Sunday, February 10, 2013

Dismaying Story #136: A Recipe for Emotional Healing

Dear Andrew,

I read Dismaying Story #100: Getting Past a Rape and it struck a deep chord within me. I grew up in an emotionally and physically abusive house and was kicked out when I was 13 by my brother’s father. (I am the oldest of three, each with different fathers). He kicked me out for eating his Oreo cookies. Mom moved me into an apartment across town where I lived by myself for several months. She would come by after work and check on me, then go back to his house with my brother and sister.

A man broke in one night and raped me. I don’t even know what color he was because he put a sheet over him, and then placed it over me. When I was about 15-16, the man I babysat for would bring me home at night, after first making a stop in a dark elementary school parking lot, where he would force me to perform oral sex on him while he touched me. This was a pattern repeated multiple times. He was very well-known in the community (still is), a successful businessman, handsome, well-liked, wealthy, married with two children. I couldn’t tell anybody, not even mom, because she thought he was so wonderful.

Another reason I couldn’t tell her was that she didn’t initially believe I was raped. My brother’s father would touch me inappropriately at various times and when I told her, she didn’t believe that either. She said I was imagining it. She wouldn’t have believed me about this other man either.

I am in counseling with a therapist who specializes in PTSD. He told me that I need to forgive, not for the rapists, but for me. Only thing is, I don’t know how to do that. I understand the logic behind his words, but that is all I understand.

The man who I babysat for is now 71, he was in his 40s at the time. Some years ago, I called the police and they said there was a statute of limitations and if I reported him, called him out, or in any manner tried to do anything about it now, this man could sue me for slander. There is so much hate and anger in me that I don’t know how to rid myself of it. Realizing that I am only poisoning myself doesn’t help me get rid of the violent emotions inside of me.

Is there some guidepost to forgiveness? Like I told my counselor, I am a great cook and can follow any recipe I find, but forgiveness is ethereal. There seems to be no recipe to follow. I can't grasp it in my hands, look at it, smell it, taste it, mold it, and so I don't know how to do it.

Signed, Feeling Trapped By My Emotional Pain

Dear Feeling Trapped,

First of all, I am so sorry for the pain you’ve had to endure, both in the past and also today. I haven’t lived through your experiences and so I can’t (and don’t want to) pretend that I understand what you’ve gone through. Only someone who has walked in your shoes can truly say “I understand.” It’s clear, though, that the events you describe are horrific. It’s no surprise that trying to heal from all of that is tremendously challenging.

I’m glad you’re working with a therapist, and one who has specialized credentials. I urge you to continue. No doubt you already know this, but just to be clear for anyone who might read this post: Any thoughts that I might offer should never be considered as an alternative to working with a professional. Nonetheless, you’ve asked for my help and I certainly would like to do whatever I can.

If you haven't already done so, I urge you to forgive yourself for whatever guilt you might still have regarding your role in the abuse. You did not cause it ... not ANY of it. There is no behavior that a teenage girl could do that would / should cause any type of abuse to come your way. You didn't invite it and you didn't deserve it, not in any way. None of it was your fault.

You asked about forgiveness. You want to rid yourself of hate and anger and violent emotions. Can someone in your position really decide to ‘forgive’ the hurtful people from your past, and therefore get past those emotions? And what does forgiveness mean in that context?

Some people find the word forgiveness disconcerting because we associate that word with an action directed at the tormentors. The meaning here is that you need to stop hating. You’ve spent so much time and energy on actively feeling the rage. It has consumed far too much of your life. It is horrible that those abusers and rapists ruined your past, so you need to find ways of preventing them from ruining your future as well.

No doubt your therapist has explained that this is not about absolving your abusers of their responsibility for hurting you. By getting past the hate, you are not accepting in any way that what they did is somehow okay. In fact, the process you need to go through has nothing to do with them. It’s all about healing you, and only you.

If I’m reading your letter correctly, the painful emotions have been ever present inside you for around thirty years, or even longer if we consider that you grew up in an abusive home. You’ve endured decades of negative thoughts and feelings. This is not just a set of events you need to get past; your entire lifetime has been characterized by the hate and anger. You’ve been conditioned over and over again to associate emotional pain with your memories. Every time you remember the past and feel the emotional pain, you become even more strongly conditioned to associate one with the other. Feeling the anger is not a choice you make, it’s a conditioned response … and an understandable one given what you have gone through.

I doubt very much if there is a single person on the planet who could get past that type of decades-long conditioning simply by deciding to do so. It would be staggeringly difficult to say, “Okay, as of this moment I won’t be angry at those people anymore.” Our brains just don’t work that way. It takes much more than that do undo the conditioning.

In short, this type of healing is a process, not an event.

The process starts with your decision to let go of the anger. This is a necessary step, but the decision itself is not what will lessen your anger. Instead, that decision is what starts you down the road to accomplishing a longer-term goal.

The fact that you are working with a therapist is a good indication that you have already decided you want this for yourself. I believe you are already on the road, although you may not recognize the signposts, nor where the road can take you.

Can you imagine a day in the future when the rage is gone? Or at least when it is reduced to some manageable level so you can proceed happily with your day? I bet that sounds like a tremendously tough thing to accomplish. After all, your experience so far has been that your anguish is never ending. Not only can’t you see the light at the end of the tunnel, you may not even be convinced that the tunnel HAS an opening at the end. It can be difficult to muster the courage to take the first step when the road ahead looks impossibly long.

So perhaps one way to get started with your healing process is to set a tiny goal that you have a good chance of achieving, and quickly.

What kind of goal? Well what you’re really after is to spend time without rage and hatred in your heart. Any amount of time you can spend like that is a victory. In psychological terms, each time you do that is a conditioning event where you start to associate ‘you’ with happy thoughts, rather than ‘you’ with anger. This is one way to start breaking the old familiar feedback cycle in your mind.

You can think of a conditioned response (your anger) as habitual behavior, which arises when you have certain thoughts. Right now this happens often. I’m sure you would like to reduce the frequency.

I happen to believe we don’t ‘break’ habits. Instead, we replace them with new behaviors. One starting goal you might set for yourself is to engage your mind in a more positive way. The idea is to make it so the negative emotions have no room to live inside you, even if only for a small amount of time. Maybe it’s half an hour. Heck, maybe it’s only five minutes.

The type of positive activity that will be effective for you is as individual as you are. Some people achieve inner peace through meditation or long walks. Others lose themselves in exercise or a creative activity like painting or sculpting. Perhaps talking with your therapist, a good friend or a support group allows you to spend some time basking in the light, keeping the dark at bay. Whatever turns out to work for you, each moment of peace is proof that you can exert some level of control over your situation, even if it is only briefly and even if the control is tenuous.

It’s a start. And we can even do better than that.

I’m going to take an educated guess that self esteem is part of the issue. How could it not be? Ever since you were young you’ve had people demonstrating how unimportant you must be. Your step-father valued a bag of Oreo cookies more than you. That forced your mother to choose which was more important to her, you or him. She chose him. The men who raped and sexually abused you clearly valued their momentary gratification more than your well being. Who could blame you for coming to the inescapable conclusion that you are not worth much?

Well let me tell you – those people were SO wrong. You are every bit as worthy and deserving of happiness as every other person on the planet. It’s important that you start to gain faith in this as part of your emotional healing. You need to recapture the feelings of self worth that those people did their best to steal from you. By discovering how great you really are, you will recover the lost treasure – you will recover yourself!

In my experience, the best way for you to discover how great you are is for others to show how much they appreciate having you in their life. That’s why I suggest you choose your positive activities with one word in mind – giving.

When we give of ourselves, we usually get back much more. I’m betting that will be ultra true for you. Here are some ideas you might consider.

Drop by an old folks home and spend some time reading to the residents. Many dog owners are shut ins, elderly, or workaholics … so take their dog out for some exercise. The next time you’re out with your girlfriend, tell her how glad you are that she is your friend. Help your co-worker meet her deadline, even when (especially when) it’s not your job to do so. Hold a door open for the person behind you.

The possibilities are endless, the opportunities are every day, and the payoffs can be tremendous. The personal satisfaction you gain will momentarily help to crowd out the hate. Each time you hear “Thank you” and “You’re amazing” – well, those kind words will start to erect protective barriers of self esteem. Over time those fences will make it harder and harder for the anger to find its way back in.

So that’s my recipe for forgiveness. Over time, find repeated opportunities to re-learn what an amazing person you are, crowding out the anger as frequently and in as many ways as you can.

Here are a few ingredients that are important for making the recipe work:
  • Be patient. Don’t become discouraged if it seems like the process is taking a long time. You’ve spent decades getting to this point, so give yourself permission to spend whatever time it takes to help yourself.
  • Don’t try to do it all alone. Look for help wherever you might find it, whether that’s with friends, professionals, books, online, wherever. Make use of whatever seems to work for you.
  • Recognize that partial victories are still victories. Finding yourself angry from time to time doesn’t mean you are failing. If you can eventually hold the pain at bay enough so it’s manageable, that is still a huge victory.
  • Expect to go through peaks and valleys. Don’t let the dark days convince you that the good days will never return.
  • Celebrate your victories, no matter how small. Use them to help motivate you that gradual success is not only possible, it is inevitable!
On that last point, here’s one thing you really need to understand: You’ve already achieved several victories! Despite the tremendous hardships you’ve gone through, you’ve survived and become a person with some obviously strong life skills. You were able to recognize and admit your challenges, form a goal to find help, identify and obtain appropriate professional help, listen to and really hear his advice, and work hard to find a way to implement the advice. You communicate well and you’re clearly a problem solver. And I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface.

I can assure you of this – you’ve already begun the process of healing and you’ve already achieved some significant victories. Take heart in that and keep going.

Again, I am so sorry for what you’ve had to endure. It is definitely possible to re-gain your happiness, and it sounds like you’re doing the right things to get there. Please know that at least one person in the universe is pulling hard for you to do exactly that!

All the best,

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