It’s Never Too Late to Have a Happy Childhood*

 Many of us didn’t grow up in safety with love, in fact we grew up with trauma, but it really is possible to feel the joy and safety of a happy childhood: Right here, right now. It doesn’t just happen, we need to build it up by listening to the Inner Child and her/his fears and grief. As I wrote in my memoir, The River of Forgetting, I learned from my therapist how to be present consistently for my Child Within just as a good parent would for a real child.

This morning I felt overcome by responsibility and things I need to do, but I sat and asked the Little Girls in me what they needed. They told me quite plainly they need to be little and loved, so I simply sat there and held them and felt the love. My Inner Adult held them tenderly as they surrendered and let go of the need to be grown-up.

Our new happy Inner Children are
  • safe, with an inner safety that is solid and dependable
  • loved by our Inner Adults
  • accepted just the way we are, with fears and quirks and all our feelings
  • able to feel connection with other people
  • open and spontaneous, able to move freely because of the safety
  • playful and creative.
It’s been a tough few weeks for me with huge adult responsibilities. I promise my Inner Children to take time today to mess with paints and take a walk.

How do you reassure your Inner Child and keep her/him safe?

* Quote is attributed to Tom Robbins, Berke Breathed, Wayne Dyer, and many others!

Writing for Oneself vs. Writing for Others

Lynette Benton is a writer and editor who runs a terrific blog about writing. She's especially interested in memoirs, and I'm delighted she asked me to write a guest blog about the differences between writing we do for ourselves vs. writing for others. Check out Lynette's blog, Polish and Publish | Tools and Tactics for Creative Writers.

Here's what I wrote:
For more than 30 years, I’ve been a passionate journal-writer. Fifteen years ago, when I first got an inkling that I might have been sexually abused as a child, the journal became a life-line. I had a wonderful therapist, but I needed an everyday friend to hear my ramblings.

I’d sit at my kitchen table and scrawl, no structure, no cohesion, just the outpouring of doubt and pain. I followed Peter Elbow’s advice of “freewriting,” letting it come uncensored, pen flying, words repeating. Over and over I told myself, “It’s just for me. No one will ever read it.”

When I received the inspiration to write a memoir, I knew I’d draw on the earlier journals for details of conversations, memories, and emotions, but the new writing was startlingly different. Having an audience in mind gave me responsibility for creating a narrative thread, finding a clear voice to address the reader, and honing the prose to carry the story forward. Read on...

Daily Meditation with the Inner Child

Sixteen years ago, I was slammed by a memory of sexual abuse. I was only three years old when the incest started, and I repressed the memories to survive in my family. After I remembered, I absolutely had to dedicate myself to caring for my wounded, sad Inner Child and healing her. Her feelings were so overwhelming that I developed a practice of sitting every morning with her before I went off to work.

Ever since then, I’ve been caring for my Inner Child—learning to listen to her and nurture her.  I needed to let her know that I believed her and I that would always be there, the strong Inner Adult (Big Jane). I wrote about this journey of healing in my memoir, The River of Forgetting.

Now I’m at a place of peace about the abuse. It should never have happened, it was wrong, my father was a selfish man, but it doesn’t rule my life. Still, I am drawn to care for this inner child, or these inner children. Every morning without fail I sit for 20 minutes and listen. It has become integrated into my spiritual life.

This morning, for example, my inner children were agitated, busy, full of idea of things to do. I smiled and rocked in my rocking chair, holding their anxious energy and letting the quiet of my living room envelop us. Other days my little girls bring sadness or excitement or love or fear about relationships. All those feelings are welcome. As I sit and let them be, I find peace again. Insights and understandings come, but the main thing is to be there and be open.

Poem about Remembering Childhood Abuse

To My Sisters and Brothers

Little blue eyes looking up from the oyster shells,
crispy pencils of reeds beached and dried,
my father laboring hotly over the hull of the boat,
all perfectly clear.

What are the details of a fog?
Memories that had to go far away,
stripped down, fragmented.
Unwanted sensations, but no place
no pattern of the wallpaper
no light. No feeling of the rest of my body,
if I have one,
no person doing this to me.

Dizziness pulls my body backward in a spiral.
This fog is my fog
this lack of detail is the tale I must tell.

Others have wandered the same landscape.
At the edge of the downward spiral path
is a hut where pilgrims may rest.
I see their footprints in the dust.
And I know I have built this labyrinth,
I have called back the little girl who leads me there.
I told her, I believe you, I am listening
so she could speak, though her speech had no words.

When these words make our scenery appear,
it is a magic we are doing
writing our life into existence.
It is an offering to the others,
our sisters in the fog.

This poem is from my memoir, The River of Forgetting

Interview with Laurie Smith

I'm delighted to be talking with Laurie Smith, child abuse activist. Laurie is dynamic and a great resource.I expect we'll talk about Inner Child work, our different paths towards healing, creativity, and many other topics about abuse recovery.

We had a great conversation. Listen now on blogtalk radio.

Caribou's Mom reviews River of Forgetting

My memoir just received a terrific new review and four stars on Caribou's Mom, one of the top book blogs! Caribou's Mom has won "Best Literary Book Blog" and was short-listed for best-written book blog. Wendy said:

Incredibly personal, the memoir takes the reader deep within Rowan’s thoughts and feelings, exposing her vulnerability and fear.
Reading a book like The River of Forgetting gives insight into what survivors of trauma are experiencing – and thus, provides a path towards empathy.
The River of Forgetting is a deeply personal, often uncomfortable book about psychic healing from trauma. Well-written, brave, and honest, it is a book which leaves the reader with a profound sense of the wrongness of child sexual abuse. Despite the darkness of the subject matter, however, this is a book which ultimately celebrates the strength of the human spirit to overcome the unthinkable and heal from trauma.

Healing is Not All Bliss

 A few weeks ago I received an invitation to speak at a conference of abuse survivors and authors. Great idea! I thought. But as I read the materials I was sent, I got a little uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, a warning from my Inner Child.

I paced and thought, I journaled and tried to figure it out. Surely it would be good to be together with others who are healing. Surely it would be great to network with other authors who write about  abuse and healing. I’d meet some fine people. The proposed location was wonderful. Why didn’t it feel right?

There was just one person organizing the conference. The write-up contained a warning that no counselors would be present to help anyone having a hard time. It was pitched to be for people well along in the healing process. That could be all right, I said to my Inner Child, a scared little girl who was huddled at the bottom of a stone labyrinth. Surely it will be fine. I even knew another author I trusted who was intending to go.

No! Said my Inner Child. Doesn’t feel safe! So I wrote to the organizer to say that I thought such a gathering of abuse survivors talking about healing for a whole weekend would bring up a lot of feelings, and I wondered whether there would be moderators to help ease the dynamics, or quiet rooms for people to chill out.

"This conference is only for people at advanced stages of healing," he wrote, "people who have achieved inner peace. If there are any tears, they will be tears of joy. This is all about bliss and moving on."

Well! that made things clear. No one with mixed feelings would be welcome, and anyone whose “negative” feelings were triggered would be treated as if s/he had done something wrong. I immediately wrote back to say I wouldn’t be there, and my other author friend did the same.

I don’t believe healing is about attaining consistent bliss and lack of pain. Certainly I’ve had moments of great joy and connection as I work through the effects of incest, but I’m human. I know where my weak places are. For example, I’m susceptible to the feeling that people don’t believe me and I hate it when people push me around and assume I’m there for their convenience.

But I actually feel that the sensitivity we survivors often experience, the alertness to our own pain and that of others, is a gift. If you hang out on the survivors’ forums such as Pandora’s Aquarium and isurvive, you see how incredibly caring survivors often are. If we stay in touch with our wounded parts as well as our joyful ones, this is a great gift of life.

Another way of saying it is that I love all my inner children - the wounded silent girl, the eager one who says Let’s go!, the Good Girl, and all. I’m not banishing a single one. We all go forward together into a richer life.

Repressed Memories—How Can They be True?

Mary Armstrong (author of Confessions of a Trauma Therapist), it’s exciting to begin this dialogue with you about our experiences with incest and our paths to healing. We have much in common, along with many differences. We were both successful professionals getting on with our lives (yours as a therapist, mine as a scientist and college teacher) before our memories of incest surfaced.

Let’s start with topic of repressed memories, which is very controversial in some circles. Why were our memories were hidden and forgotten for so long?

This was a very thorny question for me, especially in the first two years of my work on healing. How could I have forgotten something so crucial and painful as my father’s incest on me? How could I believe my own memories if they had been gone so long? Was I making it all up? The doubts left me feeling hypersensitive, crazy, and very young. It took time to learn to trust the fragmentary, unclear images and feelings from my childhood.

It was after I read Jennifer Freyd’s wonderful book Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse, that I began to have sympathy and understanding for my repression. As Freyd explains it, a child who is growing up in a family has to depend on these adults for her every meal and every support. To stay within the family and get whatever stability is offered, she has to forget the abuse. Freyd even cites statistics that show (from reported cases of abuse) that the closer in relationship the perpetrator is to the abused child, the more likely she will sometime forget what happened.

In my memoir, I best expressed the emotional truth of repression in a poem:

The importance of fog.
Where it is dense, things live
that must not be known
on penalty of losing everything.
Their reality my reality.
If they said forget it
who would be my Oprah
put the microphone in my face?
To keep family, I had to break
my reality
into fragments
hide the pieces
under the closet door
at the end of the hallway.
How could I face them in the mornings
eat my corn flakes and milk
if I recalled the nights?
How could I receive the love
that was given
sure as the whiskers
growing on his face,
the tiredness in her eyes
if I remembered?

Mary, what was it like for you, forgetting and remembering the trauma you’d suffered?

I too struggled to validate what I was starting to remember.  Well-meaning people often caused me to cringe when they said something like, “How can you forget something so awful?” Or: “You couldn’t possible remember being a baby.”

I’ll put on my professional hat to explain their ignorance.

These incredulous bystanders don’t understand the complexity of traumatic memory. They’re thinking of explicit memory, the sort of memory you’ll retain after reading this blog post. Or think of a meeting you attended recently. You’ll recall who was there and what was said. The doubters also know that fear is an aid to memory. We all could learn a lot the night before an exam when we were under pressure. Think of 9/11. You can remember exactly where you were, who you were with, who said what, etc. on that terrible occasion. Up to a point, then, fear improves memory.

 Now we come to traumatic memory. When a situation is a too awful to tolerate and there’s no escape, the normal child’s brain stores the memory differently. This becomes an implicit memory. That is, it is no longer held consciously. It is stored in the body.  Forgetting is a survival strategy.

On a personal level, I look back at myself as a small child trapped in a black tale of Gothic horror. There I was in my huge house with my old grandfather as my babysitter while my distracted mother ran the family business. Who could I turn to for help in those days? Nobody would have believed me. My mother was enraged about my innocent child’s curiosity when I discovered my little friend’s penis. I certainly couldn’t have told her.

I did what many helpless victims do. I idealized my perpetrators. Night after night, once I left home and was living in a university residence, I impressed my roommate with tales of my wonderful parents and family.

I told her about my perfect family: how my mother was beautiful and clever, my father wise and witty. They were the perfect couple. Sue heard all about my aunts, uncles, nephews, and the characters who peopled my hometown. My idealized family was glamorous and gifted.
(Confessions of a Trauma Therapist, Page 34.)           

In therapy, whenever a client tells me how wonderful her parents were, I’m immediately alerted to childhood trauma. No parents are that ideal. Really good parents also have their human shortcomings.

Readers, we’d like to hear from you. What is your experience? Did you forget what happened? Or repress only the feelings? Were there fragments, or nothing at all?