There are Prisons, and there are “Prisons”
Prison (obvious framework) A building in which people are legally held as a punishment for a crime they committed, or whilst awaiting trial and legal judgment.
“Prison” (obscure framework)
A building/situations where people are illegally held, or exploited because of their vulnerabilities.
- A person captured and kept confined by an enemy or criminal.
- A person who is or feels confined or trapped by a situation.
- Having no freedom to choose alternatives or to avoid something.
This kind of “prison” takes on many shapes and forms and attempting a list would be overwhelming; and indeed, incomplete. Therefore, I’ll be concentrating on “prisons” that are not of our own making. I’ll use three stories to explain how “prisons” can make and shape us, even though our “prisons” come through the hands of others…
- Jealousy, envy and revenge (Joe).
- Through life circumstances (Esther).
- Judgment, gossip and social exclusion (Sam).
Biblical stories that are used as powerful illustrations because they clearly highlight the different forms of “prisons” that others may be inflicted on us, with consequences. However, they went on to become world changers.
He was born into a wealthy family.
Loved by his Mum and Dad.
His brothers (10) hated him.
His brothers were jealous of him.
His brothers plotted to get rid of him.
His brothers tried to kill him.
His brothers sold him into slavery when he was seventeen.
He served as a slave for around thirty years.
Was ‘hit on’ by the wife of a prominent Ruler.
He refused her advances.
She lied (a woman spurned), she told her husband he tried to rape her.
He went to prison for three and a half years.
His heart never got bitter, resentful or revengeful.
End of story: he was given ALL power over Egypt and he saved many lives (including his brothers). (Genesis 37:1-50:26)
Her Dad died before she was born.
Her Mum died in childbirth.
Her Uncle brought her up as his own child.
Grew into a beautiful girl.
King took her into his harem.
The castle was her prison.
Her heart never got bitter, resentful, or revengeful.
End of Story: She became Queen and saved a whole nation. (Book of Esther)
Five men loved, married and left Sam (Samaritan woman). It doesn’t say she was divorced five times; they could have died.
She lived with the sixth man.
She was judged and gossiped about by her village.
The people she did life with excluded her.
Her shame was her “prison.”
She met a Man at the well.
She found love and acceptance.
Lost her shame.
End of story: she helped the very people who created her “prison.” (John 4: 1-42)
In conclusion, even though our “prisons” come through the hands of others, it’s what we do with the hand we have been dealt that changes us. In other words, it can make us bitter or better. It can isolate us, or indeed, it can prepare us and thrust us out into the world to benefit mankind, or likewise, influence those around us. The key is to forgive those hands that created our “prisons” and trust that the wounds will heal, as we learn to use the experiences for our good and well-being. Alternatively, we can spend our lives looking for revenge towards those who had a part in shaping our lives.
The “litmus test” of healing and restoration is when we are able to do good to those that have hurt us.
Famous people, that survived terrible abuse and broke free from their “prison” and became world changers.
Only this week, this judgment was spewed at me.
She said, “How long ago did this happen to you?” (Yes, in THAT tone)
I answered, “When I was 14.”
She responded, “Isn’t it about time you got over it.”
It may have happened to me over fifty years ago, and yet it has influenced my life for over fifty years; however, the memory only came back last year. For me, the last twelve months has been a journey of walking through a dark tunnel, as I remembered a missing two years of my life.
I had buried this phase (early teens) for fifty years, never looking at it again, until recently, whilst I was researching my genealogy. I discovered my Grandmother was put into a workhouse, in Dublin, Ireland, after her father had died, and before she immigrated to New Zealand, as a fifteen-year-old. As I researched the life she may have lived, I felt intense sorrow, more pain than was appropriate for my discoveries.
In my research I stumbled across the movie, “Magdalene Sisters” and I cried, as I realised the horrors my Grandmother may have lived through. That was, until, the girls were being beaten and verbally abused in the office by the head nun. A light went on (trigger), as I realised, that was me; indeed, that was my story. I was transported back, in a moment of time, to the office of Sister Carmel, at the Home of the Good Shepherd, in Waikowhai, Auckland, New Zealand, and that was me being yelled at, berated and beaten.
I have never told anyone what went on in there. Actually, I tried to but we were always monitored, our letters were always censored. I discovered a letter, in my files that I wrote to my Social Worker, on 02/04/1967. She received it on the 05/05/1967, a month after I wrote it. Basically, I said I needed to see her to discuss things I couldn’t write in a letter. Her letter of response expressed how sorry she was that my letter took so long to reach her. Then she dismissed it with, “ I’m sorry to hear you are unhappy and I hope you have resolved your problem now.” Then she wrote, it was difficult for her to come and see me. I never had a voice then, there was no one to tell, there was no one to rescue me.
When I left that hell-hole, where I was forced to do laundry, day in and day out. I never spoke about it again, as I fought to fit back into society; and in fact, worked hard to feel “normal,” whilst burying something abnormal that robbed me of self-worth and value.
My court notes told me that the reason I was in the convent was that I was not under proper parental control. How was that my fault? Why was I punished for something that was out of my control?
I agree that I was rebellious; I did run away from home. I did need intervention but I didn’t need that soul-destroying punishment.
I can write about this now because I have walked through my dark tunnel, I have made it to the other side, and indeed there is freedom, a sense of worth and value at the end of it. I know and accept that this happened to me and I am who I am because of what I have walked through and was able to put all the missing pieces back together.
I have forgiven those I needed to forgive (for my sake), my reactions in life now make sense and I tell my story to help others know that no matter how dark the tunnel, there is ALWAYS a light at the end of it, but it does take courage and commitment to walk through it.
The “trigger” and the memories were too overwhelming for me to deal with last year because I was frustrated knowing that something terrible happened to me and yet I couldn’t remember the details. I needed facts and I needed help. I saw a Clinical Psychologist, to help me make sense of this because I couldn’t piece the memories together. However, when I got all my case notes from the courts and child welfare Department in New Zealand, I was thrown into a very dark place as I was confronted by my life as a young girl. I have walked through it, with the help of others, gained understanding and become strong and healthy as truth was revealed.
A tunnel is built underground and there is “no getting over it;” in fact, there is no digging myself out of it, going around it, surrendering it, burying it, or even pretending it doesn’t exist. The only way to get out of a dark tunnel is to walk through it until you reach the end of it, knowing that no matter how dark, or long it is, that there is a light at the end of it, and then you can put it behind you.
And then, you are “over it!” So what if it took fifty years, it will happen when it is meant to happen.
It's your journey!
Countries have walls and boundaries.
Castles have walls and boundaries.
Farms have fences and boundaries.
Homes may or may not have fences, always boundaries.
Businesses, homes and cars have alarm systems.
Children and the vulnerable depend on other’s walls and boundaries to protect them.
It makes sense that we need to establish our own personal boundaries; indeed, walls if necessary.
It’s normal to have walls/fences and boundaries to protect those things that are of value to you; obviously, barriers are essential to keep out the bad and to protect the good within. Likewise, they are built to protect from potential enemies who seek to harm you. When someone breaks into your home, their intention is obviously never good.
On the one hand, a wall is important for protection (if you are a V.I.P. because you can be a potential target), and is necessary because great wealth leads to vulnerability. On the other hand, a wall is isolating and has the potential to create bigger problems within the walls and ultimately make prisoners of those behind it.
Although it’s true that a boundary is different to a wall, they are both barriers and both require permission for a person to enter. However, within a boundary, there’s more freedom and interaction with others.
Should a boundary be crossed or violated, there is room for negotiations (unlike solid walls). Boundaries don’t necessarily give you privacy, but they do give room for movement, freedom, protection; and indeed, conflict.
For example, I moved into a new home and my boundary was shared with my neighbour. We were in the process of establishing our new gardens when we struck up a neighbourly conversation and she casually told me she was planning to put down pavers to divide our properties, whilst at the same time, giving us both a pathway to the garden hose. She said she already had the pavers and asked me to agree for her to place them between our boundary lines. I agreed.
The next morning, I walked out to collect my mail and noticed the pavers were fully on my side of the boundary line. I felt angry at her taking advantage of the boundary line and waited until I had cooled down before knocking on her door to discuss it. Then the dispute began about the boundary line. Determined to not let this escalate, I contacted the correct authority to confirm the boundary lines, because she was not open to negotiations.
Because the boundary had already been established, she had no choice but to move them. Needless to say, the frozen relationship, although civil, has been challenged and tainted, along with a healthy respect for my boundary lines.
Boundaries and walls are essential for our protection; we have them in place to say to others, “Thus far, and no more.” Without boundaries, anyone has the right to come and go, take what they want and abuse without any accountability.
AND YET, many of us (from abusive childhoods) have never learned to build boundaries around our personal lives to stop others entering and taking what is ours. We have not learned to put proper boundaries in place, to say, “Thus far, and no more.”
We have allowed others to manipulate, control, hurt, abuse, and steal, without any accountability.
Therefore, we need to start building walls and boundaries to protect what is of value to us.
We do that, by:
- Identifying why we need a boundary.
- Who we let in, or keep out. (Keep the bad out and protect the good).
- Why we need to keep certain people outside the boundary.
- Who and why we let others in. Write out a checklist.
- We need to communicate to others where the boundary is.
- Learn that “NO” is a powerful boundary.
- Be strong when resistance to boundaries comes. (They will come).
- Constant maintenance of those boundaries.
- Be open to boundaries that can be negotiated
- Remain solid with the foundations of the boundaries. What you will and will not allow.
Finally, our boundaries tell the world, and those around us, who we are; they give us our identity; therefore, it’s important that the boundaries are clear and enforced and maintained on a regular basis, very much like my neighbour and our boundary lines. Your boundaries will be tested and others will try to stretch them.
The sense of safety, security and self-worth are worth the time to invest in creating clear and solid boundaries.
Begin today by using the most basic, yet powerful tool; the word NO! It says, thus far and no more. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Matthew 5:7
Even God, the Creator of everything, had solid boundaries set in place to keep us safe and have healthy fulfilling lives…
… “For I have placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, An eternal decree, so it cannot cross over it. Though the waves toss, yet they cannot prevail; Though they roar, yet they cannot cross over it.” Jer. 5:22
…”He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.” Acts 17:26
“Each one should carry his own load. Everyone should carry his or her own responsibilities.” Gal 6:5
BE the King/Queen of your own Castle!
A wound is an injury to living tissue; that is until it heals, then it becomes a scar. A scar is a mark (fibrous connective tissue) left after injury.
Until the wound has healed, it’s painful, open and possibly infected and we protect it during the healing process. God help anyone who touches it because it hurts and we react. It’s a wound and it needs attention. We can’t bury it, forget it, get over it, and pretend it doesn’t exist; or indeed, run from it. It’s a wound and wounds hurt and they take time to heal.
Likewise, when a person has been abused, the wound needs to be protected until it heals. When it’s touched, by a memory, it hurts and we react. This memory is called a ‘trigger’ and happens in the present, yet when past scars are touched the unhealed wound reacts. It’s a normal reaction to an abnormal event that has touched our lives.
Every bullet needs a trigger; indeed, every trigger needs someone/something to pull it. When we get ‘hit’ sometimes we need to hide, sometimes we need to fight back, and sometimes we just need to go into hiding until we feel safe again. In fact, every wall we build around ourselves to self-protect, or to keep others out can be breached or can become a prison. Consequently, when a ‘trigger’ has penetrated our walls, we become vulnerable and we need to find a safe place until the threat has passed or the breach has been repaired.
It’s normal to find/create a safe place until the threat has passed. The ‘safe place’ you create depends on the severity of the threat.
Similarly, we build storm shelters when we are confronted with a threat. With a survivor of abuse, the shelter they build is in direct proportion to the threat, or ongoing threat…
Storms come and go, they can cause anything from minor to catastrophic damage. We seek out a storm shelter, in our homes, community; or indeed, if we are lucky enough to have one, in our back yard and we sit out the storm until it has passed. If there is damage to our homes or property we start to repair the damage and rebuild, with or without support. Usually, other people have weathered the same storm, so you're able to compare stories and help support each other in the community.
When trauma is ongoing and repetitive, we learn behaviours to survive within our environments.
We start building our fallout shelters to survive in an ongoing abuse environment. Whether we are child sexual abuse survivors, domestic violence survivors or war veterans, we have built a place in our minds and hearts to survive horrors we should never have been subjected to.
The difference between a storm shelter and a fallout shelter is that in a storm shelter you know when the storm is over. In a fallout shelter, you never quite know when it is safe to come out.
In a storm shelter, there is communication with those around you. In a fallout shelter, you are alone and there is no communication because of the isolation and the sense of being locked in.
When we are in this place, we are at our most vulnerable and most tormented. Many times, the ‘rescuer’ becomes another abuser who will send us back into the fallout shelter.
We built our shelters and we are the ones who must dismantle them.
How to Rebuild
I believe the first and foremost skill is to learn how to self-protect. We need to learn self-protection and self-preservation skills, so we don’t give that power to another person. In other words, we rescue ourselves and not look for a rescuer.
We need to be aware of what is happening to us when we go into our ‘fallout shelter’ and plan for it, so we are empowered to cognitively work our way out, instead of being overwhelmed by the pain of it.
Create a plan for when a ‘trigger’ hits. Create another plan for friends and family members that feel powerless when you are in pain. Communication is the link between the survivor and those who love them.
Set up a network of healthy people that understands the destructive power of PTSD/CPTSD, and allow safe people to support you when a ‘trigger’ hits. Create new survival skills and write them down, have them in a safe place, before a ‘trigger’ hits.
It took a lot of skill and personal resources to survive being abused as a child. Likewise, it takes similar strength and resilience to learn skills to rebuild our lives.
How do we rebuild our lives when we have built survival strategies into our lives on an unconscious level? How do we let go of them when we don’t need them any longer?
Firstly, we need to recognise the walls we have built around our lives by taking notice of our reactions to people and situations when we are stressed or challenged.
We might do that by writing a diary and noting our triggers and feelings. Like, when we get hurt or threatened where do we go? What is the thing that sustains us once we are triggered and retreat to our ‘shelter?’
Get the support you need. Let the people you love and trust know what happens to you when a ‘trigger’ hits, and also let them how they can best support you. Get professional help with someone who understands the complexities of CPTS.
You can be free, I am and you can too. It will take a bit of work but you deserve freedom.
Deep wounds need deep healing; for example, the woman at the well needed an encounter with the true Healer of her soul, because her emotional wounds were so deep and beyond the human capacity to mend.
The woman at the well had five husbands, who left her; in fact, she was living with a bloke by the time she met Jesus at the well. She was broken. Her deep emotional needs were hidden deeply; and indeed, contained within a bottomless pit, camouflaged by socially acceptable behaviours and self-protection reactions. She was a bit prickly and deceptive, trying to hide whom she was behind defensive and challenging communication.
Similarly, those of us that have had deep childhood wounds, with trauma built upon trauma, with no-one there to protect or rescue us, learned to survive by learning new behaviours, and by burying the pain and hurt below the surface. Indeed, camouflaging them with socially acceptable behaviours, and keeping people at an arm's length, in case they discover what’s beneath the surface. However, you can only hide things for so long, and that only lasts whilst life is at a comfortable/safe level. It’s possible to keep the hurt hidden beneath coping behaviours whilst things are going well; that is until we are ‘triggered’ and it awakens the sleeping giant, within our “bottomless pit” of hurtful memories.
The more traumatic the childhood memories are the more likely the ‘triggers’ will always be just below the surface. The trouble is that we don’t recognise the ‘triggers;’ and likewise, we don’t recognise the memories, so we tend to blame the current person/circumstances for the pain we are facing in the present moment. Our past emotional pain is somehow brought to the surface and unleashed at the trigger point. However, we are never sure of what will flick the trigger. It could be something a simple as a smell, sound, feeling, tone, stress, a challenge, or just being alone; or indeed, in a relationship. Many unnoticeable things may “trip the trigger.”
After I was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress, I researched what happens to survivors when they dissociate. Why and how they dissociate? I ended up becoming frustrated that I couldn’t find full healing. I know God has the power to heal but if we don’t know what we are to be healed from (because it’s hidden in the “bottomless pit) then how can we let Him in to heal us? I had spent most of my life running from it, hiding it and trying to survive it. I determined that if we had an understanding of what and why dissociation happens then it would prepare us for when it did happen.
Many times we put a lot of self-effort into changing our reactions and our behaviours only to find that once a ‘trigger’ hits us we are back into our ‘fallout shelter’ and having to start from square one again. As a result, we need to repair damage to our relationships because those around us are confused by our actions and reaction. It is a never-ending cycle of surviving from a trigger to trigger.
A few years ago, a ‘trigger’ sent me to a ‘bottomless pit’ that I would rate as one of the worst I’ve experienced. It took me to a depth of despair, which I had not felt before and I couldn’t find my way out. I decided to take notes on what I was feeling and the steps I took when I came out to try and bring some form of understanding to what I was facing. It rendered me powerless to take action to help myself. I couldn’t reach out because I had no way of explaining what I was feeling. Moreover, all I knew was that it was dark and I was afraid and felt hopeless.
Being married created ‘triggers’ I never encountered while I was single. I didn’t want to live alone, yet I was more together and in control of my life than when I was in a relationship.
I didn’t want a relationship that caused such emotional pain, so I started researching how other people worked through their ‘stuff.’ As a result, all I found, that was remotely close to what I would go through, were the Vietnam Veterans who suffered Complex Post Traumatic Stress.
While I was not in a good emotional place to accept that I may suffer from C-PTSD, I could recognise that there were similarities when I went into my ‘bottomless pit.’
I never split to become different personalities; however, ‘triggers’ would send me into a deep well of despair, where I couldn’t function well, and indeed, I would shut down. During these times, I would isolate myself, because I couldn’t explain to others what was happening to me when I didn’t know myself. I also, was vulnerable to the manipulation of others, during these times.
I decided to keep a diary of how I reacted to situations and people, to try and find when and how I got triggered.
I researched and found myself a good psychologist, that worked with people suffering from C-PTSD and I prayed a lot. It was worth every moment, we worked to unpeel the hidden layers of my ‘bottomless pit.”
After six years of learning to recognise the triggers, why they happen and what to do when they happen; furthermore, to recognise the memory they are associated with. I have come to a place of keeping the ‘beast’ chained in the “pit.’ It’s not bottomless anymore because I know they have no power over my present life.
I won’t say that I don’t get triggered; I do. However, the beast is never unleashed without my permission.
I could never have done this on my own. I needed help, I went after it and I got what I needed to live at peace with my past. Specifically, how I was designed to live; and as a result, similar to the woman at the well, I let down my defenses and allowed Jesus into those hidden places that brought me heartache and shame. I have come to accept and like who I am now, warts and all.
My next Blog will be to explain what a “Bottomless Pit” looks like. I like to call them “Fallout Shelters” and I’ll explain the different levels of shelters we build around ourselves.