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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We’re always tense, always on guard, those of us with CPTSD.
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.
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.
Hypervigilance is what it sounds like – a constant scanning of the environment, faces, postures, avenues of escape, and more. It feels like you are in constant danger and you need to plan for escape in case things take a turn for the worse, or the unexpected. It is the feeling of permanently walking on eggshells.
My experience involves being on guard at all times for anything unexpected, searching my own behavior for imperfections and searching other people’s behavior for signs they might attack or abandon me. This behavior was a natural response when my mother was screaming in the kitchen that she was going to kill herself, but there were enough similar and unpredictable incidents – being put on top of the fridge, ice water attacks, unexpected outbursts of emotion or violence – that I came to be always on guard. The physical violence happened very early and it was rare enough to ensure its unpredictability. Hypervigilance means both watching and being watched. My heart speeds up and my breathing becomes shallow. I hold my breath without realizing it.
I automatically create my own storehouse of information on a person’s body language, expressions, preferences, and habits. If something unexpected comes up, the trust that has been built up vanishes. This is the pattern that makes it so difficult for those of us with Complex PTSD to trust other people. We all have inconsistencies, but inconsistencies signal danger and a reason to distrust for those of us with Complex PTSD. For me, tone of voice is probably the biggest clue because it is one of my strongest triggers. My mother used her voice as her primary weapon of attack and control and her tone could turn in an instant and that meant trouble.
My learned operating premise has been that if I can figure
someone out, I have a decent chance of being safe or at least getting out
before things get dangerous. The big downside for me is that this has been
coupled with a deep and unconscious fear of looking below the surface of
people’s stated intentions. What was below the surface in the house I grew up
was too painful. Together with hypervigilance, that kind of naïveté was a
formula for disaster.
Hypervigilance does nothing to mitigate the exaggerated startle response. You’d think always being on guard would prevent it, but that’s not how it works when brain chemistry is involved.
Another symptom of CPTSD related to hypervigilance is muscle armoring. When you are always on guard, muscles tense and that is what we’ll explore in the next post.
This will be painful. These abusive behaviors travel through families until someone makes the decision to feel the pain. That is part of stopping the cycle. You will survive it and a good trauma therapist or group can make it easier to bear. Consult with a psychiatrist about an anti-depressant. I found that bupropion (generic for Wellbutrin) gave me an inner platform to stand on in order to face the worst of what happened to me when I was a child. EMDR worked for me in that regard as well.
A good therapist who has been trained in trauma is invaluable. You may have to pay out of pocket, but there are also some very good therapists in the Medicare system in the U.S. If you need help finding one, look for someone who has training in EMDR. Whether or not you decide to pursue EMDR, it is an indicator that they are familiar with trauma and its after effects.
Do not rule out medication in consultation with a psychiatrist, again, one familiar with trauma. If you’re a trauma survivor, you may have Complex PTSD. If so, you may also be hypersensitive to medication.I found that a tiny dose of an antidepressant gave me enough of an internal platform to be able to look at the worst of what happened to me. Exercise,diet, and so on only go so far and do not let yourself be shamed by anyone else into foregoing prescription drug(s) that might help you. Take ownership of your healing and what’s right for you. Advice from others on natural or prescription drugs is not helpful because each of us is unique in how we react and what combination is right for our situation. No one has your background, genetic makeup, biochemistry, circumstances, reactions, etc. Take all suggestions with a very big grain of salt.
Try meetings that align with your issues and maybe some that don’t: AlAnon, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Debtors Anonymous,Gamblers Anonymous, etc. If 12-step isn’t right for you, there are the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), Survivors of Incest Anonymous (SIA), and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Sometimes it helps to hear familiar stories and circumstances to not feel so alone. Also, just because one doesn’t work doesn’t mean another won’t.If you don’t like one, try another. For me, the 12-step concept of powerlessness didn’t work because with childhood trauma, I always felt powerless. My life was not unmanageable and I did not have addictions, so for me it was more helpful to go to meetings with DBSA, SIA, and NAMI.
Volunteer with your kids and teach them that there are many things larger than themselves and other people with an entire spectrum of problems and difficulties. There’s almost always someone worse off or simply with a different set of problems. Helping others helps you as well. It can help get you out of your head and out of the house. I would recommend volunteering with an established organization, either religious or secular according to your preference. One of the activities my children and I did was a Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless at our parish. All priests in residence (usually six) were in attendance as well as police officers. Most of the people are fine, but some have untreated mental health issues or character issues. With eight hundred to twelve hundred people being fed, having security was a necessary precaution. There unfortunately have been people harmed going out on their own. Please stay safe. And have fun.