Panel on writing trauma at Yale

Roxane Gay, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, Terese Mailhot, Aubrey Hirsch, and Saeed Jones
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New piece up at The Manifest-Station

Big thanks to Jen Pastiloff and The Manifest-Station for publishing my latest piece, The Inedible Footnote of Child Abuse.

Please go pre-order Jen’s book, On Being Human. From Penguin Books:

ABOUT ON BEING HUMAN
An inspirational memoir about how Jennifer Pastiloff’s years of waitressing taught her to seek out unexpected beauty, how hearing loss taught her to listen fiercely, how being vulnerable allowed her to find love, and how imperfections can lead to a life full of wild happiness. 

Centered around the touchstone stories Jen tells in her popular workshops, On Being Human is the story of how a starved person grew into the exuberant woman she was meant to be all along by battling the demons within and winning.

Jen did not intend to become a yoga teacher, but when she was given the opportunity to host her own retreats, she left her thirteen-year waitressing job and said “yes,” despite crippling fears of her inexperience and her own potential. After years of feeling depressed, anxious, and hopeless, in a life that seemed to have no escape, she healed her own heart by caring for others. She has learned to fiercely listen despite being nearly deaf, to banish shame attached to a body mass index, and to rebuild a family after the debilitating loss of her father when she was eight. Through her journey, Jen conveys the experience most of us are missing in our lives: being heard and being told, “I got you.”   

Exuberant, triumphantly messy, and brave, On Being Human is a celebration of happiness and self-realization over darkness and doubt. Her complicated yet imperfectly perfect life path is an inspiration to live outside the box and to reject the all-too-common belief of “I am not enough.” Jen will help readers find, accept, and embrace their own vulnerability, bravery, and humanness.

A pause

Last week I received the news that a dear friend had a stroke and was not found for days. This morning I learned that she passed away peacefully yesterday afternoon. So, a pause here and hopefully I can resume posting next week. But for now I grieve.

If you are so inclined, please pray for the repose of Pam Rushman’s soul. Eternal rest, grant unto her O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she they rest in peace. Amen.

Breaking Generational Cycles: Stop it!

Photo by S&B Vonlanthen on Unsplash

When my kids were little and we went to the local park to play, there were almost always mothers who allowed their children, notably sons, to hit them. Oh, they’re only two or three years old, what’s the harm? The harm is patterns. The harm is not setting boundaries. The harm is allowing bad behavior to continue. There was recently a question in an online forum about how to stop a kindergartner from coming into the bathroom while the mom was doing her business. When she shut the child out, the child got mad.

If you want to break generational cycles, you need to pay attention to the things that don’t seem directly related. Now if your three-year-old son is hitting you and there is a generational cycle of domestic violence whether or not it is in your current household, allowing him to hit you is perpetuating that cycle. That is a direct connection.

The bathroom behavior is indirect. It’s not directly about abuse. It is, however, about boundaries and privacy. Those are big issues if you want to break cycles. Another is making sure that “No” is respected. Does your child keep going with obnoxious behavior when a sibling or friend has asked them to stop? They need to learn to respect the limits of others. No means No. If you have boundary issues, read Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townshend. Teach your children to treat others the way that they want to be treated.

You may have this all to yourself!

Worried that your child will be mad at you? So what?! They will get over it and so will you. Having a kid mad at you is not the worst thing in the world. It’s not pleasant, but it won’t last forever and it says something about your tolerance for unpleasant emotions. Think of that tolerance as a muscle to build up in order to change unhealthy patterns. Your job is to break the cycle, teach them personal boundaries, to not hurt other people, and a sense of privacy. This can be done gently and with kindness. You don’t break unhealthy patterns by yelling or losing patience. Chances are you were not allowed your anger and it turned into rage, often stored in your body. Allow your child healthy anger. It won’t consume them or you. Get help to build up your tolerance or if you have problems controlling anger.

The other situation is learning to recognize when others are abusing your child. For this, you need to come to terms with who people are in your family. No more denial. Did a narcissist raise you? Their behavior was not only about you. When they speak to your child the same way they did to you, it may be time for limited contact and if they do not respect your boundaries, consider going no contact. Here are affirmations for that process. Again, you will likely need an impartial third party for guidance and support, which is why a good trauma therapist is so important to ending the cycle.

You and your partner (if you have one) need to be on the same page. You don’t need pages of rules, but you do need some. Sit down and write out 6-10 household rules for everyone (adults included).

It’s not easy being consistent and if that’s difficult, please ask for support from a counselor, parent group, therapist, grandparents. See what resources are available through your child’s school. Take parenting classes. There are lots of resources available in person and online. It will be worth all of the effort.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

What trauma does to you: pain

Photo by Asdrubal luna on Unsplash

Many people who were abused as children experience pain symptoms, either acutely or chronically. Most common are headaches and back pain. Now it is suggested that in both cases, patients who experience migraines and/or chronic low back pain be screened for child abuse.

My experience with pain as part of the fallout stems from CSA (child sexual abuse). I’ve written about the most dramatic manifestation that appeared while I was in college.

From my upcoming memoir, Baggage Claim:

When I’m a freshman in college, after a year of the stabbing agony of sex not getting better, I see the doctor at the clinic at UCSD. She mentions that she has one other female student my age with the same complaint and no answers for either of us. There is nothing physically wrong.

Later that week, I sit in my parents’ front room, unchanged from when we moved in, on the Naugahyde sectional, and tell my mother about the pain. She’s not only an R.N., but our own personal medical expert. No matter how strained things get, all three of her children rely on her to answer all medical questions.

I’m on one side of a large handmade lamp with a base made from a plain Balthazar-sized green wine bottle with a beige shantung shade handmade by our former neighbor. My mother sits on the other side in her brown and tan lounge chair doing counted cross-stitch as she calmly tells me that one of my half-brothers molested me when I was three. I am surprised to find that I am not surprised. I’m mostly numb, the hot anger of “how could you let that happen?” does not arise. It’s not safe to show emotion in front of her. I know somewhere hidden inside of me it does not make sense that she, who prided herself on being a nurse and caretaker, who was an incest survivor abused for a dozen years by her stepfather, would allow it under her roof.

  Baggage Claim by Diane Sherlock

After my mother told me about the abuse, the pain vanished. I still experience low back pain when I’m dredging up the past to write and mid-back pain when I go through extended lonely periods and feel unloved. My trauma therapist taught me that self-compassion goes a very long way in healing mind, body, and spirit.

Here’s Peter Levine on traumatic memory and the body (it’s only 4 min):

Emotions are stored in the body and when there’s been trauma, the body does what it can to signal there’s a problem and one of the most common signals is pain. Thankfully there are somatic therapists, rolfers, physical therapists, and yoga instructors who have been studying trauma and how emotions become locked in the body, developing a number of ways to release them. One of the most common releases is to complete the gesture that was originally ineffective, such as the motion to push away a stronger person. Completing the entire motion is often effective in allowing the emotion to leave the body. Here’s another case study using running and temper tantrum gestures. As the case study notes, caution must be exercised in cases where there’s dissociation, psychosis, or BPD and then only proceed with a trained trauma therapist or find other solutions.

Breaking Generational Cycles: Forgiveness

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash 
white tulips are symbolic of forgiveness, purity, and serenity

Emotions tend to run high around the idea of forgiveness when it comes to child abuse and especially child sexual abuse (CSA). Understandably so. I am not advocating that you forgive your abuser(s), especially if you are in the early stages of coming to terms with what happened to you. There are so many things to factor in including the relationship to your abuser, the severity of the abuse, the timeframe, your resilience, other illnesses, advice from your trauma therapist, and whether you have a support system. When you read stories about parents forgiving their child’s murderer and other profound acts of forgiveness, there are almost always certain things present such as a long and deep faith tradition with years of healing, pondering, and counseling.

It is not to be taken lightly. Here’s a quote from a good article on what forgiveness is and what it is not:

True forgiveness means acknowledging that our suffering matters—to us, the one who’s lived it—whether or not the other person ever agrees with us.  We say, you matter—to our own heart.  And it bears repeating… we do all this with or without the other’s awareness.  Forgiveness is an inside job.

Nancy Colier LCSW, Rev.

 And here are 5 myths about biblical forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is not something anyone else can tell you to do, much less tell you when you are ready for it or if it’s right for your mental health, your family, or your situation. It is a profoundly personal decision and should be respected as such.

All that said, I do suggest that you forgive yourself for thinking any of it was your fault and for your mistakes. Those who cannot carry their own shame are more than happy to shift it onto their victims. As far as mistakes, you were likely hampered by changes in your brain and brain chemistry. Chances are that if you experienced childhood trauma, you made some mistakes that were driven by forces that you were unaware of. Trauma research is fairly new. Be gentle with yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Learn, apologize, make amends when appropriate, and move on.

You have to have a strong support system and it helps to be in trauma therapy to tackle this stuff – to open Pandora’s box – especially while raising children. If you can do it before you have kids, that’s fantastic. That was not the case for me. There were few therapists who understood trauma when I was raising my two, plus I didn’t understand all the implications of my own abuse and so shoved all of it aside for a couple of decades.

The worst mistake I made was leaving my son with my mother for five days while his sister and I were out of town at the Betty Ford Family Program. He was too young for the children’s program. Knowing what I know now, I would never have done it. At least it came after my threat that we would cut her off entirely if she was not kind to him. She changed her behavior (and I was seriously, though still privately, angry knowing she could control it after all those years). There was no difference in my son before and after, but in light of what I’ve learned, it was still a mistake. We just got lucky.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

You always think abuse is personal. It is personal and it also is not. Abusers abuse. That’s what they do. It’s not specific to you – or rather only to you – you were close, convenient, and powerless. Believing it was only about her was why my mother left me with her mother and stepfather when she went to Vegas with my dad for a week. Years later, when I was finally dealing with the fallout from my abuse, I realized that something did happen to me that week, but by that point, my trauma therapist advised that since it fit with the family pathology, there was no reason to dig it all up. I’d already processed plenty in order to see the patterns and to heal.

I chose to forgive my mother and my family because to me that seems like the true completion of the full cycle. She never forgave her stepfather and ended up bitter and alone, full of hate. I do not want to end up the same way, so forgiveness is the difficult last step to truly break the cycle. It does not mean that any of it was okay, but rather it unhooks me from the situation and frees me from it. I still feel anger sometimes. I certainly still feel the effects of the abuse. I am also able to place the blame and shame on them instead of me. Forgiveness means I am free to be in this moment, unshackled from the past. Finally.

What trauma does to you: Muscle Armoring

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

We’re always tense, always on guard, those of us with CPTSD.

Braced.

Tight.

Clenched.

Muscle armoring goes along with hypervigilance. The body is perpetually preparing for flight, preparing to fight, or stuck in freeze. There’s often pain when the muscles are constantly tensed and overworked. There can also be body imbalances, fibromyalgia, and breathing problems due to the ribcage muscles being locked up. Muscle armoring is another coping mechanism developed in an unstable childhood where you never knew when or where the next attack, verbal, physical, even silent, was coming from.

Photo by Andrii Podilnyk on Unsplash

According to Urbanfitt.com:

FUNCTIONS OF MUSCULAR ARMOR:
* Keeps potentially explosive emotions contained

*Acts as a protective coping mechanism resulting from the fight or flight impulse being continually inhibited into a state of freeze often experienced in victims of abuse. See Polyvagal Theory 

*Wards off the emotions of others and provide a physical barrier to external stress or threat like a protective container.

*Creates a sense of physical safety and containment as a coping mechanism to deal with chronic stressful life events

Body armor and character armor are essentially the same. Their function is trying to protect yourself against the pain of not expressing things that society says you may not express. Muscular armor is character armor expressed in body, muscular rigidity.

Armoring is the sum total of the muscular attitudes which a person develops as a defense against the breakthrough of emotions, especially anxiety, rage, sexual excitation. Character armor is the sum total of all the years of the muscular attitudes that have also been incorporated in the person’s character through a more stimulated habitual nervous system response.

An armored person doesn’t feel their armor because it develops over time and, as such, we wouldn’t notice the accumulation of muscular tension, fascial adhesions and blocks.  What is body armor made of?  Hypertonic fascia.  We accumulate denser connective tissue (that is, fascia) when we engage in body armoring.

http://urbanfitt.com/the-bodybraid-somatic-healing-and-body-armoring/

Urbanfitt.com offers the Body Braid as a way to reprogram body armor. I have not tried it, but it sounds very intriguing.