August 30, 2016

Escaping the Hands of the Abuser - Part 5

Today, we conclude our series with Ivonne Meeuwsen. She explores the new concept of "post-traumatic growth" and shares with us how she found freedom from the past.

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There's no such thing as Post Traumatic Growth

Every so often a new term hits the block. Post Traumatic Growth is such a term. The idea is that having experienced trauma helps people build strength of character. I say this is at best a bunch of bullcrap and at worst a snow job, trying to make the perpetrators look good. Let me explain.

Why Post Traumatic Growth is hogwash

'What doesn't kill us makes us stronger' is one of those sayings that seems to underpin the idea of Post Traumatic Growth. On the surface it feels true enough. After all, pressure creates diamonds from coal doesn't it? It's a nice idea to think something good might come out of all this trauma. But what is the sobering truth about the trauma of child sexual abuse?

1. Child sexual abuse does kill

People who have been abused as a child are 12 times as likely to take their own life before the age of 30. Twelve times as likely! Child sexual abuse kills those who are unable to cope with the stress and rigours of surviving. Let's face it, many of us aren't survivors at all. 

2. Child sexual abuse doesn't make you stronger

People who have been sexually abused as a child tend to have a high score on the ACE-index. The ACE scores the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences someone has as a predictor of trouble later on in life. What does it mean to have a high score? It means you're more likely to suffer from a number of physical and psychological disorders, including (but not limited to) heart failure,  depression, diabetes, COPD, and alcoholism/dependency issues. 

3. Childhood sexual abuse stunts the growth of the individual

The stress response of flight, fight or freeze is activated and since the child has neither the option to fight the perpetrator (usually an authority figure) nor to flee from the agressor, the only option left open is to freeze. If this happens once and the child is well cared for, the child's resilience is usually enough to bounce back from a traumatic experience. Most childhood sexual abuse is not a one time only occurrence. Repeated, chronic trauma makes the freeze-reaction semi-permanent and stunts the growth of the individual.

BUT! Trauma can be turned around

Healing is possible, even though conventional wisdom tells us otherwise. There is evidence that even major trauma can heal completely in young children. In a long running study among abused and neglected orphans in Romania, it turns out that children who were placed in loving homes for the rest of their childhood were, upon reaching adulthood, indistinguishable from children growing up in loving homes. Healing is possible and from my personal experience, I can tell you that it's also possible for adults who still carry the burden of their childhood miseries. Life can become about living, instead of mere survival.


Post traumatic growth spurt?

Trauma can be overcome and when people who have been sexually abused go on their healing journey, there appears to be a growth spurt. A period of accelerated growth occurs, when you discover your true self in the process of healing from the past. Freed from the constraints of the past, the freeze finally over, the individual often grows into their own strength at top speed. All the effort that has gone into keeping yourself suppressed is finally freed up to create what you want out of life. In many of my clients, I have seen a tremendous growth spurt happen, comparable to puberty and a midlife crisis wrapped into one!

We should call it "Post-Healing Growth" instead!

This growth spurt is not the result of the traumatic experiences, which is why I take issue with the term 'Post Traumatic Growth'. It is rather the effect of healing from your trauma that allows you to grow (rapidly) into the person you can become. 

My personal experience of post-healing growth

After healing, I still have a difficult time finding my way in the world. I don't have a lot of experience with determining what I want, what I like, who I want to be in the world. I feel like I am at a dead end. I have just moved into a new apartment and sit on the bare concrete wondering what color I want to paint the walls, and I can't do it. I can't make a choice. Overcome with the fear of making a mistake, I sit there for almost six weeks. Then a good friend breaks my deadlock. When for the umpteenth time I utter, desperately: 'I can't make a choice! I don't know what I like and what I don't like', she tells me something that has become my life motto: 'Ivonne, just choose a color for the walls. We'll paint it and if you don't like it, we can always paint over it!' 

Free at last, free at last

We paint my walls in different shades of purple, which they are to this day. It is my first experience of freedom of choice. Deep within I know that I am free to paint the walls any color I want. Without fear of doing it wrong, without fear of being judged on it. Without my biggest fear of being stuck with the choices I make. After that I make experimentation a way of life. My way of tackling new things. It opens up so many doors. I find out the kinds of things I like and the kinds of things I'm good at in rapid progression. Not everything I try works out as well for me as the purple on my walls, but that's not a big deal. When something doesn't work, I try something else. One way or another I make it work for me. I reframe any failed experiment as a learning experience, and I have learned so much in the past 10 years. 

I love my life and the way I live it. I've become me in ways I never dreamed possible. I'm free from the past, free at last.



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Ivonne Meeuwsen is author of several books on child sexual abuse. Ivonne is a survivor herself of sexual abuse from the tender age of 12 until she was 19. In her book, I Thrive. Healing from Child Sexual Abuse, she relates her story, not just about the abuse, but about dealing with the long term effects of child sexual abuse. The book gives clear insight into all the major issues resulting from child sexual abuse: social anxiety, fear, dissociation, depression and more. She tells the story from the inside out, so people who have not been abused can gain insight and understanding, whereas people who have been there will find themselves saying, "Yes, that's how it was." 
Ivonne studied social work and coaching and has a thriving practice as an online coach, specializing in child sexual abuse. In addition, she organises symposia, trains and supervises therapists on healing from child sexual abuse.

August 24, 2016

Escaping the Hands of the Abuser - Part 4

Today, we continue our series with Ivonne Meeuwsen. Get a first hand look at how life unfolded for Ivonne once she made up her mind to heal and thrive instead of just survive.

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Post healing life struggles

After healing from my childhood of sexual abuse, I find myself out of therapy, happy to be me and happy to be alive. I have made it! So much for the good news. Because after taking stock of my life such as it is at this point, it isn't much to shout about. 

Unemployed

I am unemployed as I haven't been able to keep any job for longer than 2 years. Whenever I stayed that long, I parted with my employer with a bit of a row or a series of misunderstandings. I am never simply laid off: I always run into trouble with an 'authority figure'. It isn't difficult to connect the dots, dealing with someone in authority is a trigger in and of itself. But knowing that after years of therapy doesn't mean I get any of my old jobs back. Plus of course, I now have a spotty resumé, with large gaps in it during the time when therapy was too intense to combine with an odd job.

Education interrupted

As far as schooling goes: I was studying to be a teacher when I was 19 and hurriedly left for the USA. Needless to say, I didn't finish college. When I got back from the USA, I started studying psychology. That's when my depression hit, I started my healing journey and I started therapy which turned out to be a 10 year effort. Of course I didn't quite finish that psychology major. I'm pretty well educated in healing from child sexual abuse, but other than that I've not finished a thing.

No money

I'm unemployed which in any country means that money is in short supply. I'm not good at holding down a job, especially since that chip on my shoulder when it comes to authority figures is still there. Being unemployed in my country means you get a second chance. I enter a programme and finish my college level education so I can call myself an official social worker. After that, I also get a degree in coaching and things are looking up. I work with youngsters as a social worker. Many of the kids I work with have been sexually abused.

Yet another work related conflict

I'm working with teenagers who almost all of them have been sexually abused and the institute I'm working at doesn't have a programme pertaining to sexuality or abuse. I'm first surprised, then pro-active, creating programmes like 'the boyfriendtest' and a game called 'difficult words about sexuality'. Working with the youngsters comes naturally to me and my programmes are quite succesful in helping these kids turn their lives around. My bosses aren't as pleased as you might expect. 

I talk about sex too much?

Say what? I work with teenagers, many of whom have experienced sexual abuse and I'm not supposed to talk about sexuality with them? What the …? I'm seriously flabbergasted, and I even take them to court over firing me. The judge is with me: They have to pay me a healthy sum of money for firing me unjustly. 

I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more

The old Bob Dylan classic goes through my head. I've had it. I'm done working within the establishment. I'm done abiding by anybody elses rules. I draw a line in the sand and stand my ground. I'm ready to take on the world. I start my own coaching practice and that's what I still do to this day. Over the years, I specialize more and more in everything pertaining to childhood sexual abuse. I never looked back.

Life can be a dream

I still have difficult times, to be sure. Life is not a fairytale and it's not meant to be 'happily ever after'. But I do better now I don't have to work within a system that doesn't go to the heart of the problem. I know a lot about childhood sexual abuse, both from personal experience and from my coaching practice. This is
the period of time in which I write my first book: I Thrive! Healing from Child Sexual Abuse. It takes me a few more years to find the courage to actually go to print with the book, but when I do it's an instant hit. Therapists and survivors alike have told me how much it has helped them understand what it is they are dealing with. 

I thrive!

My book comes out on my 49th birthday, 26th of February 2013. It's hard to believe that it's only been three and a half years since then… so much has happened. I've given sold out lectures about sexual abuse, my book has become mandatory reading for social workers, I've written 3 more books, all on topics related to child sexual abuse. I've become an expert on the topic and I offer masterclasses for therapists as well as organizing symposia, training sessions, and I offer supervision for therapists struggling with childhood sexual abuse. I thrive.

My mission


My mission is to promote healing. To let people know that healing is possible. You don't have a life sentence just because you've been sexually abused as a child. Yes, healing can be a long and arduous road. Healing takes time and often takes more than one therapy. But it can be done. Life can become about living, rather than just mere survival. Childhood sexual abuse can be overcome and it's worth the effort. YOU are worth the effort. 

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Ivonne Meeuwsen is author of several books on child sexual abuse. Ivonne is a survivor herself of sexual abuse from the tender age of 12 until she was 19. In her book, I Thrive. Healing from Child Sexual Abuse, she relates her story, not just about the abuse, but about dealing with the long term effects of child sexual abuse. The book gives clear insight into all the major issues resulting from child sexual abuse: social anxiety, fear, dissociation, depression and more. She tells the story from the inside out, so people who have not been abused can gain insight and understanding, whereas people who have been there will find themselves saying, "Yes, that's how it was." 
Ivonne studied social work and coaching and has a thriving practice as an online coach, specializing in child sexual abuse. In addition, she organises symposia, trains and supervises therapists on healing from child sexual abuse.

August 16, 2016

Escaping the Hands of the Abuser - Part 3

Today, we continue our series with Ivonne Meeuwsen. Every person's journey to healing is different, but I love how Ivonne breaks down her journey to healed!


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MY FIRST THERAPIST

"I was sexually abused as a child. You must fix me." That was how I entered the therapist's office. In a quick scan, I saw a large room with three small couches in one corner and a lot of open space, large windows and a voluminous bookcase with titles like 'When Life Hurts' and 'Reclaiming Your Femininity'. I had come to the right place, I decided.

Ellen, the therapist, explains that she isn't going to fix me, but help me become whole all the same. So I participate in her exercises. I do what I'm supposed to do. I remember one in particular where she leads me in a visualization.

I'm walking through a forest and I am a bad person. I'm staring at the ground. The abuser comes towards me and talks to me. By this time I'm crying. She takes me out of the visualization and into the here and now. After a good cry she leads me back into the same forest, but now I am a good person. I see a lot more of the forest and am almost skipping with pleasure when she tells me that he's coming towards me again. The feeling is quite different and I'm able to just walk past him.


CAUGHT IN THE APPROVAL BOX

Therapy helps. A little. I'm feeling better about myself, getting a little more grip on my daily life and I'm starting to understand how things work a little better. I'm sorting through all kinds of thoughts about the abuser. I do my best to comply with the expectations of society and the therapist. I'm surviving a little more effectively than I was before. Inside I'm still a mess. It just looks better.


MANY THERAPISTS

After that first therapy, there were others. Each specialty contributing to further my understanding of myself. I learn to feel my body again through a mix of haptotherapy, massage and, oddly, karatelessons. I learn about my own sexuality through trial and error, experimentation and eventually even some tantric exercises. I learn about my responses to trauma and how to counter them through Past Reality Integration. After about 10 years, I'm getting quite good at gaining the approval of the therapist, but I'm still having difficulty making my life work.


TIRED OF THERAPISTS

I'm not saying those 10 years have been wasted. Quite the opposite, the different types of therapy were necessary to get to the point where I was ready to really face the reality of the trauma. I'm a hard nut to crack I suppose, but in all those years of gaining an understanding of myself and what has happened to me, I've never yet felt the actual feeling that is at the heart of my trauma. I'm still quite skilled at eating my emotions away and obesity is now one of my bigger issues.


ACUPUNCTURE

At the end of my tether, I turn towards an acupuncturist who specializes in obesity. Obesity is the focus and I rapidly drop 20 kilo's under his guidance. Then I hit a plateau. He knows about my history of sexual abuse, and when I stop losing the weight he suggests therapy. In fact, his exact words are: "I could push on with the needles, but I'm afraid it might make you mentally unstable. I suggest therapy." I breathe a deep sigh and tell him no way I'm going back into therapy. Of course, two weeks later I ask him if he knows any good ones.


TAG TEAM: THERAPY & ACUPUNCTURE

Turns out there's a good therapist in the same building and she's willing to work together with him around my problem. So once every two weeks, I go see him and get needles stuck in me. The needles serve to connect me to my emotions and after 45 minutes I go three doors down, all "open emotional channels", and I talk to her. She's skilled at inner child work and after a month or two she has me going back to my inner child.

I lie on the sofa and she guides me through a visualization: I see myself as an 8 year old, standing in a circle. She asks me to bring my parents into the picture. Immediately something huge, black and ominous shows up at the edge of my circle. I curl up into a ball roughly the size of a bowling ball and I roll out of my circle. On the sofa I curl up into a fetal position, every muscle as tense as I can make it. The therapist lightly touches my shoulder and tells me: "Yes, this is what you're good at. Tensing up. It's okay to let go." Slowly, starting with my feet, I begin to move. Before long. I'm shaking all over my body and crying like a baby.


A BREAKTHROUGH

This particular session turns out to be a breakthrough. Instead of pushing the
emotions away, I am able to allow them to be. To be honest, they come crashing through me like an enormous tsunami of pain and sorrow, but I am able to lie there and have that wave crash over me. Must be the priming from the acupuncture... But also: I trust the therapist and she has told me that no-one can cry for more than 42 hours. Then you dehydrate, your body gives up and sleep overtakes you. I don't know if that's true, but I trust her on this one. Going through this wave of pain is difficult, but surprisingly, it doesn't last 42 hours. I'm not sure how long it lasts, but after a while it just dissipates. Like a wave crashing into the shore murmels back into the ocean, the pain and anguish just… evaporate. It leaves me feeling cleansed. I'm tired as never before, my tear ducts are burning and all my muscles ache from having tried to keep it all in, but I feel relieved. Lighter than I have felt in a lifetime.


GOING THROUGH THE DEEP END OF THE POOL

This session was the first of quite a few like it. I find myself going towards the trauma, instead of avoiding it. Every time I allowed myself to feel, I feel a little more life returning to me. Pretty soon I am doing it at home, not needing the therapist to coach me along. I buy myself a punching bag (a heavy 100 pound bag, none of the kiddie stuff), because the best way for me to access my emotions is through anger. I express my anger on the punching bag. When I get tired from punching, I start to feel the pain, the helplessness, the plain old sadness. At this point, I land on the floor in a puddle of my own grief. It feels never ending, but every time I go through this process I feel a little lighter.


I'M HEALED

After a while I see the therapist once every month. Then two months, then three. I'm working through all this old pain and basically my sessions with her are 'reporting on my progress' rather than actual therapy. After about a year, I tell her: "I love coming here, it's great fun, but I don't need it anymore." I graduate myself from therapy and call myself healed.


WHAT DOES "BEING HEALED" MEAN?

Well, let me tell you what it doesn't mean. It isn't 'happily ever after'. It's not that my life has become a fairytale. Things still trigger me now and then. I still have problems although they are mostly not connected to my past. I still get the occasional trigger, foul mood swing or even bout of depression. My past is still there and part of my healing has been to accept that I will never know what or who I would have or could have been if I hadn't been abused.


MY PAST NO LONGER DEFINES ME

My past is no longer the single narrative of my life. It's not even the single most important life experience. I often liken it to being raised a Catholic. I no longer believe in the Roman Catholic church anymore, especially with the recent scandals involving priests, child sexual abuse and major cover ups. But when I walk into a church and smell the incense, it does bring back memories I wouldn't have had I been raised a Baptist of atheist or whatever. But it doesn't bother me anymore. The sexual abuse is still a part of my life experience, but it's become a thing of the past.

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Ivonne Meeuwsen is author of several books on child sexual abuse. Ivonne is a survivor herself of sexual abuse from the tender age of 12 until she was 19. In her book, I Thrive. Healing from Child Sexual Abuse, she relates her story, not just about the abuse, but about dealing with the long term effects of child sexual abuse. The book gives clear insight into all the major issues resulting from child sexual abuse: social anxiety, fear, dissociation, depression and more. She tells the story from the inside out, so people who have not been abused can gain insight and understanding, whereas people who have been there will find themselves saying, "Yes, that's how it was." 
Ivonne studied social work and coaching and has a thriving practice as an online coach, specializing in child sexual abuse. In addition, she organises symposia, trains and supervises therapists on healing from child sexual abuse.

August 9, 2016

Escaping the Hands of the Abuser - Part 2

Today, we continue our series with Ivonne Meeuwsen. This week, she shares how she toed the line between death and life, and thankfully, chose life!

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I can always kill myself some other time.

Healing from child sexual abuse is often a long and winding road that leads past many twists and turns. My story is no different. I tell my story to inspire others to undertake this journey. Because in spite of being long, difficult and painful, it's worth every inch of it. Every footstep brings you closer to yourself. To who you were intended to be. 

After a few years in the USA, I'm growing weary of the life as an illegal alien. I decide to go back to Holland, perhaps pick up a study again and come back when I can become a legal immigrant. Back in the Netherlands, I find it difficult to make my way in society. It seems like everything I try, I run into a brick wall. 

The wall that is inside me, that stands between me and my past. Sometimes I feel like poor Hansje Brinker, with his finger in the dike. The dike is leaking and more and more my past is coming back to haunt me. I fall into a deep depression. I'm trying desperately to ignore all the signals of alarm my brain and body send me, but pushing away all the feelings I have is making my depression deeper.  Then, like a wolf who smells blood, he shows up on my doorstep. Instantly I'm twelve years old again, feeling lost and lonely. I let him in. 

That night, I decide to kill myself. I have gotten a hold of some heroin, and I decide that midnight will be a good time to do it. I'm sitting on my living room floor, crushed and broken inside, waiting for the clock to tick away the time. Then I notice something strange. For the first time since I can remember, I feel at ease. I don't have to pretend anymore. A great calm comes over me and in that calm I come to a decision. If I can live like this, I don't have to die tonight. I decide that I'm going to live and never have sex with him again! I have no idea at that time how I am going to accomplish that, but my resolve is firm. I also decide that, if need be, I can always kill myself some other time.

My house, having had him in it, doesn't feel safe anymore and for the second time in my life I run away. I move to a different town and leave no forwarding address. I'm very confused about this "relationship" I had with the abuser, but I can't see through the thoughts he has put in my head about it. My resolve not to ever have sex with him is the only thing I have to hold on to. It's a comforting thought that should I fail in that, I can always still kill myself. 

I'm not sure how I got into the conversation but I'm talking to a friend of mine when I first realize that I have been abused. She's questioning me about this "relationship" I had as a child. "Did he tell you that you're special? Did he tell you that your mom wouldn't understand, best not to tell her? That you're so mature for your age?" Affirmative. He used almost the exact same words even. I'm curious how she knows this. "My daughter was sexually abused when she was four years old, those are the things the abuser told her."

The penny dropped. 

I tried the words in my mouth. I have been sexually abused. The reality of it didn't sink in immediately, but I did know right away that I was going to need help. I called a therapist the next day. 


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Ivonne Meeuwsen is author of several books on child sexual abuse. Ivonne is a survivor herself of sexual abuse from the tender age of 12 until she was 19. In her book, I Thrive. Healing from Child Sexual Abuse, she relates her story, not just about the abuse, but about dealing with the long term effects of child sexual abuse. The book gives clear insight into all the major issues resulting from child sexual abuse: social anxiety, fear, dissociation, depression and more. She tells the story from the inside out, so people who have not been abused can gain insight and understanding, whereas people who have been there will find themselves saying, "Yes, that's how it was." 
Ivonne studied social work and coaching and has a thriving practice as an online coach, specializing in child sexual abuse. In addition, she organises symposia, trains and supervises therapists on healing from child sexual abuse.

August 1, 2016

Escaping the Hands of the Abuser - Part 1

Today, I'd like to introduce you to Ivonne Meeuwsen, author, survivor, coach, advocate, and one very impressive human being. Ivonne has been in the trenches for years, sharing her story, supporting survivors, and bringing about real change in the Netherlands and around the world. Today, she shares with us how her abuse began.


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My history of abuse starts when I'm twelve and a so called friend of the family manipulates me into believing that I'm special. I'm so mature for my age, he tells me, and my family doesn't understand that. They don't understand me. It's the start of what I mistakenly thought of as a star crossed love-affair. Mistaken, because it was anything but love. 

Is this really where my history of child sexual abuse starts? How is it that I was open, ready for what amounts to a real easy process of grooming. Surely it's not just me being a somewhat naïve child of twelve? It was so easy for him to lodge himself squarely between me and anyone that might have been able to help me out. My history of abuse really goes back to when I was little.

My parents are typical. My dad brings home the bacon and my mom cooks it for all six of us. These are the days before birth control pills so six children is considered normal. I am the youngest, younger by four years from my nearest sibling. My father is the king of his castle, his will is the law. He doesn't explode often, but when he does he's very intimidating. He's 6 foot tall and when he hits you it's with large hands. 

My first memory is of my father hitting my sister. She's sixteen and came home late. He's really laying in to her. My mother is standing there, crying. She tells him to stop, that he will kill her if he doesn't. I'm about two years old. I remember vividly the decision I made. My sister must have done something really bad, I can't save her. I had better be as good as I can and never make this giant angry. 


For ten years after that, I'm everybody's favorite. My brothers send me on errands, my mom has a great help around the house in her youngest child. My "self" disappears to make room for this person who is everybody's helper. I'm a good girl. I am safe as long as I am a good girl. But it starts to chafe at the edges. Enter the "friend of the family."

I was ready for the picking. Suppressing what I feel inside is a long standing habit by then, I hardly even know what I'm feeling half the time. He sees me. He sees a child on the brink of puberty, in a household where protest brings violence. It only takes a few interventions from him, to turn me into a rebellious teenager. He protects me from my father's violence. At the same time he isolates me from anyone who might be able to protect me from him.

My history of child sexual abuse lasts until I am 19 and I take off. The abuser tells me to get an apartment of my own and he would father a couple of children with me. I know, intuitively, that this would lead to my children being abused by him as well and something inside me roars. Anything but that, so I flee the country. I come to the USA.

This is where the history of abuse ends. It's also where the long road to healing starts. For 22 years, I'm healing. I'm resting. I'm in and out of therapy. I'm safe. For the first time since I saw my father beat my sister, I'm safe. Sort of. It will take me a long time to feel really safe in the world. To feel again. To free myself of the burden of my childhood. But this is where it starts. This is where I start to reclaim my life. 


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Ivonne Meeuwsen is author of several books on child sexual abuse. Ivonne is a survivor herself of sexual abuse from the tender age of 12 until she was 19. In her book, I Thrive. Healing from Child Sexual Abuse, she relates her story, not just about the abuse, but about dealing with the long term effects of child sexual abuse. The book gives clear insight into all the major issues resulting from child sexual abuse: social anxiety, fear, dissociation, depression and more. She tells the story from the inside out, so people who have not been abused can gain insight and understanding, whereas people who have been there will find themselves saying, "Yes, that's how it was." 
Ivonne studied social work and coaching and has a thriving practice as an online coach, specializing in child sexual abuse. In addition, she organises symposia, trains and supervises therapists on healing from child sexual abuse.

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