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?


When Children Try to Tell About Abuse

Mary Armstrong (author of Confessions of a Trauma Therapist) and I are collaborating on a series of blog posts. In this post on Mary's blog, we tell our experiences as young girls trying to tell about the abuse:

I’ve asked author Jane Rowan to join me in exploring some issues surrounding child sexual abuse. Jane’s book The River of Forgetting tells her story of painfully accessing her history of child sexual abuse and healing through a therapeutic relationship with a gifted helping professional. Jane chose Authentic Movement, art and journaling to help her heal.

My memoir, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist is, as you know, my account of how my lost memories surfaced and how I healed through yoga, Focusing, psychotherapy and journaling.

Our books are complementary. Two different stories of two women who became outwardly successful in spite of the depression and anxiety they suffered inside.

Telling is a subject that intrigues me. Why is it so terrifying to tell the secret we’ve carried for so long and that we kept secret even from ourselves. Where does all this fear originate? What happened in childhood when we tried to tell?

In her book, Jane describes her attempt to tell her mother that her father was sexually abusing her. She was five or six.  In this excerpt from her book, she is telling her psychotherapist about attempting to tell her mother:

“What happened?” Over and over, she says sharply, “What is it?! Tell me!” Read more...