Breaking Free of Fear

Charlotte Saponas

This is the text of a talk given at the April 20, 2002 Survivorship conference.

I volunteered to speak after seeing a little notice in the Monthly Notes. It caught my eye because while I was going through my therapy, healing from satanic ritual abuse, I always said that if I could help someone else someday -- even in some little way -- that's the only thing that would make this worth the pain. I've helped people in other ways through the last several years, but I've never had the opportunity to give back to my ritual abuse survivor community. Although I don't consider myself a public speaker, I am a survivor and I have learned a lot through my own healing process. Maybe you will find a little something to take home with you that might help you in your own healing.

I'm going to organize this talk by answering the questions the Conference Chairperson, Sonya Lan, suggested. They are good questions and will enable me to keep more organized and to the point.

Question: How long have you been in recovery and how is your life now?

I began what I told my husband would be "short-term therapy" in 1984. It turned out to be thirteen years. We had moved to a new home we had designed and built and I was feeling totally undeserving of the pretty house on six acres of forested land outside of Colorado Springs. I had been married for nearly nine years and had a seven-year-old son, a five-year-old daughter and a dog. I worked part time as a Medical Social Worker in a hospital, and my husband, Tom, was an engineer. Tom's parents lived in town and we had friends and activities of our own.

I started drinking in a way I called "bad" -- hidden drinking -- and I knew I needed to do something before it became worse. At that time, I hadn't made the association of the drinking and the feeling of not deserving the house and the other good things in my life, much less an association with any abuse issues.

My life now is full and satisfying. The past several years, because of two moves, I haven't worked for a salary, but I have found many volunteer opportunities that keep me busy. I am not in therapy. I have friends and support persons I call when I need to talk.

I have good relationships with my husband, son, daughter, and with many friends. I do not have any contact with my parents, through my own choice. My mother was in a satanic cult and was our church organist. My father was a minister in the Evangelical United Brethren church and he sexually abused me. I believe I've been able to let go of the loss and grief surrounding those relationships. I am free to do anything I choose to do within the normal limits of physical ability, finances, etc.

Question: Are you happy with your life now and are you making conscious choices about how you want to live?

I am happy with my life. It's not perfect; no one's life is. I get discouraged at times and I handle things in a less than perfect manner sometimes, but all of these things happen to every human being. I am able to feel emotions, including sadness, anger, and grief, and deal with them. I can also feel joy, love, and happiness. I can figure out what to do to get my needs met. I am able to give and receive love. I am able to keep myself safe. I am able to have my spiritual needs met through a growing relationship with God.

I continuously make conscious choices about how I want to live. I try to live my life so I won't have regrets later. I try to make the best choices I can make at that particular time and not cut myself down if later my decision would have been different.

Question: How much of your time and energy do you spend making your ideal life a reality versus processing flashbacks? What happens when memories and flashbacks surface?

I spend almost no time at all processing flashbacks now. You may not be able to imagine this yet, but with work, I believe it can happen to all of us. If a flashback or memory surfaces, I have several possible ways to deal with it. For example, if it's "smoke" that I see, I go through all of the things I have learned it could be and analyze which one it is at this time. It could be steam from a power plant. It could be car exhaust on a cold day in Colorado. It could be the dry cycle of our dishwasher. It could be something in the oven. It could be a wet house roof under the warm sun. It has never been what I experienced in childhood, so I know I just have to figure it out non-emotionally in my present world.

Other times, I go sort of numb. I get into a non-thinking and non-feeling state. This wouldn't be good forever, but as a temporary state, it gets me through the situation until I am in a safe place to process the memory or feeling. Sometimes I am able to just put the memory or flashback into a compartment in my mind and deal with it later. Once in a while I make a conscious choice to not do something that I feel might bring on a flashback, like attend a Good Friday service. As long as it doesn't feel like my life is being made too small by not doing a particular thing, I feel this is okay.

The flashbacks have greatly diminished over the years. The abuse will always be a part of who I am, but it doesn't rule my choices now. Right now it may feel like you are stuck in flashbacks, but when you have fewer, it will feel like the true victory that it is!

Most of my days are spent doing things I have chosen to do, from cooking and cleaning to my many volunteer jobs. I also participate in my church choir and a Bible study group. I have hobbies that I enjoy when I have time, such as sewing and crafts, reading, biking, or walking. I'm now training for the three-day, sixty-mile Breast Cancer walk from San Jose to San Francisco in July.

Last year I also had to learn to deal with doctors more than ever before because I had breast cancer and double mastectomies just last August. I had some difficulties with the idea of a surgery (triggers like cutting and blood) and trouble with one doctor who would not stop saying he was going to "mark" me before the surgery. But I was able to get the support I needed and I got through the experience.

The Early Stages of My Recovery

I saw a male therapist in 1984 and we worked on issues that involved typical dysfunctional parents, divorce, and verbal and physical abuse. I was suicidal and was hospitalized once a nd put on an antidepressant, which didn't have any effect. We moved to Washington D.C. for a year and when we moved back (1987), I found a female therapist and I began to remember the sexual abuse. In about 1990, the satanic ritual abuse began to surface.

When I knew I would be doing this talk, I called my former therapist, Sharon, and asked her a few questions, since I don't remember too much about what I was like at the beginning of the therapy. She said that when I first walked into her office, I looked like a scared animal. I looked like I was going to run with every step I took. I scanned and rescanned the room and was extremely cautious. There was a stiffness to my body. After a while, when I was out of that extremely scared place, my speech had a defensive, hostile edge to it.

Sharon wondered if I was really ready to do the therapy. All she could tell was that I was extremely wounded in some way.

I was lucky enough to be able to go to therapy twice a week. It was so important for me to try to talk and get something out, but I didn't understand what that "something" was. By going this often, I was able to keep myself together enough to be a decent wife and raise our children. At the time, I was a substitute at work. This turned out to be very fortunate, because I could choose to work depending on what was going on inside of me.

I was very dissociative -- not actually a classic multiple, but very fragmented. I had different parts, but they weren't fully separated. In the early stages of this part of my therapy, I gradually went through the process of remembering and admitting the sexual abuse. Then the memories became more scary and odder. Many things at church started causing flashbacks. My therapist had never dealt with satanic ritual abuse, so it was confusing to both of us. Sharon talked with another therapist and started learning how to be more helpful to me. She saw herself as a witness to my story and was able to sit, listen, and tell me over and over that it was safe in her office and that she would protect me and not hurt me.

This period of my life was so hard because things like happened often:
-- I had continuous flashbacks about former events in my life.
-- I thought I was an evil person.
-- The drinking became worse.
-- I cut on myself.
-- Our sex life was often non-existent.
-- I was paranoid about being followed in my car.
-- Once I found poison in my car just before Easter.
-- People on the street often scared me.
-- I had terrible nightmares with a stiffness in my body and convulsions.
-- My husband recalls me speaking in the voice of a child begging people to not do something to me.
-- The pain of Good Friday and Halloween were incredible.
-- I felt terror inside the church.
-- I was very suicidal. (I finally was put on Prozac for two years. It was a miracle drug for me).
-- I often was lost in the car for a bit (once for a long while).
-- I felt crazy most of the time.
-- I felt I was so alone. If you have this feeling, I'm assuring you that you are not alone. They lied to us.

Question: How did you deal with the paralyzing fear that keeps many survivors stuck in the pain? What did you do on a day-to-day basis? What techniques did you use?

My therapist and I sometimes pictured my fears as a cement wall. She encouraged me to take down the wall one block at a time. Each block contained a different fear. I needed to appreciate the wall and dismantle it in a safe way. I wasn't sure that I wanted to dismantle it. The wall had kept me sane and it was frightening to take it down. But now the wall was beginning to block me from getting what I wanted in life. I wanted freedom to do and be what I chose. I used the butterfly coming out of a cocoon as an analogy to what was starting to happen to me, ever so slowly.

I needed to handle my fears in a very concrete way, like a child would. I used dolls purchased at a second hand store as the various parts or fragments of myself. I took them to therapy -- it wasn't safe to deal with them at home. With Sharon, I explored the feelings those parts of Charlotte had held for years and years.

I did some writing to get out some of the feelings those parts held. It wasn't on a regular basis, but it helped when I had particularly strong fears or reactions. I made collages and drawings. The drawings were very crude and elementary -- pure emotion -- but, they showed the raw fear and other feelings. I once stayed up most of a night making muslin dolls in honor of people who had died at Easter or other times.

When I wasn't with my therapist and needed to feel safe, I would call a friend. I carried phone numbers with me. Contact with a living person or being home (even though at times I was also scared of my own home), helped ground me and helped me feel safer.

Question: Did your approach to dealing with the fear change over time? Are you still haunted by fear? How do you deal with it now?

As the fears grew less intense, I tried to reframe them ­ change them by finding another way to look at them. I talked with my husband or Sharon about the fear. I took it apart and tried to cognitively understand it and thus make it less frightening. I gradually learned to talk with myself about a fear when it arose. I'd tell myself to be quiet and look at the pieces of the fear and see them for what they really were. Slowly, I grew to be able to do this more successfully. I still sometimes need my husband to say, "It's just steam" to me, but that's all it takes.

I'm not haunted by fears now -- but they still come up. To this day, I have trouble with a few church symbols, like the cross and blood, preparation for Easter, Halloween, and revulsion to sweat and body odor, even with my husband.

Question: What was the hardest thing about pushing through the fear? How did you deal with the desire to push through the fear and the simultaneous desire to get as far away from it as possible?

The hardest thing about pushing through the fear was that parts of me just wanted to curl up and ignore everything. Sharon always used the words "push-pull" when something came up that indicated my desire to push through the fear, yet the obvious greater desire was to run away from it by pulling into myself. This reminded me that it was another time that I needed to push toward healing with extra effort.

It was also difficult because I was so afraid of just the idea of talking. I was afraid that I would be hurt or that Sharon would be hurt. She constantly had to reassure me.

Another very difficult part about pushing through the fear was the very nature of fear itself. It seemed that to touch the fear (to mention it), meant it was going to be activated and harm me again. Some of the fears paralyzed me so I was unable to do much to get through them. It was a very slow process.

Question: What advice would you give to survivors who are just starting on this journey? What about to those who are in the thick of recovery and can't see the end to the terror?

You have to have a real commitment to staying with therapy. You have to go to every appointment no matter how scared you are or how often parts of you say it's doing no good or that it's useless or too expensive. You need to go even if your significant other doesn't understand why you are still going or it doesn't seem like you are getting much better.

You also need to find someone you can work with. I'm not saying "feel comfortable with" because I never was comfortable, but find someone who you feel accepts you and is willing to work with trauma and all that it entails. Pay attention to your gut reactions as you talk with the therapist and listen to yourself! You know inside what you need!

You need to be willing to contribute to a relationship with your therapist. It's difficult, I know, but you need to let someone support you in order to learn another level of trust. You need someone in your life who can keep encouraging you and telling you that it's worth the pain. From my own experience, I can now tell you that it is worth it, but I didn't see much good in all of the pain for years.

When you can't see the end to the terror and fear, you just have to grab every bit of courage you have and get through the next hour, day, or until the next therapy appointment. Develop a support system of people to call on when you need encouragement. Make a list of them because you will forget that you have anyone available when you are overwhelmed.

All of the pain of the healing process was worth it to me because now I'm free of my parents and the abuse. My life is full of great activities that I choose and I have people who love me and I am able to love and care about them. Spirituality is a large part of my life and my prayers and the prayers of others made a difference in my healing. Every one of us is different in what the pivotal spiritual experience will be for us, but I believe we all have a spiritual side.

I used to fear my emotions, but I do this less now. I like the way this is stated in the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. "Turn on the faucet. Wash yourself with the emotion. It won't hurt you. It will only help. If you let the fear inside, if you pull it on like a familiar shirt, then you can say to yourself, 'all right, it's just fear, I don't have to let it control me. I see it for what it is.' Then you say, 'I'm going to put fear aside and know that there are other emotions in the world and I'm going to experience them as well.'"

Booker T. Washington said that "success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles one has overcome while trying to succeed."

So, wherever you are today in your own healing, just take a step -- even a baby-step -- toward some aspect of the healing process. These little steps (even when there are some natural backward slides) will continue to add up over time. When I was very discouraged with my healing process, my therapist had me look at where I was a year before. This enabled me to see where there had been growth and change. Just keep at it. Keep going to therapy, keep forging new relationships, and keep trying to believe you deserve to be healed and free!

Copyright © 2002 by Charlotte Saponas and Survivorship.
All rights reserved. You may print out one copy for use
in your own healing. For additional reprints, write
Survivorship, PMB 139, 3181 Mission St, San Francisco CA 94110.





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