How To Heal The Trauma From Sexual Abuse
Anne: Rachel, how did you arrive where you are now to specialize in sexual abuse recovery coaching?
Even though he was out of the house, that didn’t really do anything to stop the experiences and thoughts I now was having on a day-to-day basis (I’ve done something to cause this…I’m bad…I’m broken…I’m unlovable….I’m worthless) Those thoughts remained with me over the next 16 years. They were there during a 10-year abusive relationship. They were there in every moment of feeling suicidal. They were there in my day-to-day walk.
How Do I Actually Heal From Sexual Abuse Trauma?
I found myself in this moment in my mid-20s and now divorcing and I was in a new apartment. All I really had was my sleeping bag and a lamp. I had one of those “oh” moments. I realized that this was not good; my life is not looking the way I want it to look. I had a little sit-down talk with myself in that moment and said, “Rachel, enough is enough. You’ve got to figure this out. You’ve been avoiding thinking about the abuse and really doing anything about it on a real level, for so long, and now is the time.”
This is what really propelled me. I became obsessed. I decided that I had to answer that question. I’ve got to figure out how do I actually heal from this trauma? I began reading everything I could. I did my master’s in counseling psychology and I started studying neuroscienceand things began to click into place. I discovered how the brain is really impacted by trauma and abuse. I began to think that I could take this information and I could develop simple strategies and skills that are going to help me heal and guarantee that I don’t spend the rest of my life in recovery. I just was really trying to get myself together. That was the impetus of all of this.
What started to happen was that everything I was learning began to coalesce into lessons and curriculum. My background is actually in teaching and education. My mind just naturally goes there. So bit by bit, I began to put together what was making a difference for me; this is now today the Beyond Surviving program. This is the roadmap I use when working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse who are at the same place–ready to break free.
Anne: I’m in the phase where I want to be done with the trauma. I want to be healed. I want to be on my way and yet I am still having triggers; I’m still having trouble with self-care. But I can see completeness in the horizon. I believe it is possible and I am working toward it. I am very excited about that day. I don’t know what that is going to look like. I don’t know if I am going to wake up and realize this is the day but I know it’s possible. This is the only thing I do know.
Being In A Place Of Possibility To Overcome Sexual Abuse Trauma
Rachel: This is so key because staying in the place of possibility even when the unknowns are still there, this can be really challenging. To do this and to stay in this space is what propels us forward and moving towards that day. In my experience, there were little moments that would happen. Here is me showing up in my life so radically different. One of the things I often tell my clients is our goal here ultimately is to heal an injury, just like we would heal any other injury like a broken leg. We don’t spend the rest of our lives trying to manage a broken leg! Or thinking that since we broke our leg, that’s just how it is and there is nothing that we can do about it. We do things to heal and to mend. Eventually we can think about that day that we broke our leg but it doesn’t have the same charge. It doesn’t have that impact. It just becomes a piece of our story and our journey. For me, when I started to notice this was happening more and more was when I started to feel this key transition.
The other side of that coin is when stuff if happening in our lives in the present day, is how are we responding to it…do we feel equipped with “Here is a new challenge” or does this throw us back into our history and our past and our trauma, or do we say, “Ok, I’m dealing with a particular issue right here in the present and I know how to do it; I have a tool kit that really helps me navigate that from a grounded and empowered place.”
Anne: I will go back into that trauma mode but not for very long any more. I did it over the weekend. And I said, “I know what to do…” but I decided that I didn’t want to quite yet. Today I just want to be here in my sadness and my anger and my bitterness and I just want to feel this! I sat in it for a while and woke up the next day and decided to use my tools so the whole day was not shot
Setbacks While Dealing With Sexual Abuse Trauma
Rachel: I love that you are saying this because I think one of the things that can be a trap for those who have experienced trauma and are in this place of navigating life is that we have a setback or a day when we just aren’t feeling it, or we’re particularly tender: we might be hungry, tired, stressed, overwhelmed, and so our ability to access that toolkit or willingness to access it is depleted! If we can be kind and gentle to ourselves during those moments and then can say that tomorrow is a new day and I can pick it up then, this is so powerful. Even the distinction of being able to notice what we are doing–like, “Yes, I’m curling up right now, getting cozy with my negative feelings or beliefs and this awareness in and of itself it very healing–rather than having this experience say that everything is wrong or bad or back to where I started.”
Anne: Observing it from a distance, looking at myself and giving myself permission to feel a certain way–this meta-cognition and ability to observe my own thinking patterns and thoughts–is different than what I had before.
How is it that our thinking gets in the way of our connecting with our genuine self and letting go of the pain in the abuse? Talk about when we are not using our tools.
Understanding The Brain Is Key To Overcoming Sexual Abuse Trauma
Rachel: One of the things that I discovered is that the way the brain is processing information is really important for us to understand why we have the reactions we have in the present day. The brain is comprised of neurons and there are billions and billions of these little guys. As we are having these experiences, these neurons are talking to each other and creating neuronal pathways. For example, if you think about the first time you had pumpkin pie, in that moment a neuronal pathway is being created and associations are being built in: who was there, where you were, what the smells were, did you like it or not, right here today as I ‘m talking about pumpkin pie, that same exact neuronal pathway is being lit up. What is really fascinating about this is that every time a pathway is lit up, it is reinforced. But it is also added to.
Now the initial memory of pumpkin pie and this moment of listening to this redhead talk about pumpkin pie are combining. The pathway has been expanded, it has been reinforced. When it comes to pumpkin pie, that’s not a bad thing! Awesome, I have more memories of pumpkin pie! But when it’s a memory of trauma, what is happening is that the neuronal pathways is holding associations–sites, smells, colors, textures, words–so that in the present day when we come into contact with something that even closely resembles those associations, the same neuronal pathway lights up and it causes the system to respond as if the thing that was happening back then is happening right now. This is essentially what being triggered or having a flashback really is.
How Neuroplasticity Can Play A Role In Healing From Sexual Abuse Trauma
I wanted to see if I could actually create new associations, if I could create new neuronal pathways so I could decrease the things in my exterior world that would be triggering and so I could really transform my internal thinking; those belief systems that become entrenched for survivors. I was talking about some of them earlier–I’m not good enough, people are out to get me, I’m here to be used. Along the way I began to develop strategies to help with just that–to my mind at the end of the day, I really wanted to think about trauma as an injury–an injury to the brain and therefore what do we do to heal the brain. There are lots of entry points to heal the brain. Some people go through the body, some do a combination. For me starting on that belief system level was really impactful and was what ultimately helped me transform my life.
Anne: I was at the Utah Coalition Against Pornography conference and a woman came up to me and said that she really appreciated my podcast and that it is so helpful. She said that one of the things the podcast has done for her was that it helped her identify as a victim, which she hadn’t done before; that it created this space for her to do that. I thought this was really interesting. I agree with her; before I could heal I had to acknowledge I had been wounded. We literally are victims.
There is something that happened that we had no control over that we hand nothing to do with; we were injured by it, then we had to step out of that into healing and not stay in victim mode. It’s more like victims against victimhood. I found a lot of women, especially women in our community who are wives or ex-wives of porn users, with abusive men and they are having a hard time wrapping their heads around that they really had nothing to do with it. They really, literally are a victim of abuse. One of the reasons they have a hard time wrapping their head around it is because abusive men manipulate and lie in a way that the woman thinks she has something to do with it.
Realizing We Have Been Victimized Is Essential In Addressing Sexual Abuse Trauma
In the 12-Steps, realizing we are a victim is key, as step 1: I am completely powerless over this situation. Same thing if we aren’t using 12-Step if we are using the Trauma Model. Number 1: I have been injured. Then getting ourselves to the hospital!
Rachel: When you were sharing this it reminded me of a moment with my ex-husband. I was washing dishes and he knocked one of the glasses onto the floor and it shattered. He turned to me and said, “What’s wrong with you? I don’t understand why you always do things like this!” I thought, “What’s happening here?” This was my first thought. About 10 minutes later I was apologizing.
One of the things I’ve really put together and seen over the years of working is that there are stages. They are not necessarily linear but we do have this initial stage of victim. It often looks like the place we are are in of denial about what happened–we’re just not ready to look at it; it’s too much; it’s too scary, too overwhelming. The bridge from victim to survivor is acknowledgment, just like you said. That moment when we realize something happened and it is a big deal and it matters and is impacting my life. As soon as we acknowledge this it opens the door to work into the stage of survivor hood which is where we begin to acknowledge a name and talk about what happened and get a better sense of where we struggle, why we struggle, and what all the connections are. The thing I am on a mission about is making sure that women don’t get stuck there. It’s very easy to get stuck there. We need to keep our eye on the fact that there is a next step of really getting to what I call beyond surviving; some people call it thriving or beyond recovery.
Anne: I have been on this survivor/victim kick for a little bit. I’ve been the opposite. At first I said I was an abuse survivor. And then I realized that it’s not over. I didn’t survive the Titanic, it sunk, and now I’m on dry land. I still have an abusive ex-husband who is still abusive to my children and still harasses me through my dad. Technically speaking, I am still an ongoing victim of abuse. So I’m wondering what I call myself? An abuse sufferer?! I am actively, proactively–I have a no-contact boundary and I go to my coach–these are the things I do but it doesn’t take away the fact that I still have someone in my life who is actively abusing me. I think so many women are in this situation. From your perspective, they went from sitting in victimhood and then going to a survivor who is doing something about it?
Acknowledge The Wound And Being A Victim To Overcome Sexual Betrayal Trauma
Rachel: Yes. You’re right. Language is so important and has really defined the woman’s movement. That moment when women could start saying “survivor” was impactful; it was very powerful and I think I’m in the same boat with you. There might be some shifting and moving that needs to happen along the way here so we can again use language to further refine and define what this journey is really like. It’s so tricky when you find yourself in that place of internal healing–internally you have the structures and systems that now feel complete; you feel resolved and healed and then in day-to-day life you are walking back into or interacting with someone who is maintaining abusive behaviors.
Anne: In many women’s cases, because they share children with this person, because the way the laws are and other situations, they cannot have zero contact with their abuser. In many cases it’s their sexual abuser because in many cases for the women who listen to this podcast, it’s their husbands who were sexually abusive.
It’s a very tricky situation. I have been calling us Sheroes. We have all of our equipment on; we have our helmet, our tools and we still have to run into the burning building.
Being Equipped To Fight The Challenges Of Sexual Betrayal Trauma
Rachel: I love that. Sheroes is really beautiful. The image that is coming to mind for me is a shielded survivor in the sense that you are going into this place where you are going to be interacting with someone who is going to be throwing abusive language or behavior towards you and the distinction is do you absorb it or take it in? Do you own it; does it impact you? Or do you have this new capacity to stand shielded in front of that. This takes so much courage and energy. Women out there, I applaud you! Especially when you have little people involved. A lot of my clients are parents. A lot of them are navigating abusive situations either by currently being in them or having left them. I have a lot of heart for this because it is definitely one of the more difficult things to navigate in this journey. I think Sheroes is heading in the right direction!
Anne: It wasn’t until this weekend that I realized how triggery the word “survivor” is for me. I thought, “Why?” It’s because to me it implies that the thing that almost killed me is done. I survived the tornado. When a person is constantly in the tornado, it doesn’t feel like you are a survivor; it feels like, “I’m really good at standing inside a tornado.” The word for this is Sheroe–I’m really good at sinking on the Titanic every day, all day long. It’s so fun!
How can survivors break free–there is that word!–I’m a bit triggered by that. Isn’t it weird what triggers us? How can women break free from the pain of sexual abuse?
Breaking Free Of The Pain Of Sexual Abuse
Rachel: In my work and in my journey what has made the biggest difference is first, knowing that there is breaking free–that it even exists. I was sitting with a therapist and talking about everything that happened and I asked what I could do about this; was there a way to have a normal life; could I be free from everything? This therapist turned to me and said, “No.” I started laughing and asked again and he said no and that this would be something I would always deal with. Being the stubborn redhead I am, I thought, “You are not right. That has got to be wrong.”
Rachel: But unfortunately, that message is dominant. So many of those of us who have experienced abuse or trauma get this message: it’s a life-long sentence. It shapes you forever. It never goes away… The first step to breaking free is wandering into this mindset shift of: “Maybe this really isn’t true. Maybe there really is something else.” What actually needs to happen and what order will produce the best result, so I get triggered. What am I going to do about that? That question really becomes the dominant theme and is really how we break free and move forward.
Anne: I could not agree with you more. Even if I do still feel like I am living in the tornado, I am actively working to–the way I say it is, “If I work hard enough and work on my own healing, I have enough faith that eventually he’ll get hit by a bus!” Right now I am proactively creating the life I want. I have my vision board. I have my tools and I recognize that these things still happen but I really do believe that I will eventually walk out of that tornado. I will walk out of this tornado alive and happy and everything will work out. Right now I just happen to still be in the tornado, actively working towards that day where I stand on the hill and I am free and there is no tornado. It is very exciting! I think this is what so many women are working towards. And yet when you are in a tornado, you get exhausted and you sit down and don’t do anything.
Take A Recovery Time Out To Heal From Sexual Abuse Trauma
Rachel: That’s right. Take a recovery time out! Please do this, because it is effort and a strain on your system; it’s heart and brain-centered. You are doing all this work and putting food on the table; you’re doing your job; you’re taking care of the kids. Set aside what I call “recovery time-outs.” Back in the day I had to really pretend that life is great–I’m going to do something that brings me joy. I’m not going to think about anything that needs to be fixed; I’m not going to think about using any tools. I’m just going to be here in my life for a little minute. My capacity for that was like 5 minutes at one point; it was all I could really do before everything came back in. Eventually I got to the place where I had a bigger capacity and could spend almost an entire day free from it all. The next day it would all be there and I would be back in, doing my work, doing my reflections, using my tools. I’m glad you brought this forward because we need the moments of reprieve so we can re-energize so we can keep moving forward. I love your vision of standing on a hill top and that all of this stuff is no longer able to reach you.
Anne: That tornado may still be raging somewhere but you don’t have to be standing in it anymore. I don’t think we need to know the answers about how and when that would happen as long as we are actively working towards it. My guess is that one day I will just realize, “I’m fine.” It hasn’t happened yet but I imagine this may be how it happens.
Realizing The Sexual Abuse Trauma Has No More Hold
Rachel: There is this moment maybe about 9 or 10 years ago. I was sitting on my coach, reading a book; my cat was on my lap. There were candles. It was a night at home. And then I looked up and realized my life if so boring! Thank God!! It was like that–when life is just happening; it’s good and quiet and there isn’t this chaos and worry and stress happening. It snuck up on me. It wasn’t like I knew before that moment that I was there.
Anne: Exactly! When people ask if I am going to do something fun this weekend, right now I think, “Oh, I hope not.” No, I’m working towards boring! Can I get there?! Rachel, you have done so much for childhood sexual abuse survivors and I so appreciate you.
Rachel: I appreciate you and it’s nice to connect with your community. For you women out there who are dealing with abusive men in your life and have also experienced childhood abuse. If there is any way I can be a support to you I welcome you to reach out. There are lots of resources available at the website with opportunities to connect. Please don’t hesitate.
Anne: Thank you again, Rachel. Make sure to visit Rachel’s website. We are grateful for her coming to talk about these issues today. These issues frequently do come up in relation to being married to a current abuser or current sex addict. Please don’t put off getting support until the Fall, thinking you’ll wait until school is in session or that things will be better when your kids are in school. Now is the time to practice some of these things and get to safety.
Our Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group has sessions every single day. We used to have two on Tuesdays and Wednesdays but we’ve changed the schedule. Also, because summer is so tough, we’ve decided to do a summer special with 20% off individual sessions. If you use the code summerwsarah you can schedule an individual session with Sarah. You can use this code for any of our coaches to get individualized help about specific situations like, “I’m going to be going on a vacation” or “My parents are coming into town. How do I deal with the abuse or set boundaries while they are staying with me?” or “How do I recognize the gas lighting coming from my father and set boundaries about it?” Similarly, “How do I set boundaries with my husband when I’m on vacation with other people? Situations like these really need individual assistance. It doesn’t matter when you schedule it. It can be scheduled for September, as long as they are scheduled before July 15. We are encouraging people to schedule with Sarah if they are interested in gas lighting or boundaries.
Until next week, stay safe out there.