Emel’s story, given in an interview with Sally
‘The journey to the seaside was exciting and I remember being really happy. Everything changed when he took me into the bushes and did what he wanted to do to me. Everything was hot and bright. He then carried me then into the sea. I remember the waves crashing over my head and me losing my footing. I was tiny; there was nothing of me. I was five, maybe six years old. The waves were big, but he was insistent and pulled me into the surf anyway.
‘The sexual abuse began that day, with the sea’s breakers washing away what he had done to me. It was confusing and alarming. He was my Dad. I loved my Dad but he hurt me and told me to keep quiet and this secret thing of his kept happening to me whenever he managed to get me on my own.’
‘I was thinking about that memory today as I sat in my car outside your house. I was early and just sitting there waiting until it was time to knock on your door. So much has happened since then, and sitting waiting to see you, I really got a sense of how far I have come.’
Emel paused. ‘I very nearly just said it’s been one hell of a journey, but in truth it’s been an amazing journey of healing and it began here, at your door all those years ago.’
Emel had come today at my invitation to recall some of the work she had done with Liz Hogon and me in our early workshops. Now 70 years old, she is sprightly, slim and full of life, almost unrecognisable from the woman we first got to know.
At the time I was practising as a massage therapist specialising in working with women survivors of abuse. Emel had written to me explaining that she was interested in receiving a massage, but wanted to know exactly what that entailed before she booked an appointment. I can’t remember exactly my reply, but I must have allayed her fears as the following week she booked her first appointment. I was already trained in EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) and found it to be the perfect, natural complement to body work as a way of releasing and resolving the often profound emotional responses that physical touch can release.
Completing my intake form, Emel spoke quietly to explain that she had rarely ever been touched with kindness and she was desperate to know how that might feel to her. She said that growing up she had only known her father’s sexual abuse and her mother’s violent jealous rages, and savage beatings. The only real kindness she had known was the rare times with her grandmother. One time in particular she remembered resting her head against her grandmother’s knee and having her hair gently stroked.
Her arranged marriage at the age of 17, to an older man she barely knew, brought her three daughters she adores to this day, but no respite from cruelty and abuse.
By the time we met she was making tentative steps towards recovery and finding herself following a mental break-down.
She had spent great swathes of her unhappy married life on anti-depressants and submitted herself too much of what was offered through the NHS (UK National Health Service) mental health services. With her daughters grown, she had finally divorced her abusive husband and was, for the first time in her adult life, living alone in her ex-marital home. Even with her survivor’s spirit, her collected memories and experiences of sexual and physical violence had taken their toll on her. She was depressed, and her petite frame was over-burdened with excess weight, leaving her with stiff and aching joints. Her years of yo-yo dieting were regularly sabotaged by her compulsive cravings for sweet treats as her main source of self-comfort. Although, 50-something years later, cooking dinner for herself in her own kitchen, she would habitually pick and graze from food in her cupboards, even though she knew her dinner was almost ready.
‘From the age of nine I was cooking meals for my younger siblings and even as I prepared the food, stirred the pot and served it I knew there wasn’t enough for me. There was never enough for all of us and that feeling of knowing I was going to go hungry was still triggering me all these years later to over-eat, even when I knew good food was plentiful in my house.’
Emel has many vivid memories of being hungry as a child. She would sometimes steal a spoonful of home-made jam from a jar in her mother’s pantry. She was careful not to get caught as her mother would certainly have beaten her. Equally, her mother, in a jealous rage, would often beat her over the special attention her father paid her.
In her adult life, Emel would often feel restless and uneasy after dinner, and experience the same childhood compulsion for something sweet.
‘I would sit in the evening knowing that I had eaten my dinner. Eaten my pudding. I would know that I wasn’t hungry, but I would still need something nice. Something for me, and the only way I knew to have something nice for me was to eat something sweet.’
For years Emel slept fitfully and she would often wake with a start feeling echoes of old anxieties and fears.
‘Often I would wake in the middle of the night with a panic attack and feel all those old anxieties, over and over again, and the only way I knew how to calm myself was again to eat something sweet. I can remember going down to my kitchen on many, many occasions and just stuffing food down my throat, stifling my rising fear, swallowing it down.’
Emel said that having that first massage was a powerful step for her healing.
‘To allow myself to accept those good feelings in me, from being stroked and touched with kindness, was such a breakthrough for me. I began to realise I had thought it was normal to feel tense all the time, but through massage I also began to notice what feeling relaxed felt like, and I learnt to tell the difference.’
Emel had never been able successfully to lose weight following conventional diets, and she had struggled with her weight for years. She joined one of our first seven-week group workshops in London that focused on resolving and releasing the emotional connections to comfort and stress over-eating.
She recalled, ‘My over-eating and desire for sweet things was all to do with my childhood. The only way I knew how to cope with all of the memories of cruelty and trauma I experienced with my Mum and Dad was to eat. It’s all I knew.’
‘Working with Liz and Sally I realised how much I blamed and punished myself for what had happened to me. I believed it was somehow all my fault and if I’d been a better daughter then none of those terrible things would have happened to me. The gradual process of forgiving myself, and learning to love and cherish myself, was a life-saver for me and in turn, in time, I was able to forgive my parents. It didn’t all happen at once, but for the first time I had the therapy tools and trusted my intuition enough to see things differently. From the work I did I changed how I thought about myself and the beliefs I had about me. It was never, ever my fault.’
She continued, ‘The irony is that years and years later, when my Dad was an old man, I became his carer as he grew more frail and slipped into dementia, with his eventual death just a few years ago. It was a difficult time. I had so much anger towards the man who had betrayed me as a little girl and yet here was a broken, old man in front of me. I did lots of tapping (EFT). Hours of tapping!’ She laughed. ‘I could let it go. It’s over. I’ve learnt to protect that little girl inside of me. She’s safe with me. You and Liz showed me how to do that.’
‘And,’ she continued, ‘There were even moments of healing with him. I remember him being very sharp and unfair with me one day when I was caring for him. Without even raising my voice I told him that I remembered everything he’d ever done to me. It stopped him in his tracks. He was about to shout at me to shut me up, but this time I stared him out. I just looked deep into his eyes. He knew. His mouth closed and he held his head in his hands in shame as he walked away from me.’
Emel continued, ‘It’s not as though I’m completely fixed,’ she smiled, ‘ I thought I was. I’ve been very happy – much happier than ever before for many years now – but sometimes, something comes out of the blue, and I’m thrown off my feet again. When Jimmy Saville hit the news [the investigation of a high-profile Paedophile in the UK], I could feel all the anger choking up in me again and I was right back there, but this time, instead of swallowing those feelings down with food, I had the therapy techniques I had learnt, and the trust in myself to understand that it’s just another layer that I need to clear. I can do that.’
Having enjoyed sound sleep for a long time, Emel told me she had begun waking again in the middle of the night, feeling again traces of that old panic.
‘I know what it’s about though, now. Back then I never knew. I’m excited. I’m actually in the middle of selling the house I lived in with my ex-husband. I’ve got a buyer and everything is going through. It’s the next stage of my life. Those last memories of him will go with the old house. I’m buying a bungalow and I’m staying with one of my daughters while I have it completely renovated. I want everything new and fresh because I deserve it.’
Rising to leave I commented on how well Emel looked.
I asked what weight she had been when she started her work with us,
‘Probably about 12½ stone, or maybe even more (81 kg/177 lb) and now I’m 9½ stone (60 kg/133 lb) and have been for a long time.’
‘But you know,’ she smiled, ‘for me it was never really about the food. It was those old, terrible memories and all of that self-hatred I had. But it’s truly gone now. I’m a member of a theatre group. I sing; I act; I live well.’ She paused, ‘You know, I took swimming lessons and I did learn to swim. I still don’t like the deep end where my feet can’t feel the bottom. I get scared and tense when I’m out of my depth. I always need to be by the side so that I can hold on. It’s the little girl in me, from all those years ago that he was bouncing up and down in the sea, and her little feet couldn’t touch the sand. I must have passed out because I don’t have any other memories of that day other than being back at home much later and my grandmother calling to me to wake me up.’
She looked off into the distance, remembering.
‘Maybe that’s something I need to do to help heal that little girl who was so scared that day in the sea.’ Pausing again as she thought back to that day she said, ‘Yes, maybe I’ll do just that. Swim to the deep end. Why not?’
Emel added, ‘I want my name to be mentioned. I have nothing to be ashamed of. This is his shame, not my shame. I had to learn to love myself instead of punishing and comforting myself with food.’
Case Study Notes:
Working with Emel it was clear that there were many traumatic experiences and memories to resolve and release. If each memory, or event was taken one at a time it would have felt overwhelming to resolve years, and years of trauma.
The way we worked with Emel was to encourage her to note down as many memories as possible, and to write them down as a stream of conscious list with as little deliberation as possible. We worked with her using EFT while she compiled the list to reduce the distress of recalling events and memories.
Many individual events were grouped together. For instance some were called ‘The morning memories’, or the ‘Alone with Dad memories’, or ‘Mum’s cruelty around food’ memories. Once as many events as possible have been recalled we asked Emel to give each memory, or group of memories a SUD rating from zero to 10. The highest number represents the greatest level of distress connected to a memory.
We always begin focussing our work on events or memories with the highest level of distress. The analogy is when cutting down the biggest tree in the forest many other smaller trees are also knocked down at the same time. We worked through the list with Emel using EFT and PSTEC until the distress around the memory had gone and the SUD rating was reduced to zero. When returning to the list we always focussed on the remaining events or memories with the highest SUD score. It only took a few rounds of EFT, and three or four repeats of the free PSTEC click tracks to bring the highest SUD rated memories down to more manageable levels and not very long at all until they were down to zero. Checking back with the initial list Emel confirmed that she felt very little negative emotion attached to the rest of the list. We did a couple of more rounds of PSTEC to be absolutely sure those events no longer held any emotional pain for her, and that part of our work was completed leaving Emel feeling lighter in spirit than she had ever felt.
Emel’s story is certainly one of the more distressing life experiences we have worked with.
However, it is not uncommon for women who have suffered from uncomfortable experiences around sex through to sexual abuse to have this reflected in their relationship to food.
Working with issues of trauma as a self-helper it is important at all times to keep yourself safe, and only to tackle issues which you are confident feel manageable. If you are thinking of compiling your own list of negative memories, or events it may be advisable to begin your work with EFT and PSTEC at the lower end of the SUD score, and work up the SUD scale as you become more experienced working with the therapy tools. The alternative is also to seek out a therapist who can support you as you do this work.
If you’d like to book a session to explore your relationship with food and think about how EFT can work for you book in a call here
All testimonials and case studies are authentic with original correspondence held on file and open for inspection as required. (Names have been changed to protect anonymity).