April is National Child Abuse Prevention and Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
I am writing this article in honor of and to offer hope to all the people who are still struggling with the aftermath of their experience. This article includes excerpts from my recently published book of poems and drawings, When I Lay My Hands on My Heart: Healing through Words and Color; a few helpful and transformative practices that can help; and a link to the book and a podcast interview I did about my book that aired on April 1st, 2020.
“It was 1988. Nearing two years sober and two years post-residential treatment for adult children of alcoholics, life as I had known it was over. I was being knocked down by a tsunami of memories, and every time I tried to stand up, the waves would knock me back down and leave me wrung out on the shore.
Some days I could barely get out of bed, waking terrified just before dawn. I was consumed by panic attacks, night terrors, and deep, deep sorrow that was stuck and tamped down just below the surface of my breastbone. My upper back and neck muscles were persistently tight, hard as rocks.
I was also jumpy, especially when someone came up behind me unannounced. I always chose to sit in a chair against the wall so I could see people entering and leaving a room. I could not tolerate someone sitting behind me. I lived in fear that they might hurt me.
Visits to the doctor led to biofeedback sessions, osteopathic manipulations, mindfulness meditation, and massage therapy. During one particular visit, the doctor stood behind my head as I laid on the table. I started to cry. He spoke my name and asked, ‘What’s going on?’ I heard myself say, ‘I’m afraid you’re going to hurt me.’ To which he replied, ‘I’m not going to hurt you, but who did?’”
I started to sob. And to hyperventilate. My hands became numb and tingly. I felt like I was in a tunnel. I was in a full-blown panic attack, and I was terrified. The nurse brought me a small brown lunch bag to breathe into. She sat with me; held my hand; and coached me to slow down my breathing, which seemed to take forever. As calmness came back, I felt like I had gone on the scariest journey of my life. In those moments of panic, I saw myself whirring about in a black tunnel. But I was on the ceiling. And I couldn’t breathe. I had dissociated.
Not long afterwards, memories began to emerge, mostly at night.
“[they] manifested as night terrors. I would wake in the early hours before dawn feeling as if I couldn’t breathe; my insides had been gnawed raw while I slept. Feelings of shame, inadequacy, and unworthiness were my bedfellows.
If I could unfold from the fetal position and start my morning routine, snippets of memories tumbled forth. They would continue to emerge when I was driving, or riding my bike, or talking to a friend, or trying to work. The fabric of my day-to-day life was soiled with intrusive pictures. Taken together, they began to awaken me to realities I had never understood before. I worked to deny what was happening, to not notice the images and words that were coming into my consciousness.
I couldn’t hold back any longer. Words began to fall out of my head and onto the page in the form of poems. Over and over again, I began to name what I was seeing and feeling and remembering. I erupted with words and images that made me feel like I might use again, die, go crazy, or need to be hospitalized. I had to name the unspeakable.”
My Dad sexually abused me at a very young age, but I had suppressed those memories by over-eating, smoking, and using drugs and alcohol. Now that I stopped numbing, life became one big trigger for those memories, and I was faced with the truth of what I had been running from for so long. And slowly, with a lot of help and over time
“… I learned that to heal, I had to explore all the areas where I had been wounded the most: love, vulnerability, trust, self-worth, shame, and my body. But to do that, I had to risk being hurt again. The only way out was through.”
Following are five critical practices I adopted and used on a regular basis that helped me get through to the other side of this ugliness.
These are abbreviated versions of the practices published in a previous Wellness Universe blog of mine, 4 Practices for Healing from Emotional Trauma. They bear repeating.
Love and Accept Yourself
Start by paying attention to how you talk to yourself. What words are you using? What is the tone of your voice when you “say” them in your head? Can you pick different words? Be kinder and gentler with your tone? Awareness is the first step, and loving-kindness is the goal.
Turn Anger into Action
Allow yourself to feel the feelings you have been running from for so long. Grieving what you lost is a normal reaction to a very abnormal circumstance. And when you find yourself being mad as hell because you wake up to the fact that you did not deserve to be treated the way you were treated, turn that anger away from yourself.
Rewire Your Brain
A lot of research has been done that explains the effects of trauma on our brains, and how we can re-wire them through practices such as meditation. I find walking in nature, watching the ocean, guided meditations, digging in the yard, practicing yoga, and other forms of exercise help tremendously. Try different techniques, and find which ones work best for you.
Writing and making things heals. Try different ways to do this, write, draw, color, dance, sing, build stuff, find what works for you.
Perhaps I should have put this one first on the list of practices. I know from my own experience that this was the last option I was willing to consider. My back had to be up against the wall before I would or could admit I needed help. Or that I deserved to invest in myself and my well-being. All that said, I wouldn’t have been able to do “the work” without the support of an experienced therapist, doctors who understood the calcifying effects of trauma on the mind and body, and friends. Doing this requires we take a few risks and allow ourselves to connect with others. Find your peeps and build trust. One baby step at a time. You are worth it. Your life depends on it. And you can do it.
If you have practices that have helped you heal from childhood sexual abuse or any other type of trauma, please share them in the comments section below.
Let’s spread our collective resources far and wide so we can help everyone everywhere learn ways to be free of suffering.
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I am an executive and life coach and seasoned learning and performance improvement consultant who uses a wholehearted approach to help clients be their best selves in life and work. My superpower is asking wildly open-ended questions that help people get to the heart of what matters most.