Sunday, 1 February 2015

Touch - finding my way back

TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of Childhood Sexual Abuse

I don't do hugs. It's one of 'those' things - touch. I have blogged about using all the senses in mindfulness, but for me touch is a major problem area. I'm not alone: it is for anyone who has suffered childhood sexual or physical abuse. From as far back as I can remember, my sense of appropriate touch has been disorientated by the stinging hand on bare flesh or the violating fingers of those who are my most intimate relations. Where do I begin to make sense of intimacy if those who 'love' me most, who are my flesh and blood, swing between physical or sexual assault?

I have no desire to relive every stinging blow, or every violating touch, but I do acknowledge that my history of relationships has been marked by repeated attempts to make sense of the disconnect between my physical and emotional responses to touch. I have belittled myself in attempts to feel close to people, whilst inspiring the rejection I have tried so hard to escape - I mean who wants to stay with a doormat? At the same time, with those who genuinely cared for me and attempted to show their love appropriately, I found myself distrusting and disconnecting myself from enjoying moments of true intimacy where my emotional instinct could have worked in sync with my partners' desires for intimacy: who wants to be with someone who beats you up emotionally for the crime of loving them? Instead of trying to work through the difficulties of these relationships I ran from them straight into the arms of those who would treat me as 'I deserved'. In the end after so many years and failed relationships I came to the end of myself and have lived in self imposed 'purdah' avoiding as much physical contact as possible.

It is probably the most difficult aspect of my life's experience to talk about. It goes so deeply to who we are as people, to how we connect with the world around us. There is a need for those of us who struggle with BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) to connect emotionally with the world around us. Beyond that, though, to be able to connect with people and to be able to function within intimate relationships, we need to be able to construct an understanding of the importance and healing power of the 'right touch'. More than that, we need to rebuild the shattered sense of self which has resulted from our formative years. If I don't have a clear sense of who I am, of what makes me tick, what hope does anyone have who wants to love me? Anyone wanting to love me finds themselves on constantly shifting sand, because I am unable to pin down who I am or even whether I deserve my place in this world, let alone in their affections.

Those who fail to understand the importance of justice for the victims of historical abuse fail to understand the all pervasive and long lasting impact of such offences on those who have survived them. It goes to the very core of who I am. It takes time to rebuild my shattered self image. How do I find an accurate reflection of who I am, if my family, those to whom I am genetically and historically connected, were unable to validate who I am from day one?

In disconnecting myself from the world around me in an effort to survive the emotional fallout from my childhood, I have enclosed myself within a prison through which, even the most determined of people fail to penetrate. The isolation is both a friend and foe. If no one touches me (emotionally) - no one is able to touch me (physically). My need at the point where I can begin to feel again is to break these walls down so that I can connect at the deepest level with those around me.

Other aspects of my recovery and practice of skills which help me manage my BPD are in my control. This aspect of recovery, though takes the active participation and acceptance of another human being. One of my favourite sayings used to be 'I don't do human beings'. To me the whole human race was suspect because I effectively had been rejected from the moment I arrived on earth. The sense of alienation is not unique to me, many people with complex mental health conditions feel like outsiders.

For over a decade I was unable to connect with anyone or anything emotionally, let alone experience anything of significance through my senses. Now that I am able to identify and allow myself to experience a widening range of feelings and sensations, I feel that I need to be able to move on to connecting with those who I have allowed to be part of my world.

My steps towards intimacy have to be progressive - healing takes time and small steps I can cope with.

1. I started with a Hamster. I had been isolated for a number of weeks following a really bad bout of proper 'flu and one of my friends gave me my first pet since my childhood - I was 31. His name was Haffertee Hamster and I trained him to spend ages running through my hands, to greet me when I came home from work and to do other little tricks. Through caring for him I was able to feel less useless, as well as having the soothing sensation of a small furry running through my hands. In my childhood, dogs, cats and ponies were the only safe touches I experienced. That and the sensation of water on my skin - I trained for my swimming six days a week, twice a day - it was almost an alien cocoon, protecting me from the world around me. When I was diagnosed with BPD at the age of 42 I was badly in need of safe touch. I had rescued three cats, and that was enough for a while, then Smilla came along - I love her for her dependability and her patience when I make her stand and receive 'cuddles' - she is so big and fluffy I can stand and hold her for as long as I need.

2. I have allowed myself to feel sensual again. I love smellies, perfumes, silks, cotton. As a child I sucked my thumb while rubbing cotton and/or silk - it is soothing. Truth be told, there are still times when I suck my thumb - the sensation is still soothing. For a long time I tried to live my life as asexual - trying to block any attraction to either gender as I was abused by both. Anyone who has survived sexual abuse will recognise the belief that there must be something in 'me' that makes 'me' susceptible to being abused. I believed that if I stopped the things which encouraged my femininity it would stop any abuse - unfortunately, it didn't work because the desire to abuse another human being lies not in the abused but in the abuser, so sexual assaults from a range of people in different contexts continued up until I was 40. I want to reclaim my enjoyment of my body, the sense of freedom I felt as a teenager when skinny dipping, the ejoyment of the fact that I do have womanly curves - my hourglass figure is re-emerging from years of obesity because I no longer need to protect myself from enjoying my own body. I have learned to be confident enough in myself to respect my needs as much as I respect the needs of others. It is a steep learning curve, but I will keep trying.

3. I am willing to accept compliments. I am getting noticed again, or rather I am taking notice of the fact that I'm getting noticed! It is nice to feel that there is nothing wrong or sinister when a man compliments my figure or face.

This is another beginning. It is something that is central to my recovery, yet something that I could not begin to discuss with those in charge of my care. When discussing touch as an aspect of Mindfulness practice it is important to bear in mind that the long term impact of self soothe touch is incalculable when helping people without me having to reiterate the exact wounds I need to be healed from.