As we start another weird year, I’ve been taking stock of some of the discoveries that I’ve made on my long journey of healing and recovery. Here are some of them, including taming flashbacks; finding PTG; mind, brain and body links; EMDR; learning how to accept my mum’s failings and still hold her good mum side with me. I hope you find them interesting and maybe inspiring.
Recovery is possible. This is the message that is consistent throughout my website. It might not feel like it for you at the moment but, trust me, it is possible to get rid of the demons and to be able to live for yourself, feel self-compassion and to be happy.
I am more than what happened to me. Four years ago, one of my Safeline counsellors began one of our early sessions with an activity called, “More than”. She asked me to write down four words that described me, starting with, “I am ..” One of my words was, “A survivor” (Ok, that’s two words, but that’s allowed). She then asked me to write the same list, starting with, “I am not …”
It was very strange to see and then to say, “I am not a survivor”. I was slightly annoyed at the thought, as I felt that she was disbelieving me. I was doing a good enough job myself of doing that and I didn’t need her help.
However, she then asked me to write the same list again, starting with, “I am more than …”
Seeing and then saying the words, “I am more than a survivor”, was very powerful. It made some sense at the time, and has become a more a part of me and how I think about myself as I have learnt more about trauma and how to recover from it, including having therapy. Believing that, “I am more than what happened to me”, is an important element of the self-talk that I use to keep myself grounded and in control.
It’s possible to neutralise flashbacks. Flashbacks were some of the most distressing and sometimes debilitating symptoms of post-traumatic stress. I wrote about them in a poem, Flashbacks. It was a gradual process of realising that the phrases that my counsellors and therapists had repeated to me over the years, “It’s not happening now”, and “It’s just a memory”, were actually true.
Part of the evolution in my belief in those phrases was learning about how the mind, brain and body are linked. I found Bessell Van der Kolk’s book and the work of Carolyn Spring very helpful in deepening my understanding. Once I understood, for example how the brain can get in the way of being able to feel calm (re-setting the smoke detector) I could begin to control the responses that my brain made to the threats that it perceived.
I began to understand that my mind, brain and body had stored those memories and that they re-surfaced whenever my senses “pattern matched” something in my environment with what had happened many years ago. Once I realised that a partial recollection of an event, for example, did not mean that I was “back there”, I could re-focus myself, into the safe, non-threatening present.
My very skilled therapist’s use of Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing or EMDR was hugely helpful to me in this process. She would show me that the vivid images, sounds and sensations that would sometimes overwhelm me in her therapy room were, in fact, “just memories”. and that they could no longer harm me. The memories contradicted logic and sometimes I had to hear something as simple and “obvious” like, “There are no willies on my sofa, Janet”. That was a fact that I could not deny and also broke the spell of the painful past that I had been thrown back into.
I can now take a step back from any “pattern matching”: an article in the paper, a scene in a drama, the way a person looks or speaks, and realise that this is not about me and my story and is not a part of my memories.
I no longer have flashbacks.
Post-Traumatic Growth or PTG is a thing, who knew? Well, my therapist for one, as she gave me a PTG Inventory to complete after my sessions ended late last year. I’ve added a copy of it under Resources, with a link to an interesting article about it on the positive psychology site.
It’s an interesting and uplifting thought that we can actually make positive gains from the trauma that we experience, becoming more resilient, compassionate and have a greater sense of purpose and belief in our lives.
Without realising it at the time, giving the talks and delivering training for Safeline, putting this website together and working with other people on the podcasts are all evidence of my own PTG. And I’m not done yet.
The importance of networking and the commonality of experience.
Once I had published the website, I began contacting various online organisations to see if they would be kind enough to put a link on their site. One of them suggested I contacted Angles “Angles is an On Road Media project that brings media influencers together with people with lived experience of sexual violence and domestic abuse, and/or who work in the sector, promoting new content and a better understanding of the issues”.
I have met many wonderful people through Angles, some of whom have been kind enough to do a podcast with me. Talking to other people with similar lived experience has been very supportive. I have also been thrilled to hear their positive reactions to my website.
Sexual abuse is a very isolating experience and it is crucial whether through networking; contacting helplines or support groups; through reading , listening to podcasts, or through therapy; that we realise that we are not alone.
I can hold the positive parts of my mum, while accepting that she let me down, very badly. This does not mean that I forgive my mum for not protecting me, for enabling some of the abuse that happened to me, for estranging me from her and the rest of my birth family for decades. Rather, I can enjoy the warm times that we shared as I was growing up, when she was being a proper mum. And still feel angry, sad and disappointed in her actions and inactions when she choose to put others, particularly my father, before me. This realisation, which I arrived at only during one of the last sessions with my therapist at the back end of 2020, has helped me to heal and to move on.
I chose to believe me, and not my father. I have struggled for years with the idea of disbelief in the abuse. When I was being abused, choosing to believe that it was not happening was one of my key strategies for survival. This idea was, of course, reinforced by my father and other abusers, who did not want me to be going around telling anyone what they were doing (My Story).
I think that the depth and conviction of the belief that I was mistaken, that the abuse hadn’t happened, that I was making it up, is one of the reasons that my recovery and journey to healing has taken so long.
I had gradually been shaking off that belief in disbelief. Counsellors, friends, people in the audience at my talks, the police, other people with lived experience of abuse all were telling me that they believed me. Surely, they couldn’t all be wrong?
I was still a little resistant though. That small child who shoved her essence into a cupboard in her mind when she was being assaulted was very reluctant to come out of it into the real world, where very bad things could happen to little girls.
During the last session of my therapy last year though, I suddenly heard my therapist say that I had choices (this wasn’t the first time she had said that but sometimes we have to hear a lot of repetition for things to sink in).
I suddenly realised that I had a choice. I could believe me. Or I could believe my father. What a huge relief and euphoria I felt when I decided that the only possible choice was to believe me.
His power over me was gone.
If you are on the long, convoluted and often painful journey to recovery from child sexual abuse, it might not feel like it at the moment, but recovery is possible. Keep noticing those small, incremental steps that you are making. Together they’ll all add up to something really special, your own recovery.