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Last week one of you readers left a comment on my Facebook site (Facebook search terms: Healing the Wounds of Child and Spousal Abuse: Jean’s Story) stating that because psychological abuse doesn’t leave obvious marks, people often do not take it seriously or believe it happened.  Wow!  A lot of us could say a lot about this topic, I’m sure, especially if we have endured abuse in our marriages. 

This subject is especially relevant now for me because I have recently faced my own issues of childhood abuse, the kind that left no marks on my body but did plenty of damage to my psyche. The essay that follows, then, is about the effects of child neglect, the abuse that doesn’t leave physical marks. Please note:  The material I will discuss is strictly from my own experience.  I am a writer and not a mental health professional.  If you have had similar experiences, I sincerely hope you are getting help or have gotten help to repair the damage of abuse.

Emotional Neglect:  A Personal Experience

If you have read my website at http://www.jfairgrieve.com/, you read my discussion of the feeling of being invisible and of not even existing (see “Abuse Takes a Toll” on my website).  I have heard abuse survivors mention their own experiences with feeling invisible, and I have certainly spent my share of time feeling invisible and nonexistent, but until just recently, I did not know the origin of this experience in my own life.  I assumed the episodes of questioning my own existence came as a result of sexual abuse because the people who have told me their experiences were, as I was, sexually abused. The other day, though, I was able to trace this phenomenon in my life to its taproots.  Perhaps what I say in the following excerpt from my therapy dialogue will sound familiar to you.
 
In this passage, my young-child self is talking to my adult self about the relationship I had with my parents and about the matter of feeling invisible.  I have underlined the sentences that seem particularly important and relevant:

Little Jean:  I was afraid of her [my mother], for sure.  I never knew what she would be like.  If I played quietly in my room and then went out into the living room where she was or into the kitchen because I got lonesome, I never knew what she would be like.  Maybe she would yell at me, or maybe she just wouldn’t even know I was there.  That was worse than being yelled at.  Sometimes she just never said anything to me or looked at me.  Then I wasn’t even sure I was there.  That was an awful feeling.  So on the mornings when she turned me out after breakfast, I roamed the neighborhood to find somebody who would listen to me and somebody who made me feel like I was there.  I didn’t want to be with my mother if I felt like I wasn’t even there. 

Adult Jean:  But were you afraid she would hurt you?

Little Jean:  No, I wasn’t really afraid she would hurt me, but I was more afraid of the way she was toward me.  I didn’t understand her, and I couldn’t figure out why she was that way.  And that’s why I was scared, I think. 

Adult Jean:  What do you mean you were afraid of the way she was? 

Little Jean:  I mean she was there but she wasn’t there.  That’s what I mean.  She was there but she wasn’t there.  It was like she was there, but she didn’t know I was in the room with her.  And then I didn’t know if I was there or not.  And sometimes I thought I was there, but I didn’t know for sure if she was there because she didn’t act like I was there.  Do you understand me?

If the dialogue above confuses you, then you can imagine how confused I was as a young child when my mother appeared to be present but did not act present to me.  Much of the time, she ignored me or told me to leave the room because she didn’t want me around.  If it was raining outside, she sent me into my room to play alone.  If the weather was good, then she sent me outside.  She clothed me, fed me, sheltered me, and educated me, but she didn’t interact with me or connect with me. Since my father was mentally ill and incapable of relating to me, I did not experience a close connection with either parent.  This, I am convinced, is the origin of my feeling of invisibility, a feeling that has dogged me all my life.  Again, nobody could see any physical evidence of my parents’ failure to nurture me or connect with me, but the traces of parental psychological neglect became deeply etched in my brain.

I was, however, a strong little girl who had a sense of self, and I did not give up the search for a person who would connect with me.  When my mother put me out in the morning, I roamed the neighborhood, knocking on doors until I found people who would listen to me and talk to me. These people, housewives who had sent their husbands off to work for the day, tolerated me for a while and then sent me off to knock on other doors.  When I made my rounds of the neighborhood, then, I felt present and visible.

My search for a sense of connection to others and for a feeling of existing, however, had a dark side.  Because I was a powerless young child and so desperate for human connection, I was vulnerable, prey for any predator.  The woman next door to my house recognized my vulnerability and took advantage of it. The violent sexual abuse she inflicted on me left no visible mark on my body, but it wounded my heart and my soul and caused me to be afraid of seeking connections with people.

After this abuse, I stopped trying to connect with people and trying to be visible.  I withdrew inside myself where I felt safe, and the only “me” that people saw was a shell of “me.” I remember, in fact, saying to myself when I was about eight years old, “I know now that it’s me against everyone else in this world.”  By the time I was eight, then, I had given up trying to find somebody who would listen to me, and I had learned to co-exist with the feeling of being invisible. 

Later, as a married woman, I accepted invisibility as a normal part of my life.  The abuses I endured in my marriage were happening to somebody else, to the shell of “me,” but not to the person living deep inside that shell.  In fact, after I found my husband abusing our daughter, had reported him to the police, and we had separated, I asked him why he had stepped up the emotional and sexual violence toward me in the final few years of our twenty-year marriage. His reply: “I needed to see if there was a person inside you.”  In other words, he thought that if he increased the violence, sooner or later he would force me to be present to him.  He didn’t consider the possibility that his violence was causing me to retreat deeper inside myself.  He later admitted that if I had not stopped the whole process, one of us would have been dead.  I believed him. 

I understand the roots of my feeling of being invisible, now. I know how and where my sense of being invisible began.  And now that I have this information, my next step is to integrate my young child self into the rest of me.  Can I do that?  I believe I can!

If you struggle with a feeling of being invisible, please find a therapist who specializes in helping people with childhood abuse issues and trauma.  Repair as much of the damage as you can while you have enough life left to enjoy the rewards of your efforts!  
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If you have ever had a flashback, you probably wonder how flashbacks could possibly serve a good purpose.  If you have never had a flashback, count your blessings!  If you wonder what a flashback is, here is my definition of the term based on my own experience:  A flashback is the energy left by a horrible, traumatizing past event.  This energy has been trapped in the victim’s mind.  The energy, along with the memory of the past event, suddenly and randomly thrusts itself into the present in the form of a horrendous emotional sucker punch! The past becomes the present, and there is no future.  This is a flashback.  A person experiencing a flashback is momentarily trapped in that time warp, existing in the present but reliving the horror of the past event.

The above information is based, as I mentioned, on my own experience and on reading I have done in an attempt to understand my personal experience.  I have experienced my share of flashbacks, although they have been blessedly infrequent.  They have, however, been frightening enough to have caused me to seek help.  The flashback that drove me to seek therapy in 2009 took place while I was riding public transportation.  I had just left a person who presented herself as a spiritual advisor.  She had asked me a lot of questions, firing one right after another, and when I left her office, my mind was foggy and I was disoriented.  The fog continued as I rode the bus to the light rail station and caught the train.  Then, as I was sitting on the train and heading to downtown Portland, the past thrust itself into my present with a force that sent me mentally reeling!

Suddenly I was nine years old, crouched on the kitchen floor, and my father was roaring at me.  I tried to cover my ears, but when he saw me do that, he hit me.  Thus, I had no protection from the violence of his ranting.  And then he did the unthinkable:  To punish me, he picked my favorite cat up by the tail and bashed her against the kitchen wall.  I left–I simply left.  My nine-year-old self was there on that kitchen floor, but I wasn’t in that self.  Later, after my father had left the room, I came back into my body and held my cat.  She was not permanently damaged, but I was.  I know that now.

The flashback had passed by the time I reached my destination, and when I got off the train, I was a bit disoriented but otherwise okay. I resolved that day to find a skilled therapist who could help me undo trauma damage.

Why did I have this flashback more than sixty years after the event? Maybe the flashback was triggered by the tone in which the woman questioned me or by the rhythm of the questions.  Maybe the rapid firing of her questions and the tone of her voice collided with the long-buried memory of my father’s rapidly-fired curses and caused the flashback.  I don’t know.  Whatever the process, I was unaware of it until the sudden, explosive flashback. As a result, I searched for and found a therapist, but she and I were not a good match.  Luckily, I don’t give up easily. The person I now see is an excellent match, and I have new hope for a future without the distressing symptoms of PTSD.

So–what good purpose do flashbacks serve?  If they are as horrible as I have described them, how can they do any good at all?  If you have a flashback and recognize it as a flashback, then the good the flashback serves is to let you know you need help!  A flashback is a symptom, a signal to you that you need to find a therapist who is trained and experienced in helping people who have been traumatized.  Furthermore, modern approaches to trauma therapy have the advantage of helping a person in a shorter time than some therapies of  previous eras.  Modern therapies such as EMDR ( http://www.emdr.com/), Lifespan Integration (http://www.lifespanintegration.com/), and ego state therapy (http://www.egostatetherapy.com/) can provide the possibility of relief from PTSD symptoms in a much shorter time than some of the older therapies of the past.

We are lucky today to be living in an era when brain research has progressed to the point where scientists can understand the physical damage that trauma does to the brain and mental health specialists can design therapies that heal this damage.  If you experience flashbacks, please take the next step and find a therapist who can help you undo the damage of past trauma.  Your effort will pay off! 

For more authoritative information on flashbacks, here is a link to follow:  http://www.tag-uk.net/ra-article7.html  As I have said on my website (http://www.jfairgrieve.com/) and on this blog, I am not a mental health professional; I am just a writer who is trying to undo the damage of past abuse and alleviate my PTSD so I can spend my last years of life in relative freedom from flashbacks and other distressing symptoms.  I’m getting there, and you can, too!

I’m seventy-two years old, and lately I’ve been having guilt feelings for being in therapy at this ripe old age.  After all, I don’t have more than a decade left on this earth–that is, if I’m lucky enough to live for ten more years.  Not much time to pay society back for the benefits I’m reaping from therapy.  As I’ve mentioned, my PTSD symptoms are finally abating.  I’m feeling a lot more “together” than I have ever felt.  Yes, my work in therapy is definitely improving the quality of my life.  But is improving the quality of my life worth my insurance’s outlay of money? 

That question has been bothering me.  So I told my therapist about my question and about my guilt regarding the expenditure of insurance funds for my therapy.  What did she say?  She said something beautiful, something I hope everyone who is in therapy and who is struggling to break free from the grip of PTSD takes to heart: 

Each person who heals and grows adds to the healing and growth of the universe.  It doesn’t matter how old you are.  Up to the moment of your death, if you are healing and growing, you add positive energy to the universe.  Your healing helps everyone.

Her words helped me understand why I am doing this.  Of course, my primary goal is to alleviate my PTSD symptoms.  In doing that, I improve the quality of my own life.  But don’t I at the same time improve the quality of lives around me?  For example, if I am mentally present in the moment, am I not better equipped in a crisis to think clearly and, thus, to possibly help somebody than if I were in a PTSD fog?  Am I not more responsive to other people and their emotions than if I were caught up in the numbing that comes as a PTSD response? 

Looking back on my life, I can see that if I had not been shackled and blinded by PTSD responses, I might well have made major life changes as a wife that would have been beneficial to my son and daughter–and to myself.  And to our abuser.  I might, for example, have left my husband before his behavior had done so much damage.  In fact, if I had gotten help for abuses I’d suffered in my childhood, I might not have married an abuser in the first place!  What a thought!

Regretting past inaction is not usually productive, but in this case it serves to remind me that in healing and growing at age seventy-two, I am doing what I need to do and what I ought to do.  And I am contributing to the healing of the universe!  My hope is that my thoughts, as I publish them on this blog, will contribute to YOUR healing! 

May we all contribute to the healing of the universe!  Namaste. 

www.jfairgrieve.com

Today is June 17th, 2011, and I have been with my present therapist now since April of last year.  As you know, if you have been reading the articles on this blog, I have been making good progress in therapy.  I can see the end of my present project, relieving my PTSD symptoms through ego state therapy (http://www.clinicalsocialwork.com/egostate.html), but as I noted on my website (www.jfairgrieve.com), I plan to continue in therapy because I never, ever want to slide back into the pit of PTSD again.  Because I am the sort of person who does a thorough job of whatever I do, I do not intend to rely on just one approach to do the job in therapy.  Of course, I know that my symptoms may not disappear completely, and I can accept that.  However, the symptoms will not disrupt my life to the degree that they have done in the past.  Of that, I am convinced.  How do I know? See my previous post of Tuesday, June 14th.

What’s my next step in therapy?  I need to complete ego state therapy, and then I hope to begin EMDR.  As I have said, I am not a mental health professional; I am just a writer who is trying to make the last years of her life better by relieving her PTSD.  Here is a link that will explain EMDR and give you a list of trained practitioners:  http://www.emdr.com/.  The information on this site is more complete than anything I could tell you.

Does EMDR work?  Officially, according to the above website, it does!  Unofficially, according to my personal experience, it does what it is supposed to do.  I have had two experiences with EMDR, and both times the painful emotional contents of the events have faded, leaving the memories of the events but taking away the intense emotional distress surrounding the memories.  This is what EMDR is supposed to do, so in my nonprofessional opinion, the modality WORKS!  However, there are many more traumatic events that I need to work on, so I intend to work as hard in the EMDR phase of therapy as I am in my present phase of therapy.  My big regret is that it took me so long to find the therapist I see now. However, I don’t want to spend time regretting; I want to live in the present without the shackles of PTSD symptoms and look forward to the future. 

Here is another link within the same site:  http://www.emdrnetwork.org/description.html.  On this page, you will find a step-by-step description of the EMDR process.  In my experience, when I understand something, I am not afraid of it.  Perhaps reading this information will demystify EMDR for you and lead you to take that first step toward finding a therapist and freeing yourself from PTSD’s symptoms.  I hope this helps you do that!

If you wish to find a clinician in your community who is certified to use EMDR therapy, there is a search engine on the “Find a Clinician” link.  To maximize your chances of finding a therapist who is competent in following the EMDR protocol, I would call one of the therapists on this list.  If that therapist cannot take you as a client, the therapist may give you names of other qualified people who might see you.  Keep at this project and don’t give up!  Follow the leads given to you by qualified therapists until you find somebody who can see you and who has been appropriately trained in the use of EMDR. 

Would you ask a dentist to operate on your brain?  I hope not!  Nor should you settle for an untrained therapist to apply EMDR therapy.  If you have been abused and are living with PTSD as a result, you deserve the best chance possible for recovery.  So find a person who has been trained in EMDR and is listed on the website.  Start there and follow leads until you find a therapist who is competent and with whom you feel comfortable.  You may have to try a few people until you find the right person for you, but if you find the right help and the right therapist, your efforts will pay off!

Remember:  The best revenge is a good life.  Find a competent therapist you are comfortable with, somebody you like, and your hard work in therapy will pay off! 

How Do I know?
For a little over a year now, fourteen months, exactly, I have been working hard in therapy. Ego state therapy is the modality I have chosen. There are other modalities that work, too, EMDR being one of them. Eventually, when I’m ready, I will use EMDR, too. For now, I need to finish my work in ego state therapy.
Why am I working so hard and why do I stay with therapy? Because it works! At any rate, it works for me, and therapy has been proven to work for many other people. What do I mean by “it works”? I have evidence! For one thing–and this is extremely important to me–I can finally use public transportation without having a PTSD response when a problematic situation arises. I have no car, so wherever I go, including to my therapy sessions, I must take the bus or the light rail train. Most trips are quiet, meaning that most of the time none of the passengers is obnoxious and loud, engages in angry conversations on a cell phone, or argues loudly with the driver. However, sometimes the ride is not peaceful. Sometimes a passenger will get on who is intoxicated and loud, or sometimes somebody gets on who is determined to pick a fight with the driver or another passenger.
In the past, when these things happened, I automatically dissociated, left my body. Why? Loud, angry voices connected somewhere in my brain to the loud, angry voice I heard during my twenty-year marriage and to the loud, angry voice of my mentally ill father during one of his outbursts. Verbal violence, I call this. This violence assaults my mind, heart, and soul just as beating on me with a whip would assault my body. When somebody shouts or roars at me, I feel the impact throughout my entire nervous system. I learned early in life to leave my body when I heard my father’s rants, and I continued this pattern of dissociating when my former husband threw his violent tantrums. Loud, violent noises of any sort, then, have triggered my PTSD response. But no longer! I said that tentatively and hopefully six months ago, but now, as time passes and I continue my work in therapy, I say it less tentatively and with more certainty.

The other day, for example, I was on the bus, heading to my therapy session, when four people, two men and two women, entered the bus. One of the men looked half asleep and had arms full of needle marks, the other man was talking loudly, and the two women were talking back to him loudly. I was on my guard, afraid there would be trouble. The loud man sat in the seat behind me, and the two women sat across the aisle from me. As the bus headed toward my destination, the talk became more sexually explicit, the man telling the two women how good they looked with no clothing on and how he wanted them to undress him, and the women replying by telling in detail how they would go about obeying him. All this in amplified voices, as if they were intentionally addressing the entire busload of passengers.
Did I dissociate, space out, and leave my body? No, I did not! In the past, I would have “left” when the volume and intensity of the speech ramped up, but not this time! I stayed right there, in my body, and I was pissed! My anger, I realized later, was real and appropriate to the event. I was angry because the rest of the passengers and I were a captive audience to the nasty conversation of those four people. I was angry that the driver did not stop the bus and tell the four people to leave. And I was angry that the two children on the bus had to hear the filthy language. I will admit that I was stunned when I reached my stop, too stunned to think of calling the transit company and reporting the incident, but at least I had stayed in my body, had witnessed the whole incident, and had gotten angry. For me, getting appropriately angry is a big step, a sure sign of progress!
Chances are, if my thinking had not been blocked by my PTSD symptoms when my former husband intimidated me by his raging and loud tantrums, I would have ended my marriage much earlier than I did and would have spared my children and me a lot of abuse and pain. I cannot undo what has been done in the past, but through my work in therapy, I can make sure that part of my history doesn’t repeat itself! Remember: PTSD symptoms can block rational thought. If you have PTSD symptoms, alleviating them may save your life and the lives of those you love!

It’s Saturday, June 11th, and my message for you today is–if you are working in therapy toward reducing your PTSD symptoms–hang in there! Getting the relief is so worth it!

When I began this therapy about a year ago with a person who specializes in helping people suffering from PTSD and other trauma damage, I was doubtful. After all, I’m over seventy years old now, and I’ve been having the symptoms since childhood: how on earth will I be able to do anything about them now?? But I was determined to enjoy a few more years of life without the misery of flashbacks and all the other symptoms of PTSD.

Besides–I was angry! Other people in my life had done the damage to me, so why should I let them continue to abuse me? Granted, these people were no longer in my life, but
as long as I let the symptoms damage the quality of my life, I was, in a sense, allowing the perpetrators to continue abusing me. That was my reasoning. Thus, I decided to give therapy one more try, but this time I was going to get help from somebody who truly was skilled and experienced enough to help me. I am SO glad I did this!

Future posts will include more specific evidence that this therapy is helping. For now, I will simply say that it does work for me, and it can work for you, too. If you live in the Portland, Oregon, area, type “PTSD therapy Portland Oregon trauma” or some such string into your search engine. You should get hits that include the names of therapists, clinics, and organizations that will help you find the right therapist with appropriate skills. Send me a comment and let me know how it’s going.
Good luck!
Jean

The good news is that it’s possible now to get relief from the flashbacks, numbing, “space-outs,” and all the other symptoms of abuse-caused PTSD. For more information on this topic, please see my website: http://www.jfairgrieve.com/. On my home page there is a link to an article that will describe the symptoms and help you understand more about PTSD and how you can get help to alleviate the symptoms.

On my website I tell about my own experience with PTSD and how I have minimized my symptoms through a modality called ego state therapy. This modality has worked well for me, but there are other types of therapy that also work well. The important thing is to find a therapist who knows how to help trauma victims and people with PTSD. Not all therapists are skilled in that sort of work, so it’s important to be very specific when you look for a therapist.

It’s taken me over twenty years to find a therapist with the skills to help me, but that’s partly because I did not know I needed a therapist with specific training in PTSD and trauma work. You can benefit from my mistakes!

Remember: As long as you spend your days letting the symptoms of PTSD make your life miserable, the person/people who abused you are still, in a sense, abusing you. Stop the effects of the abuse by finding the right therapist so you can get your life back! By working hard in therapy, you can get back in control of your life! At age 72, that’s what I’m doing!

Good luck!
Jean http://www.jfairgrieve.com/