Challenging the Legacy of Abuse

My ancestors, the people of the Clan Kerr, have a long history of violence, both as perpetrators and victims. They originally descended from Norse Vikings, known for pillaging and killing. The name Kerr is thought to originate with the Gaelic caerr, which means ‘left’. Many of the Clan Kerr were left-handed (I am too), which led to the Scottish expression Kerr-fisted to describe a left-handed person. This physical trait came in handy for my ancestors. In battle, left-handedness is a competitive advantage when most of your opponents are right-handed. The poet James Hogg (1770-1835) lauded the Kerrs’ prowess in combat:

But the Kerrs were aye the deadliest foes
That e’er to Englishmen were known
For they were all bred left handed men
And fence [defense] against them there was none.[1]

Despite their formidable skills, the Clan Kerr sometimes failed to protect their own. In 1542, an English garrison overtook the castle of Sir John Kerr of Ferniehirst and brutally raped all the Kerr women and their servants. It took seven years to recapture the castle. The revenge inflicted by the Kerr men is the subject of Walter Laidlaw’s poem “The Reprisal” (1549): “So well the Kerrs their left-hands ply/ The dead and dying round them lie….” How the Kerr women and their servants dealt with their victimization was never the subject of story or poem. Nevertheless, their histories would have been ‘remembered’ in their children’s bodies, if not their imaginations, through all the ways intergenerational transmission of trauma occurs.

My mother was also sexually abused when she was young. My sister learned of this when they were watching a Lifetime show about a girl molested by a neighbor. My mom turned to my sister and relayed the events of a tragic evening with as much emotion as she would spend checking off a grocery list. She then turned back to the TV’s blue glow as if nothing had happened.

When I think of my mother, who passed away thirteen years ago, I remember being barely a teen contemplating what kind of woman I would become. I looked to her to imagine my possibilities, but could only see what I should not be: exhausted and unhappy, as if the life force had been taken from me. I vowed not to inherit the unspoken legacy of my ancestors, even though I already had.

I pushed myself hard and far, trying to avoid my fate. It wasn’t until I felt beaten down by life that I sought professional help. Initially I felt therapy proved I had somehow failed — that the emotions breaking through were a sign of weakness. I also had difficulty letting go of my habit of staying busy to ward off painful emotions. Like my mother, I preferred proving my worth in the outer world over dealing with my inner world of shame. Yet shame becomes debilitating when it goes unaddressed. In fact, a mother’s shame for her history of abuse may be the greatest indicator that her children will inherit effects of her trauma.[2] Shame can also be an obstacle to trusting feelings of vulnerability and accepting emotional support.

Unlike my mother and past generations, I have the opportunity to confront my history of sexual abuse. This may be the first time in the history of civilization when women can anticipate recovering from sexual abuse. Our willingness to tell our stories — if only in the privacy of a therapist’s office — and compassionately care for ourselves, may not only change our lives, but what we bequeath to future generations.

It matters that we recover.

It wasn’t easy finding someone who could help me with my fear of becoming like my mom. “Mother Issues” are the staple of psychotherapy, but none of the ideas I was introduced to addressed my concern for the loss of joie de vivre. Instead, initially I learned about attachment issues, women’s unconscious rejection of the Feminine, and Freud’s Electra Complex. Each suggested a drama played out between my mother and I that remained unresolved. Such interpretations felt like discursive gloss over my existential fear of becoming an empty shell, my life stolen by a deeply unfair world, just as it had been taken from my mother. I didn’t want to lose my hope and zest for living. I didn’t want the light to go out of my soul.

Today my mother would be diagnosed with depression. It’s common to identify a connection between depression and histories of sexual abuse, although I find the diagnosis can be complicit with the silence that surrounds sexual abuse and other forms of interpersonal violence. The word depression is derived from the financial crisis of the early twentieth century — as in the Great Depression, which described both the economy and the people’s downtrodden spirt. However, the clinical use of depression has largely been uncoupled from its precipitating conditions.

It would be more transparent — perhaps more honest — if women with histories of gendered violence were also identified as suffering from the effects of oppression. Along with the standard items on the Beck Depression Inventory — “I blame myself for everything bad that happens”; “I believe I look ugly”; “I feel I’m being punished”; etc. — there could also be an Oppression Inventory — “I was forced to have sex”; “I was physically harmed by someone because he was having a bad day”; I get paid less than my co-workers for the same work.”; etc.

My mom passed on more than her genes. She passed on her history of oppression, which she couldn’t articulate until later in life, following the first wave of feminism. By then, the intergenerational transmission of trauma was already secured. Her need to dissociate her history meant she couldn’t see what was happening to me. I also learned from her to dissociate feelings and memories, and ignore my body and soul’s reaction to abuse until all I felt was numb.

I recommend therapies like sensorimotor psychotherapy and ideas like the window of tolerance in part because they witness how being subjugated to interpersonal violence (and oppression) changes the body. Rather than identify myself as depressed, I witness how my abuse history predisposed me to cycle rapidly between defensive states of hyperarousal and hypoarousal, with little time spent in the window of tolerance, until I collapsed in exhaustion.

In states of hypoarousal, there can be a profound lack of energy, reduced physical movement, and difficulty thinking clearly. We may also feel disconnected from our bodies and the environment. We may be passive and have difficultly saying no or resisting threats. There can also be feelings of shame and low self-worth. These reactions are also associated with depression.

Sexual abuse survivors are especially prone to crippling states of hypoarousal. Ogden and her colleagues shared the following about “Petra”:

“Petra’s incest experiences were much more debilitating because her submission defense turned into a longstanding habituated response pattern. She continued to feel a frequent sense of ‘collapse’, a tendency to ‘give up’ under relatively minor stress, a loss of enthusiasm, an absence of joy in living, and a lack of direction about her future. Her tendency toward hypoarousal continued into adulthood and prevented her from achieving her potential psychologically, occupationally, and socially.”[3]

Sexual abuse alters not only physiology, but how we interpret ourselves and relate to challenges in our environments. Rather than seeing attitudes and behaviors as the result of trauma, more often survivors judge themselves as failing or flawed.

For me, working with my body has been crucial for feeling resilient and hopeful. I also credit my commitment to body work with ending medical treatment for depression (a slow process that involved medical supervision). Not everyone can or should stop their medications, although body-based interventions, when used regularly and appropriately, can help reduce dosages or the number of drugs taken. By consciously attending to the body, looking for signs of hyper- and hypoarousal, and using body-focused interventions, we can alter our neurobiological responses to posttraumatic stress.

Most of the changes that need to be made are small. For instance, Ogden and colleagues described “Victoria,” who was diagnosed with depression and prescribed antidepressants, as prone to states of hypoarousal, passivity, and difficulty with initiating actions. In her sensorimotor psychotherapy sessions, she practiced movements that helped increase activation and end states of hypoarousal:

“The primary sensorimotor psychotherapy interventions that assisted Victoria included standing during therapy rather than sitting, and engaging in active, sometimes even vigorous physical movements (eg, pushing with her arms, stomping her legs, walking rapidly around her therapy office), which increased her energy and arousal.”[4]

Somatic approaches like sensorimotor psychotherapy can reduce the amount of time spent in states of hypoarousal (as well as hyperarousal) while extending time spent in the window of tolerance. This is sometimes referred to as widening the window of tolerance. The increased sense of safety that results becomes the foundation for living without the highs and lows that result from an overreactive defense system.

The effects of interpersonal violence can destroy the body. Sexual abuse contributes to autoimmune disorders, heart disease, cancer, hormonal disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, asthma, and diabetes. Because the likelihood of revictimization is so high for survivors of sexual abuse, by midlife a woman may have had multiple experiences of being abused and oppressed, along with the chronic health problems to prove it.

The habit of not listening to the body until it screams with pain or illness is one many of us learned from our mothers and grandmothers. Barker recalled,

“My own mother, at times of stress, advised my sister and I to ‘rise above it.’ Unfortunately, her effort to teach us to extricate our focus from pettiness was heard as ‘discard your body wisdom.’ Many women of her generation, and my grandmother’s, were advised to do likewise. This has caused us to lose contact with instinctual knowing. The fact is, we cannot transform if we leave out our body. We need our physical body to partner with our spiritual body if we are ever to feel whole.”

Our daughters and nieces also need to witness a generation of women become more enlivened as life goes on, not less so.

Out of necessity women have directed their strength outwards as we confront external conditions of oppression, such as unequal pay, threatened reproductive rights, and a culture of gendered harassment and violence. These struggles continue to consume energy. Yet we can also be seduced by the pursuit of external accolades and social acceptance in place of the challenging work of listening to our bodies and tending our souls.

Women often feel guilty for not giving more to their jobs, families, and communities. Perhaps this guilt is misunderstood. Maybe many of us feel guilty because we have learned being a woman requires ignoring what our bodies and souls need to thrive. As Barker noted, “the deepest level of guilt, of course, stems from not taking responsibility for living life to the fullest.”[5] As we busily serve the needs of the world, our bodies and souls know they are being cheated. Excessive achieving leaves little room for the slow meandering of creativity, the unfolding of instincts, and listening to body wisdom. Yet to be fully alive, we must seek engagement with the world and with ourselves.

I’m so fortunate to have inherited my mom’s smile, her sense of charity, her love of dance, the arts, and adventure. But I don’t want to keep burning out like she did. When I live defensively, I feel I am not being true to myself. I still feel heartache for my mom because she never got to be herself, integrated and living within her window of tolerance. Here she might have found the missing peace.

When we feel broken from abuse, beaten down by life, that’s when we need radical self-care — not heroically proving our worth, as shame can motivate us to do. We do better when we mother ourselves, and create a sense of containment and safety in our bodies, which is also a wonderful gift to pass on to the next generation.

Activities to ponder: If you haven’t had a physical examination in a while, see your doctor. Some guidelines suggest women get a physical once a year and a gynecological exam every two years. Survivors are also encouraged to share with providers that they have a history of sexual abuse. Although this information may not change the focus of your check up, you may benefit from having your doctor adjust how they practice to accommodate you, such as articulating what they are going to do prior to touching you.

Revisit the Window of Tolerance Guide. Identify 1-2 ways to engage with your body that contribute to living within the window of tolerance. Practice them daily, even when not stressed, as a way to widen the window of tolerance. The WOT exercises are especially helpful at transition points in your day (for example, between work and home). Make a point of regularly returning to your body as a way to check in with yourself and nurture your soul.

See you next week,
Laura

References

[1] This poems were mentioned by Dan Zambonini in his 2010 blogpost “Clan Kerr and The Legend of The Spiral Staircase.” In The Januarist: Past Vs Present. Accessed January 21, 2014. URL: http://www.thejanuarist.com/clan-kerr-and-the-legend-of-the-spiral-staircase/
[2] Babcock Fenerci, R. L., & DePrince, A. P. (2018). Shame and alienation related to child maltreatment: Links to symptoms across generations. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 10(4), 419-426.
[3] Ogden, Pat, Minton, Kekuni, & Pain, Clare. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., p. 104.
[4] Ibid., p. 39.
[5] Barker, Cara. (2001). World weary woman: Her wound and transformation. Toronto, ON: Inner City Books, p. 84.

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).