Paula Kavanagh, Author at The Kavanagh Sisters Skip to content

Author: Paula Kavanagh

Child Abuse and PTSD

Talking and writing about our childhood abuse and how it impacted us, were key to us gaining a greater understanding of thoughts and behaviours that we had as adults, and that we hated.  We didn’t know that these thoughts and behaviours were actually disorders that were researched and understood by many health professionals. These disorders or conditions developed as a direct result of the abuse we had each endured as children and some still impact us today.

Mental and physical health issues like depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, headaches, backpain, and panic attacks are just a few. We would find it difficult to identify any area of our lives that wasn’t altered or damaged as a result of our abuse. However, it is extremely unlikely that we would have ever fully accepted that we were not responsible for causing these problems, if we had we not gone back and picked our lives apart.

With that in mind we continue researching and working on ourselves. This blog is about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and we hope that it helps make sense for those of you who suffer from this particular disorder and those that support them.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is defined as a mental condition that makes it difficult to regulate emotions. It is said that individuals who have suffered childhood sexual abuse and repetitive or prolonged exposure to trauma can develop any number of conditions and disorders.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is just one of them.

Most of us will have heard of PTSD and we associate it with soldiers following a tour in a war-torn country. We don’t tend to connect it with adults that have suffered child abuse, and this is probably because as an adult, the symptoms of PTSD can mimic other disorders like, depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, problems with alcohol and drugs, sleep issues, and eating disorders, all making it difficult to diagnose the condition. PTSD often develops in children that experience any form of prolonged trauma. The list below outlines some of the conditions that drivel the development of this condition.

PTSD can develop in children if the following conditions exist:

  • If the child feels threatened.
  • The relationship of the child to the perpetrator, the closer the relationship the more likely the child will experience PTSD in later life.
  • If the child feels alone or abandoned by their caregiver.
  • If the child feels guilty or responsible for the abuse.
  • The child’s physical and emotional short-term response to abuse (i.e. if the child’s heart rate escalates, this will increase the likelihood of developing PTSD as an adult.

PTSD is grouped by the following types of symptoms:

  1. Re-Experiencing.
    1. Re-experiencing, or reliving, the traumatic event.
  2. Avoidance.
    1. Actively avoiding people, places, or situations that remind you of the traumatic event.
  3. Hyperarousal.
  4. Negative Thoughts and Beliefs.

These symptoms show up in the following ways.

  • Trouble sleeping / bad dreams / flashbacks.
  • Fear of dying, anxiety, or depression.
  • Loss of interest in activities.
  • Regular physical complaints such as headaches or stomach-aches.
  • Extreme emotional reactions.
  • Irritability, anger, violence.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Increased vigilance or alertness to their environment.
  • Avoiding people or places.

For us, PTSD is not just another collection of trivial words and symptoms put together for dramatic affect.   They are real symptoms that as survivors of child sexual abuse, we have dismissed for far too long believing we were just hypochondriacs’ or plain mad. It is also understandable why PTSD can be difficult to diagnose as the symptoms can be associated with many other conditions. It is for this very reason that understanding how abuse impacts the human psyche is vital if you are to recover.

It would be very difficult for those of you who have not been abused to try to image the levels of fear a child feels being raped by an adult. It is all the more difficult when you understand that in most cases it is an adult the child trusts and loves. You might get a glimpse of the fear if you can imagine waking up in the middle of the night and hearing sounds downstairs. You know no one else should be in your home, but you hear the sounds of presses opening and closing, and then you hear footsteps at the end of the stairs.  That can only give you a tiny sense of what it is like growing up in a home with an abusing parent.

It is impossible to live with that level of awareness or fear on an ongoing basis, so children learn to dissociate or compartmentalise their experiences in order to cope with daily life. These suppressed emotions are what cause various mental conditions and disorders to develop later in life. I doubt that any victim of trauma can escape the occurrence of mental health issues and with PTSD like other mental health conditions there appears to be no cure other than a combination between medication and therapy. I believe that if you work through your abuse and fully understand the origins of your thoughts and behaviours you will be in a much better place to control the symptoms and live a much healthier life.

We strongly recommend researching and writing as an approach when you begin your own healing journey. We also believe that if we had a book with the information that is contained within our book ‘Why Go Back? 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse’ we could have been spared years of unnecessary pain and suffering. We know that anyone suffering from the impacts of sexual abuse will benefit from the learning we have gained. We also want to spread a clear message of hope to other victims, that there is life after abuse.

If everyone understood abuse and its impacts, people would better comprehend why it can take so long for victims to come forward and speak out. It may also help people appreciate why it takes so long to recover from this horrendous crime.  With understanding would come the desire to provide the necessary resources and demand the changes in policy and practices of the judicial system. The more everyone understands how sexual abuse impacts its victims the more compassionate we will all be towards each other.

Paula-8th April 2018

Child Abuse and Anxiety/Panic Attacks

Anxiety and panic attacks have been linked to childhood trauma, but it is by no means the only cause. Panic attacks can occur due to number of conditions including social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug use, depression, and a number of medical problems. They can either be triggered or occur unexpectedly. However, children that experience trauma are more likely to have increased anxiety and depressive behaviours which they can endure well into adulthood, making those adults less capable to cope with stress.

Myself and Joyce have both suffered from panic attacks, and although, for Joyce, they are a thing of the past, I unfortunately on occasion still struggle with them.  I hope this blog will help others who also suffer with these awful attacks to gain a deeper understanding of the fear that surrounds them. It is important that you know that you are not crazy, and you can manage them with awareness and support.

Joyce

I began to suffer from panic attacks and anxiety for months following the birth of my first child.  No matter how hard I tried I simply couldn’t shake it.  I tried to keep busy with the baby, but whenever I put him down for his nap I was afraid to even look in his direction. I was sure he was going to sit up and talk to me, even though he was only weeks old.  I believed I was going mad and because my thoughts were so crazy, I felt I couldn’t share them with anyone.

Whenever I tried to relax I felt a tingling feeling in my feet and within seconds it would travel throughout my body. It was such a frightening feeling that I often insisted on Mam calling an ambulance.  I was convinced I was dying and that everyone knew but they wouldn’t tell me. This anxiety lasted for months. I was terrified to leave the house for fear I would die alone.

I was consumed with fear and unable to sleep. Regardless of the assurance I got from the doctor, a specialist and a psychiatrist. I still believed I was dying. The anticipation of what could happen was enough to ensure that I remained on edge. Night after night I would sit downstairs with mam rocking myself back and forth to comfort myself.

One night when I was so exhausted I lay in bed and the tingling began, I was so tired I gave in, I looked up to heaven and said ‘f… it if I am going to die, do it now’ It worked, the tingling stopped, and I fell into a deep sleep. It was only when I surrendered to my fear that it stopped, and I never suffered from panic attacks again.

Paula

I have thought about writing a blog on this subject for some time now but, I hesitated for fear that simply writing about it, would bring on an attack.

I experienced my first anxiety attack when I broke my leg.   That forced confinement brought to the surface feelings of helplessness and dependency. However, I didn’t really understand what was happening and over time I became more and more anxious.  I believe it was this recurrence of anxiety that resulted in my first panic attack.

My panic attacks come out of the blue, my lips begin to feel strange and because I had bell’s palsy in the past, I am instantly afraid it’s happening again. This is followed by a tingling sensation running through body. My heart starts to thump, and I feel breathless, fear builds up rapidly and takes control of my thoughts. The feelings that I’m about to die or have a stroke feeds into the fear. My imagination runs wild and I can see myself ending up alone or locked in a madhouse. I am aware that this is crazy, but I feel powerless to stop it.

I consider myself a rational and logical person and I can tell the difference between imagination and reality quite easily. However, when I am in the middle of a panic attack nothing can tell me that what I am feeling is not real. I am absolutely convinced that at best, I am going to have a stroke, or more likely I am about to die.

What scares me most is the place I felt safest is no longer available to me. I am most comfortable in my head and it is also where I retreat to when I’m stressed or worried. My fear around having an attack can make it difficult to focus on my work and this causes more stress. It becomes a vicious circle.

It is the actual fear and anticipation of an attack that drives my anxiety.  I am sure that I have even brought on an attack by focusing on the fear. However, lately I have tried meditations and mental exercises to talk myself down and they are working for me while I work on uncovering the underlying cause of the attacks.

This may sound strange, but I am grateful for the panic attacks because they have forced me out of my head and into the moment. I have always found when I’m stressed or worried I get ill or have physical pain.  The panic attacks are just another way to look at what is going on in the background. I believe they will stop when I understand what they are trying to tell me.

Childhood Trauma

For those of us who have experienced trauma as children it is most likely that the triggers to panic attacks have their roots in the past. It is also likely that the fear is subconscious. Fear is only powerful when we do not know its origins, it loses its power if we understand where it comes from.  Exploring childhood trauma with a professional can uncover the root cause behind the fear that drives panic attacks.

In the meantime, if you understand what is happening inside your body when having an attack, it may help to stop it before it gets going. I read somewhere that it only takes three minutes for adrenaline to fill your body and cause a panic attack. That also means that you will have three minutes to stop the adrenaline before the attack takes hold. To stop an attack, you must interrupt the messages of fear going to your brain.

During my last attack, I tried the steps below and it did stop the attack before it got hold. It didn’t remove the fear but at least I wasn’t controlled by it.  I am aware that, it’s both the anticipation of the attack and the thoughts during the attack that do the most harm.

Following these steps was most helpful to me:

  1. Try to relax, I know how difficult this is, but it is the first step that will allow you to stop the messages going to the brain telling you that you are in danger and prevent the release of any more adrenaline.
  2. Focus on your breath, breathe in and out to a count of 7, then 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Make the breaths as deep as you can, this can be very difficult, but it really will help so persevere.
  3. Think of a place, person, or thing that you associate with being calm and relaxed.
  4. Scream in your head ‘I’m fine’ ‘I am ok’ ‘Nothing bad is going to happen’ the louder you can scream the better.
  5. Repeat your own positive messages to counter what you normally say during an attack. The point is to stop you repeating the negative fear filled messages that make the attack worse and last longer.
  6. When the attack has passed write a list of everything you fear in this moment, it is necessary to dissect these fears.  You may discover the similarities in your present and your past fears.  Understanding your fear removes its power.

This takes time and practice, but I found it helped me.  Once you can deal with the symptom’s you will be free to begin to focus on the underlying cause.  You need to know that a panic attack will not kill you. Use them to understand yourself and you will come out the other end stronger.

Paula – 28th March 2018

Decision to Prosecute: What I wish I knew back then.

We have been asked on many occasions what advice we would give to anyone thinking about bringing charges against their abuser. The decision to prosecute or not is a very complex and personal choice. It certainly was not a decision we took lightly, and I was not aware at the time of just how difficult the legal process would be.

I now understand that the legal process is harder than it needs to be, but I hope that by sharing my experience, and in hindsight what I would do differently today, might be of some help to other survivors who are undertaking this life changing course.

The Decision

For me it began with the decision to report my father to the police. This was done with a collective agreement amongst all the family. It was not taken out of bravery but more because we felt there was no other choice. I am grateful that I was spared the experience of being isolated and alone going through this process, as I am aware that it is not the case for many victims.

Speaking Out

Making a statement to the police was terrifying to put it mildly.  I was driven by the need to ensure my father did not return to the house. I was enraged that it appeared that he was still in a position of power and I believed that it was only a matter of time before he came home and continued living as if nothing had happened.

If like me, you had never spoken about your abuse then ideally the first time you are ready to talk should not be making a statement. I would recommend that you call one of the support agencies and get support before making a statement.  If I could do it again I would have someone with me while giving the statement, a counsellor if possible. Make no mistake it will still be an awful experience, telling a complete stranger your story will never be easy, but the reward is that you finally tell your truth and begin taking your life back.

Following the making of my statement, the lack of information and complete exclusion from the process was both frustrating and hurtful. We didn’t realise when making our statements that the decision to prosecute meant we handed it over to the state and we were no longer needed. The decision as to whether or not the case made it to court would be made by the DPP and we had no say in the outcome of that decision.

Surplus to Requirements

Discovering we were now considered surplus to requirements, devastated all of us.  We were hurt and frustrated at the lack of involvement. Waiting for a decision from the DPP seemed to take forever. This left a lot of time to question if the decision was the right one.

I convinced myself that the case would not go ahead because not only did the abuse take place so long before we made statements, but my father’s age might also be a consideration. I believed he would return and everything would be worse than before because he now knew that he was untouchable.  I found it difficult to relax or sleep during this time. I felt constantly on edge.

When the DPP finally made the decision to proceed and prosecute my father we remained excluded. My father eventually pled guilty, so we were not even required as witnesses. It was very difficult to accept that our lives would be discussed in a room of strangers and we were not part of that process. I deeply resented that others had the power to make decisions about my life and once again I was powerless.

Time to Prepare

Looking back now, I really appreciate how long it took for the case to come to court. I needed time to attend counselling and build up my strength to be able to face him in court. One of the biggest obstacles I had to face at the time was my absolute fear of him and my inability to stand up for myself in his presence. I felt so ashamed for what happened to me and believed I was responsible for it. I felt that everyone would be disgusted with me. I really struggled to see the help that was on offer.

I still feel it is sad that I felt like this. If it was any other crime I don’t believe I would have taken responsibility.  For example, If I was physically attacked or robbed I wouldn’t think twice about telling everyone what happened to me.

My advice to anyone undertaking this journey is to get professional help and take all the support available to you whether it be from your friends, partner, family and/or professionals.   I knew even back then just how fortunate we were that as a family we all stood together. I cannot imagine just how traumatic this process is to go through alone.

Counselling will support you through the process and your growing awareness about how your abuse impacted your life can only add strength to your resolve as you navigate through the legal system.

Support

If family members do not support you coming forward to deal with your abuse, it may be helpful to know that each member of the family can experience abuse differently. Although other members of your family may also be victims of the same abuser, they may not be ready to face it.  Some may have no memory of the abuse at all.  In certain cases, victims block the memories in-order to survive and the memories can lay dormant for years until a crisis such a death or birth triggers it to emerge.  You will have no control over how others behave so it is important that you put all your energy into building yourself up to be able to cope with the challenge ahead.

Becoming Informed

When you finally hear about your court date I would strongly recommend that you insist on a meeting with your Barrister. You need him/her to provide you with the details of what you can expect on the day, how the hearing will run, in what order and who will speak. Ask if not offered, to read all the statements made including your abusers statement as this will help you prepare for what will be read out in court. Listen carefully to what the Barrister says about the possible outcome of the case. Your Barrister might indicate that your abuser may receive a small sentence, walk free, or get a suspended sentence but either way it is all down to the judge on the day.  Best thing is to prepare yourself and remember the outcome is not the most important thing here. You having the opportunity to tell your story and shed the blame will happen regardless of the outcome.

For us, we only met very briefly with our Barrister on the day of the hearing. His obvious discomfort when talking to us and his avoidance of any eye contact made the meeting both difficult and upsetting for everyone. When he offered us the opportunity to read our fathers statements I was horrified not only by its contents but that we only get to see it five minutes before the case whereas he saw ours immediately. The language my father used indicated that he knew us and our personalities which proved he studied how to manage us for so long.  I honestly wouldn’t have given him credit for that.  I guess up to that point I believed that his abuse was not so premeditated, and he didn’t have any awareness of who I was. Unfortunately, none of us had any time to process this information as five minutes later we asked to wait in the lobby until our case was called.

Final Preparation

You can get strength on the day by having someone to support you, if not your family, friends, or partner use a professional. I would strongly recommend you take advantage of the professional agencies court accompaniment services. (The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre 1800 77 8888) or (One in Four 01 662 4070). These services will help you to be aware of the practicalities on the day i.e. the layout of the court room, the location of both Barristers, where your abuser and you may be seated on the day of the hearing.

This might seem of little importance on such a traumatic day but for us having never been inside a court room and only going on what we seen on TV programmes, to find on the day of the hearing that our father was sitting on a bench not four feet from us was so distressing words cannot express how it felt.

To make things even worse when the Barristers spoke they used a lot of legal jargon that I hadn’t got a hope of understanding. If I was to go through this again I would definitely have someone with me that could explain what was happening.

I believe that if you make the decision to go down this road, no matter what the outcome, you will not regret it. While the whole process is difficult it is worth it. Remember it is never wrong to speak up and tell the truth and take back your power.  You’re a survivor not a victim and placing the blame for what was done to you where it belongs is an act of kindness and compassion to yourself.

 

Paula – 22nd March 2018

 

New Revolutionary Treatment for Childhood Trauma

I just watched a ‘CBS News- 60 Minutes’ (March 11th 2018) programme in which Oprah Winfrey reported on how trauma plays a role in childhood development.

Within the report Oprah spoke to Tim Grove a clinical director at ‘SaintA’ (an organisation located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin who finds shelter for some 2,000 abandoned, neglected and abused children, most of whom have suffered childhood trauma.) Tim spoke about how SaintA are helping the children with a revolutionary approach to treating children who have suffered trauma called ‘Trauma Informed Care’.

Why is this New?

To say I was floored by the report would be putting it mildly. I couldn’t believe that this new revolutionary treatment is ‘New’ and not standard practice across all child treatment programmes.

Tim spoke about how they are treating children who present with difficult behaviours, juvenile delinquency, poor performance in school or out of control anger by first focusing on the person’s experiences before trying to correct their behaviours.

Again, I still can’t get my head around what was the normal way of treating a child with these difficulties before now. Surely it makes sense to look into the why? of a child’s problem before you look into the what? of a child’s problem.

Highlighting Trauma

In our book Why Go Back? 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse’, we talk about the importance of fully understanding just how your abuse (trauma) affects every aspect of your life. We are constantly talking about how if you are to overcome abuse, you first need to understand its origins and impacts.

I applaud Oprah for bringing this to the attention of the masses, for it is a step in the right direction. We could all benefit from a greater understanding of just how trauma affects how individuals behave and express their hurt.

Impacts of Trauma

According to Dr. Bruce Perry who also took part in the programme “If you have developmental trauma, the truth is you’re going to be at risk of almost any kind of physical, mental and social health problem that you can think of.”

Throughout our childhoods and as a direct result of the daily trauma we each suffered, we found everything difficult, relationships, social interactions, attending school, even carrying out the simplest of tasks that appeared to be effortless to our peers, took real concentration and effort for us to complete. We constantly felt lost and confused and were shrouded in self-hatred. All the time blaming ourselves on what had happened to us.

It was only as adults after spending years trying to put the pieces of our lives in some kind of order and through a lot of research, we found all the answers were out there we just needed to know the questions. We could have saved years of pain and suffering if those professionals that we did come into contact with used this form of treatment.

The Why? not the What?

This way of looking at a condition, behaviour or problem is to me the most practical and caring way to treat a person. It simply makes no sense to spend thousands on rehabilitation programmes if you do not first ask the question WHY?

Children of all ages regardless of their circumstances act out of what they feel even if they are totally unaware of those feelings at the time. Asking them Why? instead of What? just makes sense. I am astonished if it is the case that the first place explored by any professional is not ‘what is the driving force behind the child’s behaviour’.

All of our professional bodies that treat, manage, inform or teach children should see this form of treatment as the way to provide a space for children and adults to feel safe and heard. This is something that should not be new but common practice. If we are ever to make positive changes within our communities, we must first provide appropriate supports for those that need them.

If those within the professional bodies are not using this approach i.e. Trauma Informed Care or at the very least not asking why? before what? then we are in trouble. Providing a child with a safe place to go and allowing them to feel heard and seen is the very least that we can do.

Making a Difference

It only takes one person to make a difference in a child’s life. Just one person who cares for a child and gives them attention or a safe place to go. It is not difficult to change the direction of a child’s life. It is the small things that change how we feel about ourselves.

Unfortunately, it is for this very reason that predators are way ahead of the professionals. They understand just how and when to provide the child with attention and use it as part of their grooming of a child. Trauma-based care can prevent children being further victimised by those who exploit and harm them. It can give children the voice building strong resilient survivors and heal wounds.

In my opinion many of our social ills come down to the unmet needs of victims and the unwillingness of those who could make a difference through funding or appropriate legislation caring enough to actually do something. We under-fund those organisations that have any hope to helping people and we fail to educate those that get to pass judgments leaving them without the necessary understanding of the true cost of the impacts of abuse on our society.

 

Paula – 12th March 2018

Perfectionism- A way of dealing with Childhood Trauma

Is it bad that I am a perfectionist?

I can say that I would have been very happy to describe myself as a perfectionist as I saw it as a person who was good and wanted to do their best. I was often teased for the way I did certain things in the house. I ignored this believing that I was doing things right and they are just too lazy to bother. I never saw it as a negative way of being in the world.

Dr.Brené Brown says perfectionism is one of the three main ways people protect themselves from getting hurt. She says it is just a form of armour and connected to your sense of shame and fear of not being good enough.

She explains that we use perfectionism in areas of our lives that we feel most vulnerable. It is driven by the belief that ‘if I look perfect, work perfect, live perfect I will avoid or minimise criticism, blame or ridicule’.

Where did it start for me?

When I was in school I would ask Joyce to write my homework in my copy because her writing was tidy, and my copy stayed clean. My writing was sloppy, and my copy was always dirty from using my eraser over and over again.  Over time I began to copy her writing, partly so I wouldn’t get caught out but mainly because I was so embarrassed at my own handwriting.

When I began working in the family business making soft toys I was so obsessed with keeping my work space clear. I became very stressed if my bench was untidy, I had nothing on the surface that was not immediately needed and the tools I needed e.g. scissors and chalk had to be placed just right or I found myself feeling tense, getting headaches or physical pain in my body. At the time I didn’t make any connection to my physical symptoms as I was aware I needed control over something in my life and this was the only place control was allowed.

When I played basketball, I would come home and wash everything I had on. I was convinced my clothes needed to be cleaned to remove any trace of personal odour.

I ironed everything I wore, pants, socks, bras and even washed my runners and removed the laces and ironed them too. I also spent a lot of time making sure the laces went back into the runner without creasing them. I knew this was mad, but I felt so ugly on the inside, so my outward appearance had to be perfect enough to distract from anyone noticing me.

OCD and Perfectionism

I developed a number of conditions in my teens which I was unaware of, I just thought it was my way of doing things. I was obsessed with cleanliness and doing things in a particular order. Because of this everything took longer as I had to repeat the task three times to ensure I removed all the dirt.

When I cleaned my bedroom, I would do it in order removing all bedding and hoovering the bed and floor at least three times in case I missed anything. I would then remove my clothes and put them in the wash before showering and scrubbing every inch of my body with a nail brush to make sure I got rid of all the germs I imaged were on my skin.

I hated my life and the only thing that helped was my love of basketball. I created a completely different me with the basketball group. Although I was obsessive in the sport, training every day, getting up at 6 am to run drills, sleeping with my basketball beside me. This seemed perfectly normal because I convinced myself it was necessary in becoming a good basketball player

Perfectionism Made Me Miserable

In college and in my working life, striving for perfection in everything I did put me under tremendous pressure as what I was looking for was impossible. I hated that I was an all or nothing person, so if I made a mistake and wanted to avoid criticism I just quit the task I was on at the time, making some excuse why it couldn’t be completed. I was so anxious all the time and convinced that I was incapable of doing anything right. I was constantly waiting for someone else to realise that I was stupid, and I would be sacked.

I pushed myself to work harder than my colleagues. No matter how busy and overloaded I already felt, I never said no to anyone asking me to do something, I even volunteered myself for extra work knowing it was impossible to meet my deadlines. I didn’t want anyone to know I couldn’t cope so used to take the work home and stay up most nights to get it completed.

I put myself under so much pressure to do things perfectly and did not tolerate mistakes. I became increasingly ill, developing rashes, headaches, sinus problems, and allergies. I struggled more and more to sleep often returning to work after two hours sleep if I was lucky. I’d stare at the wall wishing I wasn’t so much of a coward and willed myself to just end it all.

How to I stop being a perfectionist?

The more I find out about how and why I developed the need to be perfect the more I recognise how unachievable and unnecessary it is. Through researching for ‘Why Go Back? 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse’ I had to explore the various conditions and disorders that I developed as a result of my childhood trauma. This information has armed me with the knowledge I needed to make the necessary changes. I could see the energy I was devoting to overthinking and overdoing any task I took on.

This will sound like a contradiction but, how I minimise my need for perfectionism is, I don’t try. I accept that this is something I do and don’t use it as another way to tell myself that I have failed or something else to hate myself for. Now when I start a new project I start at the end. I ask myself what I am trying to achieve and who am I trying to please.

My desire for perfectionism is driven by my need  to be right and my belief that others can’t do the work as well as me.  This often stops me asking for help when I feel overwhelmed. This behaviour only feeds my perfectionism, but the more I recognise this in my behaviour the more I can challenge it.

Believe it or not my dogs really helped me because they don’t care if  the house or car is spotless or that I want everything to be perfect.  They do their own thing regardless and accept me just as I am.

Dr. Brené Brown stated that the difference between perfectionism and a striver is the idea that you are doing something for the approval of others. I do the perfectionism less and less and the striver more. This has resulted in me improving in my belief that what I do, I do to the best of my ability and that is always good enough.

15th February 2018 – Paula

Raising Awareness of Childhood Sexual Abuse Triggers

When abuse of any description is covered on TV it is usually followed by an announcement that if you have been triggered by the content of the programme call this phone number.  As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I often heard the term triggers without making the connection to what was happening in my own life.

Those of us who have suffered from flashbacks or strong emotional or physical responses in the most inopportune moments can really struggle to connect the dots.

Because triggers can be from the most innocuous things, it is not uncommon to become flooded by feelings of fear or panic that often appear to come out of the blue and without any warning or connection to anything that is happening at the time.

Add to that that once you get triggered the response felt can last for a second or linger for weeks. This can make it even more difficult for you to understand what the initial cause or trigger for your emotional or physical response was.

When I broke my ankle a few years back I began to have nightly panic attacks. I had an overwhelming feeling that I was going to die in the middle of the night. I really struggled to understand what was happening to me. I went around all day feeling panic and a physical pain in my chest and was constantly dreading the thoughts of bedtime.

I found myself delaying going to bed and only gave in when I was exhausted, even then I’d sit on the top stair for at least ten minutes telling myself that I was fine and had nothing to worry about. This carried on for weeks until I finally understood that I was being triggered by my dependency on my partner to do everything for me. I hated feeling helpless and out of control and all this brought me back to my childhood feelings of not being able to escape when my father came into my room at night to rape me.

What are Triggers? 

A trigger is anything that reminds you of your trauma. They can be extremely personal and can occur at any time. Triggers can be sounds, smells, tastes, touch, the tone in someone voice, hearing a word or phrase, seeing images, videos, an expression or a gesture.  It is likely that you may feel powerless to stop your immediate emotional or physical response to your triggers.

What Happens When you are Triggered?

A trigger can cause a strong or overwhelming emotional or physical response which can occur at any time. A typical response can be anger, rage, uncontrollable crying, physical pain, palpitations or breathlessness.

These triggered responses can transport you back to unconscious or stored memories or experiences of trauma. It is not unusual for you to feel confused or overwhelmed, and you can sometimes feel like you have been hit by a train.

Why are Victims of Abuse Vulnerable to Triggers?

Those of us who have experienced trauma as a child develop a variety of coping mechanisms that allow us to store memories or emotions away from our conscious minds.

When you engage one of your senses connected to your abuse, for instance in my case the sounds of someone eating loudly or crunching food can immediately transport me back to a memory of my father and how much I hated sitting at the table while he shoveled food into his mouth and dribbled its contents down his top.

Understanding just how you store memories can help to understand why these emotional or physical experiences can appear to have no apparent connection to what is happening in your life at the time when they occur.

Understanding Your Coping Mechanisms

I can honestly say I was shocked that something as simple as a broken ankle could throw be back into memories of my abuse.  When we were researching coping mechanisms for our book, ‘Why Go Back? 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse’ we discovered how as victims of abuse our memories are often fragmented, with this knowledge things began to fall into place. Understanding that it is not uncommon for emotions and facts to be stored in different parts of the brain helped me make the connections between triggers and emotional responses.

It is for this very reason that I understand the importance of victims understanding all of the many ways abuse impacts your life so that you can take control and save yourself from needless suffering and pain.

What to Do in the Moment?

I know it’s all well and good to say that you don’t have to carry on being triggered when you’re on the other side of the trauma. However, I have found a number of things helped me through the times I struggled the most.

  1. Firstly, talk to someone. Call a support person or friend to say how you are feeling and allow them to help you. It is not a sign of weakness to get help rather a sign of strength. Remember how you feel when you are in a position to help a friend it’s the same for them, so where possible call someone.
  2. Breath, I know how simple this can sound but it really can help. If you can bring your attention to your breath, breathing in for 10 and out for 10 and then reduce it to 9, 8, 7 and so on… it helps to not only distract you from the panic but calms you down and helps you sleep.
  3. Acknowledge your feelings be it upset of angry I know this also sounds easy but crying or getting angry is something I still struggle with. I can tell you that when I do make a conscious effort to express my feelings things improve.
  4. Repeat a Mantra/statement or phrase: By repeating a phrase in your head you distract yourself long enough to calm down and think more rationally. This can be anything like ‘Everything is Ok’ to ‘I am going to be fine’ it is not important what you say just the act of repeating the statement will work to get you out of your head.
  5. Try writing how you are feeling. Writing is a great way to express yourself freely.
  6. Drink water: because the body releases chemicals when you are anxious water can help release toxins and reduce the stress you are feeling.

Triggers for anyone who experienced any type of trauma can be very debilitating and frightening. I feel it is especially true for those of us who experienced childhood sexual abuse. If you understand how your memories work and how to access them, you will be better placed to identify and manage those things that trigger painful memories in the future.

Paula- 4th February 2018

10 Reasons Why Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse Don’t Speak Out!

Following the article in the Irish Mail on Sunday about Joe Devine, who told his wife about his childhood experience of sexual abuse 35 years after it occurred.  Joe spoke about how he was sexually abused while attending St Augustine’s special needs school and how he feared that his now wife would not have agreed to marry him if he spoke out earlier.

It is unfortunate that Joe is not alone in his silence.  Although more and more cases of childhood sexual abuse are being reported daily, childhood sexual abuse remains the most under reported crime across the globe many victims keeping their sexual abuse experience to themselves.

Who Are the Abusers?

According to Darkness to Light (www.d2l.org) about 90% of children who experience childhood sexual abuse know their abuser and of those molesting a child under six, 50% were family members. Family members also accounted for 23% of those abusing children ages 12 to 17.  It is these very relationships that adds to the difficulty for victims to speak out.

It is also widely recognised that children who are being abused often love and trust the person that is  abusing them. The child is most likely to have undergone a grooming process leaving them confused about exactly what is happening and who is to blame.

The Lasting Impacts of Grooming.

In our book ‘Why Go Back? 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse we talk extensively about the process of grooming.  We firmly believe that if you are not aware of how grooming happens, you will never be in a position to keep your child safe.

Grooming occurs in stages and most often happens slowly allowing the abuser to build trust with everyone involved in the child’s life.  The most damaging stage of grooming a child occurs when the abuser gets the child to touch his/her genitals.  The act of touching the abuser’s genitals changes everything for the child.  It can leave the child believing that not only have they participated in the act, but they may even feel they were responsible for instigating what happened, leaving them confused as to whether or not it is abuse. The process of ‘grooming’ will now shape the thoughts and future behaviors of that child.

10 Reasons Not To Tell!

  1. The victim may not understand that what is happening is abuse.

Because grooming occurs over a period of time and the abuse can build slowly.  A child can often feel that what is happening is normal.  They don’t like it, but they don’t always realise they have a choice so feel they have to do what they are told. As they become adults depending on what they used to cope with the abuse they most often can push the memories to the back of their minds and convince themselves it is over now so forget it.

  1. Fear of the abuser.

It is often the case that the abuser threatens the child or another family member. They may threaten that they will get hurt or be removed from their home if they speak out or that no one will believe them. This belief and the fear of the abuser carries into adulthood unless  you interrupt or challenge it.

  1. Fear of not being believed and worrying about what people would think of them.

Through the process of demeaning the child, constant taunting and name calling, along with the child feeling dirty and ashamed for the abuse, victims can really struggle to believe they are innocent. Developing a number of social anxieties due to the long-term impacts of trauma can also make telling someone next to impossible.

  1. Feelings of confusion, guilt, shame and responsibility.

Again because of the grooming process the child often takes on the responsibility for the abuse. Developing strong beliefs around personal involvement/collusion or engagement in the act can lead to the adult survivor feeling that telling someone would be more like a confession than reporting of a crime, so they remain silent.

  1. Feelings for the abuser.

As most abuse is carried out by someone the child knows, trusts and is dependent on. Children love their parents regardless of how they act, in abuse cases it is often misguided loyalty that can prevent the victim from speaking out. Fear of tearing the family apart, of the family member being physically hurt or sent to prison are all contributing factors that can prevent even the strongest child/adult from speaking out.

  1. Trust Issues.

One of the most damaging impacts of childhood sexual abuse is the struggle victims have in placing their trust in anyone. When the abuser is someone that you are supposed to trust it leaves a lot of confusion and a constant struggle not only to trust others, but more damaging is the inability to trust themselves. This is an area that requires a lot of work to rebuild but can be done successfully.

  1. Fear of the consequences.

The fear of who will be impacted by disclosure is usually the biggest concern for victims of childhood sexual abuse. The awareness that the non-abusing parents, siblings, friends etc will all suffer when the abuse is disclosed can prevent victims from ever coming out and telling their story. It is not uncommon for victims to hold their truth until a parent dies so as to lessen the pain they feel they will be inflicting on those they love. The saddest thing is that once the victim remains silent they also take on the responsibility for something they had nothing to do with.

  1. Not having the language to explain what is happening.

Victims of childhood sexual abuse very often lack the capacity to express, understand or build normal ways of expressing their emotions. This can leave victims fearful that even if they decided to tell someone about their abuse, they wouldn’t know how to explain it or even may struggle with gathering full memories. This is due to the manner in which trauma affects the brains development and how you then store memories. Understanding that this is perfectly normal and is a result of the abuse will help victims overcome these difficulties and be better able to express their feelings appropriately.

  1. Believing the abuse is temporary and will stop soon.

Often victims of abuse convince themselves that what is happening is temporary even if it carries on for many years. Their need to believe that what is happening will be over soon is a coping mechanism that they develop to survive the immediate abuse. This is why educating your children around the impacts of abuse if vital.

  1. The victim may believe they are being punished for being bad. They may also believe it will stop if they are good.

Victims often believe that there is something inherently wrong with them and that is the reason for the abuse. They may act out, struggle to control their anger and rage which is a direct result of the abuse they are or have suffered. They can take on the negative image of themselves that has been instilled by their abuser, that they are bad and need to be punished. Also, if like me you grew up in the shadow of the catholic church you may have convinced yourself that because God himself didn’t save you that you deserve what you got.

Moving Forward

As an adult it doesn’t become any easier to speak out. Years of pain, buried memories, anger, and mistrust can make the process of speaking out extremely fearful and painful.  I feel it is also important to mention that to tell someone about your abuse does not, and should not, require you to speak publicly about your abuser. Telling someone about your abuse is about You and how best to heal from the abuse you suffered.  Breaking the silence may help you gain an understanding of how your life has been impacted and influenced by the abuse you suffered leaving you free to learn a new way forward that is guilt, shame and pain free.

Paula- 28th January 2018

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