A few weeks ago I chatted with a friend and fellow writer, and in the course of conversation we got to talking about facing our fears and ‘triggers’… I’m ADHD with sporadic OCD tendencies and he is OCD (and, i suspect, with ADHD tendencies), which made for an interesting conversation. It started out with discussing anxiety and personality ‘disorders’–something I consider a dreadful misnomer, in most cases–and somehow ended up talking about my fear of water. Specifically, water in my face. As someone who studied neurology, he offered the following advice, which came through like ‘popcorn’ in Facebook messages:
“Exposure response prevention: you’re afraid of water, so swim. Do it again and again until your rewire your brain. Your brain is highly plastic, and you can change it. One of the great discoveries of neurology! ….In other words, the more you face a fear and endure it, the less power it has over you. Pretty awesome. Probably even works in Canada…. You should just press your face against an aquarium every day for a while….. Or tie a water bottle to your head.”
I guffawed, at one point, when I read about pressing my face against the aquarium every day for awhile, but he makes a good point. I’ve observed in abuse victims that those who invest most of their time and energy trying to avoid every trigger end up being enslaved to the past, probably more so than those who face fears and triggers at manageable intervals. There is something to be said for starting with a water bottle on the head, progressing to the aquarium and eventually ducking my head under water. (I am able to do this, actually, so the whole conversation was a bit of an exaggeration.) There would come a time, if I would gradually expose myself more and more to this fear, and with a qualified guide/trainer, when I would be able to swim. But, to talk about swimming will never get me there. I have to decide I’m more interested in learning to swim than running from fear, then book the appointment and, finally, actually show up and put in effort. Each of these steps is part of the process of overcoming fear.
In much the same way, abuse victims who live in constant terror of some emotional trigger, and therefore avoid even a potential confrontation with the past, will never learn to swim. If I am afraid of looking at pictures of water, then that is my starting point. The first time I look at pictures of a lake, especially with someone swimming in it, I may want a friend with me who has overcome the fear of swimming. From there I will need to develop the courage to enjoy water scenes. Next I may go to the lake with someone, just to walk a distance from the shore. Eventually I may be comfortable dipping my toes in the water… And so on…
While this is an exaggeration, in the case of abuse it isn’t. It can be that difficult to face the past. I have had people–some of my siblings included, back when I first troubled out family waters with the reality of sexual abuse in our home–who say they were never abused. It didn’t happen. They lucked out. Sorry for my tragic luck, they tell me, and hopefully I’ll be able to get through it with a forgiving spirit. But later some of these very same people come back and ask for help to work through memories from childhood that were blocked and resurfaced. (This is a controversial topic, among Christians and psychologists and other professionals alike, but I stand by it with 100% confidence.) When we have confronted the abuser, or other victims present, in all cases but one, the memories have been confirmed, so we know that the memories are not some warped imagination triggered by a question.
Where, at first, fear held these individuals captive and they couldn’t even look at the water–or the possibility of having been victimized–with time, they were able to acknowledge it. Contacting someone for help was the next step. ‘Walking through’ the memories, and confronting them, while painful, in most cases proves to bring release, as victims see they are able to face the past and not stay caught in it. In fact, most times victims have lived in fear, anger, and denial, enslaved by the very thing they didn’t want to acknowledge. Then, having faced it, and releasing ‘control’ of their pain, choosing rather to feel it and allowing someone to simply love them through it, and forgiving the offender–not releasing from responsibility/accountability–they take authority over it. And the moment they take authority over it, they are no longer victims.
…and it all begins with that first baby step of tying a water bottle on our heads, or pressing our face against the aquarium, or whatever that first step is for us in facing our fears.
© Trudy Metzger
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