When I was a little girl, my dad used to always tell me that men are perverted creeps not to be trusted. He would say “I used to be a guy that age – I know what disgusting things he’s thinking!” That mixed with the fact that my dad was sexually abusive to me led to beliefs that men only want one thing from me, and that I should expect to be victimized if I trust a man. I still hold those beliefs today even though they aren’t serving me anymore. As a child the mistrust was an adaptive protective stance; now it just leads to revictimization.
It’s been said by many metaphysical teachers that each one of us creates our reality with our thoughts and beliefs, and it seems that in this new living situation I created a reality that reflected right back to me my negative beliefs about men. I wanted to believe that my new male roommate is just a creep and that the situation had nothing to do with me, but to think that would just be playing victim, something I don’t choose to do. If those metaphysical teachers are right, there was something about my thoughts that attracted me to this situation.
I experienced this roommate as creepy and vengeful. He made clear attempts to manipulate me by lying, and was irate when I refused to allow these manipulations. He also insisted on doing “nice” things for me, like offering to drive me places, or buy groceries for me, all of which I declined, and he was also irate about this. He’s a textbook “nice guy” – someone who does “nice” things with the expectation that they’ll get something in return, and is therefore, not a nice person at all.
His actions were a perfect fit with my negative belief that men are manipulative and are not to be trusted. I found myself saying “AH HA!!! I knew it!” when my negative beliefs were confirmed, and yet when men I know do not act in this way, there’s no “ah ha, I was wrong.” I was clearly paying attention only to those actions and behaviours that matched my beliefs, and this new roommate was the epitome of my mind’s caricature of the average man; a creepy, manipulative, and whiny sore loser.
There was actually a very satisfying feeling that I got from “being right” in this situation as well. There’s no mistaking that he said some very inappropriate things to me – everyone I’ve mentioned it to has cringed a bit when I tell the story – but the silver lining was that I got to feel like I am superior to him because I “get it” and he doesn’t. I would even go as far to say that he is, in fact, stupid, for not understanding why what he did was creepy. I’ve got to let go of my need to feel this superiority too. It only fed my rage and anger, and it probably just stems from a fear of being inferior – another negative belief, but this time one about myself in comparison with men. If I’m “right” then I’m “safe,” or at least I’m aware of my surroundings enough to respond and protect myself, but the whole scene is just a tired replay of many other similar, though less dramatic scenes I’ve experienced in my life with men.
I am making a commitment to myself to change my negative beliefs about men. If believing that men aren’t to be trusted and that they only want one thing is going to lead me back to this sort of situation again and again then I am in for a lot more trouble. I guess this is a bit of an experiment of sorts. If I make a concerted effort to catch myself every time I have a negative belief about a man, even if it’s true, I’m not going to believe that all men are like this, and I am going to practice gratitude for all of the wonderful men in this world that conduct themselves with decency and respect around others. By changing my thoughts about men, I hope I’ll see a difference in the type of men I see around me. Wish me luck! Oh, and I’m moving out of this creep’s apartment on December 1st, because… fuck this.
To be a victim is disempowering in the absolute sense – there is no opportunity for healing there. I have been raped but I will not refer to myself as a victim. In my search for healing I’ve concluded that there can be no such a thing as a victim, for if there is, healing would be impossible; it would depend on what others do, and that is something I have no control over. The best I could do is attempt to influence, and hope for the best, and this is emotionally draining and frustrating at best.
The victim mentally is a pervasive and disabling part of our culture. It is woven into the way we speak to each other, into our language, when we say “you make me so…” or “he makes me feel…” or “she made me…” Whether the feeling is positive or negative is irrelevant, when we believe others have the magical ability to make us feel something, we believe ourselves to be a victim. But how can I say that in the awful scenario or rape, for instance, that the person raped is not a victim?
Let’s be clear, a person who is raped has had a horrible thing done to them, but no one can control how they will react to and feel about the rape. In the climate of a victim mentality culture, however, most people who have been raped expect that others should do or say something to make healing possible for them. Feeling retraumatized and revictimized by the reactions of others is common. Many people who have been raped report that the reaction of the community, that often protects or apologizes for the rapist, was just as, if not more traumatic then the actual rape itself. I can attest to this since this has been my experience. I was expecting my friends, family, and community to rally around me, and instead I was met skepticism, silence, and even anger. In order to heal, it has become blatantly apparent to me that I cannot rely on others, and I cannot wait for them to “come around” to my point of view. I have allowed myself to be “revictimized” because I felt powerless, because I felt like a victim, because I believed that others have the power to give me my health and happiness or take it away.
A victim is by definition powerless. A victim has no control, and is at the mercy of others. I am convinced that even if a person forces another to submit to them physically, power – true power – has nothing to do with a physical offence. Only the perpetrator’s fear, self-hatred, and feelings of powerlessness can inspire such acts in an effort to regain the lost sense of power. Again, it is magical thinking at work when the perpetrator believes that power can really be taken or exchanged between individuals. If your friend felt powerless could you offer to give him some of your power by choice if he insisted he was hopeless? Could you choose for him? No.
Understand that the definition of power I am referring to has nothing to do with money, or politics, or hierarchy. That has to do with material control. I’m talking about another person’s ability or inability to control your internal state of being, of feeling, of thinking. It cannot be done! Only YOU have the power to control your inner state and that is the only true power that anyone can ever have. All other “power” is an illusion, but the illusion undoubtedly looks very real simply because so many of us buy into the belief that we can be made to feel like a victim by someone else.
I know all this and yet the victim mentality is still the default explanation my mind resorts to whenever I feel imposed upon by others or by situations. It is like a software program that runs in my brain, and healing is going to require my full attention and a commitment to changing the false belief that others can “make” me feel anything at all. Even in the positive instance, for example, when I feel swept off my feet by a lover, I must recognize that the feeling comes from me, and not from them. Another might not feel such lust or love toward that person as I do, therefore my feelings comes from me and only me, and have nothing to do with the inherent qualities of that person.
To heal I must change my fundamental beliefs I have about the world and myself, I must see things through new eyes. What it really comes down to is destroying my belief in a lack of free will, my belief in thought control, for when I acknowledge my real power I see that no one can control my thoughts. In fact, to believe such a thing is in the interest of those who wish to “take power” away from me. It is to their benefit that I believe I have no control over my emotional reactions to them, that I fear them and fear how they can “make” me feel.
Once again I must be aware of the flip side of the coin here. If I allow myself to have the belief that others can take my power away, then I must also believe that they can give it back to me in a gesture of “helping.” The only real help others can give is to show me how to help myself, to inspire me to be the change I want to see. But the belief that another can simply give me power, that I can simply buy my healing from a therapist or a pharmacy, is nothing but a illusion, and indeed it is “giving away” my power to another. This is dangerous, for it even allows for self-interested corruption to function under the guise of helping. There is nothing wrong with seeing a therapist, as long as I am not expecting them to “heal me,” but instead expecting them to partner with me and show me the work I must do for myself. In terms of taking pharmaceutical drugs, I can’t see any potential for healing, only numbing.
The expectation that others need to do something differently or change in order for me to heal or be happy will forever be unfruitful. No one is going to give me anything, even if they wanted to they cannot. Even the truly benevolent do not have any power to help me, just as the truly evil do not have any power to hurt me. It is a choice, and I must defend against my false belief in either sense and take my healing into my own hands. I must work with others who inspire me to find that truth again and again, others who know this and practice it in their own lives. When I take stock, it’s true that the only time I’ve ever experienced any real healing is when I took responsibility for my own health and happiness. Others can point toward the path, but I must walk it myself.
I feel abandoned by my mother, because I know she doesn’t want to believe my dad could be capable of sexually abusing me. She sends emails that start with what I see as a courtesy disclaimer, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but…” and then tells me all the reasons why she thinks I could be mistaken. It tears my heart out, but I try to be understanding. She has been going through a lot since I broke the silence and told her about the memories I’ve begun to recover, and admittedly she’s in the most difficult position of all.
The little child part of me wants nothing more than for my mother to believe that what I’m telling her is true and choose me over my perpetrator. It doesn’t look likely though, so I tell myself that’s just a childish dream that she could ever choose one family member over another, that she’s built a life with this person, that it’s selfish of me to put expectations on her. But it’s like a knife to the heart. I actually find it hard to value my own life if she doesn’t believe me, and thinking about it too much is the one thing that can send me back into that dark suicidal place I was a few months back. In that place I feel half dead, have rotted, half decomposed, and yet I haven’t taken my life. I am still walking around trying to find a way out that doesn’t depend on her or what she does. Just to feel alive again.
I know on an intellectual level that I can choose whatever experience of this that I want. But that little girl is convinced, “If my own mother won’t believe me, won’t choose me, who would?” She takes it to mean she is worthless, that others’ words to the contrary are meaningless gestures of etiquette, rather than heartfelt truths. The whole world becomes cold and fake to her. This is no way to live.
Accepting that my mother has the right to deal with this situation however she wants has been the most difficult emotional challenge I’ve ever had. The truth is her words and actions have no meaning except the meaning I choose to give to them, so the impact on my self worth comes from my beliefs rather than from her. The clincher is that I know this intellectually, but it still feels like abandonment. It still feels like I have been ousted from the tribe, left to fend for myself, like death is after me, already eating through my flesh.
My only choice is to wholeheartedly accept that only I can give my life whatever meaning I choose, and that yes, expectations and wishes for my mother to do this or that are in fact, just childish dreams, based on the false belief that my self worth comes from her. In truth it never has, and it never will. How much longer am I willing to spend trying to barter for these childish dreams? That I don’t know, but I hope it’s not long. There’s a big beautiful world out there waiting for me.
~ “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.” – Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
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
The last thing I want is for you to think I am weak, because in our culture weakness is punished and belittled. But I am a woman, and we’ve been taught that femininity is weak, so if I want respect I am backed into this damned corner every time I see you. I can see from your words and your actions that you don’t really believe women are worthy of respect either. The problem is that I believed you were right.
If I believe I am weak there’s no telling what you’ll do to me, how you’ll underestimate me, how you’ll take advantage of me, how you’ll use your strength against me, how you’ll take from me. I’ve been living my life afraid of all this since I was a little girl, who watched her father rage and yell and belittle women. I thought the only way he could love me is if I abandoned myself, abandoned my femaleness, because I could see how he despised it, how he mocked it, how he used it and threw it away.
I’ve been hit and raped and spat on, shoved and screamed at, peeped on, and creeped on and I’m just waiting for you to challenge me any time I feel afraid, daring you even with a piercing stare because I have so much anger about all this that it doesn’t matter anymore what you do to me: The fear makes me want to fight, makes me want to hurt you back as badly as I can. And I’m ready whenever you make your move. I’ve seen enough of your tricks to know what to do. And you are most hurt when equated with a woman, when people think you’re a sissy pussy bitch and so I feel my fear is justified. You hate your own femaleness too.
I’ve been hurt by men so much that I’m scared I could be hurt by you, even though I don’t know you. I am afraid of you. I get crafty and wear a mask. I take on masculine traits like aggression, dominance, and muted emotion, and I wear them like a costume whenever I’m in your presence. It’s so automatic I don’t even have to think about it, it just pours forth from the anger I feel, that I can’t just exist, can’t just be myself, can’t just be a woman, without fearing the risk of harm from you. So I stand guard, but I don’t even know you. But you are a man, and so I fear you.
If you could see me when I’m alone, you’d see that I am soft and yielding and loving. I smile and laugh and feel at ease with myself. I take off my costume. But the still fear remains in the back of my mind, and the fear is the only thing separating us from the truth. It’s not you I need to annihilate, it’s the fear. When I live in constant fear of you, I forget who I am completely, and I justify and agree with your misogynistic words, thoughts, and deeds, because I too have become misogynistic by dishonoring myself. I have become my enemy to try and protect myself from enemies, but I see now that you can’t honor me until I honor myself. It’s not your decision to say what I am worth, and it never was. We were both just so confused. Thanks for listening.
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