Dusana Michaels

Author of "Chopping the Onion"

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An Education

Tonight I watched the movie An Education based on the memoir by Lynn Barber and directed by Lone Scherfig. When possible, I enjoy watching the commentary of the movie usually done by the director and possibly an actor or two. As I watched the commentary, a reference was made to a look passed between the mother and daughter in which it was evident the daughter had outgrown her mother. Having spoken to my own mother earlier, I recognized that phrase summed up my feelings perfectly.

I’ve outgrown my mother, and the rest of my family also. Twenty-five years ago or so I decided to heal, learn and grow as a person. Our relationships have never been the same since. I knew I would end up dead if I didn’t make the commitment to myself. I could not continue living the way I had been raised, with the denial of incest, the head in the sand culture but moved ahead with the uncertainty of facing my worst fears.

So many times through the years I’ve had to challenge the concept of my self-worth. The ‘who do I think I am to want more’ and ‘why can’t I be happy with what they offer’ and ‘you’re not enough for me’ thoughts that have accompanied my healing and growth. After all these years, there is still a part of me that wishes it could have been different. Their denial is so deep that they have no clue why I stay away. Growing up in that denial, I do understand where they are coming from but I can’t live there anymore. I have grown beyond it.

I stopped needing my mother a long time ago. She couldn’t be the mother I wanted or needed. I had to grow into that person for myself. So much of my healing has been finding out who/how I didn’t want to be in order to grow into the person I am today. If I didn’t like being afraid, where do I find the strength within? If I didn’t like being hyper-vigilant and paranoid of others, how do I learn to trust again? If I didn’t want to be bitter about all that was done to me by the hands of others, how do I allow forgiveness to replace it? So many unloving acts were perpetrated upon me, how do I learn to love again and keep myself safe? The realm of all human behavior is a possibility within me, what do I want to express? Who do I want to be, or more precisely how do I want to be?

Moment by moment, the trait I wanted to grow was found. Life presented opportunities to make mistakes and try again. It was sometimes literally a split second that I was able to practice a new behavioral skill before the old pattern took over once again. Over time the moments became longer and longer. I felt the feelings and changed the survival skills of childhood into the healthy coping skills of a responsive woman.

When I do get re-triggered and start reacting to life, I am able to see an opportunity for more learning is in my face and I can deal with it more gracefully. It’s never easy, pretty or fun, but growth rarely is.



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Maintaining the balance

As I follow the progress of other survivors on different social media sites, I am amazed at strength displayed as people maneuver  the  journey of healing from childhood trauma, or any trauma. Every path through recovery is unique for what the individual experienced and what was needed in order to survive. It takes a long time to ferret out all the layers involved and also learn the deeper understandings as the layers bring the issues back to the forefront of life over and over. With time you see the same issue from a different angle as wholeness is recovered.

I’ve learned to balance the good times with the bad. There are times to feel the pain and times to put it away to be picked up again another day. I think of it as maintenance. I know I have some challenges that are best to give attention to from time to time. Childhood sexual abuse is something that you never get over but you do learn to live with it. You find acceptance of the positive and negative aspects.

One way I did that was to take a step back and find appreciation for the person I was becoming in spite of the abuse. This was part of  the balance I needed for incorporating the grief from the abuse with the limitless possibility of growing into the person I wanted to be.

The following is one of the journal entries I’ve included in my book from this practice:


Things I can love about myself and my progress in life:

  • My sense of humor
  • My power
  • My ability to perceive
  • My knowing
  • My intelligence
  • My strength
  • My gifts
  • My special-ness
  • The hard work I put into myself
  • That I am a totally different person than I was raised to be
  • My lack of fear at a core level
  • My tenacity
  • My being-ness
  • My big-ness
  • My ability to have more fun than anyone else
  • The support that I am able to offer others
  • That I follow through with relationships
  • I try to make my life better
  • I follow my natural rhythms
  • My ability to remember songs
  • That I can dance without being drunk
  • That I can do a lot of things without being drunk
  • My ability to love
  • My ability to forgive
  • My life experiences
  • My zaniness
  • My ability to be loud
  • My ability to confront
  • My ability to care for myself
  • My ability to surrender
  • My ability to receive
  • My ability to treat others fairly
  • My sense of responsibility
  • My calmness
  • My inner peace
  • My sense of protection coming from the universe
  • My refusal to be pushed or bullied
  • My attitude
  • My quick-fire wit
  • My love of adolescents
  • My ability to love and be loved
  • My hair
  • My work ethics
  • The person I am
  • The person I can still become

From the negative coping skills that I needed to survive into adulthood, I could make the conscious choice to grow into the positive characteristics of a healthy person. Life is continually presenting me with opportunities to deepen these characteristics and recommit to grow some more.

I look back at this list and smile at the person I was when I wrote it. The healing that was happening at the time as I overcame criticism from being vocal about the abuse and other injustices I was seeing. The comparison of my behavior to the adolescents I was working with at the time. I miss some of that deviance. I’ve mellowed with age or experience, not sure which. Maybe both.

I do hope I am living more of the power on the inside. Life doesn’t feel like so much of a fight anymore. There is a quieter knowing that doesn’t need to be shouting from the rooftops. I’ve learned to pick my battles and choose to engage in the ones worthy of my energy.


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What needs to be healed?

As I set about on my recovery from childhood incest, the most important thing for me regarded what I could control. This came down to me. I can’t control other people but I can control how I think, feel and behave towards others and myself. No matter what another person does or says to me, I’m still responsible for how I react/respond.

Over the years there have been many healing opportunities as I learned on the deepest level what I believed about myself. Some of these opportunities were put on me by others and some I took upon myself. As someone groomed to accept the blame and shame of other’s actions, it was very easy for me to take on responsibility for how others treated me and many more years to acquire the skill of discernment of what was actually my need for healing and what was someone else’s.

I went into the recovery with the hope that if I could heal everything I would never again be subjected to the ignorant behavior of others. This has yet to happen but I do cope better when it does. I can separate what I can control from what I can’t. I can’t control how the other person behaves but I can control if I attack myself for it or look for what still needs to be healed within me. Other times I acknowledge I am in a situation because the other person has something to learn. I am only there to teach.

The effects of the abuse are hidden in many different ways and it takes time to uncover them all. Life is kind that way. If I had tried to take all of the effects of the abuse on at once, it would have been too much. Life has been kind enough to present me with positive and negative circumstances from which I can grow. The negative tend to show where I took on someone else’s stuff as a character defect within myself. The positive tend to show the next step I have the opportunity to grow towards. Either way, I get to see myself in a new and clearer light.

For me, I’m taking the words of apology from Pope Francis into my soul to heal the areas that never heard an apology from the people in my life who have dismissed my pain in the past. At this time in my life, I don’t need to discern whether they are heartfelt words or not. I can take them at face value. I may never hear the words from the people who could offer a deep level of comfort for me. But the words are out there so I am taking them in.

Other survivors might feel the need to fight the legitimacy of the apology. They are at a different place in their healing. I trust they are getting what they need for the whole of their recovery. I can only support other survivors in walking the current step on their path to wholeness.

I have found what needs to be healed is ever changing and will be presented to me when I am ready. There are good times and bad times. But there is always more to learn.