Friday, February 6, 2009

Finding Peace: Being Completely Comfortable in Your Shoes

Peace. Isn’t that what all survivors crave? The day when the flashbacks end, the depression lifts, and the anger subsides - the day when you can be “normal” again.

At the beginning of my recovery, I thought that if I just worked hard enough to purge every memory, cry every tear, and scream every injustice, this would bring me to a place of incest being “over”. I would “do” trauma recovery, come out victorious, and life would be a Disney flick.

After four years and mounting shame wondering, “Why aren’t I over this yet?” I saw peace as a gradual reduction of annoying symptoms and a greater sense of courage emerging. I would celebrate a week without a depression bout, or mustering the courage to confront my offenders (first in role play and then in person), or landing a job that was “healthy” and kept me out of a victim role.

Twenty years later, I have finally grasped my real peace as a survivor:

Real peace is accepting that trauma has forever changed you, your perceptions of the world, and your feelings about those who directly or indirectly injured you. You can heal, but you can never “undo” it.

Real peace is both doing the hard emotional work of recovery and understanding that you are always going to be a work in progress.

Real peace is continuously employing strategies for the times that life will throw you a triggering curve ball. Such as when a new daughter reminds you of your innocence lost, or you finally get the “validation” you wanted by a sister whose memories surface a decade later.

Real peace is transforming the negative experience into positive actions that heal others.

Real peace (here is the late-stage grand prize) is watching so much good evolve from uplifting others that you no longer carry any regrets about your past, and in fact, begin to celebrate the strength of your character brought about by facing adversity. Wow!

I never dreamed I could write these words and truly mean it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Help in Unlikely Places: Can This Shoe Really Fit?

My survivor friends will never forget the disbelieving look on my face:

“You actually want me to talk to a male minister?”

I thought they had all gone mad. We were all in a therapy group for survivors of incest – female survivors. At the time, there was no way I was going to trust any man and especially one of the cloth. I also lacked trust in organized Christian religion because that involved embracing a God who killed his son for my sins. A God who equated to another abuser was not a God of my understanding.

Yet, one by one, my friends were getting spiritual counseling and guidance from this most unlikely Methodist source. And one by one, they came back raving at their newfound insights, the depth to which they felt heard, and the ability of this minister to make sense out of the senseless. According to them, this guy was performing the miracle of bringing meaning to their suffering.

Hmm…finally, I had to see for myself.

I felt like there was a metal rod up my spine as I stiffly walked into a church. Yuck! I then shook hands with a plump, balding, middle-aged man who looked every bit the part of the Midwest Bible Belt. What could he possibly offer me?

I immediately told him that he was the last person I ever wanted to talk to and I was only here because of the prodding of my friends. He had no qualms with that, and he reassured me I was free to leave at anytime. There, I put him in his place.

Then I just started to talk. I do not know how or why, but he had an aura of goodness and safety that melted the wall I threw around me. I told him of my trials, of the horrific things I had experienced, of the way I felt deeply different from everyone else. I told him that when I looked out the window on a sunny day, I see more than just the beauty of the flowers and grass. I have felt the true depth of the ugliness and evil that hides in the shadows. I can never really enjoy a nice day, not like everyone else. I just know too much.

He listened intently through my story, and then said one sentence that changed my whole world:

I feel like I am in the presence of something Holy.”

I had been called crazy, “dramatic”, over-reactive, and too sensitive. I had been given diagnostic labels for insurance companies to pay therapy bills, but never, ever in my life did anyone suggest that my experiences equated to holiness - that I was brought to bear the same burdens and knowledge as prophets. Prophets are on a mission, and so was I.

My suffering finally, finally found a purpose, and I had a male leader of an organized religion to thank for making it all clear. Unbelievable.

I think I was the one in the presence of something Holy.

Forgive and “Forget”: Can You Really Stick Those Shoes on the Shelf?

Whoever coined the phrase “forgive and forget” obviously never incurred more harm than a broken fingernail. Anyone who has experienced a serious trauma at the hands of another knows they will neither forget what has happened, nor will they forgive without a deeply personal tug -of- war between love and hate.

My tugging and warring consumed seven years of my healing journey. The single factor that made forgiveness so elusive was the fact that my offenders never owned their behavior, and most certainly, never offered an apology. Every time the still voice of forgiveness and love would call to the part of me who was bitter and enraged, it would get slapped down by the quandary: “How can I forgive someone who has never asked for forgiveness?”

Therefore, I lived in the land of “stuck” with each side of the rope pulling with equal force. I deeply wanted to forgive yet felt as though I would be conceding the pain and grief that was rightfully mine. In many ways, it felt like my offenders would “win” somehow if I let them off the hook so easily. I was determined to hold on to my anger, because they were never going to beat me. Never.

Yet over the years I began to see that being filled with hatred was in fact the one thing that was making me “lose” in many other ways. I was losing when every minor disagreement with my spouse turned into a heated brawl. I was losing when I would fly into a rage berating the poor clerk at the check out counter who did not move as quickly as I thought she should. I was losing every time my anger lashed out hurting everyone in my path – and myself most of all.

My first hope of tempering my volcanic anger came unexpectedly one day while I was sitting on a park bench. It was a spectacular autumn day, and I was watching fields of goldenrod sway back and forth. I felt a deep and profound serenity in that moment - a serenity I knew my perpetrators would never experience. With that single thought, my anger miraculously began to melt and forgiveness awakened as the feeling of pity. Pity and sadness for lives filled with bad choices that ultimately held little room for a true and lasting internal peace. I had finally won, and they had lost.

It was a moment to finally celebrate, except there was no joy in their losing.

The Might of Apology: A House of Mud Leaves Dirty Tracks

“I’m sorry”

That’s all I ever wanted to hear.

Apologies imply accountability for actions, and to be accountable implies a level of maturity and self-esteem. A person who has developed self-worth as solid as a brick house can take a few hard knocks (through constructive feedback or self-examination) and remain firm and standing. But if your mortar was simply mud, and your wall built with sticks, it is too fragile for the Big Bad Wolf or anybody who may come by huffing and puffing. People living within stick walls of self-esteem can rarely accept criticism or offer apologies.

I grew up in a house made of sticks constructed by parents whose houses fared no better. I both longed for apologies, yet was unable to give them myself. I began to turn this around when I began a 12 step recovery program. The steps advocate taking a “searching and fearless” moral inventory of yourself, your behaviors, and the effects on others. And even beyond simply counting your missteps, you are encouraged to go to everyone you have harmed and make direct amends (except when to do so would cause them more injury). Gulp. I could feel the wolf coming to reduce me to toothpicks.

As I sat down with the people I had harmed and sincerely said I was sorry, I could feel the bricks begin to replace dirt, and my once muddied path became clean. The repair to my relationships was ten-fold, and the repair to my soul was a hundred-fold. It is a tragedy that so very few people understand the healing power of apology.

My father was the King of Mud Houses, and he always thought he was right. Never throughout my childhood did I ever hear him say, “I’m sorry” for any offense major or minor. In my process of healing, I asked my father several times to apologize to me. At first I wanted an apology for the incest, but later I “watered it down” and simply wanted him to apologize for something – anything. It was not until seven years of silence had passed between us, and he developed a terminal illness, that he was finally prompted to offer the only statement of remorse I would ever hear. He said he was sorry for how his lifelong compulsive overeating and obesity had affected me.

It was long overdue, but it made all the difference.

"The Power of New Shoes"

Wouldn't it be easy to just change your life like you change your shoes? If your shoes are worn out from rough road, and your path has too many patches of gum and dog doo, you just head to Target for a new pair. Can it be that simple?

In theory, yes. You can discard old attitudes and behaviors that no longer serve you. But sometimes pulling those shoes off your feet is like struggling with those yellow rubber boots that won't let go - unless you get someone else to help pull them off.

That is the essence of this blog - to help you pull off those boots which have been soiled with the mud of childhood abuse, which have sustained years of wear and tear, and which have stubbornly clung to your feet even when you know it is time to discard them. It is time for you to find "The Power of New Shoes". You deserve it.

My worn out shoes now sit in my closet where I honor their struggle. They will forever be my history and they kept me alive. Perhaps I should bronze the baby shoes that sustained years of sexual abuse by my biological father, and I should covet the vintage, fashion-challenged "Earth" shoes of my teenage years. Those ugly things were at least comfortable at a time when my hurting feet hit the streets as a runaway. Then they got stuck in those yellow rubbers. I felt trapped in a life of drugs, self-abuse, and the need to continue running from my pain.

Through the help from a runaway shelter, I got a glimmer of hope that the boots could come off. With the assistance of therapists and the support of other brave survivors, I am now sporting some "support shoes" (Hey, I'm 45 what do you expect!) They probably need trashed by the "What Not to Wear" hosts, but they keep me from hurting, and they no longer have a wounded soul. And the best of all, they allow me to nurture a large stinky shoe from my pre-teen son and a little pink pair with blinky-lights from my little girl. You see, my children taught me the true meaning of love, because they possess the power of new shoes.

The power of new shoes is waiting for you. You can get the boots off - and keep them off. In this blog, I will post excerpts from my upcoming book - guess what it's called- "The Power of New Shoes: Stepping Into Life After Sexual Trauma" These are short, easy-to read stories from my recovery process offered so that survivors might find some "normalizing" of their experiences. Perhaps you may find yourself within these tales, but know that it is not intended as therapy or advice, but only as a "this worked for me" reference. I have been out of the rubber boots for a very long time, so I think I have done something right that I want to share with others.

Blessings for your journey...your new shoes await!