Friday, 9 November 2018

Rebuilding self-esteem after abuse

Sexual abuse or any form of psychological abuse can have lasting effects on a survivor, and in particular will have a detrimental impact on one’s self worth. The main issue is that the value of a survivor of abuse will have been falsely defined by others, which can cause huge problems with identity. As a result of abuse, a survivor will be conditioned to accept that they don’t deserve as much as others and they won’t know how to build a healthy self-esteem. It is common for survivors of abuse to internalise negative thoughts about themselves since abuse damages one’s self worth. 

Something important for a survivor to remember is: your abuser’s mistreatment of you does not dictate your value.

Surviving abuse and rebuilding self-esteem is not an easy journey but it is possible. Here are some steps that can help someone on their journey.

Have a support network
It can really help to reach out to friends and family, and talking openly about your issues and healing process will enable them to help you. Being around people who make you feel safe and cared for is vital during this time and can really have a positive effect on the way you feel about yourself. In addition, joining a support group made up of people who have experienced similar situations can be equally beneficial. These groups can ease loneliness and make you feel understood by people who can relate to your situation. 

Find a mental health professional
The healing process required after experiencing abuse can be very challenging and bring up painful emotions and memories. Seeking professional help can really ease the burden and raise your quality of life. A therapist can help you to find ways to improve your self-esteem. 

Rebuild your self-identity
Treating yourself and being kind to yourself can be a wonderful way to boost your self-esteem. There are many ways that this can be done, such as treating yourself to an ice cream, doing some arts and crafts or going to the cinema. Being your own protector, treating yourself with love and keeping yourself safe are all ways in which to start building your self-worth. 

Try to empathise with yourself
If you struggle to show yourself empathy, think about someone you love and ask yourself if you think they deserve to be hurt. Now ask the same question about yourself. Do I deserve to be hurt? Do I deserve what happened to me? No. This may help you to see that you are just as valid and worthy as those you love. Showing yourself empathy can help identify some of the harmful beliefs you may have about yourself but are not aware of. 

Assertiveness
Being assertive may be a struggle and you may have poor boundaries in your professional or personal life. Remember that you deserve to have your needs met in a healthy, safe way just like other people. Read books on assertiveness or try some assertiveness training; this will help you to feel better about yourself and improve your confidence. In terms of relationships, they should feel beneficial and not be one sided. 

Replace negative thoughts with positive ones
Confronting and challenging negative thought patterns is important when it comes to regaining power and self-esteem. Enabling yourself to change the internalised messages of abuse can help free yourself from an endless cycle of sadness. It can help to keep a journal in order to track the thoughts that you have. Try to stop yourself if you think something negative about yourself and turn the statement into a positive one. It can also help to end the day on a positive thought; perhaps think about a personal accomplishment from the day. 

Take care of yourself
Although it may not come naturally to an abuse survivor, taking care of yourself can help improve self-esteem. Exercise can be very beneficial when it comes to feeling good about yourself due to the release of endorphins, so try to set aside some time for this each week. A healthy and nutritious diet is equally important. Self-compassion goes a long way when we are having down days so make sure you are kind to yourself during difficult times. Take a long, soothing bath, read a book, have a break, or do anything that relaxes you. 

The road to improved self-esteem can be a long one but it is possible. It is important to work on rebuilding it on a daily basis and know that you are worthy of this process. Rebuilding self-esteem is a journey that takes time, self-care and love. Others can help us along the way but ultimately the change can only come from within.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

My experience of PTSD


PTSD often causes physical symptoms in people due to a release of hormones. People with PTSD will often keep releasing these hormones even when no longer in danger as ‘fight or flight’ is the natural learnt response. Recently I explained the process of flashbacks to colleagues, and thought it might be worth writing about from first-hand knowledge. In essence, flashbacks are an experience in which one relives a traumatic event and feels as though it is happening at that moment; they're often a result of PTSD, which can be a unique experience to each person that experiences it. When I endured flashbacks, my body would become rigid and I would feel like I was back in that awful place from my past. They would usually be brief but I believe that for some people they can persist for hours or even days. Overall, the flashbacks felt horrible and I often felt so alone and helpless during those episodes. Thankfully I had a great therapist who helped me to cope with them and eventually I guess my mind overpowered them and they stopped completely. One aid that my counsellor gave me was a Flashback Halting Protocol. I would refer to it after having a flashback, first moving to a safe place and then talking myself through the points in order to ground myself. Here is a copy of that useful protocol:
    
Flashback halting protocol
  1. “Right now I am feeling ______ (Name the emotion here — usually fear)
  2. And I am sensing in my body _____________ (Name your body sensations — at least three, if you can.)
  3. Because I am remembering ________ (Name the trauma or event if you can — just the name, no details!)
  4. At the same time, I am looking around where I am now in __________ (name the current year, month, day)
  5. Here, ________ (Name where you are right now)
  6. And I can see ___________ (Name things you can see right now, in the room you’re in)
  7. And so I know _________ (Name the trauma again, by title only)
  8. Is not happening now/is not happening anymore.”

Although flashbacks often come in the form of visual images, they can also be triggered by a sound or smell connected to the trauma or emotions that were once felt, which can involve physical sensations. It may also be the case that certain people or places trigger flashbacks. This was unfortunately my experience, which made it a very difficult, painful time for me as the triggering person was actually a loved one. 
              
As a result of PTSD, I also had horrible nightmares that would affect me for days. In addition, I experienced intrusive thoughts that affected my daily life and work, and I was unable to sleep well. One can imagine that all of these factors result in a very draining ordeal, and one that I would not wish on anyone. In order to fight all of these things, I had to find ways to soothe and distract myself. Thankfully I have always been creative so dancing, yoga and poetry helped me to release the pent up anger I started to feel. But I have a lot of appreciation for the therapeutic nature of music and the way that it really helped me during those awful times. When I couldn’t control the intrusive thoughts that would play like a broken record in my mind, I remember I would often listen to the same song over and over again. Perhaps I was trying to override the horrible thoughts with positive lyrics and music. Actually, I am truly thankful to the artist David Gray as I listened to him every day; there is something about the power in his voice that lifted me up and made me believe I could get better.
           
I hope that these descriptions and ways to help oneself may be of assistance to anyone who may be suffering. My counsellor once said to me, ‘you’re not alone’ and I would like to now pass on the same sentiment to others in need. 

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Birthday revelation

On the morning of my recent birthday this year, I quietly contemplated my life and previous celebrations. A tear rolled down my cheek as I started to remember my younger self trying to look happy, but on the inside she was in pain and felt very confused. It was such a powerful memory because as I delved deep inside my soul, I was able to tap into a buried emotion that I didn’t know still existed. Upon reflection, I realise that I felt overwhelmed by people’s kindness and attention on that annual day; behaviour that can easily confuse a child who is being abused. And the end of the day would culminate in an anti-climax that would often lead me to feel very low and tearful. That poor little girl was crying out for help internally but no one could hear her.

Over the years I haven’t always enjoyed or wanted to celebrate my birthday and I now understand why. The low self-worth that was ingrained from a young age remained with me for a long time, and as a result, I didn’t feel worthy of people’s care or attention. Self-care is something that survivors of abuse have to learn in adult life and it can take time to reach a point where it feels natural. In addition, repressed memories that start to emerge during the healing process are often very prominent ones about events such as acts of abuse or birthday celebrations. Having such contradictory memories would understandably deter a survivor from wanting to celebrate. 

This year, I felt a positive change in myself on my birthday. I no longer wanted the day to end quickly so that people would forget me. Instead I made the most of the whole day and enjoyed it. A friend commented that I looked very happy and I would say that is an accurate description of my true emotions. I certainly won’t forget this one and I am truly grateful to the people who showed me kindness. 

I will endeavour to use what I have learnt from my own process in the work I do to help others. And I hope that we may all be mindful of the visible and equally invisible emotions that children display. If a child doesn’t want to celebrate a birthday, don’t force him/her but try to do something they wish to do. However, if a child is showing signs of unhappiness and lack of motivation, there will be an underlying reason for it which will need unravelling. A parent/ adult could try talking to the child or if need be find a trained therapist who may be able to help. It is only through open communication and being able to notice signs that we may be able to stop abuse in the future. Abuse is a complex subject, which is why I continue to write about it, not only to understand it more myself but also to help others.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Speaking out

I recently saw a thought provoking question on Twitter and felt the urge to answer. It said: “If you are a survivor of abuse, what might have helped you to tell someone sooner?” It is certainly a difficult question to answer because I can’t imagine how things might have been different for me. I was a very open, talkative child but still I stayed silent. Survivors of abuse carry a lot of shame and will therefore keep the secret to themselves for a long time, usually for as long as about 20 years. However, as a society it is within our power to change this pattern and ensure that children are protected and able to speak openly.

Firstly, I believe it is the responsibility of adults, such as parents, teachers and doctors, to be aware of behaviour in children and how it differs in those who are being abused. The next step would be to arrange a therapeutic intervention with a child that might enable disclosure; this could be made easier for children if they are educated on the topic of abuse and made to realise that it is wrong. Survivors of abuse will have a blurred understanding of abuse because they will probably have been lead to believe that it is normal. In my experience it was normalised so in my childhood I didn’t actually know that what was happening to me was wrong. 

I say this a lot, but education is key. We can’t expect children to speak out if they haven’t been educated about abuse. And even if they are aware of it, they still may not wish to disclose if they have feelings of guilt and shame. At the same time, professional adults who work with children also need to have a better understanding of the effects of abuse; it might only take one conversation with a child to discover what is happening behind closed doors. It is then equally important that the child is listened to, believed and that action is taken to stop any further harm to the child. 

In my experience, it has helped to speak with other abuse survivors because we tend to understand and relate to each other. As a result of comments I have had on this blog, I know that my writing has also helped others to know they are not alone and to feel inspired to heal. Therefore, I know that I must keep writing about the topic. However, this has all happened in my adult life when it has certainly not been too late but I can see that my life has been affected as a result of the abuse. Therefore, it is essential that we help children from a young age so that they may lead better lives than a lot of us who had to suffer in silence for years. The silence needs to be filled with education, support and understanding.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Counselling survivors of abuse

Over the years I have had therapy with a number of counsellors and my experiences have varied. I feel that I am now at a point where I am able to reflect on what worked well for me and what didn’t. In this post I’d like to include some ideas for counsellors who are considering working with survivors of abuse and trauma.

First session

Consider the fact that the client may have never spoken about the abuse until the first session. Therefore, be mindful of how much information you ask of the client as you don’t want to re-traumatize. The client may have trust issues so a therapist needs to work towards building a good rapport and a trusting relationship. I would certainly advise against asking too many questions, which may feel like an interrogation to the client, and it might make the client feel judged and anxious.

Comfort

Tell your client that they can have comfort breaks if they wish. Anxiety can lead to an increased need to go to the toilet, and unfortunately if a counsellor doesn’t offer comfort breaks, the client may suffer in silence. Counsellors may need to consider physically offering tissues to the client if they don’t ask. Survivors of trauma are generally terrified of expressing needs and may endure physiological discomfort rather than ask for help.

Silence

Silence can be a dangerous place for survivors, so counsellors need to manage it carefully. Counsellors should generally speak less than clients, but if there is silence, a counsellor may feel the need to fill it with speech. The resulting problem is the fact that a survivor is not given the opportunity to find their voice. So gently encourage the client to speak and check how he/she is feeling. 

Dissociation

Be mindful of the fact that the client might be so out of contact with their body that they only inhabit their head and lose contact with all inner sensations. Survivors may avoid all sensations, feelings and thoughts, so it is important to help them integrate inner experiences. A good suggestion for survivors is physical exercise, which can allow them to regain contact with their body and feel in tune with their body.

Non-judgement

Survivors will often feel intense shame that they will have carried around for a long time. Therefore, if a counsellor is non-judgemental and emphasises that a child is never to blame, a client may feel comfort and dissolve the feelings of shame. Once the survivor realises how vulnerable they were, feelings of anger and grief may surface and the healing process will begin.

Education

Education about the psychological effects of abuse is important. If difficulties in life and ways to cope are explored, survivors will be able to better understand their range of behaviour or responses. This will enable a survivor to take control of his or her own life rather than be controlled by maladaptive behaviour.

The points I’ve mentioned may seem obvious to the reader, but unfortunately not all counsellors bear these things in mind when working with abuse survivors. I’ve heard a fair amount of horror stories from survivors, which I won’t mention here, but I only hope that counsellors will remember to be extra sensitive when dealing with people who don’t have a voice let alone self-esteem. Counsellors need to help survivors build self-esteem and enable their voice to be heard. Just being heard by one person can be such a release in itself and the starting ground for the healing process.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Breaking the silence

When someone shares a difficult or painful story, it is sometimes hard to know what to say. But an uncomfortable silence can sometimes hurt us more than words. In the case of survivors of abuse, they have probably hidden their story for a long time. Therefore, breaking the silence is of utmost importance. So imagine how they might feel if their story and feelings are not acknowledged?

Our response can be simple but effective, and most importantly it can show that we empathise. Whenever I listen to survivors and they share something that I sense is difficult, I say, “I’m sorry to hear about your experience, and I’m sorry that you are hurting right now.” My response not only shows empathy, but it also shows that I am joining the survivor in breaking the silence. I also thank survivors for sharing their story because I know how difficult it can be to put a traumatic experience into words.

Unfortunately, some people are insensitive and ignorant, and they are the people that could break the vulnerable. I’m sure we’ve all met those people whose response to your story is an experience of their own or another story that they have heard. I have experienced this myself and I know how hurtful it can be. The person may well have heard a similar story but they didn’t hear my story. What these people are really saying is, “Your story isn’t important.” They are wrong. Everyone’s story is important and everyone deserves a voice. 

The most critical factor in recovery from trauma is the strength of the surrounding community. That is why survivors often support each other through strength and compassion. However, in society, survivors of rape and abuse are often discouraged from speaking about it, and people generally shy away from the topics. But silence makes an epidemic seem rare and isolates survivors further, which makes it terribly difficult to speak out. It is for this very reason that we must bring the topics of rape and sexual abuse out of the shadows. It may feel uncomfortable to talk about it, but it is certainly more uncomfortable for the people who have endured these awful experiences.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

The key to my past

Child sexual abuse (CSA) has lifelong effects that are often not recognised or understood. Sexual abuse usually takes place in secret and is therefore kept secret. Due to the silence surrounding CSA, children are forced to endure the abuse and its effects alone. As a result, adult survivors often continue to feel alone and isolated. It is quite common for survivors to not remember the details but only have a vague recollection that something wrong has happened.

As a child I learnt many coping mechanisms, one of which was to pretend nothing was wrong. My story had been written but I decided to rip it to shreds, lock it up in a cupboard and throw away the key. That locked cupboard remained untouched for many years until one tragic day; the day I found the key to my inner pain and depression. During the ensuing period I can only describe what I experienced as shock and inner turmoil. My whole life had been turned upside down in a split second and I felt alone and helpless. It would be nice to think that I pieced together my story, had a few sessions of therapy and moved on with my life but, unfortunately, it’s not quite that straightforward. 

When I felt ready and able to face therapy it not only helped me to start feeling better about myself but it enabled me to remember some of those repressed memories. The frustrating element was that I could only remember certain parts of the story. Speaking with other survivors reassured me that childhood blackouts, in which large chunks of time are forgotten, can be common. After that period of therapy I felt able to move on with my life but the memories did not stop there, in fact they kept popping up, sometimes at inopportune moments.

Three years after my initial therapy, whilst living in China, I had a rather disturbing memory that I couldn’t just brush away. I vividly remember an evening filled with music when I danced under the stars wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with my name. It might sound like a happy memory but there was also a dark side and a feeling of discontent that emerged. The only uncertainty I felt as a result was the age of the little girl in the memory. A photo that captured my vivacity that night confirmed that I was in fact 4 years old. Having previously believed that the abuse started much later in my childhood, I had to once again grieve for that little girl and the childhood I lost.

Repressed memories are like jigsaw pieces that depict the story of our lives, they don’t necessarily emerge in a logical order but will resurface at their own pace. Therapy and healing will therefore take time, there is no quick fix solution. While it is difficult to confront these unknown memories and work towards recovery from childhood abuse, healing is possible. I feel I can safely say that I’ve recovered most of my shreds of paper and locked them away again. However, I’m glad that I am able to open that cupboard and share my experience with others, not only to raise awareness of the long-term effects of CSA but also to show other survivors that they are not alone. 


                                                          The aforementioned photo of me aged 4