Sexuality part 2
Continuing on from our focus on how survivors deal with sexuality……
Our sense of worth is reduced to nothing because we have been used. We have learned from such a young age that our purpose, the reason for our existence is to meet someone else’s need. We have learned that how we feel is insignificant, irrelevant and of no interest to those around us, in particular to those we had thought would love and protect us the most. One of the results of this is that we find it difficult to say what we want – to feel anything and to expect good things to happen to us. We don’t expect to be loved, valued or cared for. We are often empty and expect little but even the little we hope for doesn’t come our way. Every day this idea we have formed of ourselves is confirmed by those we choose, in our low view of ourselves, to populate our lives with.
I know of no other way to deal with this issue than the powerful use of affirmation and the relentless need to replace the wrong idea we have of ourselves with a healthier one. Our thinking runs on train tracks littered with self-doubt, snagging on barbs of our worthlessness, but none of it is true. And every time we reiterate this wrong view of ourselves we are in essence agreeing with our abusers. Each time I think of myself as being of no significance other than meeting someone else’s need I give power back to that man who took my childhood so many years ago. He’s dead but I could still let him control my life. From inside my own head. Only I have the power to stop this for myself and only you have that power over your own mind, but the truth is you do have it.
Every thought you think you choose.
When we have been the victims of early childhood abuse we frequently go on to form unhealthy attachments in our lives or struggle to attach to others at all.
Early on we learned that those we think are there to look out for us will hurt us. We came to find that it somehow felt right to feel unsafe. We have often learned to feel drawn to others who will hurt us as if this was the only natural thing for us to do and then when they do it feels normal. We feel somehow centred this way.
And more than this, we feel grateful to those who treat us badly because somewhere deep inside us we have a twisted idea that this is love.
Research has shown that there are strong similarities between children who are abused and hostage victims, survivors of terror attacks and concentration camp inmates (Fillmore, 1981, cited in Jones et al, 1987) Some of this research has suggested that this is in part why such children form bonds with their abuser despite them hurting them - much like how hostage victims show identification with their captors – known as Stockholm Syndrome.
The Australian Childhood Foundation offers training to professionals on the neurophysiology of child abuse in which a careful examination is made of the developing brain and the impact abuse results in for the child victim. Their studies suggest that for many of us our attachments are all messed up and that it is in unravelling this, working on this, that we will find new freedom from forming unhealthy relationships.
We can’t begin to really heal until we see how hurt we have been and we can’t do that unless we are willing to unravel. Undo the tacking stitches that we used to keep ourselves together long enough to get out, or until we were old enough to leave. It’s not an easy task and certainly not a pleasant one. For me grief has been at the heart of this recovery and allowing myself to actually grieve, to cry, to write and to process the enormity of the grief that I felt that I was not nurtured but rather used by those I longed for nurture from, that has allowed me to strip myself back and move forwards in my life in a healthier way.
I remember how as a young married woman I felt desperate to feel normal. I used to look at young women on the street and watch movies where young women seemed to feel sexual attraction and wonder how it felt for them, wonder if I would ever feel that. I felt robbed, cheated and devoid of something that seemed to come so naturally to them. I never struggled to wait for sex until I was married, but sadly I didn’t have any real interest once I was married either. It took me a long time to realise that part of that was because I never felt that attraction at all, and had mistaken someone obsessing over me as being love. I look back and can see how I had no idea what to look for. The cues were all wrong but I couldn’t see it.
As my marriage was ending I began to uncover the root cause of my sexual struggles.
It happened because of pizza of all things. My husband had been away. He had been working interstate for some months and while he was away I had discovered Co-Dependents Anonymous. I had been attending twice-weekly meetings for some months and was finally beginning to understand some of the struggles I had been living with. He had come home for the weekend and announced that we’d all have pizza for dinner. About to place the order he called out, perfunctorily, what would you like. We had been married 18 years by then and as he asked I froze.
During the months of his absence we had also sometimes eaten take-away pizza and when we did, the children and I made a list of what we liked. They had their preferences and I had mine. We ordered a combination of what we all liked. But when my husband was home I found my mouth voicing familiar but unwelcome words – I don’t mind, you choose. And as I spoke them I realised that this is what I always did with him. I felt as if I could almost see myself slinking into the corner and hiding in the shadows.
At the next Co-Da meeting I attended I spoke of this and was staggered to hear others identify with me and share stories of similar experiences. It became a cathartic moment. I began then to realise how much I acquiesced to those around me – particularly my husband, poured out myself and wanted nothing in order to meet other’s needs, and how much I thought that even saying what I wanted was bad – wrong somehow. It was a powerful moment. And in processing it I began to find a way through the mire that prevented me from enjoying a sexual relationship.
A friend of mine speaks of writing by going through the back door. Not going directly at the thing you are writing about but slipping inside unnoticed, and then writing of the thing. I feel that this issue of sexuality is a little like that. I used to think about getting sexual counselling but I was too scared to! I would have had no words, not even known where to begin to discuss an issue that generated so much pain, so much angst. But in the end I had discovered that sexual healing didn’t come from the direct, it came from slipping in through the back door unnoticed and dealing with these other issues that influenced it – the faulty sense of self-worth, the attachment issues and the unresolved grief.
I had no intimate relationships for many years after separating from my husband and divorcing him – though I found those actions incredibly empowering. I had grown enough to realise that I had chosen for my husband a man who could only at best replicate the sense of abandonment I had grown to associate with love. He was not capable of showing me the kind of love that nurtures and I realised that I had chosen him especially albeit unwittingly. In ending the marriage I began to find a voice, a voice that wanted what was best for me.
Several years later, after doing a lot of self-work and moving forwards in my recovery, I met a man unexpectedly and fell in love. But I was scared. Had I done enough? Would it be different now? Was I sufficiently recovered? Would the work I had done show in this area?
We were together for nearly seven years. It was the most wonderful adventure for me sexually. Early on we listened to one of our favourite artists, Brook Fraser as she sang the words I felt, ‘you play the chords in me nobody knew how to play’.
I am so grateful for the journey of recovery, to those I listened to who showed me the steps I was too afraid sometimes to take. I stumbled on, sometimes so hesitantly, but they led me through the maze my inner world had become into a meadow glowing with sunshine where I found that love is possible and that you really can find healing. Even sexual healing.
It’s a no-brainer really that one of the biggest areas we have to deal with in our lives is our sexuality.
I remember when I was young, not long after I had got away and left home and was trying to move on I suppose in my life – find the ‘life after abuse’, I came across a couple of books written by survivors. They were very different. One was a young woman who had become a prostitute after years of abuse and the other a young mother who was raising the child that came from her father’s abuse.
I was reading to feel less alone. When I had encountered the books it felt incredible to come across others who had been abused and I pored over every page looking for similarities and points of connection. There were many. And yet our outcomes were very different. I didn’t have a child and there was no way I would entertain the idea of selling my body. I couldn’t relate to that story at all. In fact for me this was when I think I first realised that a significant result of the years of abuse for me was how terrified of my sexuality I was.
Oh but I had become a Christian and was able, for many years, to hide my distaste behind the cloak of purity and I wonder sometimes if I was not joined there by others who found it easy to avoid sex on the pretext of waiting for the right expression when in fact we were simply turned off and scared. Or was it scarred?
Like many of my contemporaries, I met and became engaged to my husband, and we waited for the wedding night. It wasn’t hard for me. I didn’t mind at all. I wasn’t so naïve though as to think that on that blessed night it would all be wonderful. I knew enough then to at least realise that my natural aversion wouldn’t disappear when I said the magic words, ‘I do’. What I wasn’t prepared for was the extent of the damage done and the years of work ahead for me.
I look back at that honeymoon now and shudder. I remember someone saying to me before we were married that the honeymoon would be over all too soon and reality would kick in. They encouraged me to savour every bit of it. But the reality was, I was longing for it to end. It was the honeymoon from hell and I couldn’t wait to get back home and not be trapped with a man who couldn’t understand what I was going through.
He told me I needed counselling and I knew that was true but I needed much more than that. I needed a depth of understanding that simply wasn’t there.
The flashbacks were the worst part. I was never having sex just with my husband – there was always a third party as my memories surfaced and stole what was intended for pleasure and turned it into a horror movie that never ended well.
What began in passion was soon overshadowed by an overwhelming sense of terror that I couldn’t shake. I needed lights on. I needed to keep my eyes open. I had to focus my breathing. I had to keep telling myself that it would be okay. My first mantra’s were this is your husband not your abuser, but they quickly became lie still and it will soon be over. I didn’t know how to change.
Associated with the flashbacks was the physiological problem of spasms of pain. They weren’t even in my head and I had no idea how to deal with them. I felt robbed. I couldn’t understand how something that left me feeling raw and violated all over again could be desired or desirable.
I came home from my honeymoon defeated and feeling like a broken ragdoll with no hope and worse, no one understanding the depths of my pain.
The years of abuse were stealing my present-day life as well, right before my eyes.
I spent many years trying to deal with my ‘problems’. Eventually my marriage broke down and despite the fact that we had eight children and in addition I had suffered several miscarriages, my sexual struggles were blamed. I was, my former husband said, damaged and irreparable.
In time I came to appreciate that while in some ways he was right, the truth is we are all damaged. He didn’t come to our marriage in perfection and while it was true that I had struggles, it was also true that he had an opportunity to help me but was not able. This was the flaw he brought to our marriage. And it was just as significant. He was never emotionally available to me in any way and the truth is he was simply the wrong person to try to work through these issues with. He had no depth.
It’s funny now, so many years later, when I look back over that first marriage. How naive I was, and how unsure of myself. Before I even accepted his proposal we spoke of the years of abuse I had endured and the ways in which I knew myself to be scarred, and my husband was full of it will all be all rights, and I will be there for you. But in reality he wasn’t capable. I needed something he simply could not give. And neither of us really knew what it was.
Years later, I came to see was that it wasn’t so much that my sexuality was damaged as that this was the manifestation of the pain trapped inside. Of course if you are a victim of child sexual abuse sex will be problematic but the point is it isn’t our sexuality that is damaged through early childhood abuse, it’s our sense of worth, or ability to attach to a man and the fact that we have a mountain range of grief to deal with. These are the actual barriers to a health sense of our own sexuality. Next week we will look into some other aspects of our sexual struggles following child sexual abuse.
I have worn many labels in my life. I have been the daughter of a criminal, a champion runner, a victim of sexual abuse, an abandoned wife, a solo mother, a co-dependant......
I have learned that labels can be healing. They can help us identify things about ourselves and can help us to understand and accept things in our lives and experience but they can also be limiting and prevent us growing by suppressing and limiting our expectations.
When I first walked into the rooms of the twelve-step recovery program called Co-Dependants Anonymous I was lost and confused. I had gone to the meeting hoping to find out some information about what Co-Dependancy was, and if in that understanding I might find explanations and answers for things I struggled with.
When the meeting began it was not about information but about people.
People sharing their lives.
I sat in rapt admiration and fascination, listening to person after person speaking about things that were happening in their every-day lives that touched my soul. People spoke of ordinary things; relationship loss, feelings, conflicts, every day struggles, but as they spoke I felt something stirring within me, a connection so strong, like nothing I had ever known before.
These people understood my life in ways I never had.
These people had identified themselves as Co-dependant and as I felt that connection with them I knew that I had found what had been missing in my own self-awareness.
I introduced myself then and said words that we so incredibly healing, I'm Sue and I am Co-dependant.
I began to understand myself.
The label was enlightening.
The label helped me to grasp how the ways I had found to deal with things in the past had helped back then, but no longer served me well anymore and instead were like chains that kept me from growing.
Week after week I slowly processed and pealed back the layers I had built up over the years, I cried, I laughed, I began to emerge.
But over the period of time I spent in those rooms, those many wonderful years, I began to feel restricted by the label, like a piece of clothing I had outgrown. It began to feel tight and restrictive and like I had no where else to go. I began to understand then that I was a recovering Co-dependant and I altered my view of myself.
A label can wield a great deal of power - we must choose them well. And we must be willing to change them when they no longer fit.
I outgrew even the recovering Co-Dependant and began to appreciate that it is possible to recover and began describing myself at recovered. I no longer did things I had done before, I no longer functioned in the same old ways - it was a new day and I was a new me.
I still wear labels today but they are very different to the ones I have worn in the past and in part this is because they are of my own choosing. I am a recovered survivor of child sexual abuse, I am a writer, a counselor informed by Narrative Ideas, a cruising sailor, and a Facebook Page Owner.
I feel less controlled by my labels and more like I contribute to them.
I have over the course of the last ten to fifteen years of my life, completely re-invented myself and it's an amazing gift.
When you think about the words you might use to describe yourself, are they words that liberate you, that free you, that help you to understand yourself.....or are they words that restrict you? Is it time to change how you think about yourself? Are you a strong survivor when you used to think of yourself as a victim? Do you see yourself as a brave and courageous woman (or man) when you used to think of yourself as helpless in your circumstances?
A label can simply be so powerful. It can heal or it can harm. Choose wisely and change as you need to.
♥ ~ Sue
© 2017 Susan Parry-Jones
Imagine being in a serious accident and thinking you could just walk away from it, and be okay! It’s crazy really isn’t it! Of course after an accident most of us wouldn’t hesitate to get checked out – to go to hospital and let a Doctor examine us – check us over for broken bones and bruised ligaments and muscles. X-rays might be taken and blood tests done to make sure that there are no hidden injuries that if left untended might lead to complications.
And that’s just the beginning! Anyone who has ever suffered injury following an accident would know that there might be an initial assessment but after that the path of recovery can be anything but smooth. There can be the need to reset breakages that have not healed right, there may need to be physiotherapy, hydro therapy and in the case of any kind of brain injury, all sorts of occupational therapy as well. The work involved in recovery can feel endless and quite overwhelming – and yet, the alternative – not doing anything – is not even to be considered.
Recovery – when compared to the accident which might have happened in a moment – can take years.
I think it really helps to picture this when we are thinking about the recovery necessary following abuse.
It is so easy to put unrealistic expectations on ourselves about what we might need to do to recover. We can get exasperated with ourselves that we aren’t over it yet, that it’s taking so long, that others seem to be progressing faster than us, that it’s all so hard. Add to that the suggestions others – who have had nothing to recover from – might impose – and what you end up with is a sense of failure or of being less-than, even in doing our recovery work.
Here is the truth about recovery – it takes time and work. And lots of both.
I did most of my recovery work using the 12 Step program, Co-Dependants Anonymous. I got a sponsor, worked the steps, and attended every meeting offered. For me that was twice weekly. It was important to me to not waste the opportunity, to make sure that I got out of the program what I wanted – which was to be more than a victim, to be able to live life as abundantly as possible. Prior to that I had also attended counseling and read books and talked to other survivors. I picture the different things I have done as being like the different elements of a house – walls, windows, doors, roof. For me the 12 Step group was like the walls that held everything else together and helped everything else become connected. Each aspect of my recovery journey was useful in its own way, but without a doubt, the 12 step program provided a framework that helped me to make sense of all the other elements and a means to understand everything else that I had benefited from in a holistic way.
My encouragement to you in your own healing journey is simply to do something!
You have been in a wreck, and it’s time, if you haven’t already taken yourself off to get some help, to do exactly that!
Find someone you can trust who is qualified to help you, a counselor with some understanding of the issues you have faced. Or find a recovery meeting near you so that you can make yourself accountable for your recovery work, and go to the meetings – every one of them! Read. Pray. Ask your pastor for help. Find a group on line if you are in a small rural community or isolated in other ways.
Whatever you do, stop thinking that you can walk away from this unscathed. But remember too that the sooner you begin the healing journey the sooner you will begin to reap the benefits!
Love and hugs ~ Sue
Sue Parry-Jones is a trained counsellor, a social worker and survivor of abuse. The content of the blog is both personal and sound. The words are relate-able and widely appealing to those struggling with survival from abuse in their own lives. More and more we are appreciating in our society that abuse affects a number of people’s lives and as more people are beginning to openly discuss what they have endured, so there is a huge need for encouragement and hope in the form of texts that deliver clear and concise yet real input. THe words shared here are honest, real and heart-felt.