Feeling Yourself Again

find yourselfGroup sessions in the jail start with each inmate’s putting a name to how she’s feeling. “Fine” and “ok” don’t actually describe feelings and usually invite further questioning. Often inmates feel anxious, in which case a little conversation ensues to make provision for the inmate to get the support she might need with a particular issue. Inmates also often feel angry or frustrated, and that generally leads to conversation about the emotions underlying anger and their origin not in the present circumstance but in some past experience.

Recently an inmate responded that she felt herself, and that it had been a long time since she felt like herself. She had struggled with drug addiction since adolescence, and on one level she was referring to the feeling of a clear head. She meant more than that, though. She turned to drugs to escape herself. She believed the lie that she deserved the child sexual abuse perpetrated against her, and she hated herself for being that child. And then she hated herself for all the things she did to become someone different. Two months in jail was the first time in her adult life that she stopped running from who she was. As she shed the various pretenses she had donned like armor, she became acquainted with the vulnerable, wounded, sweet person she really was. It was a little frightening but also a relief.

Maybe I’m thinking of her story because I am feeling relieved to feel myself again. I had a close encounter with poison ivy 26 days ago, and I have been a histamine disaster area since then. The histamines drop my already low blood pressure even lower and mess with gastric acids, so I’ve felt light headed and queasy most of the month. The histamine tidal wave started to recede yesterday, and even though my skin is still crawling off me and I look like a burn victim, I am relieved to start feeling myself again.

Or maybe I’m thinking of her story because a friend loaned me Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond. In it Rohr talks about casting off elements of our assumed identity to encounter what Rohr calls the True Self, our divinely created essence. Lawrence Kushner might call it our Holy Spark. There’s a divine, good and true impetus motivating all our actions, even if some of our deeds turn out to be very poorly executed, hampered by badly impaired responses or encrusted with, in AA lingo, character defects. Using either the Christian or Jewish construct, the spiritual work is to surrender those ideas or behaviors that hold one back from recognizing oneself as the dearly loved child of God that one truly is.

It seems like we spend half our lives figuring out who we are or who we want to be and trying to live out that vision for our lives. And then we spend the other half of our lives unlearning a lot of what we thought we learned about ourselves. While it might be painful or frightening to surrender a part of one’s identity, it can also be an unburdening and something of a relief.

Join the conversation. What have you unlearned that helped you find your True Self?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Healing from Shame


The tentacles of shame can reach through decades of a person’s life, wrapping around seemingly unconnected events and wrenching the joy from life.  I have friends whose shame originated in childhoods in which they never felt up to grade.  They always felt deficient in some significant and identity shaping way.  For some it was a constant stream of criticism.  For others it was as seemingly benign as a home focus on appearances rather than on the truth, subtly but unmistakably suggesting that the truth is never good enough.

I also have friends whose shame reaches up out of childhood trauma.  That trauma might have been the sudden loss of a parent or, as the Penn State abuse scandal tragically highlights, more often than we want to acknowledge it is child sexual abuse.  The child is made to feel that he is in some way culpable for his own abuse, or in an insidious distortion of logic, the child believes the fact that the trauma happened stands as proof that it was deserved.

The truth, though, is that shame has little to do with the bad things that happened to someone or the bad things someone did.  It has everything to do with the lies that someone started believing about himself when he tried to make sense of a bad situation.  Believing a lie—that the truth is never good enough or that children are responsible for adult actions against them or that you are not credible and no one will believe you—keeps the tentacles of shame alive and strong.  Even incredibly successful people suffer from shame.  In fact, it is their unending need to prove to themselves that they are good enough that propels their success.

While some lies are memories from a long past childhood, or “childhood tapes,” other lies get constant reinforcement.  Many messages propagated in our media, particularly those that connect one’s worth to appearance or wealth, are lies.  Anyone with a TV is constantly exposed to them.  When thinking about parents who won’t forgive, I realized that elderly parents can perpetuate shame lies also.  In the case of forgiveness, people may hold on to resentment because it is the only connection to another person they think they need in their lives.  Paradoxically, the resentment is rooted in intense desire—not rejection.

Similarly, disapproving parents might ache for the time when their kids prized their parents’ approval.  As kids grow up, they find their satisfaction not from parent approval but from the mark they are leaving on the world—in their careers, relationships or communities.  Parents may perpetuate criticism hoping against hope that the adult child will respond by seeking the parent’s approval again.  In any case, it is a lie.  More specifically, it is a manipulation designed to elicit a certain response rather than an honest observation grounded in reality.  The notion that one needs a parent’s approval is a lie as well.  Is it nice to have?  Certainly.  Is it necessary for happiness and joy?  By no means.

Healing from shame doesn’t happen magically when we recall the events that triggered it.  It is when we call out those lies and speak the truth about ourselves to ourselves that true healing begins.

Join the conversation.  Are there lies that you believe about yourself?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Scandal

I’ve been saddened by recent accounts of sexual abuse in prestigious college sports programs. The comment has been made that people who gravitate to youth and to the physicality of sports might provide an environment where pedophiles fit in.  The comment has also been made that raging hormones and a fascination with sexual experience make boys and young men especially vulnerable targets.  Both lead one to wonder how isolated or pervasive the predatory activity is.  I imagine university presidents and trustees all over the country are asking themselves the same thing.

Regardless of how pervasive the problem is in college sports, I hope the news coverage brings people who have survived sexual abuse out of isolation. Perhaps the most insidious and lasting effect of child sexual abuse is the persistent shame saddled on its victims.  There is a kind of circular thinking in which the fact that the crime happened is interpreted as proof that it must have been deserved.  It takes the separation of many years to detangle that twisted perspective. It takes courage to confront both the lies and the hard underlying truth. It takes real maturity to overcome shame.  It is no wonder whatsoever that survivors come forward years or decades later.  I have nothing but admiration and respect for those who do so in their own time.

I also hope hidden perpetrators get caught.  The combination of survivors realizing they are not alone and nervous university presidents and trustees may heighten the exposure.  No one should be above the law, but it goes without saying that many—sports figures are joined here by politicians, clergy, and even police—have demonstrated a differing view.  The story of human pride and downfall is as old as history itself.  Icarus perished flying too close to the sun, and Pharaoh was the bible’s biggest loser.  It may be naive to hope high profile sexual abusers stop feeling entitled.  University financial self-interest (if not moral decency), however, is a reasonable place for hope.  I hope universities proactively search out and excise offenders (and those who protect them) in a way the Catholic hierarchy never did.

The twin keys to crime are motive and opportunity.  Universities can clamp down on opportunities if they choose to do so.  Motive is trickier.  Whatever sexually attracts adults to prepubescent and post-pubescent teenagers can be treated behaviorally (CBT) and chemically (“chemical castration”), but treatment efficacy is unclear and the human cost of recidivism is unacceptably high.  Child victims of abuse are more likely to be arrested for violent crime, to abuse drugs and alcohol, and to abuse other children.  It is for these three reasons—perpetrator recidivism, long term consequences on victims, and the long healing cycle—that statutes of limitations don’t fit this crime.  That’s just my opinion.

I imagine the sad revelations are heartbreaking to none more than to those high integrity individuals who have dedicated their careers to mentoring and guiding youth. Some people and institutions alike are driven by a mission to equip young people to be the best they can be.  It is unfortunate in the extreme that some in leadership positions, when confronted with alarming accusations, have blundered into choosing sides—disparaging the accuser in order to defend the accused.  The higher road is simply to defend the mission.

Join the conversation. What can you do to equip youth to lead us to a better future?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Addiction and Child Sexual Abuse: One Man’s Story of Healing

 A reader responding to my post on Releasing Resentment touched me deeply with this powerful story of healing and life change. It is my fervent hope that anyone locked in a bitter struggle to overcome child sexual abuse or addiction will find his words and, in doing so, will find the courage to stare down his or her demons.  

[In the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous,] I stalled on step 2 [came to believe that a Higher Power could restore me] because I did not want to do step 4 [searching and fearless moral inventory]. I had a feeling that something in step 4 had me stuck in a self destructive pattern, but I was not sure what it was. In denial, I thought I had resolved and closed the scars of child sexual abuse, but when you’re in denial that you are in denial it tends to cloud the picture. 

During an AA general discussion meeting, I don’t recall the topic, but I do recall the comment that “I had to always look for my part in a situation. If I’m wrong, make an amend. If someone else is wrong, forgive them.” This comment along with “keeping my side of the street clean” was enough to have me leave the meeting in tears.  In the parking lot after the meeting, I was so full of anger, bitterness, and resentment that I unloaded my rage on a trusted friend. I asked him just how the “heck” was I supposed to put all these nice ideas into practice when I was the victim of child sexual abuse. I told him that this might work for every other category of resentment but not for this sort of thing. Before he could answer me, I also told him not to insult me further by telling me that “it didn’t happen to me, that it just happened.” 

As tears filled my eyes, I paused to hear my friends answer. My friend paused as well. It seemed like an eternity before he spoke. As I waited for his response, I could not believe that I had shared with him my secret. I also could not believe the level of denial I was in that caused all of those emotions to finally burst to the surface.  Finally, when my friend began to speak, as he wiped a tear from his eye, he told me that I was not responsible for the abuse, but I was responsible for allowing it to destroy my life. 

For me, this is when my true healing began. I needed time to revisit steps 1-3 that I summarize as “I can’t, God can, and I should let Him.”  Once I admitted my part, I was able to move to accepting my part. Once I accepted my part, I was then able to clear the wreckage from the past based on the various ways I allowed child sexual abuse to keep me in bondage to a self-destructive pattern.  In other words, this is how “keeping my side of the street clean” allowed me to move past the self-destructive cycle of resentment, worthlessness, self-condemnation, self-hatred, and many other manifestations of self rooted in child sexual abuse.  Finally, I was able to understand the part of the serenity prayer of accepting the things I could not change, changing the things I could, and knowing the difference between the two. 

My story would not be complete if I did not share with you how during an AA men’s meeting, a third of the group shared that they had also experienced child sexual abuse. That meeting was so powerful and so much healing took place.  Several months later, a friend shared with me some dark secrets he carried related to his addiction to internet child pornography. Although he was now in recovery, he explained how it was still a struggle. 

The most amazing thing about this situation is because healing and forgiveness had taken place in my life, I was able to look at my friend with compassion and encouragement to help him on his journey through recovery.  I absolutely love the last paragraph in the appendix on the Spiritual Experience in the AA book. This paragraph states “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” – Herbert Spencer

Had I shown contempt for my friend, prior to investigation, I would not have been able to reap the benefits of additional healing by placing a face on my child sexual abuser. Additionally, the sharing of my experience with my friend was able to offer him additional healing by placing a face on his internet addiction. 

Praise be to God for this courageous survivor, and may God make steady the footsteps of all who seek healing through him!  

Join the conversation.  Would you consider sharing your story of healing and allowing God to act through you to offer hope to someone in pain?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.