Most of us have been betrayed in some way at some point.
It’s not the act of being betrayed that causes the problem. It’s what happens in your head as a result of that.
It can lead to a desperate attempt to control everything, in the belief that if you are more alert, if you just act differently, you can prevent more hurt in the future.
Often, the intensity of hurt that you experience from betrayal can be as bad as the grief of losing someone.
It can trigger Episodic memories, taking you back to times in childhood were you were unfairly accused of something or treated unfairly. It’s that moment, where your brain, in an attempt to protect you from that hurt, learns that you need to watch everything more closely. If you can get in trouble for something you didn’t do, then everything you do could be wrong. This is not a good lesson to live with: feeling everything you do is wrong.
My biggest betrayal comes from my mother. I thought I had a good relationship with my mother. Because she is disabled, I was her carer and constant companion from the age of 10 or so (I lived with my father and stepmother before that)
The first betrayal was when she walked in on my stepfather abusing, and then walked out again, doing nothing.
The second betrayal was a year or two later when I told her he was abusing me, and she lost her temper with me and told me never to talk about it again. And the abuse continued.
The third betrayal was when he divorced her and she asked me to read the letter he wrote her, which contained explicit references to their sexual relationship.
The fourth betrayal was when I reported him to the police for historical abuse. She told me that she would do anything that was necessary to help me and then wouldn’t talk to the police. When she eventually did, she would not corroborate my story.
The final betrayal was during his trial, when my mother refused to come to court to testify. Her written statement was so bad, that it was better for the barrister prosecuting him to let the jury think my mother didn’t believe me, than read it out. At the end of the day, it was my word versus his word and he was found not guilty. My mother was the only person that could have shown the jury otherwise.
It was after the final betrayal that I stopped talking to her and broke off all contact.
I ask myself why I didn’t do it before? What sort of fool was I to ever believe her. I have questioned my whole childhood with her. None of those fond memories were true, because I thought she cared and she clearly didn’t. I feel weak for allowing her to continue to be in my life, for caring. It leads me to think that nothing I believe about our relationship was actually true. And that could eat me up.
However I know that I can’t time travel. Everything was the way it was at the time. I do not have the benefit of hindsight. I can’t let younger me know what was going to happen later. So at every point in my life I’ve been the best version of me I can possibly be.
I am not responsible for her. My actions have no effect on her. It was not about whether she loves me or not. Nothing I do changes what she does. I am only responsible for myself, not for others.
Trigger warning: This post contains explicit discussion around sexual abuse. Do not read if you are at risk of being triggered.
The problem with sexual abuse is not the actual abuse itself. It is not the act of being sexually abused. Sexual abuse is not like violence or emotional abuse. It does not leave you cowering in a corner afterwards, or before.
It is this lack of explicit violence or threat that causes most of the problems.
You do not understand what is physically happening. The abuse usually happens before you have any normal sexual experiences with your body. This means, at the age it happens, you have no idea what is actually happening. You do not understand that your body is physiologically responding to being aroused. The translation of the french word for orgasm is “little death”. When you have an orgasm as a child you do not understand it. Part of you will probably think something is very wrong with your body and it’s being broken, while another part will feel the pleasure from arousal. When you have no idea at all what is happening, this is confusing and sometimes a little scary
It is pleasurable. Your body is programmed to respond to physical stimulation and an orgasm is a pleasurable experience. Part of you does not want it to happen because you know it’s wrong, and the person doing it shouldn’t be doing that. Part of you is aroused, and getting pleasure from the experience. This means that sometimes, you even want the experience. This means that you interpret your role in the abuse as complicit. If you enjoy it, and even, sometimes, want it to happen, then how can it be “abuse”? Surely you are complicit? This is not true. Your body is programmed to respond to arousal, in the same way as your stomach rumbles when you are hungry. No matter how you respond, no adult should ever be sexually interfering with a child. It is wrong. Always. And you did the only thing you could at that moment in time.
You were a child, not an adult. As you get older, you understand more. You understand what an orgasm is. You understand how wrong it was for the abuser to do what they did. And as you understand more about what happened, you overwrite the memories of the younger you, so eventually you think they knew what you now know. You overestimate their understanding of the situation. You forget the confusion, and uncertainty. You focus on blaming yourself. You feel shame and disgust for the role your body played in the abuse. You feel you joined in, instead of feeling like the victim of abuse. The younger you DID NOT understand things in the way the older you does. They were confused. They did the only thing they could at the time. There is no should have, could have or if only…Even if you went back and changed things, how do you know it wouldn’t make it worse? If you fought how do you know it wouldn’t have still happened but then with pain and violence? If you told someone, how do you know they would have believed you and helped? They might have not believed you, like my mother when I told her, and left you to continue being abused. You can’t know what could have happened, only what did. And you are here now. So you did the best you could. This projection of adult understanding onto childhood memories is the root of most struggles that abused adults have in reconciling the abuse.
You are programmed for connection and love. As children we are all programmed to connect love and behaviour. This comes from a very primitive bit of programming where an animal needs to bond with it mother to survive when born. We have the same programming, expanded to include all responsible adults. This means that we make things about us. It also means we behave in a way that ensures we are loved. Abusers are master manipulators. They play on this need to be loved. They play on the programming where you don’t want to upset someone and get into trouble. Love is more important than anything else to our survival. So of course you were manipulated, and of course you cooperated. That was the only thing you could do at the time.
All of this means that coping with memories of childhood sexual abuse can lead to extreme feelings of self-loathing and disgust – not because of the actual acts – but because of the role you feel you played.
You were abused. You were a victim. You did not understand what was happening at the time. There was nothing you could have done differently.
As well as overcoming my own abusive experiences, I have helped many abused clients gain freedom from their abusive past. If you would like my help just email firstname.lastname@example.org You CAN be free of your past.
This may not be a surprise to you if you know anything about my past.
But its not what you think.
This secret has created meaning in the events that followed. The secret has eaten away at me.
You see, it’s not what happens to us that causes us a problem. It’s the meaning we assign to it. It’s the meaning that triggers a protective state. It’s the meaning that causes hurt.
There’s a catch though. We interpret and attribute meaning to events, well before our brain is developed enough to understand.
The prefrontal cortex, the rational and analytical part of you brain, is not fully developed until you are at least 19 years old.
At least 19 years old before you can understand what happens to you
And before you are 16 you have learnt all the important lessons that you need to stay safe as an adult
This is the catch.
And so I have a memory from when I was 9 years old, and it had meaning. It was the unspoken thing.
I think we all have them, those moments that we carry, that we don’t want anyone else to know of, for whatever reason. Sometimes, they rest, untouched, with very little impact on our day to day lives. Other times the gnaw away, answering with silent words in our head.
They are not big, traumatic moments, but they are moments that form our sense of self. They might be loaded with shame, or guilt or something else.
They are unspoken.
My moment? I walked in on my stepfather when he was having a shower. I was 9. I pointed to his private parts, and touching it accidentally, asked what that was. He angrily told me that I should never touch that.
I thought that I made him think about me as a sexual object. I thought it was my fault that he abused me. I thought I was his partner, not a young child who was abused.
I never, ever spoke the secret.
And it meant everything was my fault. Who was I to cry victim when I created the problem?
This unspoken secret meant I planted the idea. It meant I was complicit. It meant I was not a victim. It meant I was a participant in the abuse, not a victim of it.
Because it was my fault.
I knew about my secret. But I didn’t ever speak about it. Or even tell anyone I had it.
I didn’t want them to know that all these things I spoke about were my fault. But I was sure they were.
And so I hated myself and my body for the role it played. I hated it for being involved in what happened. I felt guilty. I felt ashamed. I felt like a fraud for letting everyone else believe I had been abused, when actually I had created the problem.
And then thanks to the help of my amazing therapist friend, I spoke the unspoken and the spell was broken.
And now I see that there was nothing I could do. I was a young child. I was abused. That is never a child’s fault.
My body is not to blame. I am not to blame.
Speaking the unspoken changes it.
What is your unspoken thing? Who do you trust to tell that thing to?
There are a number of things that just happened without you having to cognitively engage with the question:
Your mind did an instant pattern match to the word breakfast. This is like a Google search, but way quicker. The search will have returned a match to the first meal of the day.
Armed with that fact, it will now search through your memories, moving back through time to whenever it was breakfast time, and zooming in on what you ate (or didn’t eat).
Next the memory will be layered with meaning. Were you hungry? Did you enjoy it? How were you feeling at the time? Your mind will be flooded with the meaning of the question “What did you have for breakfast?”.
What happens next depends on what that meaning was. When I was a child I used to go and stay with my granny sometimes. She lived in the North Wales hills in an old farmhouse. My home life was not great. I had a stepmother that hated me and as a result I was badly neglected, and skeletally thin due to not being fed enough. We weren’t poor. She just didn’t care. When I went to my granny’s to stay everything was different. There was so much delicious food. In the morning, breakfast was usually porridge covered in dark brown sugar and drizzled with evaporated milk. I used to stir it all in to create a wonderfully tasty and filling breakfast. So, when you ask me that question my brain has already accessed that memory. I have no choice in the matter.
All of these steps happen instantly, outside of your conscious awareness. The results are returned from the search in full 4D, with images, feelings, timings and other people, faster than you can do a google search on the word ‘breakfast’. And you have no idea that all of this has just happened when you reply with “toast”, or something else.
Memories with meaning are called Episodic memories and these are your triggers as you go about your day. Let me tell you a trigger sequence that just happened.
I had a coffee with a friend and we were talking about a brainstorming session I’d had. I did my usual pinball machine effect, bouncing all over the place with ideas. The other person was more measured and structured, thinking about each thing. Afterwards they went a little quiet and I was worried.
My friend told me that one of the things I don’t realise about myself is that I think and process and act really quickly, and most people don’t do that. The other person needed to process and absorb at a different pace. It was a valid point, and one of the main reasons why I think we make a great team.
I told my friend that it’s something I often fail to recognise about myself, and also how intimidating that can be for others.
I remembered a study session at Uni where a friend, who is now my husband, was running the session because he understood it and we all didn’t. He explained it in a way that made sense to me. That was it. I didn’t need any more as I now understood the whole concept. He was blown away as he’d never met anyone like me before. Incidentally this is why I can’t listen to podcasts or learn stuff form YouTube – they don’t get to the point quickly enough for me.
This morning I was thinking about the conversation. My husband often tutors 15/16yo kids on maths. These have been friend’s kids so far. He works hard to plan it and makes sure that he is communicating in a way that works for that kid. He’s helped four kids but each have only done it last minute and had 2 sessions. When the kids don’t get the result he expects, he feels like he’s really failed them.
I missed the last year of my A-Levels (16-18yo exams) because I was ill. If I tried to go to school in the morning I got sick. If it was the afternoon I was fine. I ended up taking my exams at home with teacher supervision. I did Computers, Maths and English. Computers was in a college in the afternoon so I always made those classes and passed the exam. The English teacher supported me really well, sent work home and even had be at her house for a tutor session. I passed that exam. The Maths teacher didn’t care and didn’t support me at all. I failed that.
However, about a month before the exams my parents sorted a maths tutor for me. He was brilliant. I totally got what he was covering. I had him for 2 sessions and actually went into the exam feeling I would do ok. But I failed. Because no matter how good he was, and how smart I was, 2 sessions was not enough to prepare me for an exam.
I told my husband this, knowing that he knew I was bright enough to get it. It allowed him to see if he wants to have a fair chance to make a difference, he needs way more than just a couple of sessions.
One conversation, with one idea, is enough to trigger a whole sequence of episodic memories that might take you anywhere.
There is an accepted idea out there that once addicted to something, you will always be prone to returning to your addiction. This idea is reinforced by mainstream media, with constant stories of celebrities going into rehab or, even worse, taking their own lives through substance abuse. Alcoholics Anonymous encourage the idea that you will always be an alcoholic but that you can follow 12 steps to get off and stay off using alcohol. Many smokers will still answer that they are a smoker even when they have given up smoking for a while.
It is also assumed that, given a certain set of circumstances, people will return to their addiction. It is also accepted that there is such a thing as an addictive personality. In fact, for many years I believed I had an addictive personality and would stay away from addictive substances because of the belief I would never be able to stop if I started.
I no longer believe that to be true. I do not think people have addictive personalities. I believe that people have a need to use some substance to help them cope. As long as there is a need to cope, there will be a need for the substance (or behaviour because gambling and shopping can also be addictions). I had a lot of difficult stuff in my childhood, if I had found something that allowed me to escape from that, I would definitely have used it. Luckily for me, nothing really worked.
To understand why it is possible to permanently overcome an addiction, we first have to look at what an addiction truly is.
What is Addiction?
Addiction is using a substance to either give you a feeling, or escape from a feeling.
Alcohol: Some people drink alcohol to feel more confident in social situations. It allows them to forget their inhibitions. Some people drink alcohol to the point where they can’t remember what happened when they were drunk. This allows them to escape from unpleasant thoughts in their head.
Drugs: Some people take drugs to relax. Drugs like cannabis are often smoked in a social environment where people are chilling out together. Some people take drugs to forget. Hard drugs like Heroin totally take you out of reality. This is often taken by people who really need to escape from the harsh realities of life.
Food: Some people eat because it makes them happy or it gives them comfort. Eating reminds them of happy times. Some people eat to create a window of nothing-ness. This is often true of people who binge eat; they often describe it as a mindless act.
If addiction serves a purpose, then the logical step to take to get rid of the addiction is to get rid of the need for it i.e. get rid of the purpose.
If we try and work on addiction as a behaviour or as a disease, we are merely treating the symptoms rather than the cause. It is like trying to get rid of a tree by chopping the branches; for a while it may seem like it’s been very effective, but eventually new branches will emerge from the root. The only way to get rid of the tree is to get rid of the roots.
How Addictions are Formed
From working with hundreds of clients, I have learnt that connections are made in our subconscious in early years. It is like a massive web, where something that happens right now can vibrate a small thread which sends a signal right back to an early memory. That early memory holds with it the instructions on how to respond. When the triggering event leads to a memory where there was a feeling of hurt, the response returned is one of protection and is designed to enable damage limitation to give you the best chance of survival.
The problem is, these memories are from when you were a child. As a child you didn’t understand the complexities of adult emotion. It was easy to feel hurt by small things, such as your father telling you that you should have done better at a test at 8 years old. If your subconscious equates that moment to feeling hurt, it will lock in a lesson from it and it will become a significant event. When, as an adult, something pattern matches to that significant event, such as feeling like you messed up a presentation at work, you get a protection response that is disproportionate to the event. Messing up the presentation becomes further evidence of how useless you are and how you will never be good enough; all because you disappointed your father at 8 years old. The other problem is that the subconscious is a primitive part of the brain. “Hurt” in the subconscious equates to physical hurt, which ultimately equates to death. So it will do anything it can to stop you getting hurt, even when the hurt is only emotional, as it is these days.
Addiction is Not Necessarily an Addiction for Life
The problem is, because of the spider web of memories, if you try and address the problem in your present reality, you are not changing the early memory. You are merely getting rid of one thread. There are many routes back to the significant memory.
If the memory that keeps getting triggered is painful, then it leaves you with nowhere to go. No matter what you try, eventually something else will trigger it. This is when people turn to a substance. If you can’t avoid the thing that causes the pain, the only option you have is to dampen or escape from those feelings.
Let’s take alcohol. One day you are drinking and as you drink more and more you being to realise that you are not feeling so much. Night after night you tell yourself you won’t drink but the thoughts are in your head and won’t go away. Soon the night time drink spreads into the day when something happens and you just need to escape. Even though the consequences can have a really negative impact on you and your life, in that moment where you are hurting, you do the thing you know works. Soon it has become a habit. Even if the situation that originally made you turn to drinking has now changed, you are now in the habit of using alcohol to cope with everything. Where others may draw on their innate skills, you are now conditioned to use the substance. This is how an addiction is formed.
How Do You Permanently Overcome Addiction?
If we work off the basis that a significant memory from childhood ultimately becomes the root of an addiction, then overcoming that addiction is simply a matter of changing the significant memory. Of course, we can’t change time, but we can change our perception of it. Have you ever compared childhood memories with someone else who was there? I am sure you found that they either don’t remember the same things as you, or, if they do, they remember them differently. We remember things based on the limited understand of a child. This means if we look back on a memory, we have the benefit of hindsight. We can see something differently as an adult than we did as a child.
How Do You Permanently Overcome Addiction?
Now, I’m sure we all know the rules of time travel? If you go back in time and change something, then it will have an impact on the present day. So if you go and look back on a memory with your adult eyes (and maybe an external guide for perspective) then you will see what happened in a different way. If you see it differently you can change it. If you change a significant memory, it loses its significance and becomes just another of the 7,363,228 minutes that you experience by the time you are 15 years old. If a memory is no longer significant, when you vibrate a thread there is no response and no need to go into a state of protection i.e. there is no need to cope. The addiction ceases to serve a purpose.
This process takes time. Imagine you broke a leg really badly when you were 5 years old. The doctors told you that you would never be able to put a weight on that leg again. You spend the whole of your life using a crutch to take the weight of that leg. Then one day, when you are 43 years old, you come and see a therapist like me. I tell you that your leg is perfectly fine and kick the crutch away. Does that mean you are going to run out of the therapy session? No! You will need to learn that you can trust that leg. You need to learn that it can support you. There will probably be times in the early days where you still use the crutch, just to be sure. Eventually though, you will realise you don’t need it. You will never need it again.
Getting over addiction is a slow process, but it can be a permanent one, if you approach it by getting rid of the need for the substance, rather than cognitively choosing to stay away from the substance.
When I used to work in a call centre consultancy, we had a rule that in order to say “I did X and it led to improvement”, you had to have 3 consecutive points where the data showed improvement. These points could be represent weeks or months, but they had to be over time, and a trend.
The easiest thing about the therapy journey with me is the work we do in the room together.
The hardest thing is the bit in between the sessions where you have to look for evidence of change.
Most people have an idea of where they want to be.
Most people don’t look at their life as a trend, it is more about absolutes. You compare now to the person you want to be, losing sight easily of how far you’ve come from the person you used to be.
The problem is, everything you know about yourself comes from your past experience. That is your evidence. It is rock solid. It tells you “When this happens, I react this way”
When you leave the first session with me, you know something has shifted but you don’t know what. I task you with finding evidence of things that are different. That evidence will form a trend over time.
The biggest challenge happens in the first few weeks, while your brain updates. The data points that act as evidence of the change are interspersed with evidence of how things have always been.
I may be good but I’m not good enough to change everything overnight!
So the task is to build our data and evidence of change into a trendline. You can then use this trendline to predict where you are heading. Instead of using your past which has produced most of your evidence so far.
This is not easy. Even I still struggle with this. How do I know who I am, if I am not what happened to me?
When I was 6 my stepmother hit me for the first time. I had a mark on my top when I came home from school. I learned that doing something that wasn’t allowed resulted in a beating. Unfortunately it wasn’t clear what was and was not allowed.
A year later I cried one night when I heard my stepmother and father arguing loudly. She came to my room and told me she’d hit me if I cried. I learned not to cry.
We were left outside for long periods of time and I learned that my stepmother didn’t want us around. I learned not to complain. I learned not to need anything.
When my grandfather drove me and my brother to my granny’s house, I learned that my brother was older and I had no choice but to do what he told me. He told me to sit in the seat next to my grandfather. My grandfather would put his hand down my pants and molest me on the journey. I didn’t like it. It was uncomfortable, but in comparison to later stuff, it was nothing.
When I was 8 I told a lady from Social Services that I wanted to go and live with my mother, despite being warned not to. That day my father told me he was sad that I didn’t want to live with him any more and that he didn’t love me. I learned that even when I speak up for myself, it makes no difference.
When I was 10 my stepfather came to wish me goodnight. When he kissed me he shoved his tongue into my mouth and said “Not like that a proper kiss”. He went on to teach me “what boys did to girls” over the next few years. I learned anyone could do anything to me and there was nothing I could do.
When I was 12 I told my mother about the abuse. She lost her temper with me and told me never to talk about it again. I learned to shut down. I learned that I couldn’t trust what I felt. I learned to not feel. I learned that it was never safe.
When I was 18 I learned that no one knew anything about my past. I learned that I could be whoever I wanted to be. I buried the child, grew a shell and lived a successful life.
When my first child had to be delivered at only 26 weeks old I learned that my body was as hateful as I’d always believed. I learned it was outside of my control and that this time it had killed my child.
When my daughter was 3 years old and started asking me constantly if I was happy, I learned that it was not ok for my screw ups to affect her and I learned that it was time to change.
When I started Cognitive Hypnotherapy I learned that I was ok. I learned I wasn’t broken. I learned that bad people did bad things to me.
When I took my stepfather to court 6 years ago I learned that I was believed. I learned I could tell my story, and deal with a huge amount of pain.
When he was found not guilty because my mother didn’t corroborate my story, and the defence cleverly suggested it was all stuff my grandfather did, I learned that it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t my fault. Bad stuff happened and the judicial process was not sophisticated enough to deal with it. I learned I was ok.
When I struggled last year because I felt my core was rotten, too rotten for anyone to care about the child me, I learned that I have great friends. They helped me re-connect and forgive the younger me because she was just unlucky. Bad people did bad things. She couldn’t change that.
And all through I learned that I am ok. I am strong. I can deal with anything.
I learned that no matter what you can be happy and connected with your friends and those you hold dear.
I learned that everything can change always.
And now I’m still learning. I’m learning that it’s possible for my head to be fine but for my body to hold on to the fear.
And because I’ve learned that everything can change, and because I have great friends, I am working on that now too.
It’s not what happens to us that causes the problem, it’s the meaning. It’s the meaning that hurts and the meaning is prone to misinterpretation.
You too can change.
You too can learn to see that it’s amazing that you are here, reading this with me now.
Sometimes, when I talk to clients or even potential clients, they say things like “I had a great childhood” or “I feel bad because what I went through was nowhere near as bad as you”. But you see, none of that matters. It’s not what happens to us, but the meaning that our subconscious takes from it that causes the problem. In that context, having a school friend betray you can have just as much of an impact on the rest of your life as being beaten by your stepmother.
You have two different types of memory: 1. The first type is autobiographical memory. This is a chronological memory a bit like the old-fashioned photo albums, or photos on your phone that are sorted in date order. Moments in type are stored in order, connected by sequence. Individual examples of that time are stored as snapshots. These are relatively two-dimensional memories without significance. I went to four different schools as I was growing up. If you asked me which schools I went to and when, I would start with the first, on Anglesey, then move to the second which was in Manchester. To do this I would visualise my first school, and some connected event from the second school. The third school was a primary school back on Anglesey. I am now thinking of the headmaster of that school and the house I lived in. From there I can make my way to the fourth school which was the last one I went to. It’s easy to approach this kind of autobiographical recollection. You simply pull on a thread and see where it leads you.
2. The second type of memory is Episodic. These are memories that are easy to recall because they have some sort of meaning. Unlike Autobiographical memories, they often appear unbidden. Taking the example of my four schools: as I typed episodic memories were popping into my head. My first school made me smile. I remembered the dinner ladies standing at a table with my brother and I after dinner time. The hall had no other kids there. They’d all gone out to play. The dinner ladies had put one of the giant metallic pots they used on the table. This one had custard in it. They were ladling a runny pale yellow custard into our bowls and we were hungrily polishing it off. I was starved as a child. Not because we were poor, but because my stepmother hated me. We had to be invisible or we would get a beating, and she often neglected to feed us. Many years later I found out school knew all about this. So, the memory that I have just described made sense as the dinner ladies were doing their best to feed us up.
It’s the Episodic memory that causes us the problems. It’s that memory that triggers a protective state in your subconscious. It’s that state that disengages your thinking brain and takes control away from you.
Today is my brother’s 48th birthday.
When he was 16 he ran away from home and hitchhiked to London. He lived on the streets for a long time. He got into hard drugs to survive. His life has not been easy. He has a little place of his own now but he still has to take methadone every day. And he drinks. I really have no idea how he survived this long! But he is a survivor my brother. He’s always landed on his feet. We had a similar childhood. This was his response.
My response was to escape by going to Uni.
We all respond to things in different ways.
So remember, it’s not what happens to you that causes the problem. It’s the meaning. And it’s the meaning that interrupts your ability to live your life and be happy.
We can’t change what happened, but we can see it differently. That’s what I do.