Using Dreams and Triggers to Remember Abuse

"Using Dreams and Triggers to Remember Abuse"

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

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Sexual Trauma and Dreams

"Trauma and Dreams"

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


Accidently Losing My Fear of Living

"Demon"

I often use the metaphor that my life used to be like a building that was beautiful on the outside, but dark and decrepit and languishing on the inside. Nothing gets spared when you experience sexual abuse as a child or experience being raped. It makes a complete mess of everything and you don’t even know it until you know it.

I was afraid to live because I thought I was a bad person. I was a bad person because of all the things I’d do to cope with feeling bad. I was even bad for wanting love, because bad girls don’t deserve love. People only want them for sex. And women who are good for sex are whores. And whores are bad too. But I was only good at being bad.

I wasn’t brave. I was busy running away from the problems and pain but one day all my demons caught up to me, and it was going to be them or me. I was so sick and tired of being unhappy in this beautiful but languishing building that I finally wanted to see what was hidden inside, so I lit a match to see the horrors for myself. And there they were hiding in the shadows, all of my demons. Everything in my life finally began to make sense, and I could see I wasn’t bad after all, it was the demons, and the demons had to go.

But how does one kill a demon? I tried to chase them out many times before but it was ayahuasca that taught me the only way to kill a demon is with fire. They must be charred into ash and returned to source, and this is how I accidently burned the whole building to the ground.

I watched piece by piece as my life burned up, every piece of what I thought of as “me,” drenched in flame and reduced to ash, crumbled and disappeared, and I saw that the demons I tried to set fire to were just shadows cast by my own structure. I saw that the only thing to fear was myself, and the fire’s transformative alchemy spared me no dust-covered illusions from my attic. It left me naked and nameless and powerful.

Every relationship I had changed, because I had changed, and there was nothing I could do as I watched the old relationships burn, for they were just reflections of me. I was laid off from a job where I was unhappy, I left my showroom perfect apartment, and I began to operate on an unapologetic level where I could just exist and not have to answer to anyone but myself. When I was all that was left, there was no more fear; there was nothing to lose anymore, and that is what set me free. That is what showed me who I am really am and what I’m really made of.

~ “Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” – Jim Morrison


Why Men Rape: Part II

"Father and Child"

This has been a difficult post for me to write. I intended to have it written a couple days ago, but I find myself in repeated resistance. Every time I write a few lines, I invariably find a distraction. This is a subject of immense interest to me in my quest to understand why I was sexually abused by my father, but for the same reason I find it a bit hard to stomach. I hope this is helpful for others on the same quest or for those who are simply trying to understand the question of “Why?”

This post is meant to clarify the reasons why men sexually abuse children. It is a continuation of Part I which discusses drug-assisted rape. The title, “Why Men Rape,” is appropriate when discussing child sexual abuse because rape was part of my experience of being sexually abused as a child, and also because I find it hard to call the involvement of a child in adult sexual activity anything but nonconsensual. The short answer to “why” is… because offenders made the choice to offend, albeit with a compelling feeling to do so. I wish to explore the common pattern for how men come to make that choice.

My main source of information has been a book by Douglas W. Pryor, titled Unspeakable Acts: Why Men Sexually Abuse Children. Pryor conducted a pioneering study of thirty convicted sex offenders, and gathered data on the thoughts, experiences, and behaviours of these men. It is the first in-depth, qualitative, and narrative-based study of its kind.

As was already established in my post on rape culture, the characteristics of the average child molester are virtually indistinguishable from those of the average man. The way they walk, the way they talk, they way they seduce, the way they objectify and sexualize others. However, one factor appears to influence which men choose to sexually abuse children – and that is experiencing sexual abuse in their own childhood but not understanding it as such.

This can mean having fond memories of being sexually abused, and framing that abuse as affectionate and/or erotic rather than traumatic. Offenders who did experience the sexual abuse of their childhood as “unsettling and confusing,” were typically blamed by parents or other nonoffending adults and made to feel responsible for the abuse, or they were simply ignored and given the impression that it wasn’t that big a deal. In any case, the perpetrator was not understood to be an abuser per se, and the victim was given no feedback to suggest that there was anything wrong with what the perpetrator was doing to them, and that is was their fault it was happening.

The larger cultural context of silence and secrecy around taboo subjects like incest and sexual abuse also do nothing to curb the young victim’s blurred sense of acceptable boundaries, sexual respect, and personal physical space with others.

So with their own abuse framed as not having been abuse, these men went forth into the world, and often when they were around children who were the same age as they were when they were abused, they experienced some unexpected sexual feelings arising in them. This was generally precipitated by a cluster of negative life experiences, which occurred in mostly random combinations, although there were only six general themes that those interviewed experienced: feeling trapped, sexual problems and boredom, loss of male authority, engulfment in masturbation and porn, major emotional shocks, and feelings of sexual inadequacy.

The men chose to cope with these challenges by feeling unhappy and disconnecting emotionally, and yet they still strongly desired an outer change in their circumstances. It is my observation that these men feel powerless in their lives and have no sense of being able to change their circumstances, or failing that, to change their own state of being in order to experience their circumstances differently. Many appeared to feel as if they had no choice in the matter of offending and felt that their urges were simply “uncontrollable,” and thus found ways to justify their actions so that they could live with themselves.

The moment of shifting in adulthood from being a nonoffender to an offender was clearly demarcated in the memory of nearly all thirty of the convicted sex offenders. They could pinpoint the specific moment and circumstances in which they made their “shift.” The fact that this is remembered so clearly indeed shows that the men were aware that they were making a choice which would take them across a moral boundary, but they could not deny the strong sexual feelings that arose in them, often for a specific child victim.

And this is the critical point of no return: the transition into offending is completed precisely because these men are able to reframe their sexual feelings for a child as acceptable in order to justify their actions, no doubt a remnant from their warped understanding of their own sexual abuse history. As Pryor notes, “without this interpretive bridge, the crimes reported by the men here would not have occurred.”

After making the shift and choosing to offend, multiple methods of approaching and engaging their victim were tested and locked into if compliance resulted. During their career as an offender, the men often felt guilty about their behaviour, but numbed it with busyness, alcohol, TV, etc., and some even projected their guilt onto the victim, lecturing them about their immorality. In every case they found a way to justify their behaviour, often putting the responsibility on the victim to stop the abuse.

It’s like their whole childhood repeating itself! And situations that bring up their pain will persist until these men heal from the abuse inflicted on them in their own childhood. I view their poignant moment of crossing the moral boundary into being an offender as their psyche trying to show them they have a wound to heal. The issues they have from their own childhood abuse are still with them and are literally reflected perfectly in their own reactions to life’s circumstances. Some men even chose child victims who had specific features that reminded them of their own abusers, such as hair colour. It’s really all just a convoluted effort to heal something.

These men put responsibility on the victim to stop the abuse since they were made to feel responsible for their own abuse. Their feelings of powerlessness, perhaps from not being able to control the abuse in their childhoods, led them to feel unable to change their circumstances, to feel like a passive victim of circumstances. This is really important to get. We all have the power to change our state of being if we don’t like the circumstances we’re in, and thus change the way we feel about the circumstances. Sometimes we can simply just change the circumstances, but not always. Still we’re all ultimately capable and powerful. The only thing standing in the way is negative beliefs. These child molesters had no life experiences to illustrate that they had this power, nothing to show them that they could choose to change their belief that they are a passive victim.

Silence and secrecy are what keeps this twisted little circus rolling, and branding offenders as monsters doesn’t help. The depths of my own anger surrounding this issue make it difficult to say what I’m about to say, but it is indeed the true that these men deserve some compassion from society. It is not to excuse, but simply to understand. In fact, it is in the best interest of child victims that we feel some compassion since the ugly stigmatization with which child molesters are branded can leave an offender feeling even more trapped and unable to reach out for help, which only exacerbates the issue and leads to more offences. This Louis C.K. stand up bit has been called a tasteless joke, but he is indeed on to something with his idea that we take it down a notch when it comes to “kid having sex people” because at least then “you get the kid back.”

~ “Every situation properly perceived, becomes an opportunity to heal.” – A Course In Miracles


We’re Not Really All That Different

"Me Too"

Every time I start to feel disconnected and alone, I’m going to remember tonight and last week. It’s amazing how many people say “me too” when I mention that I was sexually abused as a child.

Last week I met up with some new peeps who are also interested in German New Medicine. I had met one of them at the seminar a couple weeks ago, and she wanted to introduce me to these four very awesome ladies. We met in a coffee shop, and while discussing how I came across GNM, on one of the many tangents went on was my trip to Peru and the the subsequent address I made to my family regarding the sexual abuse in my childhood. I’ve been talking more boldly about it lately – it puts shame in it’s rightful place, and people never react in the negative or harmful way I thought they might (though ironically it was my own family, the people who are supposed to be there for me the most, whose response to my breaking the silence was the most damaging for me).

Two of the four women said that they had similar things happen in their childhood. It seems that although each story is unique in many ways, we have a common bond over our shared quirks and oddities. Eating disorders all around. Family problems. Learning to trust our own feelings. Revictimization. Problems with authority. Drug and alcohol problems. Sex problems. So much in our existence is the same and yet I often feel like I am out to sea all alone. Like I have to walk this road without help, because who after all is going to know what it feels like to be me. Who else is going to understand what it feels like to have a suicidal hatred of your body because 50% of its DNA belongs to someone who did unspeakable things to said body?

Tonight I met up with someone I haven’t seen in years, and it was the same story. In the process of catching up, I got into the nitty gritty again, and he said “me too.” As soon as he realized I understood what it felt like to be him, he couldn’t stop talking about his pain. He said he never really talked about it with anyone, not like we were talking about it. I could tell that it was an incredible relief for him to finally tell someone what effect the abuse has had on his life, and have them really know what he was talking about!

In talking about my experiences, both those from childhood and those of healing in the present, I have found nothing but relief as well. All the walls that first seemed to separate me from others began to dissolve and I feel I’m free to just be what I am, rather than play at wearing a mask. Keeping the subject taboo, keeps us shrouded in shame. It separates us further from the truth of who we really are.

~ “Honesty is the best policy.” – Benjamin Franklin