Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe – The Power Of The Past

Ever since my run-in with M. last week, I have been on extremely high alert. Like many people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder I am hyper vigilant at the best of times, but in the last week I have been a million times more nervous than usual, any sound I’m not expecting making me jump. From Monday when it happened until Wednesday night I didn’t sleep. Not as in I’ve barely slept a wink, but I literally didn’t sleep, at all. In fact, getting to A.’s place on the Wednesday afternoon was a real challenge as I was battling the symptoms of sleep deprivation, being confused, nauseas and very unsteady on my feet.

I used both my Wednesday and Friday session with A. to talk about what happened when I saw M. and how it’s really affected me quite badly. In the Wednesday session I was close to tears, just thinking about it, because I felt like any sense of security I had been able to create for myself had been totally and utterly shattered. My jitteriness was so bad that even the sound of A.’s voice made me jump more than once in session. [My relief upon realising it was A. and not someone else each time, on the other hand, was immense].

I have been trying really hard to calm myself, to tell myself that although I don’t feel safe, I am safe. Only it seems to make no difference whatsoever. My feelings out-power my intellect with frightening ease, in complete contrast to how I normally deal with any extreme emotions by rationalising them away. Also, one could argue that the reality of being safe holds very little, if any, value if you don’t feel safe.

Needless to say, my anxiety level has been on a steep upward curve every day since last Monday, doubling again and again the closer I got to my next session with Z.

Z. telephoned me on the morning of my session, just to reassure me that she would definitely be there to meet me at the reception, to let me know that I didn’t have to worry about having to walk through the building on my own. So, I picked up whatever fragments of courage I could find and set out. I had to stop several times on the way, because I was so anxious my legs didn’t seem to want to carry me. I kept looking nervously around, to see if he might be there.

And then it happened. Only fifty metres from the relative safety of the reception I spotted him. He was on the other side of the street, slightly behind me, accompanied by a woman, talking and laughing as if the world was a beautiful place to be. I stopped being the grown woman that I am in that instant and turned into 8-year-old me, hiding behind a tree as he walked past on the other side of the street. I went from Adult Me to Little S in seconds flat.

I hung back, watching him enter the building, not really knowing what to do. It was time to meet Z., but I just couldn’t go into the reception, in case he stopped to talk to someone there. So, I waited a while – I’m not sure how long – and then, on unsteady feet, made my way across the parking lot. As I cautiously approached the door, hoping to take a peek through the glass panes to make sure that M. had left the reception, a man came out through it, holding the door politely open for me. Ready or not, I had no choice but to enter.

I collapsed on one of the chairs immediately inside the door, bending forward, hiding my head in my hands, forcing myself to keep breathing. Z. came up to me right away; I guess she may have been sitting behind the receptionist desk, looking out for me – I wouldn’t know, because I never looked around when I entered.

I somehow managed to get it out that I knew M. was there, because I had seen him go in, and there was no way I could walk through the dining hall, even with Z. by my side. Z. thought for a moment and then told me to wait while she went back into the reception to ask another member of staff to open the fire exit for us, so we could enter the building that way; the only way you can get to the stairs leading to Z.’s room, without having to go through the dining hall.

I made it up to Z.’s room on shaky legs, and as soon as I was in there, I sat down on the chair. I didn’t do any of the things I usually do: put my backpack down, set my Rubik’s cube aside, take my shoes off. I just resumed the position I had had in the reception, head buried in my arms, bending over, sobbing violently without tears. It took me a good while before I was able to get back to myself enough to do those things, to bring myself back to where I was, and even then I left my shoes in such a position that I would be able to just step into them, should I need to flee.

I explained all of this to Z. That, even though she was there and I had made it to the room safely, I was ready to run, to jump through the window if need be. I just wasn’t at all able to catch hold of the fear or rein myself in. Throughout the session that feeling never left. At one point I could hear male voices in the hallway outside the room, and in panic realised that I might not be able to recognise his voice, as he would be speaking in English, and that might not at all sound like the very distinct way he spoke Swedish, with a strong Arabic accent.

That is something that has been playing in my mind almost on repeat during the last few days: the way he spoke. In particular, the way he used to say my name. He never used the short form of my name like everyone else, but would always call me by my full name, only his accent caused him to mispronounce it slightly.

It turned out to be a good session, all things considered. We spent time trying to explore the fear, and also talking about the circumstances surrounding M. coming to live with us. How we had a family meeting, talking about taking this badly psychologically damaged teenager in, and how, at first it had all been very exciting. He had three different foster families to choose from, but – much to our delight – decided on our family. He later said that the reason he chose our family over the other two was ‘because there were children’, and I couldn’t even begin to express the chills that sends down my spine thinking of it now, knowing what he went on to do.

We talked about changes that was made in my home prior to M. moving in: all toy guns, including water pistols, were banned – as M. was a refugee from the Lebanon and had seen war up close. The lock in the family bathroom was fixed, having never been in working order for as long as I could remember. I have a particularly vividly memory of my mother telling me that I was not to walk around in a towel after a bath or shower, as that wouldn’t be something he was used to, since it was something women from his culture didn’t do. It has stuck with me, that conversation with my mother, because even though I had never been someone who did that [always being very careful to cover up, never leaving my room without either being fully dressed or wearing pyjamas buttoned to the very top], I felt that there was some sort of indirect implication that were I to walk around in a state of semi-undress M. could not be held responsible for his actions. That it was somehow down to me to make sure nothing untoward happened.

We also talked a little about something else that I even now find difficult to deal with: the fact that while my parents have never outright said that I am lying about what happened with M., they have both categorically and repeatedly said that “it couldn’t have happened”. The reason they have given for this is that they were acutely aware, taking him in, that he was volatile and somewhat mentally unstable, and couldn’t necessarily be trusted as there was a violent and unpredictable side to him, and – according to them – they consequently made an agreement to ‘make sure that us children were never alone with him’. This – the idea that we were never left on our own with him – is of course highly implausible and falls to pieces at first look: my father was working full time and my mother, while being a stay-at-home mother at the time, certainly wasn’t ever someone who would be keeping her children in her sight at all times. We had always been allowed to roam free, and her own bipolar ups and downs would have had her sufficiently preoccupied to often not know where we were, or who we were with. And I know for a fact that I was regularly sent over to the guest house [where M. was staying] to fetch him. I know this because M. would often pretend that the intercom system wasn’t working when I rang to let him know dinner was ready, and my mother would tell me to not be so lazy and to just go over there and tell him myself..

Z. made a comment about this, about my parents deciding to take someone in who they apparently knew not to be safe, in spite of having three fairly young children at home. She wanted me to talk about how I felt about this, but, while I do have a lot of feelings about it, I simply didn’t feel quite able to, or – perhaps more accurately – didn’t feel quite ready – to express them.

I am not sure why my parents – who have no problem believing that their own son sexually abused me for more than twelve years – are so adamant that the abuse M. subjected me to could not have happened. Maybe the thought of having twice missed something like that is simply too much? Maybe the knowledge that he wasn’t safe, and the subsequent sense of guilt at not having protected me, stops them from being able to acknowledge – even to themselves – that it did happen? People often defend the hardest against the things that cause them the most pain, and I don’t think my parents are all that different in that respect. I have a few additional theories about their reasons for flatly denying what happened, all of them excruciatingly painful for all involved.. but, for now, I think I will keep the more probable ones to myself, as I don’t feel ready to deal with them just yet. I have on occasion talked to A. about it, but I feel that this blog is perhaps not the most appropriate place for me to explore it further. At least not for the time being.

After session, Z. walked me all the way through the building and across the parking lot outside, only saying goodbye when we got to the street, having first asked me how I was going to get home. It gave me the sense that it really mattered to her, all the things that have happened to me, all the fear I am carrying with me.

And that felt very special to me; very different to anything I have experienced before.

xx

Sharp eyed readers will have noticed that I have made no commented in this post as to whether or not the person I met really is M., or just someone who looks like him. The reason for this is that in so many ways it doesn’t matter whether it is really him or not. In my head it is him, and that’s what I am reacting to, so that’s what I have chosen to write about: my experience of what is going on. Whether the threat is real or not, the fear certainly is..

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Making Sense Of Abuse & The Need To Feel Heard

I really shouldn’t be writing this. I ought to be writing an essay on attachment. Especially seeing as I’m working to an absolute deadline, having already exhausted all opportunity for extension. Only I simply haven’t got the head space to do any studying. Or anything else, really. In fact, if you find this post a bit fragmented that is because it has been written in fragments; a sentence here and there whenever I’ve had a short break from the hellish onslaught of constant flashbacks I am currently experiencing.

I’ve spent a lot of time in these past ten days [or however long it has been] talking both to the Samaritans and the Rape & Sexual Abuse Support Line. Talking to them doesn’t stop the flashbacks; I will often continue having them even while I’m on the phone, but at least, when I come out of them I’m not alone. Also, I’ve come to realise that what I really crave is to be allowed to tell my story. To share what happened to me. And, more importantly, to feel heard. To hear the reaction of others, when they hear what happened to me has played an important part in coming to see that what went on while I was growing up was actually quite bad.

Rather unsurprisingly, I’m very good at minimalising the abuse that I was subjected to as a child and teenager. Minimalising what went on is in essence how I got through it. I genuinely believe that had I allowed myself to see the magnitude of what was going on at the time there is no way I could have survived it. At least not with my sanity intact. So I dissociated and numbed myself to the whole experience.

But, there comes a point when you have to begin to look openly and honestly at what really happened. There is no way that you can forever keep running from it. Sooner or later you have to find the courage to look the past in the eye or you will never be able to heal. By that I don’t meant that it is necessary to explore in minute detail every single abuse situation you were ever in, but that one has to face one’s own emotions about what happened.

When I think back to the things my oldest brother did to me – not through flashbacks, but simply by normal recall – I can’t say that I remember feeling much at all. Maybe, very early on, when I was little, I have a vague memory of feeling confused, but that’s about the extent of conscious emotions. The rest is something of an emotional void. What is happening now with the flashbacks – and what makes them so terrifying – is that it is as if I am now reliving what happened, with the emotional response I should have had, but couldn’t have, as a child.

As a child, even from very early on, I always knew what was happening didn’t feel right, but in order to cope with it, I very soon began to understand ‘not feeling right’ as a the normal state of being. The abuse became so routine that it seemed no less normal to me than going to school or doing my chores. It was just one of the many parts that made up my day-to-day life.

I think the abuse began around the time when I was about four and a half, because that’s the earliest I can remember, and my brother says that was roughly when it started. Of course it could have started earlier, but I simply haven’t got any memories – happy or sad – from before that time.

It went on for a very long time – all the way until I was 17 – and only came to light because I tried to kill myself. There was one occasion, when I was about seven, when I did try to tell my mother about what my brother was doing to me [although my mother says this never happened, that I never told her], but unfortunately that ended disastrously with my mother unable to take on board what I was saying to her, and I never again tried to tell anyone. For years I held on to that question mark posed by my mother, that maybe I really hadn’t told her, because that idea was so much easier to cope with, so much less painful, than the idea that I did tell my mother and she was unable to do anything about it. There are definitive mitigating circumstances in terms of why my mother couldn’t cope with what I was telling her, but the unavoidable fact remains: as a consequence of my mother’s inability to intervene the abuse carried on for another ten years, which is – of course – and absolute eternity.

There was one year, when I was eight going on nine, when things could have changed quite dramatically. That year my brother was away from home, doing his military service – which was at the time mandatory. In a tragic twist, that same year – which could have been an opportunity for me to get to experience what life without abuse might be like – my parents decided to take in a foster child, a much damaged 16-year-old refugee boy from the Lebanon who had seen war up close and who was deeply disturbed by it. Cut a long story short, he began abusing me almost immediately after moving in with us.

What happened with this person was something I was completely unprepared for. You see, with my brother, what he got off on, was the idea that what went on was something we both wanted. So he would constantly be asking me questions. Do you like this? Does this feel good? What would you like to do? And I soon learned what was expected of me, learned to step into the role he wanted me to play. With this other person, there was something entirely different that motivated him. What he enjoyed was to see me terrified and in pain. Whereas with my brother I could choose to either step into a role – in a sense choose to not be me – or to dissociate and go somewhere else in my mind while he was doing what he was doing, with this other person, he wouldn’t allow me to do that. If he noticed that I was zoning out, he would slap my face to bring me back to the present, or he would hold my chin and peer into my eyes, thereby ensuring I couldn’t escape him or what he was doing to me. He had a knife strapped to his leg, concealed underneath his jeans – he called it his Rambo knife – which he would hold against my neck while he was raping me. Not with the sharp edge, but with the blunt back of it, just as a mind game making sure I could never be sure if this would be the time he would finally kill me. Even in completely normal situations he would play these horrendous mind games with me. For example, we would all be out in the garden, him, my brothers and I, playing football. He would then kick the ball far away, my brothers turning their backs to us, running after the ball, and as soon as they did, he would grab me by my throat and throw me against the wall of the house, choking me – and then immediately let go the second my brothers were turning back, as if to drive home the message that it doesn’t matter where we are or who is around, I can do whatever I want to you, whenever I want.

I had a very good session with A. earlier this week, where I for the first time ever, talked about the way the abuse happened. Not details of what actually happened or specific incidents, but the ways in which I was made to be compliant with it, both through things that were said, and through things that didn’t need to be said.

I spent an entire year in fear of this other person, and what happened with him; the violence, the threats and the psychological mind games matched exactly the stereotype painted by media. It took years for me to appreciate that what my brother did, the subtle grooming, coercion and indirect coaching, was also abuse.

But it’s all coming back now – all the pent up emotions – in the form of flashbacks.
And it’s really really scary.

xx

Self-Harm & Managing Difficult Feelings: Making Good Choices During Therapy Breaks

Therapy break, once again. This time for two weeks. And I’m feeling somewhat apprehensive about it. The funny thing is that up until the night before the final pre-break session I had hardly even reflected on the fact that there was going to be a break. I mean, on the whole I’m doing good. No major hitches the last few months. Nothing much to worry about, apart from the pending move, which is still a fair while away, and is also a different kind of worry. It’s more of a stress factor than something that expresses itself in an anxiety ridden can’t cope sort of way.

So, as I said before, I’d felt absolutely fine about this upcoming break. Fairly confident that it wouldn’t pose a problem. And then, suddenly, I had this huge slap of panic hit me right between my eyes.

Talked about this in my session the following day, and naturally A. wanted to know what I had been doing when this happened. So I gave it a second and then began trying to explain. It ended up being a bit complicated, but in essence it went something like this: I was thinking about something someone at work had told me. It was to do with a child acting out in a way that both my [equally upset] co-worker and I felt was an obvious cause for concern. The incident had happened at another establishment, and so I was hearing about this as a third party, but even so, this retelling really got to me. Not so much what the child in question had done, but rather that no alarm bells had gone off for the staff on duty. From what I was told the staff had been much more concerned about the nuisance the child had caused, rather than triggering any questions of why the child had a need to act out in this rather extreme way.

And it was in the middle of thinking about this that I suddenly felt panicked by the thought of not having any therapy for two weeks.

It may seem that there’s very little to connect what had happened earlier in the day at work and the sudden onset of separation-anxiety later that evening, but if you look it from another angle it may become a little more clear.

To me, the incident with the child and the staff’s reaction was about people whose job it is to look out for kids failing to do so. This got to me because it echoes off other incidents also missed by the adults who ought to have been in charge; in short all the adults who in my childhood failed to notice that something was wrong.

My party line regarding this has always been that they didn’t see anything because there was nothing to see. I was simply such a good little actress that I managed to steer peoples’ attention elsewhere.

But – and this is where it gets hot – is that really true..? Is it even possible for abuse of the kind I was subjected to truly go unnoticed by every single adult in a child’s life..? Parents, teachers, aunts, uncles, family friends..? Really? Twelve years is a very long time, and whilst I may have become a very skilled life-actress as I grew older, certainly at the very beginning, back when I was barely five, I simply can’t have had the tools or the know-how to cover up that something had happened. How would I even have known that I needed to assume the role of model child. At that age..?

So, now we’re entering dangerous territory, because that all-important party line – that no one could have seen anything because I was so darn good at concealing the truth – well, it’s a party line in the flavour of a defence mechanism. Not only has this mantra served to allow me to dissolve all the adults around me of any responsibility, but it’s also been a perfect reason for putting the blame solely on myself.

No one could help me, because I didn’t signal that I needed any help. Through acting so convincingly I am the one who made sure the boat wasn’t rocked. In short, I am to blame for not making the abuse stop. I get to take full responsibility while, at the same time, avoiding having to think of the possibility that perhaps there were some signs somewhere that the adults around me where either blind to or did not have the courage to tap into.

I’ve always been very good at blaming myself for letting the abuse go on for as long as it did. Expressing, or even experiencing, any anger directed at the adults in my life (whether founded or unfounded) has simply been too frightening to cope with. And to a large degree it still is.

So, whenever feelings along those lines surface I am astonishingly apt at turning that anger back on myself. Half a heartbeat and out come the scalpels and matches and choke-cords; I turn to self-harm in the most creative ways imaginable. I suppose it would be fair to say that I act out the way I never did as a child. Anything to avoid having to think about the possibility that, maybe – just maybe – there was something to see. That maybe all those adults did miss something, maybe they did fail to act, maybe they did lack in courage.

And this is where my anxiety about the break in therapy comes in. I have enough self-awareness to recognise this pattern of mine; to take things out on myself. And to have thoughts of this nature surfacing at a time when A. is going to be away, it’s not ideal. It is cause for concern. Because, as aware as I am of this pattern, I am equally aware of how incredibly hard it is to break it.

I battle with thoughts of self-harm on a regular basis, but having the safe haven that therapy offers I can usually make a different choice. I can choose to explore the underlying emotions, I can decide to gently prod whatever it is that has triggered the urge to self-harm in a safer way.

Therapy gives me the option to work through rather than act out.

But with thoughts like these in my head, and no therapy.. Well, it makes me worried. I hope that enough will have changed inside of me to make it possible to resist falling back into familiar patterns. In many ways I feel that enough has changed. I just don’t want to be over confident. Because, ignoring the danger signs can have very serious consequences.

Anyway, time for bed.

All the very best and more,

xx

PS. I feel obliged to point out that it hasn’t gone unnoticed that whatever anger I have about what happened is hardly ever directed at the source of it, at the abusers.. but hey.. that may be the next step.. Who knows?

What Words Can’t Express – A Visual Representation Of Sexual Abuse Flashbacks

Simultaneous Reality
– Real Time Flashback –

childhood sexual abuse flashbacks

What It's Like Having Sexual Abuse Flashbacks


Fortune Favours The Brave – An Entry About Daring To Change

*

“I’m so sorry, Geri. I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
“Don’t be.” She shook her head. “Like I said – it’s in the past. It’s OK.”

She shrugged and her sudden calm frightened me. She seemed so distanced, so disconnected from it all. As if what she had gone through was the norm, nothing special – not worth thinking about.

“No,” I said quietly. “It’s not OK.” I steadied my voice. “It’s not OK at all, Geri.”


*

The above is an extract from DGB, from a chapter called “Honesty”, and it rings truer than I realised when writing it. The book is not an autobiography, but I guess it’s fair to say that there is a lot of me in it and to a certain extent I suppose it can be justifiably argued that the character of Geri is largely biographic, or at the very least semi-biographic. The way she acts and reacts is sometimes much more close to the bone than I was aware when writing it.

A prime example of this is the passage above. Geri’s behaviour, her way of acting, is what is really at the very heart of what I’m currently trying to work on; the sense of complete detachment from the traumas in my life.

I guess it’s a defence mechanism that’s kicked in to shield me from the raw reality of my own story. “If I don’t feel it, maybe it didn’t happen. And if it didn’t happen, then I’d be happy.” Something like that. That’s basically how I’ve got by all my life.

Only now I’m trying to break this habit of switching off, and it’s proving much more difficult that I’d imagined. I’m so skilled at keeping my guard up that I don’t really know how to lower it anymore, and more often than not I need someone to steer me in the right direction.

I’ve spent many nights throughout this past year on the phone with a friend of mine, and I’ve talked to her about things I haven’t really been able to talk about with anyone else before. There is just something about her that makes it possible for me to do it. Not only the fact that I feel she’ll be able to handle whatever I throw at her, but also that she has this way of listening with an intensity that is almost palpable. It’s so vibrant I feel I could reach out and touch it. She’ll hold back, listen and think, sometimes letting the silence hang heavily on the line between us for minutes before she’ll relay her opinion to me. And, during these nocturnal conversations I’ve come to see that more often than not she’s right. Not in the sense of her being right and me being wrong, but in the sense that her ideas and suggestions seem to link in very closely with what I need to be doing; they tend to be both valid and valuable.

I’ve found myself dropping off the cuff remarks, and rather than just letting them slide, like most people would, this very special friend of mine will hold on to them, examine them and return them to me in a more manageable form.

Counselling works a lot like this for me also. I make a statement, not really thinking it holds much meaning, and D. will grab hold of it, turn it around a little bit and help me explore it. Sometimes I’ll argue myself silly to prove her wrong only to leave our session and slowly, over the coming days, realise that things are exactly as she had suggested.

It’s not that I’m unintelligent or particularly blind to my own situation. It’s just that emotionally I’m something of a slow learner. Or rather, I learned some lessons much to soon, at a much too early age, and I now find myself struggling to unlearn them. And, I guess, like any scholar I need a mentor to point me in the right direction.

There are many, to other people, basic skills that I find myself lacking. Take trust, for example. I learned very early in my life that if you trust someone it can leave you enormously vulnerable. The consequence of this is, of course, that I avoid doing this. I keep people at arm’s length. They can come knocking at my door, and I’ll help them as much as I possibly can, standing on the threshold, but I won’t let them into my home. And I certainly won’t let them help me.

Or at least that’s how I used to be. I am trying, as I said earlier, to unlearn some of my habits. And I feel I have made some progress, especially in the trust department. Although I am still a far cry from being trusting, I do try to let people take at least a few steps into my life. And it makes a huge difference, I’ve found.

In a counselling session some weeks ago I said that I have always had very high expectations of myself, always strived to be able to manage everything I set out to do. Following this statement D. pointed out that it is almost the polar opposite to how I treat everyone else around me. That, in fact, I seem to never expect anything from anyone. She used herself as an example, asking me what I expected from her. At first I drew a complete and utter blank, and I had to really think before I finally came up with the answer “That you’re here when you’re meant to be here.” I didn’t express any hopes or wishes that she’d be able to help me or that she should care about what I tell her, care about me – nothing like that sprung to mind at all. And I think that says a lot about me. About the way I have been relating to people all my life. And I know that it is something that I need to make a conscious effort to change.

Luckily I am blessed to have a lot of people in my life who are more than willing to let me practise on them, who will hold on tightly to my hand as I test the waters for the first time in a long long while.

xx