Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Anger and Forgiveness

Anger is a normal, healthy, response to abuse, hurt, and injustice --
and it’s a vital part of the healing journey.

We need to feel and experience our anger in order to set
boundaries and protect ourselves, and in order to acknowledge
that we were hurt and to allow space for healing.  
For some people this process can take months or years.
Some people wish they can skip the process of embracing anger, and attempt to skip it.
But in reality anger can not be skipped over. We need to go through
it in order to come to the next stage, which is acceptance, followed by forgiveness.

I am not talking about forgiving our abusers.
I’m talking about forgiveness toward oneself.
Learning to forgive ourselves is a key stage in the process of healing.

Certainly it’s possible that in some cases forgiveness of others
is a natural progression of self forgiveness and self compassion.
But forgiveness of an abuser when it happens, is for us
not for the person we are forgiving.
Forgiveness releases their power over us and sets us free mentally.
Forgiveness does NOT mean absolving ourselves or anyone else
of accountability or responsibility for their actions. Quite the opposite.
When we truly love someone, we hold them accountable.

True forgiveness of ourselves takes humility, courage, and love.
 It means admitting that we are imperfect, limited human beings
and that we make mistakes.  It means recognizing, accepting
and validating our negative feelings, and loving and accepting
ourselves anyway,with all of our humanity, limitations, and struggles.
It means allowing ourselves to be human.

We cannot grow, change, or heal if we judge ourselves as bad
or shameful people, or allow others to judge us this way.
The truth is that anyone who judges victims of abuse as a bad
or shameful, is telling you something powerful about themselves,
NOT about the victim. They are letting you know that they have
not forgiven themselves completely. They do not love and accept
themselves unconditionally. They are suffering and confused.
Perhaps they too have been a vicitm or a perpertrator
and Instead of introspection and taking personal responsibility, they apply
blame and shame to others. This defensive response perpetuates
emotional abuse and enabling.

Forgiveness means letting go of black and white certainties.  
It means allowing God, or your Higher Power to be in charge
and admitting that although we can know our own intent, we really can
not know where anyone elses intent lies, unless they share it with us.  

When we are ready to let go of anger, there are ways to do it. We can
begin to let go of anger and resentment toward others by having faith
that God has a plan and that justice will eventually prevail, even if we
can’t see it happening just yet. We can let go of anger by focusing on
self acceptance, love and compassion.  We can let go of anger by
acknowledging how we are confronting the most difficult moments in our lives,
and instead of allowing them to destroy us we used them to transform us heroically.

I have been able to forgive my father and grandfather for raping
and molesting me. I still hold them responsible, but I know that their evil actions
had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with them and
their own limitations and choices.  Their actions were likely the result of
abuse they suffered and never questioned, and of denial,
shame, and ignorance. I don’t think they wanted to cause the deep long term
damage that they did to me. I don’t think they intended to destroy my family.
I know they will have to face what they have done, and take full responsibility
at some point, whether in this world or the next. Forgiveness means that I don’t
walk around carrying anger or resentment toward them.

I have been able to forgive my mother for ignoring and enabling the abuse.
I realize that her choices which hurt me so badly were her own limitations,
her own need to survive, and had nothing to do with me.  I believe that she
did the best she could at the time, and that she still is.

I have been able to forgive my siblings and relatives for cutting me off.
I cannot judge each of their abilities, and responsibility toward me. I choose to
believe that each one is doing what they believe is the right thing for them at this time.
I have no idea what they have been told about me, and what they believe.
I choose not to judge. I do not need them to be any different.
I choose to stay connected in my heart.

I noticed some time ago, and with some amazement, that I have even been
able to forgive my family's rabbi, who I was most enraged with, and most
hurt by, who advised my family to cut me off if I don’t keep the abuse a secret.
 I did not need or expect myself to forgive what he did. That was not in the equation.
What he did was horrific. He knew that my family would take his advice as the word of God. Accountability is between him and God as I have let go of needing him to be
or do anything different. I do not harbor resentment toward him. I accept the reality,
and believe that God allowed this to happen for a good reason.

I have been able to forgive God as I understand Him. I trust that God allowed
all of the above people to do what they did to me only because in his infinite
wisdom He knew that in the long term the outcome
would be positive. God knew that I would come away from the agony
and suffering a stronger, wiser, more compassionate and loving human being.
 And that I would use my experience as a gift to help others who are still struggling.
He was right.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Current Events and Personal Power

 For those of us who have been victims of sexual assault and abuse, reading the news and current events can be downright triggering. It is important to notice what happens inside of us when we hear about yet another untrustworthy man stepping into a powerful position that affects our lives. It can throw us right back in time to relive our own agonizing traumas.  

We all need strategies to keep from feeling revictimized and retraumatized. For me, my daily morning walk/jog, is a time for meditation and prayer.  It keeps me grounded and connected to my inner wisdom and sense of self.

This morning, for example, I contemplated the Serenity Prayer.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I used this prayer as a tool to help me grapple with the current events. What do I need to accept here? What can I change, and what can I not?  Where does my personal power lie? 

Then the adapted Serenity Prayer came to me.
 God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I can not change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know that it is me. 

I reminded myself that my personal power lies inside, beginning with my thoughts.  My thoughts hold incredible power to create my reality, the way I experience life, and indeed what happens in my life. 

I thought of my own past and how much my own thoughts impact the way I handle life.  I had every excuse to give up, to live the life of  a victim. As a survivor of child sex abuse, and the secondary trauma involved in being shunned and excommunicated by my family, I have been in some pretty dark places. I thought many times of giving up and giving in. But instead, I took my life back.  I recreated myself and my life beginning with the power of my mind -- a process that continues every day.

I learned from Byron Katie’s “The Work” how to adjust my thoughts so that I have more power in my life. Now, whenever I notice I am feeling triggered or victimized I take a look at my thoughts and always, without exception, the thoughts behind my feelings are negative.
On my walk in the midst of the events surrounding the confirmation of an accused sexual predator to the Supreme Court, I noticed the following thoughts in my mind:  "...I am powerless in the face of these politics, I can't change anything...the people in charge aren't safe, the world isn't safe...the best I can do is ignore it..." 

No wonder I was feeling awful!  But once I realized where my thinking was, I had the power to question the truth of my thoughts.

“It is really true that I am powerless?  Is it true that I can't change anything?  Is it true that the people in charge are unsafe, and the world is unsafe?” 

It certainly seems true.  It could be true, but perhaps the opposite could also be just as true. SoI tried on the opposite thoughts for size:

"I am powerful. I can't change other people (who can?)  but I can change myself beginning with my thoughts. I am in charge of me, and in this moment, I am safe! my world is safe. I choose what I allow into my mind and out of my mouth!"

These thoughts are empowering and just as true. And I felt so much better acknowledging their truth.

I may not have control over who the president is, or who serves on the Supreme Court, but I sure do have control over what I allow into my mind and my heart.  I have control over how I treat myself, in the sacred space of my internal world, and how I treat those closest to me. 

This is really important -- because we have a constant impact on the people around us. When I am miserable and triggered, it not only affects me; it also affects my husband and children. On the other hand, when I feel centered, connected, grounded, and safe it affects those closest to me, with a powerful ripple effect.  

Here lies my power. I can change the world by bringing my best self into it, by speaking my truth, and by hanging on to my own power.  

In fact, Dr. Ford’s courage in speaking her truth reminded me of my own power. It can be difficult at moments like this to set boundaries around our minds and hearts. I am proud of myself for speaking up where it mattered in my life, to try to protect children from my molesting father, just as I am proud of Dr. Ford who is standing up and telling her truth, regardless of the outcome.

It is especially hard for us to find that power when we know, as surely as I did,  that it might not make an immediate difference. We are facing the reality that Dr. Ford's testimony did not change the outcome. We have been watching her be discredited and disbelieved, shamed and threatened. We also know that she had everything to lose and nothing to gain personally by speaking up. This has been excruciating to witness.

Yet, we are also watching real power in action. Dr. Ford has demonstrated incredible courage and integrity -- and she is modeling what it looks like to speak our truth.  This is strength. This is hope. These are the women and men of true power who affect our lives, and are changing our world, every day.

In the meantime, young people are also listening and learning important lessons.  They are learning that people of courage and integrity speak up and take action, even when things look hopeless.  And they are witnessing first hand that their actions, as young teens and young adults matter, and will affect them and others far into the future. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

How sexual assault plays with our minds

By Genendy  
The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, The Price of Truth: (release date: Nov 12, by Lioness Books)

Memory is a funny thing.
Why would I, or anyone else, lie about something as painful and shameful as childhood sexual abuse? This is a legitimate question to ask. After all, I have no external validation for my internal truth.
I have to learn a lot about myself, and about memory, before I can make any sense of my life and of my family’s view of me as a liar.
I start art therapy again at the day hospital program, and it is literally saving my life.
When I first began art therapy while in treatment with Dr. Davids*, I could only express the fear, horror, pain and shame in images. I couldn't face the truth behind what was causing me to draw these pictures. My mind was protecting me (and my relationship with my family and my therapist) by blocking the memories. Then after I remembered, sometimes I retained images and other times the images disappeared, leaving just horrible feelings behind. I learned that when I dissociated during the trauma, not only did I split off and dissociate the images, I also dissociated the behaviors, the effect, and the sensations that went along with them from each other. For example, the dissociation allowed me to bite and molest my dolls as a young child, with no memory of abuse, or understanding of my behavior at the time.
Now, each time I remember again, I am in shock. I realize that I had always known, but simply didn't have the language to talk about sexual abuse. I instinctively knew my mother would never believe me if I told her. I was right about that. She doesn’t believe me. According to my mother there are no monsters under the bed, and no one ever molested me.
When I tell my aunt Rivkah that I was molested by her father, my grandfather, she asks, “Where?”
“In his office,” I reply.
“That’s impossible,” she says. “Do you remember what the door looked like?”
“No.” I really don’t.
“The door was transparent glass. Someone could have seen it from the dining room. If you can’t remember the door how can you trust your memory of being abused?”
How can I trust my memories of being abused?
Because the door’s significance paled in comparison to the experience of my trusted grandfather’s fingers in my underwear.
Perhaps the glass door became entirely insignificant when it didn’t protect me.
It was early in the morning, right after the morning prayers, and no one was in the dining room at the time.
I don’t remember the date, or what I was wearing either.
Does that mean it didn’t happen?
Does my aunt think that I want to remember this?
No matter what I say, my aunt and the rest of my family find a way to discount, minimize, rationalize and deny my experience.
That is what they need to do in order to survive.
This is what families of incest do, with barely a single exception.
My family cannot go to a place where they can consider the possibility of their trusted father and grandfather, their rebbe, a talmid chacham, molesting someone they love.
I get it. I understand denial. But it doesn’t make it hurt any less.
I learn a lot of things about the workings of the mind. Long-term memory is composed of experiences that are significant to us. If an experience is not significant it does not get filed in our long-term memory.
Traumatic memory, however, has its own set of rules.
When we experience an event that feels life threatening, all of our senses are activated. Our survival instinct, a fight or flight response, is activated. Traumatic memories are stored in a different part of the brain than regular memory. They are stored in the part of the brain where feelings are stored along with images, and sensations they evoke. Traumatic memories are often dissociated or repressed, especially when there is no way to process them in the present. When traumatic memories cannot be processed – due to lack of validation, support or time – they cannot be filed in a meaningful context along with other long-term memories.
These unprocessed traumatic memories often come up years later as post-traumatic stress symptoms. As in my case, you can feel like the experience of trauma is happening in the moment, even if it took place 30 years earlier.
There are several famous memory studies claiming to prove that false memories can be easily implanted. I have looked at this so-called research and, although interesting, I (as well as trained trauma therapists) assert that the results do not follow through logically when dealing with memories of child sexual abuse.
I begin studying in a community college while I am in the day hospital program. I read with some annoyance about one such study in my university textbook in Psychology 101. The study involves adults who were convinced that they had been lost in a shopping mall as children. Many of them actually believed that they had been lost in a mall when, in fact, according to their parents, they hadn’t been. This study lacks all understanding of what child sexual abuse feels like. Certainly, feeling lost, being lost, is a common childhood experience. But comparing being lost in a mall to being sexually violated as a child, by someone you trust and are dependent on for survival, is like comparing a distant cousin’s death with a parent’s death. Most children have no concept of what it feels like to be sexually violated by a trusted family member or friend. It is not an experience easily contrived or imagined, and there is nothing else quite as shameful, terrifying and mind shattering.
In another study on memory using the example of a car accident, witnesses were shown a clip of a real accident, and then asked to describe what they saw. One witness swore the car was blue, while another said it was red. One said the car slid to the right, while one said to the left. One witness believed blood was pouring from the victim's head. Another said no, it was actually coming from the victim's mouth.
While the researchers set out to prove that traumatic memory can be faulty – and indeed concluded that traumatic memory is not credible – they missed out on a crucial detail of the study. That is, not one of the witnesses claimed that they witnessed an earthquake or an armed robbery, or nothing at all. All agreed that it was a car accident. They all agreed that victims were hurt and there was blood. They accurately remembered the details that were important or shocking to them. It was only the details they considered insignificant that they forgot.
I was very young when I was abused and I will never know if every detail of what I remember is objectively accurate. But I do know that I was molested by my father and grandfather and others. I remember the experiences in the terrible ways that they affected me. Badly. I make no apologies for this, as no one in my family is willing to try to help me sort out my memories. I did the best I could to get as close to the truth as I can in my own.

Genendy has been an early childhood educator for over twenty years in both the U.S. and Israel.  She is an advocate for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, an activist for child safety, a writer and blogger. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

My Nephew

Almost twenty five years ago,  I had a conversation with my younger sister I will never forget.  I was twenty one, living on my own in a basement apartment.
 My little sister Chaya* called me to ask permission to get engaged.

"I don't think you are really in a place to date now anyway,"  she said, "but I am asking you permission out of respect because you're older than me."

Her question was painful.  I had dreams of getting married and having a family of my own, but Chaya was right.  I was in no position to be dating.  I could barely get out of bed in the morning.  My world was in shambles.
  A couple of years earlier I had disclosed memories of my father and grandfather sexually abusing me.  In my naivety, I expected help and support, but my family and community, including my families rabbi, denied my memories, saying they were untrue and impossible.  I was labeled crazy, unstable, an attention seeker, by my family, and even my therapist at the time, ...who happened to be a close friend of my father.
I was indeed crazy.  Crazy with grief, loneliness, pain, rage and confusion.
I could not imagine what God wanted from me.  I wanted to die if only to find out the truth.
I told Chaya I wanted to die and I was thinking of taking my life.
Her response was,

"Why don't you stop talking about it and just do it already."
It was a cruel thing to say, and I personally can not imagine ever saying such a thing to anyone, but today I harbor no anger or resentment toward Chaya.  I understand where she was coming from.  She was young, she was in pain as well, perhaps having been a victim herself, and I was a major threat to her world.  She was simply voicing the unspoken wish of many in my family that I and my terrible memories disappear.

A few years later I was officially cut off from my family because I did not agree to keep my memories a secret. It was as if I had died.  I have not seen or spoken to my siblings, including Chaya in many, many years.  I heard that she had many, children...numbering in the teens.

I had been praying for years for contact with someone, anyone, in my family.  I had healed tremendously from the trauma of abuse, but the secondary trauma of ongoing rejection and blame was still overwhelming. Feelings of loneliness, of longing for connection with my family were often intense.

A couple of years ago I received a friend request on Facebook from a young man who I didn't recognize.  I ignored the request assuming it was a mistake.  A few months later, in a friendly mood, I accepted his request along with a couple of other requests from people I didn't know.

I was shocked and thrilled to discover that the young man friending me on Facebook was non other than my sister Chaya's son, Uriel!*
 I had met Uriel a couple of times as an infant before I was officially cut off, and had fallen in love with him.  Now he was all grown up and reaching out to me! It felt surreal.
Uriel and I began to message, and soon talked on the phone. Uriel, like me, was not in contact with his family. -He has his own story, which is only his to tell-.

 A few months later I met my amazing nephew in person. I loved him immediately. Uriel spent time with us, and we slowly got to know each other.  We connect deeply, on a soul level.
Uriel is a diamond.
 Having him in my life is a miracle.
This past Purim, at the same age of my unforgettable conversation with his mother, at the age of 21 Uriel moved into my house.
A sense of truth and justice, in connecting with, of all people in my family, Chaya's son, filled me with nothing but pure joy.  God wants me alive and well to support and love the child of the sibling who thought me better off dead.   It reminds me that God is in charge and not my family, and that is cause for celebration.

I don't know how long Uriel will want to stay, and how long I will be zoche to love and nurture him, but I cherish every minute of our time together.

* Not their real names.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Pesach: Holiday of Healing

(five minute read)

For those of us who have been enslaved by physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, or sexual abuse, Pesach is our story and the Seder is our guide to healing.

 At the Seder, we find the answers to our deepest questions:
Why was I abused?
How do I get out of it?
 I left the abuse behind, what now?  How do I heal and move on?  How long will this take?  Will I always feel this awful?
How do I believe and trust in a God that allowed me to be abused in the first place??

The Pesach Seder holds the answers to our mental and emotional freedom.

As a Jewish nation we suffered abuse and torture for many years in Egypt.  It broke us physically, spiritually, and mentally, as abuse does.  We could not get away from it on our own.  All we could do was cry in pain, and ask, "why?"

Then, miraculously, we were freed.  The slavery and abuse ended very suddenly through open miracles, and we could breathe a sigh of relief and move on with our lives... Or so we thought.
 Yet, true freedom eluded us. We left the abuse of Egypt behind but were still enslaved mentally and emotionally. Slavery and trauma, stole our ability to trust.  We could trust no one.  Not Moshe (Moses), and not even God.  We went into a deep and blinding denial.  A denial so strong, we created and worshiped a golden calf, a fake god, just after personally seeing God at Mount Sini!

As victims we were needy and confused.  We tested God every step of the way, because we had to.  We had to make sure He wasn't going anywhere, no matter what we did.  We complained, rebelled, and wanted to go back to Egypt.  Abuse and slavery was our normal. At least in Egypt we knew what to expect, and had an identity.  We were slaves, victims.  We were not yet healthy enough to claim our freedom and enter Israel.  We would need forty years of desert therapy to recover from our deep trauma.

Through all of our struggles, mistakes, and victim-hood, God loved us, forgave us and gave us more chances.  He held us close, fed us, and showed us the way through the desert of recovery to Israel, and mental and emotional freedom.

But, as my teenagers say, "What the...??!!" Why did God want us to go through a horrific experience in the first place?  How could any good possibly come from such horror, such evil, such trauma and brokenness?

I believe that as a nation, (and as individuals), we have a unique and challenging mission to accomplish in this world.  In order to complete our mission we need a very specific set of skills and training.  The depth of clarity, compassion, empathy, integrity, sense of self, and mental strength that we need in order to accomplish our national mission and bring this world to redemption, is unparalleled.  As a nation we acquired these traits from our experience moving from victims to survivors when we left Egypt.  Nothing can compare to the way Jews as a nation, "get it."  Like a good therapist who has themselves healed from abuse, we Jews "get"abuse and persecution like no other nation.  We are champions for justice and human rights in the world because we have been there and we know.  Egypt was elite training for our elite mission.  We are the navy seals of the world.  Not many can get through that kind of training, or even want to.  But the ones who do are the strongest.

When I was about 20 I attended a workshop by Dr. Miriam Adahan.  She had us write down our worst challenges and pain.  Then with our left hand she asked us not to think, but to allow the voice of our eternal soul to answer the question, "why?"  Why do I have to go through this?  Why is this happening to me?
I was not in a very good place in my life at twenty. I thought God was punishing me. I was angry and hurt. I wanted to die. 
I watched as my left hand scrawled "In order to heal and help others."
I laughed at the ridiculousness. I couldn't even help myself how was I supposed to help anyone else?
But deep inside my soul I had a glimmer of hope to guide me during the coming years of darkness.  I had to acknowledge that a part of me obviously believed I could one day heal and help others.  After all, I had written the words.

One of the most important lessons of the Seder is to respect the process of recovery.  To respect our confusion, our pain, our need to test.  When we leave an abusive situation we are not OK. We may not be OK for a good while; years,even.  We have to rebuild ourselves from scratch and that is an enormous task.  We need the space and time to do it.  We need resources, we need support.  And we need an all powerful and all knowing God to love and accept us unconditionally, with all of our baggage.

We need a God we can be as real with as it gets.  We need to complain, to get angry, to yell Why???!!! And, Where were you?!?!
We must turn to our God (the real God of unconditional love and acceptance, and not the fake god's of Egypt) and demand the help we need and deserve, and expect it.

God loves us and will not abandon us during this painful process.  It may take a while, but he will lead us out when little by little we learn to trust Him and let Him in...

At the Seder we meet four sons, all of them parts of us.  We have that wicked voice that dissociates from the rest of us.  The wicked voice points his finger, judges, condemns, criticizes and blames us for our suffering.  Our wise voice asks real questions because he wants to know the truth.  He wants to understand deeply.  Our simple voice just wants to know what's happening, and what to do next, and the silenced child doesn't say a single word.

At the Seder we learn how to respond to our inner world. Each part of us needs and deserves our attention and a response. Our wise voice is the one to nurture in depth.  Our abusive blaming voice is to be silenced quickly. Tell him to shut up, knock his teeth out.  He is a remnant of our abuse.  The simple voice needs simple uncomplicated instructions and guidance.  And the silent child needs to be held and told what happened.  "You were hurt, but now you are safe.  It is not your fault. I've got you. I'm not going anywhere."

At the Seder we learn that it is not only a good idea to talk about our slavery, it is a mitzvah, a commandment!  Not only do we have to talk about what happened, we have to re-experience it, and relive it with all of our senses.  As painful as this may be, it is the only way through trauma.  We have to own it and acknowledge what it did to us, how it feels, and how it felt, and recognize that we are no longer there.  And, we have to do it slowly, in a safe place and in a safe way, and with the support of family and friends. Denying or minimizing what happened to us is a sure way to repeat the abuse mentally, with ourselves and our loved ones.

On the other side of the Seder is healing. But first we must involve ourselves in the process.
As Jews, not only do we have to spend one night a year exclusively on the topic of our slavery and redemption, we also have to remember every day (in our prayers,) who we are, where we came from and where we are headed.  As a nation WE ARE SURVIVORS!  We are free!  At the Seder we touch our slavery and freedom in the same moment and celebrate how it turned us into the indestructible nation we are today.  We too, can learn to touch our abuse and our healing in the same moment, and celebrate how it made us the amazing courageous, and compassionate, survivors we are today!

Chag Sameach!!
Happy Passover!!