The Journey Home: Embracing the Self and Healing from Childhood Abuse

Path through forestWhen I began training in Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) several years ago, my whole life became a story of healing. I was drawn to the IFS model after reading Richard (Dick) Schwartz’s textbook in graduate school. It stirred my heart. It just felt right to me. And now I know why!

IFS uses the following terms to identify parts of the Self: exiles, managers, and firefighters. I will use these terms throughout my story. Please see the IFS topic page for further information on these issues.

Not long after beginning the training, I found it difficult to proceed without exiles crawling out of the woodwork. I knew I was a woman with a history of what I called “sexual problems,” but I did not know I was a person with a severe trauma history. I should applaud the strength and tenacity of my performing managers for helping to preserve a sense of normalcy for so long.

Most people who knew me as I was growing up considered me bright, popular, and likely to succeed. I think many wondered over the years why success hadn’t materialized for me. It wasn’t that my life was a failure–I just never managed to find myself or settle anywhere professionally. I always felt like I was running away inside. Truth be told, I was.

I knew that I had experienced some sexual abuse as a foster child; I seemed to be a magnet for inappropriate treatment by men as I was growing up. As an adolescent and young adult, I went through several long-term, destructive, illicit relationships. I blamed and hated myself for them. I remember wondering how and why I kept ending up in those situations, especially since I was a Christian and did not believe that was the way God wanted me to experience life. From the time I had a personal encounter with Jesus at age 13, I knew I wanted to live in a way that honored that relationship.

In spite of sincere and repeated repentance and many attempts to find help, the destructive relationship patterns continued. As my despair about myself deepened, I began to develop secret firefighter activities to numb what I could not change. Drinking, binge eating, and pornographic depictions of abuse were my favorites—not only did they numb me, they intensified and reinforced the self-hatred I accumulated over the years.

Periodically, I would seem to be getting my life under control—by avoiding destructive relationships for a year or so—and it seemed that hope was in sight. But inevitably the cycle would resume, and I would engage in battle with my inner demons again. Few people knew what was going on inside. I managed to obtain a teaching degree, a ministerial degree, and more recently, a master’s degree. Still, I struggled to land anywhere professionally because I was internally tormented over my struggle with destructive relationships and the drastic dichotomy I saw between my public and private lives. I did not like myself. I did not believe in myself. I did not know who I was. In fact, I spent several seasons of my life not wanting to be alive at all. I made a few halfhearted attempts at suicide, but somehow I knew that how I lived privately was not reflective of who I really was. I never accepted it as truly me—I just couldn’t find the help I needed to create the balance in my life that I craved.

By the time I began studying IFS in 2001, I had not been doing anything self-destructive in my life for many years. But neither had I healed my history, and this was evidenced in my lack of professional confidence, and in my faithful, unquestioning commitment to a difficult and painful marriage. I had constructed a story for my life that allowed me to function—until the exiles began showing up.

My first encounter with one of my exiles came at an advanced training weekend. The topic was sexuality—no surprise this focus would trigger some stuff for me! I was so blended with the exile who came up that Dick Schwartz worked with me, and we discovered an infant, buried under signs that read, “You can take advantage of me,” “You can hurt me,” “You can treat me like a thing.” I was shocked, amazed, and awed. I began to realize that I had a lot of work to do, and I tackled the challenge in earnest.

For nearly five years, as I continued to study and work clinically in the model, I also began a process of deep and intense healing from physical and sexual abuse, experiences that I was largely unaware of. This amazing journey of healing uncovered memories going as far back as early infancy and the womb. Sometimes it was difficult to believe some of the memories could possibly have come from my life, but I knew I was not manufacturing the torment of my mind, body, and spirit, nor was I imagining the powerfully spiritual healing experiences I began to have.

Once I had a taste of what was possible for me through this work, it was all I wanted. Years of hopelessness, despair, and desperation began to melt away as my life started to heal. So often I thought I was done—I thought the peace, joy, and wholeness I felt after healing another exile would last forever. I was always surprised, and sometimes discouraged, to find yet another layer beneath. I was determined to persevere, because I knew I was finding what I had been searching for all of my life.

Through IFS therapy, I have found that my life is worth mending and that the pain of every human being can be healed. I am so very grateful to God, to Dick, and to this model, for the internal homecoming I have experienced in my life. I recognize the presence of God and Jesus every time another part is healed and brought home to my heart. Self, to me, is that sacred place—where peace, love, safety, and calm abide. For so long I knew that I deserved to be internally at home, unafraid, and safe. I just could never seem to stay there.

Now I can. At last I am at peace within. I know myself, like myself, and enjoy being with me. I am at rest with God in a way I have believed in for years, yet could rarely experience. The torment is over. The pain is gone. Joy is now my frequent companion. My life and my work are increasingly an overflow of that joy. I am forever grateful.

It is my heart’s desire that sharing this snapshot of my journey through these writings will encourage others to fully embrace and experience the healing power of the IFS model.

 

© Copyright 2007 by By Karen Reed. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Therapist Falls Church

    Therapist Falls Church

    December 6th, 2007 at 2:42 PM

    I am so glad that Karen was able to get in touch with the person she always knew she could become. I truly do appreciate someone who is also willing to admit her faith and the part it played in making her the strong person she was meant to become.

  • Therapist Fort Worth

    Therapist Fort Worth

    December 10th, 2007 at 12:46 PM

    I have always been intrigued by those who say they have memories from the womb. Does anyone have any thoughts on this? Also, I want to say how much I appreciate this story. It is so gratifying to see someone who really wanted to put in the hard work it took to bring Karen to where she is today. And, that she is using this knowledge to help others makes the story even sweeter.

  • Therapist Frisco

    Therapist Frisco

    December 11th, 2007 at 12:32 PM

    I don’t know if it happens or not, simply b/c I don’t have any of those memories. But, I do believe in the possibility. Being in the womb is part of the human experience, so why wouldn’t we have memories of it? Maybe most of use are so disconnected from those memories that we don’t recall them. Maybe there are some who do enough work to rediscover those memories and learn from them.

  • Therapist Glasgow

    Therapist Glasgow

    December 12th, 2007 at 8:02 AM

    I don’t believe we can remember anything from the womb b/c I believe in the linguist theory that states that in order to have a memory, we must have language to record that memory. Until we can talk, we don’t have a way of getting that memory into our long term memory banks.

  • Sara Dowling

    Sara Dowling

    August 3rd, 2009 at 7:27 AM

    Karen – my mentor, my support – If there was anyone who should have been left here on earth, it should have been you. To have come so far and to have healed yourself and helped all of us others… You are already missed, and never forgotten. Shine on, Karen. I will love you and forever be grateful.

  • Maggie

    Maggie

    October 22nd, 2009 at 6:36 AM

    Hi,

    I am a Psychotherapist. I believe in the ability to recall memories from the womb and have witnessed it with clients. In time the psychological theories will catch up with this ability. I think it is more something connected to the nervous system and is a body memory thing rather than a brain/language development thing. Chiropractors work with the nervous system when correcting spinal misalignment and have developed a lot of techniques that assist in releasing past issues.

    I just thought I would put in my opinion.

    Maggie

  • Victoria 1st

    Victoria 1st

    April 24th, 2010 at 2:39 PM

    Karen and all other readers;

    This was such a refreshing story to hear. I’m TRYING to work with IFS but my Therapist is not practiced in it. My old therapist exposed me to it and, like Karen, it just made sense. I identify with several aspects of your story. I can’t seem to shut off my parts any more. I have to let them talk and learn from them but don’t have confidence that my therapist understands much of the time. She is VERY willing to learn but I worry that I’m ahead of her on the path.

    I’ve been wanting to hear some success stories for some time. When I participate in groups I don’t seem to see any progress in anyone, or myself. Most of the groups I’ve gone to tend to be places where people talk about the bad rather than how to fix it. It doesn’t leave much hope. And stirs up much of my attachment issues when things don’t work out.

    I started a blog of my own to try to help with my IFS therapy. Many of my parts are not willing to be known but an anonymous blog has given them more of a voice. They need to express themselves but don’t have an outlet. I would appreciate any feedback or comments on my blog from people who have worked with IFS in any way. I hope it will continue the awareness and knowledge of IFS as a beneficial tool in healing.

    Thank you,
    Victoria 1st (my online name)

  • Sewsomom

    Sewsomom

    August 28th, 2010 at 12:11 PM

    I have begun my journey in IFS with a very capable therapist who has experienced great growth herself using the technique. I’ve had several therapy sessions that have left me in awe having visited with my much younger selves who experienced painful times growing-up, and I have had the joyful experience of burying, or blowing away, etc bad feelings and literally dancing with myself in joy in having gotten rid of those bad feelings. I still have the memories but don’t experience the pain associated with those memories…and my mind doesn’t constantly gravitate to those experiences in time of stress or sadness. It is amazing that Little Me or Thirteen Year-Old Me are present with me now at surprising times and provide comfort to me. It is impossible to explain any of this in a way that makes sense to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but this therapy has helped so much in an amazingly short period of time. I have tried cognitive therapy with other therapists, but have never experienced the sense of healing that I am now experiencing. I don’t ever feel that my appointment is a waste of time. I know now where I’m headed and can’t wait to see what the next turn in the road will reveal. I too am a Christian and have felt a closeness to the Lord that is new to me, and I feel true forgiveness which has eluded me most of my life…I guess maybe because I’m finally able to forgive myself for the first time. I’m thankful for IFS and wish more people had the same experience that I have had. Life holds hope and joy.

  • quentin pierce

    quentin pierce

    February 5th, 2012 at 2:14 PM

    Memories are all good or bad is the only thing that brings me to wanting to survive another day.I was fortunate enough to be brought up in a family that had love at it’s core yet as the fifth child of six the only attention I received was not a positive experience for me.Yet I persevered understanding my parents were concerned of my older brother sent to Vietnam and returned covered with shrapnel and lucky to be alive as many neighbors children didn’t return.
    I knew my family did not want this for me or anyone else,I saw myself stuck in catholic schools better than the public school system but I didn’t connect with my teachers or the system and knew that I did not want to exist in polluted fast expanding area of southeastern Louisiana where the natural resources were being sucked dry from oil barrens who were packing in workers from around the nation did not leave me wanting to live in their wake.
    Before I could depart what I call the toilet bowl of the country from the drinking water out of the Mississippi river I watched all the love I knew ripped out as cancer wasted my mother to nothing. I looked up only to see the fires of oil refineries released and petrochemical companies surrounding me from Standard oil to the massive company involved in g.m.o.’s after differing their asbestos’s profits.I had set out alone in my world again and after traveling this massive earth I understood more of the resentment towards the modern world especially after working in Micronesia for a few years on seeing how the defense department can throw money away towards everything from lasers to star wars illusions of defense
    at the cost of small islands and the ir population now lured to the dollar for more fenson&hedges to smoke and fudwisers till they are obliterated as bad as the Anewetok survivors exiled.I can not sum, it up like this it’s to detailed and I have lost my faith or in humanity and this is another peak of disgust and wasted experiences on the internet all I feel left in me is wanting to strike forward as warrior I was meant to be and don’t have the time or desire to keep a journal of it at the moment but I do need to warn a few people from my past, I am feeling dangerous,angry and vengeful I must sadly admit and keeping an empty stomach keeps the anger brewing.

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