Reactivity is a Symptom of Childhood Abuse

I have a friend who read my memoir and reacted very strongly, shunning me and telling me to leave her alone. I don’t know enough about her past to speculate, but the off-scale nature of her reactions made me think.

Back when I was in the cauldron of my recovery work, I felt that way, too, as I describe in the memoir. Small incidents set off chain-reactions in me. If a tall, hefty colleague loomed over me at my office, asking for a favor, I became small inside, shaky, and helpless-feeling. The inner child’s reaction was all out of proportion to the magnitude of the incident. It was just a professional interchange, with a moderate amount of pressure on me to give out money from a grant, but the child inside felt it as an emergency in which this man would do whatever he wanted and I’d be helpless.

That’s reactivity. It feels crazy, out-of-control, and painful. It’s not a place we would willingly be. But I needed to be there and to understand my inner child’s reaction, so that I could understand what I had gone through years ago. Because my father violated me, because I was not allowed to set boundaries when I was small, a part of me remained helpless and confused. Now I needed to listen to this inner child, relive her pain, but have her see, too, that I could now set limits. I did say no to the colleague demanding funds; I sent him to a committee to make his case.

So here I am on the other side of it. This friend of mine must be really hurting inside to act so out of character. I feel hurt, rejected, confused, and wondering whether I really did something wrong. I need to remember it’s all about triggers, not so much about what I did as how she is feeling. All I can do right now is back off, understand, and wait and see.

Tender, raw, adrift in relativity
not knowing, feeling sad,
all the images are watery—
washed, wave-surges,
afloat, a pool of tears,
but you know
it’s salt water, it buoys me.
I can’t touch bottom with my feet
but something holds me up
lets me drift, suspended.
Lie back on the interface,
let the ocean of possibility
keep me. Open heart,
let it be washed by pain
and sorrow.

Therapy as Reparenting for Survivors of Childhood Abuse

When we are abused as children, we don’t get the protection and care that we deserve from our parents. We grow up not knowing what really good parenting is. My father was a charismatic character who had many good qualities, but also self-indulgent narcissistic ones that led him to abuse me sexually. My mother loved me, no doubt at all, but she was emotionally distant, depressed, and weak.

As fragments of memories of abuse returned to me, I needed to turn to someone else for help. Fortunately I had a marvelous therapist, Sarah, but allowing her to help me was difficult. I was used to taking care of myself. Slowly, with many fits and starts, I began to depend on Sarah. I began to trust her care and know that she would not abandon me when my feelings got intense and when I had ugly, disgusting memories. She was not like my birth mother.

My trust was childlike. I needed Sarah intensely. It was an enormous leap of faith to allow myself to depend on someone, especially since I only saw her once a week. I asked Sarah about that and she said,

“It’s all right. You may feel childish for a while, and I know that’s scary. But it won’t last forever. You are a basically strong person. And it’s fine to depend on me. I won’t run away and I’m not scared of feelings.”

Sarah modeled a good mother’s care, understanding, and love at a time when I couldn’t find those things in myself. She reparented me, and I had to be willing to surrender to her care in order for the magic to work. The magic of transference. Gradually I developed an inner Big Jane who can do much of the mothering, but still Sarah is a part of my inner landscape as a beloved internal character.

This is the journey I describe in The River of Forgetting.

Why I Wrote a Memoir on Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse of children is awful, unthinkable. Who wants to go there?

And for the survivors, there is so much heavy lifting to do—the (misplaced) shame; the fear; the flashbacks of sensation, sight, emotion; the mistrust that is the emotional ocean we swim in. For many of us, it’s years of therapy and hard work.

Who would want to revisit that in a memoir, and why?

For me, it came as a flash, about five years into the process. It came as a wave of gratitude to my therapist and gratitude for the process and the life it brought forth in me. I found I wanted to document and share this most intimate, scary, and redemptive portion of my life. I hope that being honest about the doubts, the openings, the fragments and the fears will give heart to others.

Now that my memoir, The River of Forgetting, is available, I hear that others do find it useful. John Lee, author of The Flying Boy and Growing Yourself Back Up, said:
In this moving narrative a most talented writer/poet/artist puts eloquent words to her pain, past and path to healing. Jane tells her own story and in so doing is transformed. Her story will go a long way to transforming anyone who has experienced child abuse. As a survivor myself I highly recommend this book.

I hope you'll take a look at the excerpts and read my story, and that it will be helpful.