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Transcending Sexual Abuse - April - June 2007

June 2007 - "Why Speak Out"

The amount of fear and denial about sexual abuse amazes me once again. This is a problem survivors are going to have to help other people overcome, bizarre as that sounds. We conquered our natural revulsion and fear, dealt with our denial, and have moved on to a happier life. It is not that we enjoy discussing our abuse. Some of the shame is going to affect us like red wine affects white tablecloths. Some little remnant is going to remain no matter what we do, but we learn to work around it, to take focus away from that, to find ways to live with it. Some of us dye the whole cloth red, some of us bleach the daylights out of it, some cut and patch, some put a candle, plate, or other object over it. Some use all those methods and then some. Some put that tablecloth in the linen closet and try to forget about it. Others throw that tablecloth out. Some give the cloth away, thereby giving a problem to someone else. No matter what we do, the stain is still evident in some way—have you noticed what a lot of bleach will do to a fabric?

Even if no one else ever knows, we do and God does.

I don’t think God ever blames us for the shame we feel regarding our abuse and I don’t believe God is anything but compassionate when we confess that we still feel shame. God weeps with us over that. And God celebrates with us our efforts to keep that shame from affecting our lives negatively.

So, when I say that we have to help others overcome their disgust, fear, and denial, I am really speaking quite selfishly. I want to see the end of all forms of abuse and I believe that if I don’t speak up and try to help others understand this catastrophic experience, I am not doing anybody a favor. I’ve been told how brave I am to speak out about my own experience, and I say there is a selfish element here. It is good for me when more people understand what I’ve gone through. It is good for me when other people’s sickness and sin is exposed. How can a physician cure a patient if there is no diagnosis? We have to know what we are up against. How can abuse be stopped if nobody knows that it’s happening?

So far, my observation is that there are a lot of Little Miss Muffets out there sitting on their tuffets. When the spider of abuse comes along, they throw aside their curds and whey and head for the hills. Little Miss Muffet doesn’t experience abuse, perhaps, but she knows it when she sees it. If she understood spiders better, she might come up with some happier solutions to her problem. Of course, we can’t push this metaphor too far. There are some very positive uses for spiders which we can’t claim for abusers.

We read daily in the newspapers about what to do about abuse. Most people tend to skip that section. I heard a segment on NPR about sex offenders who had “reformed” and were wanting to return to society as usual. I had very mixed feelings about that. I want to think these people can “reform” and become new creations, but I think that is highly unlikely. That is yet another reason that we survivors must speak up and tell our stories. If ever we want an end to abuse, we will have to demand that people listen and learn: all human beings must be treated with respect as valued members of the human race. The ones that cannot handle the responsibility of treating others with respect must be kept apart from the rest of us until they learn the things they need to know and gradually earn trust. For some, it may never happen.

Transcending Sexual Abuse - May 2007
"Triggered Landmines"

It never fails to amaze. You are getting along fine, thinking you've made a great recovery from your abuse. You sleep at night without the nightmares. You have a number of folks who are trustworthy and actually appear to like you just the way you are. Things are fine.

Then some little fragment from your past appears: somebody you went to school with contacts you about a class reunion, somebody snubs you in a public place, a person you thought was long gone resurfaces. Suddenly, all your progress stops. You slip back three steps. You are shocked at your own reaction. You panic, and you thought you'd given that up. Even the people in your therapy circle shy away. Now, what? Is it really just "me, me, me" or do you have a legitimate concern? Stop and think.  

Think about who or what is bringing this problem up. I can get triggered by the smell of Aramis aftershave lotion—it was my father’s favorite brand. When I get a whiff of Aramis, I am, for a second, a little discombobulated because that little girl in me is scared. Just about the most primal reaction we have, as humans, is to smell. I can now reassure my little girl instantaneously that there is no real danger. Dad has been dead for years. Still, I react because my adult self knows full well that Dad was not the only possible predator to wear Aramis. They sell a lot of that stuff. But, my adult self also knows that wearing Aramis is not the sign of a sexual predator—wouldn’t life be simple if it were! Obviously, I have to look at other factors besides aftershave lotion in evaluating whether or not a person is a danger to me.

If it is a person who is triggering me in some way, then I have to consider the role this person plays in my life. Is he or she just a “blast from the past?” If so, I can usually put this person firmly in the past. I can tell that person that I wish him or her well, but I cannot pursue a relationship with him or her for personal reasons. I don’t have to explain myself any further. That person may simply remind me of incidents I’d prefer to forget. That person may want to continue some sick cycle of behavior or serve some of his or her personal needs using me. It doesn’t matter. If that person is toxic to me, that person is out of my life. There is nothing wrong with “live and let live.” Not even the most devout Christian is required to keep someone toxic in his or her life. Sometimes, we survivors who are Christians get confused about this. We are told to love everybody, accept everybody, and so on. This is really not possible for human beings. People choose their own relationships to God. If they choose to follow a particular philosophy, such as Christianity, for example, they are choosing to live in such a way that other Christians can and will accept and love them. “By their fruits, you will know them, “ says Jesus in Matthew 7:16. If a person’s attitudes and behaviors yield bad results for you, drop them.

Dropping someone like that may not be as simple as refusing to answer the phone when they call. Suppose this person is your boss? Should you get another job? Perhaps. Suppose this person is a blood relative. Can you cancel being Uncle Fred’s niece? No, but you can stake out ground rules for the relationship and stick to them. You have to take control of your life and behaviors. Uncle Fred may be somebody you never spend time alone with. You’re an adult. You can decide and carry this plan out. You, as a survivor, will always have to decide how your relationships are going to be. You can’t just “go with the flow” anymore; you have to make deliberate choices about what you are and are not going to do. It can be argued that everybody should do this. Maybe they should, but you absolutely must become a deliberate chooser because you know what happens when anyone else controls your choices or forces behavior on you. You can’t afford trips to fantasyland where everything is dandy and you are a happy little nincompoop wallowing in unconditional love.

Read about that in the fiction section of the library, because that’s what it is: fiction. Even God requires something from you: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” Micah 6:8. Real love demands that you have enough respect and care for yourself that you can recognize the humanity in others and respect that.

You aren’t being selfish when you are thinking about how you can relate to others. You must do what is right and good for you or you won’t have the wherewithal to do anything positive for others. You can’t be a good example without being good. God wants your best. God does not need another door mat or “beat down” (as my kids would say) individual. God doesn’t want to hear a lot about how woe is you; God wants to hear, “What should I do next?” Pick it up and move on. As the old poster says, “God don’t make junk.” And as the L’oreal company has told us repeatedly: “You’re worth it.”

Copyright 2007 Linde Grace White

Transcending Sexual Abuse - April, 2007
"Truth or Consequences"

A call from my cousin reminded me about another way we survivors experience problems in dealing with other people. We have a number of difficulties, but our ability to read another person’s feelings with accuracy presents challenges all its own.

My cousin is looking for a job, and she is finding that she is very frightened of the interviewing process and thinks she doesn’t make the best impression. She is worried that previous interactions with others have been negative, so her fear is compounded. She had not thought much about this before last night, but her sensitivity to others’ feelings has been causing trouble for a long time.

When we experienced sexual abuse, all our emotions were laid bare. We either learned to can them in silence or to complain loud and long. We became fully educated in the art of recognizing feeling and having it ignored.The adults in our lives probably had no idea how to recognize or express emotions. We grew up with some really skewed notions about what emotions suited what situation. We mainly experienced anger, fear, and frustration with out any meaningful way of expressing these feelings or having any effect on the situations that caused them in the first place. We had no idea that there were alternatives.

My perpetrator apparently thought I would forget about the abuse or that it wouldn’t have any particular effect on me. My mother was a master of duplicity: “You don’t feel that, you feel this.” For a while, I was confused, but as I got older, I began to know how other people might be feeling. I had empathy. I had no idea what to do about it, but I did know what was driving other folks in the emotional department.I also had to learn when to use this ability and when to pretend I didn't know what was going on. Only experience can teach a person this timing.Role playing situations with someone trustworthy and knowledgeable can help a lot in learningwhat to notice and what not to notice in dealing with others.

I think what is happening to my cousin (and the rest of us) is that we are responding to others with the truth. We sense how the other feels and respond to that. It is very frightening to have that happen in most social settings. If I am interviewing you, and I am still angry with someone in my family over whatever happened last night, you, then, will sense that anger. When you respond accordingly, you are going to scare the bejeebers out of me. I will suspect you are psychic or psycho!

Most people need a certain amount of deception became they feel it protects them. We agree to pretend that there is no funny odor in the room. We tell her she looks great in that outfit - even slimmer. We make nice when we don’t feel it. We like to believe that we are keeping our secrets, hiding the fact that we left the baby crying, or we lied to the doctor about how much we drink. We accept that we are going to be deceptive and so are others. In many ways, it greases the wheels of society. Would you really like to deal all the time with absolute reality?

An amusing series of books for children some years ago stars a housekeeper called Amelia Bedelia. The thing about Amelia Bedelia is that she takes every word she hears literally. So, when she’s playing baseball with some children, they tell her it’s OK to steal bases. She hits a homerun and they tell her, “Run home!” She does, taking home plate with her. Amelia Bedelia thinks this is a strange game, but when the kids show up to claim home plate, Amelia Bedelia has baked cookies because it’s impolite to return an empty plate. We find the literal thinker funny.

Lots of survivors tend to be literal thinkers, but the results frequently turns out to be anything but humorous. We have been in a situation that admits only those flights of fancy that help us dissociate from reality. Reality, for us, has been very ugly, but we’ve seen it clearly.

We often have not learned to tweak reality, and we have usually been in therapy where the truth is a prized commodity. No wonder we scare “normals!” We aren’t trying to be amusing, we are actually observing the truth and responding. We may turn off that power, as it were, from time to time, therefore appearing confused, uninterested, or simply ignorant.We sometimes choosenot to know what we know--it could make us unpopular. Weignore the elephant in the room because unpleasant experiences with telling the truth has made us unhappy in the past. It is better (we think) to appear stupid and live the lie than to be upfront and honest.We had a babysitter in our family once who was very overweight. I wastrying to describe her to my daughter without saying, "This is the really fat girl." I must have done all right because suddenly the light dawned and Laura said, "Oh, you mean that fat girl! (pause, while I am slowly sinking into the floor). Well, I guess that's just the way God made her."

Our inclinationis to speak the truth as we see it, but we sometimes are not as smooth and tactful as we could be. We're mightily afraid of being embarrassed and we have good reason! We have taken Jesus's advice to become as little children--in some ways,we have not matured in the usualfashion,we haveto learn how to use our ability to see clearlyfor the best.Remember, it was a child who saw that the emperor had no clothes on!

We are like Clark Kent before he steps into the phone booth - mild-mannered bumblers in a booming, busy world. Once we emerge from our various phone booths, we have x-ray vision, super-strength, and good judgment.Only our own forms of kryptonite can hurt us. I’m using my powers for good. What about you?

Copyright 2007 Linde Grace White

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