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.)


  1. This is an awesome list!!!!! Hooray for the wisdom you have forged and share with the world!

    1. Thank you, Patti. And thanks for helping me through those really rough, flash-backy times all those years ago.

  2. Emotional abuse is a sneaky one. It isn't hard to recognize someone's physical abuse because it is physical. And your story is an example of how bad it can be. I grew up with emotional abuse and while not nearly as bad as yours, at 70 it still affects me. You have done a wonderful job of defining ways to deal with the afteraffects and I can use many of your thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

    1. So glad I can be of help. Feel free to share it with anyone you think it might help. I recently wrote a post about the emotional abuse and neglect I experienced with my father. You might want to read that one too:

  3. This is an amazing post that deserves a wider audience; such knowledge and such tenderness in it. I was fortunate not to have abuse in my childhood but someone close to me was not so lucky. The abuse in this case was physical but not sexual, but the advice you give - especially about self-esteem and all the parts of one's life connected to it - still applies.

    And as a side note, I love your outfit. How ingenious and pretty - love the sweater clips, the icing on the cake.

    1. I'm glad to hear that my advice helps those who have survived other forms of abuse too.

      Outfits are such fun. I've got some good ones coming up, including one with another pair of great dress clips.

  4. Well thought-out. There's truth in each point. Even after bleeding and vomiting all the garbage hidden deep within me onto the pages of Word, I still sleep with my head and face completely covered and need to surround myself as I lay in my bed (which is nearly 24/7 hours a week due to the paralyzing virus I contracted during the years I was trafficked).

    Healing is more than a process, it sometimes consumes every waking hour and haunts me during the night.

    Guilt and shame follow me even though I know it was not my fault. These two things are difficult to shake. It has been 44 years since those days. I was eleven the first time I was molested, twelve the first time I was raped, fifteen the first time I was gang-raped and was held captive by sex traffickers from the time I was eighteen until I was almost twenty-two. I am now sixty-three and have turned my carthasis into a soon-to-be published book.

    I fell into two abusive marraiges, drug-abuse, seven suicide attempts and self-harming.

    I now spend my days hosting human trafficking and sexual violence awareness sites (one of which led me to the pleasure of *meeting* you). For that, I am grateful. You are truly inspiring.

    Your list is comprehensive with many points I"ve never thought of. Thank you, Charlotte. I'm certain this will help many survivors of sexual abuse.

    1. I'm so sorry those horrible people did all those awful things to you. You and I both are working toward very similar goals: to raise awareness about this and to END it. It's nice to know I'm not alone. We're turning our survival to good.

      I'm curious to know which points I made that you hadn't thought of before. Do tell!

  5. Your list resonates well with me. I'd like to add:

    Notice your blessings. Celebrate them. Daily.

    1. That's a good one and I'm not sure why I didn't think to add it. My whole blog is about, as the tag line says, "finding small beauties in a big bad world." That's very similar to counting one's blessings.

  6. I agree completely. It's always refreshing to see a survivor say "you don't need to forgive your abuser" and to see them say "there's no single path to healing". There are a lot of people who loudly argue otherwise. And everyone I know who says "I'm completely healed" winds up receiving in-patient psychiatric care within six months.

    1. Yes, I do know what you mean about those who think they're completely healed. I've seen that kind of thing too, though not always that dramatic.

  7. This is me, Charlotte, sharing something someone wrote to me on Google+:

    Charlotte Issyvoo, you motivate me! I know plenty of dudes with severe PTSD that haven't gone through half as much hell as you have. Big, strong men, killers, heroes who are daily loosing the battle with their demons. I cry for them and their pain, yet here you are, a fraction of their physical size and strength, winning a war waged against a much more formidable adversary. Keep on fighting warrior! You're a role model to more people than you might realize . . 

  8. Thank you for your thoughts. They are very helpful and your example is comforting to me. I was grateful for your input about healing through different religions and no religion at all. You are right, we are not required to be a specific religion to heal. I am a Christian and I find strength in that, but I also value that I can share my thoughts freely with others who do not believe the same thing. It is challenging I think, on both sides to feel as though our views are not accepted. You put it very nicely that there are many ways to heal. It is not our differences that should be focused on, but the similarities. I find the community of those who are healing to be positive and supportive no matter what our religious and philosophical beliefs. I also have been strengthened when someone allowed me to share my thoughts on prayer or my feelings about God. Just as they have respected my feelings about my life, I understand that they also have valid feelings and thoughts. I think I feel closer to them when they feel they can share an opposing view with me. I guess it shows sincerity in our connection. We do not have to approach it the same way, but we are approaching healing and that is what counts.

    Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and experience. You are setting a good example that empowers others to adopt some of these things into their life. I hope you continue to find strength in your journey.

  9. Thanks for your comments. It seems that the thing people like most about this post is that I don't say there is only one way to heal. I actually do have a very deep, if unconventional, faith in God, though my definition of God is different from most. I know, without doubt, that God's love helped me survive when I was a child and that my faith helps me find my path now, including my path toward activism around child abuse issues. However, I also know for a fact that having a faith in God is not necessary for healing. I also know that, when someone tries to convince me that Christianity (and it's a very limited, specific type of conservative Christianity) is the only path toward healing... well, I'm offended. I'm also offended when someone says that a person must reject religion in order to heal. So, thanks for understanding what I'm getting at here. Follow the path that is right for you and I wish you every joy as you heal.

  10. Great list! Everyone has his or her own path.