Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A good support group: Not for the faint of heart!

On the advice of a counselor, I went to a Sexual Assault Survivor's group.  I absolutely did not want to do this, have never wanted to do this.  But because of his strong encouragement and belief that this was a next step which would help me grow past the "stuck" places, I went.  He has expressed over and again that he feels the "secretness" of the abuse is something that has really held me back.  I need to be able to speak my experiences aloud, he tells me, to talk about them, because when the abuse stays secret, I remain in agreement with the abuser, who threatened to do horrible things to me if I ever told.  When I was younger, and he was fully capable of doing those things, it was probably not safe for me to let myself know about the abuse.  But that is no longer the case.  And the counselor felt a group of others who have had similar experiences was a good place to start talking.

I had many objections.  I have avoided like the plague labeling myself as a "victim", because I don't want to get stuck there.  In the end I am the only one who can decide to change things in my life, and ruminating on victimness just doesn't help.  Yes, I've acknowledged the griefs and the losses, over and over again as new knowledge and fresh revelations carve them ever deeper into my soul.  But I've never wanted to limit myself by thinking "victim".  Horrific abuse happened to me and it affected me greatly, but it is not the most important thing about me.  Apart from all that my grandfather did, there's an original "me" somewhere down inside.  There are parts of me that he couldn't touch and twist and mangle.  Also, I had always envisioned a "support group" to mean endless, depressing, "downer" meetings where people sat in a circle and talked about their problems and never got any better.  The organizer of the group assured me this was not the nature of this group.  It was clearly structured, with a beginning and an end, and lasted only 8 weeks.  Each week we would talk about a different topic, and do a few activities to help us grow in that area of our lives.  OK, I said, I would give it a try.  I would at least go to the first meeting.

A few weeks later I walked in twenty minutes late to meeting number one, because the incognito location proved difficult even for me to find.  I noticed right away that I out-aged everyone in the group by 20 years; perhaps because I live in a college town, most of the group members were similar in age to my oldest son.  Grrrreeeaaaat, I thought.  No one here is going to be relate to some of my toughest struggles, which center around being married and parenting.  As I tried to settle in and the introductory talk resumed, I found it very, very hard to sit in that room.  Excruciatingly hard to identify myself as someone who would fit such a label and belong to such a group.  I knew that in fact I did meet the criteria, but even after all the counseling and hard work, I still just don't want it to be true.  I also knew (theoretically) that denial of reality and fantasy-thinking doesn't help in the end, it just keeps you stuck.  But old habits die hard.  I survived for 40+ years by pushing the abuse away and refusing to admit it--especially the heart-stopping details like sights and sounds and sensations and smells--into my mind and heart.  Just the facts, ma'am, and let's move on, had been my policy since the abuse came to light almost ten years ago.  The trouble was, I was still stuck in places I didn't want to be. Hence, counseling and EMDR. Hence, this Survivor's group.

But back to meeting number one.  We took turns reading out loud a fact-sheet about sexual assault and were given time to journal our reactions.  Then it was time to talk.  There were things in the fact sheet that had gotten to me, especially the legal description of rape, which was very specific and detailed.  I had noticed the "emergency feeling" rising in me, and when it came time to talk, I started having a grand mal panic attack.  I closed my eyes and tried to breathe slow, tried to calm myself down, but it just wasn't happening.  I knew how to deal with this kind of thing on my own, but not with anyone else in the room.  I managed to whisper to the others as I got up to leave, "I was 6.  I was 6 years old the first time he raped me.  I'm sorry.  I have to go."

I drove to an empty, inconspicuous pull-out overlooking the tiny Pullman airport and watched the planes take off and come in while my heart kept pounding, and wave after wave of pain swept over my body.  The pain came from body memories, and yes, it is real, physical pain.  If I had known what it was earlier in my life I could have saved myself several emergency room visits.  Now that I understand, I know that if I let it come and sweep over me, rather like an ocean wave, and just keep breathing, it will eventually subside and go away.  Though intense and real, the pain is rooted in the past, not in any present disease in my body.  Traumatic memory is pre-verbal, not logical or sequential, and traumatic memories are sometimes recorded as pain or body sensations.  Read my post on Bessel Van Der Kolk's book if you'd like to know more.

Eventually I calmed down, but I still felt shaky and weak, and not ready for the chaos and noise of kids and teens at home.  So I went to a bookstore to look at magazines for a while, to get my mind off of things and transition back from trauma-world to normal-life.  And I told myself, Well, I tried it. Obviously a support group is not the right thing for me.  There's no way I'm going back again.

While I was looking at magazines, my Mom called, wanting to talk over logistics for our Spring Break vacation.  Then she asked how I was doing.  I took a deep breath and thought, here goes, and said, "Actually, I'm not doing very well."  I told her about the Survivor's group, and the panic attack. And then right there in the bookstore I told her a lot of other things that I had never shared before.

Later in the week, a close friend asked me how the counseling was going.  And I decided to tell her, too.  On the weekend, I talked with my husband.  Which strangely was the hardest of all three.

Going to the group had been terribly hard, but good things happened as a result.  I decided that my counselor must be right after all.  And I decided to give it one more try.