There are a number of questions that are repeatedly asked by survivors and families of survivors and I would like to take some time to address some of those here. I will occasionally add more as they come to mind, or as you ask them.
My first questions back to this are,
- Is the past haunting you?
- Do you at times have unwanted scenes flash before you, or visit your dreams at night?
- Are you afraid of certain people in your life?
- Do you have a satisfying relationship with your spouse, children, parents, siblings, and have friends as well?
- Are you comfortable with and enjoy your sexuality?"
These are just a few questions you may want to think about if you are in the decision process about entering or not entering therapy or a support group. If you answered yes to the first three and no to the last two, then you have before you a major reason to take a look at your past, with help, and face whatever is there.
Some people believe erroneously that we get some pleasure out of rehashing the past and bringing up old issues that we should just keep buried. Others believe bringing it up only causes more pain and heartache. So what do we do?
Many of us who were abused in childhood live in what we call 'denial'. That means that we either don't remember what happened on a conscious level, or we remember but believe it was no big deal, that it was 'only me', or that it happened so long ago it makes no difference now. But denial is deadly. Denial is what allows others, and even our own children to also become victims, often by the same perpetrators. Denial is what allows us to 'know' something may be going on, but we never check it out. Or it causes us to ignore the cries of other victims or even to lash out at them, calling them liars, troublemakers, or blaming the abuse on them. Denial keeps the cycle of abuse going. Denial keeps us from really seeing the damage abuse causes in our own lives and in the lives of others.
I was one of those who didn't see the damage in my life, although I knew I had been repeatedly abused and raped. Some others saw it, but not me. I knew I had problems, but didn't understand why. Once I saw the correlation between sexual abuse and my symptoms, the journey toward healing began. The denial didn't just disappear. I still had much work to do to stop minimizing what happened to me, to stop blaming myself for what happened, to end the shame, begin trusting others, and making other changes in my life that resulted from my old coping mechanisms.
This is something I struggled with, too. I've always had a lot of big gaps in my memories, and what memories I had were partial. I've had family members talk about things that happened to me and I've even accused them of lying at times because the memory is simply not there for me. I really thought that in order to heal, I'd have to remember at least more than what I did. But what I saw and learned through my own experience is that I didn't have to remember in order to heal.
I know some survivors who only have a 'feeling' they were abused with maybe some flashbacks. Some just have the symptoms but no memory of abuse, and maybe some gaps in their childhood. Others remember everything and always have. Others began having memories return, usually precipitated by some major event like the death of their abuser or being raped, having a baby, or their own child reaching the age at which their own abuse began. Some knew on an unconscious level, but it didn't reach their consciousness until their own child was abused. Some continued having memories return for a year or more, the worst being the last memory to return. Our stories and experiences are many, but we shared one thing in common. We all had many of the same symptoms or problems in our life, and we could all face those problems and begin the work of changing and healing.
What seems to me now to be most important is being aware of those areas we are not functioning in a healthy way and to making every effort to change those areas so that we become all we can be and were meant to be.
The symptoms and after-effects of being a victim of childhood sexual abuse can paralyze us emotionally. We may be plagued with phobias, addictions, inability to trust, or we may be promiscuous and/or fear and run from an ongoing sexual intimacy with our partner. Our spiritual lives may feel empty and dry no matter what we do to change it. We may seem angry at the whole world, or never able to feel or express anger. There are many ways abuse affects our lives, and becoming aware of the way it affected mine was the first step toward recovery. Once we are aware, then we can get help to gain the tools or skills we need to change and become healthy individuals, free of all those symptoms and after-effects.
If you aren't aware of how abuse has affected your life, you can look at the Symptoms and After-Effects page on this site. I would suggest you rate each symptom as it apples to you. Decide which ones are most important to begin working on. After working on these areas for awhile, rate yourself again and see how much you have improved.
That is, I believe, up to you. What I'd ask you is this:
"How long are you going to allow your abusers and your past to control your life?"
Every day that you work on freeing yourself of the chains of your past is one day closer to wholeness. Healing takes as long as it takes. There are some factors involved such as:
- How old you were when you were abused
- Who the abuser(s) were (father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, friend, stranger)
- How long did the abuse continue
- Were your parents or other important people in your life supportive
- Were you believed
- Did you repress the abuse or parts of it
- How long till you began recovery
- How much support do you have now
- Is your spouse, or those closest to you, supportive
- Are you still a victim of some kind of abuse (spousal abuse)
- Do you have addictions to drugs or alcohol
I think you can see from this list just off the top of my head that there are factors involved that can either help you in your endeavor to heal, or fight against you. I believe one important rule for all survivors to do is not compare ourselves to anyone else. We are all unique and it really doesn't matter how long it takes us to heal. What matters is that we begin the journey. And in reality, healing will take a lifetime. Even when you have walked through the major steps of healing, there is always going to be areas to grow in. That is true for everyone, abused or not.
This is one I hear a lot, but it has also been the most difficult to answer to everyone's satisfaction. First you have to define what "normal" is. It's like we see ourselves in a race and at the end is the finish line. If we reach it and get to the other side, then we will be "normal". I see, instead, a path, and that path is our life. This path is filled with curves, hills, plateaus, stretches of grassy, level ground, others rocky and difficult. The question isn't when do I get to the end, but am I going to keep moving ahead in spite of what lies there.
I am confronted with choices along the way. Some choices have to be made over and over again as I confront different issues that arise.
Will I stop and stay where I am and rest for awhile? There are times when a break is needed. You may have been through an onslaught of returning memories, or an occasion is coming that demands your full attention. Whatever the reason, breaks are okay for a short times and can be helpful. I've read about one person who devoted one or two days a week to therapy issues and the rest of the week she focused on the kids, work, and other important tings in her life. I think personally this is a good idea. We can easily become consumed with abuse issues, and at times, that may be unavoidable. But for the long term, I think it is healthy to plan for times of fun and relaxation alone and with your loved ones. You don't have to live, eat, sleep abuse in order to heal. In my case, I think the first year of being in therapy was devoted to just that. I was isolated and severely depressed before I entered therapy, and the first steps I had to take took all the energy I had. But after a time, things settled a bit and I could begin having a life alongside of recovery. Will I stay forever and become stagnant? I have seen those who took a break and didn't come back. Hopefully someday they will come back, but it's sad that they couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel, or see that by continuing to walk through the pain, would also bring them on the other side of it. To make sure you stay on course, one idea is to have someone you can trust and be accountable to that will encourage you to hang in there. Once when I wanted to quit, my husband asked me if I really thought I was ready or if I was running from something. That made me stop and think about my reasons, and I decided I needed to continue for awhile longer just to be sure. You might make a contract with yourself to not miss counseling appointments, or support group times. Once you miss, it makes missing the next time even easier. Forcing yourself to go each week will ensure that you are getting support and the encouragement you need to continue moving forward. Along with that, make a pact with your counselor or group facilitator that you will not simply quit coming, but will discuss it with him/her first in person to look at your reasons, assess where you are in your recovery, and set some goals for yourself so that you don't simply stop growing and healing. Will I go back to what was because at least that was familiar or the pressure is too great? Unfortunately, I've seen some go back. It just seemed to difficult to continue on and have to fight the family, or the spouse that was abusive. This, to me, is the saddest choice someone can make because going back means losing all the ground gained. It means turning your back on yourself and truth. It often means going back under the control of those who abused you.
I understand the pressure to do so from family and friends. I've been there. I understand how awful it is to lose family members because you choose to get help and overcome the effects of abuse in your life. I understand the need for family in your life, even if they are very unhealthy and abusive. I know what it is like to weigh the cost and wonder if it is worth it. But we also have to look at the other side of it. What is the cost of going back. The cost may be the continuation of the cycle of abuse in your family. If your family was/is incestuous, there are probably other children still being abused. If you have children, going back may mean risking them to abuse.
It is too easy in our present pain to forget the pain we suffered beforehand that brought us to this place to begin with. This is where our supporters come in. We really need to surround ourselves with safe, trustworthy friends and family who can help us think things through honestly and clearly. Those times of longing for family we've lost will lessen, we'll get our second wind and be able to handle life again if we can just hang in there another day. My counselor told me one day that things are never permanent in relationships. I could get my family back. But I didn't believe him. Yet, here I am, years later, and my family is back, at least most of them. Some relationships are better, some strained, but we're working on it. The important thing is that I didn't have to go back to the way I was in order to get them back. They slowly came back into my life and I don't have to pretend. I can be me. I can be true to myself.
Going back is not necessarily going back into a family system that is unhealthy and abusive, it may simply be slipping back into the "bliss" of denial and deciding to not think about or look at the issues any longer.
I think all of us at times reach what we call a plateau. I don't know if this is our minds way of forcing us to take a break, even though we continue going to our group or counselor, or if it's a way of gaining strength for whatever is to come next. But I think it is important to continue doing what we've been doing, assuming we've been working on our stuff. Before long, you will see yourself making progress again. Just as I don't understand the plateaus in trying to lose weight, I don't really understand these plateaus other than I'm not the only one who has had them. I believe it is also important to note that sometimes we are making progress, just not the huge leaps and bounds we may be desiring. Sometimes we discount small victories or small steps we've taken toward healing.
The feeling of losing ground or going backwards is not all that uncommon either. I've been there, too. It seems like the same old stuff is coming back up to haunt us. We'll think or say, "I thought I already dealt with that, why do I have to do it all over again?" The best answer I've heard for this is that recovery is like the layers of an onion. This may be some issue you thought you were done with, and you probably were done with a potion of it. But chances are you are dealing with a deeper level now, and may in the future find another level yet untouched. Don't be discouraged when this happens. Instead realize that you are still moving ahead and at some point you will see the entire picture and look back on just how much there was to face and heal from. When you really look at the damage abuse does, you see that every area of your life is touched by it. It's like the fingers of a cancer that spreads throughout the body, until every cell is infected. Abuse affects your mental, physical, emotional, spiritual parts, so it is no wonder that with each instance of abuse, there are layers to be uncovered, looked at and healed.
Yes and no! If you mean will the memories stop, will the effects be conquered, will I be free from the abusers and the past and be able to live a healthy, functional life, then I say a big, YES! As long as you continue facing your past and changing those areas of your life that need changing, and allowing the grieving process to go the entire distance, you will come to a place of acceptance and find yourself free of the control your past has had on your life.
But, if you are asking will I ever get to a place where I won't have any more issues to work on, then I'd have to say, NO! Because we live in a world of people who have a free will and can use that free will to hurt others, we will most likely always have new issues to face and deal with, and it won't always be easy. Life is full of tragedy.
I personally don't believe being sexually abused is the worst thing that can happen to me that I have to recover from. I can think of many worse things...my own child or grandchild being sexually abused, or worse being murdered... the death of my spouse or children or others close to me... becoming a quadriplegic myself or it happening to someone in my family. For me, any of these would be worse, and if I live long enough, I will probably have to face some tragedy that will grieve me deeply and I'll have to face it and make the necessarily changes in my life just as I've had to do in my abuse recovery. But God has given us the ability to recover whatever comes our way and has placed people here that can help us if we will allow them to.
I want to leave you with something that has helped me through recovery, and still helps me because I know there are still areas I need to change in and still issues I will no doubt have to face at some point...
If we have a negative outlook about recovery, that is probably how you will see it throughout the years and it will make going to groups, or counseling appointments, or journaling your feelings a drudgery, and you probably won't see it through to completion. But if you can see recovery as a positive in your life and begin to look forward to what new insights will come your way next week when you go to counseling or group, or as you take some time to journal, that will do a lot to smooth the path before you and assure you will continue on. It's like a big puzzle, and each insight you gain, each memory you receive, each dot you connect, is one more piece to the puzzle of your life. I also like to think of it as an investigation. We are investigating and uncovering our past to shed light on our current problems so that we can get the right weapons (or skills and tools) needed to conquer those problems.
The other way I see it is that abuse is like a cancer. The longer it is allowed to stay in our body, the more likely it is to spread throughout, making recovery that much more difficult. And when the surgeon goes in, sometimes he gets it all, sometimes he can't. Then other means are used, like chemotherapy, which is a painful, long, fatiguing ordeal, or radiation. The more it has spread, the less our chances of a complete recovery. But when he is operating on us, we don't want him to stop till he has gotten all he can possibly get. He may even have to go back in and do more later. If he left some cancer in our bodies, then we may feel better for awhile, but it's still there and will affect another part of our bodies soon. Abuse recovery is like that. The more we can allow our counselor to help us expose all the infected areas, and the more we cooperate by going through the pain of exposure and emotional surgery, so to speak, the better the outcome. So hang in there. Keep working with your supporters and counselor and believe me, you will get better and you will never regret the time, money, and energy you spent getting there.