today, after a 14-year cut-off, my mother and I have reconciled. Although our reconciliation has been very healing for me, I am grateful for our time apart. I would not be in the healthy place I am today without the opportunity to love myself.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Emotional Abuse

At times, my stepfather was so physically violent that I feared one of us might die.

Yet, the physical abuse we survived at the hands of my stepfather paled in comparison to the long-term emotional damage I sustained from my mother. Each time I approached her for protection from Ed, she blamed me. She pulled me aside harshly with the words, “Why do I always have this trouble with you; only you – never the boys? You are sick, and a crazy troublemaker! Stop trying to make trouble and learn to get along.”

Mom’s words left me feeling useless and defeated.

Long after physical injuries heal, the effects of emotional abuse linger into and sometimes throughout adulthood. Emotional abuse is harder to explain and more difficult to identify because it leaves no physical scars, but rather is hidden away, ravaging our hearts and our souls.

One of the best articles I have read on the effects of emotional abuse is an article titled, You Carry the Cure in Your Own Heart, by Andrew Vachss.

This is an excellent article for abuse survivors, and for those dealing with or helping abuse survivors.

 

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Self-Forgiveness

One aspect of abuse we often overlook is that of forgiving ourselves. It is quite common for families and communities to blame the victim. Abuse victims and survivors in turn, often internalize this blame. We often believe that we are responsible for our own abuse. Alternatively, maybe we feel responsible for the abuse of our siblings, or the turmoil we caused by speaking the truth.

Self-forgiveness was difficult for me to achieve because, even though I knew on an intellectual level that my/our abuse was not my responsibility, on an emotional level it took many years for me to completely free myself from this responsibility.

In order to forgive myself, I needed to undo the defining moment in my life when I began to internalize the blame. It happened one evening, when I was twelve years old, and my stepfather invented “The Paddle Game.” The basic premise of the game was that my brothers and I would beat one another while he “refereed” the contest.

I refused to play the game, burst into tears and fled to my room.

My mother and stepfather decided to divorce during the “heat of the moment” situation that followed. Moments later, my mother prodded me to ask him to stay. Wanting desperately to please my mother, I did as she instructed. My stepfather did stay and he escalated his violence towards my brothers and me. From that moment on, my mother, one of my brothers, and anyone they told this story too, blamed me for my mother’s marriage, and every beating we received.

As a child, I felt crushed under the weight of my responsibility for our abuse. Even as an adult, my mother continued to remind me that I was responsible for our abuse. It took me a long time to realize that only Mom had the power to decide whether or not she would remain married to my stepfather. Mom handed the power and responsibility of her marital status and the protection of her family over to a twelve-year-old child incapable of adult thoughts and actions.

My self-forgiveness was a huge step in my recovery.

To understand is to forgive, even oneself.
-Alexander Chase


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Forgiveness: The Last Step in Recovery

At some point in every abuse survivor’s healing journey, he or she face’s the question of forgiveness. Does it or doesn’t it have anything to do with my healing?

I questioned how I could forgive my mother for granting her approval when my stepfather burned my 10-year-old hands. Year after year, the betrayal felt incomprehensible as I watched my mother silently witnessing my abuse, defending my stepfather, and even participating in the abuse as my stepfather beat and tortured my brothers and me. How could I forgive a litany of unacknowledged emotional and physical abuses?

Today, I view forgiveness from three basic definitions:

1. An action: An action requires the participation of both parties. Repentance on the part of the wrong-doer and the apology accepted on the part of the injured party. This is an opportunity for full forgiveness.

2. A journey: Accepting that forgiveness isn’t an immediate response. Forgiveness is a journey that may take a lifetime of healing to achieve, including the period of time we recognize we are unable to forgive.

3. A feeling: Where the injured party has healed enough to let go of resentment and find peace – with or without the participation of the wrong-doer. This could be considered partial forgiveness – when only one of the parties participates.

At some time during my healing process, each of these definitions presented challenges for me:

1. An Action: Without acknowledgment, an apology, and an “act” of contrition, on the part of the “wrong-doer,” I could not perform the “act” of accepting an apology and forgiving. When it comes to abuse, I think sometimes people forget, we are not refusing to accept an apology. We never received one in the first place. Most victims would love to hear an apology. Why? I wondered - was the onus of forgiving on the one who was harmed rather than on the one who caused the harm?

A more pertinent question is, “How can I heal from my abuse?” I needed to take the focus off of forgiveness and off of my abuser, and place the focus solely on myself, my healing, and what was best for me. Often, the concept forgiveness is premature and stands in the way of our recovery. I had a great deal of work to do before I could even look at forgiveness.

2. A Journey: I wish I knew at the beginning of my journey to tell people, “I’m on a journey – on my own timetable. My abuse hasn’t been acknowledged and I haven’t healed! Give me time.”

All too often, well-intentioned friends and relatives ask individuals to forgive and forget. During the first part of my journey, I succumbed to this pressure and embarked on a path of superficial forgiveness that did not honor the depth of my injuries or enable authentic healing and forgiveness. And I got hurt again!

During the next phase of my journey, I militantly proclaimed, “I won’t forgive!” I realized that the pressure I felt to forgive actually damaged my recovery process. When a survivor denies her feelings and sets aside her wounds, pain, anger, and grief in order to forgive, she often finds that she is not able to heal. Ultimately, in the absence of healing, forgiveness doesn’t last.

Sometimes it is necessary to place a moratorium on forgiveness until healing has taken place.

The first thing I needed to do was protect myself. In order to heal, we must be free from the anxiety of re-injury. Healing (or forgiving) is not possible if there is ongoing abuse. This could mean learning to set and maintain clear, respectful boundaries, re-evaluating a relationship, limiting time with an abuser, or even severing a relationship in order to protect ourselves.

Second, I built a community of support to have my injuries acknowledged and validated. The supportive people in my life, listened to me, shared my burden, honored the depth of my pain, helped me express my anger, and mourn my substantial losses. This was a long, painful process that involved years of healing and dealing with many layers of pain.

3. A feeling: After a decade of filling my heart with the love of supportive people in my life, I began to feel an abundance of love rather than my old resentments. I began to feel forgiving. This revelation surprised me! I didn’t think I would ever forgive. It was at this point that I realized the old adage, “forgive and heal” was backwards. For me, it was “Heal and Forgive.”

Even though I couldn’t experience the full forgiveness required with the participation of the “wrong-doer,” I achieved a place of personal peace.

Healing requires a great deal of time, self-examination, hard work, and pain. Yet once an adequate amount of healing has been accomplished, forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we “excuse” offensive behavior; it doesn’t mean forgetting or even trusting the person who harmed us. Nor does it require us to “let go” of our safety, or reconcile a relationship. Rather, feeling forgiving means to let go of resentment and to find peace.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Tunneling Out of the Prison in My Mind

I stood frozen, facing my brother’s window, feet glued to the grass beneath me. I knew what was coming.

First there came a terrifying crash and a loud thunk, followed by horrifying sounds. It didn’t seem possible that the noise came from a human being. Rob screamed! He screamed from his gut—deep guttural, low, raspy and raw sounds. He was in agony! He sounded as though he was dying. I never have forgotten those screams.

The howling sounds of outraged humanity told the story I would later piece together from a bruised and beaten Rob. Ed had blown into his room with hurricane force, reached for Rob, pulled him down and threw him headfirst from his top bunk. He then lifted him off of the floor and repeatedly smashed his head against the wall before he whirled him around to hit his back against the sharp corner of the aquarium stand. When Rob tried to escape, Ed chased him around the room, hitting him in the stomach and wherever else his flailing fists could connect.

Finding it unbearable to witness any more of my brother’s agony, I put myself into a trance. I remained standing still beneath the window and let the world drop away. I was in the middle of a big void. That’s all there was — the void and the endless screams; that room and those sounds. – From “Heal and Forgive.”

Whether it was my own abuse or witnessing the abuse of one of my brothers, I often dissociated from the pain. Sometimes the very mechanisms that protect us as children – harm us as adults. Dissociation prevented me from feeling and healing from the pain.

My child-mind had to banish that which was too painful – just to survive! My adult mind could only take on so much pain at once. Each time I accepted the reality of my mistreatment, my mind delved deeper into the pain – healing at a deeper level.

It took many years for my mind to move from denial to the reality of my abuse. After a period of adjustment – my mind was ready to go deeper.

Each time I tunneled through a new level of healing, I thought I was going crazy. I’d ask my therapist, “Am I going crazy?”

I wasn’t crazy. What happened to me was crazy! I was feeling the craziness of it all.

Sometimes, the tunnel can be murder! Each time I hit a deep patch of healing, I didn’t think I’d survive. Yet, each time I’d emerge to the other side, stronger and healthier than ever before.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

PTSD and Me

For me this is a very vulnerable post, but I also think it is an important one. Dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was another significant aspect of my recovery from abuse.

For many years, my PTSD went undiagnosed. I didn’t understand the origins of many powerful and terrifying feelings. Even after diagnosis, I didn’t know I was experiencing PTSD until after the symptoms went away. Learning to identify my feelings of terror and impending doom as PTSD - while I was experiencing them - helped my healing process tremendously.

During young adulthood, my PTSD episodes were extremely dramatic. They quite literally threw me back to the past – seeing before me people, places, and terrifying events from my childhood, rather than the innocuous event in the present. I remember one flashback where I instinctively leaped wildly over a porch railing, down a small embankment and landed with a thud in the soft dirt of the ground beneath.

These imaginary episodes were swift, violent, and ended as quickly as they started. They left me shaken and confused.

When I was in my thirties, although my PTSD was not as dramatic as before, it was more unnerving, harder to identify, and lasted for longer periods.
A puzzling aspect to these episodes was that I no longer saw the events from the past. The incidents were in the present; yet, I unknowingly felt the events from the past. This gave me confusing messages that were not easy to decipher.

Fortunately, my therapist diagnosed me with PTSD and I began the process of understanding how to cope with these episodes. My counselor told me that when we have an adult experience that unconsciously reminds us of a traumatic childhood event, we become “triggered” and terrified because of unresolved childhood feelings. This is very confusing because the “little one” in us (whose life did feel threatened) believes their survival is at stake, yet the adult is confused because they know that nothing is happening that will cause their demise. So, it sometimes felt like my survival was at stake, but I didn't know how to calm my nerves and “prevent my demise” because nothing in the present seemed to be a life threatening event. My therapist told me that when I am terrified, I should place my feet firmly on the floor, take deep breaths and really “feel” the present, while calling on images of someone safe - offering my inner child the safety she never received. I spent many years placing new comforting images on top of the old terrifying images, in essence reprogramming my sense of safety in the world.

I think the most frightening ways PTSD manifested itself at this point was in my "intimate" relationship. If I was hurt, and my partner didn't recognize my hurt, I tried frantically to get him to understand. On the adult level, I only knew that I was desperate for him to understand - on the child level, I thought I was going to die if he didn't "get it.” I would keep it up, becoming more and more frantic and agitated until I finally disassociated and never resolved the pain.

After learning to recognize this desperation as PTSD, I’d say to him, “Oh, oh, I am experiencing PTSD! It feels like I am sinking in quicksand! Please lend me a hand because I don’t think I can do this by myself. This is about me - not about you. It feels like my survival is at stake.”

At that point if he did get it - great! If he didn't, I had to leave and reassure myself that I was safe as an adult, and to work at resolving my childhood feelings.

My PTSD also presented itself in the presence of anyone who seemed to have a matriarchal role in my life. A few years ago, I went on a four-day women’s retreat with my aunt and my two daughters. The last night I went to bed feeling “on edge,” experiencing that familiar sense of “impending doom,” as if my world were coming to an end. Shaken by the unknown cause of my fear, I hoped the morning would magically bring solace.

The disappointment of waking up still terrified brought the realization that I was experiencing PTSD. But why?

As we arrived home later that day, I realized, my PTSD was caused by all the time I was spending with my aunt. I was afraid something was going to happen and that she would reject me just as my mother (grandmother, and three brothers) had. The child-me felt like she would not survive the rejection of my only remaining family member (other than my children). On the other hand, the adult me realized this had nothing to do with my aunt or the present, this was about my mother and the past.

For the most part, I did come to terms with my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Occasionally, my mind still convinces me that an unimaginable disaster looms just around the corner. I can spend days living "on edge" with feelings of unknown impending doom until I "shake myself" and remember that my fear is just my companion PTSD. Usually, I recognized my feelings as PTSD right away. In either case, this realization calms my nerves and reminds me that my fear is in the past and that I am safe in the present.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Ridding Myself of the Family Scapegoat Mantel

Healing from my role as the family scapegoat was one of the last steps that fell into place on my healing journey. I had many more immediate and pressing issues to deal with first. In the beginning of my recovery, I was an open wound – simply oozing with pain. I had to deal with my hurt, denial, confusion, anger, and grief, before I could even begin to construct a healthy new me.

All along the way, I struggled with my scapegoat mantel. I thought I was alone in this experience. I’ve since discovered that it is a common practice in abusive family systems to choose one individual to carry the blame and shame for the rest of the family.

My role as the family scapegoat took root at a very young age. I constantly tried to convince my mother that our physical abuse was the source of our family problems, not my pleas for help. I pleaded with her to protect my brother’s and me, rather than to blame me for complaining about our abuse. Because I was dependent on my mother for my safety, the only way I new how to end my mistreatment was to try to convince her that I shouldn't be abused (or scapegoated).

Other family members and bystanders accepted my mother’s persuasive arguments that I was responsible for the angst in my family.

When met with blame, I’d ask, "Why am I to blame when my stepfather burns my hands? “How can I be responsible for my mother’s choice of partners? Why am I to blame for seeking help? Don’t you get this? Can’t you see?”

Once a pattern becomes ingrained in childhood, it is hard to recognize that pattern in adulthood or to develop a new way to respond. I didn't understand that I had different choices as an adult than I did as a child, or what those choices could look like. I kept defending myself and trying to "convince" others that I wasn’t responsible for our family dysfunction.

I put my energy in this argument for years. I didn’t know what else to do.

After years of healing from my childhood, I still kept finding myself in the position of scapegoat and I didn't understand why. Whenever this happened, I felt a primal sense of desperation and needed immediate relief from the pain that seemed to threaten my emotional survival. I didn't understand that when I found myself in an old familiar situation, I kept reacting just as I learned as a child.

I looked outward to others for relief rather than inward to myself, because I viewed my scapegoat mantel as something only my family and/or others could undo. I was frantic to get them to see this. I didn’t realize that it was something only I could undo. I needed to find new ways to respond to an old problem.

Understanding and dealing with my role as the family scapegoat was a layer of healing I couldn’t extricate myself from until I had first built a strong foundation of healing.

It took me a long time to realize that by becoming defensive and engaging in the old argument, I was wearing my scapegoat mantle well. A friend of mine (also a scapegoat) introduced me to her term, “being a woodpecker.” Where you peck and peck and peck and just dig yourself deeper into a negative place. For example: I’d say, “This is what happened. Get it?” When they argued, I’d say, “I’ll explain it this way. Now do you get it?” And so on – each time become more desperate. I always placed my safety and serenity in someone else’s ability to “get it,” rather than taking responsibility for my own well-being.

It wasn’t until I had healed enough (and this wasn’t easy) to stand confidently in my own experience that I was able to extricate myself from the scapegoat role.

Knowing when and with whom I could talk about my abuse was an important lesson for me. Validation was key to ridding myself from a wide array of childhood traumas. The trick is to differentiate from those who are supportive and those whom we want to be supportive – but are not.

In other words, whenever anyone suggested that I was wholly responsible for my childhood abuse or family estrangement, I learned to say, “I have a different experience,” and changed the subject. Over a period of many years, with the aid of supportive individuals – who did “get it” - I learned to stand boldly in my truth, in my needs, and to set and guard my boundaries – without defending or arguing. With time, it didn’t matter if everyone “got it.” I got it! I wasn't responsible for my mistreatment and the brokenness of my family. I no longer “felt” like a scapegoat so the title didn’t fit. It no longer held power over me. I had empowered myself to achieve a place of self-assured peace.