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Face Emotional Abuse and Finally Let the Happiness In

Recently, I decided to share a poem called The Burned Remains of Words. Some folks responded that they had experienced these same feelings at some point in their own lives. Others privately messaged me with concern with what situation I might be dealing with at home. The thing is, while I wrote the poem recently, it was written about my first long-term relationship at the ripe age of fourteen years old. He was my first experience of many types of abuse - his weapon of choice, Emotional Abuse.

Face Emotional Abuse & Finally Allow the Happiness In

There are no visible scars, but the devastation becomes buried deep within the bones. It is embedded in the minds of the abused.

I was fourteen when I met my abuser. He was sixteen, attractive, funny, and (seemingly) sweet. We spent a summer together, he practically lived at his grandmother’s house next door to mine. At fourteen, I couldn’t imagine life could get any better. Still very young, I hadn’t known the signs of emotional abuse and by the time I realized I was being abused, I didn’t know how to get out.

That September was when things began to change. With him being older, he attended the high school and I remained in middle school. Unable to watch my every move, the idea forged itself into his mind that I was cheating on him. I was a whore who snuck around between classes, stealing kisses with random guys. In reality, I was not doing any of those things but despite my constant reassuring that he was the only guy I wanted to be with - it was never enough. The lack of trust and accusations turned into controlling, telling me who I could be friends with and who was “off limits” because they would be a bad influence on me.

I continued to defend myself against his ever present complaints about me: my weight (I was always underweight), my lack in sexual experience or sexual appetite (I was fourteen, he the first.), the way I dressed (because I didn’t dress sexy enough, like his ex), my inability to control the tears from running down my face as he tore me apart, piece by piece every day.

At the same time, the double standard was becoming clear: while I had to be waiting by the phone for his call, he rarely was home when I called. While I had a select group of “approved” friends, he was free to hang out with whomever he pleased - including his ex with the sexy clothes and the wild sexual appetite. He could accuse me of any and everything, but if I questioned him on his whereabouts and who with, I was an irrational bitch.

Almost a full year into our relationship, we got into an argument on the phone. He abruptly hung up on me - the knots in my stomach were unbearable. My heart tightened as the tears burst from my eyes. I called him back, repeatedly. The phone line was a steady stream of busy signals as I frantically hit the flash button, then redial, listened, repeat until I finally heard a ring. Only, instead of him answering the phone, the sound of Marilyn Manson’s Beautiful People singing the lyrics that would never be forgotten:

“I don’t want you.

And I don’t need you.”

I sat on the floor of my bedroom, listening to those lyrics for what seemed like hours. The words sunk into my mind, attaching themselves to me, taunting me.

I remember digging my fingernails into my skin. I felt worthless, useless, unloved - unworthy of love. I felt unbearable pain within me that I couldn’t release. That night, I found a razor and began cutting, wanting to let those words spill out, to feel something other than the numbness that had taken over. The lyrics continued to play from the phone, my inflamed skin now burning from the guilt. He had hurt me without touching me physically, without screaming at me. He hurt me with words.

It took me several months to finally end the relationship. On the day I finally left him, I had  found him sitting on the bench outside of the hospital (where his grandmother was being treated) with my best friend. When I confronted him, he blamed me for pushing him to her. It was somehow my fault that he had begun to pursue a relationship with one of the only friends I was “allowed” to have.

Unable to stop sobbing, unable to stop the knots in my stomach again, I pedaled home as fast as I could. Before I made it home, I felt nauseous so I stopped on a wooded path and threw up. The anger, the pain, the guilt - it all came up until there was nothing left. Emptiness.

I lived with that emptiness for years. Any time I felt pain, sadness, guilt, shame, fear - I forced it out. If I was empty, there was nothing left to hurt me. The emptiness consumed me. I obsessed about it. When someone got close enough for me to question whether or not I could trust them - the answer was always no. I pushed them away once they crossed that line I had drawn in my mind. My relationships always began and ended the same after that - I would meet someone, enjoy their company and allow them into my life. I felt love for all of them, but I never trusted any of them. Through the course of several relationships, I would experience sexual abuse, physical abuse, and substance abuse. I would accept it - the abuse. I felt I deserved it - after all, it was all I ever knew and it continued to find me - in all forms.

Over the span of twenty-plus years, I have talked with many doctors about my problems. I have been prescribed medication after medication to treat my anxiety, depression, mood disorder, … I’ve been on Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Xanax, some others that I can’t remember the names. Some have been a temporary help, but none had addressed the underlying problem. There is no prescription drug to help fix years of abuse. There is no magic pill that will take away the things embedded in your mind: the broken self-confidence, the lost love of self, the lack of self-worth.

It wasn’t until I found a therapist to talk to about the things I kept hidden from others that I started to feel better. Little by little, she helped me peel back the armor I had built around me. Not only was I guarding myself from others, but I was denying myself the ability to let go of the pain within. I was denying myself love - allowing others to fully love me and allowing me to love myself.

I can’t say that a few sessions with a therapist has made the past couple of decades of hurt completely go away. As much as I have held on to that as a part of my life I hate, if I completely write it off as though it never happened then I will be missing a large part of myself. Denial is not healing. Facing your fears, facing your hurt, facing your pain and telling yourself that none of that will control you any more - that’s healing. It’s moving on and eventually accepting that you deserve to be loved, you deserve happiness, you are worth it.  

 

Melissa Flickinger is the founder and owner of Melissa Flick’s Author Services, an Author Assistant and Book Marketing Manager. She co-hosts #BookMarketingChat, lead by author and social media expert Rachel Thompson, each Wednesday 6pm PST/9pm EST on Twitter.

She is currently writing her first novel, WRECKED. A story on alcohol, substance abuse and recovery.

Melissa studies Creative Writing through the University of Iowa and a is a self-proclaimed coffee addict.

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This is the Reason Running Away From Confrontation is Okay

Remember that 80s song by Flock of Seagulls about running so far away? If you lived through the 80s, you couldn’t get away from it. I loved that song, even when I couldn’t stand it anymore (I bet it’s running through your head now – you’re welcome). It resonated with me on a deep level, one I wouldn’t understand for many, many years. Decades, even. Because I ran. Because I run. Because I still run. Let me explain. When I was eleven, a neighbor dad sexually abused me and a few other neighbor girls. He was in the army. It happened more than once, and I didn’t understand what it was or why this thing, this monster, wanted me, what he wanted with me. Eventually, all our experiences with him came to light, and I testified against him in both civil and military trials. He got two years, lost his pension, and then moved back home. My family didn’t move away, so I lived with what happened for the next eight years until I moved away for college. I didn’t receive therapy, and my family just kind of swept it under the rug. I lived with his kids’ accusatory stares every day as I hurried to and from the same school, as if I were the one who had committed the crime. I lived with their rumors, gossip, and bullying as I rushed through my school activities, busy with busy-ness, terrified that my friends would find out if I came to a standstill for even a moment. So I ran. I ran from the shame. I never shared my story publicly until I wrote about it in my bestselling third book, Broken Pieces, in 2012, and my fourth book, Broken Places in 2014. These are heavily honest (yet, not explicit) books, filled with essays and poetry that discuss what it’s like to live with the effects of being a survivor, as well as love and loss. One of those effects is that I run — not the literal ‘put on your shoes and go for a run’ — which I did for a long time until my knees gave out. No, this is a different kind of running; the kind that happens when I find myself in an emotionally overwhelming situation. I cut and run. I leave the room, and if I can’t leave, I clam up. I’m Baby in the corner. I didn’t know, until recently, that running away from difficult situations is very common for survivors of sexual abuse, and yet, it’s not a bad thing. It seems like it would be, right? But it’s not. You know why? Because it’s a way for us to take back our power. It’s okay to run, or really, to remove ourselves from a situation where we are uncomfortable, because we weren’t able to do this when the abuse happened — so all these years of being scolded for being a coward, or not standing up and ‘taking it’ mean shit – because I was actually being strong! Just not in the usual way. The trick here is that I come back and resolve it (if I feel it’s important enough)… and that’s what survivors have to decide for themselves – how important is the relationship? Point is, it’s okay to run, as long as we come back to form a resolution. It’s Okay To Run. And It’s Okay to Come Back. When YOU’RE Ready. Running from difficult situations has caused problems in my personal relationships; I won’t lie. I just went through a divorce (my choice, but that’s a whole other post – or book!), and the man I’m seeing now gets very frustrated when I walk away from confrontation. He’s a Scorpio — he loves to dig in and get things resolved right then and there. I’m the complete opposite anyway (Capricorn, introvert), but add the past abuse, and it’s a minefield. We’re working through it, and his love and compassion for me helps immensely. So does this realization about running. See, you have to understand something: I’m not a doormat or a victim. I speak my mind. I’m a strong woman, a feminist, and an advocate for women and children, particularly survivors of sexual abuse, but that doesn’t mean I’m infallible, or that the abuse tapes don’t run when I’m confronted with confrontation. Human is human. For a long time, I, like my family, minimized what happened. They believed me — how could they not? I testified in court — twice. Plenty of court records around, as well as neighbor witnesses who came to court for support. I helped put the beast away—for a few years anyway. But the minimization was brutal. ‘Rachel’s abuse wasn’t as bad as the others,’ became the family mantra. I can’t even get my mind around that to this day. I became the good girl, the cheerleader, the overachiever who graduated early, who earned every award and promotion, who moved across the country as a single woman to get that home office job — who ran, exhausted and panting for air, but who kept running, because that’s what I did. That’s what I knew. That became my normal. Until it all crashed down when I had my first baby — postpartum depression and terrifying anxiety. How could I ever let her out of my sight? This precious, innocent life that depended on me to keep her safe — what if I failed her? I finally started therapy and medication. Everything, all my freak-outs and missteps and fears — started to make sense. Our past doesn’t just fall away, no matter how deeply we bury it. I don’t use my past as an excuse, but it helps me to understand much more about my own behaviors, and why I subconsciously react to situations the way I do. Becoming aware of the subconscious helps me deal with all of it in a more conscious way, if that makes sense. Writing about the abuse so openly has been a wonderful way to connect with other survivors as well, to comprehend so much about what eluded me. Survivors learn so much from each other. It’s astounding. I started #SexAbuseChat on Twitter (every Tuesday at 6pm PST) in 2014 with my amazing cohost, certified therapist/incest survivor and author Bobbi Parish, to help remove the stigma and shame survivors feel about our past. Any survivor or family member is welcome to join — just use the hashtag. Final Thoughts My final point is this: survivors, just like anyone, need to set boundaries. If putting the brakes on an emotionally difficult situation helps you, then do it. Just being aware of that is a big step. We often have to define, or redefine, what normal is because what’s normal to us and normal to well, someone who is truly normal (is anyone truly normal?) is completely different. Everyone is just a little fucked up. Run if you have to. And it’s okay. But be sure to come back to those people who mean something in your life, because if you don’t, you’ll have nothing, and maybe no one, to run back to.   “Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.” Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s   Rachel Thompson is the author of  Broken Places (one of IndieReader’s “Best of 2015” top books and 2015 Honorable Mention Winner in the San Francisco Book Festival), and the multi award-winning Broken Pieces, as well as two additional humor books, A Walk In The Snark and Mancode: Exposed. She owns BadRedhead Media, creating effective social media and book marketing campaigns for authors. Her articles appear regularly in The Huffington Post, The San Francisco Book Review (BadRedhead Says…), Feminine Collective, IndieReader.com, 12Most.com, bitrebels.com, BookPromotion.com, and Self-Publishers Monthly, Not just an advocate for sexual abuse survivors, Rachel is the creator and founder of the hashtag phenomenon #MondayBlogs and the live weekly Twitter chats, #SexAbuseChat, co-hosted with certified therapist/survivor, Bobbi Parish (Tuesdays, 6pm PST/9pm EST), and #BookMarketingChat, co-hosted with author assistant Melissa Flickinger (Wednesdays, 6pm PST/9pm EST).  

Remember that 80s song by Flock of Seagulls about running so far away? If you lived through the 80s, you couldn’t get away from it. I loved that song, even when I couldn’t stand it anymore (I bet it’s running through your head now – you’re welcome). It resonated with me on a deep level, one I wouldn’t understand for many, many years. Decades, even.

Because I ran. Because I run. Because I still run.

Let me explain.

When I was eleven, a neighbor dad sexually abused me and a few other neighbor girls. He was in the army. It happened more than once, and I didn’t understand what it was or why this thing, this monster, wanted me, what he wanted with me. Eventually, all our experiences with him came to light, and I testified against him in both civil and military trials. He got two years, lost his pension, and then moved back home.

My family didn’t move away, so I lived with what happened for the next eight years until I moved away for college. I didn’t receive therapy, and my family just kind of swept it under the rug. I lived with his kids’ accusatory stares every day as I hurried to and from the same school, as if I were the one who had committed the crime. I lived with their rumors, gossip, and bullying as I rushed through my school activities, busy with busy-ness, terrified that my friends would find out if I came to a standstill for even a moment.

So I ran. I ran from the shame.

I never shared my story publicly until I wrote about it in my bestselling third book, Broken Pieces, in 2012, and my fourth book, Broken Places in 2014. These are heavily honest (yet, not explicit) books, filled with essays and poetry that discuss what it’s like to live with the effects of being a survivor, as well as love and loss.

One of those effects is that I run — not the literal ‘put on your shoes and go for a run’ — which I did for a long time until my knees gave out. No, this is a different kind of running; the kind that happens when I find myself in an emotionally overwhelming situation. I cut and run. I leave the room, and if I can’t leave, I clam up. I’m Baby in the corner.

I didn’t know, until recently, that running away from difficult situations is very common for survivors of sexual abuse, and yet, it’s not a bad thing. It seems like it would be, right? But it’s not. You know why? Because it’s a way for us to take back our power.

It’s okay to run, or really, to remove ourselves from a situation where we are uncomfortable, because we weren’t able to do this when the abuse happened — so all these years of being scolded for being a coward, or not standing up and ‘taking it’ mean shit – because I was actually being strong! Just not in the usual way.

The trick here is that I come back and resolve it (if I feel it’s important enough)… and that’s what survivors have to decide for themselves – how important is the relationship?

Point is, it’s okay to run, as long as we come back to form a resolution.

It’s Okay To Run. And It’s Okay to Come Back. When YOU’RE Ready.

Running from difficult situations has caused problems in my personal relationships; I won’t lie. I just went through a divorce (my choice, but that’s a whole other post – or book!), and the man I’m seeing now gets very frustrated when I walk away from confrontation. He’s a Scorpio — he loves to dig in and get things resolved right then and there. I’m the complete opposite anyway (Capricorn, introvert), but add the past abuse, and it’s a minefield. We’re working through it, and his love and compassion for me helps immensely. So does this realization about running.

See, you have to understand something: I’m not a doormat or a victim. I speak my mind. I’m a strong woman, a feminist, and an advocate for women and children, particularly survivors of sexual abuse, but that doesn’t mean I’m infallible, or that the abuse tapes don’t run when I’m confronted with confrontation. Human is human.

For a long time, I, like my family, minimized what happened. They believed me — how could they not? I testified in court — twice. Plenty of court records around, as well as neighbor witnesses who came to court for support. I helped put the beast away—for a few years anyway. But the minimization was brutal. ‘Rachel’s abuse wasn’t as bad as the others,’ became the family mantra. I can’t even get my mind around that to this day.

I became the good girl, the cheerleader, the overachiever who graduated early, who earned every award and promotion, who moved across the country as a single woman to get that home office job — who ran, exhausted and panting for air, but who kept running, because that’s what I did. That’s what I knew. That became my normal.

Until it all crashed down when I had my first baby — postpartum depression and terrifying anxiety. How could I ever let her out of my sight? This precious, innocent life that depended on me to keep her safe — what if I failed her? I finally started therapy and medication. Everything, all my freak-outs and missteps and fears — started to make sense.

Our past doesn’t just fall away, no matter how deeply we bury it.

I don’t use my past as an excuse, but it helps me to understand much more about my own behaviors, and why I subconsciously react to situations the way I do. Becoming aware of the subconscious helps me deal with all of it in a more conscious way, if that makes sense. Writing about the abuse so openly has been a wonderful way to connect with other survivors as well, to comprehend so much about what eluded me.

Survivors learn so much from each other. It’s astounding.

I started #SexAbuseChat on Twitter (every Tuesday at 6pm PST) in 2014 with my amazing cohost, certified therapist/incest survivor and author Bobbi Parish, to help remove the stigma and shame survivors feel about our past. Any survivor or family member is welcome to join — just use the hashtag.

Final Thoughts

My final point is this: survivors, just like anyone, need to set boundaries. If putting the brakes on an emotionally difficult situation helps you, then do it. Just being aware of that is a big step. We often have to define, or redefine, what normal is because what’s normal to us and normal to well, someone who is truly normal (is anyone truly normal?) is completely different.

Everyone is just a little fucked up.

Run if you have to. And it’s okay. But be sure to come back to those people who mean something in your life, because if you don’t, you’ll have nothing, and maybe no one, to run back to.
 
“Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.”
Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

 

Rachel Thompson is the author of  Broken Places (one of IndieReader’s “Best of 2015” top books and 2015 Honorable Mention Winner in the San Francisco Book Festival), and the multi award-winning Broken Pieces, as well as two additional humor books, A Walk In The Snark and Mancode: Exposed.

She owns BadRedhead Media, creating effective social media and book marketing campaigns for authors. Her articles appear regularly in The Huffington Post, The San Francisco Book Review (BadRedhead Says…), Feminine Collective, IndieReader.com, 12Most.com, bitrebels.com, BookPromotion.com, and Self-Publishers Monthly,

Not just an advocate for sexual abuse survivors, Rachel is the creator and founder of the hashtag phenomenon #MondayBlogs and the live weekly Twitter chats, #SexAbuseChat, co-hosted with certified therapist/survivor, Bobbi Parish (Tuesdays, 6pm PST/9pm EST), and #BookMarketingChat, co-hosted with author assistant Melissa Flickinger (Wednesdays, 6pm PST/9pm EST).

 

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How a Foul Mouthed Therapist Helped Me Find My Strength

She had curly blonde hair and tanned skin like George Hamilton. She wore a mini skirt, strappy heals, and frosted lip stick. She didn’t look like a therapist and she didn’t talk like one either. “That’s a bunch of bullshit,” she would say when I told her about my husband’s demands. She may not have been the typical therapist but she was the perfect therapist for me.

In my twenties, I suffered from debilitating panic attacks. There was a period when they were so bad I could barely get myself out of bed in the mornings. My husband became increasingly frustrated with me, which only drove my anxiety levels up because I felt like my marriage was falling apart. My boss had been understanding but I could tell that my job was at risk. My life felt like it was being held together with toothpicks and scotch tape—at any moment it could all break. I had seen therapists before but all they ever did was nod their heads at me and hand me tissues to cry into. A friend recommended a therapist and I was desperate so I made the appointment.

Maxine, or Max as she preferred to be called, greeted me with a warm, perfumed-scented hug then she motioned for me to sit down. She bounced over to her chair, crossed her legs, and told me to start wherever I wanted. As I spilled my guts all over the floor about how screwed up I was, she listened for a while then said, “You aren’t as fucked up as you think you are.”

She not only didn’t look the part but she also didn’t talk like a typical therapist…and it was refreshing.

My mother wasn’t the strongest woman in the world. She often would over-extend herself for total strangers or go to lots of trouble for people she claimed she couldn’t stand. Then she ended up addicted to Valium to deal with every day life. She did these things because suffered from a childhood of abuse, which she later tried to cope with by not eating until the doctors diagnosed her with anorexia. I actually witnessed my mother having a break down one night that if I believe had I not been there, I’m sure she would have taken her own life.

“You are not responsible for your mother’s shit storm,” Max would tell me. She helped me see that even though my mom suffered because her parents were “royally fucked up,” it wasn’t my responsibility to save her. That was the first time I ever heard someone say it and it hit me: I wasn’t responsible for my mother’s life. This revelation was incredibly freeing for me although I still had the hard work of defining boundaries in my codependent relationship with my mother but Max helped me with that too.

So when my husband started demanding that I get myself fixed and act like an adult instead of trying to understand my panic, Max’s response was, “Fuck him and the horse he road in on!” Once again, she helped me see something that I couldn’t see for myself. Deep down I felt alone in my marriage but I didn’t want to admit it. I thought I was messed up and if I could fix myself enough, my husband would love me but Max got me to see that there would always be something else he demanded. I could never be myself so I left the marriage.

I didn’t have a strong female role model in my mother and that’s what Max became for me. She showed me how to speak up for myself and not take shit from anyone. The fact that she was foul-mouthed didn’t offend me quite the opposite actually; it inspired me to stop being afraid and step into the strength I had inside of me.

Dana Leipold is a freelance writer and author. Her award-winning debut novel, Burnt Edges (published by Booktrope) has gained critical acclaim. She also self-published two books, Stupid Poetry: The Ultimate Collection of Sublime and Ridiculous Poems and The Power of Writing Well: Write Well. Make a Difference. She helped found, Kōsa Press, an independent publishing label specializing in shared universe anthologies and is a member of the Association of Independent Authors. She practices yoga, loves funny cat videos, and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children. You can visit her blog at www.danaleipold.com.

You can also visit Dana on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest

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Be Authentic: Fitting In is Overrated

Lately I’ve been thinking about what it means to be me. Mostly, I am curious why people are so comfortable idolizing celebrities or those they feel have more than them. I believe it’s perfectly normal to admire someone for their contribution to society; but trying to restyle your life to reflect another’s does nothing but set you up for failure.

Each of us is here to live out a purpose (whether big or small). The people we attract into our life serve as a reflection, for good or not so good. These people are merely tools to motivate us to reach the next level of our journey.  They inspire us to be our best versions of ourselves— not them.

Often, we become so enamored with the glitz and glamour of what we perceive as a ‘better life’ we forget what it takes to get there. We forget to celebrate our victories, because we’re busy looking into someone else’s window. We count money instead of value. We measure ourselves against impossible standards, becoming melancholy when our ambition doesn’t manifest.

As a young person I didn’t fit in very well. I always danced to the beat of my own drum—literally. Being a little brown girl from the inner-city who listened to New

 Kids on The Block, was lame (to them. I love them!). Needless to say, I was teased pretty often. I quickly learned to fit in, which caused me to lose myself.   For years, I hid behind fake hair and fad diets hoping to go unnoticed. I was so f*cking miserable I could hardly look in the mirror. It took twenty years to grow confident enough to show my authentic self.

Trying to mimic another will get you nowhere. Nothing but envy, stress and disappointment comes from trying to live another’s life. These very factors are the culprits that create dis-ease in our bodies. Joy comes from building the life you desire no matter who’s looking. Life is about living through adversity so you can appreciate the happiness that is waiting for you on the other side.

Look within for your purpose. It’s the message that never leaves you. That feeling you get when experience something your senses can’t resist. It’s the dream that has been present since you were a little person. Your purpose is something you don’t have to master, because it is already perfect. It is the very thing that makes you special. Living your purpose is where your happiness lives. You can leave your mark there. It’s YOUR legacy.

Now, go chase your dreams with your cute self!

 

Christy Lynn Abram (Wholistic Muse) is a Gravity Imprint Author and Speaker. Through her books, workshops and insightful articles, Christy inspires others to find peace after trauma. www.christylynnabram.com

Twitter: @Wholisticmuse

Facebook: facebook.com/authorchristylynnabram

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Out of the Ether

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Out of the Ether

I grew up in the ether. My parents and their parents grew up in the ether. It was a sweet, seductive haze that created the hypnotic apathy required to survive as pain free as possible. The ether anesthetized us to the truth of the brutal cruelty weaving through our family history. As long as we lived within the ether denial was possible. The brutality of mental illness, addiction and intergeneration abuse was invisible while we breathed the numbing mist around us.

Growing up in the ether, I never knew that my uncle was abusing my aunt, that my grandmother’s hospital stays were due to psychotic breaks rather than “exhaustion” or that what my father did to me in the dark of my bedroom was wrong. No one spoke of these things or acknowledged them in any way. Their long-term inhalation of the ether allowed my parents and prior generations to live their lives without actually seeing large portions of it.

Instead they carried on, wrapped in their ether induced denial, as if all was a jolly dream. We went to church, celebrated holidays and went on summer camping trips as if there was no nighttime raping or behind closed doors punches being thrown. The ether did its job, leaving us all with a smile on our faces and a story of strong family love.

I don’t know why the ether’s siren song was not as strong for me as it was the rest of my family. It worked in my childhood. I never saw my father as a rapist. I was blind to anything being “wrong”. I thought he loved me. The ether would not allow me to blame him, but it did allow me to blame myself. If anything was amiss it was because I wasn’t a good girl. In retrospect, I think that was its downfall.

As my belief that I was an utter failure as a daughter grew, the ether became stronger and heavier around me. That was the only way to keep me in numb denial. I reached adulthood and ventured out into the world. I wasn’t able to successfully master relationships or a career. I watched my family go through their days with quiet, fluid movement. Why did I struggle while they were so peaceful?

I searched my life for the source of evil, but every rabbit trail circled back around to me. The ether wouldn’t allow me to see any source of my problems other than myself and my being evil to my very core. Depression rose up to swallow me whole.

I lived in the ether with my failure and depression for years, looking for ways to rid myself of my evil nature. I wandered through the intoxicating haze, trying to find relief or absolution. But I found none. My hope that I could ever be made good gave out. I wanted to die. It seemed the only escape from a life of perpetual failure.

As I was planning my demise I stumbled across the borderlands of the ether. For the first time I realized there was an outer edge to it. It had an end!

At first I was angry that my family had never told me that the ether had an end. Then, anger was supplanted by curiosity. I stood at the edge for months, watching people live in clear, clean air. There was a clarity to life outside of the ether, things were not made fuzzy by the numbing haze. People were animated, rather than restrained. I saw more emotion in those few months than I had all of my previous years. Was that a good thing? I wasn’t sure. I’d never lived with that kind of a vibrant emotional life.

As I stood watching, my depression continued to grow. In fact, observing life outside the ether seemed to magnify it at an alarming rate. I felt like the ether was suffocating me. Every day was a struggle just to breath. The air on the other side of the misty haze seemed so clear. But in the ether, I felt like I was trying to suck air through mud.

I reached a crisis point. Breathing in the ether became impossible. I was a fish flopping and fighting on dry ground, its gills furiously seeking water to draw in. Staying in the ether meant death. But life outside of it was a terrifying unknown. Do I stay and die? Do I go and hope to survive in a new, mysterious existence?

Desperate for air I flung myself out of the ether, into the clean air. Lying on the ground, catching my breath, I felt memories begin to pour into my brain. My ears were overwhelmed with the arrival of a thousand different screams, moans and cries of terror. The taste of bile and blood filled my mouth. My entire body throbbed with pain.

The price of breathing clear air was a clarity of vision. I no longer had the gift of denial. Instead, I saw the whole horrible truth of my life and the lives of my family.

It took me months to even be able to stand up under the weight of the truth, to soothe the pain enough to be able to draw a breath without feeling like I was setting my lungs afire. I was no longer numb. But I was free.

Sometimes the pain was overwhelming. I tried to go back into the ether several times in order to staunch my bleeding wounds. But I had too much truth in me now. The ether wouldn’t numb me anymore.

I’ve tried to go back into the ether and convince my family of the truth. But they cannot see it when they’re living in the haze that clouds their vision and dulls their perception. I can’t lure them out of the ether. They see my bleeding wounds and can’t begin to understand why I would choose to live with pain rather than existing in the blessed peace of the ether.

I can’t deny that there is excruciating pain outside of the ether. The pain is the price of living with the truth. Now, I feel the pain of knowing about my abuse, the pain of my abuser’s betrayal of my love and trust and the pain of knowing my family has chosen the ether over me. But I also feel joy, peace and relief. I now understand that I’m not evil and the abuse was not a punishment for who I am, or who I am not.

So I stand out here and help other survivors who make the choice to step out of the ether. It’s a very painful thing at first, to see the truth. It’s a blinding white light to people used to living in darkness. Some are unable to tolerate the pain and return to the ether. But they often have to resort to numbing drugs or alcohol to quiet the truth that bucks against the ether.

The rest of my family still lives in the ether. Sometimes I stand on the edges of the mist and watch them. They carry on as usual. Without me, as if I never existed. The ether has swallowed their memory of me. I, though, will never forget them and the sweet scent of an ether filled life.

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Surviving the Firestorm of the Duggar Family News

My inbox has been overflowing with messages from so many survivors who are in deep pain from being triggered by Thursdays news that Josh Duggar molested five minor girls back in 2002 and 2003. We, like the five little girls in the Duggar case, weren't protected when we were young. Even if we reported our abuse, like the girls did, some of us were still not protected. Or worse yet, we were punished for giving voice to our abuse. All of those things tell us we weren't worth protecting. We carried that message into our childhood and it has colored many years of our adulthood. I want all of you who are triggered by this case to know you ARE worthy and you are not alone. There are many of you who are here for you and with you.

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The Moberg-Parish Trauma Respose Model

Athena Moberg, my wonderful co-founder and partner in Trauma Recovery University, and I are both trauma survivors and Trauma Recovery Coaches. We have worked, separately, for the last several years to research and define the process a survivor goes through after suffering trauma. For the last year we have coordinated our work to formulate a model demonstrating the typical human response to trauma. This is not just a model for recovery, although it encompasses recovery. It is a model for how people respond to trauma.

After we experience our initial trauma, called the Anchor Trauma, there are five categories of response that we can work our way through: Denial, Chaos, Recovery, Reclamation and Advocacy. Not everyone moves through each stage. Some people will stay stuck in a stage, such as Denial, their entire life. Others will never progress past Recovery. It is very typical for survivors to re-cycle through the model, especially if they experience another traumatic event.

In my next few posts I will explore each event/stage in detail here on my blog. We have developed this model because we could not find a comprehensive trauma response model in the literature that we, as both survivors and helping professionals, felt accurately portrayed the survivor's experience. We formulated this model to both guide our work and to educate and empower survivors through their recovery.

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Trauma and the Brain

Few things push my figurative button more than someone telling me, or one of my clients, to “just get over” the trauma we have experienced in our lives.  Some people cannot understand why those of us who have lived through prolonged periods of trauma cannot just shake it off and move on. They seem determined to judge us as deficient for not being able to do so. We are malingerers, lazy or manipulative. We want attention or enjoy the victim role. They cannot grasp how it is that we still suffer from the aftereffects of our traumatic past.

There are so many reasons why. Explaining all of the ways trauma disrupts and destroys lives is a whole blog series in and of itself. The most effective information I’ve ever shared with those who doubt the negative and long lasting impact of trauma is how that experience permanently changes the way the brain functions.

When we encounter a life threatening situation our body reacts by pouring chemicals into our blood stream. These chemicals, such as adrenalin, are steroids. They increase our capacity to succeed with the fight or flight necessary to preserve our life. They increase our strength, allow us to mentally focus on the situation to the exclusion of other environmental stimuli, increase our pain tolerance, and give us the emotional stamina to endure horrible conditions without “falling apart”.

These chemicals are extremely helpful in situations when our survival is at risk. But our bodies are not meant to be flooded with them long term. To the contrary, in large amounts over long periods of time they are toxic to our bodies.

Prolonged exposure to life threatening situations, such as abuse or involvement in a war, keep our brain bathed in a constant flow of steroids. As a result of chronic exposure to these chemicals the way we processes information is permanently altered. The alteration is so significant that it can be difficult to tell the brain of someone with a traumatic brain injury from someone who has undergone prolonged trauma. This is significant! It tells us that trauma causes brain damage. Permanent brain damage.

Our brain structure changes in three ways: some areas get enlarged, some structures shrink and some processes deteriorate. Our amygdala, which plays a critical role in emotional regulation and processing, becomes larger. As it grows in size it increases the control it has over the rest of the brain. Emotions, rather than logic or reason, gain greater and greater ground in determining our actions.

The hippocampus, which facilitates learning and memory, and the prefrontal cortex involved with cognitive processing, become both smaller and less effective. Prolonged exposure to the chemicals trauma calls forth forever destroys the neural capacity of these two brain structures. We lose our ability to reason and process new information logically.

A third element of brain functioning that is damaged is the capacity to process those chemicals that prevent or cause depression and anxiety. Our neurotransmitters lose the ability to absorb, produce and re-uptake substances such as norepinephrine and serotonin. Without the capacity to optimize the balance of those chemicals we develop mood and anxiety disorders. Medications can help an individual correct some of these imbalances. But it is not a cure. In fact, nothing can cure or reverse any of these changes. They are permanent.

Think for a moment about how those two brain structure changes combine to effect an individual. They are vulnerable to severe, prolonged depression and anxiety. They lose abilities to reason and are, instead, ruled by their emotions. That is a powerfully negative change in brain function.

To help understand the impact of these changes let’s walk through a life experience and examine how those without a background of trauma respond versus those who have experienced trauma will respond. For this purpose let’s consider an individual whose car breaks down on the freeway. This is a stressful situation for anyone, but for trauma survivors it explodes into an experience that feels like their very life is at stake.

A non-trauma survivor would feel stressed, but would likely focus on getting their car off the freeway and to a place where it can be repaired. They would feel anxious and upset but those emotions would not rule the way the decisions they make in the moment. After they and the car are dealt with then they feel and deal with their emotions. But even then their reaction would be reasonable and understandable.

A trauma survivor though would be overwhelmed by their emotions the second the car stops functioning. Their emotions will rule their behavior and thought process, to the point that they may be incapable of handling the necessary process of removing their vehicle and themselves from the unsafe situation. It may take the intervention of another person to resolve their emotional reaction and deal with the removal of the car from the freeway. They will, as some of us may describe, overreact. Their response will be extreme to those observing or hearing about the situation

Those are two very different reactions to a scenario which most of us will experience at some time in our lives. But the way a trauma survivor responds has nothing to do with weak character, being “too sensitive” or any other personal flaw. It’s the way their brain functions. Period.

Can the brain damage be reversed? No. With professional help can a trauma survivor learn ways to cope better with the damage? Yes. But there is no quick fix. It takes a prolonged period of rehabilitation, something our mental health system doesn’t like to provide.

So let’s abandon the “just get over it” way we judge trauma survivors. Instead, let’s provide them with compassion and understanding. And most of all, let’s get them the help they need to cope with life after brain damage. They deserve the best possible chance to live a happy, productive life. Let’s leave the judgment behind and, in its place, offer hope and healing to people who have already suffered so much.

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Breaking Cycles: I Wanted to be Worth It

This is a post I have carried inside me for years. But I haven’t had the courage to transfer it from my heart to paper because that somehow makes it real. Inside myself, in that place where magic still exists, I believe that as long as a pain or hurt isn’t spoken aloud then I can continue to harbor hope that one single, powerful breath of disbelief can blow every atom of its presence away…far, far away to a place where it will never touch me again. 

It is time though, to make it real. Because I can’t heal the pain unless I acknowledge it exists. And somewhere out there is someone who harbors the same hurt. They need to see this, to read it and know they are not alone.  And somewhere out there is a parent who needs to break the cycle of abuse in their life. My story, my account, my pain might be the thing that encourages them to say, “My child is worth it. I am worth it.”

Although, technically, my abuse started at age three, it set its roots into the earth many generations before my birth. My family has a lengthy heritage of horrible family dysfunction; alcoholism, drug addiction, spousal and child abuse of every shape and form, infidelity, the fathering of children with one woman while married to another, and even an involuntary commitment to a mental institution by a grandfather tired of his ever demanding wife. And the mental illness, oh the mental illness that ravaged my predecessors as far back as our family history has been recorded.

By the time I came screaming into the world the stage was set for my story, and it was not a pretty one. But it was the only story my family seemed able to tell, given their own histories. I get it. I do. I understand that they were horribly handicapped by their own abusive upbringing in combination with their mental illnesses. They simply didn’t have the skill to break the cycle. They did their best. I know that. I long ago forgave them their transgressions.

Yet as a child in those days and nights when I pleaded with God and the world to stop the pain, to make me good enough not to warrant to be hurt anymore, and I got no response I drew the conclusion that I was not be rescued because I was not worth it. I grew up owning the belief that the cycle of abuse would not stop in my family because I wasn’t good enough. No matter how hard I tried to be a good girl, a good student, and a good family member I could not earn my freedom from the abuse. Because I wasn’t worth it. I got the bushel of hell I got because I deserved it. Period.

As an adult I’ve worked hard to change the cycle of abuse my family handed down to me. Intellectually, I knew it had to stop, if not for myself then for my son. I worked hard to learn ways of coping with pain than inflicting it on another. I schooled myself in compassion, empathy and healthy relationship skills. And I waited to have children until I knew my family’s pain would not visit another generation.

I walked that long, arduous journey alone, over hot coals and through endless deserts. And I broke the cycle, damn it! The abuse stopped with me. My son will never endure a moment of pain at the hands of an abuser within his family. I cannot completely protect him from all those in the world who might do him harm, but I have inoculated him the best I can with education and open discussion.

But that flame of pain inside me that represents my not being worth saving from my childhood abuse still fiercely burns inside me. As many survivors do, I chose to enter relationships with men remarkably like my abuser. It was what I was familiar with, what I felt I deserved. Their treatment of me relit that internal flame every time it threatened to blow out. Instead it burnt higher, the flames licking at my mind, my vision, and my grasp on my personal truth. I want to extinguish it. But it isn’t as simple as licking my fingertips and feeling the flame sizzle to its death between my thumb and forefinger. Because things we learn like that as children not only create their own energy, but become tattooed on our hearts. Scrubbing the words away is painful, HARD work. Extinguishing the flame takes what feels like endless amounts of strength, wisdom and courage.

But I’ve taken the first step. I’ve said it aloud. I’ve acknowledge that the flame of unworthiness still burns and the tattoo of “You Aren’t Good Enough to Save” makes my heart ache every damn minute of every damn day. For all of you who endured abuse like I did and feel that flame and tattoo within you: you aren’t alone. And to those mothers and fathers who grew up in abuse and see the potential for a repeat with their own children: you were worth it, you should have been saved; and you CAN do the hard work to save your own children as they are so very worth it. 

This is my first step. For myself, and most of all, for that precious little girl who cried out for saving decades ago and received no answer other than more pain. You were worthy then, sweet child, and you are still worthy now.

 

 

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Survivors are the Best Recovery Guides for Other Survivors

In 1935 Bill W. and the other founders of Alcoholics Anonymous created a revolutionary new recovery model that relies on peers to provide “mutual aid”. They believed that the best way for individuals to achieve and maintain sobriety was for alcoholics to help one another. Utilizing sponsors, peer led meetings and the 12 Steps, Alcoholics Anonymous became both a popular and effective method for treating alcohol addiction.

This model for the treatment of addictions has not changed much in the eighty years since Bill helped found Alcoholics Anonymous.  It has stood the test of time so well that now there are groups following the same model for not only other addictions but for the family members of addicts. Sponsors, peer led meetings and the 12 Steps are the foundation for every one of these programs.

Even when the addict is referred to treatment within the mental health community you will find that most providers in that arena are former addicts themselves. It is commonly accepted that the best professional to help an addict is another addict who has reached and is maintaining their sobriety. Why? Because they understand the nuances of an addict’s thinking and behavior. Their experience is invaluable when it comes to helping other addicts. Further, addicts in treatment have a greater level of trust in and respect for the individual helping them when they know he or she has stood where they are now standing.

As both a trauma survivor and a Therapist/Trauma Recovery Coach I think the Alcoholics Anonymous model has enormous utility in the arena of trauma recovery. As I have previously discussed, when survivors regularly access and participate in supportive and encouraging communities of other survivors their recovery is not only quicker but of greater quality. When an individual continues involvement in the community to the level that they mentor other survivors they can reach the final stage of Trauma Response of Advocacy, a level of recovery made possible only by advocating for their peers.

When those communities are operated by their peers, survivors new to recovery instantly feel hope and understanding. They see living examples that feeling better is possible. Due to the pervasive shame that results from trauma, survivors often live a life of isolation. Coming into a community led by their peers feels safer than coming into a community led by non-survivors because it is clearly known that everyone there has felt and dealt with the deep shame of trauma.

Outside of peer led meetings there is a huge benefit for helping professionals that work with survivors being survivors themselves. When treatment providers have gone through and maintained their recovery a deep connection is facilitated between them and their clients. That connection is not always possible when a survivor knows their provider hasn’t endured what they have, and still are, going through. The shared bond of survivorship facilitates a level of trust that is essential for recovery from a victimization with a central theme of betrayal of trust. Simply put, there is tremendous power when a survivor hears their helping professional say “I understand” and knows that they truly do. Shame fades in the face of that level of understanding.

Is it mandatory that helping professionals who treat survivors be survivors themselves? No, there are always exceptions. Individuals who are not trauma survivors can develop the level of empathy and understanding that is needed to successfully treat survivors. But overall, it is of substantial benefit to survivors that their treatment professionals are also their peers in recovery. The depth of understanding, trust, and connection that a survivor can make with another survivor facilitates such a higher level of recovery that to ignore this benefit to survivors is not only foolish, but irresponsible. Safe and supportive peer led communities and helping professionals who are themselves survivors are an essential part of any recovery program.

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The Power of Community in Trauma Recovery

I’ve been working with childhood and adult sexual assault survivors since I graduated with my Master’s Degree 17 years ago. My personal recovery journey, as survivor of childhood abuse, began about 6 years before that. All of my experience, both personally and professionally, has helped me to identify the single most damaging after effect of sexual assault: shame. Shame is corrosive; eroding the self-worth and self-confidence of those that carry it. The longer someone lugs shame around the more damage it does, eventually leaving the holder feeling like their substance has been eaten away, leaving pain in its place.

Many survivors end up in therapy, some directly after their sexual assault and others only after they’ve become addicted to drugs, alcohol or food in an effort to numb their feelings or become debilitated by a mental illness like depression or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). While individual therapy is helpful in many ways, it lacks in its capacity to deal with the ever destructive shame a survivor feels.

Why doesn’t individual therapy help in a significant way with the burden of shame? Because the emotion is so powerful it cannot be combatted by one person telling the survivor: “It wasn’t your fault. You have nothing to be ashamed of.” That technique is akin to handing a starving man a grape and saying “There you go! Better now?” No, he’s not better. He’s still starving. That one grape cannot stave off starvation. It lacks the power to do so. But 20 grapes? Now that is a good start! And 20 almonds? Even better! Now the starving man is really on his way, especially if people continue to come and bring him food.  Soon he’ll be sufficiently recovered to help feed other starving individuals.

So what is shame’s Kryptonite? What has the power to combat a survivor’s shame? Community! A group of survivors who will come alongside a peer to provide support, encouragement, acknowledgement and knowledge. Community is the single most effective method of dissolving a survivor’s shame that I have encountered in my personal and professional experience.

But, ironically, community is not often used in the treatment of survivors of sexual assault. It’s effectively used in the treatment of eating disorders, grief, anger and relationship difficulties. For addictions it’s considered the gold standard of treatment. But for survivors it’s seen as too difficult and even too dangerous.

Within the mental health community trauma survivors are often categorized as unstable and prone to decompensation. Group therapy is perceived as triggering and risky. The only environment where I’ve seen group therapy with survivors attempted is in an inpatient psychiatric ward.

But when a group approach to healing is the best way to address the worst part of recovery, it has to be tried. Many survivors suffer for decades with the affect effects of their trauma. Hundreds die by suicide every year because their pain is too great. So some of us decided to try to create community, because it simply has to be attempted. The costs in terms of suffering are too steep not to try.

Early last year a virtual community of childhood sexual abuse survivors was created. It was started by a peer advocate, Rachel Thompson. And I’m proud to say I’ve been a part of it, as both a peer and a professional. It has been a game changer. We have come together, primarily as peers, to provide support, share our experiences, and celebrate our successes. In doing so each of us has experienced a marked decrease in our shame. Many of us, for the first time, have come out of our isolated life and engaged in active social interaction. Why? Because we feel safe, accepted, and understood in ways we never have been while interacting with non-survivors.

The impact was so remarkable we moved into another, less private setting: Twitter.  For seven months now Rachel, and I have been hosting a Twitter Chat for survivors every Tuesday night with the help of Life Coach Athena Moberg. It’s been another game changer. Every week we gather on Twitter as a community and exchange between 300 and 450 tweets in support and encouragement of one another. That equates to about 6 tweets a minute! It’s a huge outpouring of individuals providing peer to peer healing power.

As we’ve had success we’ve also been targeted with complaints. But they haven’t come from within our community, they have come from without from mental health professionals stating we are taking too large a risk with too sensitive of a population. While we have heard them raising a racket we have not allowed them to dissuade us from moving forward. They aren’t offering an alternative. As Brene Brown states, they aren’t down her in the arena trying to create a solution. So we’re keeping on. We are not reckless or ignorant. We’ve addressed safety issues from the start.

Currently we’re starting other private community groups online. We’re also going to begin offering weekly Google Hangouts for survivors. In the future we’re considering offering private drop in groups, much like virtual Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. We are going to provide the option of community to every survivor we can in service to their recovery.

As we go forward we are determined to redefine the model of Trauma Recovery. Community, the single most effective counterattack for shame, is vital. Do we have the concept perfected? Absolutely not. But we’re working on it. We stand steadfast in the middle of the arena, willing to take fire on behalf of every survivor and their right to live a productive, happy life free of shame.

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