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Today I’ve been considering snowballs.  Snowballs?  Yes, snowballs.  You see, snowballs usually begin their lives as pristine objects formed in the hands of eager little children, but as the children roll the snowballs across the ground and as the snowballs gather snow and grow larger, they also gather little rocks, dirt, and all sorts of debris.  By the time the snowball is large enough to be the base for a snow person, it has incorporated into itself an assortment of dreck, garbage, and it is no longer the pristine object it was before beginning its trip across the lawn.
 
The snow person produced by the little children, then, bears the scars and blemishes of its journey.  As it melts, it sags and droops and shrinks until finally nothing is left but a puddle filled with pebbles, chunks of dirt, twigs, and perhaps even the droppings of a neighborhood dog. Such is the fate of this snow person made by the hands of little children.  He or she, unlike a living human being, has no control over her inner life—in fact, she has no inner life to control.  The upside to being a snow person, of course, is that snow people feel no psychic pain.
 
The downside to being a human is that, unlike the snow person, we do feel psychic pain.  All the nasty little bits of emotional garbage we collect and internalize as we roll over our life’s path do their damage.  What are these nasty little bits of garbage?  They are all the toxic, devastating bits of emotional fallout from abuse and neglect.  They are the hurts inflicted on us by adults when we are children, the hurts inflicted by our peers, and the hurts we inflict on ourselves.  All these hurts do their damage, some damaging us more than others.  Recently, I have stumbled across one of these bits of toxic fallout that has affected my own life more than most others.  So what is this toxin called?  It is called shame.

For decades I had read about the damage that shame does, how shame can affect self-esteem and cause a human being to feel worthless.  However, no article I had read had given me much information that I could actually use to help myself.  The articles told of the devastating effects of shame on a human being’s psyche, but they did not discuss possible origins of shame, the dynamics of shame, or give any clues as to how one manages to shed the toxic effects of shame.  Furthermore, I did not identify shame as being one of the specific factors that had eroded my self esteem from the time I was a child. 

Also, because I remembered being told by my mother innumerable times that I should be ashamed of myself for having done this or that, I reached adulthood believing that shame was tied only to certain acts that I had committed in childhood and later in adulthood and was not one of the more generalized but deeply-rooted poisons that interacted with other psychic poisons to produce my low level of self esteem, the belief that I was utterly worthless and completely unworthy of being in the company of other humans. Thus, until last week, I rolled over the path of my life largely ignorant of the role shame has played in perpetuating my C-PTSD.

If I ever had doubts about the value of therapy, my doubts evaporated last week!  Why?  Last week I met Shame head on and decapitated it, rendered it powerless!  How, suddenly, did I do this? 

First, a conversation between me and my therapist caused me to connect to some of my earliest childhood memories.  I remembered when I was about three asking my mother at various times if I could sit in her lap, and I remembered that she always said “no” and always had a reason for her “no.” Sometimes she said no because I was “too big for that”; sometimes I was “too heavy”; sometimes she was too busy or too tired, and sometimes she wanted to smoke a cigarette and I would be in the way.  Each time she turned me away, I felt sad.  When I was an older child and clearly too physically large to sit on her lap, she complained about having to touch me or touch my hair when she got me ready for school.  I remember her cracking me on the head with the hairbrush one morning when I squirmed, and I remember hearing her say, “I hate touching your hair.”

By then I must have achieved the “age of reason” because I remember thinking to myself, “Then why won’t you let me get my hair cut?”  She hated touching my hair, yet she wouldn’t grant me my request to have short hair that I could brush without her help.  I was smart enough to keep my question to myself; if I had asked her the question, she undoubtedly would have cracked me on the head with the hairbrush.  Why did she dislike touching me, and why didn’t she seem happy to be with me?

As my childhood turned to pre-teenage years, my sadness grew, and accompanying the sadness came a new element, a feeling of not being good enough and a feeling of being ashamed because I wasn’t good enough.  I felt angry at myself for being such a failure as a human being. If I had been good enough, I reasoned, my mother would have wanted to touch me and to let me sit on her lap.  Mothers of my friends liked touching their little girls, letting them sit on their laps, and holding them close. And if I had been good enough, my mother wouldn’t have cracked me over the head with the hairbrush or frowned at me all the time she was getting me ready for school in the morning and at other times.  She was never happy when I was with her, or so it seemed to me, because I was not the little girl she wanted.  I was a chipped Spode teacup she had bought on sale and could not return: she was stuck with me, and she was not happy about that!

When I was a child, I was never able to come up with a specific answer to “What’s wrong with me?”  If I had been able to answer the question, I might have tried to change whatever it was about me that my mother didn’t like. But I didn’t know what was wrong; therefore, I didn’t know what to change. By the time I was a young teen, I had given up on my mother, our relationship, and on myself.  I had concluded that I had come into the world “wrong,” and there was nothing I could do about that.  My shame was so overpowering that I often couldn’t look people in the eye when I spoke to them or when they spoke to me.  When somebody hurt me, I didn’t fight back or complain because I felt I deserved being hurt.  When my husband abused me, I felt I deserved his abuse and did nothing to stop his behavior.  For the past thirty years, I’ve been on my own, not living with anyone who has been abusive, yet I have continued to feel unworthy, ashamed, unable often to look at people when they have spoken to me or when I have spoken to them. 

All this has changed, however, in the past week.  Suddenly I realize that there is nothing inherently wrong with me, and my sense of being undeserving and unworthy is simply gone.  I don’t know where it went, but it’s gone.  Just like that!  Gone!

What brought about this change?  A sensitive interaction between my therapist and me, for one thing.  Also, shortly after this important therapy session last week, I typed something like “origins of shame” into Google and found an absolutely amazing article by Richard G. Erskine titled “A Gestalt Therapy Approach to Shame and Self-Righteousness: Theory and Methods.”  (See link at the end of this essay.)  And there it was—a description of how shame originates in a child, starting with a feeling of sadness that, like a snowball, develops into a sense of being inadequate and worthless as the child rolls along her life’s path.  Not only does Richard G. Erskine describe the development of shame in a child, but he also describes the process by which shame lowers a person’s self esteem:

“Shame also involves a transposition of the affects of sadness and fear: the sadness at not being accepted as one is, with one’s own urges, desires, needs, feelings, and behaviours, and the fear of abandonment in the relationship because of whom one is. The fear and a loss of an aspect of self (disavowal and retroflection of anger) fuel the pull to compliance – a lowering of one’s self esteem to establish compliance with the criticism and/or humiliation.”  Erskine  [Italics and underlining are mine.]

All I could say to myself when I finished reading the article was, “Wow!  He sure hit the nail on the head!  Thank you, Richard G. Erskine!”  For in that article, I recognized the process that had taken place within me, the process that began when I was very little and was told by my mother, “No, I want to smoke a cigarette” when I asked to sit on her lap and continued on when I as a wife allowed my husband to belittle and abuse me because I felt I deserved the treatment. 

A dear friend of mine has told me repeatedly, “With awareness comes change.”  How right she is!  And now that I am fully aware of shame and its toxic effect on my psyche and my life, I feel change taking place.  For one thing, during a family gathering on Christmas Day, I let a person in attendance know how I felt about her childish, rude, disrespectful behavior.  Others had felt as I had, but I spoke out.  I don’t know whether I made a difference by speaking out, but I know I felt better because I called the situation as it was and didn’t consider myself unworthy of speaking out.  That was a first!  The New Year, 2012, is almost upon us, and I’m wondering what the “second” will be—and the “third,” “fourth,” . . .   

I feel that as a result of my newly-found awareness of shame and its effects on my life, I have leaped over a gigantic hurdle on my way to healing.  I’m getting there!  And so will you!  If you are in therapy, take it seriously and work hard.  If you are not in therapy, find a competent and compatible therapist who is skilled in treating clients with C-PTSD and PTSD.  You are a human being, a person, and unlike snow people, you are capable of change and healing.  See how many hurdles you can jump and how far down the road to healing you can travel in 2012! 

Blessings and everything good to you in the New Year. 
Jean

(URL for Richard G. Erskine’s article:  http://www.integrativetherapy.com/en/articles.php?id=30)
 

Before Shame
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For the past several weeks, I have felt extremely nervous each time I have gone to my therapy session.  Since I have been seeing this therapist for over a year and a half now, I noted the nervousness, noted that it seemed odd but determined that it probably was not related to the relationship between my therapist and me, and then figured “Que Sera, Sera” (roughly “what will be, will be”), as Doris Day sang on Your Hit Parade, the weekly radio program that my friends and I followed religiously in the 1950s.  Knowing how I process material in therapy, normally from my right brain to my left brain, I figured that whatever trauma information was lurking in the right side of my brain that needed to manifest itself was getting ready to do that.  However, I had not figured that the manifestation would be so upsetting and so horrible! 

My therapy appointment is at 1:30, so I caught my bus at noon yesterday, knowing that I would easily make my appointment with time to spare for my crossword puzzle.  I like to center myself in the waiting room by working on the puzzle printed each morning in the Portland Oregonian.  By the time I arrived at the bus transfer point, however, I was feeling “odd.”  I wasn’t feeling dizzy or sick or in pain; I was simply feeling “odd.”  Because I still deal with occasional PTSD symptoms such as spaciness and flashbacks, “odd” doesn’t alarm me, so I sat down in the bus shelter and hoped the feeling would pass quickly. 
  
Bus 8 arrived, and I knew I needed to get into it, but I had a problem, very likely the same problem Alice had when she drank from the bottle labeled “Drink Me”:  the world I saw through my eyes was not the world I normally saw.  The lines that normally are parallel to the earth were slanted and actively tipping, like a teeter-totter, and the lines that normally are perpendicular to the earth were leaning, tipped in all directions.  I looked at the bus, saw it tilted oddly, and tried to figure out where to put my feet.  I did my best to put my feet where I needed to put them in order to get on and find a seat, and then I managed to tumble onto an empty place.  After I had sat down, I looked around me at the other passengers, wondering if any of them had noticed my awkward entrance, but nobody had. 

As the bus progressed toward my stop, I had a chance to breathe deeply and get myself calmed down.  I was not dizzy—the world was not whirling around in my brain.  My memory was intact, and I knew perfectly well where I was and where I was going.  And slowly the “Drink Me” sensation went away.  Then I remembered that in the past I had had episodes of what psychologists call “derealization,” times when reality doesn’t seem what it is supposed to be.  The world outside my head does not look like it should.  In fact, Lewis Carroll did such a great job of describing the sensation of derealization in Through the Looking Glass that I sometimes wonder if he suffered from trauma! 

During my session, I described this experience to my therapist.  She suggested that I use colored pencils and paper and see what evolved.  Since I have learned that I can easily access the memories and emotions lodged in the right side of my brain if I write or draw with my non-dominant hand, I sat down, took a red pencil, and began to write.  What I wrote absolutely blew me away!

If you have read my website and my blog articles, you know I was violently sexually assaulted by the neighbor woman when I was between four and five years old, 1943 or 1944.  I effectively repressed this memory until 1980, when I had a flashback and remembered the basics of the assault.  Over a period of twenty years, I remembered more and more until I thought I had captured the whole awful memory.  Boy, was I ever wrong about that!

What I wrote with my left hand on Monday in my therapist’s office horrified both my therapist and me.  My message said something like this:  That woman told me that she had magical powers and that even when I couldn’t see her looking into my bedroom from her kitchen window, she could still see me and watch everything I did.  She could tell by watching me if I was telling anyone about what she had done to me, and if I told, then she would find me and kill me—dead!  And what would my parents do with a dead little girl?  They wouldn’t want me at all, and they would put me in a box and bury me in the ground.  So I had better not tell anyone!   And for forty-some years, I didn’t tell.  Anyone!  Not my parents, my Godparents, my friends—not anyone!

Wow!  Did this explain a lot!!  I remember as a child always having the feeling of having “butterflies in my stomach.”  That feeling made me antsy when I was awake and busy, and at night, I had a hard time sleeping.  Even my kindergarten teacher noticed my nervousness and noted it on my report card, although she dismissed my nervousness as “growing so fast.”  I was scared a lot of the time when I was a child, but I never really understood why I was scared.  All I knew was that I had that feeling of being scared and had nothing to cite as a cause for my fears. In junior high school, every time the teacher closed the classroom door, my stomach would lurch, and I would run to the bathroom to be sick.  I had no idea why I did this.  I learned, however, that I could walk out of school and simply go home without consequences, so I did this frequently.  Nobody ever said anything to me about skipping school, and I never told.  I was so happy to be home by myself where I could have peace and quiet with no doors shutting, no kids and teachers, and no people to notice my discomfort.

I grew into an adult diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.  Nevertheless, I coped with life and took no medication for my anxiety.  I graduated from college, survived twenty years of spousal abuse, raised two kids to adulthood, survived the divorce process, earned straight A grades in two graduate programs, retired from community college teaching, and here I am, a senior citizen getting help for Complex PTSD and writing about the experience.

The memory of this experience, awful and horrible as it is, is an essential ingredient in my healing process.  Now, for example, I understand so much more about why I have always been afraid of confiding in most people and why I trusted nobody, not even my parents, when I was a child.  Even yet, today, as a senior citizen,  my trust level is low. That’s a fact.  And the feeling I have had of not fitting into the world may be at least partially explained by this experience.  After all, a child living and reaching adulthood with such a monstrous untold secret truly would feel marked, like a leper in filthy rags wandering in a world full of shiny, unblemished holy beings.  That is how I have felt all my life! 
 
Why am I telling you, my reader, about this experience?  Because I want you to know that it is important to have faith in your brain’s/mind’s ability to heal itself.  If you truly want to heal from trauma, you will.  But if you do not have faith in your own healing powers, the process will take longer.  Your mind is the vault where your healing powers are located, and this same vault contains the materials upon which your healing depends.  If you have faith in your mind’s ability to process these materials and heal, then your healing will follow its natural course.  It will happen.  That’s the way we humans are made.  Your therapist can support your process, and your therapist can support you when you get frustrated with the process, but you alone have the key to your own healing.  It’s up to you to unlock the memories as they need to be unlocked.  If you are patient, attend to the still, small voice of your intuition, and have courage, healing will happen. 

My therapist and I have, in my opinion, a good working relationship.  We have had our ups and downs, but throughout this process of dealing with my C-PTSD, I have tried to be honest with her and have had the courage to tell her how I feel about how things are going between us—from my perspective, at any rate.  This past Thursday, however, as I thought about my session, I realized that perhaps I have, at times, failed to let her know how much I appreciate her and to include her in my process.  I intend to apologize to her for this lapse when I see her on Monday.

You see, I have hit a spot in my therapy where I feel as if I’m in transition from one phase to another.  However, I’m not sure where I am going or what the next phase truly is.  I feel a tension in my therapy, as if I’m dangling over a crevasse and don’t know which way to jump—should I jump back to where I was comfortable or should I jump to the other side, unknown territory?  As you may know, the unknown is sometimes scary, and at times it’s a lot more comfortable to stay in the territory that is known.  That was—and IS–my dilemma.  I don’t know which way to jump!

I am, however, highly motivated to get through the process of recovering from Complex PTSD, and my dithering frustrates me no end!  I get angry at myself, and I browbeat myself, knowing all the time that this activity simply makes the situation worse.  And then I say things such as, “If I have time, I’m going to get through this all by myself this weekend” or “I know I could do this on my own if I just forced myself to do it.”  That’s what I said to my therapist on Thursday.  And then later, when I was riding the bus home and reflecting on my session, I remembered what I said, and then I remembered something else:  I’m not in this process alone!  She is there with me!
 
As soon as I remembered this simple fact, a peace settled over me, and I resolved to make this coming Monday my personal “Therapist Appreciation Day.”  I am not in this alone.  I have a companion on this journey, and I need to include her.  She can help me make this transition.
 
How could I have forgotten this simple fact?  Well, people with my background of abuse often get through life without a whole lot of help.  If a child learns at a very young age that the world is not safe and that no person, including parents, can be trusted to help, then often that child learns to cope with abuse without asking for help.  If, later, the child-become-adult is abused, then the person still does not ask for help—with anything! Such was my pattern. I never asked for help and never expected any help.  Never, that is, until I realized one day in 1980 that my world was crashing around me and that getting help was a matter of life and death.  Then I asked for and received the help I sought from a skilled, kind, and compassionate therapist.
 
That was about thirty years ago. I learned a big lesson on the day I asked for help in 1980:  It is possible to ask for help and to receive the help I need and want with no strings attached.  And along with the help, it’s also possible to receive a bonus gift of unconditional kindness, understanding, and empathy.

But old thought patterns die hard.  I certainly realize that now!  So, as I said, Monday will be the day I observe “Therapist Appreciation Day.”  Have you observed this day with your therapist?  It can’t hurt, and it might help.