Monthly Archives: February 2012

Anger Management

When I started in therapy for my abuse, one of the first symptoms to be addressed was my flat affect (lack of emotion). I talked about the abuse as a matter of fact, as if I were discussing data from a marketing report. I just couldn’t “feel” about it. I couldn’t get angry about what my parents had repeatedly done to me. My doctor and therapist asked me how I’d feel if my parents abused my children in the same ways they had abused me. I think my reply was something like, “The first thing I’d do would be to take a shotgun to my dad’s balls.” In other words, I had no trouble getting angry at just the thought of my children being hurt. That certainly helped me understand the problem I was facing.

When I was hospitalized, I was on the Trauma Unit, which deals primarily with people who have been abused, I attended the Anger Management group. It sounds like it’s for people who have a problem keeping their anger under control, and that’s true. It’s also for people like me, who couldn’t get angry. After attending a few groups, I discovered that one of the problems I faced was that I was afraid of being angry at my parents. I had seen the consequences of expressing anger with my parents. It wasn’t pretty to say the least. In one situation, my dad took a bullwhip to my brother. The fact that my parents were hundreds of miles away and had no idea I was even in the hospital, let alone what I was discussing didn’t make a difference in how I felt. Facts often have little to do with emotions.

Facts are, however, where we have to start. Fact: I was sexually abused. Fact: My father did it. Fact: My mother knew and did nothing to stop it. Fact: I was now royally screwed up because of it.

I started by getting angry, because my husband and children had been hurt: by being separated from me every time I was hospitalized and by my suicide attempts. In Anger Management we threw balls of clay at a sheetrock “board.” The first few times I just threw the clay as an exercise in connecting my body to my emotions. Sound strange? I was only able to acknowledge the possibility of anger toward my parents in my brain. I needed to reconnect with my body, and throwing the clay helped do that.

After a while I could feel a little anger, call it frustration or annoyance, and I tried to let those feelings connect with the clay and fly out of my body onto the board. The feelings gradually and slowly grew into appropriate feelings, and I got angry. Really angry. I was encouraged to yell or scream if I needed to as I threw clay at the board. The point is connect with the anger, feel it and then leave it there with the clay on the board. I had to practice staying with it while I was throwing. I would approach the anger, then run away out of terror of the feelings.

I learned about healthy anger that alerts me to the presence of a problem that I need to deal with. Now, it also took practice to know where, when and how to express it. Sometimes, outside the hospital and the Anger Management room, I’d get angry and express it inappropriately. Caused some embarrassment for my family a few times, which I regretted. Eventually I learned to get it right, at least most of the time. The old adage, “Practice makes perfect,” is not really true, as my daughter’s orchestra conductor taught her. Instead, “Practice makes permanent, and perfect practice makes perfect.” So when I’d get angry, I’d slow down before just acting on it. I’d think about where, when and how to best deal with it. I’ve gotten better with it over time. Occasionally I still express anger inappropriately, which means I’ve gotten really good at saying I’m sorry and asking for forgiveness.

I’ve learned a lot about anger, and I’ve had to admit there are other ways to deal with my anger at my dad besides shooting his balls off, though once in a while, I admit it is a somewhat satisfying visualization.


Mind Readers

Abusive families usually abuse in more than one way. For example, in my family, we children learned quickly how to gauge the feelings, thoughts and opinions of our parents. People say that no one is a mind reader, but we came as close to mind reading as anyone possibly could. It was essential to our survival.

We learned to listen carefully to everything they said openly or obliquely. We watched their expressions closely for clues to their moods and reactions. We paid attention to the way they moved: the turn of their heads, the gestures they used. When we saw a flying hand, we knew to duck. Even when away from them, we parroted their opinions as fact. We shut out the beatings or justified them by telling ourselves we deserved the punishment. I (being the only one who was sexually abused) forced myself to forget what happened during the daily naps.

When we could, we deflected the anger toward a sister or brother onto ourselves. I was much younger than my siblings, and when my mother was in a rage at me, my oldest brother would grab me up and run away from our mother. After she followed us outside and was running around the house to catch up, he would carry me inside, and lock all the doors to keep her out. He would only unlock them after she’d had time to cool down, and he was sure she wouldn’t hurt me as she had hurt him so many times.

When I grew up and left home and was finally safe, I didn’t stop trying to mind read. It had become an ingrained behavior. If a friend looked confused or perhaps angry or frustrated, I was on my guard. What had I done to cause it? What did I need to do to fix it? My mind raced to it figure out as my heart pounded. I tried not to let on, because it was crucial to figure it out without asking. Most of the time, it would blow over, because it was never about me to begin with. Sometimes, I would ask what I had done to upset my friend only to learn . . . it wasn’t about me to begin with. I was a bit shocked to learn that I wasn’t the cause of every negative feeling in those around me.

I have worked hard to internalize that and to wait until someone expresses frustration with me before starting to panic. I squelch the panic if I can, but it’s still hard for me to stay calm and control my feelings as we talk and work things out. I’ve learned that I can work things out with the people and relationships that really matter. But it’s work. It’s a process of retraining. And it can only be done with safe people who can be trusted with the precious person of me.

As you develop relationships with safe people, people whom you can trust, try out your wings. Don’t always jump to the conclusion that you’re causing the problems you sense in your friends. Try to stay calm and just wait. Healthy people who respect others will tell you if there’s a problem. Then it’s your responsibility to react as a mature adult: without becoming defensive or crumbling with guilt. Remember the Guilt Bucket? This is the time to use those lessons. You’ll find it much easier to respond in a composed manner if your Guilt Bucket is healthy. Your relationships will grow deeper with the mutual respect that builds between people who are respectful of one another through the ups and downs of relationships.

Growing up into a healthy, responsible, mature adult is hard for anyone, even from the best of families. For us, it’s a true challenge. But challenges can be overcome, and you can overcome this to become the kind of friend/spouse/parent who is capable of real relationships that are open, kind and loving.


Attention-Seeking

Attention-seeking is a common behavior of anyone who’s been sexually abused. Frequently the only real attention we got as we were growing up was negative. In fact, our best choice was often to become invisible, thinking that perhaps invisibility would save us from the abuse we knew was coming. We’ve been starved for positive attention for years. When we get into treatment, we find people who care, people who listen. Their attention is like a drug to us, and we quickly become addicted. When we need an “attention fix” we go seeking the drug we need. So we start doing things that people sometimes term a “call for help.” We throw temper tantrums; we walk around looking sad or glum, hoping someone will ask us what’s wrong. Or, a few of us, like me, made a habit of escaping every time I was hospitalized. Part of it was that I liked the challenge, but a bigger part was the attention I knew I would get. I knew that while they were looking for me, they were all thinking about me. I was occupying their attention, and when I returned they would spend time with me trying to understand and help me understand what I was running from. Truth is: only the first time I escaped, was I running. After that it was for the challenge and the attention.

I also used my predilection to cutting. Sometimes cutting wasn’t about suicide at all. Sometimes it was about anger, and others it was all about attention-seeking. We grow up with manipulation and learn to be master manipulators ourselves. I used my skill quite effectively. I learned how to get the staff to worry about me, and I fed on that attention. Eventually, the staff figured out what I was doing, and I was “busted.” It still didn’t stop me. I was a slow learner. We use the same behaviors at home to get the attention we need from the important people in our lives. We become a perpetrator as we abuse them by causing them to constantly worry about what drama they would have to face that day.

My attention-seeking was cured in just four days when my doctor had had enough. He moved me from the trauma unit in the hospital where I’d been to the county lock-up. I was only allowed to take shampoo, soap, and a change of clothes. No makeup. No reading material. No stuffed animals for comfort. The people there were truly ill and most were under a court order. Therapy couldn’t benefit the people here. And I was in their midst for four days. Some had no boundaries and walked right up to me and behaved completely inappropriately. A few tended to violent outbursts, screaming and throwing things. One or two were watched closely, because they had a history of physical violence. There were big, burly techs who walked the floor in an effort to keep the peace and avoid inappropriate behavior. After a couple of encounters in which the techs had to intervene, I learned to just stay in my room. There were no groups or therapy to break up the days. Nothing to do. Nothing to read. So I sat in my room, contemplating what had gotten me there, just as my doctor had hoped. I hid on the floor or slept. Sometimes I stared out the window in my room at a tree that, barren of leaves in the winter, struck quite a striking pose. All these years later, I still remember the spartan beauty of that tree.

My doctor had made his point. I felt duly chastised. He explained to me that if I needed his attention all I had to do was talk to him. He wanted to give me positive rather than negative or punitive attention. Those four days cured me of my attention-seeking behavior. I learned to accept the calm, reassuring positive attention they offered me when I reached out to them. I had to trust that using words to express my hurt was more effective than anything else I could do. Talking allowed them to give me the attention I really needed. I stopped cutting for attention and quit breaking out of the hospital. My relationships with my doctor and therapist improved tremendously when it was based on mutual trust. My progress improved as I focused on healing rather than trying to get attention. It was an important step forward in my recovery process.

Attention-seeking is a distraction that keeps you and your therapist focused on something other than your recovery and keeps you stuck. You can’t afford to lose one more day on your journey to wellness. Leave any attention-seeking behaviors behind. Today.


Feeling Less Than

Being abused as a child crosses the wires in the mind in a myriad of ways. Just a couple of the casualties of abuse is a normal sense of self and a growing confidence. Those of us who were abused knew we were different. We knew not everyone was being abused, and we sure knew that being abused was a bad thing. Why us? Why were we being abused? Our little child minds were egocentric, which is normal for little ones. Being egocentric meant that we thought the world revolved around us, that we were the cause of the good, the bad and the ugly around us. And something very ugly was happening to us. Obviously (we thought) it was something about us that caused it. We thought we weren’t as good as other little girls.

We were Less Than.

Less than what? Less than “normal.” Less than loved. Less than pretty. Less than acceptable. Less than human. As we grew, being Less Than began to define us. We struggled to relate to others, to be acceptable, but we didn’t know how, because we were Less Than. We even believed that God saw us as Less Than.

If you were like I was, you created a persona you thought would make you acceptable to the world around you. For me that meant becoming an over-achiever and striving for perfection. I wanted to feel better about myself, so I tried to overcome my feeling of being Less Than. I ran from it. For you it may have meant embracing that feeling and living according to the low standards that being Less Than set for you. So perhaps you became a rebel or tried to become invisible. We were desperate to find acceptance somewhere. No matter how we looked on the outside, inside we were dying from feeling Less Than and always wondering why.

The truth, of course, is that we were and are precious beings created in the image of God. The problem was never with us but with those adults whose perverse actions took advantage of the vulnerability of one who was small and powerless.

If you still struggle with feeling Less Than, try to remember it is just that: a feeling. It is not reality. Give the responsibility back to the true owner: your abuser(s). It’s not yours. You are not Less Than. Especially not to God. God sees the truth. He knows you were hurt and who is responsible. He longs to see you heal and recover to lead the life He planned for you. God has provided people who have the wisdom you need to heal. Look for those people. Go to your church or synagogue. Find a skilled counselor experienced in the care of trauma survivors. Accept the love of your friends. Devote yourself to your own care. Give up the habits that weigh you down and cause you to continue to feel Less Than. You are worth more. You are worthy of the best. Seek it out for yourself. That means accepting responsibility for your care. You have more power than anyone else in proving to yourself that you are worth it. The Bible says that as you think, so you will be. So you tell yourself the truth about yourself, especially about your God-given qualities and talents. Soon you’ll find yourself being real and being OK with being real. The feeling of being Less Than will take time to subside, but it will subside as you starve the lies and feed the truth. You are worth it. You are not Less Than! You never were.


Integration

For people who have DID, integration is either a happy end goal to anticipate or something to fear, like a kind of death. Many people think of integration that way: death of the parts. But it isn’t. Not at all. For me integration was like a home-coming as I welcomed my parts back to where they had begun — with me.

For me, as for many people, integration was not a big event. It was not something planned for a specific date and time in my therapist’s office. It was, instead, a natural result of a lot of hard work.

I had finally learned to listen to my parts, really hear what they had to say without breaking down into a crisis. I had to prove to my parts that I could handle the information they each held. I had to let them know that I would honor their trust when they shared their stories with me. It wasn’t always easy. The truth wasn’t always easy to hear. Sometimes it scared me; others it shocked me. It took practice plus a little courage. (Courage is something that gets stronger with practice. So don’t worry about not being courageous. Just work with what you have. Stretch yourself.) Compassion helped too. Each part had been terribly wounded. They had taken on painful, difficult tasks to protect me, so I could survive the abuse physically and mentally. I learned to appreciate them, and, in fact, thank them.

When I finally came to that place of accepting the truth one part had to share, that one would eventually just come home. So, one by one each came back to me. They didn’t die or disappear. Not at all. Now they’re here with me, and I am more complete. I have Georgia’s compassion, Little Caren’s sense of self, Rusty’s determination to protect myself, and George’s sense of humor.

Integration did take some getting used to. When they were all finally home, my head was quiet for the first time. No more arguments about how to answer when someone asked me a question. I had to learn how to make decisions all by myself without their input. And going to sleep at night was difficult at first, because I was used to listening as they sang me to sleep. Playing music helped ease that transition.

When I thought about it though, I realized I did have their input, just not audibly in my mind. I had their good judgment to rely on now that they were part of me. That allowed me learn to weigh different thoughts and be an adult making my own decisions. I learned how to trust myself and be less fearful of mistakes. Adjusting to integration was, like anything else, a process – one that has allowed me to grow up and be more comfortable in my own skin. I thank each of my parts for the job he/she did in protecting my child’s mind when I was vulnerable and too young to do it for myself.

After integration I remained in therapy, because the work certainly didn’t end there. I still had a lot of recovering to do.