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Transcending Sexual Abuse - December 2008

"Extreme Makeovers:  Free!"

 How are you celebrating the holidays this year? Will it be more of the same old-same old? I hope that you will be celebrating (or not) according to your own needs and comfort.

The newspaper is full of advice columnists trying to help people decide how to divide their precious holiday time. The columns are full of abusive parents laying guilt trips on adult children. These parents insist that their adult children continue to obey the parents' rules about visiting, gift-giving, and so on. I am angry for those adult children!

So, how can you break away from family traditions that stifle you? First of all, determine what the celebration actually means to you. Perhaps the worship services you may attend are the key ingredient. Do you really look forward to a meal with extended family so soon after Thanksgiving? Maybe you feel that you "ought" to visit your elderly parent. As a potentially elderly person, I cry, "Spare me!" I don't want a visit from anybody who thinks he/she "ought" to visit me. If you want to come see me, fine. I'll enjoy the visit, but don't distress yourself. If you think you should do something, then send a card or letter, but don't go out of your way unless that is what you want. The main factor here is that somebody needs to get a life.

Once you're an adult, you should have your own life and your parent should have his/her own life. Somehow, these parents managed to survive before you were born. Then, for a number of years after that, you were unable to "live" for them. Now, if anything, they should be ecstatic that you are able to live your own life. It means they were successful as parents! The object of parenthood is to work yourself out of a job. As a parent you equip your child to live on his or her own. If you handle that effectively, then chances are excellent that your child will actually want to see you and be with you.

We survivors of sexual abuse have a few more challenges in dealing with our parents than "normals" do. Many of us had parents who drank, used drugs, couldn't keep a job, or truly didn't care about us. These parents are ego-centric which is to say that they are really only interested in themselves and what makes them feel good. Some folks don't even need the crutch of alcohol or drugs to make them feel entitled to their children's total devotion. When we survivors are confronted with the general culture's preoccupation with people who have money, "normal" family relationships (whatever they are!), and values, it is all we can do not to laugh in the faces of these purveyors of myth.

It is a myth that families love each other. It is not a given. Families may indeed be devoted to each other, but it is by no means standard. Everybody has a nose. That doesn't mean that the nose looks attractive or even works right. We make a lot of assumptions about other people's families. Most families are as screwed up as our own, just screwed up in their own inimitable fashion.

TV is the only place where families do not have to worry about making ends meet in tough economic times. We watch cable TV shows where somebody gets $5,000 to buy a new wardrobe or "budgets" $250,000 for a wedding, all of which comes with a staff of experts to get the most bang for the buck. How many people do you know who can do that without help? My guess is: not too many. So our standards are very high because who doesn't want and can't use a half a million dollars in discretionary income? Yet we often refuse to look at reality and are unwilling to try to work within our ability to pay for what we want. Everybody wants an extreme makeover, but the makeover that really counts and is in our budgets is a makeover of the heart. You can only do that for yourself. If you are a survivor of abuse, you have a skewed perception of material things and the things that really matter like love, respect, self-control, and consideration of others' needs and wants. The Beatles said it some 40 years ago: "Can't buy me love."

Nobody knows exactly how much time we have to live. If you are not happy now, when are you going to be? If being with your family on holidays does not make you happy, then you need to avoid it altogether or set boundaries, or limit the time you are available. Perhaps this is the year you visit on December 20th for half an hour to drop off some item for the holiday. Flowers are nice. A fruit basket is nice. A box of candy is generally welcome. If your parent or other relative is beyond your ability to relate to them, then maybe this is the year to say, "I can't make it. I'll drop you a line after the holidays." Contrary to popular culture, you do not need to give a reason. You simply can't make it. You do not need anything or want anything from this person, but you are just not going to be able to come. New traditions can be wonderful.

After my divorce, I spent Christmas Day alone or with friends. Once, I gave a dinner for "strays," other women who would not have their children with them on the holiday. Being alone is not the worst thing that can happen. I made special food for myself, planned some entertainment even if that meant choosing some special to watch on TV. Eventually, when the children were grown, we developed a new tradition of my going to my daughter's house on Christmas morning about 9 for brunch, visiting, and a few gifts. When I come home in the early afternoon, I just relax. I have no mess to clean up, I can read or watch TV, or go out to some amusement if I like. I don't have to put up with anyone who's drunk or hateful.

There is also the wonderful tradition of volunteering at a church or soup kitchen Christmas dinner or helping to make Christmas a happy time for children who may be living in the same type of home you came from. Think how it might have been for you if someone outside the family had gotten even one gift or treat for you, just you. You needed validation as a child yourself, so maybe it's time to give that validation to another child.

If your bad memories and worse experience make the holidays a stressful time for you, this is the year to erase all that. Decide to do what you want to do regardless of what Macy's, K-Mart, and Sears think you should do. A new TV is not likely to make you happy, especially if it is meant to take the place of the love and caring you deserve. You can receive that love and caring by loving and caring for yourself. Be with the people you actually care about or be alone, but don't do anything because tradition demands it or old relationships can't support it, or the culture tells you that this is what must be done. Give your heart a makeover and remember that the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is predicated on loving yourself for the fantastic person you are.

 Transcending Sexual Abuse - October 2008

"It's Gotta Happen"

At first, you don't believe the day will ever come. You are drowning in your own personal sea of trouble. You've remembered the abuse or you've never forgotten it for a single second. The anger is a fresh, raw wound despite the amount of time that has gone by. The unfairness is as deep as the molten lava at the center of the earth. You have played the unending game of Twenty Questions with answers that make no sense: Why?

What is wrong with me? What is wrong with the abuser? What did I do wrong? Why me? Does anybody love me? Does anybody care? You know them all.

You may suffer for years with these questions, the tumultuous feelings, the low self esteem, the sense that you, somehow, don't deserve to live on this earth. Eventually, something snaps. It's gotta happen because nature abhors a vacuum. There is no way you can remain in that gray area where you not only question what has happened to you, but you are immobilized. Human beings change. This is normally a fairly slow process, but the time arrives when you understand for yourself that you have to change. Here's where it gets interesting.

There is always a choice. If nothing else, you can control your attitude toward whatever life brings your way. I heard someone on the radio today talking about the scientific studies she had conducted showing this very idea to be true. She studied whether superstition and ritual were related to people's feeling in control or out of control of a situation. She put some stress on her subjects by giving them feedback on an intellectual test that either caused them to feel in or out of control of the test situation. She would arbitrarily tell them they had wrong answers to induce that out of control feeling or she would tell them they got right answers so they'd feel in control. What she ultimately noted was that people who feel out of control are more apt to resort to superstition and ritual to help them feel that they are doing everything possible to control the situation. When she had people talk about a personal value that they held dear, they felt more in control no matter what the situation. Short answer: you feel the way you choose to respond to a situation. Example: You experience a stepped-on foot. Possible feelings (in mere seconds): shock, pain, anger, outrage, "I deserve this." Possible responses: retaliate, ignore, yell, cry, faint, curse, shake it off. All this happens in nano-seconds. Most of us are able to hold off our response long enough to evaluate the event: Was is an accident? Did I do something I shouldn't have? Who caused the problem? Are conditions so crowded this couldn't be avoided? Did anyone say, "sorry" ? How did they say it? Does that call for another response?

It always amazes me at how fast we can run through our complete repertory of feelings and select one. At some point, in relation to our abuse, we realize that our reaction is all we can truly control. Most of us, at some point, decide that we don't want to continue to feel the bad feelings so frequently, so here's what we do:

1. Recognize that what happened was as wrong as we think it was. We actually were victims.

2. Decide that it is up to us to choose a reaction.

3. Weigh the consequences of our choice. (Some people choose to remain unhappy figuring that somebody owes them something or that somebody can make it right. Neither of these things will ever happen.)

4. Choose to accept the limitations of our decision: if we choose to stay unhappy, we will never accomplish any goals, but if we choose to accept the fact that abuse has permanently changed us, we can move on from there. This is a little like taking a wrong turn on a trip and ending up somewhere you didn't intend to go. Your choices are to stay put and make the best of it, turn around and go back, or figure out a way to your destination from where you are now. Each choice has its pros and cons.

5. Stop complaining about the raw deal we got out of life and concentrate on making lemonade out of the lemons we've received. Members of my family are facing life-threatening illness and are apt to die fairly soon of these diseases. They look at this as a win-win situation: they want to live as long as they can, so if a miracle happens and they live a normal life span, they win. But they also have faith in a God who is good and loving, so they say that if they die, they win because they believe they will go directly to God for eternity. Meanwhile, they focus on getting the most out of every day. They enjoy the beauty of nature. They don't worry a lot about what happens next in politics or economics. They are thankful for today. When we focus on what we can do next, we can move forward toward complete emotional health.

For me, I choose to do all I can to change the hearts and minds of others and to do as much as I possibly can to heal the hurts caused by abuse. My experience of abuse and recovery makes it possible for me to live meaningfully and to contribute positively to the world. What's your choice?

Transcending Sexual Abuse - September 2008

"Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings..."

When will I get over this abuse thing? Probably never. You will be able to live and enjoy your life. You will experience joy and laughter. You will have success. You will always be a survivor of abuse. That is the fact that informs this column.

My cousin has a condition known as "post-polio syndrome." When she was a child, she had a mild case of polio. She did not become disabled in any way at the time, and she was fortunate. It was, in fact, some years later, upon looking back that doctors determined that she had, indeed, had polio. Now, she is in her late fifties and her body is giving her some problems that are related to the aftermath of polio. She has to deal with this issue which, added to her status as a survivor of sexual abuse (thanks, Dad), has been a challenge. I am happy to say that she is stepping up to the plate and handling it well.

PTSD is "post abuse syndrome," we might say. The medical community is really just beginning to understand a few things about it. Those of us who live with it every day could give them some insight, but the docs seem to be looking for people who do not know how to cope with their memories. Most of us cope very well. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to "keep on the sunny side of life," as an old gospel hymn recommends.

A survivor who is just beginning her recovery asked me recently if I thought she was always going to be as mad as she is now about her abuse. I assured her that her anger would dissipate, but it will never completely go away. At times when we feel a bit down, it is easy to dredge up all our old hurts, resentments, bad experiences, and so on. This is where nurturing the inner child and self-talk become important tools.

My experience is that most of the time I feel fine because I am no longer in any situations that are apt to lead to "that old feeling." Before I achieved this state of bliss, however, lots of things reminded me lots of times of unpleasant things. I learned, largely because I was teaching others, how to keep myself comfortable. Here are some of the ways you can do this:

1. I kept a journal because it helped lessen my confusion to write down everything I knew about a situation. When a situation was down on paper, I could see where the crux of the problem lay. My boss was a major catalyst for bad feelings in my mind, but, even though we didn't like each other much, once the situation was down in black and white, I could sort out the "old stuff" from the currently applicable stuff. I could then respond to the boss appropriately. I worked for the same man for about 20 years.

2. I learned to give myself positive messages. I would differentiate between "then" and "now." Simple example: when I smell Aramis aftershave, I am in danger of panic because that was my dad's brand. My dad has been dead since 1984, so obviously, if I smell Aramis, it's not because he's in the vicinity. I say to myself in my head: there is no way that can be dad. I need to stay calm and quickly review the situation. I am not likely in any danger. Do I know where the fragrance (or by my definition, odor) is coming from? Is this a person I have to deal with at all? If so, then I must not allow this odor to influence my response. I am an adult who can choose her behavior.

3. Inevitably, circumstances will arise in which I am going to be uncomfortable. If possible, I plan some kind of treat for my inner child to follow the unpleasant experience. If I can't plan a treat, then I tell my "little girl" that the grown-up me will be in charge and will not let anything bad happen to her. I tell her that she is safe with me because no matter what happens, I will be the one who faces the problem. She can recede into the background. I will look around to see if there are other trustworthy adults that she can count on to protect her, and if there are, I will point them out. It has been a blessing to me that some men I count as friends have shown that they will not hurt me. This is a gradual process, but is highly effective. You take little steps toward trusting others and you will quickly know who is reliable. This is how Jesus operated: remember the parable of the talents? The catch line in that parable is "You have been faithful in the little things. Now I will put you over much."

4. When I have negative feelings, I express them in some harmless way. I have been known to thrown water balloons at the side of a house where no damage would occur. I have written ugly thoughts, sins, problems I was willing to let go of on scrap paper and burned them in a fireplace or outside in a bucket or other fireproof container. I have also contracted with a friend to listen to my complaints without commenting. On one memorable occasion, someone I cared about (but not an amazing lot) died. I couldn't understand the strange feelings I had after the funeral until I talked to friends. They listened for a few minutes and then pointed out what was obvious to them: I was grieving. Oh...that's what that is. I have drawn pictures to express feelings, scrubbed some part of the house to a fare-the-well (for years I had the cleanest bathtub in Cincinnati). Some people like other physical activity such as power walking, using a punching bag, hitting a ball--whatever uses up that angry energy and doesn't hurt someone else.

The main thing to remember is that whatever feelings you have are natural. They are perfectly calibrated to the degree of insult or compliment that caused them. Feelings are based on our perceptions of a situation which is why you might be delighted to smell Aramis while I have to talk myself out of panic. Control of feelings isn't about not expressing them. It is about expressing them appropriately. When you make a mistake in expressing feelings, be sure to apologize and look for a better way to handle it next time. My friends and family have been excellent about helping me express myself appropriately. When in doubt, ask! "How do you feel when I...."

Learn to make "I" statements such as: When I leave your shoes in the middle of the living room floor, I feel.... You might feel afraid you'll trip over them, You might feel disappointed that the shoes clutter the room. You might feel happy because the one you love is so comfortable in your house that he/she takes off shoes. You might feel "un-faired-against" that someone else is abdicating his/her responsibility. You might feel concerned that the dog will chew up the shoes.

When you make "I" statements, you give the other person a chance to change his or her behavior or to explain his or her behavior without feeling angry with you for bringing it up. With "I" statements, you are forced to express your feelings, so you have to know what it is you are feeling. This teaches you so much!

A lot of survivors have no clue what they feel. Keep alert to how you feel. You are an important person. You have received some garbled messages in your time, and, as unfair as it may seem, you will have to sort out those messages and decide which ones to respond to and how to respond. It is worth it. You will love the control of yourself that you have and the power that you have to make your life what you want it to be.

 Transcending Sexual Abuse - August 2008

"When You are Your Abuser's Care Giver"

What happens when you, a survivor of sexual abuse, end up as caretaker of your abuser? This never happened to me, thank God, but it is happening to a good friend of mine, and, an article in the paper today brought some of the less obvious ramifications of childhood sexual abuse to mind as well. One thing at a time....

My friend's father is the perpetrator. I'll call him Joe, and I'll call her Sue. Joe is 75 years old, handicapped since childhood due to his own abuse, illiterate, and sick. Joe and Sue were estranged for a number of years while Sue's mother bore the brunt of living with this man. Mother believed that you make your bed, then lie in it. Furthermore, she held very fundamentalist religious beliefs which added to her inability to get out of a bad situation.

Well, Sue's mother died. Sue's brothers had no clue what to do with the old man, so they mistreated him as he had mistreated them. When Sue finally had to step in, the brothers completely vamoosed, leaving her with a cranky, obnoxious, unrepentant old man. The law was on the old man's side. People are supposed to take care of their elderly parents, and, while many services for the elderly exist, somebody has to be able to read and write. Somebody has to make application for services. If these things are not done, Sue could be held liable for her father's decline, certainly in the moral if not the strictly legal sense. She has no reason to ignore him in the eyes of society and the law. She could be charged with Elder Abuse. You see the problem.

At first, Joe, being incredibly needy and sick, was very sorry for the way he had behaved for the last 50 or so years. When I talked to him, he painted quite the rosy picture of his marriage and the childhoods of his children. This was in stark contrast to the account Sue gave. It was easy to see that Joe was lying, but he was trying to convince himself that he deserved humane treatment. He received better than humane treatment on Sue's watch, but it has nearly wrecked her health. It has not improved her marriage, although her husband seems to be okay with the amount of time she has to devote to her father.

After almost a year of effort, Sue has managed to get Joe as well as he can get physically. She has stayed with him at his home in order to allow him to stay as independent as possible. She takes him to church, to the coffee house, to doctor's appointments. She sits with him when he is hospitalized. She has arranged for services from the Council on Aging, coordinated home repairs, contacted Meals on Wheels. Eventually, she will have to put him in a nursing home, but she is trying to avoid that for as long as possible.

So, is Joe grateful and contrite? Not on your tintype, honey! Joe doesn't hesitate to verbally abuse Sue since he can no longer physically abuse her. He consistently treats her as he has always treated her: as if she somehow owes him something which she is unwilling to give. He is arrogant, denigrates women, has all the answers. He panics whenever she leaves him. His big weapon is total neglect of himself if she is not around to monitor him. He doesn't eat. He doesn't take his medication. He falls into depression. He is filled with self-pity.

Sometimes, she has to bring Joe along when she and I get together. She gets some satisfaction out of feeling that she is doing her duty, that she is repaying him for some of the things he actually did do right, for example, paying for necessary surgeries when she was a child. You may think this is just a "given" when you're a parent, but in this case, there was no insurance. The medical bills had to come out of pocket completely. Sue's family (and mine) are of the Appalachian culture where dealing with your girl child is mostly according to your whim unless the law is there to watch you. People are tough and independent and if you read James Webb's book Born Fighting you will get a true sense of the Appalachian culture and where it originates.

In the paper today, we saw the results of the trial of a young woman accused of neglecting and abusing her children. Here's the rundown on the three older children: she didn't want the first child to suck his thumb, so she taped down the thumbs so tightly that both had to be amputated. The other two children, a 5-year-old and a 20 month old, were locked in a closet while she went to work. They were in filth, there was a hot dog in the closet, and the 5-year-old tore up floor boards trying to get out. A neighbor heard the older child screaming, "Why does she do this to me?" and called the cops. The fourth child was just born and is in foster care.

The woman's defense was that she was abused as a child. This did not fly with the jury. They felt that despite her abuse she should have known to provide better for her children. She is not operating with a significantly low I.Q. She will spend the next ten years in prison. Her children will be parceled out, likely to the people who abused their mother.

Obviously, abusers do not think beyond the moment of gratification. They are not interested in the victim at all. They are interested in their own issues and themselves in general. So, what are we to do as survivors? I can't say I really feel sorry for the mother who is going to prison for ten years. Part of me says that's not enough punishment, but I know that no amount of prison time will correct the problem. She is a victim. Many perpetrators are victims. Until victims take charge of themselves and insist on fair and humane treatment for all persons, we are going to continue to have problems.

As terrible as Joe can be, Sue does not let him get away with anything. She will leave if she needs to, but she will be sure Joe is in a good position when she does. She gives him definite limits and tells him that although his behavior is unacceptable, she will return at a certain time to do certain things. She tells him what is wrong with his behavior so that he has a chance to change, but she does not put up with anything. She is not expecting to acquire a loving, caring parent here, but she is expecting to be able to treat him humanely with as much caring as she can muster for him.

What has happened in your life as your perpetrator has become older? Does that person need care from you? How do you handle it? If you are a parent or have had young children in your care, what did you do to avoid repeating a bad experience? How are you coping with your knowledge that you were once a victim? How have you managed NOT to be a victim any more? These are questions you may have to answer. Child abuse never stops unless it stops with you.

Transcending Sexual Abuse -  July 2008

"Family History - What I Learned"

My office is a mess. I have all the photo albums out, a box of binders on the floor, a scrapbook my mother made spread out all over because it somehow lost its means to be held together. The ironing board and iron are up in my kitchen because I am steaming stuff out of the scrapbook to preserve or sell on e-bay. I wrote my relatives an email telling them I was working on this project, but I didn't tell them why.

When I learned about my abuse, I was too overcome with anger, self-pity, humiliation, guilt, and terror to do much except to try to survive. After a lot of therapy and a lot of writing, I started getting better. I had recovered sufficiently to function in my every day life. I didn't think about abuse constantly. I did start thinking about my family, though. I wondered how this could happen in a family where people were intelligent, socially aware, and, seemingly, loved each other.

I undertook to ferret out my family history. Surely there was something in there that would explain how an adult man could molest a two-year-old. Wrong! I found out some other things, though, and in listening to stories told by relatives I did get some insight. Here are some conclusions I've drawn. Maybe they will shed some light on your situation.

1. Child abuse tends to go back for generations. You are the one person who can stop it in your family. Regardless of what happened to you, it doesn't have to happen to anyone else in your vicinity. Call the police. Speak to your social worker or therapist. Do not let anyone you love be alone with a known perpetrator. Do whatever needs to be done short of murder and mayhem. Do you really care if your Daddy doesn't like you any more?

2. Learn all you can about appropriate parenting and put it into practice. Even if you do not have children of your own, you influence children and have the power to protect them. A friend of mine is childless, but she has a niece and a nephew. She is trying to undo at least some of the damage their father has done to them. If you have children, see if there are behaviors or expectations you have of them that are not realistic. You can change. You can mend fences where necessary. You can learn when you are toxic to others and when you are right on the money. I am frequently amazed at the attitudes of my peers toward their adult children.

3. I will probably never know why I was abused, but I do know that it will never happen again. I am no longer a victim. At first, you will probably need help in standing up and speaking out, but go ahead and do it. If you keep doing what you've always done, you'll continue to get what you've always gotten. You are not the one who did something wrong. You are not responsible for salvaging the perpetrator. That person made his/her own choices, and must live with them.

4. Just because a person is related to you does not mean he/she has to love you or even like you. Forget whatever the perpetrator said about loving you. These people have no conception of what love is. Choose a new family if necessary. Somebody told me the other day that she is not fond of her sisters. This is largely because her mother insisted that the sisters would be each other's best friends. The family has had many difficult times. My children today are good friends with each other although they are not in constant contact. My parenting strategy was: this is your sibling. You may not mistreat him/her. That was the only rule. I didn't assume anything about whether they'd like each other or not. They didn't have to play together although they often chose to. I know this stems somewhat from a large age difference with my own brother, but though we were good friends, I never felt "required" to even like him. I don't like either of my parents. I recognize that they did not do everything wrong (even a stopped clock is right twice a day), but they made plenty of bad choices and I suffered.

5. Looking into your family history gives you a lot of valuable information. An unemotional look into history can show you where you need to make adjustments. You are unlikely to be reading this and wanting to repeat your personal history. What were you told about yourself as a child? Is it in any way true? If some parts are true, do you believe you can shut off the tape in your head and pay attention to current reality? Recovered alcoholics and drug addicts do this daily. They say, "In the past, I drank (or whatever) to excess. It caused me problems. Current reality is that I can choose not to do the addictive behavior and do something else instead." You can say, "In the past, I was told I was worthless. That turned out to be false. Current reality is that I have a responsible job (two kids, or whatever) and I can add meaning to my own life and that of others." What somebody a generation or more ago chose to do may affect you at some level, but you are your own person and you can choose how you are going to be.

6. You are the only one who can rescue you. Others will help, and gladly. No matter what "they" did to you, you are the person who is going to overcome that obstacle. You have to give up being a victim. You have to get up out of the dust and become a new creation. You have to re-invent yourself. There is no magic for this. No one will love you until you love yourself. I believe that God has created you and me for some reason. I believe that we all have obstacles to overcome and that the obstacles, though different for each of us, are there to help us discover who God intends us to be. As the old 70's poster pointed out: God don't make junk. Be strong and brave: look at the parts of your life and see what wonderful things you can do with your abilities, talents, and unique spirit.

It is amazing when we take a new look at our family history.Accepting it as it is helps us to imagine what it can be.

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