Those of you who have been following my posts have heard me talk about the night terrors I’ve been experiencing over the past 3 months. At times, these nightmares have been debilitating and have left me feeling exhausted throughout the week. The recurring theme in the nightmares is a feeling of being pinned to the ground with someone’s knee on my chest. These dreams are simply my brain working through the sexual trauma I experienced as a child.
You may not be able to see it by looking at me, but I’m walking around with a scar on my brain—an etch in my psyche—that shapes who I am and how I interact with those around me. When I first entered the Gatehouse treatment program for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I felt a constant sense of being overwhelmed; I was almost incapacitated by the prospect that I would need to pull back the curtain on this part of me that I kept buried for 35 years. I remember getting an email from a friend who had undergone the same process, and she told me that each day, little by little, I would gain more perspective on the events that unfolded, until one day they wouldn’t be front and centre in my life anymore.
This is an exciting time in the field of neuroscience because more and more research is indicating that it may be possible to “rewire” the brain after it was destabilized as a direct result of childhood trauma. Childhood sexual abuse has such a far reaching and long lasting impact because trauma occurring in childhood changes the brain’s development as a way of “shielding” the child from the traumatic event(s). An international team of researchers in the field of psychology, including Charles B. Nemeroff and Leonard M. Miller have discovered that “victims of emotional mistreatment were found to have a reduction of the thickness of the cerebral cortex in specific areas associated with self-awareness, self-evaluation and emotional regulation.” It is believed that this part of the brain becomes desensitized as the brain enacts a protective mechanism to shield the child from further psychological trauma. That all sounds great, but this brain rewiring becomes more of an issue as the child enters adolescence and adulthood. There is growing debate in this field as to whether or not this neurological response may be an underlying factor in increased likelihood of addiction, mental health, and sexual dysfunction in adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
My therapist is help helping me work through this issue by introducing neuroplasticity into my treatment program. Because the night terrors have a recurring theme, my therapist has asked me to write down a detailed account of what happened during the event from my childhood. The key part is that I have to write down a new “ending” to the event—one in which I’m empowered and able to push away from being held down. Every day for 2 weeks, I am supposed to replay the movie in my head about what happened, but now I need to tack on my new ending. The science behind this indicates that by “rewriting the script” and reading it over and over again, it allows the brain to get “unstuck” from the event and to move through the trauma. I have noticed a dramatic difference in my sleep pattern in the last couple of days, so I think this therapeutic approach is working. I have no idea where this road will eventually lead, but I am grateful that there may be a path to living a more wholehearted life—one based on feeling hopeful that the past can stay in the past, and not impede the future.