The Holidays

Thanksgiving is the time for family.  Regardless of how we feel about holidays we are inundated with the holiday spirit.  It’s almost as if you don’t spend time with your family you are in the wrong.  Yet if you are survivor of abuse from family members or family friends, you have a difficult choice to make.

Your abuser may be a father, mother, brother, or sister and they may be at the family gathering.  Do you want to put yourself in that situation?  Will you even be able to enjoy it?  Even if your abuser isn’t present.  The presence of judgmental or defensive family members could make it a tense situation.  If your abuser is someone close to them, they may take the opportunity to defend your abuser.  They may attack your character.  They may reiterate how they don’t believe you.  They may blame you.

What is supposed to be a time for celebration with those we love the most can often be a tense ordeal filled with seething anger and resentment.  This is why survivors isolate during the holidays.  We aren’t getting together with family, even the one’s we want to see.  Thanksgiving and other holidays seem false to us.  Their promises feel hollow.  You turn on the television and you are hit with commercial after commercial reminding you of everything that the holidays aren’t in your life.  Even walking down the street and seeing all the houses with their holiday lights can be overwhelming.

The holiday season pushes many of us to deal with issues we aren’t ready for.

Getting together with family is compelling and when we choose not to we are judged and questioned.  We feel outcast.  But there’s something you should know.  There are millions of survivors out there just like you, feeling the same mixed emotions.  We just don’t talk about it.

I am a survivor of abuse and an advocate for others.  I have the same choices to make during this time of year and they never are easy.  I try to focus on who I really want to see.  I focus on who can support me emotionally.  The people that know my truth and accept it.

You do have a choice.  If it means sharing a turkey dinner with that one true friend who stood by you in tough times then you are truly lucky.  If you brave that get together knowing your abuser is there, no one should judge you and the choices you make.  If you end up alone on Thursday evening, don’t be so hard on yourself.

Surviving the holidays is about getting through to the other side.   Try your best.  You and your well-being matter most over any holiday.

If you know a friend or family member who has a difficult time and isolates, give them a call.  Your call may be the one that matters most.

We wish you a healthy and supportive Thanksgiving!

 

When Trauma Survivors Visit The Dentist

I remember once when I was a child, the gums in my mouth blew up like an air balloon.  My mother rushed me into a local dentist.  They put me in this chair and told me to relax.  He put this adult-sized mask over my face and told me to breathe, yet I couldn’t.  Then he brought the needle out.  In a medical office you always have the option of facing away from the needle stick.  With dentists, you can’t turn away.  It goes right into your mouth and I got to watch it, front-row-center.  Five times he stuck me.  My mother, an anxious person by nature, was there for moral support.  I still could feel the panic and the tears streaming down the side of my face as they forced my mouth open.  It was a trigger.

I went to see my dentist this morning.  Before the dentist came into the room, I tried to sit deeply into the chair and relax my body.  I took deep breaths.  In.  Out.  Slowly.  Over and over again.  I picked up a magazine and, of all the luck, found an article on child trauma.  When the dentist and her assistant came in and hovered over me I started to lose orientation.  Their hands became huge as they pressed against my face.  Four hands.  They both had masks on.  Who were these people?  

I fear the water hose most of all.  They sprayed it directly into my throat, I drown for a few seconds.  Then they sprayed it again.  Over and over.  Wasn’t this how water boarding works?  I wondered which would come first, whether I would pass out or they sense that I was dying. 

The drill hit my tooth and my entire head vibrated.  The drill hit a nerve.  The physical pain distracted me out of my panic for a moment and I remember to breath through my nose.  Black dots in my field of vision.  The sensation of going into a tunnel as my periphery goes to black. 

I could stop this, but i’m a man, not a child.  So I don’t.  I told myself that they weren’t trying to kill me.  That I knew.  I hold up a finger.  They backed away and the dentist said a few comforting words.  “No problem Chris.”  I felt so stupid.  They saw a child and I felt just like that child.  This shouldn’t happen to me.  Anymore.

It was the trigger.  It took me back to a time when I had no control.  Yet I live in this man’s body so I felt exposed, embarrassed, and vulnerable.  It is something I am constantly working through.  The alternative is to never go to the dentist.  Never see the doctor.  Never live my life. 

I climb steep mountains for fun, yet it’s the routine things that seem to scare me the most.

So many of the routines in life are anything but to trauma survivors.  It is part of the reason I tell others about my trauma.  It makes them aware and sensitive.  It’s a way of telling someone this is not about you.  This is about me.  I may have a panic attack, but that’s just my body reacting and it’s perfectly okay.  Even if it looks like i’m not.  It’s like an ocean wave that needs to pass.

The effects of past trauma can’t be conquered.  You learn to let it flow.  You know what it is.  It goes.  You survive.

Guns or Mental Health…

This is really a time for our country to think.  When so many children and adults are murdered so easily, in such a sacred place, it can spark alot of emotion. 

There will be a conversation on gun control.  We don’t know who will lead it, but the sense is that we need reasonable assurances of safety, and we haven’t had it yet.  But I don’t want to focus on guns today because I don’t want to miss the mark.

The mark is mental health.  A tragedy like this has created an opportunity to put in place functional gun regulations.  It’s an opportunity that many of us have been waiting for for some time.  Yet, I had to ask myself which is more important here.  A national debate on guns or a national debate on mental health?  Which is a symptom and which is a root cause of massacres like this?  Which will have a lasting effect on violence in America?

Like it or not, we do have to choose where the energy from a tragedy like this goes.  As much as some don’t like it pointed out, the idea that stricter gun regulations won’t stop violence of this sort has some merit.  How could it if we don’t adequately address mental illness in America?  Mental health is an overwhelming issue and the solutions are not so easily identified.  The gun issue is relatively straightforward once you get past the rhetoric.  That’s why we don’t want to talk about mental health.  It’s not easy.

Restructuring how we deal with our mentally ill is going to be a huge undertaking.  Make no mistake, it’s going to take alot more resources than gun regulation.  Yet all of our energy is spent on the gun aspect. 

Soon the urgency of Connecticut will die down.  The will of the American people will wane.  We will turn our attention back to Kim Kardashian and Honey Boo Boo.  This is the nature of us.  Just think of Gabby Giffords and Auroro, Colorado.  They seem like a distant memory already. 

As impassioned as many of us are about guns on our streets, we have to tack into the wind.  We have to change this debate now, or we will have lost the key moment to change.  Take a moment and ask yourself what is most important here.  

We need a national debate on mental health in this country now.  For whenever a root cause has been dealt with it affects all of it’s branches in the process.

Amherst

Recently I blogged about the ‘safety report’ released by the University of Washington and it’s certainly inaccurate assessment of incidents of rape and domestic violence in the UW community.  Inaccurate was putting it lightly.  Not in the stratosphere of reality would be a better assessment of what really amounts to a public relations document.

My entire point is that students and parents just want to know what’s going on in the community that they live in.  Simple.  You and I know that colleges have a phobia towards anything that can adversely effect their vaunted reputations.  So we will never get an accurate assessment as long as administrators are involved in illegal crimes on campus. 

Then the Amherst story blows up.  One brave student tells her story in the school paper.  You may still ask why victims don’t report?  Why reported cases don’t get included in college safety reports?  This is a classic example.  It is so classic it inspired victims from other campuses to come forward because her story was just like theirs.

The prescription for rape on campuses is suck it up.  If you can’t then maybe you need to go elsewhere.  That is the approach of campus culture.  College administrators can’t have too many victims coming forward because then the truth comes out.  This truth is a system that discourages and silences it’s victims.  A culture that has institutionalized revictimization.

We don’t believe you.  If you want to continue down this road then it’s up to you to prove that you were violated here.  That’s the essence of revictimization. 

This takes me back to the UW safety report and the number of reported cases on campus for the 2011 school year. 

7.

Whose reality does that number represent?  It certainly doesn’t represent the students on campus.  In the end, it only protects the rapists, who will strike again.  We know what the administrators will do.  What will you do?

What To Say

One day someone may approach you. A friend, spouse, child, parent, cousin, or coworker. You may not realize it, but they chose to tell you. They were abused and traumatized at their most vulnerable moments in life. It may have been last week or decades ago, but the trauma felt in the first disclosure is a form of reliving the abuse. That is why you must be ready to embrace them fully. Without judgment or bias. You have the power to heal or revictimize. If they come to you, here's what you should let them know:

  • I believe you.

Their greatest fear is that no one will. If you know and love the abuser then it may further complicate your own ability to 'be there' for the victim. What you must know now is that the victim chose you for a reason. It is one of the hardest choices to make, to reveal that, to you. So believe them.

  • It wasn't your fault.

This is most often what victims believe, especially if they were abused as children by a trusted adult. They believe it to survive because they often have to live and continue to rely on their abusers. For adults, women are often treated as if they invited violence by their choice in clothing. We still find it hard to believe an adult male could be forced sexually to do anything. Yet they are every day. They just are too ashamed to disclose it. They just couldn't stop it from happening. So they were to blame. Never.

  • I'm sorry this happened to you.

The gravity and effect of trauma is life altering. Honor the struggle of a friend. Not with pity. Just a simple and powerful acknowledgement that you care. You feel sad that this trauma has caused so much pain in their life, including all of the isolation, fear, and shame that came with it.

There are alot of other good resources on how to be there for survivors. Seek them out for futher guidance. In the end, keep it simple with the three simple tenets of first disclosure. Every survivor needs to hear those words from a friend like you.

 

Trust

One of the hardest things to cultivate once it’s been lost in a child is trust.  Most child abuse occurs from a parent or trusted adult.  Our frame of reference for how we deal with the world, and all those in it, is from mom and dad.  A profound betrayal for a child is in knowing that those that we trusted the most, on an implicit and instinctive level, turned their back on us.

For those who work with trying to recover that trust again in children the task is monumental.  It will be the hardest thing children and adults will ever have to do.  Yet, what predators look for are kids who have been abused.  They show tell-tell signs and are especially vulnerable to multiple abuse throughout their lives.  This difficulty in assessing safety and healthy personal boundaries can stay with a victim for the rest of her life.

This is what makes early intervention crucial.  But you can’t intervene unless you recognize the problem quickly and act on it.  So advocates have multiple layers to address to create meaningful change in our communities.

None of this can happen without adults.  Early intervention of adults means younger adults, who are ready and willing to embrace new ways of doing things.  This is what makes getting the message on college campuses crucial.  The energy and ability of young adults to make educated decisions and to act on a massive level is necessary.  Our college kids hold the potential tipping point  for dramatic reforms.

However, It all goes back to trust.  Can we rebuild a child’s trust?  Do we see and understand this issue?  Are we willing to provide the resources necessary to act early and emphatically?

There’s no real way to count the kids we save.  To create a nice, glossy bar graph showing how we turned a child’s life around.  The statistics always seem to come later on.  In the death count and the police reports.  That’s what we pay attention to.  It’s a lost opportunity not to pay more attention to the end that counts.  The end that predicts the result.

A child’s trust often remains broken.  It is severed from that parent or trusted friend.  It continues in all of the broken relationships and get’s passed down to that child’s children.  The cumulative effect of abuse on this world IS the story of our collective dysfunction in all other aspects of our existence.

Abuse is a problem we don’t deal with effectively on a massive scale.  The solution won’t come from your government.  Not from a politician.  It won’t come from one person helping 60,000 children.  It comes from 60,000 people helping just one child.  Maybe two.  Maybe three.

When are we going to trust that we are the solution?  It’s simple and cliche and so deadly accurate.  But there’s a difference in retweeting a quote and in trying to live up to the spirit of the quote.  We believe in what we see being done, not in what is said.  As do children.  They will never trust your words because they understand the consequences of the words that were broken.

If you care about our future then you will save the trust once so freely given from a young child’s heart.  There is no one else but you.

Breastfeeding In Public

It may sound funny but I never realized how controversial this topic is.  I understand that many decades ago breastfeeding was what every mother did.  At some point, doctors began advising mothers to bottle feed their children.  My mother, and her mother, grew up in that generation.  They fed me and all of my siblings by the bottle.  Because of that, they have some definite opinions about mothers today, specifically the one’s who want to breastfeed their children.  Especially those who feed their children past the ‘appropriate age’.

I never felt this controversy as a man growing up.  Only when I had my daughter,  and my wife decided to breastfeed, have I felt the heat. 

As a man, here’s what I grew up knowing about breasts.  Anytime I saw a naked breast I felt a sexual response.  How could I not?  I grew up knowing that a woman’s body, and any naked part of it, was for sexual purposes.  From the pornography that was available to me as a teenager to every magazine and every show I watched on TV and the movies. 

women + naked bodypart = sex

It didn’t take long for the equation to change profoundly.

women = sex

But I never bought into that equation entirely.  In the back of my mind I always knew I was being manipulated, as a man.  There was no clear culprit to blame because it’s hard to point a finger at society. 

So here we are.  We’ve all had a good swig of the Kool-Aid.  The physicality of woman is sex and should never be presented otherwise. 

When my wife began breastfeeding I faced my hard reality.  The boob was not for my sexual pleasure.  It was to feed our hungry daughter.  Over and over my wife would ‘whip it out’ for the purposes of motherhood.  At times I caught myself resenting this scourging of the sexuality of this thing.  This milk-producing breast.  This non-sexual breast.  The sexual breast was all I ever knew.

My evolution as a man was healthy.  I learned respect for mothers.  For all the other roles of women.  My own internal dissonance helped me understand the difficulty women have being accepted as anything else than a funnel for sex. 

Men don’t want to see breastfeeding in public because they don’t want to have to grow up and learn to see women as something else, outside of a tool for their devices.  Even women don’t want to see it because they fear their own bodies.  They worry how their husbands and teenage sons may react to a naked breast.  They may actually have to have a constructive conversation with their children about this public presentation.

The unhealthy part of this debate is that the breast should be presented as anything other than sexual.  That would be telling a lie.  Maybe men would start to look at breasts as serving other functions.  Maybe we would all respect our mothers a little more.  If it’s a question of you and that hungry baby, suck it up.  Be an adult and understand a feeding child wins out over your insecurities. Every time.  That is healthy.  That is part of the maturing process which leads to common sense.

Ladies, give your husbands and teenage sons a little credit.  The male reaction to a breastfeeding mother in public goes from sexual response to healthy respect in about half a second.  Seeing breastfeeding helps us evolve.  You don’t need to protect us from our own unhealthy delusions.

For all those who have conflict with public breastfeeding, you really do need to understand this conflict is within you.  Introspect a while.  Figure it out.  Don’t be manipulative and feed us this falsity that the ‘problem’ somehow lies with women feeding their children where you can see it. 

It all boils down to simple respect for mothering.  Breastfeeding IS mothering.  So shouldn’t we stop defending our own oversexualized social conditioning and start defending motherhood in all it’s beautiful aspects?

You may be wondering how this relates to abuse.  It couldn’t be more related.