(The picture is of the Taj Mahal, taken Spring 2004)
I started working on the book The Courage to Heal last night. It is "A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse". I actually started reading it last night, but it is kind of a workbook, with writing exercises and stuff like that. I figure that since I got through the Survivors of Suicide (SOS) intensive group therapy experience, I am ready to tackle the sexual abuse.
I bought the book almost a year ago (and I started blogging almost a year ago, too.) I've flipped through it several times, read parts of it, and thought it seemed helpful and amazing. Then I would read the words of another survivor, or a sentence I could really relate to, and I would get a feeling of panic and fear and put the book back on my bookshelf. I discovered that the book addresses those feelings directly right in the beginning- "It's been my experience that every time the subject of incest comes up in any kind of personal way, I reexperience the terror I felt as a child being abused." (page 22) One of the co-authors, Laura Davis, wrote that part. She was sexually abused. The book also says that if the feelings are too intense, or you start to numb yourself while reading the book, you can put it down and come back to it later when you are ready. I feel ready now.
The SOS therapy helped me immensely in getting to this point. The readings, writing exercises, and feelings charts were tools in identifying, exploring, and dealing with my feelings about Jeff's suicide, but also my feelings in general. It is hard to un-suppress my feelings, but the SOS homework made it easier. It seems the farther back the feelings go, the harder it is to face them, but I think I can get there. The SOS therapy made me realize something important- I have distanced myself from and do not accept who I was before the suicide, and also myself as a child. Identifying with my past makes me feel naive, helpless, and weak. Again, from The Courage to Heal- "As a child you could not afford to feel the full extent of your terror, pain, or rage. Because your innocent love and trust were betrayed, you learned that you could not rely on your feelings. You may have learned to block out physical pain, because it was too devastating or because you did not want to give the abuser the satisfaction of seeing you cry. But since you can't block feelings selectively, you simply stopped feeling." (pages 39, 40)
Some people have attacked The Courage to Heal in response to the controversy over repressed memories of abuse. I think it’s ridiculous to attack a book that is there to help survivors, as if questions about the validity of repressed memories imply that all memories of sexual abuse are questionable. Of course it is shocking and dismaying that so many people respond with outrage towards the victims of sexual abuse rather than the perpetrators. I have not personally repressed and then rediscovered abuse memories. As good as I am at repressing feelings and disassociating, I have not been able to repress my memories. I remember the abuse (and my brother's suicide) so well that I could never avoid it entirely, even in my conscious mind. Now that I am trying to deal with the aftermath of my experiences, this is probably a good thing. I don't have to work to remember what happened to me, and when I just let my memories come back, the emotions come back as well. None of it is hidden very well. Like so much else, this must run in my family. My dad has a photographic memory. My memories are like a movie that just keep playing over and over.
I feel hopeful because I have made so much progress in the last year, and I feel confident that I can take on the sexual abuse. These experiences have tainted my adult life in the most pervasive and chronic way. They have trashed my ability to trust myself and others, to find and be in close relationships, and the way I see myself in every part of my life. It exists in the corners of my mind, like a disgusting fog, sometimes invading my consciousness before I know what is happening. It is always there, always, and I am always aware of it. It is so much bigger than just a collection of things that happened over many years. The man who did it to me probably never thinks about it, but what he did to me lives with me every day of my life.
"...It evaporated with the dew, and at dusk when dark
spread in the sky like water in a blotter, it spread, too,
but it came back and curdled with milk and stung
with nettles. It was in the bleat of the lamb, the way
a clapper is in a bell, and in the raucous, scratchy
gossip of the crows...
It became her dead pet, her lost love, the baby sister
blue and dead at birth..."
Mood Indigo by William Matthews (The title is from this poem as well.)