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How to deal with emotions about past abuse?
October 2, 2012 9:55 AM   Subscribe

What is the best way to get through/past/over the rush of emotions that come up when I think about abuse that happened to me in my adolescence? Also, how to deal with ambivalent feelings towards a relative who treated you badly in the past? Are there any books about this, fiction or non-fiction?

I am thirty years old, female, in therapy. I was partly brought up by an older male relative. Recently I have admitted to myself, with the help of the therapist, that some of his behaviour towards me during my adolescence could be described as abusive. I've tried to rationalise this over the years as a typical teenager-parent conflict, mostly because I still have contact with him and have to play nice, but I've come to see that a lot of the ways I was treated were simply not OK.

I haven't talked about this to many people and have never opened up about certain parts of it before. In therapy, I'm starting to see connections between my experiences as a teenager and some of my problems now; I think in the long run it will be helpful for me to get this stuff out in the open and deal with it. In the meantime, though, I have a lot of old emotions and specific memories washing around near the surface—anger, sadness, trappedness, disgust—and sometimes they come up and get overwhelming.

I now live a long way from home and have an amazingly supportive partner, on whose shoulder I've cried a few times about this. I/we still visit, though. I usually find being around this relative very stressful—even though his behaviour to me these days is less objectionable. There are even some aspects of spending time around him that I enjoy: talking to him about history he has experienced or specialist topics he is interested in, for example. On the other hand, I find myself overreacting to small things with the emotions above, and having to somehow keep it quiet because a simple joke shouldn't make me feel so upset. I also feel fear because he is unpredictable (although I don't fear physical violence nowadays). Again, this is likely out of proportion to anything I really have to fear from him. It's very tiring. Cutting off contact (as MeFi often advises) might make things simpler but really isn't possible because he is a central part of my extended family.

My questions are:
  • This is normal, right? If I can somehow work through all this stuff, will it stop being such a raw issue for me, and the sudden washes of emotions and memories stop being so jarring?
  • How can I best deal with them in the meantime, both in my everyday life and when I'm back home visiting?
  • Can anyone recommend any books that might be helpful in this situation? As well as books for people who have experienced abuse, I am interested in fiction, and in books dealing with ambivalent feelings towards a family member (enjoying some things about them, still feeling fond of them because they're family, resentment and anger when thinking about abusive behaviour in the past, not being able to get away from them because they're family).
Of course I am discussing all this with my therapist but I thought I would ask the green for any other thoughts you can offer. Thank you.

Wow, it's hard actually using the a-word in this question. I'm going to hit post before I second-guess myself any more about it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Judith Herman.
posted by bukvich at 10:20 AM on October 2, 2012


This seems completely normal to me. I know others will chime in with lots of great advice, but I do want to pass along a simple, surprisingly effective tip that's helped me when I feel those rushes of stress and anxiety, which, as I have come to understand, is coming from a release of adrenaline into my system. So this is to address the physical aspects of your anxiety.

Try deep breathing exercises and clenching and unclenching your muscles. (I'm linking here to a Wikipedia article on panic attacks and specifically the section on breathing, and it's useful even if you're not having a panic attack.) My therapist explained that deep breathing and clenching and unclenching muscles helps dissipate the extra adrenaline that starts coursing through your system when you feel stress.

Good luck. You can do this.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:20 AM on October 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


• This is normal. You can work through the stuff. It will always have emotions attached to it, but you will learn ways to cope and so those emotions won't overwhelm you as much.
• There are so many ways to cope with flooding! You can get The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns, and also look for some DBT worksheets*, and using those you can try a bunch of different strategies. The first one, not optional, is to breathe, focus on where you are right now and how you are right now.
• You should also read Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, just as a thing to read that will help you contextualize some of what happened to you and understand the responses you are having.
• The thing you want to read up on, with regards to being around your family member while you're having these feelings, is setting and enforcing boundaries. It's more about giving yourself agency and permission to walk away from an abusive conversation than it is about expecting your abusive family member to change. He won't. But you can change the ways you respond.

*If you can't find, or can't afford, the DBT modules, I have a bunch that I can dig out. I think there's a lot of it just floating around on the internet, but feel free to MeFiMail me if you come up empty-handed. Your therapist might also have these on hand somewhere.
posted by brina at 10:27 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


the one thing I would say to you as you heal going forward, look after yourself first and foremost. One of the really hard things for my SO when she was dealing with this at roughly the same time as you was the defensiveness of the adults who were supposed to be protecting her at that time.

That defensiveness resulted in them re-inventing the history, "it wasn't that bad!" "you're exaggerating!", or even "it didn't happen!"

4 months on a Gynae ward as a 13 yr old was kind of hard to explain away but a few managed.

This completely floored her. It was as if the whole thing happened again and did some enormous damage. We simply did not expect that reaction even though we had read the literature on this. We thought the violence and physical damage was undeniable but do NOT underestimate people's awful feelings of shame and guilt and their consequent defensiveness.

If you feel the need to have an open discussion about what happened, please be prepared for the most ingenious and vicious re-interpretation of your experience.

There is a fundamental need for justice, for acknowledgement, for truth. It may not come and indeed the search may well be more harrowing than you expect.

Is there any way you can cut this person out of your life?
posted by kairab at 10:34 AM on October 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


I tried for twenty years to be civil on the very rare (every few years) occasions when I saw my abusive father. My sisters- who were not abused by him- and other relatives were like the people kairab mentions above.

Finally, when I was in my late thirties, I cut my father off completely. It's been over twenty years now, and I've never regretted it.

A lot of people recommend Toxic Parents, I read a bit of it and it reassured me.
posted by mareli at 10:43 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I forgive them. Not necessarily for them, but for me. I forgive so I can move on with my life and let things go.

For too long, I tried to "suck it up," bury the feelings or distract myself from them. Sadness, fear, and anger would occasionally bubble up, and always slightly discolor everything in my life. Often in "unrelated" circumstances it would bleed out into my ongoing relationships. Relationships with people who were not a part of my life during my abuse. So, among other things, I now work with a therapist to let these feelings go, through meditation (inhale the present, visualize and exhale the past), modifying defensive behaviors which I learned as a mechanism against abuse, reading materials that are suggested, and talking about it in a non judgemental way with the person I feel responsible.

For me, I endured physical and mental abuse as a small child and continuing into my early teens. I was a victim at the time, powerless over that interaction. I am in my late 30s now, and until recently was still operating at times on those old, tired, and useless resentments. Those responsible did the best they could with what little they had in raising me, and although I played no part in my abuse as a child, two decades later, I do have to own my responsibility in carrying on the wounds of the past. I don't do anything on a consistent basis that I don't get anything out of, and not letting those wounds heal allowed me to access the freedom found in righteous anger, selfishness, and "bully" others through manipulation and sometimes direct conflict when I found it convenient, though I didn't realize what I was doing at the time. And the only thing I had to give up was peace and satisfaction. As it turned out, I had been abusing myself and those around me for longer than my own abuse. But that's just my experience with this type of issue.
posted by Debaser626 at 10:52 AM on October 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yeah, it's normal.

I've tried to rationalise this over the years as a typical teenager-parent conflict, mostly because I still have contact with him and have to play nice, but I've come to see that a lot of the ways I was treated were simply not OK.

Here's the only thing that helped me, as someone who has a fairly similar background: you don't. You don't have to play nice (although you should, because it's better than the alternative), and you don't have to keep in contact. It's okay to choose not to have this person in your life. It's also okay to choose to forgive them.

But they're not going to change, ever. The only thing you can change is yourself.

In therapy, I'm starting to see connections between my experiences as a teenager and some of my problems now; I think in the long run it will be helpful for me to get this stuff out in the open and deal with it.

Nope, wrong. At least, not with your abuser. With your therapist, sure. With your abusive pseudo-dad, you'll just default back to the old patterns and he won't change and you will just hurt yourself even more when you realize that you've been pouring energy down a black hole.

Cutting off contact (as MeFi often advises) might make things simpler but really isn't possible because he is a central part of my extended family.

You're confusing "pleasant" or "consequence free" with "possible". It sucks, I know, I'm sorry. But if you can't or don't want to forgive him and accept that he's not going to change and accept that the past is done and unchangeable, cutting off contact or your present misery are your only options.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 11:52 AM on October 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


I went through this.

- I nth the recommendations to read Judith Herman. A brilliant woman and a fantastic book.

- Also, agree that this will get better as time goes on.

- I'd suggest that you put the focus on YOU. What do you want to do with your life? Are you enjoying interacting with this person? It might help to take a break from family gatherings for a little while (e.g., go to the Caribbean for Christmas instead of the usual tradition this year, get super busy with work and unable to make it to family gatherings) until you feel better.
posted by 3491again at 12:02 PM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


anonymous: I think in the long run it will be helpful for me to get this stuff out in the open and deal with it.

The Master and Margarita Mix: Nope, wrong. At least, not with your abuser. With your therapist, sure. With your abusive pseudo-dad, you'll just default back to the old patterns and he won't change and you will just hurt yourself even more when you realize that you've been pouring energy down a black hole.


The book Toxic Parents recommended above does a lot to address this. It talks about how you can't change the abuser's behavior, but you can learn to set your own boundaries with that person. It very strongly recommends confrontation with the abuser about what happened, not to get them to admit anything or change, but just to give you a chance to react differently when they deny or get angry or fall into whatever the old pattern was. They can keep pulling their same old crap, but you can react differently, and it's very empowering to do so. The book describes this confrontation as sort of the end of a long process of learning different ways of reacting and practicing them in less emotionally-charged situations. And then it addresses how you can choose what kind of relationship you want to have with the abuser, in light of how they respond when you talk with them about what happened. So I'd agree with TMaMM that you probably shouldn't just call him up tomorrow and say, "Hey, these things you did were hurtful and wrong." But it seems like you could get to a place where you could start that conversation and have it be a healthy one for you, if you're willing to work at it.* **
* With the help of your therapist.
** If the book is to be believed.

posted by vytae at 7:37 PM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


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