Breaking Generational Cycles: Forgiveness

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash 
white tulips are symbolic of forgiveness, purity, and serenity

Emotions tend to run high around the idea of forgiveness when it comes to child abuse and especially child sexual abuse (CSA). Understandably so. I am not advocating that you forgive your abuser(s), especially if you are in the early stages of coming to terms with what happened to you. There are so many things to factor in including the relationship to your abuser, the severity of the abuse, the timeframe, your resilience, other illnesses, advice from your trauma therapist, and whether you have a support system. When you read stories about parents forgiving their child’s murderer and other profound acts of forgiveness, there are almost always certain things present such as a long and deep faith tradition with years of healing, pondering, and counseling.

It is not to be taken lightly. Here’s a quote from a good article on what forgiveness is and what it is not:

True forgiveness means acknowledging that our suffering matters—to us, the one who’s lived it—whether or not the other person ever agrees with us.  We say, you matter—to our own heart.  And it bears repeating… we do all this with or without the other’s awareness.  Forgiveness is an inside job.

Nancy Colier LCSW, Rev.

 And here are 5 myths about biblical forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is not something anyone else can tell you to do, much less tell you when you are ready for it or if it’s right for your mental health, your family, or your situation. It is a profoundly personal decision and should be respected as such.

All that said, I do suggest that you forgive yourself for thinking any of it was your fault and for your mistakes. Those who cannot carry their own shame are more than happy to shift it onto their victims. As far as mistakes, you were likely hampered by changes in your brain and brain chemistry. Chances are that if you experienced childhood trauma, you made some mistakes that were driven by forces that you were unaware of. Trauma research is fairly new. Be gentle with yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Learn, apologize, make amends when appropriate, and move on.

You have to have a strong support system and it helps to be in trauma therapy to tackle this stuff – to open Pandora’s box – especially while raising children. If you can do it before you have kids, that’s fantastic. That was not the case for me. There were few therapists who understood trauma when I was raising my two, plus I didn’t understand all the implications of my own abuse and so shoved all of it aside for a couple of decades.

The worst mistake I made was leaving my son with my mother for five days while his sister and I were out of town at the Betty Ford Family Program. He was too young for the children’s program. Knowing what I know now, I would never have done it. At least it came after my threat that we would cut her off entirely if she was not kind to him. She changed her behavior (and I was seriously, though still privately, angry knowing she could control it after all those years). There was no difference in my son before and after, but in light of what I’ve learned, it was still a mistake. We just got lucky.

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You always think abuse is personal. It is personal and it also is not. Abusers abuse. That’s what they do. It’s not specific to you – or rather only to you – you were close, convenient, and powerless. Believing it was only about her was why my mother left me with her mother and stepfather when she went to Vegas with my dad for a week. Years later, when I was finally dealing with the fallout from my abuse, I realized that something did happen to me that week, but by that point, my trauma therapist advised that since it fit with the family pathology, there was no reason to dig it all up. I’d already processed plenty in order to see the patterns and to heal.

I chose to forgive my mother and my family because to me that seems like the true completion of the full cycle. She never forgave her stepfather and ended up bitter and alone, full of hate. I do not want to end up the same way, so forgiveness is the difficult last step to truly break the cycle. It does not mean that any of it was okay, but rather it unhooks me from the situation and frees me from it. I still feel anger sometimes. I certainly still feel the effects of the abuse. I am also able to place the blame and shame on them instead of me. Forgiveness means I am free to be in this moment, unshackled from the past. Finally.

What trauma does to you: Muscle Armoring

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We’re always tense, always on guard, those of us with CPTSD.

Braced.

Tight.

Clenched.

Muscle armoring goes along with hypervigilance. The body is perpetually preparing for flight, preparing to fight, or stuck in freeze. There’s often pain when the muscles are constantly tensed and overworked. There can also be body imbalances, fibromyalgia, and breathing problems due to the ribcage muscles being locked up. Muscle armoring is another coping mechanism developed in an unstable childhood where you never knew when or where the next attack, verbal, physical, even silent, was coming from.

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According to Urbanfitt.com:

FUNCTIONS OF MUSCULAR ARMOR:
* Keeps potentially explosive emotions contained

*Acts as a protective coping mechanism resulting from the fight or flight impulse being continually inhibited into a state of freeze often experienced in victims of abuse. See Polyvagal Theory 

*Wards off the emotions of others and provide a physical barrier to external stress or threat like a protective container.

*Creates a sense of physical safety and containment as a coping mechanism to deal with chronic stressful life events

Body armor and character armor are essentially the same. Their function is trying to protect yourself against the pain of not expressing things that society says you may not express. Muscular armor is character armor expressed in body, muscular rigidity.

Armoring is the sum total of the muscular attitudes which a person develops as a defense against the breakthrough of emotions, especially anxiety, rage, sexual excitation. Character armor is the sum total of all the years of the muscular attitudes that have also been incorporated in the person’s character through a more stimulated habitual nervous system response.

An armored person doesn’t feel their armor because it develops over time and, as such, we wouldn’t notice the accumulation of muscular tension, fascial adhesions and blocks.  What is body armor made of?  Hypertonic fascia.  We accumulate denser connective tissue (that is, fascia) when we engage in body armoring.

http://urbanfitt.com/the-bodybraid-somatic-healing-and-body-armoring/

Urbanfitt.com offers the Body Braid as a way to reprogram body armor. I have not tried it, but it sounds very intriguing.

What is self-love?

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Here are 22 components of self-love that was published anonymously in the UK a few years ago. I edited some of the definitions because I don’t believe it’s about worshipping yourself, but rather breaking old trauma patterns and silencing old voices in order to learn how to value your unique self and treat yourself with loving kindness:

1. Self-acceptance:

A sense of comfort and ease with yourself, accepting all that you are, your strengths, weakness to understand that you are of singular worth.

2.  Self-appreciation:

Acknowledgement, recognition, and admiration of your individual qualities and that there is only one precious you.

3. Self-awareness:

A clear understanding of your personality, strengths, weaknesses, qualities, and flaws.

4. Self-care:

Looking after yourself. Taking care of your physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental health. Increasing your well-being through healthy self-care.

5. Self-compassion:

Being gentle, empathetic, and showing loving kindness to yourself. Being understanding of your current situation.

6. Self-confidence:

Trusting yourself and relying on your own judgment. The positive image you have of yourself and the courage of your convictions.

7. Self-empowerment:  

Taking full responsibility for your life. Taking actions to create the life you want. The degree to which you exercise your power over your perceptions and emotions in order to do what is necessary for your own self-growth.

8. Self-assured:

The ability to relax and employ your abilities and strengths in any given situation.

9. Self-worth:

A healthy, balanced opinion of yourself with the knowledge that you have every right to be here and express yourself.

10. Self-esteem:

Holding yourself in healthy regard. Being a friend to yourself.

11. Self-belief:

The deep knowing that you are worthy and deserving of the good things that you are bringing or can bring into your life.

12. Positive self-image:

Feeling good about yourself, having a positive view of yourself.

13. Self-honesty:

Unwavering commitment to the truth about yourself and how your actions, thoughts, and choices affect your life and the people around you.

14. Self-forgiveness:

Clearing out negative self-judgment and negative self-criticism. Remembering that you are human and will always making mistakes, which is all part of the learning process. Allowing yourself to let go of past hurts and disappointments you have endured when you felt that you let yourself down or didn’t have access to the resources, knowledge, or the support you needed when you made the decisions which hurt you.

15. Self-trust:

Ability to look inside yourself for the answer. The confidence you have in your intuition and knowledge.

16. Self-respect:

Making choices that honor your soul, having pride in yourself, and behaving with dignity.

17. Self-pleasure:

Consistently choosing to create opportunities to allow yourself to receive and experience play, pleasure, and fun. Inviting opportunities for happiness and feeding your soul with joy.

18. Self-expression:

Allowing yourself freedom of expression, being unapologetic, allowing the real you to shine.

19. Self-resilience:

The ability to bounce back from setbacks, adversity, and other negatives. The ability to get yourself back up after being knocked down.

20. Self-honor:

Having integrity in your own beliefs and actions and the determination to do the right thing.

21. Self-realization:

Fulfillment of the possibilities of your character or personality. The ability to distinguish your true self from your ego.

22. Self-approval:

Liberation! No need to wait for others approval or feel you have to prove yourself. Accepting who you are and where you are now. Appreciating and being in agreement with yourself.

What Trauma Does to You: Hypervigilance

Hypervigilance is what it sounds like – a constant scanning of the environment, faces, postures, avenues of escape, and more. It feels like you are in constant danger and you need to plan for escape in case things take a turn for the worse, or the unexpected. It is the feeling of permanently walking on eggshells.

My experience involves being on guard at all times for anything unexpected, searching my own behavior for imperfections and searching other people’s behavior for signs they might attack or abandon me. This behavior was a natural response when my mother was screaming in the kitchen that she was going to kill herself, but there were enough similar and unpredictable incidents – being put on top of the fridge, ice water attacks, unexpected outbursts of emotion or violence – that I came to be always on guard. The physical violence happened very early and it was rare enough to ensure its unpredictability. Hypervigilance means both watching and being watched. My heart speeds up and my breathing becomes shallow. I hold my breath without realizing it.

I automatically create my own storehouse of information on a person’s body language, expressions, preferences, and habits. If something unexpected comes up, the trust that has been built up vanishes. This is the pattern that makes it so difficult for those of us with Complex PTSD to trust other people. We all have inconsistencies, but inconsistencies signal danger and a reason to distrust for those of us with Complex PTSD.  For me, tone of voice is probably the biggest clue because it is one of my strongest triggers. My mother used her voice as her primary weapon of attack and control and her tone could turn in an instant and that meant trouble.

My learned operating premise has been that if I can figure someone out, I have a decent chance of being safe or at least getting out before things get dangerous. The big downside for me is that this has been coupled with a deep and unconscious fear of looking below the surface of people’s stated intentions. What was below the surface in the house I grew up was too painful. Together with hypervigilance, that kind of naïveté was a formula for disaster.

Hypervigilance does nothing to mitigate the exaggerated startle response. You’d think always being on guard would prevent it, but that’s not how it works when brain chemistry is involved.

Another symptom of CPTSD related to hypervigilance is muscle armoring. When you are always on guard, muscles tense and that is what we’ll explore in the next post.

Tips for Breaking Generational Cycles, Part Four

  • This will be painful. These abusive behaviors travel through families until someone makes the decision to feel the pain. That is part of stopping the cycle. You will survive it and a good trauma therapist or group can make it easier to bear. Consult with a psychiatrist about an anti-depressant. I found that bupropion (generic for Wellbutrin) gave me an inner platform to stand on in order to face the worst of what happened to me when I was a child. EMDR worked for me in that regard as well. 
  • A good therapist who has been trained in trauma is invaluable. You may have to pay out of pocket, but there are also some very good therapists in the Medicare system in the U.S. If you need help finding one, look for someone who has training in EMDR. Whether or not you decide to pursue EMDR, it is an indicator that they are familiar with trauma and its after effects.
  • Do not rule out medication in consultation with a psychiatrist, again, one familiar with trauma. If you’re a trauma survivor, you may have Complex PTSD. If so, you may also be hypersensitive to medication.I found that a tiny dose of an antidepressant gave me enough of an internal platform to be able to look at the worst of what happened to me. Exercise,diet, and so on only go so far and do not let yourself be shamed by anyone else into foregoing prescription drug(s) that might help you. Take ownership of your healing and what’s right for you. Advice from others on natural or prescription drugs is not helpful because each of us is unique in how we react and what combination is right for our situation. No one has your background, genetic makeup, biochemistry, circumstances, reactions, etc. Take all suggestions with a very big grain of salt.
  • Try meetings that align with your issues and maybe some that don’t: AlAnon, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Debtors Anonymous,Gamblers Anonymous, etc. If 12-step isn’t right for you, there are the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), Survivors of Incest Anonymous (SIA), and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Sometimes it helps to hear familiar stories and circumstances to not feel so alone. Also, just because one doesn’t work doesn’t mean another won’t.If you don’t like one, try another. For me, the 12-step concept of powerlessness didn’t work because with childhood trauma, I always felt powerless. My life was not unmanageable and I did not have addictions, so for me it was more helpful to go to meetings with DBSA, SIA, and NAMI.
  • Volunteer with your kids and teach them that there are many things larger than themselves and other people with an entire spectrum of problems and difficulties. There’s almost always someone worse off or simply with a different set of problems. Helping others helps you as well. It can help get you out of your head and out of the house. I would recommend volunteering with an established organization, either religious or secular according to your preference. One of the activities my children and I did was a Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless at our parish. All priests in residence (usually six) were in attendance as well as police officers. Most of the people are fine, but some have untreated mental health issues or character issues. With eight hundred to twelve hundred people being fed, having security was a necessary precaution. There unfortunately have been people harmed going out on their own. Please stay safe. And have fun. 

What Trauma Does To You: The Hippocampus

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The hippocampus is part of the limbic system. It is roughly the shape of a seahorse and, as with the amygdalae, there is one in each temporal lobe in the middle bottom of the brain and they are about the size of your thumbs.

Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA Professor Laszlo Seress

Stress affects the amygdala,the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, often with lasting changes. Given the complexity of the brain, there are no easy answers and it’s entirely possible that both things may be true. These areas play a major role in anger and fear, memory, and motivations and play a major role in the “fight, freeze, or flight” response. The hippocampus is believed to be responsible for the processing of long-term memory and emotional responses. Some with CPTSD will have trouble retrieving memories and others will retain vivid memories of trauma and abuse. The elements of the limbic system can shrink in the presence of persistent ongoing childhood trauma. There is ongoing research as to whether a smaller hippocampus puts one at greater risk of PTSD rather than trauma impacting the structure. It makes sense though that for young children,the trauma alters the brain chemistry and the structures of in the developing brain.

Fortunately for victims of childhood trauma, the hippocampus demonstrates an unusual capacity for neuronal plasticity and regeneration. Exercise can regenerate neurons in the hippocampus. Growing up in La Jolla with an active lifestyle, bodysurfing, walking up Nautilus Street every day probably healed some of what the house I grew up did to me at least as far as my hippocampi were concerned.