Dissociating and Finding Your Way Back

As a survivor of sexual abuse and an advocate for other survivors, I spend a lot of time talking about abuse. I know a lot of people who have been abused. We talk about how we reacted in certain situations, how we felt, how things were similar, how things were different. It is my guess that people have other types of jobs and spent a lot of time with people doing the same kinds of things talk about similar experiences. Realtors have stories to share about what they’ve seen in houses. Farmers share stories about tractors and farm animals. Survivors of abuse talk about experiences of abuse.

In a recent text conversation with a friend, we were discussing memories and dissociating. I am using the text with my friend’s permission.

She said, “I think I broke a phone. I kicked a hole in a wall I thought was a real wall. It was not. It was drywall. I ran as fast as I could to my room, locked the door, shoved something in the way to keep the door from opening, went out my window onto the roof and dangled/jumped to the ground. I never ran so fast in my life.”

Me, “You should not have had to go through that. I broke a window on our porch. Fortunately they believed it was an accident.”

She, “Whew. I had many mishaps.”

Me, “I’m glad you can tell about at least some of them now.”

She, “It is like a book I read once. That is how it seems to me.”

Me, “That’s not all bad.”

She, “I ask my therapist if this means I am dissociating unhealthily or if that means I have integrated the memory as a “normal” memory with other narratives. She isn’t sure. She doesn’t think reliving trauma helps PTSD. I agree.”

Me, “The way you describe it sounds like you were dissociating as it happened. I’m not sure you can get back to the point where you remember in a non-dissociative state. And as you said, I’m not sure it’s necessary. I personally don’t see any need to see the actual events from your body. You were dissociating for a reason. You’d have to change the memory to be in your body for it because you weren’t when it happened.”

She, “It makes perfect sense. I wonder if the body remembers.”

Me, “I would say yes, but not in the same way that the mind would. Chronic illnesses are often connected to body memories.”

She, “What my therapist wants me to do is inhabit my body now. I am out of the body often.”

Me, “It is a weird feeling. It is like I’m now seeing the world through my eyes instead of spirit eyes. I see things with clarity, not through a fog. Does that make sense?”

Does it make sense to you? I could never imagine living in my body. I have no memories until I was probably in my twenties in which I am seeing the world from my perspective, from behind my eyes, instead of like I’m watching a movie.

I always felt like Peter Pan. I needed someone to sew my spirit to my feet so it would quit slipping away. I could not stay in the body and all the pain and memories it contained. The pain was too much. I cannot remember when I started slipping out of my body, but I cannot remember when I didn’t.

This is also a phenomenon that is extremely difficult for many survivors and many supporters to understand. What do you mean you left your body? What do you mean you see everything like a movie? How could I leave my body? Why didn’t I stay and fight?

With this post, I hope to have given survivors and supporters a glimpse of what it is like to not feel connected to your body. I also want to say to all survivors that it was not your fault. You were doing the very best you possibly could to survive an impossible situation. Your mind was trying to protect you. Even if you broke things or ran away, it was not your fault. You should never have had to live through any of that. You are not alone.

My friend has found meditation helpful to find her way, occasionally, back to living in her body. Are there things that have worked for you? We’d love to hear what have you found helpful?

Does the description of dissociating make sense to you, as a survivor or a supporter? Is there a better way to explain it?

I am adding this song in part, because this post has been pretty serious. I think this song is fun, but It also reminds us that who we are and where we are, do not always have to remain the same. There is hope for something different. “It is what it is, not how it’s gotta be.”

Ancient History

Your Handwriting Feels Like Home

Last August, I wrote a post about reconnecting with my pen pal. I will never forget the feeling I had when I actually found her name on the internet, after years and years of searching. I actually found her through classmates.com, which led me to LinkedIn.com. I despise both of these websites because you have to pay or jump through complicated hoops to connect with someone. When I found her though, I had the indescribable feeling that, at long last, I had finally found her.

She and I continue to send each other letters. Yesterday, she received a letter that I’d sent her and she sent me this text message, “Your handwriting feels like home.” I was so unbelievably touched by that sentence. It is how I have always felt when I got a letter from her.


As a child, I did not receive that many letters. The weekly or monthly letters from my pen pal were like a lifeline to a world outside of my own. They reminded me that someone I had never met, never talked to on the phone, cared about me enough to write me a letter. We exchanged photos, letters, stories, pieces of our selves we could not share with others. We were sisters by different mothers.

As a survivor of sexual abuse, I never really felt at home anywhere. There were places where I felt comfortable, but I never really felt like I fit anywhere. I didn’t fit at home. I didn’t fit at school. I didn’t fit at church, or camp, or college.  I could get along with people, and I think people thought I looked like I belonged, but under the surface, I always felt ill at ease.

I never felt that way in my letters to my friend. She did not judge me or treat me differently because I was abused. She never acted like I was a misfit because I didn’t have fancy clothes or the right haircut. She was just my friend. She felt like home, in a world where I did not feel I had a home.

Even separated by a great number of miles, we were better together. We did not tell each other all of our secrets and have learned a lot about each other even since August, but things untold where not help back in fear of the other’s reaction. There were some things we just could not say. We could not risk being found out in a letter. Other people besides the recipient sometimes read letters and there would have been repercussions. Secrets needed to be kept, even from the one I felt closest to.

There are other people in my life with whom I have felt at home. I feel at home with Jeff, wherever we are. I’m not going to name other names for fear of leaving someone out. I think, unknowingly, I was always looking for home, or a sense of it. It was right there, with my pen pal, and even after we lost touch, the connection was never broken. We both wondered about each other and tried to find the other. One day, the internet finally shook lose and I found her; and found she had never forgotten me. In each other, we found a piece of home.

Hunter Patch Adams: “All of life is a coming home. Salesmen, secretaries, coal miners, beekeepers, sword swallowers, all of us. All the restless hearts of the world, all trying to find a way home. It’s hard to describe what I felt like then. Picture yourself walking for days in the driving snow; you don’t even know you’re walking in circles. The heaviness of your legs in the drifts, your shouts disappearing into the wind. How small you can feel, and how far away home can be. ”

Hunter Patch Adams: “Home. The dictionary defines it as both a place of origin and a goal or destination. And the storm? The storm was all in my mind. Or as the poet Dante put it: In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself in a dark wood, for I had lost the right path. Eventually I would find the right path, but in the most unlikely place.”

~Patch Adams, 1998

Self Care

self care quote

Self-care has been  hard concept for me to internalize.  I don’t think I even heard the term until I was over 30, and for nearly two decades after that, I would try to practice it, but with little success.  I just didn’t get it.  Mentors and therapists would ask me, “what are you going to do to take care of yourself?”  They might as well have asked me to solve a calculus problem.

I began to learn that common self-care activities include taking baths and naps, eating favorite foods, and taking a walk.  These are all things I enjoy, so I would do them and have some success (in other words, I momentarily felt less stressed or more at peace) but I knew I was still missing the mark.  I was going through the motions.

It came together for me when someone suggested a novel approach…ask myself what I really needed to feel safe, secure and taken care of.  For example, when I was in conflict with someone and not ready to deal with it, what I really wanted was some space to sort out my feelings.  Taking care of myself in that situation, might include turning off my cell phone for a few hours, or a day.

If you’re like me, you just thought to yourself, “I could never do that. my (insert here) would go crazy if I was incommunicado for that long.”  This could be a sign that you’re taking too much care of others and not enough of yourself.

Self care is especially important when survivors are sharing their stories.  Talking about what has happened to us is very healing, but it can also be overwhelming and flood us with emotions, memories and thoughts that need time to settle out.  During these times, when I ask myself what I really need, it’s to do nothing, just give myself the time to be with my feelings.  I might need permission to forget things for a few days, or a favorite piece of clothing, or a familiar/favorite food.

This is no different from what we do when taking care of others.  We ask or examine what they really need, do our best to provide it without judging what it is, and give them lots of compassion and understanding.  We need to do it for ourselves too.

So, what are you going to do for self-care this week?  I’m going to do whatever I need to do.

A Letter To Dylan And All Survivors Of Childhood Sexual Abuse

You may have heard that Dylan Farrow has come forward and said that she was sexually abused.

In response, a lot of famous people have come forward to defend one of their own. People are saying that what he did in the past doesn’t matter. People say that his artistic temperament made him more susceptible to temptation. People are saying that his great body of work should make us disregard what he did to a small child.

People are saying that Dylan is lying. She’s doing it to get attention. She spoke up too late and should just be quiet about it now.

This means we, as a whole, are doing exactly what every child molester hopes society will do. We are telling the victim to shut up because the person they are accusing is too great to be accused of such a thing. We are in shock and instead of saying a horrible crime has been committed, far too many people are saying that the victim’s voice does not matter.

It is the perpetrator’s hope that society will be outraged. Not, however, outraged at the perpetrator. Outraged at the victim for trying to destroy the perpetrators’ good name.

Perpetrators operate under the society guise of smoke and mirrors. He or she does not want anyone but his victim to see his or her true self. But he volunteers at the youth center. But he performed my daughter’s wedding and baptized her children. She was such a great teacher and donated so much of her time to tutoring children. But…

But, she touched a child inappropriately. But he raped a seven year old in an attic and told her not to tell. But he and a bunch of his buddies gang-raped a teenager when she tried to reach out and tell someone that she was being abused at home. But he showed porn to a high school student he was tutoring on a school computer. But she manipulated a child she was babysitting into playing dress up in a way the child never felt right about.

A victim of childhood sexual abuse spends a lot of time questioning him or herself about whether or not it really happened. Their sense of self is mutated by the gross violations to their personhood. They lose innocence, boundaries and their voice. They lose heart. They lose hope. Sometimes, they lose their lives.

But Dylan has found her voice. She has added her voice to the great din of survivors crying out. And lots of people are telling her to be quiet. This is one of the biggest reasons survivors don’t speak out. Why should I speak out about something so painful when people are just going to tell me to be quiet anyway?

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I have walked some of the steps that Dylan is now walking. I told people. No one wanted to hear. I told more people. They didn’t want to hear either. After my father was convicted, people told me what a great and nice person he was. Let me be clear. NONE of that was helpful.

What was helpful? The people who believed me. The friends who listened. The people now who don’t say, “That was so long ago. Why don’t you quit talking about it?” The most helpful people to me were those who did not want to hear, but heard anyway. They sat with me and my pain and listened. I do not know where I would be without them.

I do not want to hear it. It breaks my heart when I hear a story of abuse. I do not want to know that anyone else has experienced this pain. But far more of my friends are survivors of abuse, or know survivors of abuse than not. You may think that’s true because I work with survivors. It’s really more true because there are so many survivors of abuse. We all know them. We just may never have been open to knowing them, or they may have felt we would be just like everybody else and tell them to be quiet.

I stand with Dylan Farrow and all survivors of sexual abuse. People can say all the nice things they want about the abuser. There are a FEW cases in which the allegations are false, but most allegations are real. Victims can’t make up the kind of horror they have known.
I really do not care about the perpetrators. At all. I want to stand with the victims and survivors.
Dear Dylan and all other survivors,
Abuse does not define you. It is a part of you like the color of your eyes, but it is not, by any means, all of who you are.
You are not alone. It is not your fault and even though it’s hard, and painful and sucky, you have already survived the worst of it. You are strong, brave and resilient. You survived the abuse. Life holds so much more for you than what some sick pervert tried to make you think was your fault.
Keep fighting. It gets better.
A Fellow Survivor Who Will Not Stop Speaking
It is not your fault pic 1