Thursday, January 8, 2015

Keep A Lid On It

When you look back over your own life there are a whole lot of ways you could explain it to others that makes sense to you and perhaps to them too. Almost always we explain ourselves to others in a chronological fashion but the way we do it is highly individual to us and our circumstances. I have this feeling that “normal” people just use a standard, chronological format and fill in all the wonderful and varied detail along their journey. (I was a kid, I played volleyball in high school, I went to college, I got married, I got a job, I moved to a new city.)

As I hear folks without trauma in their background, their stories sound something like I have just described. They could easily use the structure of these kinds of chapter headings. But for those of us with abuse and trauma in our backgrounds it’s almost as if there are two volumes to truly describe us. Life before the trauma is volume one and life after the abuse began is volume two. It’s because our lives after abuse were so fundamentally different that chapter headings seem not to give a sense of the drastic change that occurred in our lives after we experienced abuse. But as I am writing this blog I realize for some of us we might really need three volumes if we are victims of abuse.

The third volume would be where we begin our healing process. And it truly needs a third volume because the healing process begins to change the very fabric of our being, too. There is research to show that tremendous damage happens to abuse and trauma victims in physiological and psychological ways that can be measured and are certainly felt by the victim. What is equally true is that over time with powerful healing, other changes happen in our bodies, minds and spirits that help to reduce or even take away the damage from our abuse.

I write today about what it took to get me from the holding pattern I was in towards the end of my volume two to finally knowing I had to get help to even be able to go on living. I invite you into my story but I know each of you who have been victimized by others have your own stories. You also have a story of what it took to get you ready to tackle true change and not just try to cope with the pain and the agony of your abuse. And if you are still in the transition period toward seeking help I hope my story will give you hope. Because there IS hope in the healing!

By the fall of 1989, about a year after my business partner died, my wife was studying French at the local university. In the summer of 1990 my wife and I made the decision to move our family of three to France so my wife could study the French language among the French people, as part of her college work. We planned to go for a year and made plans for the operation of our company and other important plans which would allow us to travel for that length of time. It seemed to us to be a wonderful decision and after spending a little time in London and Paris, we arrived in Aix en Provence in the south of France to live for a year.

After we arrived and were settled, I remember the agony that began to creep up from some unknown place deep inside of me. I do not overstate the emotion when I say agony began to creep up into my heart.

Almost for the first time in my life I had time on my hands because I was unable to work in France. And emotions that I had kept at bay for years, by running on the treadmill of a busy life, really started to flood my heart. I went down very fast and hard emotionally. I began to feel these feelings of despair, wretchedness, dirtiness, hopelessness and worthlessness . . . and intense anxiety! I had a sense of impending doom! It felt much like a bad nightmare except I was wide awake and the pain was real.

I had not anticipated this experience! The way I dealt with the feelings, at that point, was to try to close my body off. I guess the best way to describe what this means is to say I was trying to make myself numb so I couldn’t feel the intense and unending pain in me.

Children of abuse close their bodies off when they experience overwhelming circumstances and I believe it was a very ingrained response for me to do this again. I began to go without eating except for little bits now and then, because I just did not have an appetite. I would also walk a lot! I lost forty pounds during this period as my emotions were being reawakened and I was in a state of severe despair. If you have ever seen those movies about a person given a medication that wakes them up from some kind of coma or twilight in their lives, I think what I experienced had some similarities. All of a sudden I was hit with an oncoming train of pain and had nowhere to go to escape.

This sounds a bit like I was losing my mind over there in France. But I think I was actually losing my lid. Let me explain. Those of us who were victims of ongoing brutal child abuse learned quickly to keep a “lid” on all our normal childhood emotions. We did this because just being a child and doing the things children did got us in trouble. And often! So displays like laughter, playfulness, running around just being a kid, crying over hurts, asking for help, asking endless questions, complaining, challenging parents – any of which you might see in an average American household any day of the week are not allowed behaviors in a home of abuse. Why? Because normal childhood behaviors get you abused! And you quickly learn to put a lid on those responses to life that normal kids experience every day that produce growth and health because to do otherwise gets you hurt. So, the lid saves you from abuse. It can truly be a lifesaver.

Then for those of us who were able to leave our abuser, that lid served other vital purposes. Because emotions and the display of them had gotten us in trouble before until we learned to quickly put a lid on them, we found ourselves in our adult lives having a very useful tool to save us from emotional pain. But in the process of learning a valuable coping skill that saved us from further abuse in our lives we ended up with an unintended consequence. We ended up putting a lid on the pain itself. In the assumption that to ever express that pain in all its ferocity would probably be more than we could bear.

The problem with the lid on an adult, who has suffered child abuse, is that the lid doesn’t always fit too well! And the pain ends up coming out sometimes despite our best efforts. And in places, situations and with people where you least expect it. Or want it.

So now back to our time living in France. When you are in your own culture, speaking your own language and going through your own daily routines you somehow manage to keep the lid on fairly tightly to all the pain that is roiling on the inside of you; using brilliantly crafted schemes to keep the lid on. And when you choose to allow yourself to feel the pain at all you only let out the amount of pain you can handle.

After we returned home and I finally sought out therapy I was able to recognize I was letting out a lot more pain than I realized. And sadly it had been largely in ways that were destructive to those around me. And much of the pain I was inflicting I was simply unaware of.

Part of “taking the lid off” of our pain even briefly, and in controlled ways that are helped along by a therapist, is understanding what our pain has done to deaden our abilities to connect with other people. And part of what you will do in therapy is to understand all the routines, and schedules and ways of doing things you have set up in your life to gain a certain amount of comfort . . . because the routines are predictable and feel safe. And so much of our lives as children were not.

So our routines can quickly become our comfort; a rock to help keep the lid on a little more tightly and keep us comfortable; as comfortable as someone in dreadful emotional pain can be. What you sometimes learn is that what is “built into” your routine are behaviors in dealing with others that are hurtful to them in either word or deed that you have numbed yourself to. At least it was that way for me.

I believe what happened when I was spending time with my family in France was the lid was no longer even able to stay on the pressure cooker of my pain. Two important parts of life in America that had helped to keep the lid on were no longer present. One large part was the safety and busyness of work. That was gone and it had always been my solace. And apparently it had provided more stability than I had realized.

But, the second piece that loosened the lid was the work required in dealing with culture shock. Most people who travel and know they are only going to be gone for a week or two manage the cultural differences fairly well. They say “why don’t they put ice in their Cokes over here?” and whatever other mild complaining cross-cultural travelers do to manage their discomfort.

However when people choose to stay in a foreign country for any length of time, something else sets in. Over time the cultural differences can produce anything from mild discomfort to extreme pain for different people in different circumstances. Because to be in another culture; speaking another language, navigating new things every day, and sometimes every minute of every day, takes emotional work and emotional stability. To someone with a solid emotional core it might be an adventure and only mildly uncomfortable, but to someone in emotional pain the work that is required to just feel stable and comfortable can seem absolutely overwhelming.

I grew up in a very restricted environment where I was not allowed to have normal contact with people and thereby gain the myriad of experiences of a normal child. Normal everyday experiences that children have are what help them prepare to be normal adults. The Phelps children were denied access to friends, social events as simple as the 2nd grade Christmas party, band, intermural sports, the school play, and field trips. All of these experiences that normal kids have prepare them to engage in all that will be thrown at them as adults. We had very few of these smaller experiences to prepare us for much bigger ones.

I truly had no idea how much being in a foreign country would be like shifting sand for me and that I really did not have the ego strength to have all those new experiences thrown at me. So off came the lid of my very fragile security. And without work as the mainstay of my life, the thing that allowed me to stay busy enough and feel worthwhile enough not to have to deal with my pain was also gone. And then the pain hit me like a truck. And I was simply not prepared for the toll it took on me to simply put one foot after the other each day.

The pain was coming out like a volcano and I had no method for dealing with it. Other than running! Do you remember us Phelps kids running 10 miles a day? Many of you who came from abuse will not find this surprising that a coping mechanism I had while in the abuse itself would be one I would rely on when I was no longer with my abuser. So I tried to soothe my pain with lots of walking! Anything to distract my body sensations with movement that would allow me to feel less pain!

This experience of losing my normal cultural surroundings was making me all the more aware that the wretchedness was in my soul, in my body, and now in my mind. This little adventure; this experience; is what brought me to my decision to do healing work, though I did not get to the root of what all these feelings meant until quite a few years into my therapy experience.

The reason that finally pushed me over the edge and made me realize I wanted to heal was because the wretchedness and terror left me without the ability to connect and be intimate, emotionally, with my wife. I could be physically intimate; there was no problem with that. But I couldn’t be emotionally intimate. I couldn’t be emotionally available to my wife, and that was truly painful for her and made her feel like a second class citizen in our relationship and of very low value. For the sake of my love for my precious wife I was determined to heal my heart!

Many of us as men are able to compartmentalize the physical and emotional and not have it seem to affect us negatively. (Or so we think…) I realize I am making a generalization and I apologize to anyone for whom it is untrue! With my very intuitive wife, who was well able to see herself being shut out from me emotionally, there was no escaping the emotional distance and the toll that was taking on her.

I do remember trying very hard to let her know the problem and challenges I was experiencing were mine and did not reflect on my love for her. And we still have some wonderful memories together in that country in spite of the anguish of my soul. She was the ever gracious, loving and understanding wife but I could see what my pain, and my inability to deal with it was doing to her. I told a friend recently that on a 1-10 scale my emotional pain at that time was a 10. That aspect of our trip was a huge wake up call to me and I was determined to address it when I got back to the States.

Business circumstances did not allow us to remain in France for the year we had planned so we returned early. When we first returned home, all of my focus had to go toward getting our company back in shape, as it had experienced some setbacks. I focused on building the business and tightening operations to get things back in shape for the company.

The business needs would keep me running and running on the treadmill of “stuffing” my pain (or trying to!) for a little longer. But soon, very soon, it was all going to come crashing down around my head and I would simply have to seek help.

Next week I will begin the story of my own journey of healing. But as you think about your own life experiences I have put together some thoughts for you about some of the signs that might let you know you are in serious need of more help. And that the coping skills you have set up to deal with your pain are just not enough anymore.

For some of you the signs will be chronic depression or sadness. Others will experience uncontrolled anger that you vent at inappropriate times. Sometimes this inappropriate anger will show up as negative emotions towards those the very closest to us. There are many of us who have been abused who turn to alcohol and substances as ways to cope with our underlying shame and sadness over what has happened to us.

Chronic fear or anxiety plagues many of us who have suffered from long-term abuse or trauma. One thing that is troubling but is a very real indicator of a need for help is if we emotionally or physically abuse others. For others of us we find ourselves exhibiting over-controlling behaviors, either ours or others, in an effort to feel normal. Many of us are filled with feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and our lives just feel out of control.

Some of us in our fear about dealing with our hurts will do a number of things to avoid getting help. Below I am listing things that I used as coping skills or methods of avoiding getting help. I have borrowed from others’ experiences as well. Yours may not be on this list, but perhaps reading this one will help you see the kind of thinking behind our avoidance behaviors. All of which are understandable and real to each of us when we are in a lot of pain!

Ways people avoid getting help when help is needed:

- Numbing out – substance abuse of any kind

- Anger – at everybody and everything – rejection of people, isolation and loneliness

- Chronic rehearsal of abuse we have suffered to justify our abuse of others

- Intellectualizing – Debating – Arguing; mental skirmishes to encircle the pain and avoid it

- Stuffing your pain by trying to ignore your pain

- Keeping busy with work to avoid feeling your pain

- Telling yourself: “What could another person say that could help me?”

- Telling yourself: “Nothing will help me!”

- Telling yourself: “If I seek therapeutic help that means there is something wrong with me!”

- Telling yourself: “Reading the Bible and praying should take care of any problems I have”

- Telling yourself: “I should be able to handle this and figure it out on my own!”

- Telling yourself: “I’m too frightened to face what I don’t want to face . . . with some stranger!

- Telling yourself: “It is adding insult to injury that I have to do this work after all I’ve been through!”

- Telling yourself: “I need to stop being a big baby and just be a man!”

- Telling yourself: “Most people have difficulties but they don’t go running to a therapist!”

- Telling yourself: “He only got mad and hurt me every now and then. It wasn’t that big a deal!”

- Telling yourself: “He only broke one rib . . . that’s not that bad!”

- Telling yourself: “He believed ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ but he was a good father!”

- Telling yourself: “I don’t have a problem and I don’t need help!”

Sometimes life events will finally create the crisis or the impetus for us to change. In one way or another something comes crashing down on us that we can’t ignore. For some of us it will be financial difficulties or relationship conflicts. Some of us will finally see the need for help as we reach a career crisis we can’t handle on our own. For others of us it will be our substance use turning into abuse that we realize we have long since lost control over. For some of us it will be a relationship break up or divorce that will help us see patterns we know are not healthy and that we suspect may be responses to our abuse.

It could be ending up in jail or having such serious legal trouble and finding our livelihood completely threatened. For some of us we will see the lives of our spouses or children being so affected by what our abuse has done to us and to them that we move for change. For some it is an emotional pain that has become unmanageable. Just spilling over into every aspect of our lives so that even when things are going well the pervasive anxiety and pain is ever present.

For example, in my case, by 1989 and 1990 my life circumstances were very good. I had increased my focus and determination to maintain a positive frame of mind. I had increased my self-discipline and self-control, using positive affirmations and goal setting; written goals and daily verbal positive affirmations. I had my life well under control! But after our adventure of living in France I was experiencing an ever increasing generalized anxiety that was permeating every corner of my mind and heart and life. I literally could no longer stand the pain!

So, I pushed myself out of the plane into the free-fall of pursuing healing. And I do not regret for one minute that decision. For many of us loving our wives seems like something that is always about positive, mushy emotional things we do for them...Not that that is bad. But, sometimes we do things for them that requires us to look inside and to do the hard work of change. In many ways the most loving thing I have ever done for my wife and my daughters was the day I made the decision, the determination, to heal. I am SO glad that I was able to do that and to keep at it with the help of others. It has changed the course of our family.

As you read over these lists there may be things you resonate with. You may know in your heart there are things in your life calling out to you that you have been ready for change. Perhaps today is the day you listen to that call. Perhaps today is a new day for you. Perhaps you are sensing a little bit of hope as you read about others healing. Please know there is hope in healing. And the possibility of real change that you can’t yet imagine.

For whatever life event it is that brings you to choosing healing, I admire what you are doing to reach that point. I encourage you to hang on for some of my healing blogs to come as I try to break down how healing happened in my life. Perhaps it will give you some ideas for how to begin or further your journey. If I can be of further personal encouragement I hope you get in touch with me.

Mark Phelps

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