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.
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.
“In my dream, wearing torn flannel sleeves, I lit a cigarette between my teeth as I walked down the street underneath fall’s golden canopy. And no matter how hushed I tried to be, I’d walk over crunching leaves and twigs that would snap beneath my feet. It reminded me of the part I played around you: tip toeing around to avoid that break.
I’d continue to hold back.
You’d tell me this is a game, like I’m some object to claim. Yet, no one else was playing or saw it that way. How much proof did I need to get it through, that my decisions aren’t up to you? Dreams, six strings, and burning leaves, you’re now marked in my memory. There were moments you were so sweet, driving me around the brick streets, singing to me. Yet, after I said what I had to say, you crossed over into the wrong lane, and you took it too far that day.
That hit took me back to the past. How sick is it, you even knew about that? I no longer will be that sweet, pretty, quiet thing you wanted me to be. Your opponent in this “game” that you claimed isn’t the other men, it’s the fact that I will speak the truth until the very end. I know you must hate me for speaking about that, so just think of it as my way of hitting you back.“
-Again, September by Fiona McHugh
I remember a therapist I went to years ago told me that it is common for survivors to find themselves in abusive situations later on in life. Her words illuminated that dark corner in my mind that I had refused to look at. Many people, including myself, may be confused as to why this happens. In fact, wouldn’t you think it would be the opposite?
If you feel like you are repeatedly finding yourself in relationships or incidents that are hurting you, there’s a reason why. Before I continue, I want you to know that pain isn’t love. If someone doesn’t respect boundaries and hurts you emotionally or physically, yet tells you they love you- I want you to know that isn’t love. Maybe you haven’t experienced a safe and trusting connection before and it might seem foreign to you. You deserve to feel heard, safe, protected, valued, and respected. A major part of love is unconditional respect.
On an emotional scale, the abuse lies at the veryyy bottom. Whether it happened once or repeatedly, it greatly impacts one’s perception of how they believe people should behave towards them and what they deserve. Logically, we know that we don’t deserve any type of abuse, yet amid everything, it’s can be difficult to become aware of when abuse is happening. Meaning this: If you learned from an early age or a past relationship that love goes with pain or always being on alert, it may be difficult to notice red flags immediately because that pain and lack of boundaries is a familiar experience.
Repetitive experiences and emotions create beliefs. Overtime these experiences become normalized (even when they are not normal.)
To this day I’ll notice old beliefs. The other weekend I was sitting across from my roommate in our living room and found myself saying, “I know he hit me, but I don’t have a bruise on my face or anything, so it’s not that bad.”
Stunned, she said, “Fiona, he HIT you!” At that moment, I realized I had set the bar so LOW on what I deemed as tolerable. Now this just occurred this month, and at that point, I thought I had worked on these beliefs and boundaries (OK, not all of them.. yet haha). Apparently not. This is also the reason I am writing this because it reminded me that there isn’t a finish line when it comes to recovery. Of course, there are markers on the path, but healing is a continual process.
After my roommate’s comment, I began to look back at all the other things I would tell myself after being in weird situations with men such as, “Well, he didn’t rape me, it could’ve been way worse.” It’s embarrassing to admit that was even a thought!!! In my mind, anything that wasn’t rape wasn’t “as bad,” because none of the other actions were as traumatic as what I had experienced. However, that doesn’t mean that those actions are acceptable, tolerable, or ever ok for a human to experience.
If the bar is set at sexual abuse, anything above that experience may not seem as severe. Except it is. Listen, if you are in a situation right now, where you are questioning yourself whether someone isn’t safe to be around, chances are, you have that feeling for a reason. If other people are saying there is something off with that person, they may be seeing something you’re not. Like gravity, their actions will continue to fall down to where that bar is set. People who engage in abusive actions oftentimes continue to push the boundaries as much as they can.
Now, does this mean you are destined to forever be in abusive relationships? Hell nooo. That is why I started this blog, to help survivors break away from the responsive cycles that stem from trauma. Let me quote Alan Watts for a second:
“You’re under no obligation to be the same person you were 5 minutes ago.”
It’s time to rewrite and cultivate new beliefs. Now is the time to raise the bar. Someone laying a hand on you, threatening you, or constantly disrespecting boundaries shouldn’t even be in the picture of what you should tolerate. I don’t care if it’s a longterm friendship, partner, relative, or coworker. It’s just not acceptable.
Here are some categories to give you an idea of where to start:
Have you ever really admired a friend’s partner because of how well they treated your best friend? You deserve those same qualities, and you can be those qualities to someone else. Relationships aren’t meant to cause chaos in one’s life. Life is too short. You will find your tribe and partner. It will all work out, but just write down those boundaries and accept nothing less. If you’re doing this and then meet someone, that’s when you know it’s the right person for you.
“After, I drove home. Springtime flowers were once again in bloom. I pulled the car up to the same gray house, buried by violet hydrangeas and mossy green grass. I stepped across the stepping stones and damp soil that led into the home that used to keep secrets for me. I sat at the piano, as the peach sun sank into the weeping willow tree. Out loud, again, I began to sing, about it, about him. The echoing keys and distant melodies of my voice drowned out those floorboard creaks I used to shudder from, that rose from beneath.”
-excerpt from “Bloom” by Fiona McHugh
It was the summer I turned nineteen when I recognized what was happening. For the past year, I had been in a treatment facility for anorexia. My life was made up of group and individual therapy, EDMR (a trauma therapy), terrifying PTSD episodes, being dishonest on my daily check-in chart, escaping the treatment center, going back to the treatment center, putting ankle weights in my pocket during weigh-ins, and digging deeper into the trauma and the pain from other’s reactions. I saw myself nothing other than a victim of trauma and following mental issues that stemmed from it. That year I became VERY aware of how most of the depression and anxiety linked back to the abuse.(For some reason when I was younger I never put the two together entirely.)
Awareness is the first step, grief is usually its friend that follows. Although grief is one of the worst feelings, it’s a sign that you are aware and are in the process of accepting what has happened. (Just FYI- acceptance doesn’t mean it’s ok what happened.) Now, after the immense tidal wave of grief washes ashore (and it will sometimes come again and then go) we begin to see the roots and reasons of our present actions.
Although I became aware of trauma based actions and triggers, I began to solidify them as beliefs of who I was, creating an identity. These beliefs limited me in so many areas of life. For example, some things I believed were, “I can’t heal from anorexia because a lot of it stems from the trauma; I need to drink tonight because I can’t handle being with guys; I will never have sex without crying after; sex is always painful because my body tenses up; I can’t relate to anyone; the OCD impulses are too strong today and so I can’t eat; I can’t go to college because I’m sick; I no longer surf or do yoga because I’m to frail and weak; I can never trust men.”
Do you see how limiting these beliefs are? Now, I’m not saying they weren’t real symptoms I was suffering from. But I was labeling them as who I was as a person. I had accepted that life will always be a battle and I could never feel normal because of what happened. Relating to other nineteen-year-olds was incredibly difficult when your entire life and identity was built around trauma and anorexia. Seeing the problems and the symptoms is important, but believing that they are YOU can create a major pause in your life.
It was an evening during Mid-August when my therapist called me on this. Man, at first, I was offended, like REALLY offended. I was relapsing once again and she had the intake papers for me to sign on the glass table. (There were always glass tables so that no one could hide their food under it.) I refused to sign them, which is when she brought up her observations. She brought to attention that I was letting myself be a victim to my present circumstances instead of taking control. Sure, I was a victim during that moment of the abuse, and life at home wasn’t the most steady environment, but she said that it didn’t mean I couldn’t change that. She told me I had to step into my power, to recognize that I can make decisions and handle the outcome of them. There were solutions, but I wasn’t taking any of them. Instead I just told myself “I am this way because of the trauma.”
I remember leaving the facility and crying in my car for a long time. It felt like a personal attack (although it wasn’t) because I was so bound to these actions, they were who I was. Yet a week later, I began to understand what she was saying. The real recovery isn’t in the therapist’s office or center, it’s by what you do in the real world. That place was there just to keep me alive, it wasn’t meant to be the foundation of my life. That week, I signed up for my first college courses at a local community college. A lot of the grief was expressed through my paintings and writing, and so I decided my focus was in Studio Art. I began to practice affirmations every morning when I woke up. I’d go on long walks listening to affirmation mediations as well. On a piece of paper, I wrote down twelve intentions of what I desired to experience in life that wasn’t mental health-related. They all came true.
Now, have I had to go to individual therapy for trauma and anorexia since? Yes, I still do. Do I like eating? No. Are there moments where I catch myself identifying as a victim? Yep. BUT, Did I take an honest look at my thoughts and actions during those times and decided to not let it become who I am? Hell yeahh! There were many highs and lows since that summer, but never once did I question the decision I made to break the old agreements.
Ask Yourself: What beliefs do I have about myself that are limiting? Who do I want to be? Who are the people I feel comfortable around, and what qualities in myself arise when I’m with them? Chances are the qualities you like about yourself when you’re with these particular people are actually traits of who you already are. This also goes for qualities you admire in others. Go write a list of ten beautiful things you desire to experience in this lifetime or ten new agreements about yourself. If you continually remind yourself that you are not going to let yourself be that trauma identity, I promise, those ten things you wrote down will come true.
If you have any questions about breaking the trauma agreements or where to begin, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hi! This blog is dedicated to sexual abuse survivors. By sharing my own story and healing journey, I hope that you receive the clarity, comfort, courage, and healing you are searching for. My intention is to help others not feel as alone and confused as I was for years. There’s not an exact three-step method when it comes to healing. However, throughout the years I have learned about many tools that have helped me and I believe it’s important that I share them.
On this blog, I approach healing from many different angles. This is because I’ve learned that talk therapy alone isn’t a cure-all (although it does help!). The body, limiting beliefs, relationship dynamics, diet, and exercise must be looked at when one wants to break away from the cage of mental suffering the abuse put them in.
Commonly, the survivor loses their core identity after abuse. Over time one might find themselves basing their lives around what has happened to them. Many survivors, like myself, tend to respond to the present moment based on the past. It’s incredibly difficult to detach oneself from that experience. The goal is to learn to break the agreements we have made with the trauma. An example of this is, “I do ___ because of what happened to me.” Now, for years I believed that I was left to be a victim of circumstance. Especially as someone who suffers from PTSD, I felt like I had no control. I’ll be honest, to this day, PTSD is a battle. I am learning that the solution isn’t getting rid of the PTSD but learning how to respond to it. Here, I talk about how to break away from the beliefs about yourself that are no longer serving you. You’ll learn to create the world that you want to live in, rather than being drug through life based on the past. This is why this blog is called Breaking Agreements.