For some, the only recovery work they want to do is regain safety and stability, and prefer to forget the trauma of sexual abuse. They want to shut the door on the past and get on with their lives. I did this. I thought this was how best to live. I thought behind that door were only painful memories and emotions. Initially, when I sought mental health support, I wanted help keeping that door locked.
I now understand that door as dissociation and related defenses such as avoidance and numbing. I feel fortunate that it finally bust open from the weight of all I denied and avoided. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have ever really known myself, ever risked becoming who I am, flaws and all.
I hope every survivor eventually goes looking for the lost part or parts of her personality. At the very least, to find the part who holds memories and emotions of the trauma(s), although not necessarily to recall what transpired, but to give her compassion and acknowledgment.
When abuse occurs in the first two decades of life, there are usually parts of the personality that have been abandoned in an effort to grow up and move on. Maybe it’s the teen who became sexually promiscuous in response to the abuse and needs to be relieved of shame, or the girl once frightened to go to bed at night and still has problems sleeping. Maybe it’s the girl who felt profound betrayal but blames herself. Maybe it’s the teen who dreamed of becoming an artist, entrepreneur, or scientist, but instead was consumed by the addiction she used to manage uncontrollable emotions.
Dissociation is an under-appreciated defense. Not only does it do a marvelous job of keeping out of awareness threatening emotions, memories, and body sensations, it can also fail miserably. And when it does, there’s an opportunity to grow into an integrated and authentic person. If the abuse happened during childhood or adolescence, the dissociative defenses often break down in the third or fourth decade. According to Judith Herman, “As the survivor struggles with the tasks of adult life …. The façade can hold no longer, and the underlying fragmentation becomes manifest.”  CG Jung also witnessed what he called creative illnesses that typically occur in the fourth decade of life. When addressed constructively, they become an opportunity to unify the personality and identify the meaning and purpose of one’s life.
Research has shown that for those who have relied on dissociative defenses to keep parts of themselves out of conscious awareness, recovering from sexual abuse takes on average three years of focused effort. For example, this might include working with a therapist one to two times a week and consistently making internal and external changes that support living an integrated life.  Jung also believed the process of individuation took about three years.
It’s not uncommon to return to one or more of the phases of recovery as identified by the Phase Oriented approach. This is the spirilic nature of both recovery and growth. Jung described these revisits to the work of integration as metamorphoses that naturally re-occur across the lifespan. Rather than evidence of continued pathology, they are opportunities for growth.
Even though integration of the personality may be a normal part of human development, as well as part of recovery from trauma, nevertheless there is the risk of feeling overwhelmed and destabilized by your efforts. You are challenging how your psyche defends against overwhelming emotions and memories related to an unbearable experience. You are accepting parts of yourself that at one point you felt you needed to disown in order to become socially acceptable. It doesn’t matter if what you are defending against someone else might find tolerable. What counts as a traumatic experience is unique to the individual; it cannot be defined in terms of the magnitude of the trauma.
Something is traumatic because we cannot integrate what happened with the rest of our experiences. At the time of the trauma, what transpired subjectively felt to be a threat to life, body integrity, or one’s sanity. For similar reasons, many defend against remembering how they tried to cope with the effects of sexual abuse, such as addictions and sexual promiscuity for which profound shame may be felt (and often have their own related traumas). By working with split off parts of the personality, and the secrets they hold, you open yourself up to what your psyche at one point decided was too great a threat to witness, let alone integrate.
I think of integrating the personality as the psychological equivalent of climbing Mount Everest (and the stage one work of creating safety and stability is time spent acclimatizing at base camp). It’s a monumental achievement that takes preparatory conditioning (i.e., consistently living within the window of tolerance), and is inherently risky. No one peers deep into the human psyche without seeing things about themselves they find repugnant or frightening. Doing this work challenges defenses, and can upend your understanding of who you are and life itself.
The psyche is a powerful force. According to Joseph Campbell,
“The mad are those who, when they have broken contact with the mode of meaning, with the integrating component of thinking consciousness, cannot again restore it — whereas the great artist, like the shaman, like the paramahamsa, the ‘supreme wild gander’ of the titanic yogic flight, can be carried away and return.” 
You may not want to become a great artist or shaman. Nevertheless, when you commit to personality integration, you need to constantly stay conscious of the process and never fully immerse into the imagination’s fantasies and reveries that make possible contact with fragmented parts of the self (another reason stage one work is so important). Especially for those with histories of early life sexual abuse, there is an association between negative evaluations of relationships and feeling vulnerable, which can lead to paranoid ideations about the possibility of being victimized again. This paranoia about possible revictimization also appears to predispose survivors of early life sexual abuse to psychosis and delusions.
During the times when I was deeply working towards personality integration, I was often confused and disoriented. I also was grieving for all I had lost of myself because I was sexually abused. Yet I also felt I was moving through a dark period rather than running up against old defenses or feeling stuck in depression. I also believed I was regaining my soul, which made the hardship worth the effort. But I won’t kid you; it was rough going for a while.
I couldn’t have done the work alone. I needed a good therapist, but I also depended on support and acceptance from my husband, and his willingness to adapt to the changes I needed to make. I was fortunate to have a few really good friends, and the opportunity to lessen my responsibilities for nearly a year. Yet I was also lucky to have work and commitments that provided structure and a needed connection to reality. After therapy sessions (I went twice a week with one session devoted to EMDR), I regularly took the rest of the day and evening off. After that initial, intense year of recovery work, I spent a couple of years attending therapy once a week as I gradually returned to an active life.
Outside of therapy, I explored my dreams and fantasies. I wrote them in a private journal, made pictures and clay figurines of them, and tried to make sense of all the ‘extraneous’ imagery that came up. Five years later, I attended Pacifica Graduate Institute (PGI), where I learned to formally work with the imaginal. The imaginal includes fantasies, day dreams, reveries, night dreams, metaphors, memories — experiences in which images dominate.
After PGI, I had a particularly traumatizing year. I thought I had lost all the gains I had made from my earlier recovery work. In order to heal, I tried to recreate my earlier treatment on my own, beginning with stage one of the Phase Oriented approach, focusing on creating safety and stability in my inner and outer world. This was helpful, and necessary, but fairly quickly I began to go in a different direction. I used CG Jung’s The Red Book and his process of individuation as guides, along with what I had learned about imaginal psychology at PGI. I used myths and fairy tales to understand my dreams, fantasies, and reveries. I was committed to witnessing all my inner experiences, and not denying or escaping what was coming up for me. I also tried to understand what was happening to me as part of the human condition, rather than just the result of my personal traumas. My primary goal was safeguarding my soul. According to Jungian analyst James Hillman, one of the founders of imaginal psychology, through work with the imaginal we tend the soul. I felt I had lost my soul once to trauma, and I didn’t want to ever risk losing it again.
During this particular metamorphosis, as Jung called them, I identified several developmental experiences, or life wisdom, that I believe I lacked because I spent my youth defending against memories of sexual abuse and keeping the abuse secret. Whether true or not of my actual lived existence, I unconsciously organized my worldview as if I were an outcast, or scapegoat. Ultimately, I had to resolve this orientation in order to unify my personality. (I will write about this process in detail at some point in the Ambivalent Goddess project.)
I now think that the goal of integration is unifying psyche, body, soul, humankind, and animus mundi, the soul of the world. Initially, when I first began recovering from early life trauma, my understanding of integration was not this broad. As I have written, when I began treatment for the effects of sexual abuse, I relied solely on the trauma model and its understanding of human nature. I suspect I would have had a good enough life had I stopped there. But I feel I am more awake to life because I engaged with the imaginal and made the goal of recovery my relationship with soul. For that I am profoundly grateful and feel as if Fate had a hand.
There is such fear of psychosis and irrationality, especially in the West, that the tendency in the mental health field has been to deny the significance of the imaginal for recovery, or at least minimize it. Without consciously working with the imaginal following sexual abuse, I wonder if it is possible to fully mature and become self-aware.
I think the mental health field correctly focuses on increasing safety and stability in clients’ lives. Yet the unconscious effects of sexual abuse are so much more than erratic defenses. Understanding the role the imaginal plays in my psyche, and fostering connection with soul, have become for me the reasons for taking the hard road of personality integration time and again.
Over the next several weeks I will continue to elaborate on the process of personality integration, especially from the perspectives of imaginal psychology, Jung’s process of individuation, and the model of structural dissociation. Until then, questions to ponder: Have you lost parts of yourself because of sexual abuse that you want to regain? Are there parts of yourself you prefer to reject? Do you see ‘tending the soul’ as part of recovery work?
See you next week,
- Herman, Judith. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence—from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: BasicBooks, p. 114.
Brand, Bethany L et al. (2012). “A survey of practices and recommended treatment interventions among expert therapists treating patients with Dissociative Identity Disorder and Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.” Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Vol. 4, No. 5, 490-500.
Campbell, Joseph. (2002/1951). Flight of the wild gander: Explorations in the mythological dimension: New World Library, p. 153.
Murphy, Jamie; Shevlin, Mark; Houston, James; Adamson,Gary. (2012). “Sexual abuse, paranoia, and psychosis : A population-based mediation analysis.” Traumatology,18: 37.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).