The Transformative Power of Writing Memoir

I believe in writing—it’s almost like a religion. A quotation I have on the side of my frig says, “Talking to paper is talking to the divine. It is talking to an ear that will understand even the most difficult things. Paper is infinitely patient…” (Nina Holtzer). Journaling has saved my mental health over and over. I love having the details there in the notebook, just for myself. And I love the process of writing in which I start out confused and just write without stopping for 20 minutes (“freewriting”—thank you, Peter Elbow), almost always arriving by magic at some new understanding.

And then writing this memoir of recovery from abuse is another layer of writing and understanding. As I read and transcribe my journals, I relive my growth of the past ten years. Time and again, I spiral up into a new level of understanding and of peace with my history and respect for myself. Crafting the story from journals into a narrative that someone else might enjoy reading is another layer of work. It both challenges me to grow as a writer and reminds me of the beauty inherent in personal growth.

A friend of mine today described writing about personal trauma as a process of translation, transforming something fundamentally indescribable and wordless into a skein of language. So it is.

So I want to say a great big thank you to the writing community out there, to all who blog, and to all who read.

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Safety and the Inner Child--Part II

Feeling safe in the world is a sweet sensation. As I said in the previous post, I used to have a certain lack of fear-response, but it was an artificial bravado. It was only when I worked closely with my inner child in therapy that I began to have higher standards. Safety is not only a lack of overt threat—it is a feeling of positive well-being and protection.

Here are some of strategies that can helped my inner child to feel safe:

o Be in my body—safe, here, at this moment, feeling the solidity of bone and muscle. (However, I know that for some people, to feel in-body can be scary.)

o Put scary things away in a box or some container. (I’m not very good at this.)

o Listen to the fear—sit with it, write it or draw it. I like making drawings with words in them to name the parts of the fear.

o Find a fierce protector inside. I have one who is a dragon who is so big that he doesn’t have to be aggressive—he protects just by his presence.

o Find an imaginary safe and welcoming house or cave or some other place. Furnish it with safe people and objects. Revisit often.

Be extremely patient and understanding with your inner child about her fears. These fears are not trivial, even though they may arise around incidents or situations that seem small from a grownup perspective.

When you learn to find the safety in a few places or a few moments, it will begin to spread out into your life. It won’t happen quickly, not at all. But in months or years you may be surprised to feel that deep-inside relaxation in a situation where previously you would have been tense or protectively spaced-out.

Safety and your Inner Child—Part I

I remember the first time my therapist told me to find a safe place inside myself. I looked at her with disbelief. What did she mean? How could I do that? Nothing felt safe.

Kids who are abused and threatened—in violent or in subtle ways—learn coping strategies. Some kids become timid, some become fiercely brave. Since survival is such a deep instinct, these responses become ingrained in our souls and our everyday behaviors.

When I was a girl, I learned to be brave and scoff at fears. I am grateful for my bravery, since it let me do many things, like backpacking alone and taking physical risks. But underneath the fearlessness was an ingrained fear of people which I could not even recognize until I learned a little bit about safety. The sense of danger was so deep-rooted in me that it felt normal. It was just when I was getting in touch with my fear that my therapist said, “Find a safe place inside.”

It took me several years to find a fairly secure sense of safety—first with my therapist and then inside myself.

As I learned to parent my inner child, she presented me with lots of fears. They often felt overwhelming. I had to find ways to cope with fear and to build my inner child’s sense of safety. (Some of these are in my booklet, Caring for the Child Within.)

Early in the process, I used to think that finding a safe place inside was kind of silly. How could that help? How could it change the way the world is? But I realized the fears are inside of me. Indeed there are dangers out there and the world is unfair, but my fears were with me when I was actually safe, threatening me when there was no real threat. It began to make sense to find safety on a more magical, imaginary level.

Why are memories of abuse so hidden?

This has been one of the hardest questions for me in my recovery process. How could such a big betrayal remain hidden in the back corners of my psyche for years and years? Can I really believe it if it has been hidden so long?

Over time, I’ve come to believe my inner child more and more firmly. When I don’t believe her, I feel crazy and torn up. When I do believe that the abuse happened then I feel pain but I don’t feel nuts. I can sit with my inner girl and soothe her.

For some people, the actual memories are not hidden, but the feelings may be covered over or disappeared.

The book that helped me the most with the question of recovered memories was Betrayal Trauma, by Jennifer Freyd. Freyd explains that forgetting is useful to the child because it enables her to remain in contact with the family that is essential for her survival. The closer the relationship with the abuser, the more important it is to forget the abuse in order to keep that relationship working, problematic though it is. Freyd even found data showing that kids whose abuse was reported to authorities often forgot it for years, and the closer the relationship to the abuser (father vs. cousin, for example), the more likely the forgetting.

Isn’t that stunning? Yet it makes total sense. I had to keep eating cornflakes every morning opposite my father and relying on him for food, learning, and yes, love. I could not allow myself to remember the abuse in the night.

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Lather, Rinse, Repeat!

Writing this memoir about healing from childhood sexual abuse continually reminds me of the spiral quality of inner work. Just now I’ve been working on a chapter that has a lot about my mother in it. Now there’s a topic that requires revisiting!

I’m writing about a time when she was quite old and I was being a dutiful daughter. At the same time I was doing intense work in therapy about the abuse. I would go visit my mother one weekend a month and do a lot of chores, manifesting my love for her but also feeling acutely the pain of her betrayal and lack of protection when I was young.

I began to learn how to detach from her and turn towards taking care of my inner child. I needed my primary loyalty to be to myself, while I still took care of my mother's needs.

How many times did I need that message? How many more times do I still need it? It took a long time to get this memoir chapter together, not because of technical difficulties with the writing, but because I needed to go around the spiral yet another time and find more compassion for my mother as well as myself. Finally, I wrote a letter to her (she’s dead now) with a lot of appreciation for her strengths and for the privileges I have had that allowed me to go beyond her limitations. That writing freed me to finish the chapter.