What Survivors’ Group Therapy is Like, Four Weeks In

When I last wrote, I was struggling with some of the emotions and self-doubt that came up after my first session of group therapy. After that, I disappeared for a bit–I just don’t seem to post as regularly as I used to. That’s actually a good sign, overall. It’s a sign I am feeling better and have less need to work out my psychic unease on the page.

Of course, COVID is still messing everything up (or rather, our nation’s inability to deal effectively with the virus is messing everything up). Thanksgiving with only the immediate household felt small and a little bit sad, though we did our best to tap into the gratitude we do feel. We are thankful for our health and our ability to be secure in our home, despite my reduced employment this year. At the same time, I’m worried about some of my family members and resenting my inability to go visit them and provide them direct support.

But in spite of the worries, I’m doing pretty well. And as it turns out, I am very happy about this new group, the one that is specifically for women survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Today we met for the fourth session, and I started thinking that maybe you’d want to hear a little bit more about what it’s like, since I think the structure and the facilitation are very well done.

Our sessions happen online on Tuesday mornings. Every Sunday beforehand, Lisa emails the four of us participating with a link for the Zoom call and one or two handouts that will be part of the topical focus for the session. We have the option to read the material ahead of time, or not. I have been reading about it and thinking it over a day or two ahead, but not all the others do, and it’s fine either way.

The sessions are two hours long, and we tend to spend the first hour on a check-in. This is very open-ended. We can bring up whatever we are thinking about or struggling with, or we can talk about how something from the week before is affecting us; really Lisa hasn’t provided any specific guidance on what we can talk about. There’s usually a long pause before someone jumps in and shares something. Unlike my old group, it is never something like “I have so much work that I always feel stressed,” or “I don’t like the way this woman at work talks to me.” Instead, it pretty much always ties back to our past abuse experience and its impact on our present day life. It might be something like how hard it is to deeply trust someone, or how jumpy we feel (actually not me, but some of us), or how someone is kind of obsessive about locking doors but doesn’t want to be, or how someone notices that she has been using alcohol a bit too much to avoid feeling things. I’m repeatedly surprised and moved by everyone’s willingness to be very honest.

After a person talks, the rest of us have time to provide “feedback.” Usually that comes in the form of others saying they have had similar emotions or experiences, or how it’s been a little different for them, but always in ways that validate what has been shared. I’ve found it so gratifying to hear people say things that are, at times, almost the exact words I’ve said about my own experience. It makes me feel more normal.

These other women in the group are so brave. For example, today one of them said she knew her father had abused her, but she’d been blocking out the fact that her brother had also participated. Or rather, she knew it but didn’t want to let that awareness all the way in. And this week, she stopped fighting it. She let herself accept it, because, she said, her only path to healing is by believing herself.

That’s so amazing to me, and so empowering. And it opened up the door for me to talk about how much I have tortured myself by trying not to believe myself. Once, long ago, my therapist said to me, “I can’t really tell if you think it would be worse if your father did abuse you, or if he didn’t.” And I told her, “It would be worse if he didn’t, because then what kind of horrible disgusting person would I be to think that about him?”

I can still hardly believe that I’m now in a group where it’s safe for me to say something like that. It’s so good. It’s so freeing. In my other group, even though I knew people would be nice if I said something like that, I feared that internally they might think, “I bet she did make it up.”

We spend a good hour on the check-ins, and if it takes longer, Lisa doesn’t rush us. She does tell us sometimes that, “we’ll spend more time on that topic next month” or whatever. But she doesn’t mean it in a “let’s cut off the conversation” kind of way, but just to tell us that she’ll be sharing a handout or we’ll have an art exercise related to that topic later on.

Only when we are truly done with the check-in and our responses to each other do we finally move on and address the handout that Lisa has shared. It’s usually relatively short and its purpose is psychoeducation. The first week, as I think I mentioned before, we did a little bit on the types of coping mechanisms we personally have used before. The second week it was on effects of trauma, including the use of some less-than-ideal coping mechanisms. We also talked about having a safe space in our minds, in our imaginations, where we could go and comfort ourselves when we need to. Although I love imagining warm, tropical beaches, really I tend to go into my internal house and converse with my parts when I need a safe place in my mind.

The third week we talked quite a bit about PTSD and nightmares and strategies for dealing with nightmares and flashbacks. That week we each created a dream companion, a person or animal or spirit that we could invite into our dreams with us to help and protect us. I found that concept beautiful and meaningful; it fits so well with my internal house and my relationship with my parts. Here was a new part / friend I could invite into it.

My dream companion, by the way, is a fox–with a full, soft coat and sharp eyes. She’s quick and she’s damn smart.

This week we spent an especially long time on check-ins, so we didn’t fully explore the topic of post-traumatic growth. But Lisa did at least have the opportunity to introduce the concept, the idea that through the very difficult process of healing from trauma, we have the opportunity for meaningful spiritual growth in a way that isn’t open to people who perhaps have not looked despair in the face.

We did have time to work on today’s art exercise: draw three versions of yourself. First, yourself before the abuse, then yourself during the abuse, and finally, yourself now. These didn’t need to be at all realistic; we were invited to be abstract if we wanted, to convey things in color, shapes or squiggles if that felt better. Lisa is always careful to keep us from getting sucked into thinking that we are creating something that is supposed to look good.

While we all approached this task in a variety of ways, there were some definite similarities. The “before” pictures had a lot of light, brightness, hope, and innocence. The “during” images grew dark, small, or broken. And the “now” images had components of both. This provided a neat tie-in with the concept of post-traumatic growth and also the idea that the beauty of the “before” child still existed, even if she was changed by what happened to her.

The thing is, healing isn’t what I once though, a long time ago. It isn’t about forgetting our traumas or returning to some previously untraumatized state. That’s not possible, just like if you break a leg, you will never go back to having a never-broken leg. You carry that pain, that darkness, that experience. But you also carry your original light, the light we all are born with. And you carry the strength and resilience and beauty of having learned to move forward in spite of everything.

I still feel drained after these sessions, but today I only needed to sleep for an hour afterward, instead of for the whole afternoon. I know these opportunities to talk together are incredibly valuable. I can’t overstate my gratitude for having found this group, to Lisa for her calm, patient, and skilled leadership of the group, and to the other three women for their warmth and bravery. I am already looking forward to next week’s session.

CREDIT: Photo by Diogo Nunes on Unsplash

2 comments

  1. This has been incredible to read.
    3 things stand out, no, 4 actually.
    1. What you said about feelings glad about thinking that about your abuse… I still feel like that too. Even with so much doubt removed, it’s still there. I think I need to ask my T whether it will ever really fully go.
    2. Love the sound of your fox with the piercing eyes.
    3. What you said about the light and resilience is just beautiful. And true.
    4. I applaud your resolve to keep going to a group that you felt so uncertain about in the beginning. It shows such courage and I’m glad it’s paying off.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply to rubberbandsandchewinggum Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.