I sometimes wish that I could remember all of the abuse from my childhood, just so that there would be no more surprise landmines to step on every time a new memory surfaces. I know that memories come back when a person is ready to deal with them, but some days it’s just really hard not knowing everything. I still can’t seem to remember anything around third grade when I must have been seven or eight years old, I don’t even remember the name of my third grade teacher or what my classroom looked like. I know my brain must’ve shut off in some capacity in order to protect me, but protect me from what I don’t exactly know.
I’ve discovered that my feelings, the same feelings I was blaming myself for or numbing myself from for so many years, are of paramount importance. I’ve only just begun to respect and trust these feelings, and I’ve also learned that feelings are the essence of a memory, far more so than any narrative of a recollection. I’ve come to trust and respect my feelings through ceremonial shamanic use of ayahuasca in Peru, and also through dreams, particularly because the inspiration I’ve had from dreams have been instrumental in helping me to heal from a more recent rape that occurred in 2007. I’ve been allowing myself to feel more lately. I try to remember how it felt to be seven years old again ask the feeling to show me where it goes next. I’m having more information come to me in dreams when I do this. Specifically, I had a dream of my father voyeuristically staring at my naked body, where I am blind and struggling to open my eyes as l try to cover myself and get away from him.
I’ve also been appreciating triggers in a whole new way because they always point the way to something important. I now know the reason they “trigger” any response at all is because of prior experiences. I’ve been observing myself and I find I am often on guard with older men. It’s something about the way some of them covertly sexualize me that makes me suspicious of their motives. If they do or say anything to me that is flirtatious or suggestive, if they try to touch me or my clothing, I immediately dissociate. I get extremely angry, but feel paralyzed to respond in the moment. I then avoid them and carry myself with an attitude of anger in the hopes of repelling them. Unfortunately, this sometimes brings me the attention of men who have a sadistic glint in their eye, and that makes me even angrier. I’ve had other women ask me what the big deal is. “That’s just how men are,” they tell me. All I know is that for me, it is very, very triggering.
If a much older man makes overtly sexualizing comments about my body I feel like I want to crawl out of my skin. I am repulsed and disgusted by it. They don’t even have to say anything but if they are obviously leering at me, it stokes the fires of rage in my heart, and they’re probably left wondering why I’m acting so cold and bitchy towards them. That’s one conflict I keep running into. Older men sexualize me, either with stares or comments, and I feel powerless to respond. I react by dissociating, ignoring, hoping they will just go away. And I end up feeling vulnerable and angry. Even at 30 years old I have a terrifying and irrational fear of saying something to these men.
In the past I’ve had well meaning people try to warn me about my angry attitude, women who say that it might not look that bad at 29, but at 35 or 40 it’s going to look grotesque. I only thought to myself, “good, it’s working.” The whole point is to drive away men who might hurt me. I now fully trust that there’s a reason why I feel compelled to act this way, why I feel safer when I do it. I trust that my triggers reflect to me a deeply ingrained emotional reaction to some original situation where I was hurt or threatened, a situation I cannot recall to memory yet. On the flip side, I trust that reacting to present circumstances through the lens of the past can lead to revictimization. It’s those men with the sadistic glint in their eye, that see me more easily since my anger freely promotes the fact that I feel threatened, which could lead to me being a target. Even knowing this, it’s hard to change, it’s hard to feel vulnerable, but I’m going to overcome this, and in the meantime, I am going to trust that my feelings, dreams, and triggers have meaning.
~“Trust your instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Every now and then I have a dream that provokes terror or hysterical sadness. It’s more accurate to refer to these dreams as nightmares, or night terrors, but I’ll stick to the term “dreams” for simplicity. There was the dream that was the exact replay of leaving a rapist’s apartment where I was drugged, then there were others in which my father is vying for my naked body and I’m trying to hide myself. There have been others that allude to sexual abuse in more abstract terms, like a baby’s vagina covered in blood and semen, and an old white man with a whip for a penis coming after me and forcing me to carry him on my back. Every one of these had me reeling afterwards, but this is expected given that dreams are a medium through which we can process and address repressed emotions.
Even though it’s obvious to me what the general meaning of these dreams are at face value – rape and incest – it’s interesting to look at some of the research that has delineated some larger overall patterns of how sexual trauma influences the dreamscape. I’ve referred to the book Trauma and Dreams edited by Deirdre Barrett, to see what is commonly observed in the dream experiences of sexually traumatized women. We’ll see that it is usually the emotional reality of the trauma that is replayed to the victim, rather than the actual traumatic event itself. This was certainly clear when I dreamt about leaving a rapist’s apartment, exactly as I had done in real life, but the emotional impact of that dream was devastating.
First, let’s start with the themes usually found in the dreams of women with a history of sexual abuse. Sexual themes are common, not surprisingly, as is an association of sex with negative qualities, such as distrust, shame, anger, guilt, jealously, or anger. For victims of sexual trauma, the sex in their dreams is usually combined with aggression and/or violence, although even in this group, only 15 percent report nightmares where sexual abuse is literally portrayed.
Explicit violence is another common theme in the dreams of sexually abused women, but in contrast to the more general violent themes that are common for many women, sexually traumatized women usually had more details of the violence, like blood or dismemberment present in the dream. There is also more verbal aggression reported in the dreams of this group.
Sexually abused women were also more likely to have a male stranger play a main role in the dream. Often he is faceless, shadowy, or otherwise representative of evil. Many sexually abused women reported dreaming of an evil presence that threatens or succeeds in entering her room or her body. Snakes and worms are also slightly more common in the dreams of sexually abused women, as well as references to body parts or anatomy being more prevalent, especially sexual anatomy. They were also more likely to give more details descriptions of the physical appearance of characters from their dreams.
It’s been interesting to review these themes with the dreams I’ve recorded in the past, dreams that I might otherwise have forgotten because they didn’t seem to have any traumatic significance at face value. It was only after reviewing these themes that the less literal and more symbolic representations of sexual abuse in my dreams became clear, like the dream of the old white man with a whip handle for a penis that was threatening to hurt me. The dreams that most literally pointed to sexual trauma were unforgettable and also tended to be the most emotionally disturbing. No cryptic interpretation was necessary in those cases, and perhaps my propensity to not trust myself has led to a need for more literal representations of the abuse.
Learning to trust myself has been a process I’ve only just begun this year, at thirty years old, and learning to trust my dreams has been a big part of that. It’s interesting that the themes of sexual violence seem to pop up at times when I begin to question my feelings and wonder if maybe I’m crazy for feeling like my dad is a creep. At least this shows me that there’s an aspect of myself, perhaps my unconscious mind, that has my back in all of this and won’t let me deceive myself, because slipping back into the warm comfort of denial tempts me all the time, even though it made my life completely dysfunctional. When you think about how much our unconscious mind holds for us that we don’t “know” about, it’s absolutely amazing that just the right things leak out into consciousness at the just the right time.
~ ” The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul.” – Carl Gustav Jung
The saga continues. I was going to wait a few more days or weeks to buy this particular polish colour. I can’t be accumulating nail polish at a rate like this: Eight bottles of OPI in the past two weeks. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how good Live and Let Die looks. More dark polish with glitter bits! I swear I was just going to buy a sandwich and somehow found myself at the mall again. I didn’t even deliberate or stare at the bottle, I just grabbed it off the rack, and justified buying another dark blue as well since it was on sale. I could get into all the scientific stuff about addictions and brain chemicals, but today I’d rather take a philosophical approach to understand my compulsion. That’s right: symbolism.
The observation of one’s waking life as if it were a dream is a meditation technique based in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. One observes the symbolism in their waking life just as one would the symbolism of their dreams. Morten Tolboll mentions this symbolic approach to understanding the self in his document Meditation as an Art of Life: A Basic Reader.
Toboll explains that, “So the images in the movement of time are shattered reflections of the great vision of the Universe. They are shadows, dreams, masks, fables, fairy tales, fictions, and they flow in the movement of nature itself – they are, as the Tibetan Buddhism says, relatively valid dreams.”
First of all, it’s interesting to me that the name of the polish I wanted was Live and Let Die. I’ve been in a bit of crisis mode last few days because I fear my father will die because of me. Then I have to remind myself that I am not responsible for him or how he chooses to deal or not deal with his shit. But in hearing that his health is failing there is a magnification of that feeling I’ve always had that I was responsible for him, and it’s a big reason I stayed in blissful denial that he was ever capable of really sexually abusing me. Breaking the silence seems to be making my worst fears manifest – that I could provoke my fragile father’s death with the truth. It’s really testing my clarity on the situation. So, “live and let die” might actually be the very thing I needed to hear. Not exactly a cryptic or vague symbol. In fact, this is so literal I’m not sure it counts as symbolism at all, but what an interesting coincidence.
Nail polish also reminds me of a piece of poetry I wrote as a teenager. “Painting innocence on my nails” was part of a line in that poem. Could this point to an unconscious association with fresh manicures and a return to innocent times? Fresh manicure = fresh innocence? Also, nail polish is also a distinctly feminine accessory that literally leaves one feeling “polished.” I also have a hand washing compulsion, so maybe there’s an unconscious desire to both clean and polish my “dirty” hands?
Well, that’s all I’ve got. Any other guesses at why I’m choosing nail polish for my brain chemical rush rather than other consumer goods?
~ “The quickest way to know a woman is to go shopping with her.” – Marcelene Cox
After I was raped by an American guy in Shanghai in February 2007, I had a terrible back injury, but no memory of actually injuring myself. I couldn’t even roll over in bed by myself, and you’d think that would be enough to make me clue in that something fishy had happened. Nope! There was literally a dent in my spine and I still did not suspect that the nice American guy I’d met was actually a sicko rapist. Since I had been drinking the night it happened, I figured it was simply from some obscure event that I couldn’t recall, like… maybe I fell on some stairs or something? Denial is serious business! I think the main reason I didn’t put it all together right away was that I was in a foreign country by myself and was already dealing with too much other stress at the time, like trying to figure out how to speak Mandarin Chinese. My subsequent figuring out that I had actually been raped came at a time of relatively low stress, so this is my best guess as to why it surfaced years later. Either way, I understand that it was my unconscious mind – which was completely aware of the events that had transpired – that was protecting me from being overwhelmed.
So after living with a mangled back for four years, how was it that I finally Sherlock Homles’d the case? Three things:
1. I created a safe space. For me this meant time away from my family.
I took a 6-month hiatus away from my parents from September 2010 to March 2011, at the urging of IAM Center co-founder, Joseph Maldonaldo. At the time it was not a question of recovering any memories of rape. That question was not even a consideration since I had repressed, suppressed, blocked out – whatever you want to call it – my knowledge that I’d been raped immediately after it happened. My concern at that time was overcoming other life challenges, and Joseph explained that spending time away from my family would allow me to develop a newfound strength to do so. And you know what else was “weird”? I didn’t miss my parents one bit! It was the beginning of the end of my contact with them.
2. I listened to my dreams, and emotions.
It was in February 2011 (exactly four years after the rape) that I awoke one morning, still watching a dream fade away, only it wasn’t a “dream,” it was a memory of walking out of the rapist’s apartment in a foggy haze thinking it should be 3:00 am and dark outside, but seeing the sun blazing in the sky instead. I was crying as I awoke, and perhaps there was more of this “dream” that I didn’t consciously recall upon awakening, but either way, it had a deep emotional effect on me.
3. I listened to my intuition, and trusted my inspiration.
Now awake and crying, an idea came to me suddenly. My boyfriend was already awake, asking me what the matter is. I asked him to do something for me. I moved to the end of the bed and lay on my back with my knees up. I extended my right arm out. I asked him to hold my arm firmly with both hands and first gently pull on it as if he were going to drag my body, then quickly and firmly push my straightened arm back towards my body. He did and I heard a loud crunching noise! My bones went back into place and my back felt normal again for the first time in four years. The tears came like a flood at that point – the immediate implication was that the injury has been caused a very violent dragging of my body by my arm. It hit me like a lightening bolt – rape. It was rape.
So what did I do about it? I didn’t seek counseling at the time. I was just so grateful that my back felt normal again! I spent that day crying a lot and just doing my best to take care of myself. My boyfriend thought I was mistaken and kept referring to the rape as “that thing you think happened.” It would take eight months for him to get over his own denial. He just couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen and that I would be unaware of it. Ultimately I was happy to not consciously remember the experience, and was just happy I survived it. Life goes on I thought… hoping that was the end of my ordeal. Not even close.
By the following September I was struggling with depression and major anxiety. Everything in my life was suffering, but I hoped it would simply pass. Then February came again, and I was beginning to see a full blown case of PTSD develop. Even simple activities like leaving the house to buy groceries resulted in an adrenaline rush, and not the fun kind. I finally understood the appeal of burkas. It was like being stuck in a state fight or flight with no escape. Since the rape, February had always be a hard month for me since it’s the anniversary of the incident. It was hard even when I was unaware of the rape.
It was that same month of February in 2012 when the fire alarm rang one morning, which got me out of my apartment and into a coffee shop down the street. I ordered a coffee and tried to read a newspaper, but I ended up having a complete emotional breakdown instead. With tears in my eyes I searched for “Vancouver rape relief” on my iPhone. I had to talk to someone immediately and had an appointment at the Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter later that afternoon. It was a good move talking to the counsellors there. They helped me find courage to dig a little deeper and heal. Funny how it took a fire alarm to get me there.
~ “I just want to sleep. A coma would be nice. Or amnesia. Anything, just to get rid of this, these thoughts, whispers in my mind. Did he rape my head, too?” – Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak
~ “I’d still thought that everything I thought about that night-the shame, the fear-would fade in time. But that hadn’t happened. Instead, the things that I remembered, these little details, seemed to grow stronger, to the point where I could feel their weight in my chest. Nothing, however stuck with me more than the memory of stepping into that dark room and what I found there, and how the light then took that nightmare and made it real.” – Sarah Dessen, Just Listen
Dreams have been one of the ways in which my unconscious mind has hinted to me that I was sexually abused as a child. There have been just a few occasions where dreams of this sort have occurred, and it’s usually when I am looking for answers in my waking life that they pop up. In fact, I had such a dream just this afternoon during a nap, and I can pinpoint two things that might have caused it to come forth: a conflict with a new male roommate who made an inappropriate sexual comment about my body, and dousing with my “tiger tooth chain” to ask questions about how early the sexual abuse started in my life and the extent of it.
Today’s dream was of my father entering my room to stare at me where I was sleeping naked. I was aware that he was doing this and although I was “awake” in the dream, I was unable to open my eyes in order to see him. I rolled around trying to cover my body as I yelled at him to leave, all the while struggling to open my eyes. I could feel him standing there, and when I finally managed to open my eyes I saw him doing exactly what I felt he was doing – standing in the doorway staring at my naked body and ignoring my vocal requests for him to go away. Now with eyes open I escaped to an ensuite bathroom where I could hide from him.
The theme is this dream is very similar to a more disturbing dream I had a few years ago. In that dream he is trying to peep at my naked body through a textured window pane as I take a shower in the basement of my parents’ house. His eyes are black like a zombie and he slowly presses his face up to the glass. He then enters the house and wanders around the basement like a zombie along with my zombie mother whose eyes are also black. This one had me waking up in hysterical tears. The peeping part of this dream actually happened in real life when I was 15, although at the time I didn’t know who the peeper was, but I could see the fresh footprints in the snow outside the window when I checked afterward. Not that this is proof that is was my father; the dream might be using this direct experience as an analogy.
Another very disturbing dream I had was in early March of this year, a week before I left for Peru. There was a very small, almost newborn baby, which then turned into a toy doll with moving legs and arms. The toy baby had blood and semen all over the crease where the right leg joins the body, and I was trying to clean it off, having to reach into the crease with tissue to get all the blood and semen off of it. I have another true life experience that this dream reminded me of: when I was about 11 years old, I had an enormous boil appear on the outer edge of my right labia which left a deep scar that I still have today. This was the exact location of the blood and semen on the baby in the dream. According to German New Medicine, anytime there is pus coming out of the body it means the person is feeling attacked and/or soiled.
And so it goes, piece by piece, information stored in my unconscious mind slowly leaks through to the surface, only telling as much as I can handle for the moment. I’m sure there is more to discover when it comes to my experiences of being sexually abused as a child, but sometimes I’m not sure I want to know.
~ “Nature is often obscure or impenetrable, but she is not, like man, deceitful. We must therefore take it that the dream is just what it pretends to be, neither more nor less. If it shows something in a negative light, there is no reason for assuming that it is meant positively.” – Carl Gustav Jung