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.
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.