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Transcending Sexual Abuse - June 2009

 

"Time, Magic, Focus"

We have had a few difficulties with technology, so this may be reaching you later rather than sooner. But, isn¡¯t that typical? We survivors, of all people, are familiar with delay: delay in remembering, delay in seeking help, delay in accepting the problems for what they are, delay in recovery. Our magic wands are in the shop, it would appear. We can¡¯t point our wands and poof! Problem¡¯s solved.

I received an email from someone who read my book a long time ago¡ªabout a year or so. It took that long for things to simmer down, for realizations to come, for some kind of plan of attack to form. Since we are related to some of the same people, my correspondent asked some questions she hoped I could answer.

She recounted, briefly, her recovery up to now. It wasn¡¯t an unusual story in its bare outlines. She had blocked memories for many years, and then something fairly innocent happened, a few remarks, brought it all back. It takes time to recover from a blow like that. You are skipping along minding your own business, and wham! Some trigger gets pulled and you are right back where you swore you¡¯d never go.

This kind of thing is going to happen, and it may be a while before you can recognize it before you react. Is there some tried and true way to prevent this? Is there some magic formula that will permanently put abuse in the past? Well, not really. You will not always hurt, but you will not forget. You may be able to forgive the perpetrator at least in the sense that you don¡¯t let that person¡¯s behavior choices limit your own, but you will continue to remember. Abuse will inform you for the rest of your life because you are a different person as a result of that abuse.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous will continue to define themselves as alcoholics after thirty or forty years of sobriety. Why? Even if they don¡¯t actually crave alcohol, they cannot afford to be lax or to forget how alcohol affects them. The folks I know who have been successful in achieving sobriety have moved through various stages to the point where they are able to see others drinking and not indulge. Would I describe this as a simple process? No. Would I say there is something wrong with them? No.

I would say that alcoholics have to learn to know themselves and their limits which may be as stringent as not using rum flavoring in the Christmas cake or may allow for an occasional drink. It varies from person to person.

Likewise, the survivor of sexual abuse has to take into account many factors, must know him or herself. In both cases, there will be a learning process to go through. The alcoholic has to understand that certain of his or her behaviors and desires will have to change. Perhaps you are not a person or at a stage of recovery that even allow you to be around beer or liquor. You might have to turn down a few picnics until you are stronger. A sexual abuse survivor may need to stay out of certain situations or away from certain people until he or she is stronger. The survivor can¡¯t be ¡¡ãbusiness as usual¡¡À any more than a recovering alcoholic can be.

But, you say, I have to take care of my father. He¡¯s old and sick. Yes, you might, but there are many ways, as Mr. Rogers said, to say ¡¡ãI love you.¡¡À You might have to look beyond the conventional methods. A survivor friend of mine was faced with this very dilemma. Her father was unable to care for himself adequately. There was no money for hiring someone to care for him. Taking him into her home was not an option. Things floundered around for a while, and to compound the problem, her father was not always grateful for her help. He had had too many years of bad precedents to trust her to make good decisions on his behalf.

Today, while his health is not much better, he is living in a place where he receives all the care he needs. The people there are kind and loving toward him. He probably realizes at some level that he will not be going back to live on his own, but his focus is on today and the good things that are happening today. His daughter visits nearly every day, but the stress of his care is gone for the most part.

You, as a survivor, must treat yourself with the care that is due you. It may seem that your therapist is asking a lot of you, not being sympathetic enough, or not recognizing the seriousness of the hurt you have suffered. But, hanging on to the past, being mad about it, feeling hopeless is not very helpful. You won¡¯t forget. It is okay for you to move on from wherever you are. Set yourself some simple goals. Do as the Alcoholics Anonymous folks do and decide that you can do this one day at a time, even one hour at a time.

Perhaps, if you are new to recovery, your goal might be to spend a certain amount of time on recovery today, then go about your business for the rest of the day. Write in your journal, read for half an hour in one of your self-help books, but when that time is up, do something fun. Do something just because you want to.

I am just waiting for the sun to come out so I can swim, but if that doesn¡¯t happen, I have a couple of other things in mind. You may think that by continually focusing on your problem, you will solve it faster. That is not the way the human mind works. You can reshape yourself emotionally, but it will take time. Often it¡¯s two steps forward, one step back.

You will never be ¡¡ãover¡¡À sexual abuse, but you will, by being gentle with yourself, come to a place where recovery is not your central focus in life.

And, as Martha Stewart says, that¡¯s a good thing.


 

 Transcending Sexual Abuse - May 2009

"Penny Wise?"

Are basic survival issues getting you down? I am talking about things like maintaining a job, paying the rent, buying groceries. Sometimes these concerns trump the problems of having survived sexual abuse. Survivors know that even a little change in some of these basic areas can throw them for a loop. Now that the world economy is in trouble, our problems as survivors may magnify.

Take, for example, our issues with trust. Somebody (our perpetrator) taught us that no one is to be trusted. This includes parents, relatives, teachers, pastors, whoever. Normal people without severe trust issues learn over time that most of the people they associate with are trustworthy. These trustworthy folks may make mistakes or the occasional poor choice, but on the whole, they are not out to exploit the normal person.

For us survivors, it is a different story. We believe in our heads that most people are trustworthy and we do have experiences that support that belief. At the gut level, though, we are suspicious, wary, on the alert. Those survivors who have managed to keep some kind of relationship with a higher power are suspicious of that higher power, too. It is just the way the human brain functions. We know better than to let the boss know we have a problem that affects our work. What will the boss do with that information? We don¡¯t like to ask for any kind of help because that makes us, in some way, ¡¡ãbeholden¡¡À to another. We owe somebody. How are they going to get whatever is due them?

We survivors know for a fact that nothing is free. There are strings attached somewhere. At the very least, a thank you is required. We find a penny on the sidewalk and obsess about to whom it belongs, how it got there, what will happen if we even pick it up, and our responsibility to the owner. It sounds ridiculous when stated in simple terms, but we go through a series of emotions in split seconds even when faced with the nearly worthless penny on the sidewalk. Sure, we know about how much a penny is worth. We know that we, ourselves, probably wouldn¡¯t miss it if it was ours originally. Sometimes we choose to ignore the penny, sometimes we pick it up surreptitiously, hoping no one else notices our ¡¡ãlittle peculiarity.¡¡À Are we fooling ourselves somehow? Do we equate ourselves with the found penny?

We have likely been told that we are worthless. Does ignoring the penny confirm that? Are we, as persons, worth more than a penny? If we pick the penny up, what does that say to us about ourselves? Are we just trying to contain a nuisance? Are we greedy, money-grubbing quasi-criminals? It makes the papers when someone finds a large amount of money and searches for the true owner, but a penny? No body is worried about a penny, right?

I usually pick up pennies if I see them on the street. Recently, I was paying for groceries and noticed that the customer ahead of me had forgotten to take the coins from the automatic change machine. I wouldn¡¯t have seen it myself except I was expecting a few coins to clatter out of the slot. Immediate dilemma (and we are talking about 37 cents or so, here). I could just take the money. The other customer was long gone. I asked the clerk if there was some method of dealing with this situation. She shrugged her shoulders. I did not feel okay with just taking the money. That day, I contributed that ¡¡ãspare¡¡À change to the feed-the-hungry program that grocery store sponsors. I did not feel the same way as I would have if I had taken 37 cents out of my own purse to contribute. In this case, I merely felt I had done the best I could in the situation. It seemed fair. Simple situations like that appear on an almost daily basis unless we are hiding out somewhere. We have to make judgment calls and making judgment calls normally involves making a judgment of our own motives, suspicions, and goals. When we point the finger at someone else, three fingers point back to us.

As survivors, we are accustomed to judging ourselves daily, but, frequently, our judgment is clouded. It is hard for anyone to be objective in assessing his or her own motivations, but the clearer we can be about ourselves, the easier it is to make these decisions. Learn to know yourself. Be honest with yourself. Decide what questions are true issues for you and which questions are mainly of academic interest. This will vary widely, of course, because what matters to me may not matter to you. Here are a couple of quotations to help you think about simple daily problems like finding a penny on the sidewalk.

¡¡ãSee a penny, pick it up, all the day you¡¯ll have good luck. See a penny, let it lay, bad luck you¡¯ll have all day.¡¡À An old saying.

¡¡ãAre not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father¡¯s will¡­.Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.¡¡À Jesus in Matthew 10:29 and 10:31 (RSV)


Transcending Sexual Abuse - April 2009

"Playing to Strength"

Clunk! Has something hit you like ¡¡ãa ton of bricks?¡¡À We have those experiences more often than we desire. We want control of our life. Society also expects us to BE in control. We are embarrassed when we lose that sense of control.

When we are unable to maintain control, we usually do one of two things: exploit it or remove ourselves from it. Easy example: we go out and drink too much alcohol. We then become the life of the party or the object of everyone else¡¯s contempt (so and so can¡¯t hold his liquor) or we pass out somewhere. The person in control drinks ¡¡ãresponsibly¡¡À as all the alcohol ads on TV say. A person in control knows whether he or she can drink at all and exactly how much in order to maintain control.

Is it really necessary to remain in control at all times? No. I use the example of some people I know well. There was a wedding and the groom decided this would be an occasion when he drank. He informed a few others ahead of time. He parked his car at the place where he would be spending the night. He enjoyed his wedding reception and did, indeed, get drunk. He rode the bus, a vehicle hired for this purpose, with other guests from the reception site to the motel where he and many others were staying. He was, to some extent, out of control, but he had planned for safety.

As survivors of abuse, we have issues with control that crop up daily. Some of us may be too rigid and never relax or may be unable to get control of ourselves when we want or need to. This, of course, isn¡¯t limited to survivors of abuse. All people have some kind of trauma although it varies in degree.

Survivors, too, are in various stages of recovery. Often, it is two steps forward, one step back as we cope with situations that can change from second to second. Those of us who are new to recovery, tend to have more fluctuation in our responses. This is normal.

It took me years to learn how to deal with ¡¡ãtriggers¡¡À in my environment. For instance, my dad used Aramis aftershave. It is a smell I associate with him. It can trigger a bad feeling for me, but I began to remind myself early on that not everybody who wears Aramis is a predator. Now, I notice it, but I only spend a moment running the concept through my head. I don¡¯t think things like that completely go away. Some claim they¡¯ve learned to tolerate or even like a trigger, but nobody claims that some things are no longer triggers. We learn to control our response.

Controlling our responses is one of the life skills everyone needs to master. When a newborn cries, everyone rushes to answer the need. Newborns learn quickly to cry in certain ways depending on what they need.

At first, you may think that you cannot control any response that you have. You probably can¡¯t control the feeling that you have, but you can control how you act or don¡¯t act on that feeling. This is the critical piece: you can control your response and you can control your point of view of a situation.

It helps me to realize that I don¡¯t look at situations the same way as others do. Red flags go up for me when I see some kinds of interactions among people, but I don¡¯t call the cops just because I see a father take a little girl¡¯s hand. I cannot assume that because I had a bad experience everyone else will, too. Human relationships are complex and the best advice is the oldest advice: Know yourself.

If you know yourself, you will know what to do in nearly every circumstance. You know that if you are allergic to strawberries, then you shouldn¡¯t eat them. I consider myself ¡¡ãallergic¡¡À to some people and situations. I stay away from them as much as possible because I know I am apt to have a bad reaction. When I have to deal with something I¡¯m ¡¡ãallergic¡¡À to, I prepare as much as I can. If you don¡¯t know how to prepare, then consult your therapist or a trusted friend who can help you think of the things that you can do. My friend who is allergic to strawberries simply gives them to her husband if they accidentally appear on a plate near her.

Not all experiences are going to be resolved that easily. Forewarned is forearmed! Know who you are and what you are capable of, then play to your strength.


 Transcending Sexual Abuse - March 2009

"A Night at the Theatre"

I saw one of those plays last night that really packs a wallop. As an usher at Playhouse in the Park here in Cincinnati, I see all the plays free. I usually do not research the plays before I attend which I probably would do if I were buying tickets. Last night¡¯s offering was in the small theater (seats about 200) and was a one-act, 85 minutes of really intense experience. The actors were so wonderful that I had to remember that I shouldn¡¯t shout out my own comments or get physically involved with them. I was a spectator! They were the ones whose story was on stage.

The play is ¡¡ãBlackbird¡¡À by David Harrower. I had never heard of either the play or the author before last night. All I knew was lyrics to a Beatles song, another song, Bye, Bye Blackbird, and some information from the program which suggested that ¡¡ãblackbird¡¡À is a term for someone who has served prison time. I don¡¯t know much about that.

In some ways, Blackbird is every survivor¡¯s dream come true. The victim confronts the abuser. The victim, now an adult, has tracked him down through a picture in a trade magazine. She confronts him at his place of business. The abuser in the play never really grasps what he has done to the victim, and his life style from before his stint in prison continues fairly uninterrupted. He is a little more cautious now.

The victim is, of course, badly affected by her abuse. She has issues around abandonment, trust, public scrutiny, relationship with her parents. She has, in fact, waited until her father has died to seek the abuser out because her father still wanted to kill the man. The abuser was a neighbor, so it is not a case of incest, but it is still one of the most common forms of child abuse. About 90% of perpetrators are known to the child or family and are in positions of trust such as clergy, school personnel, people the victim lives near, etc.

But, the dream is normally that the abuser is abjectly apologetic, realizes the horrible effect of his actions (I¡¯m using ¡¡ãhe¡¡À for abuser and ¡¡ãshe¡¡À for victim for convenience), is crushed, feels unfit to live, and wants to do anything at all to atone for his behavior. That¡¯s a dream. It is not going to happen and in the play, the audience sees exactly what the likely outcome is. The abuser is upset, all right. After fifteen years, he has made a new life for himself, and, presumably, nobody knows about his past.

The victim has not really prepared for this encounter and she has not had therapy, so she doesn¡¯t do a very good job. She doesn¡¯t really know what she wants out of this encounter. She seems to want a ¡¡ãdo-over¡¡À to some extent and has to fight her attraction to the man who has hurt her so severely. Think a little Stockholm Syndrome. He has been in prison where he was treated badly (the usual case) by other inmates who just stole something or murdered somebody.

Neither the abuser nor the victim has actually learned anything in fifteen years. They have tried to work around the abuse which is a lot like trying to straighten the living room after a tornado has blown through your house.

If you get a chance to see this play, be sure you are emotionally prepared for it. You might want to read it before you see it performed. That would take the edge off. I recommend seeing it if you are far along enough in recovery to handle the emotional baggage. If you just remembered, don¡¯t go.

So what can we learn? We can first and foremost give up the idea of reconciliation with the perpetrator. The community does its best to punish crimes, but the crimes have to be brought to the attention of the justice system. The perpetrator will seek reconciliation if it means you will not pursue him legally. He will get a lawyer. The lawyer may know full well that the perpetrator is totally guilty, but the perpetrator still has rights under the Constitution, so there will be extensive effort to lighten the burden for the perpetrator. All behavior is open to interpretation. That is, in some ways, the downside of democracy. ¡¡ãI didn¡¯t mean it that way!¡¡À is a frequent excuse. When you forgive your perpetrator, you are not giving him a ¡¡ãget out of jail free¡¡À card. You are simply saying, ¡¡ãI am not going to let my anger and hurt control me. I am a stronger person than that. I am moving on with my life and will not be stuck in a situation I can do nothing about.¡¡À

We can also learn to move on. The perpetrator is not likely to change, to feel remorse beyond remorse that he got caught, or to believe he ever did anything wrong in the first place. Survivors must accept that, write him off, and move ahead. Is this fair? No. Is it the only way to be ultimately successful in life? Yes. ¡¡ãI¡¯ll never do that again¡¡À is not the common refrain for perpetrators. Only people with a sense of right and wrong can or are willing to change their behavior in response to something other than truly life or death situations. If a person will abuse a child, he will do anything at all. He is that ego-centric.

We can learn the importance of dealing with what has happened to us in a therapeutic environment. If you cannot afford a therapist, the social service network in your area will help you. Join a group of survivors who have a structure and competent leaders. Your mental health and general well-being depends on how you handle this trauma and its aftermath. Pester social services as long as it takes to get help. You may not be bleeding, but you are in just as much need as someone who is.

I would suggest you ¡¡ãvet¡¡À any group or therapist for a hidden agenda such as wanting you to join in a particular religious practice or take on any philosophy that you are not completely sold on in another context. Unfortunately, there are groups quite similar to the Taliban right here in the U.S. They have their own political and social agenda. You don¡¯t need that. A group with a specific agenda may or may not help you. Be very careful. Find neutral people who have no particular stake in the situation to help you choose the group or therapist who will help you. My physician was helpful to me in choosing a therapist. I still had to go through a couple of them to find the right match.

Do not give up! I can¡¯t stress that enough. You are a worthy person. You have been mistreated. You are entitled to help. You are a victim of crime. Be persistent with yourself and others. That is: you have been told you are worthless. It is easy to buy that and give up, but it is not true. Other people are willing to help you, but unless you continue to ask for help, it could be a very long time coming. Others will not perceive you as a priority unless you perceive yourself as a priority. This is not selfish. It is an effort to become the gift to the world that God (or the Universe or whatever higher power you prefer) intended you to be. God does not like to see creation fail. God prefers that you make the absolute most of yourself and that you are motivated to help others become their true selves. There are lots of folks ready to help you, sent by God for that very purpose. You can thrive. Get to it!

 


 Transcending Sexual Abuse - January 2009

"Resolved!"

Have you made a New Year¡¯s resolution? I haven¡¯t and I won¡¯t. It isn¡¯t that I don¡¯t have aspirations and plans for this year, but my experience is that I do better when I make changes on my own timetable.

Over a year ago, in October, 2007, I decided I should lose weight because of my diabetes and the fact that I didn¡¯t want to buy clothes in the required size to fit the body. Because a change like that means a change in life style, I decided to give myself plenty of time. I worked slowly at changing what I was doing. I had about thirty or more pounds to get rid of.

First, I gave myself permission to be whatever size I was and tried to wear flattering clothes since I knew it would be a while. Next, I decided that this was for me, for my own well-being, and done by my own choice. Because of the diabetes, I began with an effort to control blood sugar. I will spare you the details, but I made adjustments in my food choices.

At this point, over a year later, I am within about fifteen pounds of the ideal weight my doctor suggested and about ten pounds away from the weight I think I will be happy at. I am not making myself miserable trying to accomplish a goal that is really too much for a short time. Regardless of what Marie Osmond or Valerie Bertinelli have to say on those endless TV commercials, you cannot lose a lot of weight in a short period of time. You cannot change the habits of many years overnight. Some habits, like smoking or drinking or drug use, must be approached cold turkey, and most people require help in dealing with the situations that led to their dependence. If food is your drug of choice, then your job is a little harder. One thing you will have to believe is that you are more important than any food. My health and ability to continue living is more important than pizza, so I rarely eat pizza although I like it.

If the thing you want to change about yourself is the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse, many of the things about losing weight will also apply. First, you have to decide that you will no longer be a victim. This involves a radical change in behavior and thought.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying that may help you here: ¡¡ãFake it ¡®til you make it.¡¡À That is, behave like a normal, non-victimized person. Look around and see what ¡¡ãnormals¡¡À do. Ask your therapist or a trusted friend to help you determine if a behavior or attitude is one a victim would take or the one a survivor and ¡¡ãthriver¡¡À would take. You will not be perfect at this and there will always be the temptation to default to behaviors you don¡¯t like in yourself.

I DO eat a piece of pizza about once a year and don¡¯t beat myself up about it. I sometimes have ¡¡ãvictim¡¡À thoughts or something will trigger the victim response, but I am able to recognize that and choose a more positive way to act. The key to weight loss and recovery is in making choices. Nobody is going to arrest you for eating cake or thinking whatever crazy thoughts you think, but you are in control of when, where, and if you eat cake and you are in control of your thoughts. You are the supreme arbiter of your own behavior.

Next, when you¡¯ve stopped classifying yourself as a victim, you have to think about outcomes. When I started losing weight, I thought about the outcomes I desired which had to do with wearing smaller clothes, having lower blood sugar readings, and feeling more attractive. When I thought about recovery from sexual abuse, I thought about outcomes: I wanted to stop thinking about sexual abuse all the time; I wanted to feel in charge of my life; I did not want to hurt my children in any way. There were other outcomes, too. I no longer wanted to live in fear. I wanted to be able to trust my own judgment. You may have similar outcomes in mind for yourself. So, step two is to stop and think. Choose reasonable goals, but make sure they are do-able.

The third thing you will have to do is figure out what you are going to do to achieve your goals. For weight loss, I had to decide just what times I would or would not eat. I had to make food choices. I decided I would not eat some foods I know are not very good for me, but I would never say never. That is, I would plan on having pizza once in a while, but I would control when and how much. This has worked well. Sometimes, I have been in circumstances where I could not control all the factors in the food selection process, but I am always in control of how much I eat. If your goal is to live without fear, then you will have to determine what it is exactly that you fear. Once you have faced that, it will be clear what you need to do. I spent a lot of time reminding myself of two things: my father is dead and therefore can never harm me again and all men are not like my father. Not every man I meet wants to hurt me.

The fourth step is to love yourself just the way you are. Recognize that you are a valuable human being. You are worth the trouble. You may pluck your eyebrows or get them waxed now and then. This hurts, but you value how you look more than you fear the small amount of pain. You can think of dozens of examples where you sacrifice some small pleasure to achieve a greater one. I like being thinner more than I like pizza, but I am a human being. I have to allow myself to make mistakes, to yield to temptation, to make a little choice that I may regret later. When that happens, I forgive myself and try to do better the next time.

You can make the changes you need and want to make. There will be difficult times, but you will triumph in the end. Keep your eyes on the prize!

Copyright 2009 Linde Grace White

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