The Power of Peer Support

Farm Friends Rob MacInnis

Support Network

It is important not to try to recover in a vacuum. You do need help from like-minded and empathetic survivors and trained professionals.. . Learning to trust others and to turn to them for support is a crucial step in recovery. Doing so challenges one of the basic notions that arises from a history of abuse: namely, that people are dangerous.  [from ASCA “Survivor to Thriver” on-line workbook]

The ASCA workbook suggests listing “everyone you can think of whom you can call for support during times of need.”   I won’t list people by name here, but on my list I’ve included a few people from my family, friends, and ASCA group.

I am grateful I have people in my life I can trust.  Just knowing I can trust them makes a significant difference in my experience of being in the world.  Gaining some experience with ASCA, I was inspired to begin a similar support group/session with a friend.  Finding this kind of peer-support to be so helpful, I decided to begin this blog.  For me, blogging about my experience is a part of shattering the vacuum that can shackle victims to faux-shame.

If you, dear reader, have experienced any kind of violation or abuse, I encourage you to get not only whatever professional help you might need, but equally importantly: find peer support.  While professional therapy has its own merits, I have found peer support to be more effective in terms of freeing me from the “vacuum.”

Safety Action Strategies

Awareness-Assessment-Action

Action Worksheet (from Online Survivor to Thriver Workbook by ASCA)

Actions I can take to help me restabilize myself after feeling unsafe:

  1. Leave the space or situation entirely.
  2. Excuse myself to the bathroom if I think I might want/need to return temporarily.
  3. Avoid people/ places I know will feel dangerous to me.
  4. If it’s a trust-worthy person who innocently does something that makes me feel threatened, tell them asap what behavior I request they avoid; I don’t need to say why.
  5. After I’m away from whatever made me feel threatened, pray and write about what I felt and/or how I am now okay.  I.e. concretely affirm my safety and that I deserve to be safe.
  6. Remember to breathe.
  7. When in a safe place, do something physical to burn off the adrenaline that was probably triggered.

This exercise is also difficult.  It’s painful to think about these things.  It’s also frustrating and discouraging that I have to in a sense make my world smaller.  I think I need to re-frame how I think about how I address making myself safe.  Rather than seeing my world as smaller, I could simply recognize that everyone has places or conditions they have to avoid.

For example, most humans would avoid certain situations at least without proper gear and preparation, such as:

  • swimming out into the deep of the ocean or a turbulent part of a river
  • moving quickly near the edge of a cliff
  • driving the wrong way on a one-way road
  • walking through poison ivy or a fire-anthill or any identified toxin

In other words, we can still swim if we know and accept what conditions we need for safety.  We can look over a cliff if we are careful.  We can drive the direction we need to if we take the appropriate road.  We can walk through the woods, desert, or where-ever there are small dangers if we remain alert and avoid those limited threats.

Another note: I’d like to have more strategies for dealing with triggers/ “toxic” situations.  This is something I can work on.

Triggers

Awareness-Assessment-Action

Assessment Worksheet (from Online Survivor to Thriver Workbook by ASCA)

Triggers that make me feel threatened or endangered:

  1. Small spaces
  2. Spaces with only one exit
  3. People standing too close to me
  4. Anyone standing directly behind me
  5. Anyone touching my head
  6. Certain smells
  7. Certain postures by men
  8. Certain people (the man who abused me, any man who looks or acts like him in any way, anyone who I know associates regularly with him)
  9. Certain phrases — even if they sound positive — if they refer to me being subordinate, I cringe inside and find it difficult to go on without correcting/ censoring the person
  10. Lots of common scenarios in Public Schools; I don’t ever like being in a public high-school building

This exercise is difficult.  I find myself resisting thinking about triggers.  My mind wants to glance off any uncomfortable remembrance.  I find my mind wandering to other things.  I can feel my body getting tense.

 

 

On Self-Acceptance and Being

How I Feel Right Now Having Written “Signs of Danger”

I felt extremely uncomfortable while writing my list of things I’m aware of when I begin to sense my safety could be threatened.  To write the list I had to remember times when I felt potentially threatened, so I also felt the sense of threat.  But now that I’ve published the list, I feel somehow more powerful.  It feels good to recognize that I don’t feel any fear or shame in acknowledging that I can feel threatened or helpless in certain situations.

I think one of my Big Goals in Life is to reclaim my sense of Belonging.  Not to someone or a group or a place, but to Life.  Affirming my own Existence.

Oh, praise be Jesus!  Yes!  Just saying “I belong!” or “I affirm the goodness and rightness of my existence!” floods me with a feeling of well-being.  Praise be Jesus forever and ever!  I credit the Lord with my ability to recognize the Goodness and Rightness of my Being.  It’s absolute, because the Lord’s embracing of Life is absolute.  This is something I know in my soul.  It really can’t be explained in words.  Oh, I’m sure theologians and other spiritual writers can try to dissect the thought/ phenomenon.  But I’m not really pointing to a thought or idea or even phenomena.  I’m referring to a mystical posture.  I have discovered within myself “where” my soul rests in the Lord’s Spirit.

This makes me smile.  Nothing is really needed beyond this.  And yet, while I am here on Earth, in the body, some to-doing is required.  I can’t just sit around in blissful contentment that God loves me!  Part of me would like to depart from here to Heaven sooner rather than later, even now.  But that’s the part of me that would like to avoid suffering.  And the odd thing is is that, in my experience, this “posture of bliss” doesn’t exempt me from suffering.  In fact, it has been through suffering that I discover the depth and breadth of this “posture.”  It is in communing w/ my Lord Jesus Christ in prayer during times of suffering that I experience the healing and sustaining flow of Christ’s unconditional Joy.  Knowing I am loved no-matter-what produces a Joy that nothing can squelch.

This is part of why I call it a mystical “posture.”  It doesn’t have to do with doing or solving anything; it is simply being in the Lord’s Presence.  Oh! And He welcomes me so graciously and tenderly and with such Joy!  Hallelujah!

Signs of Danger

Awareness-Assessment-Action

Awareness Worksheet (from Online Survivor to Thriver Workbook by ASCA)

Physical/ emotional/ intuitive signs that tell me I might be in danger:

  1. I feel trapped, like a caged wild animal; I want to leave but I don’t know how.
  2. My physical movement looks inhibited (someone is blocking a path of exit).
  3. I feel nervous (my body feels like it needs to move suddenly/ randomly).
  4. I feel anxious, like all my veins are electrified; I think it’s adrenaline flooding me.
  5. My heart begins to race.
  6. I find it suddenly harder to focus.
  7. I feel agitated.  This starts more as an intellectual thing, but quickly overwhelms me emotionally.
  8. My stomach hurts.
  9. I suddenly have diarrhea.
  10. I feel awkward, like I don’t really belong in the group/ situation.
  11. Certain smells make me want to flee.
  12. The presence of a few specific people would make me want to immediately leave.
  13. I suddenly feel some kind of faux-shame, but there’s no reason for it.  (My body/emotions feel that before my mind can discern what in my environment has made me feel helpless.
  14. I feel impotent or helpless or having no capacity to contribute; I don’t like being just a spectator.
  15. I feel like an object, like someone is staring at me, like I’m just there for their entertainment.  I don’t like to be the only contributor.
  16. I sense someone is near, but I can’t see them.
  17. I hear something, but I can’t identify it’s cause.

(Next posts will address “Assessment” and “Action”.)

Vive la Voice!

French Flag held up by young girl

On this Bastille Day I say Vive la Voix! For me, healthy Personhood is all about having a voice, being able to express my true self.  My relationships/ associations, to be healthy, must always include my freedom to speak not only from my mind, but also from my heart, without censorship, and without threat of rejection.  Of course I understand that there are times and places more or less suitable for various specific kinds of expression, but I now know I need to be certain I have the freedom in all my important relationships to express my true thoughts and feelings without any threat of rejection.

Voice in Vocation

I’ve also figured out, (just now!), this is why church-ministry work isn’t such a good fit for me.  I did well as a Music Minister in the Catholic Church at a couple of parishes for over 26 years.  I have many gifts and skill sets that make that kind of work mostly a good fit for me.  However, the more responsibility I shouldered, the more I realized I too often had to censor myself.  I could do the work well, but at great cost to myself.  The kind of thing I’m talking about is nothing dramatic; I doubt any of my “issues” would cause any believer scandal.  It’s just that I honor and am much more devoted to Process*, than is typical of Church hierarchy.  By Process* I mean the development of people’s thinking, their faith journey, their understanding of relationships, their perception/understanding/interaction with Sacraments.

I tend to be solidly “conservative” theologically; in Catholic terms, I would more often refer to the Catechism and to Scripture than I would to anyone’s explanation of them.  But relationally/ pastorally I have discovered I would probably be viewed as very “liberal” by my fellow-conservatives!  And when push comes to shove, I don’t make any political allegiances within the church; I don’t take sides, so I don’t have allies.  That leaves me extremely vulnerable to the opinion of whichever priest is currently boss of the parish.

In my experience priests tend to be thoroughly “conservative” or thoroughly “liberal.”  I.e. the priests who are process-oriented pastorally tend to embrace liberal theology, and those who embrace more traditional interpretations tend to relate w/ staff and parishioners in a more authoritarian way.

I have however met some priests who are exceptions to what I’ve just described.  From my vantage point, priests who are “liberal” theologically but “conservative” or authoritarian relationally are to be avoided; life with them is a nightmare!  Conversely, some of my favorite people are priests who are “conservative” theologically but “liberal” pastorally.  (Yes, I know, that’s like myself.)  What I find healthiest in church ministry is when a team of professionals and lay people work together, i.e. a more colleague-model of leadership, (much like I experienced when I worked in colleges/universities), regardless of priest’s style of leadership.

Regardless, my parish received (and heartily embraced) a priest I simply couldn’t work with, and I knew some of my reasons for not wanting to work with him, but I had a gnawing feeling that maybe I should have been more “flexible”.  In this case, that would have meant submissive, less active, less vocal, less involved!  But today I have a clearer understanding of why every fiber of my being knew I would die there spiritually if I forced myself to stay.  (The priest wanted me to stay but with less responsibility and drastic pay cut.  As I see it, he just wanted me to be one of his tools; he didn’t want to share ministry.)  He’s one of the new crop of young conservative-conservative priests who lean toward Traditionalism, if not altogether engulfed in a Pre-Vatican-II attachment.

Real Respect in Relationships

I also recently let go of an old friendship.  My friend’s narcissism was becoming more pronounced.  She had attempted to manipulate me into supporting a sick relationship involving her daughter.  I was convicted the daughter was entangled with a pedophile, and I refused to endorse the relationship in any way even though by the time of the breaking-point in our friendship, her daughter was “of age.”  Not only could I not support it, I felt obligated to report it to authorities for investigation!

However, the real conviction to cut off entirely relating with my friend came when I realized I couldn’t trust her to understand or honor all I had shared with her about myself over the years.  Given that I couldn’t trust her, I was no longer interested in further sharing one bit more of myself (my heart, my time) with her.

Although I feel some loss, I have no regrets about quitting the job, letting go of ministry work, parting ways with an old friend.  Even though I greatly valued those experiences and relationships, I have now grown to a point in my own healing where I am no longer dependent upon pseudo-affirmations, and in becoming aware of that, I am positively uninterested in sustaining such.

I am choosing to put my own health and wholeness first.  For me, that takes tremendous courage; it feels radical, like a risk a hero would take.  It feels that way because it is.  Since my abuse I’ve looked for safety or rescue or justice from others, and mostly it wasn’t to be found.  This time I’m the hero.

I feel odd saying that.  I imagine most people who didn’t experience abuse in their formative years would naturally put their own health first without even thinking about it; that’s part of being healthy.  So I can’t expect others to understand what this means for me.  That’s okay.  That too is part of being healthy!  I don’t know if you can tell from my tone, dear Reader, but I am smiling at myself!  It feels good to be one’s own “hero!”

If you too were abused, maybe you’ve already taken this step on your path toward wholeness.  Or maybe you haven’t even considered the possibility.  Where-ever you are in your healing process, my hope for you is that you will find within yourself the desire and ability to keep going, keep choosing health, keep believing you’re worth it.  And my prayer for you is that God will grace you with gentle patience as well as steadfast perseverance!

Eiffel Tower abstract

Safety is Always Essential

Where-ever you are in your healing process, “you need a framework of physical and emotional safety in order to progress in your recovery, because child abuse — at its core — is about being and feeling unsafe. People can change only from a position of safety. If you don’t feel safe, then you won’t progress in your recovery. You want a strong foundation upon which to build your new self, and safety is the core of that foundation.” (From ASCA* “Survivor To Thriver Workbook Introduction) [*Adult Survivors of Child Abuse]

You can find a link to this free workbook and other resources on the ASCA Meeting Resources page.  Click here.