Category Archives: Healing

Victim to Survivor to Thriver

Last week, one of the Friday Reflections prompts was about being a victim or a survivor. I didn’t have time to write about it then, so I will write about the topic now. I’m pretty fatigued and quite emotional today, so I hope my words make sense.

About ten years ago, I wrote on a mailing list for former preemies asking whether those born prematurely are survivors in the way that abuse survivors are. I mean, literally speaking of course we are survivors, because we survived against all odds. I was at the time still in a very early stage of figuring out my childhood and why I have always felt like a lot of my experiences were traumatic. I was beginning to discover the fact that I dissociate and learning about attachment and its dfficulties. The group owner, herself also a trauma survivor, replied that to survive means to endure hardship, so that in this sense, of course preemies – and most people with disabilities – are survivors.

As a child, I considered myself a victim of many of the experiences I endured. They were still happening, so how could I see myself as a survivor? In the same way, I can now see myself as a victim of mental illness. I don’t, of course, because no-one inflicted my mental illness on me and, besides, I don’t consider my craziness an altogether bad thing. It sucks sometimes, of course – well, most of the time it sucks. My point in saying I could now consider myself a victim of mental illness, is that it’s not over yet – I haven’t survived it as it’s ongoing.

I did survive my childhood trauma and do consider myself a survivor. Being a survivor does not mean having completely healed from your experiences, but it means having come out the other side alive literally and figuratively.

When describing the recovery process for people who endured trauma, we generally use three steps so to speak: victim, survivor and thriver. A victim is still in the midst of an experience. For instance, someone enduring domestic violence who hasn’t left the relationship yet, can be considered a victim. A survivor has escaped the direct effects of the trauma but is stil suffering from post-traumatic symptoms. A thriver has moved beyond their trauma and is living as healthy as possible a life.

The steps are not rigidly divided. For example, if a domestic abuse survivor has left their abuser but has not gone “no contact”, they can be both a victim and a survivor. Thrivership is also a continuum, where some people have no post-traumatic symptoms at all anymore and others can manage in spite of them. I will most likely always have borderline personalty disorder, which is in a way a post-traumatic condition. However, I want to someday have a meaningful life in spite of it.

Willpower

I am a member of a few general recovery groups on Facebook. Most of the members are addicts or alcoholics. I am not. I consider myself addicted to food in some ways, but it isn’t like I can just stop eating, like an addict can quit their substance of abuse. I’m not saying that’s easy either. That’s my point of this post.

Most recovery groups are based on some twelve-step model. As such, we see a lot of references to a higher power or God in the posts. One that I came across recently was that we have to redefine willpower. Willpower is the will to turn over the reigns of our life to God.

I like this statement. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to attempt abstinence (or in the case of an eating disorder, balance). We do still need to refrain from engaging in addictive behaviors. The difference is, God is guiding us on our journeys. If we turn over the reigns of our life to God, we are realizing that we need to follow His lead, not the road of addiction.

I am a person who often turns over the reigns of her life to other people. I allow others to make decisions for me and in some ways, I’d like them to make the decision that I can’t have binge food, too. Staff won’t do this, as I’m an adult and responsible for my own recovery. My husband sometimes gets me a small bag of candy when I’d intended on eating a far larger quantity. This may lessen the physical effects of a binge, but it still means I engage in compulsive eating.

The first step of Overeaters Anonymous is to say we’re powerless over food. (The same statement is used in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, with “alcohol” or “drugs” instead of “food”.) Therefore, we need to find a power greater than ourselves to help us recover from our addiction. Note that this higher power doesn’t necessarily have to be God: for atheists and agnostics, it can be the OA group they participate in. This signifies that, while no-one is taking responsibility for another’s choices, it is the guidance of our higher power, be it God or the group, that leads us into recovery. Even as believers, we believe that we have free will, but we can still turn the reigns of our life over to God. If we do this, we learn to rely on Him for paving the way for us into recovery. It isn’t that we are no longer ourselves in recovery or not, but we rely on God for facilitating our process of recovery.

I am nowhere near recovering, as regular readers of this blog know. My last binge was last Friday, and I was tempted to give in again today. I didn’t, which is a small win, and my thoughts on willpower contributed to that. I realized that God doesn’t want me to binge, and He gives me the means to resist the urge. Today, I was led to write this post instead of binge. It may sound like I don’t practise what I preach, as someone who’s still pretty deep in her eating disorder, but it personally helps me to preach recovery.

First Step in Healing the Inner Baby

When I still had the diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder, my inner children came out relatively often to people I know. This is not common with DID I’m told, and was probably one reason for people not to believe me. I now have a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and, while the inner children are still there, I keep them in hiding. I tend to believe that only the adult me is allowed to be out in the body.

This belief, however, is counterproductive to healing. When we want to heal, we need to acknowledge all parts of ourselves. We also need to validate our experiences. I strongly disagree with the idea, which is how my therapist used to word her inner child theory, that only the abandoned inner child should be allowed to come out because the rest are there to mask her. I consider my angry innenr child as important, and I for one don’t have a critical parent insider – all insiders are part of me.

Trust is the first step in healing your inner child(ren). They need to know that you will be there for them. In this step, I achieved something important in art therapy last Thursday. One of my inner children is the “mini baby”, a preemie in an incubator. She isn’t really active in the outside world, but I sense her. For clarity’s sake, while some people with DID have baby alters who hold traumatic memories, I don’t believe the mini baby is like this; she seems to be more a symbol for my early experiences.

Anyway, in art therapy, I created a baby out of clay and made a crib for her out of a cardboard box with fabric and fake fur bedding. Like I said, the inner baby isn’t a typical alter, so the symbolism was enough. It was more of a gesture to myself and my actual inner child alters to let them know I can be trusted and they will be cared for.

The second step is validation. I’m not sure I really need to validate the inner baby, since like I said she’s not a real alter. I mean, some people with DID give their inner babies pacifiers. I won’t do this. What I do feel that I need to acknowledge, is the fact that I was wounded from the beginning on. I don’t mean this to pass judgment on my family or the hospital staff. I was probably well cared for and had more interaction with my parents than many preemies from earlier generations or whose parents lived farther from the hospital. What I want to say is that, as much as families and hospitals try to prevent this, a NICU stay can entail a form of attachment loss and can, depending on the baby’s temperament, be traumatic. For now, the symbolism of the ceramic baby in the crib helped all of me.

What Does Unconditional Love Mean?

On the World of Psychology blog, Eve Hogan wrote an interesitng article about unconditional love. This article got me thinking about the attitude we have towards people who harmed us, and the attitude people we harmed have to us. It is often thought that family members and spouses unconditionally love each other, but what if a parent becomes abusive towards their child, a child towards their parents, or one spouse towards the other?

Hogan says that spouses and family members love each other unconditionally with their hearts, but do not necessarily and should not accept everything their child, parent or spouse does to them. I can relate to this in my personal life, having grown up in a family that loved me with their hearts but did not accept everything I did. I still struggle with this, having a hard time distinguishing conditional love from accepting the person but not the behavior.

Hogan says that spouses really should view their vows as saying that they will love each other with their hearts no matter what, but will only stay together so long as the other doesn’t become irresponsible with money or time, doesn’t lie and doesn’t cheat. This leaves a lot of room for unlikeable behavior which doesn’t warrant a divorce. Similarly the integrity agreement Hogan discusses with teens only mentions not harming their family (or anyone, for that matter). This is where I struggle. I do know that setting limits on unlikeable but relatively harmless behavior such as laziness regarding schoolwork, is okay. This is quite different from not accepting the child or teen into the family home.

There is a grey area, especially with teens and young adults, where parents can decide their child’s life is no longer their responsibility. In this sense, there is a difference between unconditional love and unconditional caretaking. I know that married spousess and parents of children or teens under eighteen (or 21, in some situations) have a duty of care, but, once spouses divorce or children reach age eighteen, unconditional love becomes quite another thing than catering to each other’s needs no matter what.

Learning to Become Less Co-Dependent

There’s an interesiting post up on the World of Psychology blog about ways to become more independent and less co-dependent. According to Isha Judd, author of Love Has Wings and Why Walk When You Can Fly, most people are somewhat co-dependent, be it on our partners, friends or social groups. Indeed, most people have some maladaptive beliefs about ourselves and others. This is in line with my husband’s observations when paging through Reinventing Your Life by Jeffrey Young, when he said not only borderline personality sufferers but most people could benefit from this book.

In the above blog post, Margarita Tartakovsky first defines autonomy as being the author of your own life. It means owning your own reality, with your perceptions, thoughts, feelings, etc.

Autonomy derives from self-love. And let’s be truly honest: it is terribly hard to love yourself (without appearing like a narcissist). Fortunately, you can learn to lovve yourself. Healthy self-love means realizing you’re just as important as anyone else, and that your feelings and thoughts are valid. If you love yourself, you put as much effort into caring for yourself as you would for others, consider your needs, and accept yourself for who you are. Meeting your needs, making your own decisions and being assertive are also three of the ways suggested by Tartakovsky to enhance your autonomy.

Time Heals All Wounds?

“It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.” – Rose Kennedy

As people who have gone throgh something traumatic, we often wonder when the pain will be gone. We wonder how long the grieving process takes. I wondered this when being confronted with the reality of my total blindness last year. When will I finally accept that there is no way, save for technological advancements that might come in the future, that I will be able to see again?

Looking at this quote, I realize that the trauma of my having gone blind,a nd all the other traums I survived, will never not have happened, and the wounds they caused in my mind and soul will remain. The mind will create scar tissue that protects the wounds from being torn open over and over again, but the wounds are still there. Treatment for PTSD is not aimed at making the traumatic memories go away – well, I’ve heard of some medications that could in the future do this, but whether that’s ethical , is another topic entirely. PTSD treatment is focused on restructuring the person’s memory so that the emotional burden is lessened. This is comparable to creating mental scar tissue. And the thing with scars is, they itch sometimes, reminding us of the wounds that are underneath them.

A person may have seemingly fully processed their trauma. I thought I had processed the feelings surrounding my blindness in 1999, when I moved to a mainstream school and my tiny bit of vision was insignificant. Then, in 2004, I lost that tiny bit of vision and was confronted with the reality tht the scars from the original trauma of blindness were still there. I learned to ignore my feelings with the help of a rather pragmatic psychologist, herself blind from birth. I thought I had created mental scar tissue, but I hadn’t or it was too thin. The wound kept being torn open, and at last I took a different road by asking to be referred to al ophthalmologist to find out if any sight-restoring treatment was still possible. I had surgery in September, but it was unsuccessful. Now, I’m trying to build another layer of scar tissue, but I realize now, the wound will remain.

This does not mean recovering from PTSD or other post-traumatic symptoms is not worth it. It is rather useful to be able to function well in spite of trauma. I also know that scars can make you stronger, ie. post-traumatic growth. This, however, does not mean the trauma is gone. It means we’ve moved on with our lives in spite of it.

Effects of Institutional Abuse

A few days ago I was stumbling across blogs as I found Kim Saeed’s post on narcissistic abuse and the prison camp effect. I have never been in a relationship with a narcissist, but for some reason, I could relate to its effects. Then today I came across a post on confusion and forgiveness in emotional abuse. Some points in this post struck a chord with me. I often am convinced that I’m the one doing something wrong in every case of disagreement. This is common in abuse survivors in relation to their abuser, but I do it in any case where there is a perceived power dynamic, and I see power dynamics everywhere. Even with supportive people like my husband, I find myself second-guessing myself.

My therapist has said that I have likely been in a situation where other people controlled my life all along. This was not intended by the individuals who did this and isn’t necessairly bad. Children need some level of direction from their parents, for example. Where it gets problematic is where the child or adult becomes more controlled by parents, carers, staff or other authrotiy figures than is healthy for them. I am using the standard of the controlled person’s health here rather than society’s norms, because society allows for and even condones a lot of harmful power dynamics. Prison camps for example. What I mean is, being controlled in a way that is socially accepted can still be harmful and may have the same effects as narcissistic abuse.

One factor that makes institutional abuse, like prison camps of psychiatric abuse, more complicated than abuse by an individual, is however that the individual is not solely to blame. For example, psychiatric patients are commonly subjected to solitary confinement and forced treatment. This is institutional abuse. It involves a generally accepted power dynamic. The nurse who secluded me or the countless nurses who threatened it were not narcissists (although I have my doubts about the doctor who shove the seclusion plan down my throat without consent). They were simply doing their job, and their job was to control even if it’s for goodness’ sake.

Writing Letters to the People Who Hurt You

One of the steps in changing maladaptive schemas, according to the authros of Reinventing Your Life, is to write letters to the people who contributed to the formation of these schemas. You obviously don’t need to send these letters, but the goal is to have your inner vulnerable child speak out.

I have told my story of the traumatic expeirence sin my life many times, but it is hard fo rme to actually write letters to the people who caused or didn’t protecct me against these experiences. I am not at this point in therapy yet, but one of the things that I think will hold me back is the need to address these people directly. Even if I’m not going to send or publish these letters, it still feels as though I’m telling these peole to their face that they abused, abandoned or failed to protect me.

Another thing which the authors acknowledge, is the fact that sometiems people who abuse or otherwise trumatize others, are well-intentioned. In my case, the people who hurt me didn’t know better, had the best of intentions, and/or didn’t realize what they did was causing me long-term trauma. I struggle with this big time. When I still had a DID ddiagnosis, I struggled with the connotation of severe, usually sadistic abuse. After my diagnosis was changed to BPD, I told some of the people who hurt me that I realize they aren’t sadists and that I had been struggling with this connotation in DID. Reading this chapter in Reinventig Your Life, I found for the first time someone acknowledging that well-intentioned treatment can still traumatize children (or adults). The authors say that, in writing the letters to the people who hurt you, you need to let go of excuses like this and let the vulnerable child in you speak freely and express her feelings.

Later in the process, the authors say, you may choose to forgive your parents (or others who hurt you, I suppose). I have often written aabout forgiveness, and I realize now that it’s required to feel your true feelings before you can come to forgive. Forgiving means accepting what happened, but also letting go of the need or want to be angry about it for the rest of your life. I have often tried to forgive the peeople who hurt me, without feeling the true extent of the hurt. That is stuffing feelings, not forgiving people.

Moving Beyond Blame in Abuse

A few days ago, Soaring Survivor wrote an interesting post on forgiving yourself in the process of healing from domestic violence. Forgiving yourself, she says, is harder than forgiving the abuser.

I always find myself thinking that my situation is almost unique, in that I myself was aggressive and my family responded with aggression to my behavior. Then I found out, I don’t remember where, that in most situations of intimate partner violence, there is not simply one person who is the perpetrator and the other who is the victim. Rather, there tend to be some form of abuse on both sides. I am not saying that this is the case for Soaring Survivor, as I don’t know her situation. What I mean to say is that my situation, involving sort of provoked aggression, is not as unique as I used to think.

This makes forgiving myself extra hard. I have forgiven my family, I think, but too often this comes down to trivializing what happened. I know that my parents weren’t sadists, and I often say this to justify their actions. They did what they thought was their best.

Then a few weeks ago I read a response in a women’s magazine from a person with borderline personality disorder to two parents who had complained about their children’s BPD being attributed to abuse. The borderline patient said that even very ordinary parents make mistakes, and this can set off BPD in vulnerable people. Does this mean they’re pitiful victims? No.

What I realize as I write this, is that maybe the hardest part of forgiving both yourself and the people who hurt you in your life, is shifting the focus away from the question of blame. Ordinary partners and parents (and children) act out violently, and accepting this is hard but necessary for both survivors/victims and the general public. Abuse happens, and the idea that only sadists perpetrate it, gets a whole lot of survivors/victims unnecessarily stuck in self-blame. Forgiveness may involve accepting what happened without letting it hold you back from living a fulfilling life. I’m still struggling with this.