Monthly Archives: March 2012

Dealing With Body Memories

Body memories are some of the oddest and, sometimes, scariest phenomena experienced by people who’ve been abused. They’re unexpected, catching us off guard with strange sensations and, occasionally showing up as marks on our bodies. One thing’s for sure, they can’t be ignored.

I was fortunate to be in the hospital when I experienced my first. I had just begun to remember bits of what had happened to me. I had been reading Courage to Heal or as some call it, Carriage to Hell. Something I read struck a chord, and I suddenly had a “vision” of the wallpaper in my parents’ bedroom when I was small. We had moved from there when I was seven, and the house had burned, so I hadn’t seen the room since. I couldn’t even remember what the wallpaper in my own room looked like, but suddenly I could see what my parents’ looked like. Just then, I started experiencing strong feelings of arousal. With everything that was happening and the realization of what this might mean, it scared me – a lot. Fortunately, my therapist was between appointments, so, holding on to the wall for support and bent over at the waist to try to stop the feelings, I hurried to get her. She took my arm and walked me back to my room and sat me down on my bed. She sat in the chair across from me, looked me in the eyes to ground me and reassure me, and then told me I was okay. She explained that what was happening was not unusual and that it was called a body memory. She kept reminding me to keep my eyes on her and breathe. She understood that I could easily get “lost” in it and lose touch with where I was, where I was in time and what was really happening.

Body memories can, as in my experience described above, create physical sensations that mimic those experienced during the abuse. Others can remind you of events when marks appear on the body for no apparent reason. Once when I was about to meet up again with a family member who had recently confronted me violently, marks appeared on my arm where she had grabbed me weeks before. I believe my body was reminding and cautioning me about the upcoming meeting.

Body memories present challenges in dealing with them. Because they are so unexpected, we are usually vulnerable and afraid, making the struggle to deal with them particularly difficult. First, remind yourself that this is a memory. Though it feels as if it’s happening now, it’s not; the event is over, in the past. Second, try to ground yourself to your surroundings by touching things around you; rub your hands on the carpet, hold ice cubes. Third, ground yourself to the present by saying your name out loud, looking at the date on a magazine or newspaper, looking in a mirror. Fourth, connect with someone. If a trusted friend or family member is close by, explain what is going on and ask them to hold your hands and talk to you. Ask them to remind you to keep your eyes open, because closing your eyes makes it easier to be pulled into the past and into panic. If you have to call someone who can be helpful and supportive, do it. Your therapist may not be a good idea, because he or she may be in session or unavailable, and you need help now.

When you’ve made it through the body memory, take a deep breath and allow yourself to calm down. Get something to drink, but avoid alcohol and drugs, except possibly a prescription anti-anxiety medication, and then take only what is prescribed. After you’re sufficiently calm, journal about the experience: what it was about if you can figure that out; how you felt while it was happening, describing the physical sensations; and record what helped you stay grounded and get through it. You’ll want to remember that in case you experience another body memory.

Though body memories are unsettling, they can serve to validate the past that can often feel surreal. Don’t let them throw you off course, but instead use them as tools to grow and progress.

Advertisements

New Look

If you’ve been to the site before, you may be surprised to see a new look. I’ve had comments that the site was difficult to navigate, and looking at it objectively, I had to agree. I hope you like the new look, find it appropriate and easy to use. I welcome your comments.

Jessica


Dealing with Good Memories

Painful memories are, not surprisingly, difficult to deal with sometimes for decades after the event. What is sometimes surprising even to us is that good memories are also difficult to deal with. Why? Because they force us to face the ambivalence we feel toward those who hurt us.

My parents, as my abusers, hurt me terribly. However, not everything they did was bad. They made sure I got the music lessons that I loved. They were there at every performance. I lived in a beautiful, comfortable home and wore fashionable clothes. They provided a college education for me at a good school and made sure I could focus on studying without having to work. I remember some fun times with them in which we laughed and just, generally, had a good time. Then there are the times with my father that I look back on now and wonder if they were more sexually charged for him than I suspected at the time.

How do I deal with it all? With difficulty. The mix of memories forces me to think of my parents as people who, I think, loved me, but were terribly flawed. Their sickness and awful choices cannot be excused. Before I remembered the abuse, I had them on a pedestal; I, wrongly, thought they were the best parents anyone could ever have. I must accept that they were neither black nor white, but gray, which is a much more difficult way of seeing them.

Remembering the good times won’t allow me to hate them, especially when I consider how very flawed I am. No, I have never abused my children, but I have hurt them in others ways that they’ve struggled with. If you put the mistakes I’ve made on a weighing scale against the mistakes my parents have made, from our human point of view, the scale is extremely unbalanced. But if I put the good things they did for me against the bad things they did, the scale balances just a tiny bit evenly. It’s not completely one-sided.

Sometimes we don’t want to remember the good times, because we think it means we have to say that what they did was OK. That’s not true! Recognizing the good simply means we’re being realistic. It’s confusing. It’s tough to wrap our minds around. Some people even refuse to admit that there was any good. However, no human being is 100% evil or 100% good. Accepting that our parents were terribly flawed human beings who also did some good things is a sign of maturity. It takes someone who has experienced considerable personal growth to understand and accept the ambivalence we feel for our parents. It takes none of the evil away from what they did; it simply puts it into its uncomfortable, but realistic, place.


Establishing and Maintaining Good Boundaries

Maintaining a relationship with those who hurt you requires a great deal of thought and firm boundaries. I think, but have no way of knowing, that it would be easier if the abuser were a stranger or someone with whom contact wasn’t necessary.

If your parents or other family members were your abusers, you are presented with tremendous challenges. If you’re like me, you loved your abusers and counted on them to take care of you, a trust they tragically violated. If you grew up with the knowledge of their abuse, perhaps you rebelled as a teenager to try to put distance between you and them. You may have consciously tried to be different than them in every way. You may have told yourself that you hated them, but ambivalence and conflict usually take up residence in your heart as the natural pull of familial love tugs you back.

Or perhaps you’re like me and repressed all the memories, stuffing them away to cope. However, memories like these can’t remain hidden forever, at some time, bits of memories and feelings start to bubble to the surface. When that happens you’re confused and stuck with feelings that don’t seem to make sense.

Either way, you’re faced with the question of how to deal with them once you know the truth. Will you end your relationship with them, turning back on your history once and for all? Will you sweep your feelings and memories under the carpet for the sake of maintaining your relationship? Will you have a conversation with them about what you remember and ask them to own up to it and say they’re sorry? Or will you come to an acceptance of what happened and then see how the relationship plays out? There are so many different ways the relationship can develop once the truth is out.

I confronted my parents one at a time with the truth. My father admitted it, cried and asked for forgiveness. My mother stonewalled, sitting tight-lipped, refusing to look at me. She refused to accept it. As they left, relief swept over me. I had been told not to expect anything from either of them. My then-husband took them to the airport afterward and they talked cheerfully about everything except my conversation with them. Later, my husband asked them how they felt about what we’d talked about, and they both vehemently denied admitting anything. They claimed that they would say “anything to make her better.” Shortly after, I wrote them a letter ending my relationship with them. I told them that if we couldn’t deal in truth, then there was no basis for a relationship. Now, that was my choice. Perhaps it was the right one, perhaps not, but it felt like the only one I could live with at the time.

I kept them out of our family’s life for eleven years. This decision had far-reaching consequences. My children grew up without this set of their grandparents, and they didn’t understand why. I wouldn’t accept gifts for my children from them, sending them back instead. Later, I learned that my children wondered why their grandparents had suddenly forgotten about them. I justified continuing my distance from them by telling myself I had to protect my children, after all. That was true, but perhaps I could have done it another way. I just couldn’t figure out how to have a relationship as long as they refused to acknowledge the truth. To me that was tantamount to calling me a liar. I couldn’t understand why they would want to have a relationship with me if they believed I would lie about such things.

Finally, after my divorce I went to visit them with my sister. The visit was a disaster because of my insistence on talking about the truth. After that, however, I did consent to occasional contact by phone, because I had learned certain truths that my ex-husband had kept from me. Like the fact that my father had called monthly to find out how I was doing and other things I felt were important.

After that I would have dinner with them if they came to the area to visit my sister and me, but I kept my distance . . . for a long time. Then I started to believe their professions of love and care, and immediately my mother pounced and tried to exert her control over me once again. I pulled back and quit taking calls. The last several years have been strained. I have learned that it is critical to keep my boundaries high and firm. I can’t risk the health I have worked so hard to achieve. However, that does allow for some occasional, careful contact. I don’t believe much of what they say about how they love me.

Here are the guidelines you need for a relationship with your abusers.
1. You have to learn what kind of relationship is right for you.
2. Whatever you decide, remember that, unless they have confessed their wrongs and admitted with sorrow their sins against you,
they are not trustworthy.
3. Determine what your boundaries will be in regard to phone calls, visits and letters.
4. Remain firm. Your health is at stake, and perhaps, the health of your own family as well.

Remember, now you have to establish a new normal, a healthy normal. You will be working to create strong new relationships that are likely different from any you’ve had before. Keep these things in mind as you work toward your new life with positive people to encourage you and hold you accountable.