I decided to put this weeks post into a video to make sure this information is clearly communicated. In this (40 min, yeah it’s long) video I talk about things that I have learned over the years about trauma + medication and how trauma can make the process more difficult. Here are things to know when deciding to go the route of medication.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical or mental health professional. This is knowledge that came from personal experience.
Part 1: This is going to be a series of blog posts that speak to parents of children who have been sexually abused. Firstly, if this relates to you, I want to say that I am so sorry, my heart goes out to you and your child. No parent ever wants to hear that it has happened. Also, I want you to know that it is not your fault. You did everything you could to protect your child at the time. My parents where probably one of the most cautious people, and yet it still happened to me in my own home. What’s important now is to focus on your child and how to help them feel validated, heard, and understood.
Now, I am not a therapist, psychiatrist, or doctor. All of these insights and tips are things I had wish I had known as well as my parents had. My goal here is to help families have the healing process be as uncomplicated as possible. This is a grave and serious topic in which the healing process often takes years. This first post in the series is about understanding the signs and symptoms of trauma in your child. I believe this is important to start with because oftentimes symptoms of trauma can be mistaken as behavioral problems or mental illness. Some children have been misdiagnosed (including myself) and/or put on medication for something that was a symptom of trauma. (The next blog post will be about deciding whether to or not to introduce medications to your child. That post won’t be a concrete yes or no opinion, but rather things that are incredibly important to keep in mind if choosing this route. Trust me, knowing these things will save your child, time, etc. Stay tuned for next week’s post regarding medication.)
If you have any questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
One thing to know about kids before going into this is that they do not have the vocabulary, education, experience, understanding, or knowledge that you do. However, I am not saying children are not smart. In fact, I personally believe that children use certain parts of the brain more than we do. They have such a fresh perspective of life which allows them to be more open to learning without judgment. Yet, this also is what can become a problem if they have experienced abuse. Depending on the situation and who the abuser is, children sometimes see the abuser in a different light than the rest of the world. This is because predators are like con artists. Most of the time, it is someone the child knows. They are manipulative and will create this false perception of what the abuse is. Meaning, oftentimes abusers will try to create a situation where the child depends on them or trusts them so that it taints the child’s perspective of what is really going on and therefore wouldn’t tell another adult because they’d fear hurting the abuser or breaking or losing that bond. I know it is painful to read and hear, but this is important to know when you are trying to talk to your child.
There are many reasons why children do not say anything. Most don’t. The reason above is one of them, but there are a few other reasons. One of them is that the abuser may live in the household, or is a relative. It’s hard for children to speak up against someone in the family or community that may be highly thought of by everyone else. Another reason is that children may not understand what happened. I was six years old when I was abused, and I did not know or understand what rape was. Therefore, I didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding of what occurred to directly tell my parents right after it happened. I just knew something “bad” happened.
When a child doesn’t report the abuse, that doesn’t mean there are no other clear signs that may appear. Many times, these symptoms show up as behavioral problems or acting out. If the parent doesn’t know what occurred and then punish the child for these actions that are just trauma manifestations, this affects the child on so many levels.
I am not saying that all of these actions mean that your child has been abused, but if you suspect or know they have, then look out for these symptoms because they are not your child “Acting Out.”
Avoiding physical touch of any kind. If your child seems agitated or resistant towards hugs or honestly anything along the lines of that, do not tell them to “toughen up,” “you’re fine,” or tell them that you are safe and not going to hurt them. Right now, they don’t need rationalization, they need their boundaries respected. (Trust isn’t rebuilt by words, it is rebuilt by action.)
Avoiding certain people, places, groups, or events. This includes church, school, tutoring, dance classes, or sports practice. Sometimes the people, places, or things that a child survivor avoids may not be directly related (yet oftentimes is) it can also be a trigger that reminds them of the abuse, not even tangible triggers but also, emotional ones. So, instead of immediately reacting when your child seems to be defiant, become observant because learning about the fears is how you will learn how to help your child. There were so many times where my parents thought I was being difficult and was punished for it, when in fact I was terrified to go certain places or see certain people out of pure fear. (This was mostly within the first year after the abuse, where I’d get panic attacks yet seemed like tantrums. Again, this is not blaming them, they didn’t know right away and had no background or experience in mental health.)
Behavioral changes. Eating less or more, suddenly seems shyer, jumps at sudden movements or sounds, being more agitated, doing obsessive-compulsive behaviors, controlling, tantrums, avoidant actions, and most of all: seeming more on edge, highly sensitivity, and dissociating (which looks like daydreaming.) The body doesn’t feel like a safe place to live after rape. It’s constant extreme discomfort, unease, and yet there’s no escape. In ways to compensate, the child will try to make everything feel safe around them. This will appear as children exhibiting disordered eating habits, saying that certain clothes feel “too tight” or “too loose,” being startled at loud sounds, or extreme responses or freeze responses when people exhibit strong emotions. The year after the abuse, I would take up to three showers a day. At the time, my parents thought it was absurd and obviously, didn’t allow me to when I tried. So just keep in mind to look out for behaviors such as that. The mind isn’t the only thing that is affected. After trauma, the body is still constantly in alert, fight or flight mode. Many kids appear and are highly sensitive, especially to other people’s emotions. (In some cases, if the abuser was someone the child knew, they may have had to scan the abuser’s emotional state and try to respond or act a certain way to not get hurt. That is why many trauma survivors can sense the emotions of others well but often neglect their own.) I have ADHD and PTSD, so it was hard to tell the difference between having a hard time focusing, and dissociating. Internally, there is a clear difference. But if you find your child zoning out often, especially in moments of high stress, it can be either or. This is where professional help is important. Also, here is an article that talks about ADHD and Trauma.
Chances are, your child has a limited vocabulary regarding the topic of sexual abuse. They are not going to know how to explain what happened. From personal experience, having parents asking open-ended questions felt frustrating because I could not find the right words to describe it. On the other hand, I have read many articles that said to ask open-ended questions. So, it all depends on the child. Try both and observe how they respond. In my case, it was difficult to put my thoughts into words, and I’d shut down, cry, and become frustrated. If this relates to your child-Instead of asking broad questions like, “Why do you feel sad?” Try asking either more specific questions (even if they say reply “no” to the question, it narrows the answers down and helps the child narrow it down in their mind) or by asking physically related questions, such as where did you get hurt, etc. Oftentimes, they’ll be able to answer the more physical related questions regarding how they felt, instead of the emotional aspects of the abuse. Here is a link to discussing the abuse with your child, based on their age.
Here is a helpful description of a common way children will try to say that they have been abused. This is from Dr. Laurie Braga’s testimony where she talks about certain techniques she uses when interviewing children of sexual abuse. (Link to interview)
“In the course of your interview of thousands of kids, three or four hundred alleged victims of sexual abuse and one hundred confirmed victims of sexual abuse, have you noticed a common pattern of disclosure of the sexual abuse event by children?
Yes. I have seen a common thread, a common pattern of how children disclose. They typically will start off by saying — either by saying nothing happened or they will say something happened, but they will either say the least of what happened, or they will say something happened, but it was just some other kid, or something happened and that they saw it. Then they will gradually, as they become more comfortable, they will begin to open up more and say what happened, actually what happened to them, “This is what actually what happened to me,” and gradually, as they become more comfortable, they will build up to the worst of what happened to them, especially anything that they feel personally responsible for, as if they themselves were a partner in the crime and did something real bad. Then after having disclosed, if they [are] then met with openness and comfortableness, from someone else, say their parents, then they will continue to open up and continue to tell what happened. If they are met with, “I don’t want to hear this stuff,” or they are with a person who is in an adverse position to them who is sort of saying to them, “Well, this didn’t really happen, did it?” they will then retract what they said, take it back and say, “No, it didn’t really happen,” or of they don’t completely take it back, they will say the things that are the easiest and not the hardest to talk about.”
It is important to address the trauma before coming to conclusions about any other mental health disorder. If a child is diagnosed with anxiety, depression, etc instead of addressing the trauma & PTSD that may be causing the anxiety, more symptoms will surface overtime because the real issue at hand is not being addressed. Anxiety and depression are symptoms of trauma and they are also diagnoses. An individual can have both or may have had one or the other before the trauma. But, just from personal experience, make sure you address the trauma first, and then co-existing disorders. Because even if you think one of the symptoms is “solved” (like anxiety & avoiding certain places or people) another one will surface. It will be like playing that game, “wack a mole” because the root of the issue isn’t being addressed. The trauma needs to be treated mentally and physically (I talk about the importance of healing the body in this post.) They must learn to emotionally regulate the emotions evoked from the trauma because (not to come across as extreme here, but this occurs all the time and also is from my personal experience) later on as the child gets older, they will try to learn to emotionally regulate these feelings themselves and sometimes, they are not always the best ways: substance abuse, co-dependency, eating disorders, hypersexuality, self-harm…)
If you are struggling to understand your child, I suggest taking them to see a therapist, social worker, etc. Try: “psychologytoday.com” if you have insurance. You can select your insurance, zip code, and trauma specialization in the search bar. Another tip if you decide to do this is to give time for your child to speak. In some cases where the child is quiet, many therapy sessions end up revolving around the parent’s perspective. Even though that is important too, talking for your child will end up being a disservice in the long run. It can lead to veering off the path of what may be going on within your child’s mind that they are hiding and that you are unaware of (and they also may be unaware.) It is the therapist’s job to help the child find ways to talk about the abuse.
This topic will go into next week’s post where I discuss the pros, cons, and things to know when thinking about medication. *This is not a all for medication and this is not an against medication post. It will be discussing things to keep in mind when considering it.
I’m a woman, but I still call myself a girl. In the evenings before bed, I would do headstands after getting stoned. I used to paint acrylics on tall stretched canvases, and one day stopped. My succulents beside my bedroom windowsill are still thriving and alive. I drink straight-up black, iced coffee in the mornings before eating anything. Smoking cigarettes is now a habit that remains way in the past. I love green juice only if it has lemon in it. I became vegetarian when I was seven years old. Today, I don’t label myself as a raw vegan yet the foods I eat are simply just raw fruits, vegetables, and nut butter because I don’t like to cook. When I moved back to PA from California, I didn’t have any furniture and slept on my yoga mat alone for weeks on end, and swear to this day that it healed my back. I don’t like spending the night at men’s homes. I don’t like being held after sex. My parents raised my two brothers and I in an Irish Catholic/Bohemian household and it’s even more confusing than it sounds. I admire Buddhism, yet learning about Hinduism compels me to think beyond learned limits. As a kid, I liked boys, girls, the gym teacher, my brother’s friends, my father’s friends. I quit drinking once because for some reason I thought it was a good idea to combine vodka with Xanax. After a while, I started again, and have been contemplating this past week once again on stopping. I have immense love for Hot Yoga. I was born in the Bay Area and lived in a Youth Hostel that my Dad managed. Sometimes, when I pray, I don’t have a concrete understanding of who I am praying to, yet I feel consoled. Currently, I believe we are all God yet haven’t woken up to realize it yet. I used to take three showers a day after I was sexually abused at six years old. I’ve written a collection of non-fiction pieces about overcoming trauma & I hope one day to heal others with this writing. However, I am still terrified to put the pieces out for people to read. I’ve been reading about quantum physics over the past month. I am terrified to take acid or shrooms because I know someone that never came back. I write songs at 10 pm every night on the guitar so softly, hoping I won’t wake up the neighbors.
I used to think that all of these actions, beliefs, rules, and perceptions were concrete. I believed they made up who I was: Fiona. Yet there is a higher part that is aware I am living the life of Fiona McHugh. Think about it with yourself. Isn’t there a part of you that knows you are living the life of ___? When you realize you are more than your name, beliefs, and the things you have done/experienced, your mind becomes a blank slate of who you can be. What is that part? God? The Universe? Your Higher Self? All that stuff above could have been completely different. I could’ve written that I loved Math and play soccer. The Fiona described above would have been completely different, however, I would still have that same higher part of me that is aware that I am living the life of Fiona McHugh. You see, I think that one of the most important things to learn in this life is how to “break agreements.” These agreements are beliefs, experiences, and rules that you have agreed to “be.” Looking above, those are all “agreements.” When you can separate yourself from yourself, you start to realize that you don’t have to be controlled by “external events.” I would constantly say to myself I do ___ because of ___. Or, I am ____ kind of person because this thing happened to me.
It’s not about discovering who you are. It’s not even about working on becoming that change you want. If you are always focused on “becoming,” you’ll always be in that state of trying to change. That’s why some habits are so hard to break, we’re not living in the end. Instead of being the person that is trying to quit smoking cigarettes, be the person that just doesn’t smoke them. Live in that version of yourself. Your higher part of you that is watching you live the life of __, doesn’t have any rules or limitations on who you are based on the past and what people have told you. You already are the change you desire. It’s about breaking the agreements and shedding all of the things you believed you were so you can just allow yourself to “be” that version of yourself.
Although the Holidays are what people say should be a merry time spent with family, there are many children, adolescent, and adult survivors out there right now feeling overwhelmed, broken, lonely, or finding themselves saying “yes” to gatherings they really want to say “no” to. (Many of us would rather feel the resentment after saying yes, than the guilt after saying no, but that is another topic for another day.) There are so many messy family situations and dilemmas that survivors of sexual assault are going through right now. IF this is you, I want you to know, that even though it really may feel like you are alone, you are not. Maybe it’s been difficult for you to put your own needs before others, (been there, sometimes, I’m still there ha), but just this time I want you to go with yourself. Listen to what you want, and then go with that. You’ve been through enough and to go through another emotionally exhausting and possibly even dangerous situation is not worth it. If no one is telling you, I will: You deserve better than that.
Now this year, obviously many of us are not getting together because of Covid. But if there are still ways that family and the holidays are causing problems, here are options about what you can do. Unfortunately, none of them are perfect, and I wish they were, but these are what worked for me.
1.Don’t go. Ok, easier said than done. You could have a lot of texts, “Why aren’t you here?” or “That’s so inconsiderate…” Although hearing the sounds of those texts coming through can send your anxiety through the roof, your safety from emotional or physical abuse is worth all those texts. Depending on your situation, maybe send one simple text out, saying that you are not coming, and then leave it at that. Don’t give into the back and forth thing. It sucks being alone if you have nowhere else to go. I remember when my family moved back to California three years ago and my mother’s extended side of the family came over for Thanksgiving, (the side the abuser was on) and I left. I spent Thanksgiving driving up and down PCH until I parked at Strands Beach, called my friend from back in Philly, and then cried for an hour. Not a fun night, but it was better than having to deal with that situation back home, I’ll tell you that. Don’t go, find a safe, sacred, and special place if you have nowhere else to go. You are allowed to protect yourself and say no. **PS: try to come up with a plan if you do decide to stay alone. That Thanksgiving I just basically cried, but there were many other moments later on where I’d stay alone and drink, smoke, or other stuff that caused more anxiety in the long run. This time should be spent on healing, and being gentle with yourself, which is why it’s a good idea to come up with a plan before diving into any self-destructive options.
2. If you decide to go, make sure there is a relative around that knows and that supports you. You could even come up with a code word with them for when things get too intense, or a good exist strategy.
3. Grieve. “Yep, be alone and grieve, great advice Fiona.” It’s depressing, and not how you probably want to spend your holiday. But the thing is if you had to deal with having to see the abuser at family reunions as a kid, you know how much of a toll it takes on your body and mind. For years, you were not given an option to not go and out of self-protection, you’d avoid the feelings of grief and brokenness for years. Because, in a sense, you were still in the midst of it. You are finally free. This also means, it may be the calm after the storm, but you’re realizing the grief didn’t go away. Many of us haven’t grieved the loss of our childhood and innocence. If this is the case, I strongly suggest you read my post Grief and Loss. Once you grieve, it clears the way for new memories. This leads me to the last point…
4. Create new memories with new people. I started this blog, Breaking Agreements, to help aid survivors break free from fears, dynamics, beliefs, and other limitations that the abuse may have caused. When you learn and practice breaking free from those beliefs and cycles, it’s like you’re living in a new world. This is the time to create new memories. These new holidays can be 100% yours! If you decided to not go to your family gathering and don’t want to be alone, you’d be surprised at how many people would be more than happy to have you come to their family gathering (ok, maybe not this year, but you get the point). I’ve spent multiple holidays with my roommate’s parents who were very generous to have me over. It may take a few years, but I promise, you will find your tribe.
Guys, I know how hard it is. It’s scary. You don’t deserve, nor ever deserved, to have to see your abuser or even have to hear about them or their whereabouts. You deserve to be and feel respected. Your own company alone is more healing than being around someone that hurt you. I’m sending you so much love guys. Here is a short IGTV video I made where I talk about coping with anxiety, PTSD, and resorting back to your angsty 13 year old self during family gatherings. ha
Has anyone else been struggling with panic, paranoia, or just anxious, unwanted thoughts? That your thoughts have been playing on a loop? Maybe it’s because I decided to take a break from drinking again (for how long? a week.. or forever.. I haven’t decided yet,) only to realize that it’s a lot HARDER than I remember from the last time I did it. Yet, that’s another post for another day.
Or maybe it’s because it’s that time of the month, I burned myself from this innocent looking, sloth heating pad I got from Urban Outfitters, or that the 800mg of Advil still doesn’t take away the needle stabbing pain from my IUD. (But completely worth the pain because hormones and pills…. or hormones in the form of a pill are things I try to stay clear from.) The mind and body are more connected than we may realize. Which is why I’ve learned that if your body isn’t at it’s best, your mind will suffer. Anyway, back to the point of this post: this morning I remembered I wrote this on my old blog back in January 2019. I hope it helps you if this is something you’ve been battling. (The trick is, to not battle with it. You’ll see what I mean as you keep reading.)
You are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are, well, just thoughts. For so many years, I let negative thoughts hold such power over my mood and actions. Whether it was a negative thought about how I perceived myself or an unsettling memory from when I was a kid, I would let one thought push me into a downward spiral and taint the rest of my day. I believed that I had no control over this. There was this strong belief that those thoughts were a reflection of me.
If you or someone you know struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder or any form of addiction, you may have noticed that they will get hooked on one thought or urge. It’s can feel like the individual is blind sighted by anything else but that thought. And the more you (or they) try to not think about it, the more you do. (Ever heard of the saying: Don’t think of the pink elephant?) It’s beyond frustrating and can leave one to think that there’s absolutely no hope in changing their present mood or actions. This can apply to those who suffer from depression as well. There may be a hopeless feeling or thought that they feel they cannot let go of. If you can resonate with any of these scenarios, I want to tell you this:
Your thoughts aren’t you. You are not a bad person for thinking those thoughts. Furthermore, your thoughts don’t have to dominate your emotions or actions. You are not a victim to your thoughts. And most importantly: your thoughts don’t have permission to make you give in to an urge or addictive behavior. That stupid little thought doesn’t have power over your arms or legs. You do. (Now I get it, easier said than done, but bear with me.)
Now, it is impossible to control the thoughts that may arise from time to time. But it is in your power to chose how you respond to them.
For example, someone who may suffer from depression may think a negative thought about themselves. Such as:
“I should be able to do more like everyone else.” “Why is it so hard for me to have hope and stay motivated?” “I feel so guilty for burdening everyone around me.” “I’m a jerk.” “I’m always sad. It’s easier for others to be happy.” “I am a bad person because I did x, y, and z back in 2010.”
Then, along with that thought probably comes with hundreds of reasons that support that belief to be true. The more we focus on that thought, whether negative or positive, our brain will try to find all the evidence it can to back that thought up. And man, anyone who is thrown into a sea of thoughts like that is bound to be depressed.
So, right now, I want you to imagine you are standing beside a stream in the woods. As you hear the rushing water cascade down from the forest’s peak, you look down and notice thousands of fish swimming down the stream. Some are grey, camouflaging with the stones that lie at the bottom of the stream. Swimming alongside the grey ones is a bunch of bright blue fish. Think of these fish as your thoughts. You cannot control how many grey ones are swimming in the creek just as much as how many blue ones are there. Now, as all of the fish are swimming down the stream, you reach down to pick one up. You get to decide on which fish you pick up. It not in your control over which fish passes you down the stream at that moment in time, but- it is your choice of which color fish you pick up and look at.
Also, it is completely in your power to decide how long you are going to hold and observe the fish, whether it is for five minutes, or the rest of the day. (Don’t ac
tually do this! ) You can also just notice that grey or blue fish as you let it swim by past you instead of picking it up at all.
That’s how it is with your thoughts. Sometimes there will be negative thoughts about yourself that arise through time to time. That doesn’t mean that thought is true. It’s just a thought. The reason why it may feel true is that for most of your life you’ve just focused on that thought and created the evidence to support it.
Now, I know that there are genetic and biochemical factors and components for depression, OCD, and addiction. I’m not saying this is a cure-all concept or idea, but it can definitely save you from going into a downward spiral for the rest of your day.
For example last night, I ran into someone I knew years ago. I used to have this belief that they thought I was a chaotic mess. This morning, as I was folding my laundry, a negative assumption of how they may have perceived me passed through my mind. Immediately, (as I unconsciously picked up the grey fish) I began to go back to that scenario of running into them last night and picked apart all the reasons and evidence of why they may have thought negatively about me when we ran into each other.
Suddenly, I stopped myself. I let myself get hooked onto the thought and the storyline of how this person might think that: I’m too whimsical, unorganized, and can’t keep up with life. After I became aware, I told myself “that’s just a thought.” Because really, there are tons of thoughts that were going through my mind at that moment, I just chose to delve into that specific one and the storyline of what they thought of me based on past interactions from years ago. Swimming alongside with that thought were other thoughts such as the moments of laughter I had with the friends I was with that night or that I ran out of coffee this morning and need to go pick some up.
***I think that a lot of us may have felt a certain way about ourselves based on one or two experiences in life, and then have continued to believe that story and perception of ourselves as well as projecting that belief onto people who we meet in the future.
Even as intuitive as you may be, we never truly know what the other person is thinking. Even if that person I ran into did think that way about me… It doesn’t mean I actually am a mess. I could have spent the rest of the day believing and living as if I am chaotic or disorganized. I could have stopped folding my laundry. But I didn’t. I chose to pick up the other fish and create my own story of how I see myself. And I had a fucking great day. Also, constantly focusing on the thoughts of how we perceive ourselves, how the people around us to is going to drive anyone crazy. Try observing something outside of yourself. It gets you out of your mind.
Next time a negative thought about yourself or an urge to *drink, smoke, blah blah ..etc..etc..* arises, just watch it like a fish down the stream. It may stand out to you more than the others, but this is because you are used to giving that specific thought more attention. Over time, the thought will not seem as true, threatening, or loud once you practice observing it and not believing it. Sometimes, the thoughts may seem intrusive or you may feel like the words are shouting out at you. But remember, the response is in your power. Instead of picking up the thought and finding evidence for it. Just respond like this:
“Hmm, interesting. Anything else you (the thought) would like to say before I move on?” “Yeah I know it would feel great to __ right now. But I’m not going to.” When the thoughts are strong: the trick is to respond curiously and almost neutrally. Because the more you argue about giving into an addictive behavior or stream of negative beliefs about yourself, you are still giving tons of energy and attention to that thought and it’s going to wear you down.
Trust me. The more attention you give something, negative or positive, the more it will come to fruitation. So, if you are trying to stop the thought or argue with it—don’t. Just let it know you see it, and then try to observe all the other thoughts/fish that may be swimming in the background of your mind.
The present moment is all that matters. What you did 3 minutes ago or 10 years ago doesn’t have to be the determining factor of how you live right now. You are a good person. Don’t let one event or a few interactions with others affect the rest of your life. Even if someone did straight up say to you that you are a *insert negative noun* -it’s just one of those grey fish in someone else’s mind. That thought of theirs..it just doesn’t matter. Because it’s just an opinion.
And you know what? Maybe I do act disorganized, whimsical, and have a hard time keeping up with life. But that doesn’t mean I AM disorganized, whimsical, and have a hard time keeping up with life. I can be organized and grounded when I feel like it….. And the same goes for you! So fuck those grey fish. They are only as real as you believe them to be. Next time you catch yourself picking up a grey fish and are about to fall down a staircase of negativity. Just watch this video before you continue your day: (A video my dad made me watch in the midst of a panic attack at some point during high school haha.)
Yeah, I’m a Gemini, but in no way will I ever use that as the reason as to why I’ve always struggled to find “The Middle Path.” Just over year ago, you’d most likely find me at the local yoga studio downtown, sipping on cranberry kombucha, slathering coconut and eucalyptus oil on my body every night before bed, taking long hot baths with Epsom salts, and living off of sweet potatoes, green juice, and quinoa. Then, the next week I’d be at least three shots in of Smirnoff (of my 100 lb frame at the time) during my evening biology class that usually followed up with smoking cigarettes in my car until I was sober enough to drive. I’d swing from the chandelier, (almost literally) from one side of the spectrum to the other. There were moments of putting lavender and eucalyptus essential oils on my wrists, keeping citrine crystals in my bra or pockets wherever I went, and juice cleansing for a week. Then there were also the moments of landing at midnight in San Diego, still drunk and letting my cousin give me acupuncture while she was high. Which then led to continual drinking the rest of the time I visited family, ruining my mothers “girls wine tasting trip” to the Funk-zone in Santa Barbara when she turned around to find me lying down on the sidewalk, under a tunnel, and had to peel me off the dirty pavement. We have never gone on one since, and I can understand why.
Once my therapist quoted to me, “How you do one thing, is how you do everything.” At first, I really didn’t get it. I mean, I got it, but I didn’t really take a deep look into applying that to my life. A common theme has been extremes. If I felt like I relapsed a little bit, I’d run with it. If I felt like I was finally getting my act together, I’d run with it. What was the precursor to either extreme was by all or nothing thinking, and disregarding listening to my body.
“How you do one thing, is how you do everything.” If you’ve been the person who always said, “tomorrow I’ll start,” and then ended up drinking 10x more than you would, smoked your entire “last” pack of cigarettes, started a 10-day water fast or some weird shit like the 70’s Vogue Diet only to resort back to your “higher calorie” trail mix and kale chips…this post is for you.
There are three categories of tools to use in times of stress, overstimulation, or just feeling overwhelmed. Category 1, 2, and 3. Category 1 sums up the habits you probably are trying to break. Category 2 consists of the things we do but prefer not to talk about, and Category 3 is mostly what we understand as “positive” coping tools. The idea is for you to categorize your own tools, coping habits, and incorporate new ones as well. Once you see them written down on a piece of paper, you’ll be able to understand the dynamics of your cycles and patterns, see how often and why you use negative coping tools, to navigate a starting point of recovery when you aren’t sure if you really want to recover yet, or just feel like you need to find awareness of what you have been doing. By writing it all down on one piece of paper, it also takes away the shame and all or nothing thinking-because, in the end, they are all coping behaviors.
Category 1: Wine, cigarettes, weed, starving, counting calories, water fasts, Xanax, Tito’s in your GT’s Synergy Kombucha, keeping airplane bottles in your car..basically any form of using booze to escape, throwing up, sleeping pills, casual sex with randos, laxatives, Tinder Men (especially Tinder Sams andafew of the women on there), Men who keep asking for pics, credit cards you shouldn’t be using, running so often that you get stress fractures in both legs, or bleaching your hair after drinking a bottle of wine.
Category 2: Hours of reading the elephant journal or about astrology, spending almost all of the money you saved for groceries on new journals or mediums, three cups of black coffee, taking too much b12, dark chocolate, Instagram, running out at 10 pm before CVS closes to buy a vibrator because you threw your old one out for using it too much, spending an unnecessary amount of money on crystals, sage, maca powder, and goji berries.
Category 3: Hot lemon water, epsom salt baths, Peppermint or Kava Tea, Essential Oils, Hot Yoga, Yoga, singing at the top of your lungs, L-Glutamine/Amino Acid therapy (highly recommend if you are quitting drinking), long walks, short walks, binaural beats, affirmations, meditations such as “Fuck That Meditation” and “Aaron Doughty’s Meditations,” headstands, green juice (for minerals and electrolytes), coconut oil, crystals, Yin Yoga, FaceTime your friends, journal with spelling and grammar errors in a stream of consciousness style of writing, walk in the forest or on the beach, turn off your phone, sparkling water, Tito’s-free kombucha, Self-Defense Class, Acupuncture, Reiki, reading life changing books such as Breaking The Habit of Being Yourself, The Body Keeps The Score, Quit Like A Woman, The Fuck It Diet (by my cousin Caroline…where you’ll also probably learn a lot about my family’s past weird diets, and the not so normal moments that I thought were normal, for example: when my mom poured a bowl of “frozen blueberries” for my neighborhood friends, called it dessert, and none of the kids on our street ate at our house ever again.)
Anyway, you can tell Category 1 coping tools aren’t anywhere near the “goal” and that Category 2 isn’t preferable, but it doesn’t have as many repercussions as Category 1. Category 3 is what we may have learned about in self-help books, rehab, or therapy-it’s what we “should” be doing.
Now, I want you to try to categorize your own tools you use. Once you do that, I want you to realize and accept that it’s actually better to end up in mostly Category 2, while integrating parts of Category 3. I know it doesn’t sound ideal, or like your perfect version of “Recovery,” but I promise it’s a lot better than going all in for 3, and end up burning out and then resorting back to all of the coping mechanisms in Category 1.
If you feel impatient with your progress and want to resort to an extreme method or if you’ve relapsed, I suggest learning about The Middle Way. For example: If you started smoking again after you quit, instead of hyper-focusing on not smoking, start incorporating behaviors from Category 3. It’s extremely difficult to quit cold turkey when you don’t have any coping mechanisms you’ve practiced and have evidence that they’ve worked. It’ll be smoother (as much as it can be) when you decide to quit again.
**Another Tool I learned today in group therapy (after discussing my recent impulsive decisions) is to set a fifteen-minute timer every time you feel an urge. Once it ends and if the urge is still there, try it again. However, if you feel like you CANNOT possibly set that timer again or that you don’t know if you want to quit whatever it is, then let yourself do engage in the habit-after the 15 minutes. This actually helps your brain over time, rewire itself to pause before taking action instead of going straight into engaging in the habit. This technique is definitely a form of practicing moderation. However, I go back and forth with this idea because there are some habits and urges that you can’t fuck with, like oxy or mixing liquor with Xanax or perhaps just drinking in general. I think in therapy she was referring more to the most recent event of deciding to bleach my hair while drunk. (I did pause, for what I recall being ten minutes, with a bowl of bleach in my hand.)
I’ve done it mannyyy times. I know, it’s bad and definitely not an emotionally intelligent move. For those of you who don’t know what an “Irish goodbye” is, it’s when you quietly slip out the door at a party without telling anyone. I vividly remember my grandmother from Ireland putting her cold hands on my cheeks and kissing me on the forehead while whispering, “I’ll see you again,” in her Irish brogue right before she’d sneak out the backdoor. My grandfather on the other hand, who’d leave with her (and was the life of the party), usually blew her cover on the way to the exit. They were fun people. I use to wonder what it would be like to party with them if we were the same age.
I feel like what I’ve done here has been along the lines of an Irish Goodbye. Maybe you follow my Instagram, maybe you don’t, but over the past few weeks, I had been announcing upcoming posts. They haven’t been posted. I started a daily “yoga card/pose of the day” on my Instagram. They stopped. I started this blog back in August with all of this passion. It hasn’t gone away, nor do I think it will ever go away. Regardless of what career or life path I end up doing, this blog is something I will never release. If I could devote my life to one thing: it would be to help other sexual abuse survivors feel free and to create the life they’ve always wanted. That they deserve. After you are sexually abused, there’s a roadblock in your life path. Usually, your time afterward is either spent working through the problem such as therapy, group meetings, yoga, etc. Or it is spent numbing the emotions through substances, eating disorders, and even certain OCD compulsions that guarantee “you’re safe if you do _.” Either way, your day to day life becomes somehow impacted by the trauma.
Anyway, the roadblock currently is not the trauma, it’s constantly being sick. It’s not even the sickness that is the frustrating part, but it’s not knowing what it is. Since the last week of August, I’ve been getting a fever, chills, aches, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes….la de da da da… every week or every other week. Let’s just say, I’ve gotten a LOT of covid tests over the past few months from different care centers and hospitals in the area. Thankfully, they’ve all come back negative. They thought it was strep, it was not. They are running blood tests this week, which probably should have happened wayyyy earlier. I won’t go into the details because it’s boring. I recovered from last weeks fever a few days ago until last night I saw that there were bumps all over my face, and then woke up again with chills and a fever.
That’s when I decided: “Je vais prendre une pause.”
I will be taking a break until I sort out what is going on. I want these blog posts to actually help people, and I feel that if I tried to crank out a post and Instagram updates throughout the week and every Friday, they would be shit. To quote the very first boy that unhooked my bra, (as I told him “sorry, there’s not much there, just fyi,”: “I believe it’s about the quality, not the quantity.”
….yeah, I KNOW, SO many things WRONG that scenario there but I’ll discuss that another day.
All in all, To be able to post content that heals, helps, and inspires survivors, I need to be thinking somewhat clearly. All my clothes are in plastic bins because I am currently in the midst of a move, yet don’t know where I am moving to. I’ll be staying at my Aunt’s. So between figuring that out, my health, and how to make money with frequent fevers, I will be taking a (hopefully) short break. Maybe I’ll start healing affirmations, cry in child’s pose, or continue to make the decoctions that my acupuncturist cousin has been sending me.
Let me first start by saying Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is a brilliant, brilliant man. He’s an author who has dedicated tons of his research towards PTSD. You may have heard of his book, The Body Keeps The Score. After reading this book a while back and listening to many interviews with him, I was not surprised when I found out his approach to treating trauma is done through bodywork, such as yoga. In fact, yoga addressed many trauma wounds that talk therapy was not able to reach or heal.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk talked about the two most common therapies that are used in a New York Times Magazine post: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. He stated that the purpose of this therapy is to “desensitize” the patient to the fear, which isn’t effective therapy for trauma because desensitization is not the same thing as healing. The other therapy commonly used, CBT, is where the patient will look at their thoughts and see the illusions with a rational perspective. However, again, he pointed out that this is another ineffective therapy for trauma because “Trauma has nothing to do with cognition, it has to do with your body being reset to not interpret the world as a dangerous place.” Trauma needs to be reset in the primitive parts of the brain, which talk therapy, or CBT, cannot reach.
Most therapy uses the “top-down” approach, which addresses the “evolved” part of the brain, otherwise known as the neocortex. This is where you’ll talk and learn to observe your emotions and thoughts. Now, of course, this is helpful, but trauma is stored in the body through sensory. You cannot rationalize with that part of you that goes into “fight or flight”. This is why therapies such as EDMR, brain spotting, somatic therapy, yoga, and hypnosis really help propel one’s recovery from sexual abuse.
This is also why addiction is hard to break when it is just approached by addressing emotions. We must understand that aside from emotions and genetic factors, the limbic system in the body is highly activated. You cannot rationalize with surfacing addiction urges, just like you cannot rationalize with PTSD triggers. This is why this “bottom-up” therapy approach can help with addiction, especially if trauma related. I talked in my podcast (Episode 2) this past week about how to deal with this part of the brain, which is the limbic system.
I thought that by avoiding certain people, places, sounds, or experiences would prevent me from being triggered. Yet, after trauma your entire nervous system is still on high alert, meaning your body is still acting as if you are still in the trauma. If you are someone, or know someone that experiences frequent flashbacks, nightmares, or can’t seem to be brought down to earth, then here are some suggestions that have helped me, and still to this day continue to. The “bottom-up” approach to healing trauma is essential. It really gave me a glimmer of hope when I felt like I was failing talk therapy that I had been going to for years.
You’re shocked, speechless, and trying to put together the right words to say just within a matter of seconds. No, no, no. You don’t want to believe it. You’re scared for them.
When a close friend discloses they have been raped, you want to do everything you can to help them. You want to take their pain away. And as much as I wish it were possible, you can’t alleviate the pain from them. What you can do is give them comfort and unconditional support. That makes more of a difference than you may think. Now, before I discuss ways you can help, I’m going to give you a few tips on what to avoid doing when a friend discloses to you that they have been abused. From personal experience, the reactions of family and friends made a strong impact on me.
What NOT to do:
Don’t ask questions, especially ones that are not relevant at the moment. I know, there are probably a ton of questions surfacing, but hold back right now from asking them. Examples of unnecessary questions are: Why didn’t you tell me right away? Were you guys ever romantically involved beforehand? Did you try to push him/her off? Why didn’t you report it after? Basically, if you are questioning yourself whether you should ask the question or not, I’d advise to not ask it.
Don’t minimize it. Things like, “Well at least he didn’t…..,” or “It could have been worse if he..” is not the thing to say. Even if you were also abused in the past, avoid bringing up your story at that moment. By not bringing up past cases, you are giving your friend’s story that necessary space to be talked about. It also can feel overwhelming to hear other survivor’s stories at that moment, because they may automatically and mentally place themselves in the other story, especially if they were abused recently.
Do not give the benefit of the doubt to the rapist. “Were they drunk?” “Did he know what he was doing?” “Maybe he thought you consented to it,” “He was such a good person, I can’t believe he’d do such a thing.” When a friend tells you that they were abused, the focus needs to be on them and not the rapist. It doesn’t matter about all the past times the abuser has seemed like a good guy, and it’s not even that important right now regarding who it was. What matters at this moment is that your friend was raped and they need your help.
Which leads me to…
What TO Do:
Try, (I know it’s hard) to remain calm: Sudden outbursts and cursing the abuser’s name isn’t going to help your friend. When someone has been through something like rape, they need a safe, calm, gentle place to go to.
Fewer Questions and More Statement Responses: “I’m so sorry you went through that,” “You didn’t deserve that,” Empathy is key here. Instead of direction and problem solving, most survivors need a good listener at the moment. Other good things to say are “I am here to listen,” “I love and care for you, and will be here to help you in any way you need.”
Listen, Listen, Listen: Although you may want to go find the guy and kick him in the balls, hold off from telling your friend that. It may be a difficult story to listen to, but by just listening you are giving their words air to breathe. By just speaking out loud without questions and comments, the survivor feel heard. One of the worst feelings as a survivor to feel is to feel unheard, not believed, or misunderstood. I know you have a lot of questions and a lot to say, and it may feel like you’re not doing much by listening, but this is, in fact, one of the best things you can do.
“I Believe You,”: Is one of the most consoling things for a survivor to hear. Before telling you, they’ve probably had many back and forth conversations in their head about whether or not to say anything. This especially goes for cases when the abuser was someone you knew. A lot of the time survivors hold back from speaking because the pain of not feeling heard or believed just makes the wounds even deeper. So the fact that they are disclosing this to you means that they are really going out on a limb by sharing. They trust you. So by saying, “I believe you and am here to help,” seals that trust between both of you. Sexual abuse shatters the survivor’s trust in anyone, so to be that foundation of trust is one of the best things you can do. Your friend needs a trusting figure in their life right now.
Support Their Decisions: “That was a crime and I want you to know that I will be there to support you if you want to report it.” Remind them of that option, but don’t pressure them if they don’t want to. I know you probably want that prick to be charged but go with your friend’s decision. A lot of people ask “Why don’t survivors report rape?” and I can give a list of reasons right off the bat. When a survivor reports a rape, they are the ones who will be going through a lot of hell. Not the abuser. You see, there will be hours of sitting in waiting rooms at the hospital, station, or court. It’s torture. Rape kits feel beyond invasive. There will be stacks of endless paperwork where they’ll have to write that person’s name down over and over again. They’ll be asked many detailed questions, bringing them back to that moment of the assault for days on end. Going through this process feels like a nightmare you can’t wake up from. The survivor not only has the psychological reminders and flashbacks of the abuse replaying in their mind every day, but they will then literally have to devote their days to the case after reporting it. It practically becomes the core of their life during that process. What you can do is to offer to be there with them if they want to report it and remind them that they won’t be alone during the process.
**If your friend disclosed that they had just been abused: please also remind them of the option that by keeping evidence, it will help their case later on if they choose to report it. Examples of this are: Waiting to shower, brush teeth, eat, smoke, or drink. Honestly, after rape, all you want to do is to wash it off. Definitely validate that by saying, “I know you want to shower right now, but maybe wait until after you see the doctor just in case you will need it as evidence later on.”
If the rape just happened, reporting it is the last thing they are thinking about. Actually, they are probably having a difficult time thinking clearly at all, so a good first step to offer after listening is to go to the doctor or hospital. Remind them that they can still go to the hospital and not have to report it to the police right away. The police will be informed that a crime has occurred after the rape kit is completed, but no charges will be pressed until your friend chooses to do so. The hospital’s main priority is to take care of your friend’s physical wellbeing and collect evidence if they chose to report it.
As a child, when I spoke about the abuse, it was not handled correctly by my mother. This impacted me emotionally almost just as much as the abuse itself. There were a lot of excuses for the abuser such as: “He had a hard life,” and “but remember, he had his own problems.” There was also a lot of, “Your brothers can’t know,” “If your grandfather finds out, it would literally kill him,” “Don’t you dare tell anyone because it’ll make my family look bad.” However, looking back as an adult, I know her intentions were not to cause shame or to hurt me, but more that they were strong reactions that stemmed from her own fears and wars. She did the best she could with the tools and knowledge she had at the moment. But now after you read this, thankfully you will know better. The things is that: most abusers are people you know. I know you may feel shocked, betrayed, afraid of how relationship dynamics may play out within the family, community, or friend’s circle, but please believe your friend and tell them that. Remind them that you will support their decision no matter what. That’s what they need.
Recently, I disclosed to my friends about recent incidents that happened with someone a lot of people trusted, even myself. After opening up about it to a close friend of mine, I cried afterward. Not just because I was overwhelmed and afraid regarding the situation, but more because he responded to me so compassionately. It was then that I realized THIS is what support looks like. These are the responses I wish I heard when I was younger. If you are reading this as someone who has been abused: I want you to know that there are people and good friends out there like this that you can trust. They might not be blood-related, but there are still good, trustworthy people in this world. I promise. If you are reading this as a friend of a survivor: Please be like this friend who stood by my side. The reactions of friends and family impact the survivor much more than you think. When I felt like I couldn’t trust people again, these responses from my friend reminded me that there are people you can trust. There are people in this world who care.
Here are some of the consoling things that were said that you can also say to your friend who was raped or abused physically and/or emotionally:
“If something happened, I want you to know that it’s not “dramatic” of you to be uncomfortable.”
“I don’t know what happened, and I won’t ask but if you need to talk, I’m here.”
“I am so sorry.”
“Listen, you did not deserve that.”
“We are good friends and it does make things complicated but what’s more important is the RIGHT thing.”
“I got your back like a chiropractor sis.”
THIS is what support looks like, this is how to respond.
It was at a hot yoga class a week ago when the instructor had us go into frog pose. My body tensed up at just hearing the words “frog pose” and even more so as I sank deeply into it. Even though I’d focus on loosening up my shoulders, jaw, and hips one at a time, my muscles still tightened up seconds after I went focused on the next part of my body. I was ready to sprint the hell out of that 90 degrees heated room.
Like life, nothing is permanent, not even frog pose. Eventually, the instructor-led us into a restoring savasana and said, “This savasana would feel very different if we didn’t go through all of the poses before. It wouldn’t have felt as rejuvenating.”
That got me thinking.
Trauma is experiencing extreme discomfort that isn’t controllable. To self protect, survivors have learned to dissociate and find other coping mechanisms such as addictive behaviors to escape that discomfort. The behaviors had served the purpose of protecting us from feelings, memories, and experiences that we felt unable to handle. However, if we’re constantly numbing ourselves from the discomfort, we won’t be present to feel the pleasure in life either.
Numbing yourself with drugs or alcohol before sex can be a way to protect you from those flashbacks, but that also comes with never being able to truly connect with someone through sex. That trust and safety that you really desire within, will never come from numbness. In fact, it distances you not only from your partner but your body and spirit as well. The same goes for eating disorders, those behaviors give you that illusion of control but you are actually destroying your body as well as many other areas of life such as relationships, work, school, or inspiration for the future. Addictions such as these becoming replacements of where the trauma is in your mind but takes away your attention from everything else too.
One of the greatest milestones in healing from sexual trauma is learning to remain still and present during the discomfort. If we learn to be present in those moments, we also will start to notice other ways to respond to it rather than numbing out. Not being stoned, high, or drunk during sex gave me the awareness to know what exactly causes anxiety as well as the opportunity to speak up about it. It gave me back my own power in what I experience, rather than hoping for the best while numbing out from it. Making the promise to stop abandoning oneself while passing through the obstacles of discomfort will illuminate the opportunities of solutions to it.
Doing your best to remain grounded during these moments is key. Try scanning your body to locate where the anxiety is manifesting and then breathe into it. If you feel like you’re pulled up into a tornado of thoughts, focus on bringing attention to your lower body like your legs or feet.
If you are alone and are experiencing panic, one of the best tools I have learned was EFT, also known as tapping. Now, at first, I thought it was stupid and tedious. Yet over time, it has become one of the most helpful coping mechanisms that bring me out of that whirlwind of panic after experiencing anxiety. A great resource is Brad Yate’s YouTube channel. Try his “Trauma and Abuse” and “Sex Issues” EFT videos.
When we learn to observe the discomfort and remain present, we can ask ourselves what we need to feel safe. Maybe you have been in survival mode for most of your life, but now, I want you to know that you deserve to thrive and live a life of adventure and freedom while also feeling at peace. I promise, with time, you’ll learn how to move through your own versions of frog pose in life.