Thursday, January 22, 2015

Healing The Wounds Of Abuse

What surprises a lot of us about becoming adults is all the hard work it takes. Most of us heard plenty of platitudes from our parents and elders about the benefits of hard work! Thomas Edison said “there is no substitute for hard work.” We don’t disagree with the concept. And eventually we begin to see the connection between hard work and accomplishing things in our lives. But what seems so unfair to a lot of us who have come from abuse is that we have to work toward our own healing. Because if we hadn’t been abused, the work would never need to be done and time and energy and work spent on healing would perhaps be far better spent on our adult lives!

Some of you may still be at this place. You may be thinking “I’m happy for you, Mark, that you got some peace in your life. But you’re scaring me with all this talk about hard work. And I don’t know if I can do this.” I really do get it. If I hadn’t had the unique experience of living in a foreign country for a while and the way a different culture made my pain come to the surface I have no idea how long I might have “kept it together” and not felt the call to heal.

I think of those of us with the pain of abuse as sort of like people walking around with cancer. If we actually were diagnosed with cancer and kept telling ourselves and our spouses “I’m afraid of what treatment will entail” eventually our friends might gang up on us and beg us to step into that scary process. But with soul pain like we have, we are the ones who ultimately have to decide to step forward into the healing process. We are in some senses both doctor and patient in that we are part of each step of the process. At no time are we under anesthesia with someone else doing the work! We are present and going through it each step of the way. And we are the ones who must do the strenuous work of healing.

If you read my last blog writing you may recall I talked about the hard work it took to wrestle through and unlearn the lies of my father, the preacher Fred W. Phelps, Sr. As I was engaged in the hard work of dismantling the wrong teachings I had learned from my father it became obvious to me that I still had a considerable amount of healing left to do. The “head” work was important and I do not discount it. It was an important step. But I knew in my soul there was so much more work to do.

The second phase of my therapy really was a move from doing work only in my head to connecting with my heart. My therapists helped me see I needed to revisit emotional experiences from my growing up years with a new perspective that only an adult could have. They wanted to help me remember those experiences of abuse as they happened but to interpret them differently with an adult’s understanding of the truth. And by doing that allow me emotionally, in the present, to experience a very different outcome from what I had experienced during the abuse itself.

This process is a little hard to explain to someone who has not gone through it themselves. I am trying to explain the healing process my therapists guided me through that helped me learn that our amazing human minds have freedom to respond to situations from our past with a variety of new responses. These new responses to old events and old traumas are based on new values or new understanding we have gained that allows us to see and respond differently than we did in our past. You can imagine when I started into therapy at the age of 37 I had far greater resources to understand what had happened to me than when I went through the abuse as a child.

Children respond to abuse by experiencing terror, shame, loneliness, panic, desperation, an inability to control bodily responses (shaking, crying, getting cold, etc.) and any number of child coping skills used to manage the pain and fear. One important thing a good therapist can help an adult survivor do is to look at what the child’s understanding was of what was happening. Many children begin to see the abuse as their fault, as something they “deserved”, as a punishment for wrongdoing, as what a “good for nothing” gets, and any number of other hurtful, damaging beliefs. Those beliefs must be challenged for healing.

When you revisit the abusive situations in your memory, you are able to respond to them differently. Adults can be given a new set of lens with which to view the abuse. With a good therapist, and in my case with the aid of the Lord, I was able to assess the abuse completely differently. I was able to reteach my heart that I was a valuable little boy and that loving parents should never have treated their small child with such abuse or neglect. I also came to understand I was valuable and precious to God, even if I wasn’t to my parents, and that my responses to the situation were simply those of a very young child who was terrified and trying to learn what to do to keep safe.

The truth is absolutely paramount to the adult’s recovery from their childhood abuse. The things their abusers told them were almost certainly lies and often explicitly used by the abuser to keep the child under their abusive control. Adult abusers take advantage of kids’ vulnerability with these lies that can keep the child from ever having the courage to hope for any other life circumstances or ever try to escape his or her situation.

The therapist and the patient become a team who must carefully examine what lies were being told and what truths were not being communicated during the abuse. This takes time. If you have heard your whole life that you are “worthless” or “good for nothing” or “a slut” or “a whore” or “you deserve this” or “this is your fault” or “you are evil” you will begin to believe it. Children have no real ability to fight back emotionally against their perpetrators for very long because they do not have the skills to combat the mind control of a verbally and physically abusive person.

It is especially hard for children to reject messages from their parents since children are truly hard-wired to believe their parents have their best at heart. This is difficult to work through, and is time consuming but the truth about who you are and your value to God and others is a message that does begin to get through.

In this next phase of therapy my hope was also to reduce the emotional pain I had begun to experience when I began to open my mind and heart to my past. I knew the emotional pain at the level I was now experiencing it was crippling me. God has built in pain as an important mechanism in our lives to protect us. And whether that pain is felt by a little hand on a hot stove or as emotional pain from abuse, it is important to listen to all pain. Physical and emotional pains are very important guides to our healing. For many of us, it is the only thing that gets us started on our road to recovery.

Some people’s response to their pain reminds me of the engine lights on cars that were made back in the 1960s. Older cars had a simple engine light and when it turned red if you didn’t pull over you risked ruining the engine. These days there are orange lights that allow us to drive for longer to allow us time to fix more minor problems. When it comes to our psychological health it is important to know when we are dealing with an orange light or a red light. But in either case it is truly good to see pain as a warning to help us. Strong people can push through pain for a season and many of you are very strong people. But there comes a day when you know that the pain must be dealt with to live a full and free life.

I learned through therapy that when I was very young I had shut down and completely closed off inside so I would not feel as much pain from the things that were happening to me. That is how I survived. This served me very well in the environment of abuse. But it did not serve me well at all as I left home and tried to build a life. In fact, this worked against me considerably. And it affected my relationships. Any sense of connecting with people in my life was often at a very low and sometimes even superficial level.

This was just part of what I was learning as I began the healing process with the cognitive therapist. It took a long time to open up my heart. In fact, it was quite a ways into the healing process before I began to make any connection or open up to the part of my heart I had closed off. When I did begin to open up, it became terribly painful.

Remember I’ve been saying that pain has its place in our lives and we need to see it as a warning and as help toward healing. But for many of us who are finally connecting with our previously shut off hearts it can feel like waking up from heart surgery without anesthesia. It can be incredibly frightening and monstrously painful and can cause you to want to crawl back into the safe, suppressed places you once were and that are so familiar.

But let me give you some hope in this process. When you do begin to connect with the pain it is precisely because of the abuse that you experienced. You were abused and abuse hurts! You are likely having a delayed reaction, in full force, that you should have been able to feel long ago when the abuse happened, but couldn’t.

The challenge can be allowing your mind to connect the past abuse with your present heart that is now awakened. You become aware in this process that perhaps you can finally allow yourself to fully feel and fully process the wrong done to you. Many people who had to shut off their hearts as young children or young adults to protect themselves can no longer connect the past wrong with the feelings that are being allowed finally to come to the surface. The feelings that are surfacing feel like a massive disconnect to your present life and can feel extremely uncomfortable.

That is what makes it feel unsafe and so frightening. The feelings don’t match your present reality of going to work every day and going to the gym and dealing with your coworkers and life with your family. The anxiety, sadness, hurt, rejection, anger, loneliness, despair or rage bubbling up just doesn’t “fit” what is going on around you. Often it takes the help of a trained professional to assist you in connecting with the wrongs done to you previously and help you realize that your present emotions, though perhaps inconsistent with your present life circumstances, are VALID and WARRANTED and need to be felt and expressed to begin true healing.

An example in my own recovery was my therapists attempting to help me reconnect with appropriate feelings. Initially I couldn’t feel anything. My therapists were well aware that I had a heart that was shut off. They wanted to help me go back in time to when I was first abused to help me process the normal feelings a child would feel being abused. But they had a problem. I couldn’t feel anything except for a chronic generalized anxiety and discomfort just being in my own skin! So they worked to help me reconnect with specific feelings at all, and then helped me to go back in time to the real abuse and process it fully with their help.

They helped me re-create the circumstances of my abuse and connect with the feelings that would have been appropriate in the original event. My therapists helped me go back to situations in my mind of being treated in very wrong ways. Then with their help I was able to begin feeling what a person who is being hurt should feel . . . anger, shock, betrayal, surprise, horror, outrage, terror, disbelief, loneliness, helplessness, confusion, and denial to name just a few.

And these buried feelings were the building blocks of toxic shame in my life! A distinction might be helpful here. It’s been said that when you experience guilt you feel bad. But that when you experience toxic shame it’s because you think you ARE bad. That is very often true for victims of abuse. The abuser was the wrongdoer but the victim ends up feeling like the worthless person. So tragic, but so true!

This was so true of my life. It might help you understand how shame worked in my life if I tell you the main emotions I felt were despair, dirtiness, profound loneliness, extreme anxiety and worthlessness and these were emotions that were with me day and night. It was almost impossible for me to trust any person and I felt it would make little or no difference to anyone if I lived or died. It was very difficult to want to WANT to live.

If ever there was a need for looking backwards to be able to finally look forward it would be therapy for victims of long-term abuse. Our pasts do not stay in the past. They come crashing into the front and center of our present. My therapists were honestly doing a very beautiful thing by championing the little child in me who had not been defended or protected by adults. I desperately needed to be given the opportunity to respond in the present with all the appropriate and healthy responses any kid would feel who had been beaten or traumatized in his past. There is something very powerful about having your past and your present connected back. And then to be able to be in the present and still remember the past with some new tools to help the child in you who was never protected. When my therapists helped me to do this they helped me begin to heal.

Being able to appropriately respond to wrongs done to us is a very important part of being a healthy, whole human being. Even when our responses are 30 years late! We as humans can overlook plenty of petty grievances and everyday life situations with people pulling in front of us in traffic and hurting our feelings in myriad of ways and we will get by. What is unique to the victim of abuse is they have been trying to “get by” for years with events that were highly traumatic and that desperately need to be expressed in safe ways. For those of us with long-term abuse, it takes time to even remember and respond to all the wrong done to us. And hurrying a person through this process is not helpful.

We have a built in sense of justice given to us by God. That sense of justice and right from wrong is very powerful in us. If we are wronged and do not have an ability to respond with appropriate emotions of anger, hurt, sadness, etc. that hurt can go deep into us until it is properly dealt with. It does not just magically disappear!

The ultimate goal of healing is to deal with the ‘there and then’ so it is not in the ‘here and now’. The victim of abuse can eventually learn to live a healthy life with family and friends without the effects of past abuse destructively crashing in.

Wrongs need to be made right in this world. If you look at the criminal justice system, you discover that many victims get very little help to heal by the legal system’s meting out appropriate lengthy prison sentences for the perpetrator of the crime. What CAN help victims to heal is when their perpetrator confesses to the crime, and expresses not just a repentant attitude but that he understands what he took away from the victim. And the damage he caused in their lives. When this happens in a criminal justice context, there has to be serious preparation on both sides before it is considered safe to have a perpetrator of a crime and the victim in the same room together. One thing that is an absolute requirement is that the perpetrator understands that he caused harm to the victim and is sorry for it.

It is complicated for victims of abuse in that there is not necessarily an advocate for the child victim of abuse. Often the scars of emotional and physical abuse are not visible in any way to family and friends. So the abuse victim has to learn for him or herself other ways to gain some kind of peace of mind and closure about the abuse. With the help of therapists and sometimes from wise friends, there can be steps taken to heal even if the perpetrator refuses to admit his wrongdoing.

My therapists had to help me feel again. And then they had to help me connect up appropriate responses to what I was feeling. Some of these feelings were 35 years later than they should have been! This uncovering of feelings and working through them was a truly lengthy process to go through. We usually react so quickly to emotionally frightening things that we are unaware of any processing we go through. My therapists knew I needed help to identify the thinking I was doing as a child when I was in the midst of those abusive experiences.

These objectives were not easy to accomplish, but they were very important. Thinking affects our beliefs, which affects our feelings, which affects our behavior. Thinking is the engine in this system and is critical for change. These deep, unspoken thoughts in the heart of a child are what determine the way the child reasons with their brain. When a child begins to think terribly wrong things about her or himself such as “I must be a bad kid or I wouldn’t be being beaten or kicked or tied to a chair or not fed enough food or left all alone or be watching my father beat and scream at my mother” it ends up becoming a deep heart-felt belief she has about herself.

The only way for an abused child to become pure in heart after being abused is for her deep thinking and feelings to be revisited and healed. This healing change is essential if there is to be wholeness in her heart and life as an adult! If we want to guard our hearts as adults we must heal our hearts from past abuse!

If the child were to have an adult help them process a one-time assault, there can be healing. We can tell a child “Honey, you did not ask for that man to do that to you. You were all alone and could not help yourself. You are precious and valuable and that man had no right to do that to you. I am so sorry.” The challenge is the child of abuse often has no adult rescuer or defender saying those important things to him or her to help her heal. The adult abuser ends up choosing to say horrible things to his victim so the victim won’t fight back. That is key to all abusers’ power. They create such fear in you that you don’t believe you are able to fight back…And beloved one, those fears were very crippling to you as they were to me.

We will get into the thinking processes an abuser tries to push on his victim but we will also discuss why little children are so susceptible to the messages that come from adults and parents especially. We as adults walk around believing lies about ourselves every day that were told to us when we were children. But those of us who are victims of an abuser’s lies must learn to fight back or we can stay stuck in that terrible place of helplessness and pain.

The good news?! Our minds are powerful and wonderful parts of us that can truly change over time as we bring wholesome, clean truth back into our lives. Truth is an amazing friend to a victim of abuse.

Shame from abuse requires three things to perpetuate it: secrecy, isolation and silence. Part of what we are going to talk about very soon is the process of bringing those lies that were told to us out in the open. Shining a light on the wrong things said to us and done to us is one of the first steps to being truly set free.

Mark Phelps

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