Sunday, March 2, 2008

Parenting Advice For Survivors

Parenting is an incredible endeavor regardless of one's background. At best we come from loving homes where healthy mothers and fathers modeled healthy, fulfilling, loving lives. Healthy parents loved, held and nurtured us, and each other. We had parents who were deeply in love and this love was extended between them in an outward fashion. The love shared by our parents and the love they felt and extended to us as children was palpable and poignant. Issues were dealt with in a nonviolent way. Our healthy parents mirrored our innate gifts back to us.

This is frequently not the case, however, and as we become mothers and fathers we are left picking up the fragments of our spirits. If we were abused in any way as a child, there are many things we can do to heal and empower ourselves to parent from a healthier place. This piece will focus on PTSD and Parenting. Almost 70 percent of Americans will be exposed to trauma in their lifetime. Up to 20 percent will go on to develop PTSD. A conservative estimate of 1 out of 10 women will develop PTSD at some time in their lives. PTSD symptoms sometimes develop within the first three months after trauma, but may not appear until months or years have passed. Symptoms can continue for years following the trauma, or, in some cases, symptoms may lie dormant and emerge later in life. This is often the case with victims of childhood abuse. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Post Incest Syndrome are a normal emotional and psychological reaction to a very abnormal traumatic experience. Calling it a "disorder" is a little misleading if you ask me, but semantics are semantics.

Pledging to become a conscious and aware parent and human being is a lifelong commitment, a sort of marriage to life itself. Many ages and stages developmentally speaking can present special challenges for a mother or father who was abused. Often, the normal stages our children go through are trauma-triggers, igniting those long buried feelings in us. Because of the possible congruency with our own abuse at those very same stages at those times, if we are largely unconscious and unskilled at handling our reactions, we can very well break down. Unprocessed trauma wreaks havoc on a parent living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety issues, Panic Disorder, or any of the other myriad of survivor-related fallout. The greatest suffering befalls one's children. The last thing on earth most of us want for our children is for them to ever have to feel the way we had to. I never want my children to experience the devastation of not having anyone to turn to, or the physical sensation of loss and annihilation that abandonment gives the child left behind.

When we can consciously observe our emotions and our reactions, we can begin to change. Before losing our temper over any of the stresses of parenthood, try picturing oyur child going through what you did. Nine times out of ten that is a serious jolt that pushes us squarely back into the present moment. Empathy is the first tool. What we can't feel in ourselves, we can not fully feel in another. The Buddha said that if our compassion does not include ourselves, it is incomplete. This is a basic truth.

If you are a survivor and you are reading this, I applaud your desire to continue to heal yourself by reading this. Your children and grandchildren will thank you as well. Post traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults like rape and incest, including emotional incest.

Taking inventory is essential in my opinion. Sometimes we have to weed out any remaining people and family members who do not have our healing interests at heart. It is important to cast a circle of loving friends and family of choice who will support you and your parenting on your journey. In 2004 I did just that. I had to make the very difficult decision of breaking all ties with the paternal side of my family. Illusions had to go and be released so that new pathways could be laid down. I had to give up the illusion that I had any power to change them, make them understand or make them accountable. It was painful and essential. A survivor has to indivuate and blaze her/his own trail eventually if we are to break loose from the cycle of abuse and prevent infecting our children. The Courage to Heal, by Laura Davis and Ellen Bass was monumental in my growth to the point of being empowered enough to say NO MORE to those who refused to protect me.

Self care is so important. I run and lift weights, and I practice pilates. Exercise regularly, see a therapist that you feel you can trust, practice yoga, and mediation. Moving the body can unlock years of petrified emotion. Make music a daily way to bring about catharsis or just relax you. Survivors with PTSD may be very jumpy, easily startled, paranoid, irritable, rageful, and suffer from a plethora of psychosomatic body symptoms. It is important to remember that all of these "bad" feelings are a language, our minds and bodies are speaking to us in a language, the language of pain. Our job is to listen and compassionately help ourselves to heal. Survivors can be constantly on guard and may find it difficult to concentrate. Sometimes persons with PTSD will have panic attacks. It suffices to say all of this is incredibly challenging when we are trying parent.

When feeling overwhelmed by young children, remember that excessive anger and rage are symptoms of your old pain being made new again by the child in front of you. Excessive distace is common as well, even to the point of allowing youe denial to endanger your own children by not listening to your gut. Like adults who experience trauma, children and adolescents who have been abused cope by using a variety of psychological mechanisms. One of the most effective ways people cope with overwhelming trauma is called "dissociation." Dissociation is a complex mental process during which there is a change in a person's consciousness which disturbs the normally connected functions of identity, memory, thoughts, feelings and experiences. Grounding ourselves is paramount: prayer, massage, warm blankets, a cup of chamomile tea, prayer beads or malas, stones like labradorite or crystals, petting an animal, drawing, reading, stretching, or going outside and connecting with the elements are all ways to come back down to earth.

It is a proven fact that fetal cells can live in a mother's body for up to 27 years. I believe that is true of emotions as well. Read as many books on abuse healing as possible. Take your time but make the effort. No healing happens until we decide. People with PTSD work hard to avoid anything that might remind them of the traumatic experience, as avoidance is a hallmark of the disorder. This includes one's own healing, which will demand that we reenter the feelings, feeling them fully, heed the messages they carry, and then do the enormous work of releasing them. This is very difficult to do as many of our habituated patterns of relating to ourselves, others, and the world once served us and helped us survive.

One of my greatest motivators is my own children, including the little girl that I was. Being proactive is the best way to keep children safe. Acknowledging the dark people and forces in our world who abuse children is only possible to the degree in which we can be accountable for what may have happened to us. Denial ensues partly because when we are vulnerable and being violated, we as children have to suspend the belief that this is actually happening to us. The psyche helps us out that way, otherwise we would go insane with the horror, fear, grief, and terror. People with PTSD frequently feel as if the trauma is happening again, as well as a sense of a nameless terrible dread. Traumatic memory material is not stored in the same fashion in our brains. That's why so many of the trauma memories are so scattered. They are literally fragmented. Flashbacks, often in a very fragmented way, occur as well and are very intrusive, and we relive the experience via this reaction. The person may have intrusive pictures in his/her head about the trauma, have recurrent nightmares or may even experience hallucinations about the trauma. However, some of us experience some pictures or movie reel type images, but some of us have body memories. We feel things in our bodies on a very cellular level. This is perfectly logical given that exposure to such profound trauma, such as incest and rape, alters the wiring of our neural pathways. Our hormones go haywire. The task is to retrain the brain. Retraining the brain and healing the heart are the order of the day.
For me personally, in the past I sometimes felt paranoid and thought I was seeing my abuser under my covers. Out in public every man I saw would look like him. When this happens, and it does still occur around certain triggers, like holidays, I place my hand over my heart and remind myself I am here, existing right now, and that little girl I was needs to be picked up and carried with me into the present.

Aromatherapy is helpful to ease stress and flashbacks. Painting one's feelings is something I highly recommend. Channeling suffering through the medium of art is alchemical and transformative. So many of our feelings seem so difficult to verbalize or express because we can not necessarily see them. But they are not intangible at all, and putting them on canvas, a poem, a journal, or in a collage serves to remind me of that. I can look at my very tangible creation and see that my truth is real. As I continue my path to integration-full acceptance of all dissociated aspects of myself- I feel more whole and less fragmented. When dissociated aspects of one's self become known, accepted and integrated into normal awareness, the fear and terror we had to bury and numb ourselves from during violation is amplified. It becomes more real. Grief and mourning is often the result. Better to deal with things as best you can lest it deal with you in some other unsavory manifestation, like relationship and intimacy issues, addictions to drugs, sex, even Jesus. What the mind may try to forget the body will remember.

My message is this: Feel the fear and do it anyway. Remember the worst is over even when it does not feel like it. When we were little and being hurt, we had to dissociate, pulling our spirits inward as a turtle does when in danger. It is safe to come out of the shell now. But do this with great compassion for the child you once were. The most painful realization I have had concerning my abuser, who was my father, is that he never saw me. He saw an object, a doll, a puppet for his use and abuse. He was never able to SEE me or access his empathy for the little child I was. His narcissism was too impenetrable. I have had to grieve this: I was never even real to my own father. BUT! My children have different childhoods, I do see them, I feel them, they exist for their own purposes. I am just blessed as can be to have them tucked under my mother wings for a time before they are ready to fly. Parenting: the longest process of unfolding and letting go.

Visualize yourself as a small child, go to that child and lift her/him up into your adult arms. I have done this while hugging a big teddy bear or a pet. At one point I could not look at pictures of myself as a child let alone visualize a little me and go to her. I now walk right in to my flashbacks, love guns blazing and walk right up to that child I was (and in some ways still am, and proud of it!)in mid-violation and rescue her. I have started to enter the most intense memory of being raped as a ten year old. If I'm going to be bombarded anyway, I am going to go into that memory in all my Mother Bear glory and take that little girl away. My therapist and I came up with a side-pouch for me to tuck little me into for safe harbor. I truly believe that profound pain can contain profound beauty. There are no easy short cuts, only your individual unique path. Those are some of my personal experiences and ideas, I hope that it helps anyone who needs it.


Read: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook by Glenn R. Schiraldi
The Courage to Heal, by Laura Davis and Ellen Bass