Abandoning Fear of Abandonment

When I was 5 or 6 years old, I dreamed that my mom, siblings, and I were detectives. One job required we sneak into Frankenstein’s house and steal a secret document. We succeed and ran out the front door of the house. Because I was the youngest, I was slightly behind the rest. Frankenstein chased us and grabbed me by my belt loops as I tried to race down the stairs. Legs swinging in the air, I called after my mother to help. She turned around and said, “Not right now. I don’t have time.” She and my siblings got into the car and drove off. Because the landscape was flat, I could watch their car drive away for a long time. I didn’t remember this dream until I was in my twenties…when I was just beginning to explore why I felt so angry, alienated, and desperately hungry for relationships, when I started a 20-year journey of facing the fact that I still held this terrible fear inside of me.

This fear of abandonment is related to our sense of safety in the world. As Judith Herman states in Trauma and Recovery, our sense of safety and trust “is acquired in earliest life in the relationship with the first caretaker…The original experience of care makes it possible human beings to envisage a world in which they belong, a world hospitable to human life” (51). No matter what our circumstances, the world can feel terrifying, and we want to know that somebody will be there to comfort and protect us. But when trauma occurs and our sources of comfort are unable to respond to our cries for help, our foundational sense of trust is shattered, especially if the trauma occurs when we are young and/or is life-threatening, which includes rape. As a result, we feel alienated and abandoned. Even years after the trauma, we continue to be terrified that people will fail us, and ironically, they will. Even in really good relationships, people will hurt us and are incapable of being all we want or need. As humans, we make mistakes and we are limited in what we can do for others. So what is the difference between embracing this reality while being wholly present and hiding because the pain of rejection seems too great? For me, the difference is connected to a sense of worth: what I call a fear of abandonment is actually a fear that I will be abandoned because something is wrong with me…because unlike others who seem to have safety and protection, I am unworthy and unloveable. Because I was brought up in a very conservative Christian background, I also believed that my alienation was just—that God had deemed me evil. Small children tend to believe that bad things happen because of them. It is called magical thinking. Parents divorce and the child thinks it is her fault: if only she had made her bed, her parents would still be together. The challenge with a strong fear of abandonment is that our experiences support that distorted belief system. Inevitably, the people we trust aren’t able to give us what we want or need. Then we use that negative experience as proof that we really are not safe, that we are not supported, that we are alone.

One of the ways I’ve tried to cope with this feeling is to become an overachiever. I needed to make all As, get the highest level of education possible, and succeed at all things I attempted. If I make a mistake in a relationship, then I assumed I would be rejected or condemned. Often I would push the people away, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, before they could reject me. I become hypervigilant in my interactions with people, believing I could read their thoughts and intentions. I wanted to feel like I was powerful enough to identify those who were trying to trick me into trusting them. If I decided to build a relationship, I put their wishes above my own health. I became a rescuer, an enabler, all in the hopes that if I gave away my life for someone else that in my own time of need, I, too, would be highly valued. Of course, I didn’t understand this is what I was doing for many years. Our society values those who overwork, so I was applauded for my unhealthy addiction to activity (so that I didn’t have to sit with my fear). And I interpreted all of my enabling activities as “strength.” I was the strong person who others needed. In retrospect, I think I invested so much in this identity of strength as a means of distracting me from the pain and fear underneath. Below is a writing I did a few years ago as I tried to understand my fear.

Often we naively believe that the worst part about childhood abuse is the act, the details of how one aggressive, overpowering person ravaged a small, fragile child and perhaps how the victim managed to survive that moment, most often through submission and dissociation. While those details are horrible, in the end, they are only moments, a short span of unthinking time that comes to an end, and when we are old enough, we can work hard to ensure those moments do not happen again. Sometimes we are able to see past those details and consider the short-term effects. Then we naively believe that the worst part of the abuse is the lack of control and power the child had to stop the act and to unsuccessfully convince others that this unthinkable thing happened, leaving the child without protection and support. But, in time, we can move out of the house, and we can become powerful enough – even if it is an illusion, a camouflage of inaccessibility – that other predators do not see us as prey. Those of us who have experienced childhood abuse or tried to help those victims see the more permanent effects. We often feel like the act is our fault or that we are just exaggerating or lying. We have to cope with an unexplainable, insatiable desire to re-enact the events and then to escape through compulsions and addiction. The behaviors are often the reason we seek help, but they are just harmful behaviors—outward manifestations of something much more powerful and malevolent.

 The almost insurmountable and destructive power of childhood abuse is its ability to rewire the very foundations of identity and then hide that wiring underneath a labyrinth of alarm systems, designed to keep all watchful eyes from accessing the master code. When I was abused, I stopped seeing myself and the world around me as human; instead, I saw a reptilian world, a world where ALL living creatures, even parents, will eat their offspring without a moment’s hesitation if they feel the growl of hunger inside, a harsh world where survival means devouring instead of being devoured. It is a world where what ties members together as a community is a kind of sacrificial love where we have no choice but to give away parts of ourselves when others are hungry. The signs of a good life are when we connect with others who have small appetites, reptiles who only eat our fingers and toes instead of our hearts and brains. Traumatic abuse rewires our identity so that we see no difference among the abuser, those who truly care, and even ourselves: we believe all people are wolves in sheep’s clothing even if we can hide that belief system from others and ourselves. It can be hidden in a variety of ways that seem good on the outside: under the cloak of religion, selfless acts, emotionless logic, hard work … any form of activity that allows us to run away, to hide what we do not want to believe through the will power to be “good.” If we do not try to hide the belief system under goodness, we rage against all, making ourselves inapproachable while fearlessly embracing our insatiable, reptilian desires. More often our lives are a mixture, a spectrum of reactions between these two poles, but the force driving the motion is the same: we believe people are controlled by primal instinct and cannot be trusted; we cannot even trust ourselves. Seeking to face these problems head-on begins with the hope that we are wrong—that as much as we feel driven by a destructive primal instinct, we also feel an urge to reach out and connect, to trust people, to be vulnerable despite the fact that all of us are flawed and capable of hurting one another. Following this urge of openness is what makes us human once again.

Pain versus Suffering: Embracing What We Cannot Change

Dalby_City_of_Troy_turf_maze

Our brains are wired to seek happiness and avoid pain. The problem is that this instinct just isn’t possible to maintain. In fact, trying to avoid pain and to hang onto to what makes us happy actually causes more hurt. One of the most profound concepts I’ve embraced in my own journey is an equation given by Christopher Germer in The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion:

Pain   x    Resistance  =  Suffering

When we try to resist our pain, we actually create suffering. Pain is momentary. I feel sad or angry, but as long as I don’t try to resist those feelings, my emotions will change. I can experience happiness only hours after feeling very sad or angry. Primo Levi, a survivor of the Jewish concentration camp, states this principal in his book, If This is a Man (later published under the title, Survival in Auschwitz): even in absolutely horrific conditions, the brain moves in and out of mood states, and there were moments Jewish prisoners felt happy. But when I resist my pain, I suffer and suffering is a lot more stagnate. It doesn’t change like our emotions. The difficultly for those of us who have experienced trauma is that our bodies remember the moment of terror and our brains are stuck in emergency mode, trying to protect us from experiencing that real or perceived life-threatening event again. In other words, what helped us to survive in the moment causes us to suffer afterwards because our brain is stuck in the past and continues to send us the message that we are not safe in the present. Almost any book on trauma will identify these typical symptoms (footprints) of trauma that create suffering:

  1. Triggers: Often triggers are based on the five senses (smells, sights, sounds, textures, etc). That stimulant tells our brain that the horrible thing that happened in the past is about to happen again. For example, a person who was sexually abused by somebody who was drinking alcohol might feel that same level of danger and powerlessness just by smelling alcohol in a restaurant. The smell of urine and hot breath on my face are two of my triggers. When any person breathes in my face and it feels warm, no matter the situation, I feel like I can’t breathe.
  2. Hypervigilance (or hyperarousal): We best understand this symptom for veterans. After facing such horrible, life-threatening situations, veterans’ bodies are still in a state of alert. They are constantly in a fight-or-flight state, so little things can feel very big because the nervous system is on high alert all the time. For me, I was always in the fight state, misinterpreting body language or words as a threat. I didn’t realize until about for 4 years ago that I was always running at a certain level of angry energy as a result of this.
  3. Intrusive Thoughts: Most of us have experienced a moment when, out of the blue, a disturbing or upsetting thought or image just pops into our head. For those who have experienced trauma, the intensity (and compulsions that follow) can be very alarming. It is quite common for survivors to feel very strong physically aggressive thoughts or inappropriate sexual thoughts, which can re-enforce messages that the something is wrong with the victim (“Why would I have such a strong desire to run a knife through my father’s chest? Surely this just proves that I am really am a horrible person). Although Jasmin Lee Cori puts flashbacks in a different category, for me, it feels very similar to intrusive thoughts. It is an image that pops into my head for no apparent reason and can often carry with it strong negative feelings. And if it is fragmented enough that I don’t even really know if it is a “real” memory or not, it can carry judgment and shame as well.
  4. Numbing (Dissociation): This is really an amazing coping strategy for the moment of terror. Basically, we split parts of our selves off from each other so that we will not have to feel the complete terror. If we think we’re going to die, we might find the fear and pain too much to handle, so we just kind of check out to reduce our suffering. The problem is that after the trauma, we may still believe (consciously or unconsciously) that the experience is too much to handle and survive, so we continue to find ways to avoid awareness of our body or certain emotions. The other negative effect is that many who dissociate often end up self-harming in some way or another—either to help them to feel or to help them to numb again. This is very normal. Only time and compassionate reassurances that we are now safe will help us to stop relying on dissociation and to instead begin facing small parts of what, at the moment of trauma, was too difficult to process.

While we can reduce the intensity and frequency of these symptoms, it is possible that they will not disappear completely. I may always be triggered by hot breath and intrusive thoughts still occasionally pop into my head. But as I embrace this as a reality, I let go of worrying about when it will happen. As a result, I suffer less.

I hope to write more blogs about different tools (strategies) I’ve used to lower the frequency and reactions to my symptoms, but right now, I will just share one of my first steps: using meditation to be aware of my body in the present. I adapted my meditation from exercises in The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. When I am overwhelmed and trying to check out, I just get into a space that feels safe and comfortable and is away from people. I find a comfortable place to sit, either in a chair or on the floor. It is better if I do not lie down. For about 5 minutes, I shift between using my sense of sound and my sense of touch. With my eyes closed, I pretend that my ears are satellites ready to pick up the tiniest of sounds. I don’t worry about trying to figure out what it is or not. I just notice it, including the direction it seems to be coming from and the frequency (is it constant? Does it the level of sound go up and down?). If I notice that I am focusing on one area of sound (maybe to my left), I will imagine turning my satellite in another direction to see if there are less obvious sounds there. When I find my mind wandering, I start to notice my body (to use my sense of touch). How does the carpet feel on my legs? What does it feel like if I slightly shift my weight to one side? Can I feel the breeze of the ceiling fan? How does my chest feel when I breathe in? Does the air feel cooler when I close my mouth and breathe in through my nose? Are my shoulders lifted up out of anxiety? If so, how does it feel when I lower them? Can I feel the muscles stretch out in my neck?

One effect of learning how to bodily get into the present is that I began to see that I had some level of choice and control even when my symptoms were screaming in my ear. I would tell myself that these symptoms were not going to disappear, but that I could find some relief, even if it were just for 5 minutes. And this sense that I could move in and out of difficult emotions made me feel less overwhelmed.

**The picture is of a small turf maze near Dalby, North Yorkshire, UK. It was posted in Wikipedia under “Labyrinth”

Growing Up with a Narcissist

The Crocodilian King

On land, in front of others, he speaks soft, gentle, wise words. His congregation is so mesmerized with his words that they don’t see the danger hidden beneath his stoic face. They don’t see the razor-sharp teeth ready to shred any opposition who dares to challenge his wisdom. He speaks so little and so quietly that it appears he is listening, but instead he is plotting – planning his next meal – lying in murky waters for years, waiting until the young doe is too thirsty to listen to her tiny voice saying it is not safe. With nowhere else to go, she must drink from the brown, muddy waters that camouflage rage, pain, and desire. Because his jaws are so domineering, so forceful, so powerful, she cannot escape his grasp. And in the moonlight, after his feast, he crawls onto the shore, washes off the remnants of the struggle, cloaks himself in a man’s skin, and paints on his face of wisdom and gentleness. The murky waters conceal his crime. No one notices she is gone, for her ghost haunts his habitat. Years later, she re-appears in the desert. Here there are no swamps, no monsters lying in wait concealed by murky waters. She touches her skin. Its warmth reassures her she is real. She breathes once again in the sun.

My father exudes confidence. In his mind, he is always right—always able to see and understand what others cannot. When his view conflicts with another’s, it is because that person lacks HIS wisdom. It is because that person is acting on their emotions, and emotions always distort the truth. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I understood that his infallibility (created by his refusal to act upon anything but “logic”) was designed, perhaps unconsciously, to isolate himself from others. It wasn’t until my late thirties that I was capable of emulating his logic enough to see the cracks he hid so well from others and to understand that his logic was actually founded upon fear and anger. It wasn’t until my early forties that I understood that he suffers from narcissist personality disorder tendencies.

All of us can be narcissistic. We fantasize about being special and we want others to admire us. When we encounter somebody with conflicting views, we’ll often resort to self-righteousness—to feeling superior—because it feels threatening to our sense of identity to validate somebody whose values are very different. We’ve probably all been envious when a friend or family members gets something we wanted, and I suspect all of us have even taken advantage of another person to get what we want. These are all symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, but most of us would not be diagnosed with this disorder (most of us have some symptoms of many disorders). From my understanding, the difference is about how often and at what level these thoughts and feelings occur. It is also about empathy. A narcissistic person is truly unable to empathize, unable to listen to others’ stories, unable to feel their sadness or pain, and unable to validate those feelings. This is especially true if the narcissist believes that the person’s pain challenges their superiority (and since narcissists believe that everything is about them, almost anything except admiration can be seen as a challenge). However, they actually have a very low self-esteem. As a means of coping, they create an identity of being superior because they cannot handle any form of criticism. In other words, they create an identity of infallibility to protect themselves from anybody who might want to point out their flaws or weaknesses. It’s easy to spot this with people who have delusions of grandeur. We can see that they are exaggerating their achievements. We know from talking to them that they really are incapable of talking about anything but themselves.

It’s harder for me to see this when the narcissist is able to maintain this identity of superiority by subtly manipulating others and by behaving and saying things that sound wise. Let me show you how it works with my father. In my twenties, I tried to talk to him about how I wished he would be able to express his love (He has never said the words, “I love you” and could not, except in sermons or Bible lessons, talk about things his kids did that made him proud…it made him look good to speak of his admiration for his children in public settings). Instead of recognizing my valid desire, he got defensive. He discussed how I was unable to understand him because of my own problems and that he felt emotions like love more deeply than any of us. In other words, he invalidated my feelings by taking on a superior position: he pointing out my flaws and showed how his emotions were so special that none of us could even understand him. In my late thirties, I tried to talk to him about how all of us siblings competed for his approval because he was authoritative and patriarchal. He told me that his father was a patriarch, but that he was not because he considered my mom in every decision he made (of course, I thought that considering someone in a decision is very different than being equal partners in that decision). He then displaced all responsibility for my feelings onto my mother. According to him, we girls had skewed ideas of patriarchy and of gender roles because of my mom’s struggles. If I felt that our household was patriarchal in nature, it was because of mom’s weaknesses and tainted past with her alcoholic father. He was not at fault here. These literal words came from a man who hit my mother when they got into an argument. These words came from a man who forbid my mother from seeking her own religious faith because it conflicted with his own, threatening divorce if she did not comply. These words came from a man who physically hit his adult son when they were working with cows. Of course, outside of seeing him hit my mother, I learned about these things when I was an adult and somehow he is also able to use that fact to invalidate my perception because those things happened in the past. He finally did relent with my mother, allowing her to explore her faith beyond his belief in the traditions of the Church of Christ, which proves, once again, how superior he is. Only a man of great faith and wisdom could be so gracious and kind when his beliefs are so strong and accurate. And what is perhaps the most frustrating is that he has taught my mom to speak of his superiority, to uphold his image as Man of Great Faith. A narcissist needs an audience to admire him and he can easily get such an audience because people like following somebody who is confident; we think it is strength, but it is only an illusion sustained by pointing out others’ flaws, displacing any known mistakes onto others, belittling others if they disagree, and refusing to value another person’s pain over the narcissist’s need to be right. And even as I write these things, I feel doubt about the validity of my perception. I can tell you all the things my mother and siblings would say about me, all the ways they would claim that I misrepresent my father because of my anger, my flaws, my problems. They, too, have learned to uphold my father as superior; my father demands that kind of allegiance. He taught me to see the flaws in my own story so that I could not speak about the things he did in secret, in the privacy of our home. He is the Crocodilian King.

Picture of Crocodile comes from http://www.nairaland.com/1058928/crocodile-found-flooded-parts-benue/3

Compulsions: Breaking the Cycle of Unhealthy Thoughts & Actions

In the last blog, I wrote about the need for victims to be able to express their rage and share their stories without being judged. In this blog, I’d like to write about another area often misunderstood and misjudged: obsessions and compulsions. As discussed in Jasmine Lee Cori’s Healing from Trauma, obsessions (intrusive ideas, images, or impulses) and compulsions (repetitive behavior) can be common tendencies of those who’ve experienced trauma. A person doesn’t have to be diagnosed officially with OCD to experience the struggle of haunting images or repeated actions that are unhealthy. For me, this is related to two other common “footprints” of childhood abuse: triggers (obsessive, hyper vigilant thinking based on smells, sights, or sounds related to the trauma) and self-abuse (compulsive behavior). Perhaps experts in psychology would disagree with this association, but it has helped me to learn how to understand some of my unhealthy reactions and behaviors.

Our society now discusses self-abuse quite a bit, but in a very narrow way. We think of teenagers, mostly girls, who cut or burn themselves. Instead, self-abuse can be broader. Some victims of abuse cause harm to their bodies as a way of re-enacting the original abuse. We re-enact as an unconscious way of resolving the original trauma—doing the things in the present that made us feel powerless in the past as a means of gaining control. Cori even states that not taking care of one’s body can be a self-abusive act, such as using illegal drug use, drinking heavily, overeating, smoking, and engaging in risky sexual behavior. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all those things listed are self-abusive or compulsive. It depends on how the person is using it. It becomes self-abuse or a compulsion if the person is using it to re-enact the trauma, to dissociate (to numb oneself from uncomfortable thoughts and feelings) and/or to break a state of dissociation (to hurt one’s body in order to feel).

I’ve struggled with using behavior that might seem normal to others as a means of numbing. It is possible that it is a re-enactment for it carries the shame of trauma, but I’ll probably never know. Part of the challenge with compulsions is that people use them initially to reduce anxiety. For example, let’s say that you had a very stressful day at work and you go home and take an extra hot bath while drinking a margarita. Nothing wrong with that, right? But what happens if you begin to repeat this act every time you feel stressed? You might rush home at lunch because you have to get into the tub and drink a margarita. You can’t stay at a party because you feel you absolutely must go home to relax in your hot bath with your drink. What happens if you reinforce this activity so much that you find that nothing else seems to reduce your anxiety? You’ve developed a compulsion that will take quite a bit of work to change because of the cycle.

Below is a set of cartoons I drew to help me process how to break my cycle of dissociation. As I’ve stated in other blogs, I don’t know my exact story, so don’t take this literally. It represents the feelings behind the act, something that I suspect many people who struggle with dissociation and/or compulsions understand.

A Girl and a Rock
A Girl and a Rock

Rock, Page 2

 

Rock, Page 3

Abuse or Not?

Rage-and-anger-fresco

In my last blog, I talked about our choices when we are responding to acts of violence and abuse: how villainizing the perpetrator does not help any of us with the healing process or with preventing further acts of violence. However, some might think this means I’m saying victims do not have a right to be angry, to give voice to the hurt parts inside of them that feel like the perpetrator is a monster. I am definitely not saying this. We need the liberty to feel rage in order to find empowerment; we need the liberty to say these things to speak back to the voices inside of us that say it is our fault. So instead society getting angry and demanding justice, a better path is to understand WHY victims often feel they are to blame. We as a society play a role here. We typically respond differently to different types of trauma, and our responses affect whether victims feel validated and supported or not. For example, currently, when soldiers say they have PTSD, we do not doubt them. We do not tell them they are overreacting or pretending (at least not in public venues). This was not always the case. When soldiers in WWI experienced PTSD symptoms (originally called “shell shock”), they were either accused of being cowards or of being “hysterical,” which was considered a feminine reaction. But we often do not respond with the same level of validation for physical and sexual abuse. If children or spouses claim they were physical abused, many family members minimize the trauma. I suspect you’ve heard some of these minimizations:

  • “Yes, your father may have disciplined you too harshly, but you can’t call that physical abuse. That is just the way he was taught to discipline.”
  • “Your husband may have hit you a couple of times, but he only hit you with his fist. His father used to burn him with cigarettes. You’ve got it easy.”
  • “Dad only hit mom once that you saw. You can’t say he was physically abusive.”
  • “You can’t blame Mom for making us keep it a secret that she drank and beat. She had to keep her job and telling the truth would have hurt all of us.”
  • “Your husband wouldn’t hit you if you didn’t provoke him.”

Of course, sexual abuse is completely different. If the victim is a male, many assume he must have wanted it because surely a woman couldn’t have overpowered him and if he had an erection, that meant he wanted sex. If the victim is a female adult, many people assume she played a role. Here are some of the accusations I’ve heard:

  • “If she hadn’t been drinking, that wouldn’t have happened.”
  • “What does she expect when she wears clothes like that?”
  • “She was flirting with him. What else was he supposed to do?”

If a child claims sexual abuse from a friend or family member, many of the people who are supposed to protect and take care of the child assume he or she is lying because they know the accused person.  Yet 90% sexual abuse cases among children* happen with somebody the child knows (family, friends, teachers, or pastors). Unlike our lack of doubts about soldiers experiencing PTSD, we continue to doubt and argue over sexual abuse. Perhaps one reason is because Freud, one of the founding fathers of psychology, declared that girls were molested by their fathers because they WANTED it; they seduced their fathers.

I’ve listed our different responses to three types of traumas–PTSD from war, physical abuse, and sexual abuse — to show how we turn abuse into debates instead of focusing on healing for the victims. Look at all those examples I listed and think about different responses you’ve heard. Those responses turn into national debates on social media. We argue about whether spanking is physical abuse. We argue about whether belittling a person with words is comparable to being hit. We argue about whether a person can really forget abuse until later in life (one of the reasons adults of childhood abuse are accused of lying). All of these arguments are based on ways that people minimize or deny abuse. But in arguing over the details, we are not helping. Instead, we are trying to judge what should or should not account as abuse. Why? It all goes back to our desire to seek “justice.” If we judge it as abusive to spank a child with a belt until he or she bruises, for example, then it is okay to call the parent a monster. If we decide that getting spanked with a belt really isn’t abuse, then that victim is the one to blame. But our judgments aren’t really based on fact. Just look at how our views of PTSD for soldiers have changed. Perhaps even worse, the desire to prove who is at fault distorts the situation because we are casting it as a black-and-white, only-one-person-is-telling-the-truth kind of scenario. Perhaps we should stop acting like judges and just learn to listen, to believe that people claiming abuse have valid reasons for doing so, even if they don’t make sense to us. It is perfectly okay for a victim to voice that a person feels like a monster if we see our job as listening instead of being the judge. No person is truly a monster only capable of evil, so we could say that all victims are distorting the truth. And distortion can be an effect of the trauma (a sign of unresolved emotions). As a victim, being able to express, to own, our rage is a step toward healing. It is a step toward acceptance, toward recognizing that hurt people hurt others. It is a step toward recognizing that there are validated reasons we feel this way (no matter what the reasons are). It is the ONLY path towards healing, love, and forgiveness.

*You can download a PDF file with childhood abuse statistics from Darkness to Light at www.d2l.org

Citation for Picture: Angel with Temperance and Humility Virtues Versus Revel with Rage and Anger. 1717. Saint Nicholas Church

 

 

We Have a Choice

With the recent outrage over the Stanford swimmer and the shootings in Orlando, I’ve been contemplating our reactions toward violent acts and our need to either justify the actions and/or villainize others. Neither justifying nor villainizing (and raging against the abusers) resolves the problems or helps people to heal. But perhaps even more important, justifying and villainizing are the really the same thing—like two sides (heads or tails) of the same coin. As a survivor of abuse, I understand this anger at the way we tend to overlook sexual abuse of icons and athletes, and more importantly, how we often refuse to believe a victim simply because we do not want to believe a person we admire or who holds a respected position could do such a thing. When we do not support victims of abuse, however, we continue some of the most hurtful messages of abuse—the message that something is wrong with that person, that what happened is his/her fault, that people will not protect him/her, that the world is not safe. Look at the questions Kate Baker was asked during Brock Turner’s trial; they implied that she played a role, that she was responsible, that somehow her actions alleviated Turner of his duty as a human to make his own choices about how he should behave. Perhaps this would make more sense if I compared it to domestic abuse. People who physically abuse their spouses/partners claim the person did something wrong, causing them to lose their temper. Perhaps the victim burned the toast or nagged about finances or even flirted with another person. Often the victims are co-dependent, meaning their own issues make it difficult for them to leave the relationship. But even the victims have some unhealthy behaviors that cause them to remain in this unhealthy relationship, we do not say that they deserved to be beaten. Of course, we didn’t always think that way. Men used to be justified legally for beating their wives. Today we understand that men and women are responsible for controlling their anger; should we expect anything less of sexual desire? Consent is essential because it emphasizes that both have a choice and if either person stops wanting sex, consent ceases to exist.

While we must absolutely hold abusers and shooters responsible for their actions, it is not beneficial to demonize them either. I say this a survivor…as somebody who struggles with heart-pounding, fist-clinching rage toward my abuser. Here is the reason why it doesn’t help: hatred, even when justified, continues the cycle of abuse. Abuse and violence toward marginalized groups is centuries old; it is wired into our structures of power and relationships. Kindness and compassion are the only cures to such a long-standing disease. If we just demonize people who commit violent acts, we create obstacles for them to be able to admit their mistakes (and having the abuser admit abuse occurred can be so healing to victims) and to find healing (for abusers are often victims of abuse themselves). I know this is hard to believe, but unless the person is a sociopath, he or she believes the violent action is right, or at least justified. If we demonize extreme Islamic believers or Christians who believe homosexuality is an abomination, we ourselves are guilty of what we accuse others of: justifying hatred. How quickly will this hatred turn into justification of violence? If we cheer when a rapist or shooter meets with a violent end, are we that different from a spouse or rapist who says that another’s action caused him/her to become violent? Another problem exists as well. In this age of social media, we end up spouting out our ideas of how we could have fixed this issue, which just incites more anger or justification. We blame gun laws or Islam or the police or conservative Christians, etc, etc. and we argue with people who disagree with us. Instead of putting our arms of comfort around those who are suffering, we send out more messages of blame and justification. Instead of coming together, we use these moments of violence to create more divisions, which will lead to more violence. I’m not saying we should avoid holding abusers and shooters accountable, but instead, we should address the problem with compassion….knowing that they, just like all of us, are full of goodness and darkness. We all have choices about how we will respond. I hope that those of us who want to see violence stop will choose kindness. We, too, have a choice.

Monsters

One way I’ve managed to avoid looking at my pain is to intellectualize emotions. But healing involves getting in touch with that hurt child who still lives inside of me. I’m not a good artist, but drawing out child-like stories with stick figures helps me to give voice to that young child. The drawing below deals with a common fear of children who experience abuse: that we caused it and/or that we are damaged “goods”   as a result. I often feared that I was a monster and had problems connecting with family members.

Monsters, Page 1
Monsters, Page 1
Monsters, Page 2
Monsters, Page 2
Monsters, Page 3
Monsters, Page 3

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Call Me Persephone

I have few clear memories from my childhood—where images, the other senses (taste, smell, touch, or sound), and emotions all intertwine together. While this lack of clear memories is a common trait for those who’ve experienced childhood trauma, it makes it difficult to tell my story. I could tell you about images that haunt me or physical reactions  I experience (like an automatic reflex) that point to childhood trauma, but I cannot piece together a unified, cohesive story. I’ve learned that it is important for me to honor what my body says and to listen to my intuition. My experiences are there for a reason even though I may never be able to say exactly why they are there. If I only try to validate the details that I know are accurate (things that are verified by family members or things that I clearly remember), I am not able to process all that is inside of me and thus find healing and peace.

Since I can’t tell a complete story, I often use myth because its stories and imagery often express what I feel. I don’t know when I first read about Persephone  in Greek mythology. It was probably college. I immediately felt a deep connection with this character. I felt instinctively that I, too, had been betrayed and carried into Hell, forced to become one with the devil himself. I felt like I, too, had once frolicked in green meadows, soft grass tickling my feet and sun and breeze playing tag with my face and shoulders. And I knew that I had lost springtime, stuck instead in my winter of youth: first nothing in the landscape at all—no memory, no smell, no sound, no recognition of faces about me—and then a cold, harsh, rageful snowstorm that lasted decades, freezing all hope inside of me. I don’t live in Hell all the time now, but one thing I’ve had to accept is that I have scars that will not completely disappear. No amount of seeking revenge or trying to find reconciliation or desperately pursuing happiness will change who I am, and my time in Hell has shaped my identity. I may occasionally feel the darkness of those days, but now I do not fight against those times. As Pema says, our messiness and pain is what enables us to be compassionate…and finding compassion, for myself and others, is the path out of Hell.

Illustration comes from http://sparrowpost.com/2013/10/308/

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