Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Lesson from my Heroes: Hold On

George Hodan

As I search for comfort and guidance in my healing journey, I have found some of my greatest help comes from the examples of other survivors of trauma.  I would like to “introduce” you to two of my heroes: Marilyn Van Derbur and James Stockdale. 

Marilyn, the self-proclaimed “quintessential tomboy” became Miss America in 1958, her sophomore year of college. She was also a survivor of childhood abuse. At the time she won the pagent, she was unaware of her past. Like so many of us, she had repressed the memories.  In her book, Miss America By Day, she wrote, “I wish I had known that many--if not most—adults, sexually violated as children, are in their 40’s before they begin to deal with their childhoods. Just knowing that this is “normal” for many survivors would have helped me cope with friends and family members who were saying, ‘This happened a long time ago. Just move on with your life.’”

Like other survivors, Marilyn's well-meaning friends and loved ones, counseled her to "let go and move on."  In another part of the book she explained why that is not possible. “During this time of recovery, I wasn’t remembering the memories and feelings, I was living them. When memories and feelings are split off and stuffed deeply within the body, it is necessary to disgorge them and feel them as if they are happening in real time. This was not a voluntary decision. When memories are triggered. . .the memories and feelings are instantly felt and no amount of willing them away or decision to ”-just get over it,” will work.”

That is exactly how it is for me as well.  Reading her memoir was so validating.  And because I knew she understood, I believed her and felt encouraged when she said there is hope: the pain ends, but you have to do the hard work."

James Stockdale and The Stockdale Paradox
Vice Admiral James Stockdale, a Navy Pilot, was shot down in Vietnam and held in the Hoa Lo prison for seven years.  He served part of that time in solitary confinement and was routinely tortured and beaten. 

Admiral Stockdale was later interviewed about his experiences by James C. Collins, for the business book, Good to Great (which I am told is a classic).   During the interview, when asked about how he survived Admiral Stockdale said:
‘I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam Stockdale replied:
“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists.  Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go.  Then they’d say, 'We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go.  And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again.  And they died of a broken heart.
“This is a very important lesson.  You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current  reality, whatever they might be.”

Collins calls this philosophy the Stockdale Paradox. 
When I am holding on, trying to deal with one hour at a time--sometimes one day at a time is too much--I remember Marilyn and Admiral Stockdale.  Marilyn promises that is will get better, but I have to be willing to do the hard work.  Admiral Stockdale said the same in a different way (if I may repeat):
“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Sometimes there is wisdom in letting go, but as Admiral Stockdale and Marilyn Van Derbur teach us sometimes the best course is quite the opposite.  It is holding on to faith in a brighter future, and fighting through the darkness until the Light comes.
Photo Attribution: George Hodan

Friday, November 16, 2012

Five Things NOT to Say to Abuse Survivors

This swan is warning you to Stand Back!
Bobbi Jones Jones

Dear friends,  I have had a really difficult week.  I had a nightmare that will likely forever be in the Top Ten of  Worst Nightmares.  Therapy was intense...thus, as you might imagine, I'm not in a great mood.  That makes this a perfect time to tell you: Things NOT to say to an Abuse Survivor

1. Forgive

     Forgiveness is not a one-size-fits-all principle.  What is right for one person may not be right for another.  For example, if you have a squabble with your mother, then forgive and reconcile your relationship is good advice.  But for a survivor of abuse, if the offender is not repentant i.e. could still be dangerous, reconciliation is not remotely a good idea.

     And please even if you are a survivor and you think you are NOT tell another survivor to forgive.  There are so many factors involved for example the severity of the abuse (one time, or lasting for years), and who did it (a neighbor or a parent) many different factors that what helps one survivor may not be a good solution for another.

2.  Let it Go -

    All I can say to that is I wish I could.  If someone will make the nightmares stop, and the PTSD go away...then I will be happy to let it go.  The thing is I can't let it go any more than someone could simply let go of cancer.  When someone loses a loved one, is it ever appropriate to tell them to "let it go", I don't think so.  There are times when "let it go" is good advice.  I say those three little words to myself regularly over little when some well meaning person tells me to forgive. 

3.  Don't assume I am depressed.  Listen to me I am NOT depressed.  I have emotional pain--there is a difference.

     When you go to the doctor, and tell him you have a pain, you will be asked what is the pain like?  Is it dull?  Is it sharp?  Throbbing? Sudden Onset?  So then why do we throw all emotional pain into the "depression" category?  I have been depressed, and I am telling you what I feel now, is something different.  It bothers me when people assume I am depressed because there are certain assumptions and stigmas about depression that I also feel do not apply to my situation.

4.  Don't try to fix it

     You can't fix me in one conversation, even my therapist does not attempt that.  What a survivor needs from you is a listening ear, validating words, perhaps a shoulder to cry advice.

5.  Don't ignore me

     I am not a china doll.  I won't shatter if you say the wrong thing.  Ignoring me hurts worse than mis-spoken words.

There is a theme underlying most of these cautions--it is invalidating pain.  When you tell a survivor to forgive, let go, try to fix them, or ignore them you are basically saying, "Your pain does not matter.  It is not real or significant."  And that hurts.  So please don't do it.

I know people who say these things just want to help...please believe me the best way to help is just to listen and validate.  I will give you an example of some wonderful validation I received today.   I was talking to my wonderful primary care doctor.  I mentioned my horrific nightmare to her.  She asked me if I wanted to talk about it, or not.  Because we have a relationship of trust, I did want to share it with her.  I told her about the dream and some other related things that happened this week. 

She said, "I think I am going to have a nightmare now, but thank you for sharing that with me."

That was wonderful to me because by saying that, she validated my pain.  She said in essence "you have experienced something terrible."  I felt heard and understood.  It was wonderful.  

Listening and validation...that really is the best thing you can do.

Photo attribution: Bobbi Jones Jones

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Anatomy of a Repressed Memory OR What is THAT smell?

Ok, my friends, in the past I have wanted to explain how repressed memories come to the surface, but I was unable to do so because of the nature of my memories.  However, it turns out that I repressed good memories too.  I just rediscovered one of them, at least a piece of it.  Yay!  So I can tell you about that. Are you ready?

One day I was at home with my family and we were all relaxing.  Out of the blue, I started to smell something amazing.  Generally speaking my sense of smell is terrible.  I can smell a few really strong scents, for example if I can smell your perfume, you put it on way too much.  The smell of rain?  No way, are you kidding, rain has a smell?  I can't imagine it.  Of the smells that I am accostumed to most of them are noxious so I was surprised by this good smell.  It was not just good; it was delightful.  Instant joy!

"What is that wonderful smell?" I asked.

My family just looked at me blankly. "What smell?"

This has happened before.  I smell things, usually bad smells like burned rubber* that no one else smells.  I was so disappointed when I realized that my family could not smell this wonderful aroma because that meant it was psychosomatic...created by my mind (this is an overly simple definition).  Realizing it was mine alone, the smell went away, and I was so disappointed.

The smell left me, but I could not stop thinking about it and the great feeling that it caused.   Even a couple days later.  So I decided I would draw something to help me remember the moment.  Keep in mind, I am not an artist, but I have found drawing and doodling very theraputic. 

But how to draw that smell?  What was it? Christmas?  No, cotton candy. Yes, that's it cotton candy.  Wait, what does that have to do with Christmas?  Nevermind.

Caroline Steinhauer

I drew cotton candy, it was more like a Kindergartener version of clouds.  Then the idea came to me to blacken the area surrounding the cotton candy and and write the words, "cotton candy chasing away the darkness." 

The next day was therapy.  I was still thinking about the cotton candy moment.  Obsessive?  Perhaps so, but that is how it is with my memories, they don't let go of me.  I showed my little sketch to my therapist who seemed very interested in it and asked me a lot of questions.  I was both pleased and confused by his interest.

As he asked me questions, a picture began to come together in my mind.  For example, I had told him that I thought it was related to a memory (since this has happened before, only with bad memories).  He asked if I knew what the memory was about.  I said, "No, well, I keep thinking of my Grandmother.  I think it has something to do with her." 

He asked me a few more questions and then suddenly it hit me!  The smell was not cotton candy, but divinity.  Divinity is a Christmas candy.  Like cotton candy it has a way of "melting" in your mouth.  My Grandmother used to use food coloring to make it pink...just like cotton candy!

It was very clear to me in that moment that what I had smelled was a memory of making divinity with my Grandmother, and the very delightful feeling associated with the smell, was the way I felt as a child when I had that experience.

As I looked at the cotton candy sketch again, it was bittersweet.  I had thought of the smell and feeling as chasing away the present darkness.  Now I could feel and remember that "pushing away the darkness" was also related to the past.  That moment of joy with my Grandmother, temporarily pushed away the darkness of my life.

Why did I bury such a sweet memory?  I had to, because I am not the one that holds it.  The little boy of my mind does.  He also holds very difficult memories (don't ask me what they are, I really don't know).  His memories are so awful that I get a migraine type headache when I try to approach him in therapy...the headache recedes when I step away from him.  Yet, he is pleading with me to help him.  What can I do?

This sweet (no pun intended) memory is a great example of how my bad memories work.  Sometimes it is a picture that comes into my mind, while I am awake, or asleep, it doesn't matter.  Or maybe a dream, but whatever form it takes, it grabs hold of me and demands my attention.  Everyone has had the experience of getting a song "stuck" in your mind.  The images cling to me even more deeply than a song, and cannot be ignored. 

Right now, the divinity memory is just a smell and a feeling that brings a smile to my face even as I write this, and a "knowing" that it is about making divinity with my grandma.  If this memory works like the others, in time more and more pieces of it will come to me.  I might remember Grandma's apron (if she had one) or the music that was playing, perhaps something she said.  That is how it happens with the other memories.  Only this time, I will be happy to see the other pieces.

Photo attribution: Caroline Steinhauer