Growing Yourself Back Up, by John Lee

What’s great about this little book is that it identifies all kinds of situations where people spontaneously regress into childish behaviors. Maybe a guy in the car behind me at a red light blows his horn and nudges forward as soon as the light turns green. His behavior makes me feel ridiculously helpless, because he mimics my father’s arbitrary anger. Or a friend calls to cancel a date and I spiral into fear that no one loves me. These out-of-control feelings are typical of regression.

The book distinguishes between “trance regression” and “conscious regression.” “Trance regression” is the kind that happens when we are triggered into an unconscious replaying of old roles—or you might say, our Inner Children come forth and start acting out.

“Conscious regression” happens when we decide to go back to some old hurts and see what it’s like to be that wounded child again. This can be very useful for getting in touch with feelings and for healing, as I discuss in my booklet “Caring for the Child Within—A Manual for Grownups.”

Why do we regress unconsciously? It has a lot to do with fear. In a chapter on responses to fear, the author illustrates the basic responses of fight, flight, and freezing in vivid and useful examples. (There’s part I don’t agree with. When he illustrates freezing, he cites calm, quiet states like being at peace in nature. I think that’s plain wrong—the freezing response is not a peaceful one but more like a catatonic one.)

I think that Lee’s simplifications tend to make it look like we can snap out of regressions quicker than we can in real life. Nonetheless, I found this a helpful and unique book that shows how often people regress and how to cope with it.

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Trauma: Fight, Flight, or Freeze

In an emergency situation, we learn in biology class, an animal or human can fight or flee. Adrenaline is called up and the organism prepares for action. The thing they don’t tell us is that the “freeze” response is just as basic. Think of a rabbit freezing at the sight of a predator it can’t get away from. Think of a mouse playing dead in the jaws of the cat, waiting for the chance to dart away.

For those of us who were abused as children, it’s often the freeze response that we experienced. We couldn’t run away if we were small. We couldn’t fight back while we depended for our very lives on the adults who were abusing us. So we froze, with our tender nervous systems at high alert, adrenaline pumping, but unable to act.

Some brave souls among us learned to fight back, whatever the cost. I admire them. I learned helplessness and it’s taken years to learn that I now can fight back. I’ve found out how to yell, pound pillows, stomp around the room, or draw angry red and black pictures. I’ve experienced how cathartic and empowering it is to give bodily expression to anger and outrage in a safe place - not aimed at anyone, just venting. Then I can respond as a grownup from a position of strength and some calm. What a difference that makes!

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Recovered Memories, Truthful Memories

Many people are suspicious of recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. I know I was suspicious before such memories came back to me—and after they came back, too. How could something so earth-shattering be forgotten? Actually, how could it be remembered? As a child I had to suppress the knowledge that my father was molesting me, in order to survive in the closed family system. My mother told me to forget it.

Jennifer Freyd, a cognitive psychologist who does research on traumatic forgetting, says there is no relationship between truthfulness of memories and whether they are continuously remembered. False memories (like that trip you took with your cousin to the Everglades when you were five—only it was really when you were seven and it was with your aunt) can persist. True memories can be lost. And vice versa. Freyd’s web pages contain a wealth of information on betrayal trauma and recovered memories.

It’s a crying shame that people who unearth memories of traumatic abuse are then made to feel shame and fear all over again because of the outcry about “false memories.” Recovery from abuse is hard enough without that added burden.

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Incest—The World Splits Open

In my family my father was known to be and allowed to be erratic, temperamental, and irresponsible. It was just “the way men are,” a fact. When I was three or four years old and he molested me, my world turned to confusion. Nothing made sense any more. Embraces that were supposed to be safe became unsafe.

The family system continued to support him after he abused me. My mother told me to forget about it—nothing could be done. With my entire world turned against me, what could I do but give in, forget and deny the abuse?

This is the essence of Betrayal Trauma. The child cannot keep her knowledge, but has to repress the facts, or the feelings, or both. She or he has to yield to the family system in order to continue to get the love and care that are vital to survival. Only later, when she leaves the birth family, can she acknowledge the truth fully. With deep journeying, such as Inner Child work, she can regain her power and ability to love self and others. This journey is the core of my memoir.

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Symptoms of Childhood Sexual Abuse in Adults

I’ve been writing a memoir about my recovery from incest. I didn’t recover memories of incest until I was in my fifties. In the process of writing out my story, I noticed a number of strong themes. Then when I began to visit online survivors’ forums ( and survivors and friends) I noticed that many other people had the same themes, although not always in the same order or style:

  • Doubt that it really could have happened—this is often reinforced by family silence or overt accusations that the survivor is wrong.
  • Fear and hypervigilance—being afraid in circumstances that don’t really need to be so threatening to an adult.
  • Dissociation—fogginess about memories; times when we whirl away from the real world.
  • Shame—despite the fact it wasn’t our fault.
  • Mistrust in relationships—it’s especially hard to trust others when our original family betrayed us; close relationships and sexual relationships are hard to maintain.
  • Anger—often displaced onto people other than the perpetrators.
  • Passivity—sexual abuse brings a feeling of learned helplessness.

It’s a depressing list, so I need to add that it is possible to heal and get past these symptoms by facing them with help. Therapy is what helped me to learn to trust others and to believe in and love my Inner Child.

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What is healing from sexual abuse?

Have I found it? Perhaps it is the absence of negative symptoms—the flashbacks gone, the triggers much less active, the sense of wrongness about myself replaced by a general sense of rightness. I know that I like where I am and who I am. The closed and fearful parts of me take less space.

I know where my weak spots are. I’ll always be susceptible to the fear that people won’t believe me, or that they won’t hear me. I notice when that feeling comes up and I can talk to my inner child to let her know I hear the feeling and it’s just a feeling. We’ll have to see if it’s really true that the particular person won’t hear me. These core issues are so familiar, they are almost like wild animals that have been tamed. Sometimes I can chuckle at them.

But healing is a lot more than the absence of bad feelings and patterns. It is the positive presence in my life of the joy and solidity that was my birthright. I think I am fortunate to be a person of natural enthusiasm and liveliness. Now this is manifest in my writing, dancing, my garden and walks in nature, and recently, painting abstract canvases full of movement and emerging light.

Healing is a sense of connection and wholeness. It’s not every moment that I feel connected to the world of people, trees, and clouds. Even the best mystics seem to get there only part of the time. But I do find that place of light and love pretty frequently.

Healing is carrying my own love inside me. Loving my inner child is key to loving all else. I learned to find and love my inner child through the mediation of my therapist’s love. It is paradoxical and perfectly right that going through the deepest pain while holding the little girl leads to opening, love, and joy.

Healing is choosing friends who can support my being rather than ones who sap my strength or make me feel crazy.

Healing is watching my son grow into a man so like my father and so different. It is being open with him and letting him know how his actions affect me. There’s something inexpressibly healing about having a male in my family line know the truth and support me in my journey, as he has done.

Healing is writing my memoir and feeling it as beautiful despite all the pain and struggle.

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Inner Critic and Inner Child

Most of us are pretty well acquainted with the inner critic, the one who says (to me), “Your writing stinks. You’re not good enough. You’re not a loving person. You don’t have enough friends.” That inner critic voice is usually installed early in life and can sound remarkably like our parents.

The inner child is very susceptible to hurt from these voices, of course, because she is small and vulnerable. Lately, as I work on the ending of my memoir of recovery from incest, the critics are out in force, telling me I can’t put this out in the world—“It’s too personal. Too biased. Nobody wants to read it.”

When my critics come out, I write for my sanity. I spill out what they are saying, keeping writing without stopping, elaborating and filling it out until I get to the core, the meanest part. This is hard work. I ask where the voice came from—is it my mother’s familiar criticism, or my father’s, or perhaps a teacher’s voice?

Then I sit with my inner child and tell her, “Nope. It’s not that way. They used to get the final say, they criticized you like that. But now I believe you and I care for you. They don’t get to talk to you like that now.” I remind the child that these adults had their own hurts and limitations that made them small and sometimes cruel.

The inner child is engaged in an intimate and difficult wrestling match with the inner critic and needs all the help we can give. We need to push back against the old parental voices and install new supportive ones.

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The Ark of the Memoir

The story is a little boat in which the writer ferries the reader across the waters to a destination. Writers talk about the arc of the story, that flight trajectory that carries the reader up and back to earth. A literary friend of mine reminded me of the ending of the Lord of the Rings in which the hobbits return to a forever-changed place that is and is not home.

As I begin to end this memoir of healing from abuse, I wonder what is that home to which I return the reader? What has changed and what remains? Is it the voyage that matters more, or the return?

As the memoir opened, I was in deep confusion and doubt, wondering whether my recovered memories were true. I felt I could not trust anything about my past; I didn’t know who my family really was.

The voyage across the waters, however, was much more than an inquiry into memory and fact—it was an immersion in painful feelings, a learning to trust, lessons in intuition, and an invitation to creativity.

I see—the beginning was only the beginning. Many more themes arose from the deeps during the trip. The ending needs to land with much more than an answer to the initial questions.

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