Xenization refers to the act of travelling like a stranger. For many of us who were sexually abused, particularly those of us who were sexually abused as children, we can often feel that we travel this whole, wide, world as strangers.
Dissociation can leave us feeling as though we are strangers in our own bodies. Essentially, dissociation is a coping skill developed – usually in childhood – whereby the abused person disengages from their own body and steps outside of themselves, in order to create distance between them and the abuse that is happening to them. There is a propensity to label dissociation as an unhealthy coping skill, but – for those of us who developed it – it served a purpose, and helped us to cope with unspeakable horror. A child who is overwhelmed by trauma, and who manages to get through it should not then have to have their means of getting through it criticised. We did what we had to do to stay alive!
Those of us who grew up in dysfunctional families where we were abused felt strangers in the world of ‘normality’. I remember, as a child in primary school, scrutinising what other people did, and how they reacted to other family members, so I could ape them. Even now, I sometimes catch myself asking myself what ‘normal’ people would do.
As an adult, nowhere is this more obvious than in the arena of sexual relations. I’ve written about this before but behaving ‘normally’ around a member of the sex to which we are attracted can be a hugely difficult task for those of us who have been abused. It is definitely an arena where we walk like strangers.
Like any stranger, we observe the cultures and the language of those in the world we have travelled to inhabit: For those of us who were sexually abused as children, there is a need to learn the culture and language of people who were not abused, so that we can integrate into this new world. This can mean that, as adults, we need to learn that certain words and phrases – which were part of our experiences of abuse – are not used by other people as ‘code’ or with the intention to upset or demean us. It means learning that the language of touch can be comforting, reassuring, loving, even. It’s not always abusive.
Like many strangers who travel to distant lands, we often carry luggage with us. Over time, and with experience, however, we learn (hopefully), that our luggage doesn’t have to be comprised of several large pieces. As my wonderful friend, Sarah-in-Leiden (that’s how we refer to her in our house – I have a few wonderful friends called Sarah!) says: ‘We all have baggage. You just need to decide if you’re going to cart around a steam trunk, or an interesting handbag.’