I have been thinking about two ideas lately–forgiveness and default options. What does one have to do with the other? Perhaps more than you might think. A “default option” is defined as “an option that is selected automatically unless an alternative is specified”. When we use a computer, an MP3 player, a printer, a digital camera, a cell phone, we deal with default settings. Our technological devices come with “factory settings”. The factory from which any of these devices come have been given specific instructions on how to work via software, hardware, firmware, etc. Once they are in our possession, we get to tweak, change, or add to the settings embedded in the aforementioned in hopes that they will function in a way that we choose rather than allowing the Factory to choose for us. In fact, you can repartition your hard drive and start over completely! For many people, this is part of the fun of using technology.
Humans have default options, too, and many of our default options were not chosen by us. Our happiness and well-being are dependent on the choices of those who raised us for almost the first two decades of our lives. Our brains have not even finished growing and pruning when we reach 20 years. What goes into the completion of a human being? All our life experiences, our relationships, our interactions…I can’t even begin to estimate what one human brain can store. But, I am fairly certain that many of our responses to the life we have today is an option that we select automatically because we cannot discern an alternative.
I will be writing on this subject for a while, I think, but I want to introduce this idea–default settings can be changed. I’ll give one example. When I was a small child, my stepmother told me that I had caused my father so much pain, so many tears, that it would have been better had I never been born. She told me that quite frequently. Had there been an advocate in that setting to contradict her words, I may have been able to choose an alternative idea to believe. For every lie we’ve been told, wouldn’t it have been a relief to hear the truth? We could have chosen perhaps something better to believe, but it seems that the “bad stuff” is always easier to believe. From that moment on, I truly believed her, and whenever I hurt another person even if only by accident particularly if they cried–if there were tears–I believed that I needed to die. The idea that my causing another person pain became connected to a deep feeling of self-rejection and loathing. I began to hate myself because I should never have been born according to my stepmother. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone is capable of hurting another person in thought, word, or deed. Be perfect or die. What an option.
I believed this terrible lie until I was 30 years-old! One evening a feeling of deep self-loathing came over me so I prayed. Actually, I wept. I cried out to God for an answer. “Why do I feel this way?” Suddenly, I heard her words echo in my mind–“You have caused your father so much pain, so many tears, that it would have been better had you never been born.” There it was. A default setting. My causing someone else to suffer=my death. I had to change the default setting in my mind, my soul, and my heart. How did I do this? It started with forgiveness.
I will elaborate on this in my next post, but I want to introduce this idea because it is intimately connected to our ability to recognize the truth about ourselves, our experiences, and our past, present, and future. If you have abuse of any kind in your life experience, then you will most certainly have some toxic default settings. I’m fairly convinced that every person on the planet does, but trauma has a way of embedding these ideas so deeply into our physiology that it takes a great deal of time and intention not only to dislodge them but also to replace them. What I want to emphasize is that we can change them. You can change them.
Denial is an interesting experience. I used to think that denial was deliberate. A sort of Scarlet O’Hara worldview–“I’ll think about it tomorrow.” What I have discovered is that oftentimes denial is inevitable. Our brains have inherent mechanisms designed to protect us. We often do not remember painful events in their entirety until we are able–if we are ever able. While the psychotherapeutic community has at times abused the reality of repressed memories, repressed memories are indeed a real thing.
When I finally came to terms with my childhood sexual abuse, I could not believe it. I tried, but I could not get my brain to accept the events that I remembered. I felt like I was literally going crazy. I remember waking up one morning, the events clear in my mind’s eye as if I were watching a film play before me. I saw it, and I thought to myself, “What a relief. I remember now. That explains a lot.” And, I got on with my day. In truth, what I remembered remained a very distant memory. I did not know what to do with it. Lots of people are abused, I thought. Life must go on. How I began to live my life changed quickly. I avoided stillness and quiet. I hated being alone. I abandoned any sort of introspection, and I never sat still. I worked until I was exhausted and fell into bed, falling asleep quickly. One day, my husband suggested that I go have some “alone time”. I used to be the sort of person that craved stillness and peace. I would frequently seek out time to sit alone. No longer.
I decided to go to a trendy hot spot for lunch. I liked having lunch alone. It was restorative to me. I ordered my soup and salad and settled in for a round of people watching. As I looked around, I suddenly felt distanced from the world around me. I wasn’t necessarily having an out-of-body experience, but I did not feel grounded either. The din of the chatter and activity increased while the movement of the people ordering, visiting, and looking around slowed. My stomach seemed to sink, and my brain felt like it would explode. I felt like I was falling, but I was seated. Suddenly, I realized that I was weeping over my soup. And, the memory of my abuse replayed in my head over and over again. I realized that I had spent months running away from the memories of my abuse and all that those events entailed. I went home and told my husband that I needed to get help; I was sinking…quickly.
I found a therapist soon thereafter. We went right to work, and I remember still feeling unable to reconcile what I intellectually knew to be true with my emotions regarding the abuse. My therapist called it “crazymaking”. Love and abuse do not go together. Mother and jealousy do not go together. Brother and sex do not go together. In our close family relationships, certain things go together. Parents=safety. Mother=love. Father=protection. You get the idea. Parents, however, do not equal abuse, sex, rage, jealousy, neglect, confusion, loneliness, etc.. Our brains try to grasp the truth, but, in order that we are protected, our brains often deny. In certain cases, denial helps us navigate the dangers of our circumstances until we reach safety. Once we are safe, once we are experiencing stability, denial does not always serve a purpose. Often, we are left with coping strategies that no longer help us. At some point, it becomes necessary to dismantle the coping mechanisms so that we are able to grow and heal. The coping strategies, while important to our survival during trauma, impede the healing process because they root us in a survival paradigm. If we are looking to develop new strategies which will ultimately enable us to thrive, then we must discard the coping strategies that are only useful to survival.
Practically, what does this look like? One coping mechanism that I utilized a lot during my survival period (and during my healing period) is dissociation. Dissociation is quite useful. We are able to essentially compartmentalize the pain while superficially functioning reasonably well. I could do the dishes, fold laundry, drive around town, and do myriad tasks while I lived a different life in my head. When the pain associated with past events became unbearable, I would simply leave in my mind. Dissociation is one way the brain protects itself. There are many stories where a victim of rape explains that she/he simply left their bodies during the event; they watched the rape from somewhere else in the room. I actually developed a rich inner life full of pleasant places and people. I was able to be everything that I hoped…in my mind. This coping strategy is very effective during times of intense suffering. If an environment is abusive in any way, dissociation comes to the rescue, and we make it another day. Simply put, we survive.
Dissociation, however, does not enable us to thrive. It keeps us distant from our own lives and experiences. We become so hyper-vigilant. “When is the other shoe going to drop?”, “Things are going so well right now. It can’t stay that way.” Or perhaps we sabotage our own security and success because we just *know* that something bad is around the corner. The insecurity is so great that we must create a crisis in order to feel like we are in familiar circumstances. The pain may be nearly intolerable, but, at least, it’s familiar. We know how to survive that.
If telling the truth is the first step in learning to thrive, then how can we employ truth as a means to move past dissociation? In my experience, we must find a truth that is more powerful than our pain, our denial, and our coping strategies. In all honesty, I think identifying our coping strategies is important. So, here is the question? How are you coping with your trauma, your pain, your memories, and your present circumstances? Are you able to stay present in your life? What triggers your need to rely on coping strategies?
We must not condemn ourselves or our strategies. They helped us to survive. We are alive today because our minds found a way to live through whatever suffering we were forced to endure. Can we gently look within and find one strategy that may not be truly useful to us now? And, can we find one trustworthy person, a therapist or a good friend invested in our success and healing, who will listen to us tell the truth? Start a journal. Start a list. Write down one coping strategy that you needed in the past. Then ask yourself, “Do you still need it today?”
I have been ruminating on a certain idea. If a person survived a traumatic event or series of events, then what would be the first step towards healing? How does one move from surviving to thriving? Can that process be quantified into a series of steps? This is not an unusual idea. Alcoholics Anonymous has managed to create a powerful template for recovery from alcoholism with their Twelve Steps. What steps would one take to move towards a desirable life after having survived perhaps very undesirable events?
After much rumination, I propose that “Telling the Truth” is a good first step. For survivors of sexual abuse or any kind of abuse for that matter, truth may not be what we want because one cannot remain neutral in the face of truth. One either denies the truth or embraces it. We cannot do both. I’ll provide an example. As I’ve stated, I was sexually abused when I was a very young child by an intimate member of my family. When the weight of that truth finally fell upon me, I was crushed. I tried to broach the subject with my mother; as soon as I approached the subject she hung up the phone. Her reaction was telling–she knew. Not only did she know or at the very least suspect the abuse, she herself chose to do nothing. She did not take steps to protect me as a child. She chose denial. When I realized that her denial had caused me years of suffering, I was devastated. What I thought was true about my mother was, in fact, a lie. The framework of my reality was quickly crumbling. So, what then? What do we do with hard truths? What do we do with the: “I was raped.”, “I was molested.”, “My father violated me.”, “My mother did not protect me.”, “I feel worthless.”, “I was date raped.”, “I was neglected.”, “I was left alone as a child to fend for myself.”, “I was emotionally abused.”, “I was spiritually abused.” ad nauseum. What do we do with our truths?
My first step towards healing was simple but painfully difficult, and I would compare it with Step One in AA. AA’s first step is: “Admit that we are powerless over alcohol–our lives have become unmanageable.” Denial is very much like an addiction. It is a rut in our brains much like the rut formed by the ceaseless passage of a wagon wheel. It can run deep and border every painful truth that we wish to ignore–that we cannot absorb. Telling the truth provides an opportunity to form a new rut, a better way to choose. Truth shatters false paradigms and acts as a light in the dark spaces of our souls. A simple admission of truth is a good first step. What is your truth? What happened to you? What would you rather ignore, even deny? Are you able to admit to yourself that your life has become unmanageable due to denial? Are you paralyzed in any area of your life because you would “just rather not go there”? That’s denial. “I don’t have time to deal with that.” Denial. “I’m just too tired to deal with that right now.” Denial again.
Are you in denial in any area of your life? Are you surviving your life? Remember, thriving is the goal in every area of our lives regardless of what we have experienced in life. Start with one truth for one denial. One day at a time. One hour at a time. One minute, one second, at a time.
I have tried two times to start a blog, but I fail because I lack consistency. Perhaps on a deeper level I have lacked a purpose. There are myriad bloggers out there writing about myriad topics from recipes to books. I even stumbled across a blog written by a man who fancied himself to be the Marquis de Sade. His blog was a record of his exploits and encounters, shall I say. This is not my purpose, and, thank God, I have discovered a purpose to write…finally.
My intention is to tell the truth about certain experiences through which I have come in hopes that it may land somewhere. On the doorstep of a wounded soul in search of hope perhaps? I am not the Messiah, and I do not have a Messiah complex. I have, however, come through many terrible circumstances, and by the grace of God, I am not only alive but seemingly whole. I cannot provide all the answers, but I can tell my story. I can point to signposts, mile markers along the road if you will, that can lead another to a place of rest and restoration. Healing for the abused, broken, and battered is more than a dream; it is a real possibility, but it comes with a high price. Let us not make that sojourn alone. Let us walk this road together.