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

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