Monday, July 27, 2015

Healing from Sexual Abuse: 26 Things that Work for Me

I seem to be one of those weird people who finds metaphors in my outfits. On this hot day, my outfit was a great metaphor for what's it's like to heal from sexual abuse. It led me to work on a list of things that help me in this long journey. Bear with me for a minute and you'll see what I mean.

It was an extremely uncomfortable, stifling hot, muggy day. It was, in fact, the day before the heat wave finally broke, and we all know that it's often hottest and stickiest just before the rains come (and, yes, there's a nice metaphor in that too). It was the kind day when you want to be as close to naked as possible, and to have as little fabric touching your skin as possible.

They say that necessity is the mother of all invention and I guess that true. Everywhere I looked, women had suddenly become brilliantly inventive with their attire, creating outfits that draped loosely off their bodies, allowing as much cooling air flow as possible. I too had become creative, inventing an outfit I never would have tried if my extreme discomfort had not led me to it.

As I looked at all these different women's outfits, they became a metaphor for people's individual healing journeys. As we strive to heal from sexual abuse, we try different things, figure out what works for us, and eventually cobble together methods, activities, and paths that take us in the right direction. 

What works for one person might not work for another so I've been a bit reluctant to offer my readers advice on their healing journeys. However, I've been getting so much feedback from readers about the impact Sublime Mercies has on them, that I feel it would be almost irresponsible of me not to offer some advice. It's scary though! What if I steer you wrong?

All I can do is tell you what has -- and hasn't -- worked for me and the many other survivors I know. And then I hope that you will share your own advice in the comments section of this post. After all, the experts of healing from abuse are those who were abused! That's me and that's you: experts.

Skirt (worn here as a dress): boutique; Sandals: Joseph Seibel; Headband: Stylize; Earrings: Reitman's; Right hand ring: Birks; Bangle, dress clips, and sunglasses: vintage
Why am I an expert? I was sexually abused, sex trafficked, and otherwise abused for the first 17 years of my life. I have PTSD -- and I'm still here, on the cusp of my 45th birthday. 

Look at the above photos. That's me reacting to the sound of a loud motorcycle. One symptom of PTSD is an exaggerated startle reflex. I have been known to scream and clutch Beau when a leaf fell beside me. I sometimes scream when I'm out alone in public, like, say, when someone drops a cup in a cafe. The other day, I yipped in fear when my elderly neighbour farted in her back yard. (I then fell into an uncontrollable giggling fit that had me running inside so she wouldn't know what was happening.)

My point is that I know something about living with the after effects of trauma. So do you. 

So here's my advice. There are 26 points here, so it's a lot of reading. Feel free to take your time, take breaks, read some one day and the rest another day. In other words, feel free to pace yourself.

1. There is no one true path to healing. 

Everyone needs to find their own way. What works for one, might not work for another. 

On this too hot day, every woman came up with a different solution to the heat. Mine was to turn a skirt into a dress and, to avoid a wardrobe malfunction, to secure it to my bra with these amazing, Trifari dress clips from the 1930s.

Had I not faced the heat, I would not have created this unusual outfit or worn these beautiful dress clips. This doesn't mean that I liked the heat, but I can still appreciate the beauty that it inspired. Another person would have come up with a different solution to the heat, and it too would have had its own beauty. 

This is like the healing journey itself. We can hate the abuse that made the journey and hard work necessary, but we can take pride and even find a kind of beauty in the path we each have found while on the journey.

Along with this point, goes the fact that no one person can heal you. If you're looking for someone to rescue you from your pain, instruct you toward happiness, or make up for all the love that you didn't get a child, I'm sorry, but that person doesn't exist. But people can help you heal, and help you find happiness. You can and will be loved.  It will be beautiful and it will be sweet and it will help

2. Don't let anyone bully you into following their "rules" about how to heal. 

I've had other survivors try to bully me into a psychological self-diagnosis and treatment that did not feel right to me. I've had doctors try to bully me into taking medications I did not want to take. I've had readers of my blog try to bully me into becoming a Christian when I know that's not who I am. I've had a counsellor bully me to the point of tears as she tried to get me to take steps and use language to describe myself that felt all wrong to me. I've had a girlfriend bully me into having sex when it felt wrong, saying that, if I didn't, I was giving in to the harm caused by the abuse. 

They all believed that they knew what was right for me. They were all wrong. Even if they had been right, bullying me was the wrong way to help me. Anyone who was abused has been bullied quite enough, thank you. It's our turn to take control.

No matter how much authority or experience another person has -- whether they be a survivor, a therapist, a professor, a lover, a friend, or a preacher -- you are the expert on you. Finally, and wonderfully, after all those years without control, you are the boss of you.

Of course, you should listen to and consider the advice and warnings of others. They may have some great ideas. But you don't need to blindly accept whatever they say. Sift through it. Pick and choose what is right for you. And if they're bullying you, they don't understand what healing is all about.

3. You don't need religion to heal. 

I'm kind of shocked and appalled by how many well meaning Christians try to convert me, not just to Christianity, but to their particular and particularly conservative type of Christianity. They are convinced that this is the only way to heal. Many of them are themselves survivors of sexual abuse and have found great healing in their religion. I think that's wonderful for them. But that doesn't mean it's the right or only path for everyone. I do find it offensive when they won't accept that my path is working for me.

I actually do have a very strong spiritual faith and I know that it has helped me heal. But it's not a Christian one. And I know that atheists can and do also heal from childhood trauma. As I said before, there is no one true path to healing. There are many, with our without God and faith.

4. You don't need to forgive your abuser.

To me, this one is obvious but, to many, it is not. I find that, particularly in religious groups, there is often more emphasis on forgiveness than there is on justice and healing. Coming to a place of forgiveness should not be your goal. Your goal should be doing what is right for you. What your abuser did to you could be unforgivable. That's okay. You're not doing anything wrong if your anger won't go away. In fact, anger is a very healthy part of healing because it shows that you finally value yourself enough to be angry about having been mistreated. (The oldie but goodie, The Courage to Heal, has an entire chapter called "Anger, the Backbone of Healing.")

Focus on your own healing process. If forgiveness comes as a natural part of that process, that's fine, but don't strive for it or condemn yourself if it never comes.

5. Your world-view doesn't need to be fixed. 

Because of what you have experienced, you may have a particular vision of the world that no-one else has. You learned about the world and humanity from the abuse you endured, so your vision of the world and humanity might be a cynical one. That doesn't mean it's wrong and it doesn't mean it needs to be fixed so it's in keeping with the perspectives of those who were not abused. I once had a boyfriend who kept wanting to "teach" me how to see the world more positively; he believed that his, more positive view of the world was the correct one. He was trying to fix me. I don't think it ever occurred to him that I might be able to teach him, or that perhaps it was his world view that needed to be fixed. 

Of course, as you grow older and meet good people, people who are not abusers, your world-view will be added to. It will grow to accommodate the good, as well as the bad. But you don't need to throw out your knowledge of the bad. That too is real and true.

6. You are a good person. Child abuse did not and will not make you a bad person.

Child abuse does not create child abusers. You are not more likely to abuse just because you were an abuser.  If you watch cop shows, you'd think that every child abuse survivor is doomed to become some kind of sexual sadist or psychopathic serial killer. When I tell people what Smother did to me, very often, the very first thing they ask is, "What happened to her when she was a child?" Their implication is that no human would ever abuse a child if she had not herself been abused as a child. So what are they saying about me? That I too am likely to become an abuser? This is a harmful, cruel, and terribly persistent myth.

If an abuser was abused as a child, that's down to their bad character, depravity, and personal choice, not their own childhood.

You are a good person. One of the lies that abusers install in their victims is the repeated mantra, "You're bad. You're bad. You're bad." Even if they don't say so in words, their treatment of you when you were a child made you feel that you must be bad; otherwise, why would they do these terrible things to you? This is a child's logic, a child's struggle to make sense of what is happening to them. But what really makes sense is this: Your abusers were bad. You were and are good.

I don't know one single solitary survivor of child abuse who doesn't constantly struggle with feelings of self-loathing and a lack of self-worth. This includes me. So hear this again: The people who hurt you are the bad guys, not you. You are one of the good guys.

7. Don't be ashamed. 

So many sexual abuse survivors feel a great deal of shame about the ways their bodies were touched and the sexual things they were forced to do. I feel it sometimes too. But why? You didn't do anything wrong. Your abusers did. 100% of the shame belongs to them. None of it belongs to you.

You didn't lead them on. You didn't deserve it. You didn't "let" the abuse happen. If your body responded, it was just doing what a body does. If you still believed you loved your abuser, that's just what a child does... I could go on and list all the reasons survivors use to claim that they should indeed be ashamed. But those reasons aren't valid.

You didn't do anything wrong. Your abusers did. They should be ashamed, not you.

Coming to this realization is one of the things that has made it much easier for me to speak openly about what happened to me. Why shouldn't I? It's not shameful to have been a victim. It's shameful to sexually abuse children. It's not shameful to be a sexual abuse victim and survivor.

And you should also not be ashamed of the things you did in your adult and teen life to survive. Having been raised in an unhealthy, painful environment, many survivors adopt emotionally and even physically unhealthy habits in their teens and adulthood. Some cut themselves. Some turn to prostitution. Some, like me, become such over-achievers, they nearly slaughter themselves with work, study, and over-exercise. Some abuse drugs and alcohol. These behaviours are not helpful to healing, not in the long run, but they don't make you a bad person. You were just fumbling along, trying to do what you thought would help. There's no shame in that.

8. Get clean and sober. 

In an effort to escape from their emotional pain and shame, many sexual abuse survivors begin drinking and or taking drugs, usually at a very young age. It's called "self-medicating." It makes complete sense. In the short term, it actually does work. It quells many of the symptoms of PTSD and does indeed make life easier.

But only in the short term. In the long term, it turns you into an addict so now you have two problems instead of one: addiction and PTSD. The addiction takes control of your life and stunts your emotional development. It prevents healing.

I feel a bit uncomfortable saying this because, for some odd reason, I actually never did turn to drugs or alcohol by choice. (Smother did force me to take many drugs, but that's a different story.) So I can only speak based on my observations of my many survivor friends who do or did self-medicate. Their healing journey does not really begin until they get sober. And it stops again if they relapse.

So try. Try to get sober. Don't do it alone. Seek out those who want to help, not judge or condemn. You will probably find that, in your journey toward sobriety, your healing journey will begin. The two seem to go hand in hand.

9. Your body is clean. You are not dirty. Love your body. 

I think every sexual abuse survivor feels that their body is dirty. How can it not be, after all those things that were done to it? For many years, I felt that my body was nothing more than a garbage can, into which my abusers had deposited their filth, so that they were now clean and I carried their filth within me forever. I don't feel that way anymore. Even if you did some unhealthy things to and with your body when you were an adult, you're still clean.

Your abusers are the dirty ones, not you.

Some people feel that virginity is a form of purity so, if they were raped, they are no longer pure. That's just silly and old-fashioned. It was never true. Whether you were raped or chose to have sex, you are still pure.

You are clean and pure and good.

So love your body. Honour it. Just think of all that it survived! It's tough! Be proud of it. Take good care of it. Give your body the tender loving care and compassion you were never given when you were a child. After all that hell in childhood, you deserve it.

10. You deserve a healthy, happy sex life. 

Sex is not dirty. It's not bad. It doesn't make you an abuser, and it shouldn't feel like abuse. It's not about power or control. It's not something to trade or sell. What your abusers did to you was dirty, bad, sick, selfish and cruel. But that's not you. That's not your sexuality.

If you're anything like me, you will struggle a great deal with your sexuality. You may feel a lot of fear or confusion around sex. That's normal. Do what you feel is right for you. It's okay to be single and celibate. It's okay to be single and promiscuous. It's okay to be in a committed, monogamous relationship. The important thing is that you know yourself and try your very best to make your sexual choices based on what you really want and don't want, not on what you think you should want or not want.

Knowing what you want and who you are sexually is far easier said than done. But do try. Because you deserve a good sex life. You really do! I have found the book, The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, to be very helpful on this topic.

11. Give yourself special treats. 

I bought myself this white gold and diamond ring many years ago. It was the nicest thing I'd ever done for myself. It's sparkle and shine made my heart feel sparkly and light and, after all my hard work in healing and developing my career, I deserved it. It was my way of saying to myself, "Job well done!" 

I said earlier that your body deserves special care. So does your heart. Buy yourself little (or big) treats. Indulge your hobbies and interests. Give yourself your comfort food, whatever that may be: some chocolate cake, a silly television show (my personal fave is Murder She Wrote), quiet time with a book, a night out with your friends, quality time with your cat... Whatever makes you feel relaxed and happy: do it, get it, have it. You deserve it. And it will help you heal.

12. Take care of your child self. 

Some call this "reparenting" yourself. Somewhere inside you is your hurt little child self, still holding all the trauma, fear, and pain of the abuse. Don't run from that little child. Love them. Give them what you never had as a child: safety, comfort, fun foods, presents. I know many survivors who have teddy bears. I sure do. You may feel silly doing childish things -- playing with a doll, watching a children's movie, eating ice cream for dinner -- but, trust me, it helps. Do for yourself what your parents didn't or couldn't do for you.

If you have DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), this is even more important. You have many child selves, or "littles," as they are often called. You may be very nervous to get to know them because they may hold memories and traumas that you'd rather not examine. You may even want to hate or shut out your littles. Try not to do this. They did a lot to get you safely into adulthood. Honour them. Get to know them and their particular personalities. Do nice things for them. Buy them little presents. Reparent them. The more you do, the better you will feel.

13. Remember to have fun! 

Healing should not be all hard work and pain. It should also include being playful and having fun, relaxing and being "lazy." Healing should include simply enjoying life. In fact, this is just as important to healing as is all the painful emotional work you're doing. After all, why are you doing all this hard healing work, if not to finally be able to enjoy life?

Most survivors find it really helpful to find hobbies and creative pursuits that they simply enjoy. It could be anything: knitting, frisbee, collecting stamps, playing music, painting. For me, it's indulging my passion for fashion and style. I love the creativity and the beauty. I love the sparkle and prettiness. I love knowing about fashion history. That's my hobby and that's why this blog, Sublime Mercies, is, among other things, a style blog. It's something I enjoy and that helps me heal.

14. Find a creative way to express your emotions. 

This is a bit different than finding a creative outlet for fun, though it brings with it its own relief and satisfactions.

It can be very difficult to express your emotions. Many people often don't even know exactly how they are feeling. They just feel a mass of tangled, painful emotions stuck inside them, with no way out. There are many creative ways to express and release those emotions. For me, it's writing. I've always loved to write and it's my best way of expressing myself.

But, for many people, it's not words. Many people find it virtually impossible to express their feelings in words. If this is you, don't give up. Instead, try other forms of expression, like painting, drawing, dancing, or making music. Don't worry about it being "good." Your goal is not artistic perfection. Your goal is emotional release and, if you achieve that, even a little, you have achieved the perfection you are seeking.

15. Pay attention to your dreams and nightmares.

If you're like many people with PTSD, you have a lot of nightmares. I have nightmares, usually about the abuse, every single night. My partner, Beau, is so used to waking me up from them, that he no longer even remembers doing so. I hate my nightmares, don't get me wrong, and would happily live without them, but I do learn a lot from them and even heal within them.

For one thing, my dreams can help me know what's going on in my unconscious mind. They let me know about the emotions that I've buried too deeply within myself to notice. They also force me to face emotions that I've been trying hard to avoid.

For instance, I often dream that I am trapped in the town where I lived when I was abused the most severely. In these nightmares, I have no source of transportation and no income and am entirely dependent on Smother who promised we would leave but is now too high on drugs to keep her promises. These dreams force me to face the reality of how young and helpless I was a child and how I was completely under Smother's control. When I start blaming myself for the abuse, these dreams remind me that I was helpless and had absolutely no choice about the abuse and therefore can't possibly be to blame for it.

I also find that, if I pay attention, my recurring nightmares slowly improve and show progress. I used to often dream that I had to share a bed with Smother. Slowly, over time, the nightmares changed and I would be sharing a bedroom but not a bed with her. Then, the nightmares changed again and we were sharing a house or an apartment. Now, the nightmares have further progressed to the point that we have separate apartments in the same building, and even those are beginning to change as I yell at her, telling her that I will not live so close to my abuser.

There is great healing and progress revealed in the slow changes in these nightmares. When I feel that I'm not making progress and not healing at all, I can pay attention to these slow changes and feel proud of myself, knowing that I am moving forward. Perhaps you will learn similar things about yourself if you pay attention to your own dreams.

16. It is normal and natural to repress traumatic memories.

Many sexual abuse survivors repress their memories of the abuse when they are children. It is often the only way for a child to remain sane and, indeed, alive in an insane and dangerous environment. Even adults can do this, as when they can't remember being in a bad car accident, even when they experienced no head trauma.

This is not the same as "forgetting." You have not forgotten what happened to you; you have just repressed it. The memories are still there, and you will probably recover them when you are ready (even if you don't feel that you're ready at all!). When this happens, you are not making it up and you are not crazy.

One of the most common ways for children to suppress memories is to dissociate when the abuse is taking place. This is the process by which they "space out" or "go away" when they are being abused. It feels like they aren't really there or like the abuse is happening to someone else. The memories are then compartmentalized, almost as if they have been put into a secret storage room that you cannot access until you are older. However, there are often hints or clues to those memories in things like your fears, behaviours, and nightmares. In other words, many people have the symptoms of having been abused, of PTSD, before they regain memories of that abuse. 

This is why, when you do recover your repressed memories, you may well find that, finally, your life makes sense. Those odd behaviours? That unexplainable emotional pain? Those strange terrors? Suddenly they don't seem odd, unexplainable, or strange at all. Suddenly your life falls into place like puzzle pieces and you actually understand yourself. The reality you now remember is scary and painful but it makes sense -- and it's real.

If you were abused badly enough, young enough, and often enough, your dissociation may have progressed to the point of DID (formerly called MPD, Multiple Personality Disorder). When a child dissociates, the part of them that "went away" may actually break off from their day-to-day identity and develop its own distinct personality to protect the child from their memories. As an adult, you may even "switch" personalities and have gaps in your memory. When you first start meeting these other personalities or are first diagnosed with DID, you may feel completely crazy. You are not. Your mind's response to your traumas are completely sane and sensible in the face of traumas which would kill a child's spirit were it not for the relief of disassociation.

You may sometimes hear about something called "false memory." The idea that people could "remember" things that never happened to them was a very trendy idea in the 1990s and impeded the healing and recovery of many sexual abuse survivors at the time. Though the idea of false memories can still be found here and there in popular culture, it's important to know that the concept has now been debunked by most psychologists and psychiatrists. It has never been recognized as a syndrome or disorder in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) which is the sort of "bible" of mental disorders. 

Repressing memories of trauma is a normal and healthy way for children to survive. We recover them when we're adults and ready to face them. Period.

17. It's good and courageous to ask for help. 

I don't think anybody can travel this healing journey alone. We all need help. It's not weak to ask for help. It's brave. Tell your friends and family (chosen family or otherwise) what you're going through. You deserve someone you can call in the middle of the night if it gets too much. You deserve someone to cry to. You deserve someone to laugh with. You deserve people with whom you can talk and talk till you feel better.

You can also ask for help from professionals like your doctor or a therapist. It wasn't until I told my physiotherapist about the sex slavery I endured that we figured out what had caused my back injury and how to manage the chronic pain that it creates. It was my doctor who diagnosed my PTSD. It's their job to help. Let them do their job.

18. Shop around for a good fit with health care professionals.

So, it's the job of professionals to help you, but know that you might not find a good fit right away. Don't get too discouraged. Be your own advocate. Shop around a bit and be up front with them about what you need. Find a good fit. I lucked out with my GP; I've been seeing her since I was fifteen! But I didn't have the best luck with therapists. Find ones who specialize in trauma issues; general practitioners might be in over their heads with abuse issues. And work with a therapist who understands your personality; for me, talk therapy is great, but others do better, for example, with art or music therapy. 

I know this is all easier said than done, especially if you don't have a lot of money and live in a country without universal health care. This is a time when your local rape crisis and advocacy group can probably help you by telling you what resources are available in your area.

Through all this, remember again that you are the expert on you. Your therapist or doctor may have read a lot of books on the topic of child abuse but that doesn't make them experts. Having lived it makes you the expert, so don't let them be your boss. 

19. Tell your loved ones about the abuse. 

You don't need to keep secrets anymore. The people who love you -- your chosen family -- will want to know you well, and they can't do that if you keep this big secret from them. If you're worried that they won't like you anymore, or that they'll think you're dirty or bad, you want to find out now, because, if they really think less of you because you were abused, you don't need them as friends. I've found that people actually respect me more once they know what I've survived! Chances are, your friends will feel sad about what you endured and angry at your abusers. In other words, they'll react with love. 

20. Real love doesn't hurt.

Now that you're an adult, you no longer need to take abuse from anyone anymore. You deserve real love, not the kind that hurts, not the kind that hits, not the kind that cheats, not the kind that blames, not the kind that disbelieves, not the kind that puts you down, not the kind that keeps saying it will change. Love is not a powerful force, creating a roller coaster life to which you must resign yourself. Love is not aching for someone to treat you well when they never do.

If someone in your life is saying they love you but is treating you poorly, you don't need that person in your life. Kick them to the curb! 

Love should feel sweet and beautiful and supportive. You can lean on love and know it's on your side. Love is gentle. 

21. Walk away from abusive family members. 

Of course, you shouldn't still have a relationship with the family members who sexually abused you. But you should also cut out the family members who didn't protect you, and didn't believe you. You don't need them in your life if they still don't believe you, or they defend your abuser, or they make light of the suffering you endured. That's not love! Walk away. It's terrifying but it's healthy.

22. Find chosen family instead. 

Cutting of contact with your birth family does not mean you will be alone. You can and will find real friends and real love. These are the people who believe you and believe in you. These are the people you can count on to be there in the ups and downs. These are the people you can laugh and relax with. These are the people who will help you heal. These are the people who will make you feel loved, perhaps for the first time in your life.

There is life after "family." There is chosen family after "family."

23. Educate yourself.

Reading the same books that the supposed "experts" -- therapists, doctors, psychologists -- have read. Learn about how PTSD works. I like to go to the original sources, like the DSM, but there are also plenty of books on the topic that are written in an easier format. The more you read, the more you'll understand yourself. You'll find that many of your supposed weaknesses or personality traits are common symptoms and make perfect sense. You aren't crazy and you aren't alone!

And do read about sexual abusers, pedophiles. Read about how they operate, how they groom their victims, the lies they tell, the acts they engage in, the rationalizations they invent, the blame they place. You'll find that your abusers weren't unique or special. In fact, they were pretty darned generic. The more you understand about how they deliberately confused and misled you, the more you'll be able to let go of any feelings of self-blame.

And a quick note about Wikipedia. I suggest you avoid it as a go-to for information on these topics. Remember that anyone can write and edit Wikipedia entries. This includes pedophiles, abusers, false memory proponents, etc. They can and do edit entries to fit their own twisted views and rationalizations. You want to avoid that. You want to avoid them.

24. Have low expectations if you decide to report the abuse to the police. 

I wish I could confidently and happily encourage you to report your abuse to the police. I wish I could tell you that they will believe you. I wish I could tell you that they will treat you with dignity and compassion. I wish I could tell you that they will thoroughly investigate the crimes committed against you. I wish I could tell you that your abusers are likely to be charged and jailed. I wish I could tell you that there is justice. I cannot tell you any of these things.

I have been to the police four times about my own abuse history. The first time, they simply asked my primary abuser if she had abused me. She said no. Big surprise. Have you ever known a sexual abuser to say, "Oh yes, I did that"? Of course not! The file was closed and I got an irate phone call from my abuser, angry that I had gone to the police. End of story. 

When I went to the police about a teacher who molested me when I was thirteen (and whom I'd learned was still molesting other students), the woman interviewing me repeatedly asked me if I'd wanted him to leave his wife to be with me! She looked at my veins to see if I was a junkie. She wouldn't let me take a break for lunch or juice. She also didn't know how to spell dissociation. The file was closed, as was the third one. The fourth time I reported, a police officer told me he'd call me before Christmas. That was seven years ago. I haven't heard from him since. The file seems to have gone missing.

As badly as I want sexual abusers to be brought to justice, I cannot in good conscience advise you to report your abuse to the police. I know you want to stop your abusers from hurting more children. So do I! Desperately. But I have heard hundreds of stories of police disbelief, abuse, racial prejudice, sexism, disrespect, ineptitude, and disinterest. Survivors go through hell and their abusers are never even taken to court, let alone convicted. 

So, if you want to go to the police, be aware of what you are facing. And don't do it alone. Most cities and regions now have rape crisis centres and one of their main jobs is to work as allies when rape victims, including victims of child sexual abuse, are dealing with the police and the "justice" system. Contact them. Work with them. This is too much for you to take on on your own.

Unfortunately, there's a good chance you are going to have to find a way to make peace with the fact that we do not live in a fair or just world, where bad guys are punished and good guys prevail. I'm still working on finding that peace. I mean, my God, I was literally crippled by my abusers, and yet, still, they don't face justice!  But we can still heal without justice. It's harder, but it is possible. 

And we can do other things to work toward a change in the system. Some people go to demonstrations. Some people write letters to their politicians. Some people go the media. Some network with other survivors. Some, like me, speak loudly about their experiences, trying to raise awareness in the hope that, some day, things will change.

25. Get to know other survivors. 

I can't overstate how helpful and healing it is to know other people who truly understand you and what you're going through. They are all ages, have all levels of education, come from all walks of life, but you all have this one thing in common and it is amazing to find each other. 

I've known a lot of survivors most of my adult life but my blog has put me in touch with many more. Friends I'd never known were abused have now told me their own stories. Strangers have read my blog and written to me, telling me that their own lives were similar. They've invited me into their online support groups. They've commented on my posts, telling me and the whole world that we're not alone.

You can find each other in many ways. First, just by telling your own story to your loved ones, you'll be amazed by how many of them say, "Me too. It happened to me too." It's sad that it's happened to so many people, but it's also good to find each other. You can also find local support groups; your doctor or local rape crisis centre might know about them. You can also find support groups online, in places like Facebook and Google+. Most of these online groups are "closed," meaning you have to ask to join and they can't be read by outsiders, so they feel pretty safe.

One of the most wonderful things about meeting other survivors is that you get a chance to help others. You might be surprised to find how much love and support you have to give. You can share tips on what works for you and they can tell you what works for them in this up and down healing process. You can vent emotions to each other. You can share good news. 

And here's the incredible thing: when these people tell you their own stories of abuse, your compassion for them will slowly help you to find compassion for yourself
You know without doubt, that they are not to blame for what happened to them. Slowly, you start to realize that, if they're not blame and they're not bad or dirty, maybe you aren't either! Earlier, I told that you are good, that you are not dirty, that you have no reason to be ashamed. I have found that there are two ways to really start feeling this truth: one is to receive love, the other is to give love to other survivors. 

26. You're never finished healing. 

No matter how much healing work you do, you will always be affected by your past. You can't "just get over it," and live and feel as if nothing bad ever happened to you. Anyone who says you can is not your friend. You're not weak if you feel the pain of the past. You're not weak if it's left you physically and/or emotionally scarred and even crippled. You'll always have some pain about what happened. You'd be a robot if you didn't and you're no robot. You're human. 

You're also strong: you're still here, aren't you?   

Despite being affected by your past, you can still enjoy life. You can still thrive. Things do get better. They just never get perfect. You'll also find that healing comes in waves. It is not a one-way, linear path. Sometimes, you'll feel completely defined by your suffering, but, other times, you'll go for weeks or even months without thinking about it at all. Whatever your emotion, it will eventually pass, and whatever replaces it will eventually pass too. You'll get used to these rhythms and live with more hope and happiness as you prove to yourself, again and again, that, yes, you really can do this healing thing and, yes, it really is worth it. 

I think that's all my advice for now. It's a lot! It doesn't feel like nearly enough.

Now tell us all your own advice, even it contradicts mine. What has worked for you? What hasn't? What would you tell a sexual abuse survivor just starting out on this long journey? Tell us what you think we need to know. Let's all help each other along the way.

(I'm sharing this with The Style Crone and Brilliant Blog Posts on Honest Mum.)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Dressing for the Apocalypse: the Cloud Dress and the End of Days

We're having a very frightening summer in my part of the world right now. It's been impossible to deny that climate change is here, and that we will all suffer -- are all already suffering -- as a result.

You see, our province is on fire. I took this dark, smoky photo in my backyard on a cloudless, late afternoon. What we are enduring here has got us all thinking about and feeling climate change, wondering how much more of it we'll endure in our lifetimes, and whether it's too late to reverse the horrors brought on by our own greed and stupidity.

Dress: I can't remember; Shoes: Ecco; Scarf, sunglasses, earrings, bracelet, and brooch: vintage
But first came the heat wave, gruelling, uncharacteristic, intense, and seemingly unending. By early July, everything was parched, thirsty, and tired ...

... including me. With my white white skin and auburn hair, I have never been able to handle the heat. Long before others were even aware of the dangers of the sun or of climate change, I was the child getting heat stroke, getting severe sun burns, and seeking the shade whenever possible.

I suffer terribly when others are completely comfortable or, crazier yet, talking nonsense about "great weather" and "beautiful days."

But, this time, everyone else felt as awful as I always do in the summer. No-one was saying the days were gorgeous. Everyone and everything was wilting.

Using an old pie plate and plant stand, I rigged up a bird bath for the parched little birds that I feed all year round. In no time, they were lined up for turns, ruffling the cool water through their feathers, right down to their skin, and tilting their heads back to let the water run down their throats.

We all knew it was a bad summer, and we city dwellers vaguely thought about climate change, but, when we woke to this sunrise ...

Photo by Jonathan Hayward
... and the smoke quickly denuded all colour from our world ...

... and obscured all our landmarks ... Well, then we began talking about the end of days.

Remember again that these photos were taken on cloudless days.
All of my local friends and I were posting photos of our dark, smoky views and everyone was using words like "apocalypse," "end of days," and "Armageddon."

It was too awful to take in so we called it "surreal," but real it was, whether our puny imaginations could encompass it or not.

It was truly terrifying.


As an abused child, I read a lot of post-apocalyptic novels, and have actually re-read a few of them recently. A world without humans and civilization appealed to me. I liked the idea of kids having the tenacity and intelligence to survive on their own.

I still frequently have post-apocalyptic nightmares in which I'm learning to exist in a world devoid of all modern conveniences and niceties. There is an odd comfort and sense of victory in the survival skills I find within me in those dreams. I assume they're a metaphor for my having survived the abhorrent, depraved sexual abuse of my childhood.

But what's happening now is no metaphor and it's nothing like the novels I read in my youth. They were all written during the Cold War and the apocalypse -- brought on by nuclear war, plague, or plague caused by nuclear war -- was always swift, sudden, and complete.

Not so the real, man-made apocalypse. What came home to me, with our city gritty and dark with smoke, is that what we are witnessing now is the slow but undeniable creep of an environmental apocalypse. We have been witnessing and living it for quite some time. We will go on living it for a long time to come.

It is entirely our own fault.

Sure, you can claim, "It's not my fault. I am not contributing to climate change." But you are. We all are, in one way or another.

I've always tried to lead an environmentally friendly life. In hopes of a more equitable distribution of food, I stopped eating red meat when I was twelve, and poultry when I was seventeen. I've always recycled and shopped second hand. I've never owned a car or even learned how to drive. I've always chosen to live centrally so that I could use transit and walk everywhere, rather than using a car.

That sort of thing. None of it is really enough though. We could all do far more than we do.

Of course, trying to live an environmentally friendly life has been much harder since I became disabled. I sometimes think that, if anyone "needs" a car, it's someone like me. But how can I own one when everyone who doesn't need a car is driving one anyway? I've heard so many people claim to need a car when, clearly, they don't. They just don't want to alter their lifestyles; they "need" a car if they're to maintain their preferred lifestyles, lifestyles that I doubt include a sky so smoky, it's difficult to breathe.

So, in large part because of their choices, Beau and I choose not to have a car. We use car co-ops and I use my electric scooter.

We agonize over whether to buy an air conditioner in this heat, and try to make do with fans and ice.

When it looks like this on sunny, cloudless day, we've got to try to do something about climate change.

After all, it's not just our planet and future to throw away. The older I get, the more deep affection I have for animals. I can't stop worrying about them and their young during these forest fires. If we humans feel frightened and bewildered and helpless, how must they feel? If some of us are having trouble breathing, what must their fragile bodies be enduring?

My own act sad little act of defiance against all this was to wear a rain cloud outfit, inspired by my new brooch.

I wore all greys and silvers, trying to look like a cloud to encourage the rain to finally come. It was silly, of course, a kind of gallows humour in the face of my fear.

I wore grey eye shadow, a grey dress, a grey ring, a grey brooch, and a grey silk scarf in my hair. Of course, it was too hot to keep hair down for more than a few minutes, despite my finally having gotten a good hair cut.

If I could have, I'd have done a little dance too, to bring the rain down.

I felt like Winnie-the-Pooh when he rolled in dirt and disguised himself as a cloud to fool the bees whose honey he was planning to steal.

Perhaps I should also have sung "a little Cloud Song, such as a cloud might sing."

My ploy was just as unsuccessful as Pooh's was. The rain did not come for several more days (and the collective joy when it did come was huge). Plus, the irony is that my grey outfit also matched the grey smoke filling the sky and that just made me sad. 

What have we done? Is it too late to change it? How can my tiny little attempts at ecological friendliness possibly make a difference?

But it's the end of days. We've got to do something!

(I'm sharing this with The Style CroneSydney Fashion Hunter, Fashion Should Be Fun, and Happiness at MidLife.)

Friday, July 10, 2015

'The Appalling Silence of the Good': Abused Children are Everyone's Responsibilty

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
I'm going to tell your four short stories from my own life.

1. When I was about three and my brother was about eleven, our father left us in an extremely abusive home, where I was repeatedly so brutally raped that I was rendered physically disabled. Years later, my father claimed that he hadn't known what was happening to his children. I took him at his word. However, he later told me that, shortly after he had left us, a friend wrote to him and said, "Your son is broken. Something is terribly wrong."

My father did nothing. Well, actually, he did do something: he moved to the other end of the continent. After that, we saw him for a few days every few years.

2. When I was about 14, I asked my father if it had ever occurred to him to stay near his children after he had left our home. "Well, if you'd wanted me to stay," he replied, "you should have said something." I was three.

3. When I was five, I went to the doctor with some form of sexually transmitted disease that required medication. The doctor gave Smother my medications. He did not report the incident. He did not talk to me about what was happening in my home. He did nothing to help me. He did, however, tell me to keep "cleaner down there," something I then dutifully reported to the person who was, at the time, my primary sexual abuser.

Smother told me to tell everyone that I had a bladder infection because, "they wouldn't understand." I went to a birthday party at which I told the birthday girl's mother, who had to give me one of my pills, "It's not really a bladder infection, you know. I'm just supposed to tell people that because they wouldn't understand." I was naturally averse to lying, so telling her that I was supposed to lie was the best I could do. When the party ended, I hid in an empty closet in her house, hoping to never go home again. In my five year old way, I was running away. This woman did nothing. Well, not nothing. She helped Smother drag me out of the closet and laughed with her about how silly little children are.

4. When I was an adult and began telling people who had known me as a child what had happened to me, many of them said that they'd known something was wrong at the time. They all did nothing, exactly nothing at all to help me.

"History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am telling you now that all those people who did nothing -- my father, that doctor, that birthday girl's mother, all the people who knew something was wrong -- are to blame for what happened to me. And they are to blame for the sometimes fatal abuse endured by any child whose distress they ignored or wilfully didn't see. They are not good people.

Passivity and silence are not inaction; they are the act of allowing evil to continue. Silence, passivity, and selfishness are the implicit permission abusers need. They are, indeed, forms of evil unto themselves.

Skirt: Mod Cloth; Shirt: Merona; Sandals: Wonders; Scarf, sunglasses, bangle, ring, earrings, and brooch (worn as pendant): vintage
When it comes to child abuse, there is more silence than speaking out, more turning a blind eye than rescue, more indifference than outrage. A child in a situation like mine is a child utterly trapped, with nowhere to turn. There are hundreds of thousands, millions, of children, in just that situation. Of course, the abusers are to blame, but so are those who do nothing to stop it, and, indeed, do everything they can to keep from admitting that it is happening at all. This too is child abuse.

This issue is increasingly upsetting to me as I hear story after story of victims who could have been saved if only someone had believed them or seen their distress and done something. But the issue has come home to me in a very personal way in the last few weeks. You can tell by my outfit. If you know me, you know I'm upset about something when I'm wearing festive attire.

When I feel defeated, I often wear my most festive clothes and jewelry, both in an effort to cheer myself up and as an act of defiance against whatever or whomever has upset me. Look at how my earrings appear not just to capture the sun, but to carry their own light within them. It's hard not to be cheered up by such beauty. And I've needed cheering.

You see, my father is refusing to come to my wedding. Why? Because, he says, I don't respect him! I guess he's right. I don't. Would you respect someone who abandoned his children in an abusive home? But, in his mind, my lack of respect for him is, and always has been, the fault of my own narrow-mindedness. He has done nothing wrong.

As hurt and angry as I am -- and I am both -- I don't want to turn this post into a revengeful or vindictive one.

Instead, I am using this incident to write about the culpability of those who know something is wrong in a child's life and do nothing about it. My father was one of those people but he was by no means the only one. And there are still many like him today.

My father, in about 1963.

Look at the above photo. What do you see? A great vintage shot of a beatnik on the beach? An interesting poet?

I see a man so intent on looking artfully into the middle distance that he is oblivious to the imminent danger to the baby -- whom I'm assuming is his own son -- who is purposefully crawling into the surf. That's my father in a nutshell.

He is the king of the self-important, middle distance stare, but not so good with caring for others or even seeing them at all.

I have lived in fear of being like my father in this way because I know that, in many many ways, I am indeed just like him.

My father, me, my cousin, my aunt, and my uncle, my father's brother, who is furious with me for supposedly lying about the abuse I endured, though he says he knew something was wrong when I was a child. I will address the issue of disbelief in another post.

For one thing, we look exactly alike. I got my hair from him. He's the one in the foreground with the red Jewfro. I'm the tiny little girl with the red Jewfro. Related much?
That's my father, at about 17, on the left. That's me, at about 19, on the right.

We also have the same small, muscular frames, same eyes, same eyebrows, same chin, same nose, same everything.

But, deeper than that, we also have many of the same interests and personality traits. We're both deeply but unconventionally spiritual. We're both cultural outsiders, bohemians, if you will. We're both introverted loners. We're both highly organized. We're both college teachers. We both have lifelong passions for writing and the arts in general.

He does see these similarities. He does see this connection. But there is also a lot that he misses. For instance, in what little contact we've had over the years, he's repeatedly urged me to write, almost as if it's a moral imperative for anyone with the skill to do so. But, when I began this blog, he would not even read it because he saw it as nothing but a vanity project and a "cult of personality." It was not his personal preferred venue for writing (despite the fact that his genre is also the personal essay) so it was not writing at all.

Nor do we share the same definition of art. He does not see the value of beauty for its own sake, and the therapeutic uplift it can give to those who have suffered.

He certainly doesn't see style as a form of art or self-expression. He sees it as nothing but vanity, materialism, and a manifestation of everything he abhors about mainstream society. Therefore, to him, without even reading my blog, he was certain that it was trite, trivial, and far far beneath him.

Still, there are all those things that we do have in common. I've always and against my will felt connected to him deep within my self. He and I are blood of each other's blood, spirit of each other's spirit. I even told him that in my letter asking him to come to my wedding.

Because of this connection, his indifference to me has always been heart-breaking. So has the fact that, in his mind, it has always been my fault.  

To him, I am just a pouting, belligerent, mainstream (the worst of all insults) sell-out. He could never understand that, before any real relationship between us could develop, I needed him to feel genuine remorse for having abandoned his children in hell. He needed to see his own culpability in what happened to us, and how he could have, should have, stopped it, and chose to do nothing. This will never happen. Never.

There are many parents like him. You know the type: nothing is ever their fault. He's this way with his many girlfriends too, all of whom dump him after a few months, through no fault of his own.

In fact, it was his constant search for and ill treatment of his girlfriends that led to our latest falling out two years ago. 

I had just found out that my chronic pain disability was caused by the child abuse and that it is, therefore, permanent. My whole world fell apart. How could I live with pain for the rest of my life? Would I be able to work? What would I do for money? How would I ever make peace with the fact that I was permanently disabled because of the depraved, selfish urges of a bunch of sadistic paedophiles?

I talked to my father about this on the phone. He made an attempt at sympathy (but still no regret for having abandoned me to such abuse). But he was far more interested in talking about how sad he was that his latest girlfriend had dumped him.

Not surprisingly, I eventually lost my patience and asked him if he could think of anything he had done to cause the breakup. No, he said, he couldn't. She, like all the other women he's dated, was just "afraid of commitment."

About a week later, we talked again. I spoke again about how my world was crashing down around me. He listened in impatient silence, and then he launched: in our last conversation, he said, I had attacked him while he was down, and that's just not what supportive friends do. Wow. Just... wow.

When I said something about how I'd listened to his breakup stories enough to have a sense of the frustrations and disappointments that lead his girlfriends to break up with him, his voice rose and he asked, "Do you hear yourself?! Do you hear your unbelievable arrogance in thinking that you can possibly know what others feel?"

"Most people," I said, "call that empathy."

I simply could not deal with him at this crisis point in my life. I sent him an olive branch or two, but they were rebuffed.

Perhaps I'm a fool, but I did want him at my wedding: blood of my blood, and spirit of my spirit, and all that, don't you know? Given all the abuse in my family, he was the only family member I invited. But I now have enough self-worth that I did set some parameters: I told him that my wedding and the time leading up to it were not the right time for "working things out," as I knew that would just lead to more drama and recriminations against me.

He said, on those terms, he would not attend the wedding.

So. I'm done with him. No more.

If I'd had more pride in myself and what I deserve, I would have excised this man from my life long ago, but what did I know of love and being treated well? Nothing, that's what. Who had ever taught me about that? Not my parents, that's for sure!

As a step-mother, the more I understand the innocence and vulnerability of children, and my responsibility to them -- not just my own children, but all children -- the more I understand what my father did to me all those years ago. I understand the cruelty and selfishness not just in his initial abandonment, but in his continued absence and wilful blindness in the face of all that evidence that his children were in terrible danger.

You just don't do that, not just to your own children, but to any children! I understand that now.

It wasn't until I met Beau that I knew what it was to be loved and treated well, with respect and a deep concern for my well-being. Only then could I start to see the wrongs committed against me, not just by my father, but by all those who had known something was wrong and done nothing.

Such people are common. Some of these people, unlike my father, are wonderful, devoted, loving parents. But that's not enough.


"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

To be a good person, you must also be a good citizen. This means looking beyond your own family and friends and knowing that the well-being of all people, especially all children, is your responsibility as well. It means opening your eyes, educating yourself, and speaking up, no matter how inconvenient, no matter how unpopular it may make you.

Imagine how different my life would have been if my father, or the doctor, or the birthday girl's mother, or any of those people who knew that something was wrong had actually done something.

I wouldn't be disabled. I wouldn't have PTSD. I would be able to work, and run, and dance. I wouldn't wake each and every night from nightmares and physical pain. Just imagine what I might have accomplished!

Such relief and joy those people could have brought to me! But they didn't. Why didn't they? They didn't want to be bothered? They thought it was none of their business? They felt it wasn't their responsibility? What possible excuse could anyone have for not intervening if they even think there's even a possibility that a child might be in danger?

Fun fact: it's the law to do so. It's the law to report even a suspicion of child abuse. But few do.

Lately, when I think on all this, when I think on the roaring danger of silence, I am enraged. Of course I am angry with those who abused me, but, as I learn my own self-worth and what it means to be a good person, I am also increasingly angry with those who do nothing, who claim they know nothing when merely opening their eyes and caring would show them where they could make a change in a child's life.

Is a child not worthy of rescue?

Is a child's life not worth the bother?

Was I not worth the bother?

I'm starting to know that I was. Every child is. And we all need to remember this, every minute of every day.