Exercise taken from a narrative therapy project working with women survivors of child sexual abuse and trauma. Link to project is below.
“We tried to introduce the idea that the stories we have about ourselves are created in a context, and that, when people experience self-hate, they have often been recruited into these ideas by other people and circumstances. We introduced the idea that self-hate is like a type of quicksand – initially it can be just a bit squishy and uncomfortable, but then you can be sucked right in and feel unable to move. We checked if this description fitted with the young women, and it generally did. In order to expose the origins of self-hate in the lives of the young women, we then asked the following questions:
- How do you recognise that the quicksand of self-hate is starting to squish up between your toes and block your ears?
- I have often seen myself stuck in quicksand and also swimming in mud. So I guess it is a visual metaphor for how I feel.
- What do you find yourself thinking or feeling?
- Life is too hard, I can’t do it. I want to die. I wish I was dead. I should be dead. I’m worthless, not good enough, disgusting and ugly.
- Who leads you into the quicksand in the first place?
- I’m not sure. My dissociated parts, when memory is activated.
- How do they do this?
- Voices, intense feelings of disgust and shame.
- What are some of the messages that society gives to women that sink them further down into the quicksand?
- That they aren’t good enough, that they have to be beautiful to be worthy, that they are second class, stupid, not as competent, sluts, temptresses.
- How were you tricked into believing you are not an OK person?
- How has this self-hate affected your relationship with yourself and others?
- I haven’t trusted myself of believed myself or wanted to have a relationship with my selves, I’ve rejected others and me. I’ve been rude and dismissive and cold and distant and manipulative.
- Who gains most when self-hate has control of your life?
- I guess the devil and also the abusers.
“We asked participants to think of a time (if even for a second) when they were able to stand up to self-hate and entertain the idea that they might be okay.”
I guess doing the boxing writing workshop helps me stand up to self hate. It makes me feel like I’m okay, I’m going to be okay.
- Think about who would stand with you in knowing that you are an okay person. It might be someone you know now or it might be someone that you knew as you were growing up. What do/did they see in you that led them to the conclusion that you are an okay person?
- I think J would say I’m an okay person, because she’s been with me for the past two years in boxing writing workshop, We’ve connected and it feels like there is trust there.
- How can you keep hold of the voice or presence of these people when you are sinking into the quicksand of self-hate?
- I guess I could call her and ask her to tell me if I am an okay person.
- What kinds of things could you do or say to yourself to stop the quicksand of self-hate sucking you down?
- This is programming and lies and it is now time to side with ourselves not our abusers and the devil.
Therapy tonight. It’s getting increasingly harder to go. I keep wanting to cancel. I start to feel highly anxious and disgusting and my parts start to “go off” in my head. Voices clamour. But I pushed past it and went and headed straight for the bed on the floor with the toys. And I told T how I felt, what was going on and how I felt angry at her. I knew it was transference but it still felt uncomfortable. She said I was welcome to work with the anger. I could use a baseball bat and hit the mattress or draw or move, whatever I wanted. But I was scared that I would hit her. That my rage was so deep, I would hit her or me. She just accepted everything I was saying. And then she tried to speak to the anger but it wasn’t anger who spoke, it was fear. They were scared of her. And then a very cautious part came out. A part that worried whether T could be blackmailed, paid money to hurt me or turn on me. She assured me that wouldn’t happen to her. The part said to be careful who she talks to. And asked T if she locked her doors and to be extra vigilant. Did she have any cellars or underground parts of the house? T said no. The part felt a tiny bit more assured.
I understand a bit more why it is so hard for me to trust people. It dawned on me that it’s pretty darn incredible I can even have a relationship.
Later, T talked about the brain and how memory works. She said when the trauma happens the memory gets lodged in the centre of the brain, and it feels like it’s present (if it gets activated), but when you experience the memory, even tho it’s hard, it helps to connect the parts of the brain so that the memory moves into the back of the head, and that means the memory is stored in the past. So it can be remembered but as something that happened in the past. It was quite a complex but easy description that I’m probably not giving justice.
I learnt too that parts think when T says “when bad things happen” that programming kicks in and says, “I am making things up.” T said that I get to challenge this as an adult and reject the lies. That made me feel a bit better.
I rode home on my scooter. S is reading me Roald Dahls book: “Danny, the champion of the world.” She is a very good reader and my parts like it a lot.
I am scared to sleep. I realised lying here in bed tonight, that I am terrified. I think I have always been. That’s why as a teen I used to smoke dope at night before bed, then in my late teens/ early 20s, I loved being on stimulants. I didn’t want to go to sleep. I wanted to be so exhausted that I had no choice. Then alcohol was my bedtime medicine. Since becoming sober, I thought that my sleeping was actually fine, that there were no issues. But recently, it’s like I have woken up and identified the fear that’s always been there. I just remember being little and being scared to go to sleep always and sucking on my thumb. It makes me sad that my nervous system is so hyped up and unregulated, but I’m glad I’ve become conscious of it. It’s strange to “wake up” and become present to behaviours and experiences that have always been there, yet were dormant and buried in the unconscious.
I can’t sleep. I had a big therapy session tonight. Things are changing with the sessions. I felt pretty spacey before I arrived and then when I got there I just dissociated straight away. This is rare for me, so it’s like my parts just wanted to come out. I told my T I felt like she was going to leave me and that I just don’t know where this fear of being abandoned comes from. My parents are still together, but T said that in many ways I was abandoned because of the abuse. And I said it is so hard to trust someone, her and S. I am so scared to trust. And then I started crying. And she said she couldn’t promise me she would never leave me because that would be irresponsible, but that she has no plans to go anywhere. And I said but what if she finds out how disgusting I am and she said she has heard the worst of the worst from other survivors, and she wouldn’t think of us like that. Then I think she asked if I would like to go lie down and I said okay and she offered to help me because I said I couldn’t move. But when she grabbed my hand I just broke out into memory and started shaking and crying and she just held me which was nice and said calming things. And then I felt carousel programming click in, and i just started switching super rapidly. I felt that I could switch so fast, faster than the programmers, and that made me feel good. And then I drew a picture and it was some sort of outdoor ritual thing and then I drew another one of an angel and a flower. T gently suggested it and that was nice. And then it was time to go. I can’t sleep and I texted my ex husband and asked about our other dog that he got to keep. I miss her so much. I think of her all the time. He sent me a picture and we chatted and I miss him too. I just feel really sad and down but I know it will pass.
This is a continuation of my response to questions from a narrative therapy practice group for survivors of sexual abuse. These exercises were weekly but I am just writing nightly to them. If anyone wants to add anything that they think I’m missing it would be great to hear from you in the comments.
The forest of deception is metaphoric for the place we go where we don’t feel like we can get out easily. It is the place where we find it difficult to trust ourselves and our perception of reality as there can be many shadows and voices inside the forest.
- Who plants the seeds of this confusion and self-doubt?
- I feel like I do. Sometimes people I meet. Oh but maybe the question means who originally planted the seeds of confusion and self doubt. Well that would be the bad people, the abusers.
- How do they encourage its growth?
- Well in my case it was through torture and pain and mind control. So things got mixed up quickly and it felt hard to trust ourselves as memory got wiped quickly.
- What affect does this forest of deception have on the people who find themselves in it?
- Scary and isolating and overwhelming.
- How were you tricked into not trusting yourself and your own reality?
- Like before, through pain and torture and being told horrible things and being part of and seeing horrible things. I didn’t want to trust me or what I saw or anyone around me.
- How has this training affected your relationships with others?
- I don’t trust anyone will want to stay with me or that I can stay with anyone as I gotta keep moving before I get caught (that was a part).
Breaking from deception
‘think of a time when you were able to trust your own mind and/or body and not doubt yourself’.
– So far I can only think of my undergraduate performance show. Writing and developing that was so much fun and it felt really good. I enjoyed it and ended up taking out best undergraduate award! I guess there have been other times like running a half marathon and setting up the boxing writing workshop for survivors. Sometimes when I teach I trust my mind, what I’ve done. I’m still riddled with self doubt there though.
‘What do these examples of being able to trust yourself tell about you?’
- I’m not sure? Maybe that I am creative and active and studious? Or that I can accomplish things and do things with clarity and certainty. going back to the forest of deception, that’s about losing your perception of reality and sense of self. I guess these examples show I have a solid sense of reality and a strong sense of self. I have goals and a job and purpose so that’s good to see that and be reminded of it as often I forget. Being in the forest of deception is dark and lonely and scary.
Last night I had bad dreams about huge thick spider webs shaped like bee hives. They were hanging in the corners of the room. I am in bed now and I can’t get the image out of my head. Yuk.
Shame has profoundly effected my life and relationships. It has impacted my sexuality, severed my trust and made me scared to be vulnerable. I could never be vulnerable unless I was on drugs or alcohol, behind a mask. I had affairs, I spent time in fantasy land, in my head, I sabotaged. Shame has made me run away from experiences, it’s kept me living inside my head, rather than “doing”. It’s kept me hidden and afraid and starved. It’s kept me frightened of my body and saying “I need you” or “I want you”. It’s made me not want or need anyone yet do everything possible to always have someone. Shame eroded my sense of self, it kept me in self loathing. It was walking in public with an invisible coat of ants attacking me. Shame almost killed me, still tries to.
I started to shrink it many years ago. First step was getting sober, second step was getting proper recovery for SRA and DID and third step was starting to develop a relationship with God. It just went from there. Boxing, higher education, work, and creative projects. The shame is there but mostly now I know it is memory. My parts are still steeped in shame but it is memory. I remember once travelling to America and seeing a homeless man with a sign, declaring that he was full of shame. It saddened me but in some ways I thought it was incredibly brave. It was brave that he could admit something that I had been desperately running from for years. I wondered if I had an invisible sign around my neck that some could see, making me vulnerable and prey to being shamed.
Has the sign shrunk? Is it a post it note on my back? I shrink shame every day by being alive and facing the memories and lies designed to keep me from being free.
In this post I am going to respond to questions from a narrative therapy project working with survivors of sexual abuse. You can read more about it at the link below. My responses are stream of consciousness. I feel like I have explored quite a bit of this stuff before but’s it’s good to revisit it and unpack some of these things as they are recurring issues for me.
- How do families and society encourage secrecy, especially in children?
- Children aren’t believed. They are seen as being imaginative or making stories up, so if they disclose something of abuse it may not be believed. Secrecy is encouraged by lying about Santa Claus and tooth fairies – not telling the truth about fantasy characters. Secrecy is encouraged by acting as though everything is okay on the outside even if it’s not on the inside. Also secrecy is encouraged because children often don’t have the language to tell adults what’s going on, so adults ignore signs and that silences the child.
- How does society / families react to anyone who doesn’t play the secrecy game?
- Often the victim isn’t believed.
- The victim is making it up, lying, fabricating, so they are shamed and punished.
- Families can react by splitting up or by anger or denial, so a disclosure can cause break ups or chaos, which causes conflict.
- Society splits families up, or takes sides or conquers and divides. It becomes a battle.
- Who benefits from secrecy?
- The perpetrators, systems / structures in place that are oppressive.
- Have there been times when secrecy has burdened your life? For example, what habits has secrecy recruited you into?
- Secrecy has burdened my life from a young age. I keep things secret. It turned into double or multiple lives, drinking and drugging in isolation and secrecy, affairs. So secrecy has influenced addiction habits, fantasy, obsession, sex and compulsive behaviour.
- Who has encouraged secrecy in your life and how? For example, by isolating you, or setting you up so that you feel unable to talk to those closest to you.
- The abusers did through threats and torture and mind control. The family did through these things and not talking about what was going on. I guess because my mind was split, its been hard to talk about things so I didn’t for so many years. I never had the language for how I felt or what happened to me. Past people in my life have encouraged secrecy.
- What fears support secrecy?
- Fear of not being good enough, fear of being exposed, fear of being found out, fear of causing harm, fear of getting in trouble, fear of being killed or hurt or going insane or to jail.
- Think of a time when secrecy didn’t ‘steal your voice’ and ‘strangle your vocal chords’, to represent this by using crayons, pens, collage, etc., and then to ‘give your work a title’.
- There was a time when I confronted by dad about having weird dreams about him. I would call this work: “Confronting”
This is a series of questions I sourced from a narrative therapy project. There is a link at the end if you would like to explore the project and questions. My responses are stream of consciousness. Some of them have surprised me and others not so. I got a bit confused at the end, but I guess it is about richening the acts of resistance.
- What are some of the ideas that people have about women and girls who have been sexually abused?
- They are making it up, they asked for it, they are dirty, they lured the man/ person. They are stupid, they are poor.
- How might these ideas affect women?
- Damage their self esteem, make them feel bad about themselves and afraid to tell people. Make it feel like their fault. Keep them silenced and afraid and stuck.
- Which of these ideas have pushed you around the most?
- All of them- that I’m making it up, that I made it happen, that I am dirty, stupid and poor.
- What are the things that you have heard said about people who sexually abuse women and children?
- They groom women and children, they are manipulative, they can be nice and give presents and be charming, they make it seem like it is the woman’s and child’s fault. They think that the woman or child likes it or wants it. They were abused themselves, they acted out.
- What have you heard said about mothers of children who have experienced sexual assault?
- She hasn’t got her life together, she is a basket case, she has problems, she had it coming for her. She deserved it.
- How did you get this idea?
- Media, seeing people or characters on screen, sometimes meeting women like this in recovery.
- Who encouraged this idea?
- Society, through media and men have encouraged it, I’ve encouraged it by believing it.
- How did they trick you into believing this, i.e., what did they tell you? What did they do?
- I guess it’s about how women are portrayed on screen, how women act (?). They told me women deserve it, are filthy, are hoars, they want to be dominated. The church fed into this too. My mother – just by the way she acted so submissive.
- Who benefits when this belief pushes you around?
- The abusers, the perpetrators, bad men, institutional powers and structures, the patriarch.
- How were you able to recognise and step away from the tricks, lies and bullshit?
- I guess there was a voice that said “something happened, something really bad happened” and it went from there.
- Seeing the tricks feels new, and I still struggle with this. Reading others survivor stories helps. Listening to podcasts, reading books. Same with the lies and bullshit. It feels like a constant process of waking up and discovering the truth. Education is helping. Definitely talking with other survivors helps because I see them write and believe the same tricks, lies and bullshit I do and I can see how mixed up it is that they think like this but I still struggle to apply that to myself.
- What kinds of things did you have to do, or tell yourself, to step away from the tricks?
- endless hours of therapy, drawing, writing, art therapy/ imaginal work/ washing little figurine selves in water with lilies to wash away the feelings of disgust, shame and dirtiness. Boxing, writing, stopping drinking, finding God… it is endless. I had to tell myself it wasn’t my fault, it’s their disgust and shame and guilt. It’s not mine. Over and over and over again.
‘The journey of a lifetime: Group work with young women who have experienced sexual assault’
Tonight in therapy some big shifts happened. Firstly my T texted me this afternoon and said there was going to be an asthma storm and it was okay if I wanted to cancel the session. I’m thinking, I don’t have asthma but is she texting me that because she really just wants me to cancel the session. I told her I wanted to come and when I turned up tonight I said how her text made me feel. It was good to be honest about it. She explained she has another client who has asthma so for that client it was important for her to know and she wasn’t sure if I experienced it. She said that she hopes I think she will be more honest about cancelling a session rather than making excuses. That made sense as she is honest and it helped the parts who felt paranoid she didn’t want to see them feel better about why she was texting.
I told her about the NiXM cult trigger on Sunday and she said my body memories are real and that I can’t make these things up. They provide evidence as to what happened to me. We talked about mind control programming and cult tactics and loyalty. I said at least with the NIXM people it’s out there in the public, people know about it, it’s legitimised as a thing in some ways. Because my memories are so dissociated and amnesic it is hard to think how this happened to me. She said you can still heal without memories, and asked me how that sat with me. She’s said this a few times and it irks me, it hurts me. I will feel incomplete without my narrative, without knowing the truth. But I also appreciated her saying that by believing each moment of memory that I have with her or without her, it can build this narrative. That’s helpful.
I also took charge of the session. This is very unusual for me. When I walked into her office, I sat on the mattress with Pillows and toys rather than the chair. She sat on the floor opposite me. After we caught up, I told her that when I try and meditate or pray it is very hard for me to sit in stillness. Emotional and physical pain travels through my body and I dissociate or just stop doing it and distract myself. So I said I would like to sit at the end of the mattress like I was meditating and just see what happens. I started breathing and nothing was really happening. T asked if I would like her help, which I did. She just guided me through breathing and then I started to shake and she asked me if I would like her to hold my hand or do anything and I really wanted her to hold my hand. And she sat with me and I breathed and cried and then I kind of snapped out of it and said, “I don’t want you to touch me because I am disgusting” and I lay down with the toys. She put a blanket over me and told the little one she wasn’t disgusting. What was done to her was disgusting but it wasn’t her. And the little part said she just felt so ugly. They told her she was ugly and no one would want her. T asked the part if she knew what the benefit to them was in saying that. The part didn’t know. And T said, to keep me loyal to them. Because if no one would want me then they would be the ones who I would need to stay with.
Then a part, the same part ? I don’t know, said she just feels so bad and started crying. Because she made it all happen. Then T explained to her how little kids brains work. She said that children think they are centres of the universe, and we were made this way, because children can’t look after themselves. So they need to be centres of the universe so they can get their needs met, like food, clothing and water and comfort. And as children grow up into teenagers and adults that starts to change. So when good things happen to little kids they think they created it because they are the centre of the universe, But when bad things happen to little kids they think they they created it too. And so she helped the little part see that they weren’t bad or ugly or disgusting. It was the bad people who did this to them. The part asked why did the bad things happen then? And T said that some adults are very bad people and do bad things to little kids and sometimes they do it because they believe in the devil, which is what happened in my case. Everyone inside felt thankful to hear this although it is a big lesson to learn.
It was the first time I could see the ugliness, the disgust and the badness as separate to me. They did this to me. It wasn’t my fault.