May 30, 2017

It's Not What You Eat, It's What Is Eating You

This week, we conclude our series with Adena Bank Lees, and she wraps up her series by sharing a bit about how she overcame her struggles with binge eating, distorted body image, and more.


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“It is not what and/or how you are eating, it is what is eating you.” Hearing this changed my life. I began to explore the emotions connected to my compulsive eating behaviors and beliefs about food and body image. From there I learned about how these behaviors and beliefs were related to the sexual abuse I experienced as a child and how they served to manage, control and/or express the feelings I had about the abuse.

I realized that restricting and starving, shut down anger and sexual feelings for a while. Binging and purging only temporarily relieved the rage, shame, guilt, and loneliness I felt. Being fat, thin or somewhere in between didn’t cure the fact that I had been covertly and overtly sexually abused. No food behavior or body size protected me from comments, stares, or advances.

“Three balanced meals a day with two snacks is what your body needs to be healthy.” When I heard this from the nutritionist I reluctantly hired, I almost fell out of my seat. Parts of me entrenched in the eating disordered behaviors screamed inside my head, “You want me to eat that much food? Are you kidding me? My body doesn’t NEED all that! You don’t know what you are talking about!” What came out of my mouth was, ”Oh, that’s a lot. How do I do that?” The part of me that was desperate showed up because she knew what I had been doing was definitely not working. This part of me wanted freedom from food and body image obsession and compulsion.


In the days and months that followed, I continued working with my therapist, attended 12 step meetings focused on food recovery, and practiced the discipline of the food plan suggested. It included servings of protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats, vegetables and fruit. I limited my intake of processed foods. 


Emotions definitely surfaced and it was critical for me to have the guidance and support in learning new skills to deal with them. I began to breathe deeply, practiced what I was taught about feelings being like waves, lasting only 30-90 seconds. I rode the waves, sometimes with myself and other times with another person present, even if it was by phone. The parts of me that protected me from memories and difficult feelings by using food in unhealthy ways, began to settle and not be so prominent. I was replacing them and their “survival” skills with the “thriving” skills mentioned above. I journaled, got out in nature, and focused on having fun.

It has been years since I have engaged in drastic food or body obsession and compulsive behaviors. “Healthy choices” is my motto when it comes to food. I travel a great deal and treasure the flexibility I have cultivated. I am now comfortable with what I eat no matter where I am.

Feeling free around my food and body image is a gift I receive moment to moment, meal to meal and day to day. I do not take it for granted. I am certain that if I cease to adhere to the guidelines of my food plan or cease to pay attention to my emotional and spiritual life, I will be back in prison very quickly.

Each and every one of us has the right to determine what is best for them. That is the beauty of recovery from childhood sexual abuse. You have choices today. If you are struggling or simply curious about how food and food behaviors impacts your healing and ability to thrive, I support you in getting professional guidance, always paying attention to your intuition about what is right and not right for you. Enjoy the ride!





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Adena Bank Lees, LCSW, LISAC, BCETS, CP, is an internationally recognized speaker, author, trainer and consultant, providing a fresh and important look at addiction treatment, traumatic stress and recovery. She has been providing premiere clinical and consulting services for over 25 years. Adena is a licensed clinical social worker, licensed independent substance abuse counselor, board certified expert in traumatic stress, and a certified psychodramatist. She is the author of “The 12 Healing Steps for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse; A Practical Guide” and is currently penning an educational memoir on covert emotional incest due out in late 2017. Most importantly, Adena is a thriver, enjoying travel, hiking in the Arizona desert, and filling her days with laughter.

May 23, 2017

Riding the Wave of Emotions (Especially Anger!)

This week, we continue our series with Adena Bank Lees. In this post, she talks about the power of emotions, how to be with our emotions (particularly anger), and how she was able to restore her spiritual life through the expression of this powerful emotion.


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Feelings are simply energy that show up in body sensations often with thoughts attached. “Don’t talk, Don’t trust, Don’t feel” can be some of those thoughts. They are classic alcoholic family messages but are also common in family systems where sexual abuse happens. 

Being sexually abused, either covertly or overtly can create body experiences that feel good, icky, scary and/or shameful. Because of the confusion and overwhelm this causes, we learn to shut off feelings and disconnect from our bodies. This is a survival strategy that loses its potency as we grow into adulthood and wish to enter and engage in intimate relationships. Not having a voice or a safe place to express it, locks feelings inside and greatly their impact.

“Feelings and sensations will rise and fall unless we assign danger to them.” -Recovery Inc.

This tells me that if I believe feelings are scary, they will get stuck and not move through my body. I won’t “ride the wave” so to speak, and I will pay the consequences. Feelings last between 30-90 seconds. Therefore, if this is a part of recovery and healing, I can do this for 30-90 seconds, right?

A feeling that I have struggled with, and sometimes still do, is anger. I witness this with clients all the time. I have learned many important lessons from and about anger. I would like to share a few with you.



1. Anger, like all feelings is simply energy I experience in my body. It does not mean anything about me as a person. It is simply energy in my body. I do not have to be afraid of it.

2. Anger is not a “negative” feeling. There are neither positive nor negative feelings. There are just feelings.

3. It is okay and healthy to feel angry despite negative cultural and gender stereotype messages. (a woman who is angry is often called a “b#$%^)

4. The gift of anger is the energy and motivation to take care of myself.

5. It is important to get help in how to be with and ride the wave of anger because it is such a powerful energy.

6. As a young child, experiencing my caregiver’s anger felt like the love was cut off and I was cast into space by myself. This can be a universal experience that causes the fear and suppression of anger.

7. Anger is a feeling of protest; that my boundaries have been violated.

8. As a person who experienced sexual abuse, I probably have anger towards the “abuser”, and more importantly, the person, people or institutions that did not protect me.

9. It is okay for me to be angry with “God.”

“God?” Why did I just bring “God” into the conversation? Because many abuse victims spent and/or spend hours praying to an entity asking for the abuse to stop. They pray for their pain to be removed, for someone to listen to and believe them, and for the removal of the symptoms that are plaguing them. They wait for something to happen. What happens? Nothing. The abuse continues. The pain continues. No one has rescued them. The post traumatic symptoms continue. “God must not love me. I must be bad or have done something bad. I am being punished,” are just some of the messages a child gets with this scenario.

The crux of my healing from CEI and CSA has been the nurturing of my spirituality. I have explored and discovered many facets of this. One facet being this entity called “God.” When I started 12 step programs many years ago, I was challenged to confront my beliefs and feelings about “God.” I carried distorted ideas such as “it is not okay to be angry with 'God'”. If I am angry, I will be punished.” 

My mentor in the program suggested that it was acceptable to be angry with this power greater than myself and it was necessary for me to directly express it. I took the suggestion and began to speak about, raise my voice and even curse at “God”. This is how I expressed my anger for “God” not listening to me, for forsaking me, and for allowing the abuse to happen to me and others like me. I had these monologues for about two years. 

Something surprising happened. I began to soften, and realized that nothing bad had occurred because of my yelling, cursing, etc. I actually felt relief and began to trust that there might be something out there that is loving and that I can plug into for strength and courage to continue my healing journey. 

Obviously, this concept was very different from what I had thought “God” was previously. This was the whole point. I got to experience my concept of “God”; the one that worked for me. This “God” or Higher Power was a force of love vs. an omnipotent being that controls people’s actions and decisions. I could not have had this pivotal experience if I had not been given permission, guidance and had the willingness to own and be forthright with my anger.

I share this story with you to acknowledge that anger towards “God” may be an important issue for you to address in your healing. I also share it with you as an example of how honest and straightforward expression of anger can have a much needed positive and empowering outcome.

It would take a book to discuss all the ways I aid clients in identifying, labeling and expressing their feelings, anger, in particular. Due to limited time, space and the purpose of this blog, I will stop here.

What I do wish to close with is for us to remember that anger is simply energy in our body. We have the choice of what to believe and say to ourselves about this energy. Asking for and receiving guidance on how to experience and communicate anger in a healthy way is a crucial part of the healing from childhood sexual abuse.



Read Part 4: It's Now What You Eat, It's What's Eating You

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Adena Bank Lees, LCSW, LISAC, BCETS, CP, is an internationally recognized speaker, author, trainer and consultant, providing a fresh and important look at addiction treatment, traumatic stress and recovery. She has been providing premiere clinical and consulting services for over 25 years. Adena is a licensed clinical social worker, licensed independent substance abuse counselor, board certified expert in traumatic stress, and a certified psychodramatist. She is the author of “The 12 Healing Steps for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse; A Practical Guide” and is currently penning an educational memoir on covert emotional incest due out in late 2017. Most importantly, Adena is a thriver, enjoying travel, hiking in the Arizona desert, and filling her days with laughter.

May 16, 2017

Reclaiming Our Sexual Energy As Life Energy

This week, we continue our series with Adena Bank Lees. In this post she explores the journey from objectification to sexual empowerment and full embodiment of all aspects of her self.


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A young boy of seven just lost his father to a heart attack. You are at the funeral and overhear an adult shake his hand and say, “I am so sorry about your dad, Johnny, but you are the man of the house now, take care of your mom and your sisters.” 


Do you notice anything disturbing here? Or, are we so acculturated to this dynamic that we do not recognize the message(s) we are sending to Johnny?

After the funeral, his mother starts relying on him to soothe and comfort her, calling him “my little man.” Is he a man? Is he developmentally capable of taking care of his mother and sisters? What does “take care of” his mother and sisters entail?

Sadly, Johnny is expected to be an adult when he is a child. He becomes a substitute spouse to his mother and substitute father to his siblings. That is quite a heavy burden for a little seven year old boy.

The above is another way that Covert Emotional Incest manifests. It, in my belief and professional experience, has been woven into the fabric of our society.

Objectification is one more aspect of Covert Emotional Incest that is important to identify and explain.

Objectification is when one feels like an object -- a thing -- created to please others, (often sexually) rather than a human being in their own right. I know I felt this way as early as the age of five. I knew I was expected to welcome stares and comments from others about my body. Both my parents, my mother in particular, kept a keen focus on my physical appearance, directing me to diet when I was eight. There was also unwanted touch that made me cringe -- kissing on the lips, hugs that were a bit too tight and too long. They were uncomfortable but my family believed these things happened in a close-knit family. So I denied my feelings of fear, anger, humiliation and revulsion. I was ever the good girl and I never said no.

As I have seen with clients, being objectified taught me the following:

1. I was only worth something if I was sexually attractive to a man and provided him with what he wanted.

2. I was only sexually attractive to a man if I had the perfect body. Who defined the perfect body? My father.


One of the most profound experiences in my recovery from CEI and CSA happened in a professional training group back in 1996. “My hope for you is to be able to hold your competence, your sexuality and your spirituality all at the same time,” said my mentor. 


He voiced in that short sentence what I had been trying to accomplish for many years. This integration was exactly what Covert Emotional Incest (CEI) robbed me of. Being objectified and made a surrogate spouse led to compartmentalization of my sexual and sensual self. I believed, because of my experience, that being female meant being a victim to sexual violence. Therefore, identifying as female and feeling sexual was scary and bound with shame and guilt. What I know and teach today is that whatever gender identity you claim, it, in and of itself, does not mandate you to victimhood. 

What I also know and teach today is that sexual energy is literally our life energy. If I split that off or suppress it, I will find myself down and depressed.

Spirituality is about our essence, our soul. Spiritual, soul energy, and sexuality, sexual/sensual energy, are joint forces that can create one heck of a powerful and joy-filled human being. They are worth fighting for!

Without these two resources, I would not enjoy nor be successful at what I do, be it hobbies or professional endeavors. I would be a talking head and the experience empty. Because of embodying and allowing room for my life and soul energy, I have great fulfillment in what I accomplish.

I am excited to say that I have been thriving because of the integration of my sexuality/sensuality, competence and spirituality for quite a number of years now. How did I get there, you ask?

I have to be honest. For me there was no one right way. I had many teachers, guides and supports.

Somatically focused work was essential in allowing me to get in touch with and really listen to my body. It taught me to not just tolerate sexual and other feelings and sensations, but to revel in them. It helped me feel free to express them in a safe way with safe people in the present moment. Being with my wife, who celebrates my sexuality, competence and spirit daily, has been the main reinforcer that this freedom is possible and here for the taking.





Adena Bank Lees, LCSW, LISAC, BCETS, CP, is an internationally recognized speaker, author, trainer and consultant, providing a fresh and important look at addiction treatment, traumatic stress and recovery. She has been providing premiere clinical and consulting services for over 25 years. Adena is a licensed clinical social worker, licensed independent substance abuse counselor, board certified expert in traumatic stress, and a certified psychodramatist. She is the author of “The 12 Healing Steps for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse; A Practical Guide” and is currently penning an educational memoir on covert emotional incest due out in late 2017. Most importantly, Adena is a thriver, enjoying travel, hiking in the Arizona desert, and filling her days with laughter.

May 9, 2017

Surrogate Spouse: Another Form of Abuse

This week, I'm excited to introduce you to Adena Bank Lees. Not only is she a survivor of abuse, but she's a dear colleague and advocate for survivors. In this post, Adena defines and shares about her experience with Covert Emotional Incest.


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“I can’t talk to your mother like this…you father doesn’t understand me the way you do. You are such a good listener. I always feel so much better when I talk to you. How do you know so much, you are so young?” 


These were common statements made by my parents as I was growing up.

How did I feel in response to these statements?

I felt special, privileged, and chosen. I was trusted with very adult information and I could keep such secrets. Powerful? Yes, I felt powerful also. My parents told me I could MAKE them feel better.

So, then why did I, at the same time, feel helpless and like a failure?

Because I couldn’t fix or change either my mother or father and I definitely couldn’t fix or save their marriage. I tried, believe me I tried. It never happened. I felt torn between the two of them. I didn’t know how to be loyal to both. I was just a kid. I felt confused and overwhelmed with a knot in my stomach most of the time.

This is totally inappropriate to ask of a child but I thought I could handle it. I knew it was my job.

I can tell you all this today. It took me until I was in my late 20’s-early 30’s to have the words and awareness of this dynamic and how it negatively impacted me.

What I am describing here is called Covert Emotional Incest.

CEI happens when a parent or caregiver uses their child as a substitute spouse or confidant. 


Parents/caregivers are supposed to be there to meet their children’s needs, children are not there to meet their parents or caregivers needs. With CEI this is turned upside down.

Why do we call it incest and put the sexual spin on it? Because the spousal role is a sexual role whether there is physical sex happening or not. Sexual energy and sexual messages are implicitly communicated through the spousal or confidant role. No actual physical sexual contact is made. This can be and usually is crazy-making for the child.

Covert Emotional Incest survivors have very similar behaviors, feelings and

beliefs as those who have been overtly or physically sexually abused. Things like difficulty in establishing and maintaining healthy intimate relationships (both sexual and otherwise), not trusting your own reality/intuition, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse are common.

There is a way out. There is a solution. The first step is to have a name and context for what happened to you. Being aware of this provides the foundation for the next step which is to ask for help.

By asking for and receiving help in many forms and modalities, I have gone from the role of victim to the role of survivor, to today, identifying as a thriver with a covert emotional incest history. The abuse no longer defines who I am. I do respect, however, its impact on me and that it is a crucial part of my story.

There is much more to say about Covert Emotional Incest, both the components of it and the healing process from it. More will be discussed in next week’s blog entry. For now, know this: Covert Emotional Incest is enough for someone to experience the aftermath of what has been described above.



Read Part 2: Reclaiming Our Sexual Energy As Life Energy

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Adena Bank Lees, LCSW, LISAC, BCETS, CP, is an internationally recognized speaker, author, trainer and consultant, providing a fresh and important look at addiction treatment, traumatic stress and recovery. She has been providing premiere clinical and consulting services for over 25 years. Adena is a licensed clinical social worker, licensed independent substance abuse counselor, board certified expert in traumatic stress, and a certified psychodramatist. She is the author of “The 12 Healing Steps for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse; A Practical Guide” and is currently penning an educational memoir on covert emotional incest due out in late 2017. Most importantly, Adena is a thriver, enjoying travel, hiking in the Arizona desert, and filling her days with laughter.

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