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PDF Whispers from my Rocking Chair : The Transformation of an Incest Survivor

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Within 24 hours, Florika had also introduced me to the daily use of amphetamines--something that made me feel powerfully in control even though I'd never been more out of control.


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The pseudocloseness of shared addiction felt familiar, like the secrecy, stimulation, and shame I'd lived so many nights in my father's house. My pattern of what we now call "trauma reenactment" went undetected for years by mental health professionals: our profession played a cultural role analogous to the Non-Protecting Bystander in the incestuous family system--like my mother sleeping at the other end of the house.

Psychiatrists and psychologists repeatedly beat the bushes for any explanation rather than the obvious ones: that I was telling the truth about my sexual abuse; that I was desperately trying to soothe a neurobiology disregulated by trauma; and that my addictions were creating major physical, psychological, and practical problems of their own. Counterbalancing Experiences If this narrow story of trauma, rage, misdiagnosis, therapeutic mistreatment, and spoiled identity was all there were to tell, I'd be dead by now--as dead as Florika, who took a fatal overdose of heroin in her late twenties while working as a Hollywood studio musician.

But my life, like most lives, included commonplace and counterbalancing experiences that had nothing to do with abuse: the emotional support of my godmother and many teachers; a wordless enjoyment of the natural world; and successful involvements in school, radical politics, work, and athletics. During my college summers in the '60s, for instance, I was part of the movement to register African American voters in the Deep South, where I met people whose sources of resilience were very different from my own. I particularly remember Jereldine Johnson, a powerfully built African American woman who lived with her 13 children plus me for one summer in a cabin in rural Tennessee.

SECRET SURVIVORS Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women

Scorching sun; red clay in skin, hair, nostrils; smoke of the wood stove, even when it was degrees out; crying babies--all were part of Jereldine's daily life. In prayer meetings and rallies in small rural churches in the cotton fields, Jereldine and her neighbors faced poverty, violence, and racism together--with songs, testimonies, political action, and energetic joy. Everyone participated. Everyone, no matter how uneducated or beaten down, was assumed to have something to offer.

In contrast to the isolated inner struggle of the abuse survivor, traumatic experiences among the African Americans I met in the South were confronted communally and held in a spiritual perspective, leading to something other than bitterness and despair. It was years before I could put into practice what Jereldine had shown me, and I returned home alone at the summer's end, still closely guarding the secret of my sexual victimization--except when I was drunk which was often.

So it went until an early winter day in , a year after my father's death, when I found myself in a car on an interstate in Connecticut, being driven back to my job as a dorm counselor near my childhood home in Northampton, Massachusetts by someone I hardly knew.


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After I opened the car door and tried to jump onto the freeway--it seemed like a good idea at the time--the terrified driver delivered me struggling and shouting to the emergency room of a hospital off the nearest exit. Three days drunk, covered with blood from self-inflicted cuts, my hair disheveled, dressed in jeans and an old army shirt of my dad's, even my gender was unrecognizable. I was wrestled into submission by six emergency room workers, injected with a paralyzing amount of Thorazine, and transported by ambulance to a locked ward for violent women at the Connecticut state hospital in Waterbury.

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I was I sobered up in a gloomy, disinfectant-smelling darkness. Was I in a barracks, a dorm, or a concentration camp? I'd stayed briefly in private psychiatric hospitals before, but never had I been forcibly locked in with other violent, despairing women. Life had finally thrown in my face what a half-dozen therapists had overlooked. For a decade, my episodically competent days had been fueled by amphetamines, caffeine, rage, and prescribed antipsychotic drugs like Stelazine; in the evenings, I'd mellowed out with tranquilizers, gin, and sex with near-strangers.

This regimen of prescribed and self-prescribed drugging had worsened my flashbacks until they mimicked transient psychotic states. I don't know what diagnoses I'd been given by my well-intentioned New Haven psychologist, Dr. But I suspect my bulging file contained references to borderline personality disorder or depression with psychotic features.

Like thousands of other traumatically abused and misdiagnosed women, I was well on my way to developing the "spoiled identity" of a chronic mental patient. Only my middle-class connections, I suspect, saved me from involuntary commitment. Two days after my arrival, three well-dressed, college-educated friends appeared in the middle of an ice storm and talked their way into meeting with the psychiatrist on call. It was the beginning of the end of my addictions. Two months later, in another locked psych unit after another violent, drunken altercation, a psychologist suggested I move to the alcohol treatment unit one floor below.

I agreed and for six rocky weeks, I self-consciously sat through step meetings, heard about a Higher Power, and got used to the idea that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable. Once I stopped abusing drugs and alcohol, my flashbacks and dissociated states lessened markedly. With my friends' encouragement, I weaned myself from the overpowering antipsychotic medications that had kept me groggy and debilitated. I'd given up the spoiled identity of the mental patient in favor of the more accurate--and therefore more helpful--label of the recovering addict and alcoholic.

But in step meetings, I often felt awkward and out of place, and there were still parts of my story that I couldn't tell. The Politics of Truth Clean and sober, I returned to graduate school and shot like a rocket from chronic PTSD and rampant addiction to what seemed like the other end of the rainbow. Within six years, I was "Dr. Miller," a clinical psychologist doing postdoctoral work in family and narrative therapy at the University of Calgary Medical School in Alberta. On one memorable day, I visited a Canadian mental hospital as a consultant and expert on domestic violence and addiction.

I'll never forget a social worker's giving me an enormous key, which opened all the wards, including a locked ward similar to the one I'd been committed to in Connecticut. Holding that key and remembering the movie King of Hearts , I was tempted to open every door. I was also irrationally terrified that my identity as a former mental patient would somehow be exposed. As a family systems therapist, I loved drawing connections between a family's surface pain and hidden issues of addiction, patriarchal social assumptions, and domestic violence. I loved the "difficult" families, especially the mistrustful, mislabeled, and misunderstood mothers.


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I loved being mentored by iconoclastic family therapists who did battle with The System, personified by well-intentioned but oblivious social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists like those who'd mislabeled and mistreated me. Then one day in , I sat behind a one-way mirror supervising a graduate student working with a father and his young daughter.

Someone in the therapy room--I can't now remember who--said the word "incest," and it resonated through the microphone and into my observation room. A student next to me whispered a question, but I couldn't hear her words. Tears fell onto my hands as I twisted them in my lap. When I confided in a senior family therapist, he told me not to get too involved and to just do my job.

It sounded like the message I'd been given as a child: don't rock the boat, only remember the good times, and don't air family business in public. But times had changed. If power consists in part in determining whose stories will be told and whose believed, the balance of power was shifting. Stories like mine were being whispered to a new generation of women therapists, spoken out loud in new step meetings for adult children of alcoholics, and aired among feminists involved in the movement to stop domestic violence.

The floodgates had opened. Control of the politics of truth had moved from the experts to the experienced. After nearly a century in which the mental health field had dismissed reports like mine as fantasies, we victims lost patience with being spoken about and began to speak for ourselves. If our culture wanted to play Non-Protecting Bystander, we'd strip away the collective ignorance that had served as its shield. Like gay people and people of color before us, we defiantly embraced and began to dismantle the spoiled identity we'd been assigned.

Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, former U. By becoming vocal, we challenged the family and cultural role we'd been assigned: to suffer in silence, save everyone else from discomfort, and internalize the damage. In the face of the carefree old public narrative--that incest was either imagined or consensual, and in any case, only occurred in one in a million families--we faced what lay in plain sight: that child sexual and physical abuse were real, damaging, and prevalent; and so were rape and other forms of family violence. If childhood and family trauma could be stopped and effectively treated, we figured, whole categories of the DSM --borderline personality disorder, dissociative disorders, substance abuse, cutting, sex addiction, other behavioral addictions, PTSD, and even some forms of anxiety and depression--might practically disappear.

The elephant that had crashed unrecognized outside the windows of the consulting room for 80 years was finally seen and named. We of this new generation of feminist clinicians saw childhood trauma for what it was. What we didn't know--and didn't know we didn't know--was how to treat the multiple layers of disruption it had caused. We recognized the critical importance of telling the story, but not that telling too much, too fast, to a relative stranger could retraumatize us and our clients. Stuck in a Manichean universe, which divided humanity into evil perpetrators and innocent victims, we had no nuanced language for the complex spiritual wounds of intimate violence: the conflicted familial bonds of love and pain; the sense of being isolated and unsafe in the universe; the distrust of the body, love, or pleasure; and the questioning of God's intentions after profound human betrayal.

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We didn't know that an individualistic and secular talking cure could only take us and our clients half the way home. By the mids, we clinicians were experimenting with hypnotherapy, cognitive-behavioral work, and psychodynamic approaches that sometimes fostered inaccurate recall, retraumatization, family cut offs, and regression.

Exposure therapy developed for combat vets , for example, had been used effectively to desensitize adult women who'd suffered a single incident of rape. But when incest survivors repeated their stories over and over, they relived their traumas physiologically, along with the complex relational wounding of betrayal by a close family member. The biologically based rage, terror, and helplessness that followed were then often turned against the self in the form of renewed cutting, self-destruction, and addiction. I remember, for instance, an incest survivor in Northampton who was coping well and working in a responsible position at a local title insurance company.

After entering therapy, she became grossly obese, stopped working, and, to my knowledge, has never worked again. I'd reentered therapy myself in the mids and, for the first time, I was assembling a coherent life narrative with a clinician who believed me. But if this was the validation I'd sought, why did I feel worse after nearly every session? Helpless and enraged after reliving detail after detail of how my father had hurt me and my mother had abandoned me, I'd walk out of her office and end up in an expensive shop in Northampton, flipping out my MasterCard for beautiful clothes I couldn't afford.

I stopped exercising, gained weight, and became increasingly isolated. I could barely work. My glands were swollen, my joints ached, I slept erratically, and I was acutely lonely. So it went until I quit therapy--because my therapist continued to insist that I confront my widowed, year-old mother with her failure to protect me. I wasn't alone in my misgivings.

In the early s, I was frequently asked to consult with bewildered therapists, whose clients had entered therapy doing more or less okay and had then fallen apart. I particularly remember Frieda, a talented sculptor who'd been in therapy for seven years. She'd stopped working on her art, became a child instead of a partner to her husband, and was drinking too much and neglecting her children. In consultation, I asked why she was persisting with therapy that apparently wasn't doing any good. I suggested--much to her therapist's shock and dismay--that Frieda take a break from individual therapy, try a group focused on building present-time, real-life competence, return to sculpting, and go to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Frieda's therapy had been modeled on a psychodynamic approach influenced by British researcher John Bowlby, the expert on mother-infant attachment. The idea was to compensate for early betrayal and "insecure attachment" by providing clients with a dynamic, reparative, and trustworthy therapeutic relationship.

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In practice, this often meant making excuses for destructive behavior and implying that nothing better could be expected of someone so horribly damaged. The focus was on the wounded child to the exclusion of the competent adult. To make matters worse, many therapists eventually became exhausted by the role of ministering angel and turned punitive with their clients. This therapeutic quicksand was responsible for slogans, buttons, and bumper stickers like "It's got to get worse before it gets better" and "It's never too late to have a happy childhood.

Many became disconnected from any community but the community of survivors, and any identity beyond the spoiled identity of victimhood. Their lives consisted mostly of living alone, writing in journals about what had happened to them, and making the rounds of group therapy, individual sessions, support groups, and inpatient units.

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Some channeled their rage into confronting or cutting off from their parents, but few looked out the window into a larger social world. No effective equivalent of Mothers Against Drunk Driving emerged to lobby for the next generation of kids. Social attention was diverted instead to a phantasmagorical distraction: the notion--never, to my satisfaction, confirmed--that secretive, satanic cults had subjected thousands of American children to ritual abuse.