Surviving and Thriving After the Unacceptable

“The process of dissociation is an elegant mechanism built into the human psychological system as a form of escape....[t]he problem with checking out so thoroughly is that it can leave us feeling dead inside, with little or no ability to feel our feelings in our bodies. The process of repair demands a re-association with the body, a commitment to dive into the body and feel today what we couldn’t feel yesterday because it was too dangerous.” Alexandra Katehakis, Mirror of Intimacy: Daily Reflections on Emotional and Erotic Intelligence

After last week’s post, a friend asked me privately how I dealt with the repeated sex abuse from Stan, the 21 year-old who pushed his way into my life when I was 15. The answer is simple: I became a master of dissociation—meaning that while my body was present, my mind was long gone. Having experienced sexual abuse from two neighbor boys prior to Stan, I was already skilled at dissociation—not that I was aware of it.

Dissociation is a powerful defense mechanism that allows a person who is experiencing trauma—such as sexual abuse—to mentally check out. In her book, “Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma,” Staci Haines tells us that “[d]issociation is a normal and healthy response to trauma,” that essentially allow us to survive intact. During a traumatic event, a person finds safety by not processing the immediate fear, pain, or trauma.

A person experiencing trauma can dissociate in any number of ways: floating outside her body, hyper-focusing on point on a wall, telling himself over and over “this isn’t happening,” mentally going inside to a safe place or freezing. Some simply report going blank or “spacing out” until the abuse is over. Many who dissociate fully remember the abuse they simply do not attach any emotion to it at all.

While dissociation can be a blessing in the moment, it exacts a high price: a person can continue dissociating in response to normal, consensual, safe sexual contact without even knowing it long after the traumatic event is over. The state of dissociation is what some sexual abuse survivors can come think of as normal.

One of the biggest challenges in my sexual healing work was learning to recognize how extensively I had been dissociating for years in response to sexual touch in the safest relationship possible—with my amazing husband Ed, and to learn how to be present in my body again. Staci Haines’ book, referenced above, has been incredibly helpful, and more recently, I’ve appreciated the work of Eugene-based Sex Therapist, Wendy Maltz, and her book, “The Sexual Healing Journey, A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse.” Chapter 7, “Gaining Control over Automatic Reactions,” offers information and tools for recognizing and working with dissociation, among other reactions to sex abuse of which we may not be aware.

For me, one of the simplest exercises I learned from a counselor is a mindfulness practice I began to use long before I understood dissociation and long before I began my sexual healing process in earnest. When Ed and I would begin becoming intimate, I would say to myself: “It is (date/year). I am with my loving husband Ed in our house. I am safe. I am choosing to be here. “ That simple mantra allowed me to stay present to inhabit my body during sex, and to begin to reclaim feelings of sexual pleasure on my own terms.

Learning to be present during sex, to feel how my body is responding, to sink into experiencing sexual pleasure in the safety of my relationship with my beloved has been one of the greatest gifts of my sexual healing process. For it has allowed me to come home to myself—and to understand that healthy sexuality is connective, energizing, joyful and good.

People who abuse others or who shame natural sexual expression out of ignorance or a desire to control others or who manipulate the less powerful—are the problem—not sex in itself. Dissociation helped me to survive sex abuse—re-learning how to stay present in my body helped me to reclaim my normal responses to healthy, consensual sexual touch and to enjoy the pleasure of sexual connection.