Saturday, December 10, 2011

Childhood Sexual Abuse: How NOT to Heal from It

One of my early romantic explorations involved a protracted “courting period” with a woman that involved great chemistry. Alana and I shared a number of mutual social and spiritual interests and in general just enjoyed hanging out together. Over time the barriers to the experience of love’s energies began to simultaneously intensify and dissolve and we opened discussions about the possibility of becoming romantic lovers. When it was agreed we would, I rented a secluded cabin in the Adirondacks, and with the requisite candles, incense and music, we consummated the relationship. At one seminal moment during that first time together, I looked down at Alana and was shocked and horrified to discover the face of an eight year old child staring back at me. Eight was the age when Alana’s father first began sexually molesting her. And now, as the result of some kind of unexpected, regressive, energetic facial morphing process orchestrated by her brain and body, it suddenly felt like I too, had just committed a sexual violation. From that moment forward, Alana's incest trauma hung like the Grim Reaper over our relationship. It wasn’t too long afterwards until her pain - repeatedly triggered and never resolved - became too much for either of us to bear. Finally, one day the Relationship Reaper thankfully came to collect each of us and put us out of our mutual misery.

Deny Anything Damaging Happened

In spite of current TV's interest in exploiting the cultural taboo, incest is still prohibited in every culture on the planet for a wide range of reasons. Prohibiting it is part of what makes us human (the reverse may also be true, especially when we're able to successfully turn our wounds into our gifts). While I’m not an expert, it seems reasonable that sexual abuse damages the vulnerable neural circuitry of young children in complex ways, and every perpetration is different. I also suspect it significantly disrupts the emerging Cortisol Awakening Response.

Some women I’ve talked with about the experience have told me that their greatest pain was not the incest itself, but that they had absolutely no one they could tell the full truth to about what happened. And not that they hated it … but that they loved it! They were afforded a glimpse of heaven. And every sexual experience afterwards provided glimpse after glimpse. They weren't sex-obsessed, though; they had become God-obsessed. Sex had simply become a vehicle to know God. At least for awhile. Until the insistent need for living life on earth began to show up.

Other women recognized that for them, the day the abuse began was the “day the music died.” And still other women, especially when violence was involved, recognized that their ability to easily get emotionally highjacked, under even minimal stress, was directly tied to the early abuse. Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman remarks in her book Father-Daughter Incest, “incest becomes like a small, nasty pet that you have for many, many years.” The brain had become like the one depicted on the right: severely compromised in it's ability to process energy and information, particularly under stress.

Sexual abuse of young children is sadly one of the most under-reported of all crimes. In addition to the Cortisol Awakening Response, it also appears to damage children's GABA supply system (essential for homeostasis) and exposes their hearts, brains, minds and bodies to stress loads their development is rarely equipped to handle. Because abuse never happens in a social vacuum, at the very least abuse delays and distorts emotional and social development. And without skillful, effective intervention - intervention that restores psychological and somatic functioning to high levels - that early overload can echo and reverberate across the canyons of our lives forever.

Make Frequent Attribution Errors of the Heart

Children easily make what I call “attribution errors of the heart.” The brain is first and foremost an association organ. Anything that happens in close sequence or proximity, the brain tends to make meaningful connections with. The problem with such meaning-making is that more often than not we make errors in attribution and assign false cause. Children’s immature neurological development makes them particularly susceptible to this error. Healthy, well-cared for children are born with and then naturally strengthen a compassionate heart. So, if something bad happens, they often automatically feel responsible. The problem becomes exacerbated by the fact that intense experiences like sexual abuse generate all kinds of associations children’s immature neurology is simply not equipped to handle. Early abuse can often result in extreme disorganization in thinking, often showing up in later life as fugue states, spacing out, hypo- (depression) or hyper-arousal, physical illness along with recurrent frequent emotional reactivity triggered in oneself and by resonance in others.

Give in to the Impulse to Isolate

Over many years of hearing stories from women about their experiences of abuse, one theme I’ve heard over and over again is the desire to go live in a cave or a monastery or go and live as a hermit in the woods. The need to isolate and insulate and establish strong protective boundaries shows up frequently among abused men and women. But trauma-imposed isolation is not solitude. That's often the explanatory fiction we tell ourselves to make sense of why we're alone. One challenge with the desire to isolate is: Wherever You Go, There Your Neurology Goes, Too. And often what the protective barriers end up doing is locking us alone inside with our demons (or our ecstatic divinity?). One result: many older women in America living alone and out of touch.

In an interview with Shane Bauer, one of the young American hostages released from Iran, he said that the most unbearable aspect of his imprisonment was the time he was forced to spend in isolation. Self-imposed isolation for abused adults is really trauma-imposed isolation. The brain is a social organ. Without the deep stimulation of other authentic hearts, brains, minds and bodies, like plants untended in a garden, neurons begin to wither and die. Being locked alone, even in the Garden of Eden, can end up doing profound damage.

Go Searching for Dr. Good Dad

A transcendent impulse lives in all of us that is constantly attempting to move us in the direction of health and healing. Like plants orienting towards the sun, that impulse can draw us to seemingly compassionate, loving, replacement father figures (and often mother figures as well). It’s often kind of like attempting a neurological do-over. One main challenge with that approach and perspective is that in order for healing to happen, the trauma will, if not unskillfully reenacted in physical reality, almost certainly become reenacted emotionally. We have to feel it to heal it. Good Dad is destined, often through the mechanisms of transference and projection, to be neurologically morphed into Bad Dad. The left brain frequently overlays the past onto the present, often creating a kind of reality distortion field. Without help discerning what’s real, what’s scary, what’s safe, and what’s an overlay from our personal traumatic past, perceiving accurately can be an almost impossible task. And where once we might have felt safety, joy and the possibility of healing, Good Dad's very presence now begins to stir up great fear and anxiety. This dynamic frequently results in many relationship ruptures, even between people of the same age and the same level of development. Sadly, repair can become difficult to sort through. But not impossible. Healing continually yearns to happen.

Avoid Grieving the Losses

The losses involved with childhood sexual abuse are considerable. An organic, timely unfolding childhood is lost. Innocence is lost. Trust is lost. Safety is lost. Security is lost. Peace of mind is lost. Sisters are lost. Dad is lost (or possibly uncle-brother-neighbor) and often mom as well. Neural real estate is lost. Sacred sanctity of self is lost. Voice is lost. Ungrieved, all of these losses inevitably begin to weigh on us with increasing gravity. Grieving cannot be avoided forever. Suffering knows suffering. One way to live solidly grounded in the world and ultimately know deep, sustainable joy - to begin to regain heaven on earth - is to inquire into and fully grieve our losses.

Discount The Healing Power of the Trauma Narrative

It helps to express the story of the abuse in words, pictures and voice. Voice is often murdered by sexual abuse: secrets must be kept, a code of silence must prevail, no one is ever to know “our special secret.” Taking The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience into account, one potentially promising way to approach this area of healing might be to become involved with a local chapter of RAINN. Important will be to resonate strongly with one or two experienced people in such a group. Trusting them will hopefully provide help when the crazy thoughts begin distorting reality.

And while expressing the trauma narrative might be necessary for healing, it is often not sufficient. The body holds memories as well, and they tooneed for full expression. For that reason, one possibility to consider is taking a Model Mugging course where you get to actually reenact the trauma with triumphant, healing resolution as the result. Equally good might be to take charge of our own healing and use Craig's List or Drew's List to organize incest empowerment groups co-led or co-facilitated by people who have managed to find their own healing paths. As with any healing journey, skillful guides can make all the difference. Each time we pick up a thread and give voice to the pain of our losses or any other truth in our experience in the presence of understanding, compassionate fellow travelers, some bit of healing happens. However much our brains and hearts manage to increase their capacity to process energy and information, depicted in the scan on the left, the world inevitably begins to become a kinder, safer place.

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