Many people in my psychotherapy practice struggle with coming to terms with childhood sexual abuse. Flashes of their silent past and the effects of the splitting of the self in order to survive, intrude on their present day life, so they come for support. I’m humbled to witness their heroic, creative work through their inner labyrinth of pain and love gradually towards integration and wholeness.
When I met Ms. Jane Rowan on Twitter, her lyrical book title, The River of Forgetting, caught my attention. Her first-hand account of her process of recovery from childhood sexual abuse through psychotherapy and the creative healing arts sounded fascinating. She writes of the transcendent theme of post-traumatic growth, of her long process of soul retrieval, of body-based work in restoring a sense of wholeness and of personal spiritual growth.
Splitting, Discovery & Merging Aspects of the Self
Jane Rowan (she writes under a pseudonym) was 52 years old, a mother and college professor, when fragments of suppressed memories of severe sexual abuse in early childhood began to break through to her consciousness, soon becoming a “raging crisis” and demanding her conscious attention.
This book is a memoir of her long healing process as she went about the work of releasing and integrating different aspects of her self.
Ms. Rowan describes what it is like to have a “split” sense of self. She describes herself in two ways: the public Jane was more than assertive. She says she was opinionated, intellectual, evidence-based, numbers-loving, hard-nosed about details and deadlines, angry, competitive, and passed over for promotion due to interpersonal difficulties.
Yet, aspects of the private Jane were “frightened and quiet” and dissociated from her own consciousness. Cordoned off in a secret place and not part of her public persona were the aspects of her self which were wordless, unscientific, imagistic and needing care.
This memoir is a lyrical, soulful, description of Ms. Rowan’s individualistic process of how she worked slowly with her inner selves towards integration.
The Therapeutic Relationship as a Container to Heal
Ms. Rowan describes her warm and trusting relationship with her therapist as the catalyst and container for her healing work. She notes that she gradually internalized the love, acceptance and warmth from the relationship with her therapist. This therapeutic bond helped modify her internal emotional landscape. It helped her be open to trying other therapeutic techniques in order to explore and expand her internal experience of memory and emotion.
What strikes me most about Sarah, her therapist, is her accessibility and her willingness to be authentic in the relationship, to acknowledge transference issues and to be flexible, to continually meet her client where she is.
When a person experiences painful abuse, it is adaptive for the ego to protect itself by using the necessary survival technique of extreme dissociation. Over time, dissociation becomes a strongly entrenched habitual lifelong tool.
The dissociative defense has both beneficial and negative costs.
A person who needed to dissociate from traumatic material in early life, tends to repress both their early memories and feelings and also tends to readily dissociate from their here and now lived experiences, both emotionally and on a body level (kinesthetically). In other words, s/he tends to not be emotionally intelligent; the full spectrum of emotions and body sensations are not readily felt and named.
Instead of a daily internal feeling of wholeness, an integrative bodymind feeling, there are feelings of disconnect, emptiness, numbing, and a sense of a void. The habitual use of dissociating from primary emotional material fosters the creation of a false self, with automatic distancing from the feelings of the authentic self.
Of course we all use this adaptive tool of mild dissociation to get on with daily life, but it is maladaptive when over-used in daily life, in the absence of traumatic events.
Accessing the Shadowy Body Memories through MindBody Therapies
Ms. Rowan says she was high-functioning and had a good job, family and friends. But she knew there was something not quite right. She wasn’t feeling intimacy in her friendships and other relationships. And she had a pervasive internal sense of distance, distrust and perfectionism.
In the safety of the therapeutic relationship, Ms. Rowan allows herself to access different feeling states through inner child work. Her therapist guides her through a process where she sits quietly and just experiences the flow of her emotions and her accompanying body feelings. She mainly focuses on her younger self, her inner child.
Eugene Gendlin named this body-based emotional experience the felt sense. Many therapeutic methods access the felt sense: Interactive Guided Imagery®, Focusing®, Jin Shin Do® Bodymind Acupressure®, and The Journey® are a few. Many therapists train in similar methods.
Suggestions and insertions about the client’s feelings and memories are not part of the procedure and are unethical. The methods respect and validate the client’s internal experiences as they surface and evolve.
With this work the shadowy memories and body-feelings that haunted her for so long came into her consciousness. She recalled the many, many times she was “hurt between the legs,” with a vague feeling it was at three years old. Her mother washed her in the bathtub, telling her she had fallen and hurt herself on the rim of the tub.
So began the years of invalidation and secrecy, the altering of reality by the ones she loved the most, her parents. So began the dissociation from experience and memory and the habit of splitting the bad from the good in her parents. She recalled a male voice saying, “It’s not like she was raped or anything. Not like in other families.”
She talks of vague, frightening memories and an accompanying pain in her lower belly.
As she says: “The entrance of this memory into my life, with the suggestions it raised, left me staggering and blinded in a snowstorm of emotions….I did not know whether to believe my small voice, my young self. “
In the midst of the remembered feelings coming into consciousness, in the midst of tumbled feelings of shame, another layer to her story is about how she felt so much as if she was not credible.
She felt like she was making it all up, as the memories were shadowy, elusive and without an anchor to time and place. Traumatic memories are acquired along with massive doses of stress hormones, so are actually stored in a fragmented way and can be difficult to retrieve in a coherent way. They also lack anchor memories, such as associated time and place, as incidents like these are not to be spoken of.
This pain of feeling not believed is recurrent in her story. My heart went out to the adult woman trying to cope and the little girl who was betrayed, invalidated and shamed.
Implicit Memories Accessed by Non-Verbal Therapies
As she worked to manage and process her feelings and foggy memories into her current life, Ms. Rowan used the creative arts to help heal herself, to access and express the painful feelings locked inside. She turned to time and space alone in the silence in the woods to think, to breathe, to journal. She wrote and drew and danced her wordless feelings and memories.
Implicit memory is a wordless remembrance of emotion and body sensations, it is timeless and may not ever be altered. And current events and situations can trigger these wordless memories.
And the healing arts can access implicit memories: bodywork, art, ritual and dance.
Ms. Rowan describes her deep journey work with Authentic Movement, pastels, chalk, free writing, poetry, dream-work. She frees herself slowly, over the years. And allows us glimpses into her movement work, her multi-layered poetry…it is a long, multi-layered painful process.
What Healing Feels Like to Her
Ms. Rowan has written a powerful and honest book about her experience with childhood sexual abuse. She has crafted a deeply moving and accurate account of her experiences.
The accuracy of her account is painful and she makes it clear that her healing work was/is many years long and multidimensional.
In the last chapter, she describes her personal healing beautifully.
“What is healing? Have I found it? It is the absence of negative symptoms – the flashbacks gone, the sense of wrongness about myself replaced by a general sense of rightness…The closed and fearful parts of me take up less space…I know where my weak spots are. I’ll always be susceptible to the fear that people won’t hear me or see me…But healing is a lot more than the absence of bad feelings and patterns. It is the positive presence in my life of the joy and solidity that was my birthright…Healing is a sense of connection and wholeness…” p. 244
Ms. Rowan’s story helps raise awareness of the horrors of childhood sexual abuse.
She also inspires us as she shows us that self-growth and self-love are not just worn-out cliches. She walks a path of self-care and perseverance towards emotional growth, maturation, self-reflection and develops her own authentic emotional truth, and her own authentic and spiritual identity.
Her work will open your heart and eyes to the extensive damage caused by childhood sexual abuse. And her long path to healing will inspire you.