HEALING FROM SEXUAL ABUSE, PART 1
This is the first in a series of blogs addressing the topic, Healing From Sexual Abuse. These blogs correspond to six foster parent training classes that I am facilitating at San Bernardino Valley College on Tuesday and Friday mornings from 9 a. m. to Noon, starting February 01, and ending February 22, 2011. If you live nearby and want to attend the classes, email me.
Tuesday, February 01 Becoming Part Of The Healing
Friday, February 04 What To Expect?
Tuesday, February 08 Interventions: What You Give Energy To Persists
Friday, February 11 HOLIDAY
Tuesday, February 15 Conversations
Friday, February 18 Envisioning A Future
Tuesday, February 22 Grieving The Losses
PLEASE NOTE. Although the target population, so to speak, are foster parents, the wisdom here is for all of us who are parents and or caregivers of any kind, ESPECIALLY FOR THOSE OF US WHO HAVE A GE NERATIOAL HISTORY OF INTRA FAMILIAL SEXUAL ABUSE.
Intrafamilial sexual abuse is NOT rare, so DO NOT BE AFRAID to check out this blog or this class.
I do not hold anything back in this blog, so if you are offended, I apologize, but this is a serious matter, and one which we need to talk frankly and clearly about, so we can learn to be there in a kind and straight forward way for the children who need our support in healing.
A good article from the internet about parenting abused children can be found on this link
This is a long and intense blog, but there is a TON of important information here, So thanks in advance for going the distance and learning this important information. It will make your “job” so much easier and simpler. Believe me.
WHAT DOES SEXUAL ABUSE LOOK LIKE?
We will talk in a later blog about what sexual abuse looks like. Suffice for this moment to open your box a bit and say that sexual abuse can look and feel a lot of different ways. I often hear people say, “Well, at least there wasn’t any penetration.”
What the heck does that mean? Someone fondling you, touching your breasts, putting their tongue or other body parts in your mouth are all forms of penetration. Someone staring at your crotch or breasts are forms of penetration.
For whatever reason, we work really hard to narrow sexual abuse down to a few what we consider to be really awful acts, when in fact, sexual abuse involves an entire gamut of behavior. And you can’t compare one to another.
You know, which is worse? A girl being sexually abused by Dad from the time she is three years old until she is sixteen? Or a girl trying to figure out why her father, after she turned twelve, never hugs her anymore and never gets physically close to her? Which is worse? No, you are right. You cannot compare them, but both experiences have life damaging consequences when they are left to rumble around in our soul unaddressed. So in a later blog, we will actually detail the various forms of sexual abuse.
WE ARE SEXUAL BEINGS
Let’s begin by acknowledging, first of all, that, as human beings. we are sexual beings. Our sexuality is not a part of us. It IS who we are. Every cell in our body tells us that we are sexual beings.
Over the course of our “evolution,” our sexuality has somehow been split off from our wholeness. Personally, I do not think the splitting has anything to do with Adam and Eve and original sin, nor does it have to do with sexuality being a lower instinct. I do not believe in higher and lower instincts. It is a kind of labeling that leads to devaluing very precious and important elements of our humanity.
Nor do I think it has anything to do with the devil and evil. For whatever reason, as human beings, we struggle with our free will and our capacity to make choices. Let’s just take ownership of our struggle. Let’s stop blaming the devil or anyone for that matter. It has been an on-going learning process for us, as humans, throughout history, and I think we, as a genus or species or whatever it is we are, are getting better at making life giving choices. Obviously, we have along way to go. But just looking at the last two hundred years in our own country, we have come a long way toward treating each other as precious human beings. That is just a fact of history.
So given we are sexual beings, there is always that possibility we will make less than life giving choices when it comes to the way we use our sexuality and the way we meet our sexual needs. And the sexual violation of other people, both children and adults, is one of the ways we misuse our sexuality. I do not mean, in any way, to minimize this seriousness of these violations. But the occurrence of sexual violation it is not some far-out, mysterious phenomenon.
INCEST, INTRA-FAMILIAL SEXUAL ABUSE, COMMON OR UNCOMMON?
We now have considerable legislation in place to protect our children from sexual predators and to punish sex offenders. These same laws also make it possible for us to know where these “evil” sex offenders are living.
But did you know that a man or woman may be required to register as a sex offender, but may NOT be a child molester? You could be a seventeen year old who had sex with your younger girlfriend or boyfriend and be the target of the wrath of his or her parents and without sufficient legal representation have to register for the rest of your life as a sex offender. Now I am not playing the violin for anyone. I just want us to have accurate information regarding the term “sex offender.”
AND HERE IS THE KICKER. Our focus on all these perverted evil folks out there, who are lumped together under the heading SEX OFFENDER, keeps the focus OFF what goes on in good, upstanding, church-going families. And maybe that is why there is such political energy and so much hype on talk radio and television regarding sex offenders because again, it keeps the focus off what goes on in otherwise good looking families. Families, like yours and mine. If the statistic is anywhere close to accurate, that only 10% of predators come from OUTSIDE the family circle, then that means...right! Yes, 90% of predators come from within the family circle. NONE of us want to deal with that reality, so YES, let’s make sure we are crucifying those 10%, and maybe then all the hoopla will keep the focus where we want it to be. We certainly do not want the media getting too close to home.
Unfortunately, sexual abuse by fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents, step relatives included, is not some rare, extraordinary event. If you look at the general population of folks who are entrenched in addictions of every kind, you will see the most obvious manifestation of sexual abuse WITHIN the family. WITHIN THE FAMILY. That is what INTRA-FAMILIAL means. Sexual abuse within the family. Incest.
What do I mean by that statement? You look at the large number of folks who are not in good health, grossly overweight, high blood pressure, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and everything else, depressed, diabetic, plagued with anxiety all over the map, bodies full of chronic aches and pains (untouched even by pain medication), breakdowns in major organ functioning, folks who no longer dream, who just live and survive, folks who could easily be mistaken for combat soldiers fighting PTSD, and you will see the ravages of the secret of incest that those who have been on the receiving end of it, carry within their very bodies. I don’t want to even begin to look at other kinds of illnesses that have some stress related trigger, like cancer, for example. We do know that increased stress hormone levels literally turn on our negative gene pool, so whatever it is we might be genetically predisposed to, we are at risk from the stress of abuse. UGH! OUCH!
I know that is a strong statement, but anyone can prove me wrong. Just start explaining your lack of health, your lack of love for life, love for your own life, your long standing addiction or addictions. Addictions are our best but failed attempts at covering the pains in our life, the losses in our lives, and for many many many folks, the loss involves being ripped off sexually, sometimes at a very early age, sometimes at the least opportune age, for example adolescence.
I am simply trying to say that the evidence of the frequent occurrence of incest is right there in front of us and often right there in our own bodies when we do not receive the well deserved healing that is available to us.
SO DO STATISTICS SUPPORT MY RAMBLINGS?
So you want statistics? Wow, good luck. How many people in your family are going to come forward, raising their hand, to report either as a victim or as a perpetrator? The statistics come from those situations that get reported. Remember again, the statistics we are looking for are not about children who are sexually abused, but children who are abused within their family or family circle.
You can find statistics galore. Google, “statistics for intrafamilial sexual abuse.” No matter which website you go to, the statistics are staggering, and remember, they represent reported cases. For example, statistics show that women are more frequently victims of incest than boys. But, as boys, we are trained very early on to “take it,” and we often are lead to believe that sex with an older woman, even if it is our mother, is “cool.” We might even brag about it to other guys. And of course, as a boy, if we are sexually abused by a brother, an uncle, a grandfather, or worse, our father or step father, we certainly are not going to brag about that. Yes, you got it. NO ONE is EVER going to find out. We are taking that one to our grave. Those cases usually ONLY get reported when the victim eventually acts out sexually, and at that time, in the course of treatment, it is disclosed that the male perpetrator was himself sexually abused as a child.
Again, perpetrators from outside the family make up only about 10% of reported child sexual abuse cases. THINK about that statistic.
Within my own private psychotherapy practice, I would estimate that at least 60% of my clients, both men and women, report being direct victims, in other words they themselves were sexually abused by someone within the family circle. I would say another thirty percent report being what is sometimes labeled as indirect victims. In other words, they themselves were not abused, but they are aware of sexual abuse within the family constellation either in the current generation or past generations. And just to clarify. I do not work with a particularly mentally ill population. Most of my clients are normal like you and me! Yeah, right, I hear you! Take it as a compliment! Let yourself be in the normal category! Unfortunately intra-familial sexual abuse is just part of who we are as people, the same as any other common dysfunction.
THE TERM VICTIM
Now, I have used the term victim several times, and I do not like the term. It leaves the person with that label in a victim stance. So from now on, I will refer to “victims” as the person on the receiving end of the abuse. Words are very important in my “book.” And once I am labeled “victim,” either by others or myself, I AM a victim. And victims remain victims, helpless, wounded, and incapable of grabbing onto those internal resources which we ALL are born with. So let us stop referring to folks on the receiving end of any kind of abuse as victims. It is not a helpful label. Like any other label, it tags us, sometimes forever, as our psyche swallows hook line and sinker the deep meaning of that word. The word literally rips us off, robs us, steals away our power.
The act itself of being abused is yes, awful and potentially traumatizing. But our BRAIN does not respond to the event as a victim. The brain literally takes us away from the event. We dissociate, we split off as a way of SURVIVING. There is also an awesome way the brain knows how to heal, and we will talk about that in a later blog. Unfortunately, the feedback from outside our brain, including this label, victim, can short-circuit the natural neurobiological functioning of our brain that both “removes” us from the trauma when it is occurring, and later, heals us.
The most recent movie, The King’s Speech, is a good illustration of what I am talking about here.
BECOMING PART OF THE HEALING
So now that we have a little bit of background, let’s get to work with out topic for today, Becoming Part of the Healing.
A HEALING CLIMATE
When we are taking children into our home who are wounded in some way or another, it is very important that we put considerable and conscious effort into creating a healing climate.
Climate is an interesting “thing.” It is really more of an experience than it is something you can put your finger on. It’s what we often refer to as “vibes.” It’s something in the “air” so to speak.
When one walks into my sister-in-law’s bathroom, there are these really nice hand towels lined up on the sink right next to the basin, BUT the hand towels somehow silently cry out, “Don’t use us. We’re here for looks ONLY.” And when you hear them silently scream at you, you just automatically mumble, “Okay, so what do I dry my hands with?” You look around the bathroom, and guess what, there is NOTHING to wipe your hands with, except toilet paper and you know how well toilet paper and water mix?
So, sometimes we can SENSE or FEEL the climate. The climate can even give us goose bumps. Sometimes we can SMELL the climate, and we either want to move into the climate or out of it. Sometimes the climate seems to be generated by body language. You walk into a restaurant and take a quick look at the patrons. If you notice that everyone in the restaurant is a biker and posturing in a way that says, “you don’t belong here,” you most likely will slowly back out the door and get into your car as fast as you can. However, if you’re a biker, you might say, “Ah, right at home!” Sorry for stereotyping bikers! It’s just the analogy that came to my alleged mind.
When you are sunburn, you want to be around people who are gentle and not back slappers. When you are sad, really really sad, you want to be around people who are a tad subdued and not raucous. If you have a hard time maintaining your balance or have a difficult time walking, you want to be around people who are moving slowly and carefully. If you come out of the big ol’ world covered with mud, you want to be able to walk into a place that isn’t going to make you tiptoe so you won’t track mud or a place that is not going to insist that you get your dirty clothes off immediately and jump into the shower. I mean what clothes will you put on after you shower and after all, these clothes have been your best friend through the storm. You feel safe in them. They are YOURS.
So, children who have been sexually abused, what kind of climate is going to put them at ease, give them the sense of being at home, SAFE, and what kind of climate is going to make it possible for healing to begin?
HOW TO CREATE A HEALING EMOTIONAL CLIMATE
Especially now, as an old person, when I walk into a room and everyone in there (or even if it is just one person) is coughing and sneezing, I just want the heck out of there as quickly as possible. So there are two pieces to this.
So if I am the person coughing and sneezing, and I see you do not want to be around me but maybe I need you, then what? I end up feeling dirty, germy, and unwanted, unworthy, undeserving, all because of this cold, and I have no control over “catching” it.
Or I already have a cold and I hope coming to your home will do something to make the cold go away, but sure enough, everyone else in the house has a cold as well, and no one ever gets better. They have colds every day. So now what? Is this the right place for me to get better or is everyone here as sick or sicker than I am?
Again there are several elements to this as well. So, I want to create an emotional climate that accommodates to a wide range of human conditions. So I want you to know that we all get colds and it’s okay really that you have one. I have a dear friend, right now, that is never put off when I am ill, and this dear friend is right there to take care of me, no matter how germy I am. Wow!! I feel really valued and precious.
At the same time, if I am a hurt or wounded child, it will be helpful to see and be around big people who have not only grown up, but who demonstrate a level of healing and wellness in their lives.
SO PART OF THE CLIMATE WE CREATE FOR CHILDREN WHO HAVE BEEN SEXUALLY ABUSED, is directly related to our own recovery work, our own healing work, whatever the wounds are. They don’t have to be wounds from sexual abuse. It is not a perfect world, and so we all have wounds of some kind that deserve our attention, our care, and our healing efforts.
Remember these paragraphs from above. If you look at the general population of folks who are entrenched in addictions of every kind, you will see the most obvious manifestation of sexual abuse WITHIN the family....You look at the large number of folks who are not in good health, grossly overweight, high blood pressure, addicted to drugs and alcohol, depressed, diabetes, anxiety all over the map, bodies full of chronic aches and pains, untouched even by pain medication, breakdowns in major organ functioning, folks who no longer dream, who just live and survive, folks who could easily be mistaken for combat soldiers fighting PTSD, and you will see the ravages of the secret of incest that those who have been on the receiving end of it, carry within their very bodies. I don’t want to even begin to look at other kinds of illnesses that have some stress related trigger, like cancer, for example. We do know that increased stress hormone levels literally turn on our negative gene pool, so we are at risk for whatever it is we might be genetically predisposed to. UGH! OUCH!
Another way we create a healing emotional climate is by behaving in life giving ways. By life giving I mean that other people can tell by the way I behave that not only do I have self worth myself, but I reflect back to you that you have self worth, that you are precious and a good person. You can tell by the way I behave that I practice and exercise self control and I invite you in your interactions with me to also practice and exercise self control. You can tell by the way I behave that I take complete responsibility for my behavior and my entire life. I make no excuses nor do I blame other people or life circumstances for anything. You never hear me say, “you are making me angry....you disappoint me....you’re making me.....” And I invite you to be completely responsible and accountable for your life as well. And I do that in the most gentle way possible.
Here is an on-going question to keep asking yourself throughout the entire day.
IS WHAT I AM ABOUT TO DO, GOING TO ENHANCE MY SELF WORTH AND SELF CONTROL? AND IS IT GOING TO ENHANCE YOUR SELF WORTH AND SELF CONTROL?
IS WHAT I AM ABOUT TO DO, DEMONSTRATING THAT I TAKE COMPLETE RESPONSIBILITY FOR MY ACTIONS AND AM TOTALLY ACCOUNTABLE? AND DOES MY BEHAVIOR MAKE IT POSSIBLE FOR YOU TO ALSO BE TOTALLY RESPONSIBLE AND ACCOUNTABLE?
Now I can also create a negative emotional climate. Negative emotional climates trigger in other people the fight-flight reflex, increases avoidance behaviors, increases power struggles, and fosters irresponsibility as a person learns to blame others for his behavior.
RECOGNIZING AND AVOIDING TRIGGERS
Speaking of triggers, children, who have been sexually abused, have specific emotional memories which are memories of the emotions surrounding the abuse. These emotional memories are stored in the amygdala to which we have no conscious access. So the emotional memories are very susceptible to “firing” in response to any experience that even remotely reminds the amygdala of the abuse. So every time I see you in a red shirt, I feel really uncomfortable. Or every time I smell a certain smell on your breathe, I feel sick and I don’t know why really. But if someone were to help me sort it out, I could possibly discover that the color red and the smell on your breath remind my amygdala of the original abuse experience, and so the amygdala then is sending a message to my body, “we’re about to be abused again.”
Triggers can also apply to conscious memories surrounding the abuse. Conscious memories are stored in our hippocampus. We have conscious access to our hippocampus and so when memories associated with the abuse are “fired” or triggered from the hippocampus, we at least have the opportunity to assess whether the abuse is happening again in the present or if there is just something happening that is similar in some way or another to the abusive memory. So I notice you standing at my doorway telling me good night. You or another adult can help me discriminate that you are not my Dad or big brother and in fact you do not come in to my room to abuse me. But it feels like you might because that is how it happened in the past. Dad would stand at the door when it was time for me to go to bed.
It is easy for us just to assume that there is nothing about the climate in our homes that could possibly trigger a child’s experience of abuse. BUT we just gave a couple of good examples, and we want to get passed that sort of self-righteous notion, and begin to be aware of what triggers DO EXIST.
To start with, many of us are very powerful people in our own right. Without perhaps even realizing it, we can give off a kind of intimidation to other people, but especially to children or even adults who, for whatever reason, do not experience themselves as grown up.
Some of us are very experienced working with children, and we give off a subtle message, “you will get away with very little with me.” Again there is that power we possess to be all knowing and all seeing. The old eyes in the back of the head. This sense of all-knowing is often a part of the abusive experience, for example, "I will know if you tell anyone."
Of course, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with being powerful, but for abused children, it can be a subtle or not so subtle trigger, because sexual abuse ultimately is not about sex, but about power.
Am I suggesting you give up your powerful persona and become weak or wishy washy? ABSOLUTELY NOT. BUT just be aware that you are a powerful person and so, make sure there is someone else on the floor, so to speak, besides your powerful persona. You want that kind gentle part of you on the floor at the same time.
All kinds of “things” can be triggers. Family rituals, family rules, the positive and or negative interaction patterns between husband and wife or between parents and children or the lack of interaction patterns, the roles people play in the family, the role you unwittingly assign to the abused child, what you praise or punish a child for, tones of voice, conversations about certain topics, a touch, a look. SMELLS can be huge triggers. Body odors, the smell of tobacco, the smell of alcohol, the smell of coffee. The way the family resolves conflict, the way the family interacts or does not interact with the world at large, foods, the presence of extended family, like grandparents or aunts and uncles, the presence of company or friends. SOUNDS can be triggers. The squeak of a floor or door, hearing noises on the other side of a wall, an expression, a question, an innocent question, a reprimand. Things we wouldn’t even imagine like the color of clothing or even body hair. The list goes on and on. It’s not about what makes sense and what does not. It’s about being conscious of what is a trigger for the child. And you can immediately tell what’s a trigger. There will be an instant change in facial expression and body language in general. Learn to notice those changes.
So let’s take a few minutes to discuss those sudden changes you observe in a child’s attitude, demeanor, behavior, language, tone, and let’s see if we can identify the trigger. When will triggers stop being triggers? Who knows? What difference does it make? You can participate in this part of class online, by asking a question in the comment section.
GIVING YOUR DRILL INSTRUCTOR HAT TO THE GOODWILL
The biggest problem with the drill instructor hat is that most of us don’t even know we wear one. It is typically not a helpful hat to wear and probably deserves to be put in the Goodwill box.
BUT if we could be conscious of that drill instructor hat, if we could recognize it as just a hat and take ourselves a little less seriously, the drill instructor hat could actually become handy. It could even become a fun and magical hat.
Even though, on the one hand, I am suggesting you take yourself a little less seriously, I DO NOT WANT YOU TO STOP TAKING YOURSELF SERIOUSLY. JUST A LITTLE LESS SERIOUSLY. It’s okay to have moments of failure, moments of powerlessness, moments of not knowing what to do, moments of retreat, moments of silence, moments of tears as well as moments of laughter. Drill Instructors do not laugh or cry, but when they do, they become really powerful and influential people. They become human beings.
The drill instructor hat or approach will never give you the power you already have within your guts, your legs, your brain, your heart, and your soul. Or if for some reason at this stage of your life you still haven’t grown any power, then you need to take some martial arts and as soon as possible.
The drill instructor hat can fool us into thinking that we need our children’s respect and appreciation or that we need to win their respect somehow. There could be nothing farther from the truth. We DO NOT need our children’s respect or appreciation. Foster children in general have no respect or appreciation to give us let alone meet our needs for respect and appreciation. In particular, children who have been sexually abused either have no respect to give you or giving you respect and appreciation feeds into their experience of being abused. You demanding their respect and appreciation may leave them expecting you to sexually abuse them.
WE GET OUR NEEDS FOR RESPECT AND APPRECIATION MET IN ADULT RELATIONSHIPS.
When we get those needs met in adult relationships, then we sort of exude respect and appreciation. It permeates outward from our souls through our bodies and children experience what it is like to be respected and appreciated and thus some day THEY can give the same experience to their children. Of course that is different from the way we were raised. And it is a good change. Think about it. And let’s spend a few minutes talking about it.
For your information, we just finished an entire series of six classes on this topic of respect and appreciation. Six corresponding blogs are right here on hubpages. Check out my profile page and you will see the six blogs: http://hubpages.com/profile/vrbmft
EXPLORING OUR OWN HISTORY OF ABUSE
Last but not least, we must explore our own history of abuse, both physical and sexual abuse. Those of us who choose to work with children who have been sexually abused did not choose to do so by accident. But if we overlook our history of abuse or pretend either that it didn’t happen or that we are done with our own healing, then we are setting ourselves up and the children we serve. We will not be able to go the distance with them. Supporting a child healing from sexual abuse will always trigger your own abusive story. Being unawares of this phenomenon will cause you to shut down the child’s healing journey because you will not want to hear their story, you will want them to forget and move on the way you have decided to. But you can’t really move on unless you completely stop, just like the child needs to, and begin a healing journey. It is a lengthy, maybe a lifetime journey because the painful issues keep coming up in new ways and in new situations. It took me, for example, sitting in an Al Anon meeting at age sixty five to realize how the many trips to town with my alcoholic Uncle between the ages of six and sixteen impacted my current life as well as all the years in between. It was a hell of an eye opener, and I cried for days. Up until that meeting a few months ago, I would tell the story of going to town with my drunk uncle and it made for a very very funny story, especially when he would take me into a bar. But it never clicked just how painful that story really is, and how I have tried since then to please important people in my life. And when I was not able to please them, when my Uncle would not stop drinking, I would think that it was because I was not good enough for them or worthy enough. Whoa! That is tragic!
WEAVING MY HISTORY INTO THE FABRIC OF MY LIFE
Once I explore my own history of abuse, whatever it may look like, then I can weave that experience into the fabric of my life which is exactly what we want our children to be able to do. So if we can accomplish that, then we can model for them, we can mentor them, we can coach them through the same process. We can recognize when they are angry and depressed about the abuse and may not even know themselves that that is what they are angry and depressed about. We can then give them the words to talk about it without worrying that they will somehow feel prompted by us to make up abuse that never occurred or worse wallow in the abuse that did occur.
When we allow ourselves to grieve our own abuse, then we will become less concerned about our children moving on and will be able to give them all the time they require while at the same time still holding them accountable and responsible for their present behavior.
Yes, some abuse we never get over and perhaps never should. It is important to remember how awful someone treated us so as not to perpetrate the same abuse onto someone else nor to dismiss the awfulness of someone else’s abuse. “Look, it happened to me too. But so what? It didn’t stop me from becoming who I am. So suck it up.” Well, if that is your mantra, the abuse didn’t stop you from becoming who you are, but it stops you from becoming who you were meant to be and who you could be. You’re obviously not a happy camper.
You may never need to share your abuse with the children you work with. Just by the way you TREAT them and the way you relate to them, the questions you ask them, your response to their anger and depression, they will know that you were abused. Your compassion and understanding, your gently HOLDING them accountable and responsible for all they do will be the dead give away.
So at this point in class, we will discuss your questions and look at any particular cases you wish to present. If you are reading on line, PLEASE ask your questions in the comment section, and I will respond to all of your questions. Don’t forget to check back to see my answer.
THANK YOU FOR ATTENDING CLASS and THANK YOU FOR READING AND COMMENTING. See you on Friday when we explore the topic, What To Expect? So what kind of behaviors, attitudes, acting out, problems can we expect from children who have been sexually abused?
THANK YOU AGAIN FOR GOING THE DISTANCE TODAY. IF YOU NEED TO PAUSE FOR A FEW MINUTES AND IF THERE IS PAIN STIRRING UP, DO NOT BE SURPRISED AND LET IT OUT. SPEND SOME TIME WITH SOMEONE CLOSE TO YOU AND LET YOUR OWN HEALING BEGIN IF IT HASN'T YET.