Thursday, February 26, 2015

Truth Is Your North Star

One of the most important aspects of therapy is pinpointing the truth. It is important to learn what is true about your life experience. It is healing to learn what is true, no matter how horrible the truth is. Abuse and injury is accomplished in the dark. It is hidden. Abuse includes isolation. The mind and heart and soul are isolated from others and from the truth. The abuser relies on deceit and lies and secrecy in order to abuse and hurt.

It is necessary for each of us who have come from abusive relationships to bring the abuse experience into the light of day. Through words and emotion, and connection with another caring person, the hidden areas of the heart that have been left hurt and isolated can be brought into the light and be brought back to life. The only way out is through. The abuse has to be revisited sufficiently to allow the one in need of healing to be able to connect to the truth of what was experienced during the abuse, and the truth of what is right.

In addition to my primary work with the husband and wife therapists, I spent two years in a therapy group that met twice a week. It was made up mostly of women, with only an occasional man who would come a week or two and then be gone. The group was specifically designed to allow individuals who had been abused to further their recovery by sharing their abuse and feelings and needs with others; and learning to listen and comprehend the experiences and feelings of others and provide support for them. All the work was done under the supervision of one or more professional therapists.

Each night we met the group would work for about three hours. Two or three or four individuals would work on some specific experience of abuse during the group session, while the others in the group would support and listen and relate to and encourage and ‘come along side’ the person to help them understand and heal from their abuse. The work I did with this group was some of the most important work I did, in healing my heart and restoring my life.

I learned to listen to the feelings of others. This had never been modeled for me by my parents so I was in new territory. I learned what feelings were – the guideposts for our heart to understand what was happening in our lives – and how to respond to feelings in a healthy, constructive way. I learned the importance of being valued and cared for and having my feelings validated by other human beings. I learned about life and feelings and emoting and living an authentic, purposeful, intentional life.

I learned, from watching others describe the abuse they had endured, how devastating abuse can be and how much it can affect our hearts and minds. Abuse colors our inner world with darkness and fear and alters our reality. Abuse from a father or mother can suspend important, foundational development of intellect and emotion. It can sidetrack our lives. It can detour us for years and years and in some cases, forever, if work is not done to repair the damage and heal from its effects.

Experiences and lessons victims have learned during times of abuse are incorporated into the fiber of their being differently than other life experiences and other life lessens because the experiences of abuse heighten our emotions. The heart knows what is right and fair and it also knows when it is seriously wronged. Psychological and emotional injury is as real as any physical injury. The difference is wounds of the heart are invisible so nothing is done to clean out the infection and repair the damage to allow healing to begin. And the abuser scoffs and laughs at the victim in their misery and reinforces what they have done, in many cases, by shaming the victim even further but also enforcing the code of silence surrounding the victimization. And often the abuse is repeated over and over. There is plenty of reinforcement of the abuse and little or no reversal, or time for recovery.

Shame results from being abused. Shame is the feeling of being bad, being no good, being worthless for something that was not your fault at all. Guilt is the feeling of being upset or feeling bad because of something you actually did. These are very different concepts and it is important for all of us to make the distinction between them. Guilt comes from having done something bad. Shame is feeling and believing you ARE bad because of another person’s bad behavior and abusive treatment of you.

Adults can further confuse these concepts as they are responsible for their own children. I heard a story about a woman who said to her husband when their little daughter was screaming out in pain over an earache as they were driving down the highway and they were not able right at that moment to get this child to a doctor. The mom said “I feel so guilty.” What the mom was actually feeling was a different emotion than guilt. Guilt comes from doing something bad. The mother was doing nothing wrong, and in fact was hoping to pull over at an appropriate exit on their road trip and try to find a doctor to care for her daughter. What she was feeling was immense empathy or compassion. Women may even be more prone to say they are feeling “guilty” over something they cannot “fix” than men do. But it helps to distinguish these three important ways of responding to life, that of guilt, compassion and shame.

Shame is what a young child takes on when the child incorporates the feelings she felt during and after the abuse and eventually feels this way about herself. At some point the child or adult is no longer able to separate out the behavior of the abusive adult and the way it made her feel, with the way she now feels about herself as a person. The feelings of shame include the feeling of being dirty as a person, and feeling bad as a person. People in our group therapy sessions talked about the feeling of wanting to shower and be really cleansed from this wretched feeling of shame. And shame keeps you from accepting yourself; your own feelings and your own emotions and your own experiences; both in the present and as you are working on the past.

But as you begin to have experiences of healing from shame, you gradually begin to accept yourself, to respond more kindly to yourself, to respond more gently to yourself. In this very beautiful and necessary process you begin to be accepting of what you are feeling and coming to grips with how shame has affected you. You begin to learn . . . to trust yourself and your own feelings. What a glorious experience!

You are, in a very real sense, experiencing what it would be like to have lived in a more normal healthy upbringing. As healthy children grow up they begin to learn they are separate, distinct beings from their parents and learn that they have a right to their own thoughts, feelings and perspectives on life. This can be a little scary but also exhilarating for a growing child to figure out that she is a person with a legitimate viewpoint that should be listened to. And then the child is able to have the freedom of mind and heart to apply themselves to their lives. Abuse victims who don’t have a true sense of self are robbed of the ability to respond to their own life as if it is theirs to command and direct.

Working with this group I began to learn to feel my feelings and to bring the invisible into the light where it was visible and tangible, and it could become real. What I am trying to say here is the abuse itself “becomes real” by the speaking it out in the presence of others. It was real to begin with, but the abuse victim experiences it as real when others hear about its truth. When it becomes real, the heart responds to the truth and begins to experience, not only the facts of the abuse, but the emotions that went along with the abuse that have been lying dormant for years and, in some cases, for decades.

As the abuse is identified, quantified, named (so to speak), and addressed, the appropriate emotions are finally experienced and the healing begins. Depending on the severity and longevity of the abuse, the healing work takes quite a period of time. For me, some of the main themes of the abuse took several years to finally resolve. And the work I did included integrating the truth of what had happened in both my thoughts and my feelings.

In addition to working with therapists one-on-one, and working with the group, I was also able, because I had both the time and the opportunity, to do some work on my own. What that meant for me was intentionally seeking out material that would help me grow. In one case that meant I would listen to a good teaching about healing from abuse. In another situation that meant I would learn the truth about God and the way He felt about me and others who had been hurt or oppressed by others. This kind of learning began to open my mind and my awareness and my emotions to aspects where I needed to learn more or needed to heal.

I have said abuse therapy is like the peeling of an onion. As I got to any new layer of healing I realized there was much truth I needed to learn. The abuser has kept the abuse victim in the dark by speaking lies to them. One of the ways we fight back is to bring truth in to combat the lies. So, in each layer I had to figure out what lies I had been taught and find powerful truth to help me crawl out of the hole. You will realize you have made a lot of progress in your recovery when you feel ready to just let the healing process continue and you go where it leads you. And in this way it is a unique process, but you can learn from other survivors of abuse by what they experienced and learned.

I would do this healing work either at my house when my family was away, or on several occasions, when I had to drive south to San Diego on business. I lived in Orange County, in California, and would drive to San Diego. I got to know the exits south of Camp Pendleton quite well. I probably stopped off at least ten of the exits between just south of Camp Pendleton and the exit to Del Mar, over a period of two years to ponder things God was giving me to think about, to sometimes be ready, to cry, to think through a situation. Those exits became markers for me of the very real healing I was able to do.

Either something on the radio or something I had been thinking about before I left the house or something on a cassette tape I was listening to . . . Something would bring to mind an issue that was stirring in me and this would then stir the emotion to the surface. When the emotion hit hard I would then take an exit, for safety’s sake, and find a place where I thought I would not draw attention to myself. Then I would give my heart the time it needed to do more work if it was ready and able, at that particular time.

If I was ready; and many times I was; I would get some of my best work done during these times where it was just me processing my own life. Remember I said that in a normal upbringing the child realizes she has a valid perspective on her own life and can think through her own journey? Well that is what I was doing at these exits. I got some of my best work done, in fact, while I was alone in the car, as I was finally giving myself opportunity to bring the truth I was learning into specific parts of my own life. I would connect with something in my heart. A lot of these experiences involved emotion that was from early little boy stuff, where I had been so hurt and shut off and had made the emotional decision not to live as a very little boy but to just exist and kind of be a robot in life, to just go through the motions.

As I did this work over a long period of time, my heart began to come back to life. This work of connecting to these early emotional memories involved some of the most visceral emotions I ever experienced as a part of the healing process. I would cry from deep inside my body with extremely hard, wrenching kinds of crying and it was very agonizing. I realized I was connecting to those very early feelings of the little boy who had been so brutalized and whose heart was so terrified and so sad. And my experience was, that I found the Lord right there with me, going into these broken parts of my heart with me, as I would fall into these feelings, and I sensed His presence so strongly, with me in these experiences.

During one important, incredible experience, I remember being able to make the conscious decision to live, on purpose. I decided within my heart: ‘I am born, I am on the earth, and I am here in this situation, and I am making the decision to live intentionally!’ What an important decision to make! To choose to live purposely and be engaged in my own life! This was after some extremely intense crying; I made the decision that I was going to live. I was making the decision, on purpose, to live my life intentionally, fully, instead of just continuing to exist. That was a huge turning point for me and I can tell you that living my own life and no longer with the lies of the abuse governing my actions, I truly moved forward in a new way.

I realize each of our experiences of abuse, whether a one-time abuse, or long-term abuse, is unique. My experiences may not be resonating with your specific circumstances but I hope the general principles are. Which is that you have a right to your own viewpoint of your own life. And that if lies have been told to you or done to you through abuse there will be a reorientation of your life that will take some effort. You are like a rocket that has been shoved off course by the wickedness of abuse. You probably need huge doses of powerful, life-giving, amazing truth to offset the things that happened to you. Know that your ship can be pointed in a new direction.

If you start into your healing process it may seem like some days you have barely moved your ship off its course of shame and destruction. And the lies may seem far easier to believe than the truth. But over time, your ship will start moving, imperceptibly maybe, day by day, in a different direction. And your feelings will begin to start to reflect that change. And it will give you relief and lighten your load. A little bit. A little bit, and then more and more. And one day you will look back over your shoulder and realize you are becoming someone very new.

I long for that day for you! If you need encouragement to begin this journey or to continue it, feel free to contact me. We are in this journey together!

Mark Phelps

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Hanging On To Myself Because No One Else Did

Do you remember how old you were when you realized that no matter how many good people were in your life that in one sense you were living this life alone? That as much as you might want to share your life with other important people there is still a very solitary aspect of living on this planet. Each of us has to navigate certain aspects of our lives alone.

What I think makes this realization harder for those of us with long-term childhood abuse is that for many of us there never really was a time we felt safe. And it doesn’t take long to realize that for most of us, if we didn’t feel safe, it was because of something pretty big in our lives. For those of us with abuse it’s usually either that we had a parent abuser or we had a parent who wasn’t able to stop the abuse that was happening to us once they found out or we had a parent abandon us entirely. And what this means is parents fell down on their jobs. Just didn’t get done the one thing we all expect out of parents. And that is to protect and defend their children.

It is devastating to feel the despair and hopelessness that permeates your heart, when you truly begin to realize the personal loss of not having had a father and a mother. Now in my case I had parents who were present in my house. They directed a whole lot of what went on under our roof. But they were pretty much unavailable to do what parents do for children. Which is interact with them, teach them to read, spend time with them, give advice for living life, and the myriad of things parents do.

My father/abuser did not really want to be a father and my mother was not allowed to be a mother because my father believed he needed her more than we did. But in whatever way abuse keeps parents from parenting it is overwhelming. The realization initially is: ‘you are on your own, whatever you do will have to be done with your own strength, and there is no source of strength to draw on for what you need because you are empty inside’. The emptiness I am speaking about is the well in each child that gets filled up by loving, caring parents or other adult caregivers. Children of abuse are always empty on the inside.

Part of the reason I tackled this aspect of my healing, the emptiness that existed in me from not having had loving adults in my life, was because I knew I couldn’t parent my own children from this place of emptiness. You can’t give away what you don’t have. For me, the primary reason I chose to bravely go forth into the process of healing my losses is because I love my girls and I had the Lord in my heart. The Lord provided strength and hope! My girls gave me the motivation!

It takes a lot of strength to plan, to dream, and then to be able to take action on your plans and dreams. It takes strength deep in your heart to live a life of integrity, following the dictates of your own heart. Such strength mostly comes from a strong foundation laid during the growing up years, from the love and nurturing and support of responsible parents. It is not natural to grow up without parents. God made us with a need for parents and it is very difficult to properly prepare for adulthood and to effectively manage the responsibilities of adulthood without a father and mother, (or a caring, loving parent substitute) and the strength of their love in our hearts.

But God promises He will be a father to the fatherless . . . and He is! God is faithful in this! He truly is . . . a father to the fatherless!!

As a young adult, one way I had managed without a father was by finding male role models.

Dr. James Dobson of ‘Focus on the Family’ was one role model that God brought into my life. Dr. Dobson was not a role model in person, but he had a daily radio program in the late 1970’s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s and I often listened to his program. Depending on the particular program, over the years I learned various important lessons. His wisdom and teaching in my life really filled in some critical things I had never been taught at home.

I learned from him more about healthy relationships. I learned about the role, beliefs and behaviors of a good husband. I learned more about the role, beliefs and behaviors of a good father. I heard about what it was like to have a strong father who loves and supports you, because Dr. Dobson was very close with his father and he would freely describe details about his experiences with his father.

I learned about what it was like to have a loving mother who was respected and loved by her husband. I would often cry as I listened to Dr. Dobson’s programs because I was realizing what life could be like and how to live the life I wanted to live. And I learned what life could have been like for me and my siblings had we had healthy parents.

I would often do an extra amount of work listening (not that I had planned to, but it worked out that way) when it came near to Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Dr. Dobson would have live phone calls of fathers and sons talking. I listened to these callers and learned and imagined what it could be like to be a godly father; what it should have been like to have had a godly father. I was very motivated to learn what I had not learned from my parents because I knew all I learned would end up being a blessing to my girls. They were so worth it to me that I pushed myself to keep learning and keep growing for their sakes.

I had a similar experience on Mother’s Day. I heard live calls with mothers and children speaking to one another. Though it is not the same as having your own father or your own mother speaking to you, if you open your heart and open your mind, the Lord can do amazing work and restore a great deal of what was lost, and enable you to live a more full life in the present. And all of this truly can come with wonderful teaching, nurturing, modeling and care of others in your life. You can tap into healthy, solid people whose health seems to spill over onto you when you are feeling parched and without direction.

My wife can tell you how many hundreds of hours I have spent watching The Andy Griffith Show. My father was very similar in appearance and charisma to Andy Griffith, and they both kind of had a southern accent and were from the south. So there were physical features, voice intonations and mannerisms similar between the two men.

I have watched The Andy Griffith Show hour after hour to see the relationship and learn from the relationship that Andy had with his son, Opie. The actor who played Opie is Ron Howard, and Ron Howard and I are the same age. Even at the beginning of the show; I would watch Andy and his little boy walking together on their way to go fishing and I would imagine what it would have been like to walk along together with my father, leisurely holding hands; Opie spontaneously running off to throw a stone in the lake, then back to his father to hold hands again. I couldn’t imagine doing this with my father, but it helped me to watch these two. Through imagination, and good models to watch, I was able to fill a lot of the hole left in my heart from not having grown up with a loving father.

In some of the episodes, Opie made the typical mistakes and experienced the typical struggles of a young boy. I was able to watch his father respond with gentleness and kindness and understanding of the mistakes of his son. Other episodes allowed me to see Opie having done the right thing but his father, Andy, would have made the assumption that his son had done the wrong thing. It was absolutely riveting to me to watch a father honestly apologize to his young son for having misjudged and unfairly treated him. And it was very healing to watch a father respond with kindness and understanding when his little boy struggled with insecurities and failures.

You would be surprised how healing it is to watch what should have been done even if you did not experience that same treatment yourself. I believe God has given us the power of our imaginations for all kinds of important things and I truly believe healing is one of His best uses of it. I believe that is one of the blessings of community. In community people can see each other living out their lives. Sometimes we see each other make mistakes, but sometimes we see each other doing it right. My father was so afraid of allowing his children to be around a real, transparent community of people that I simply did not experience the ups and downs of good people trying to live their lives.

Abuse in our family robbed me of seeing things done well or done right or done lovingly. It just didn’t happen! My experiences were only the negatives of my family’s lack of love and good parenting. I was rarely given the opportunity to witness caring, decent marriages or parenting and if I did I actually just had to stumble across them. The healing that I experienced from watching Andy Griffith came through the repetition of watching positive scenes and from having an open heart and open mind to what I was seeing. I let those images and the emotions connected to them wash over me and heal me. I was choosing to be all I could be in spite of what my life had been.

I also had the opportunity to meet men in a Bible study who were ten or fifteen years older than I was. I spent a lot of time with them and I really attached myself to them! They taught me and showed me aspects of life and important life lessons I had not gotten from my father. There were even men my age, and a little younger, who I was able to learn a lot from. They might have been more like brothers but I was filling a father deficit in my life and all these wonderful men, as well as my father-in-law were a big part of helping me get on the road to healing.

But even this type of work in choosing to draw from and learn from positive role models takes emotional strength. Part of what was happening as I watched the lives of these men was that I honestly didn’t understand what I was seeing. I couldn’t understand why their lives were so “right” and why there was such peace in their lives. It really was an oddity to me at first. I had always thought my father had armed me with all the “right answers.” What I got from these men was how to live right. The difference was just profound.

What began to hit me was that my father had been all talk. He may have preached on Sunday mornings but he never lived out godly, solid, mature life. He never gave us positives about what to do and how to live. He just gave us some rules. He never gave us the do’s, but focused on the don’ts.

What I found in the lives of the Christian men was a strong doctrinal foundation that they would talk about if the subject came up, but mostly they were living godly lives, day by day, and loving one another and supporting one another, and loving their wives and being fathers to their children. These were men building into one another's lives and being as Christ to one another and being servants to their families. Honestly, I was stunned and could find no fault with their lives, basically. I had a lot of learning to do to get my head and heart around this profoundly different world I found myself in the middle of. It was nothing like the life I had lived with my family and my father.

I began to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ - and began to understand, for the first time, what that verse was talking about. I remember sitting down with the pastor one time with my list of questions - and leaving with a most incredulous feeling that I had come in with guns loaded and left with a feeling I had never felt before. This pastor was a man of grace and love, who was not dogmatic (though he knew the Bible) but a man who accepted me and invited me into his church. I felt embarrassed, inadequate, foolish . . . and so wonderful all at the same time. I could not stay away as this man drew me toward his church and his ministry, much like Christ has drawn me with His love, and much like several of the men I have grown to know and love.

The Lord provided all this teaching for me even though it might have been later in my life than I thought it should have been. These good men in my life taught me by the example of their lives and their love and encouragement to me. They chose to take time away from their own families and pursuits just to show me and teach me what I needed to know; what I should have been able to learn from my father. They taught me what it would look like to have a godly father but also how to be a godly father. They were amazing mentors, brothers, and friends.

At one point along the process of therapy, my therapist and I agreed that it would be good for my progress if I were to call my father on the phone. It was very frightening for me (actually it was terrifying for me) but I prepared my mind and heart – worked up the courage – and eventually, after several weeks of preparation, I placed a call to my father. By this point in my life my wife and I had already experienced the miscarriage of three sons and we had adopted our first daughter. My wife and I had been married quite a while by this time. My father did not know any of the details of my life because there had been no contact at all between my father and me since I had left home some 19 years earlier.

In making the call, after overcoming the fear and anxiety, I made an attempt at conversation with my father, after he came to the phone. I realized later, he was only willing to take my call because he thought perhaps I was calling to tell him I had repented of my sin of leaving him (or whatever sins he imagined were in my life) and was going to come back to ‘The Place’. When I had barely begun to speak, during the first 30 seconds of my speaking, my father interrupted me.

All I had gotten around to telling him was that my wife and I had miscarried three boys and had finally been able to adopt a precious little girl . . . and he interrupted with: “God hasn’t given you any children because you are a reprobate. God hates you and has not given you any children so you don’t have any children and have to stoop to raising someone else’s reject. You better get yourself right with God and get back in ‘The Place’ or you are going to end up in hell”. I told him I was calling to talk a little bit and see how he was doing and to let him know a little bit about how I was doing. But he was not interested in conversation, only attacking me hatefully. I just had to end the call.

The Bible says “the glory of children is their fathers” which clearly speaks to how important a father can be to a child. That day my father did not choose to be my glory but my profound sadness and disappointment once again. I think that phone call was important for me to realize again that my father never really had anything to give other people but disdain. It seemed that disdain was the primary emotion he showed everyone except those people in his life who had done exactly as he told them to do. He wanted puppets.

But when I made that call to my father that day all those years later I just wanted to be his son. Not someone to be judged and condemned but someone to be loved. To have a give and take between two men who could listen to each other’s hearts and minds. What a gift that would have been to me. As it is, I was reminded during that phone call of the real truth of my father. He only wanted us in his life if we bowed to his wishes in every way. This conversation allowed me to finally move on realizing he had nothing good or wise or useful to offer his son Mark.

But his son Mark was moving in a very positive direction. I was learning the truth about who God really was, His love for me, who I was, and how much I had to learn still to be the man, the husband, the father and the citizen I wanted to be. I was taking steps every day along the journey of healing and that path was getting brighter each day. Not all abusers are going to say they are sorry for what they did. Mine never did. But that didn’t stop me from continuing my journey toward wholeness and healing. I wish for you the same! One step at a time, one day at a time…

Mark Phelps

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Only Way Out is Through

Child abuse is a very lonely business. The child going through abuse goes through it alone. S/he may have others witnessing what is going on, other siblings who are suffering as victims, too, but the bottom line is that it’s very, very lonely. And the child has so little ability to understand or cope with the horrors happening to her. All she can do is quickly adapt to her perpetrator’s patterns of abuse and try to decrease their frequency if she can.

You’ve heard me say that the healing process from abuse was like peeling the layers of an onion. And one of those layers was the loneliness and sadness because of all the years I spent without parents being present in my life. Oh, my parents were physically present in my house. And I was provided a roof over my head and food to eat. And I had profound sadness because for years I had watched my father mistreat my mother and brothers and sisters. My father may have been physically present, at times, but he was not available emotionally. No person is perfect and no parent is perfect. But most parents are ‘good enough’, giving their children basically what they need. Each child needs a Mother and a Father physically present and emotionally available in their lives and to not have this gift is very sad and causes great loneliness in our lives and significant hurt to our hearts.

I worked in therapy on the sadness of the loss of not having a father who spent time with me. The therapists would use the example of my having missed out on playing catch with a baseball and gloves or heading to an amusement park or even going to a park just to relax together, all with my dad. I could remember other boys whose dads spent time with them or supported them and loved them. I imagined what it would have been like to have had a dad who was safe, with whom I could speak and get ideas or encouragement or support; a dad who would listen to me; a dad who was healthy and could help me plan a future – education, career, a family, to eventually become a father – to be creative, to assist me in living up to my potential. Each of us needs the hand of a loving, solid, stable, nurturing father and it is very sad when this is missing from our lives.

I did a lot of grief work! I learned ultimately you can’t fool the mind. The exact precision with which God made our minds is stunning. Our souls have a father ache and a mother ache. As children we need our mothers and we need our fathers! God has apparently put into the core of our beings - deep in our souls - what we need - and He has set it up for us to get what we need from our parents. But when parents don't parent - or when they abuse their children, it leaves holes and scars in those children’s hearts. And the scars are as real, or more so, than scars left on our bodies from physical injuries.

It took me many months to grieve the loss of the father I never had. I fell into a black hole that felt like the size of China! When doing this work with my therapists it seemed like they were rescue workers having to go down in and rescue mine workers who have been trapped in a mining accident. My therapists had to go down very deep into the caverns and tunnels and holes of my life to get me out of where I was trapped. And while they were down there it was very difficult work for everybody; extremely painful, tedious and agonizing work! But the only way out is through; back through to the surface! Every dark tunnel and cavern needed to be traversed as I slowly worked myself out of the dark blackness back to the light of day. I cried and sobbed and grieved and wept and screamed and gradually raged my way out of the black hole back into the land of the living. And that land had good in it I could not have imagined.

During this work of grieving I was experiencing the profound sadness of a small child who was feeling the destruction of himself and his mother and his brothers and sisters at the hand of his own father. I was so sad for all of my family! I wept and grieved for my own mother and father who had to have been such broken souls to allow their lives to reach such depths of despair that they would end up abusing and neglecting their own children the way they did. I cried such deep tears of sorrow and grief for my father and mother. This specific work was a significant part of the hard work I did that allowed me to reach the point of full forgiveness of both my father and mother. I was able to sufficiently understand, and feel their brokenness so I was able to genuinely forgive them from deep within my heart! Truly that was an amazing day in my life where I reached that point.

There were times when I physically could not do any more grieving work. I had to take a break and come back later in the day, or in the evening. Some of my recovery work required four or five sessions a week with my therapists. When I would hit an especially intense pocket of pain I would work and work until I fought through the anguish, despair and sadness and reach a new plateau of relief and calm.

My stomach and chest would burn with pain, I had pounding, throbbing headaches, and I often spent every ounce of the emotional and physical energy I had to do this work. It was during these experiences I realized how closely linked our bodies are to our emotions and how profoundly our emotions effect our bodies. In the Bible mankind is presented as having a body, soul and spirit that are inextricably linked. That we are not just parts, but one whole amazing being and that all parts are beautifully connected. I now believe that in a new way as I went through therapy and experienced healing in my whole being.

Perhaps you are wondering how I handled five sessions in one week that were that intense. When I would return home after doing this hard work I would be like a wet noodle, all rung out. It would feel so good to get back home where I felt safe and loved. And it gave me such joy to get to pick up my little girl and hug her and spend time with her and my wife. I would read to my daughter and spend quiet time with my wife. For just a bit, all was right with the world!

Sometimes I would take time to walk in the park or go down by the beach and look at the water and listen to the waves. The beauty of creation would allow me to relax and restore my mind. I discovered that allowing my mind to relax was very important and it gave me time to reflect on all I was doing. I realized I was making progress and eventually could really tell a difference in how I was feeling. At times I could tell I was starting to feel some relief from emotional pain because of the work I was doing. And it allowed my mind a chance to rest and would enable me to be ready for more work. And taking time to relax helped me to feel grounded again. With so much moving and shifting within, it was important at times just to get regrounded.

I was careful not to traumatize my family with aspects of my healing work though I would, from time to time, describe a little of the work I was doing with my wife. I would tell her I had an important breakthrough or that something was particularly difficult or painful. But for the most part, my family was a source of love and joy and laughter and support in my life that was a solace and a help to me, and a way to give myself a break from the painful work for a while. It would be wonderful if those of you thinking of starting into therapy had a few friends to support you in your journey. And if you would like to, you are welcome to connect with me as you are going through it.

During this healing work I came to a full realization of the profound loss of not having a father in my life. And I realized the consequences of being without my father even in my present life. Without a proper foundation being laid as a child, the work a father might have done has to be done later on in adulthood, on your own, with the support of friends and family. Years pass and time is lost. What could have been; what should have been; will never be. But there is hope! A person can go forward with what is learned, and keep making more of a life in the present. Life truly does have the opportunity of new beginnings.

Learning how to want a future was very difficult for me; that part of me that was deeply hurt as a little boy. I am talking now specifically about that little boy (or little girl) part of the heart. That part of our being that was present when devastating abuse took place! In that part of my heart it was more natural and much easier for that part of me to feel despair and just want to quit. When father’s fail to actively love their children, and abuse them instead, the effects are devastating!

During one particularly significant therapy session I was able to speak plainly to my therapists about my despair and my desire to just quit; I wanted to just stop and get off the merry-go-round of life because of all the pain I was experiencing. I told my therapists that my honest feelings were that I just wanted to bring an end to my life so I could end the pain. I was not suicidal but was describing the feelings in this deep inner early part of my heart. I mentioned the inner thought I had of just pulling my vehicle into on-going traffic as a quick, effective way to kill myself just to end the pain.

To help me with this, my therapists, who knew how crazy I was about my wife and our new little adopted daughter, decided to do some role playing. At the time I did not know specifically what my therapists had planned.

As we were working, all of a sudden the therapists started making the sounds of an ambulance siren and police sirens, as they began to act out a scenario. My therapists role-played a call going out to 911 because there had been an accident on the road between my house and their office. As their role play unfolded I soon realized it was me involved in the accident. In a fit of despair, I had suddenly pulled my car into oncoming traffic and there were several life threatening injuries as a result of the accident. Remember, this was just role playing!

When the ambulance arrived, (in this role play) I was in critical condition and the therapists suddenly started asking me questions:

‘What are you going to do Mark?’

‘Can you hear your wife crying? She is screaming in horror!’ (The wife therapist screamed)

‘What is your little baby girl going to do without her Daddy?’ (The wife therapist cried out in the voice of a little girl – ‘Daddy, oh Daddy’)

‘Can’t you see what this is going to do to your little girl?!’

‘Are you going to just lay there and die?’

‘What will they do without you?’

‘What will their lives me like?’

‘What’s going to happen to them?’

‘Mark, what are you going to do?’

‘Are you going to live? . . . or are you going to just lay there and die?’

As they asked me these questions, they would shake me like they were attempting to awaken me.

At first I felt this was kind of stupid and I was really embarrassed. I just lay there completely still with my eyes closed, frozen on the floor. Even though I tried, I just couldn’t feel any emotion. I just told my therapists that my life insurance policy would be more than enough to take care of them. So, again my built-in childhood protective mechanisms were trying to help me not feel.

Then out of nowhere, I started crying, then more crying, then suddenly I was crying so hard I couldn’t stop. My crying became just very deep, hard sobbing and crying until my body began to writhe with the sobbing and deep crying. I had finally begun to connect with the hopeless despair in my soul!

It may be that way for you in your recovery as you begin to recover normal feelings and emotional connections you would naturally have to situations. If this happens you may find yourself going from a moment that seems emotionless to one that is a tidal wave of emotion. This is actually a very healthy reconnecting with your emotions that you have shut off for years. We were designed by God to be a very connected mind/spirit, will and emotions. As this process of reconnecting with your emotions happens you are reconnecting to your whole self.

My therapists were helping me to feel the reality of me not being alive; my not wanting to live, and I began to connect with these feelings of despair and hopelessness deep in my heart. I realized it was not just some selfish lack of concern for my wife and daughter when I was pondering driving directly into oncoming traffic. I was truly hopeless at that moment and didn’t know how to recover hope.

After a long period of intense emotion that night, and with much assistance from my therapists, feelings of wanting to live began to quietly stir in me. I began to realize, emotionally, that I really had some amazing, wonderful reasons to live! Of course I already knew this in my adult intellect and heart. But this process allowed me to begin connecting with my early heart; the young heart of me; the part of me that had wanted to die. The work we all did that night was the beginning of profound change in my life!

Of course, after that evening, I continued working for many more months. In that process I learned more and more and slowly changed my heart toward a feeling of hopefulness. Ever so slowly I began to develop a sense of excitement and passion for life.

I don’t know where your heart is today as you read this blog. Some of you may be in the throes of despair and honestly believing there is no climbing up out of the cavern of hopelessness. I was right there with you the day I imagined the “solution” being my own death. But now that I am on the other side and have experienced hope and dreams and passions and simple pleasures again I want to encourage you. There is a beautiful Psalm that says “Weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Let me encourage you to hang on for some joy in your life. What a wonderful day that will be…

Mark Phelps

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Gift of Anger

Let’s face it, most of us choose therapy because we’re in a whole lot of pain. People have described the process of therapy as peeling back the layers of an onion. The first layer you come to helps you understand part of the problem but you figure out that underneath that layer are a whole bunch of other layers! For me the first layer was definitely terror. As I began to really think about my past abuse it just terrified me. My father had done a very effective job of terrorizing me and memories of the past abuse could get me immediately back in that place of being physically cold and shaking and feeling like I was a slug on the floor who could not even move.

After I was able to work through my terror the second layer was sadness. And then would come something I never expected to grapple with. That was as I was slowly beginning to connect with the anger I should have felt, as a little boy. My therapists and I talked about how one day I would begin to experience the feeling of anger.

That sounds kind of strange. It sounds like somehow I misplaced the ability to get angry along the journey of life. But it’s exactly what happened. At least anger towards my father. Maybe it would be more accurate to say the emotion of anger was conditioned out of me. It was conditioned out of me because being angry against any wrongs my father had done to me in my growing up years was met with swift and brutal abuse. So, anger, I guess, really did get misplaced along the way of my life as an effective way of processing violations or wrongs done to me.

Or perhaps a better way to describe it is to say the anger got displaced. Remember I have said you can’t fool the heart? God made our minds to work a certain way. This includes the gift of anger. Human beings need anger to give them the strength to respond to and fight back against hurt and injustice. I had a volcano of rage in my soul from years of living with my father. But I learned to suppress this rage as a way to survive.

Rage does not just go away. Human beings cannot suppress anger out of existence! It showed up on my face as looks of anger at my wife. Undeserved anger! It came out in my body. The slightest routine irritations of life became bursts of anger at people all around me. I verbally blasted the fast food worker that got an order wrong. I unloaded a barrage of expletives at the vendor or supplier that did not get supplies or materials delivered in time or in the way I wanted them. I unloaded on the bill collector who called to ask about their payment. The customer service representatives at utility companies or government agencies regularly got a piece of my mind. I was known as ‘Mark the Shark’ by all of our company employees. Bankers and loan officers and most everybody around me in my life knew not to cross me.

Once a man told my wife he needed to take a tranquilizer every time he saw me because of how intensely I moved about everywhere I went. I could not keep my body still, constantly moving my legs or tapping my fingers. Once a professor blasted me for my incessant tapping of my pencil on the table while he was lecturing; “Are you neurotic?!” he yelled. I did not even realize I was tapping my pencil. At night, after a full day of work, with no more work to do, I would eat everything in sight. Nacho flavored Dorito chips and ice cream were my favorites. I put on fifty pounds. I had a generalized anxiety in my body that I could not contain or subdue.

The rage in me had to have an outlet and it was spilling out in so many ways in my life. But the most damaging outlet was how it showed in my demeanor; facial expressions and tone of voice, at different times, with my wife. I was not about to hurt my wife physically, but I was a very painful person for her to be around. And it took a profound toll on her life and on our relationship!

I read books on how to be a better husband. I read books about how to build positive relationships with others. I read books about how to develop and maintain a positive attitude in life and how to set goals. And I made valiant efforts to stop blowing up at people over petty matters. These books were helpful to me. And it made some difference in my treatment of my wife and the treatment of people in my life. But I remained unable to contain the rage inside.

I could not work hard enough or long enough. I could not run far enough. I could not find enough people to mistreat. I could not find enough junk food to eat. My wife could not think of enough ways to be “good enough” to fix my hurt and anger. Nothing I did, or that my wife could do, was sufficient to get rid of the rage deep in my soul! The feeling of rage I was trying to stuff was destroying my life and causing profound hurt to my precious wife.

What my therapists knew well was that people who are not allowed to have access to their own feelings and are not allowed to express them appropriately struggle in life. But they also knew that people who are finally allowed to express legitimate feelings, even ones that are long overdue, are able to make great strides in healing. My therapists knew that not being able to be in touch with appropriate anger ABOUT the abuse and beatings done to me was impeding my ability to be a vibrant adult who could live and walk and breathe as a free man and be available to love my wife and my daughters and my employees and people I would come into contact with.

When we began to dig into this process of trying to “recover” my anger at my abusers my therapists were very careful and very purposeful in helping me feel okay about this process. Nothing happened in my therapy without my explicit permission. I had wonderful therapists. We had talking sessions, pre and post sessions each time we got together. My therapists provided these times so I would understand exactly what they were hoping to accomplish and give me the ability to debrief what had happened at the end of each session. These sessions were critical to my truly incorporating the truths of what I was experiencing. I owe them a great debt for the wonderful work they did with me.

These sessions discussing ways to manage anger happened on several occasions so I always knew ahead of time what would be safe ways to vent my anger. And this was in preparation for me one day connecting with the anger I should have been able to have against my father as my abuser. They were preparing me for the day those feelings would begin to well up in me. My therapists understood the mind/body connection and that when my anger against my father came I might need mental as well as bodily ways to express it. My therapists did not want me to hurt myself, or others, once I began to feel the anger. So my therapists left plastic bats and soft chairs in the room and maintained a supply of heavy, soft pillows and soft exercise mats.

These mats were just large enough to absorb blows and not allow damage to hands and fists and knuckles. I mostly used the really soft (like for tumbling) mats - three on top of one another - so I did not hurt my hands - and I walloped the life out of them a bunch of times. And I used the plastic bats on the chairs while standing. I was on my knees usually when I would hit the soft mats. Just tools to help vent rage without hurting people . . . or self. Very simply, it allowed me to connect and vent anger that ended up being the way I could connect to my deep sadness and it made a huge difference for me.

Doing this work did not increase my anger in any way whatsoever. It allowed me the freedom to connect to the anger. This work was done with just me and my therapists. It was not a circus by any stretch of the imagination. It was very serious business, as far as I was concerned. My anger had hurt my wife for far too long and God gave me the grace to be able to connect to the anger, finally, and I got rid of it. God allowed me to empty myself of the intense anger and brought me to the deep sadness and the softer feelings of hurt and brokenness deep inside me. This was something that truly set me free as a person. To be done with all that intense anger.

The first time I started feeling the anger that I should have been able to express to my father for what he did to me it seemed almost impossible to think I should ever express it! My therapists encouraged me to say whatever I needed to say but to “stay” initially in the very safe place they created for me. The safe place was simply me lying on my back with my eyes closed. I was able to talk back to my father (so to speak) while continuing to lie on my back with my eyes closed. I was safe enough and started to be able to speak the exact words I wish I could have said to my father years ago when he abused me. Eventually I was able to start yelling back at my father, so to speak, but I had to continue lying on the mat while doing so. And I eventually was able to begin opening my eyes as I spoke and yelled, still while lying on my back.

After many months I was able to get up on one knee and talk back to my father. Then after a long period of time I was able to get up on one knee and yell back at my father. After an extended period of time I was able to begin to stand up on my feet and talk back to my father. And then finally after nearly two years of work I was able to stand solid on my two feet and yell back at my father! That was a massive breakthrough for me!

It was very healing and strengthening to me to experience this. Other words I would use to describe this feeling of being able to speak truth to my father would be freeing or empowering. It was refreshing to be able to get my rage and anger out at my father. So I would cry intermittently in the midst of it, tears of anger. Sometimes the reality of what had happened would hit me as I was raging and I would go into angry crying - then at times, even more intense rage and even angrier crying.

And all the while it was draining out of me the pent up anger of years of having no voice about my own abuse.

As I would yell, my therapists would continue to rage and act out my father’s behavior and say things my father would have said, to continue to act out abusing and attempting to further control me. This included my therapist threatening me with a beating if I continued to yell. And he would threaten to beat my ‘mother’. In my early experiences, the therapists acting out my father’s behavior resulted in me shutting up and feeling really scared. They understood the process I was going through and we always debriefed what was going on with me and the fear and the shutting down. After many experiences, I was eventually more able to continue yelling and arguing. This was very healthy for me to express the legitimate anger I felt at being beaten and screamed at and humiliated as a child.

Later as I connected with my anger more and more, I was able to start using the plastic bat to hit the soft chair as I yelled, or I would just hit the pillows or mats with my fists, either standing or on my knees. I had many sessions of working on my anger. Anger that very much needed to be expressed at some of the abuse and torture and mind control my father had put me through. All with the goal of helping me become an integrated human being who was living in real time with the emotions I was experiencing being the emotion of the day I was in. And not carrying around 35 year old emotions that had never been expressed!

Over a long period of time I had begun to connect with a little anger from time to time but I was still having a hard time feeling real anger toward my abuser. During this time of struggling to connect with anger I mentioned this to my therapist on one occasion. I said “I still just can’t feel anger. I just don’t see what I have to be angry about”. It was just an honest statement to my therapist about what I was experiencing. I did not think any more about this as we started into our work that day. As I was relaxing and the therapist began to do his normal reenacting of my father’s rage and verbal abuse the therapist did something he had never done before. As he reenacted the verbal abuse and physical abuse of my father, speaking as if he was my father, the therapist began to taunt me.

He said: “Oh, you’re too weak! You’re just a little coward! You’re a little sissy! You’re a pansy! I can do whatever I want to you and you can’t stop me. I can beat your mother whenever I want to because there is nothing you can do about it. I can beat your brother Nathan and you will just stand there because you’re too scared. You don’t care what happens to your brother Nathan or your sister Katherine or your brother Fred. You’re more worried about yourself and staying safe. You’re too scared! See, you’re just a coward! Big baby! Why do you just lay there! Cat got your tongue?” Then he just laughed and laughed.

If I thought I did not have anger up to now, I want to tell you something! That day, listening to the words of my therapist, I went into a rage that day. I connected with a rage that I would have never imagined I had in me. It was like taking the finger out of the dam. The rage erupted and came pouring out of me. My therapists’ taunts were tapping into some of the deepest pain I had ever felt. And were describing very well both the horrible things my father had allowed himself to do in our family, but the fear that kept us all from acting to save our mom and siblings from his beatings. My therapist, by even using my father’s horrible evil laugh, had recreated for a moment what it felt like to live with him. My father did horrible things to us and laughed at us as he did them.

For us to understand abuse in our family system means coming to terms with the fact that the abuse we witnessed is a particularly painful part of our pasts. Your own abuse, and beatings and being screamed at and belittled you just dealt with yourself. Somehow you got through it. Each time it happened. But to watch others have to go through it and be paralyzed in your fear and not able to respond is just a nightmare to have to go through. And for my therapist to be taunting me and saying I was a coward was just more than I could bear that day. What was particularly cruel about it was that any abuse victim wrestles for years with the agony of “what I could have done to protect others.” The abuser might very effectively brainwash you into understanding you have no way out, but you still feel the guilt.

That day when the rage and the anger toward my father’s actions and horrible, destructive words came out like Mount Vesuvius was an important turning point in my life. So often we think of anger as something that must be tamed or gotten rid of. And truthfully most of the time it is something we must be very careful about. Anger and rage normally just destroy the people around them. But in the case of people of trauma and abuse, the response of anger towards the abuse is not only appropriate but very necessary to going on in life. Unexpressed and unexamined anger and rage will simply go inward and destroy the abuse victim if she doesn’t find a healthy, constructive way to express it and release it.

During my most intense experiences connecting with and venting anger I beat the soft mats and pillows with all my physical strength and I screamed and yelled with all of my voice until I was hoarse. I vented anger; beating the mats with my fists, hitting the bats against the soft chairs, and screaming back at my father (so to speak) for over an hour non-stop. I would lift my fists over my head as high as I could and slam them with all my physical strength against the mats and pillows. I would scream the truth at my father about what he had done to me, to my mother and to my brothers and sisters!

Ultimately, hour by hour, day by day, I took back the power I had forfeited to my father and took back my heart. I cannot tell you how important or how wonderful it is to get your heart back. To get connected with the real you in the present and be able to accurately look at whatever happened to you in your past. And express the emotion that so desperately needs to be expressed about what happened to you.

I was able to work through my anger over a period of two years. It took me over six months before I was able to first experience my own anger toward my father and his abuse. If all of you normal folks out there reading this blog think about not being able to even experience anger for a full six months of therapy it lets you see how much my coping behaviors as a child were truly walls around my heart. And while initially they had served to protect my little child self, it also made it so I couldn’t connect with all the healthy emotions necessary to live a complete, healthy adult life.

My therapists were wise practitioners who knew I needed to work through other emotions before I would finally be able to reach and connect to my anger. But they also knew that beyond the legitimate anger, was a garden of subtle, beautiful emotions God meant for me to have and even enjoy that had not been available to me. I grew up in Kansas. It makes me think of the movie the Wizard of Oz and how it was for Dorothy and her friends to go to Oz and see everything in color. I was a kid who had seen life in emotional colors that were largely black and white and shades of grey. Through beautiful, ethical, caring therapy I was opened up to a world of good and healthy emotions that have been a delight to experience.

Some people are able to connect with their anger far sooner than the deeper emotions (for them) of sadness. Each of us will be different if we have had to stuff emotions to protect ourselves! Please be patient with yourself as your buried emotions begin to come back to the surface where you can deal with them.

I do hope you are able to glean little bits of wisdom from my experience, but if you don’t, remember that you will have your own beautiful journey of healing that will get you back in touch with many things that seem unavailable to you right now. Freedom from fear and anger! Freedom from the storm within you that is likely to burst out. And freedom to go on to live the amazing life you have within you!

Mark Phelps