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, June 4, 2009

Survival Tactics - Peeling Away the Layers

Peeling away my built-in survival tactics has been and continues to be a life-long process.

Although I didn't know it at the time, I used many survival tactics as a child. During adulthood, I became aware of numerous ways in which the "child me" ensured my continued existence: denial, dissociation, inability to feel, stepping in as the family mother, etc.

I am certain that the exact mechanisms that save our lives as children, harm us as adults. Recently, I was amazed to learn that the very rhythm of my life is part and parcel of one of my childhood survival tactics. But, I'll get to that.

Undoing life-long mechanisms is a very difficult undertaking. Awareness is the first step, but even when we become aware, it is hard to let go.

As I've peeled away each method of survival, I've thanked the child me for keeping us alive and reassured her that the adult me can "take it from here." Twenty years ago, denial was the first to go. I say that as if it happened overnight. On the contrary; I spent more than ten adult years in denial. Not denial over the facts: daily beatings, burning my 10-year old hands, thrown down the stairs, stabbed with a fork, etc., but rather, "Is that really so bad?"

As a dependent child, denial protected me from that which was too painful to bear. As an adult, denial kept me in harms way. I had to "shake myself" free from denial in order to protect myself from further abuse and to heal. Ridding myself of denial opened the door to validation, expressing my anger, and moving from victim to survivor.

Then, another hidden survival tactic revealed itself: dissociation. As an adult, dissociation not only covered up the pain of my past, it was such a intricate part of my make-up that it also masked painful situations in the present. Pain has a purpose; it warns us of impending injury and is a useful resource for protecting ourselves.

I dissociated for twenty-five years before I learned about this part of myself. Today, I can identify the day when, at ten years old, I laid the groundwork for dissociation. For some reason, I could handle my own abuse far better than helplessly watching as my brothers were beaten.

One day, months after my mother married my step father Ed, for no apparent reason, he unleashed his rage on my sweet and innocent five-year old brother Randy.

The harsh command, "Grab 'em, Randy" thundered through the kitchen. Little Randy immediately complied, bent over, and grabbed his tiny ankles. I watched with horror as the blow cracked across my baby brother's small behind. Randy jumped, screamed with pain, and grabbed his burning buttocks.

Ed turned on him with renewed fury, and informed him he had just broken the new rule of letting go of his ankles without permission.

"Just for that," Ed screamed in undisguised rage, "you'll get two more," and with that hauled off with the heavy wooden paddle, hitting him again. Little Randy flew across the kitchen and landed face first on the cold linoleum floor in a dark corner of the room, crying but still holding onto his ankles. Ed grabbed my terrified brother around the waist while Randy's hands remained locked around his ankles, set him upright, and administered the second blow.

I stood trance-like without moving a muscle, unable to help, powerless to prevent the next beating. I imagined myself safe in my room, away from the scene of the pain.

As the daily violence escalated, this dissociative groundwork morphed into "fugues" where I unknowingly disappeared to an unknown place. These "fugues" continued into adulthood whenever I experienced unbearable pain.

Once I learned about my dissociation, I spent years letting go of this old method of keeping the pain at bay.

Once I stopped dissociating, I went about the hard work of peeling away another survival tactic - not feeling. I learned to stay present with my emotions, rather than "powering" through the pain. This meant something new for me. Rather than ignoring my feelings, I sat with my anger, depression and sadness for days or months on end in order to resolve my circumstances. I was in very unfamiliar territory.

For instance, I dropped my familiar "tough guy" persona and mourned past and current losses. This change allowed me to "deal" and affect changes in my life rather than "suck up" an ever-increasing and suffocating mountain of pain.

At times it sucks to feel pain in a "normal" way. It also feels "freeing" and healthy. The past few years have brought relief to feel unencumbered by my past. All my hard work paid dividends in that I feel empowered to safeguard my own well-being.

Imagine my surprise when a new survival tactic reared its head and bit me in the ......

This survival mechanism is the part of me I call "computer girl." Of course, computer girl has her roots in my childhood. There was no one to take care of us and bring the much-needed order and cohesiveness into our lives. I learned to ignore my body, while I "powered through" and did what ever it took for my psyche to survive. After all, when your body is ravaged by abuse, it is accustomed to a normal state of physical pain and stress. So, computer girl took over and has continued to rule my life.

From the moment I wake up each day, "computer girl" boots up and races to organize my every movement, project, and all of the responsibilities I have collected along the way: I have to do this.....and that...and this...and this... work, home, family, friends, writing, recovery...This is how I can solve this problem at work....churn, churn, churn...This is how I can create this system at work..churn, churn, churn, This is how I can write this...churn, churn, churn...don't forget this appointment, that social event, resolve this...churn, churn, churn, etc.. until I go to bed.

Finally, at the brink of total exhaustion, I have to listen to my body. Am I tired? Run down? Stressed? Affecting my health? The answer to all of these questions is, "Yes!"

It's time to find a new rhythm for my life; to bring my mind and body into sync. I've had to tell computer girl - the wounded child - that she can still use her organizational skills, but she can no longer be in the drivers seat. The "adult me" is going to take control and care for us both. Computer girl is resisting.

It is a very uncomfortable process to listen to the body I've ignored all my life.

As I struggle to peel away another survival mechanism, just as before, I want instant results. But alas - change takes time.....


Marie said...

There are so many parts of your story with which I can relate -- thank you for sharing so honestly and for bringing a new wave of hope to my journey.

- Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

Mary said...

Great Post Nancy, We did whatever it took to escape the horror's of what happened to us. Take care..Mary

healandforgive said...

Marie and Mary ~ Thank you!

Just Be Real said...

Nancy, as always appreciate the information you share here. Thank you dear! Blessings!

healandforgive said...


I always appreciate YOU!


Anonymous said...

i can really relate. i was stabbed with a fork too.

healandforgive said...

I'm sorry to hear that. Nobody should ever be stabbed with any thing.

Anonymous said...

another wonderful post. i can relate a lot to this one too. defense mechanisms are such an important thing to consider. because so often what helped us survive in our youth, does not always work and sometimes actually hurts in our grown up lives. thanks for talking about this!

Anonymous said...

Wow, this was an intimate post, but tragically refreshing for me.

I know the odd need to excuse the degree of childhood suffering, and I am all too familiar with computer girl! On the bright side, she tends to make us fairly successful at work though, LOL.

I'm teasing, but by no means making fun, I hope that comes through.

Very interesting blog, you continue to impress me. Best wishes, Kira

healandforgive said...

Mountainmama, You're welcome and thank you!

Kira, Your humor was not lost on me. LOL. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

You said you froze like when you watched your little brother leaning over getting hit. I froze many times during violence in our home. That is a very astute way of putting it. For indeed you do freeze. Unless you have been there you might think you would run for help. But when you witness violence, freezing is a for lack of a better word, one of the reactions that could be described as "normal". Your story has hit home.

healandforgive said...

Thank You!!