How to Rise like a Phoenix from the Ashes;or Getting over Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
It is acknowledged by most psychologists that of all the troubles that can befall a child, the one that has the longest lasting and most severe effects on personality and later life, is early sexual abuse. This is all the worse when the child has been cut off from their family and placed in a care home – ‘care’ that is supposed to take the place of the absent parents. The sense of betrayal, anger and fear is carried throughout life – even with those who manage to fall on good circumstances in adulthood.
It is hardly a consolation but at least it is encouraging to know that there are methods and organisations devoted to helping adults who have suffered thus to make some sense of these terrible experiences and to integrate these memories in a way that allows them to move on, not to let the experience ruin their lives anymore and to be able to break free of the negative emotions that precipitate them into the risks that drink, drugs and anger can bring. Not to mention avoidance of new relationships that could potentially allow some healing.
Childhood sexual abuse is classified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because like any traumatic event, a powerful chain reaction links the memory of the trauma to negative feelings that affect behaviour. Because thoughts, feelings and behaviour are so interlinked, predictable patterns occur when we sense a threat to our safety; physical or psychological. This chain reaction is referred to metaphorically as our ‘fight or flight’ system and people who have been previously traumatised are much more likely to have an over reactive response to perceived danger. The problem is that the memory of many sights, sounds, smells and movements can trigger the fight/flight system – the smell of the same cologne of the abuser, a similar gait on a figure walking ahead, a beard, a particular coloured jumper or a song the abuser sang or played frequently. There is nothing abnormal about this – it is a sensible, evolutionary strategy. If something hurt you once, then keep away from it because it may do so again – a sort of “better safe than sorry” principle. But the downside is that the fight/flight system has effects on physiology, ramping up the heart, the lungs, muscles etc., for a fast getaway or a serious stand up fight. When the fight is psychological, based only in memory, the wear and tear on the organs can result in heart and many other diseases. Not only that, but the constant activation makes the person nervous and jumpy – which is sometimes misunderstood by others, who then avoid this ‘prickly’ person, a downward spiral into more self-destructive behaviours.
So how can one rise like a phoenix from the ashes of a ruined childhood? Working through these terrible experiences is painful but liberating – past painful experiences must be resolved in the mind before they can be tucked away in memory as done and dusted and no longer active.
There are different types of therapy which can help overcome traumatic memories and change any maladaptive responses that may have ensued. There are talking therapies, physical therapies, drug based ones or reading therapies.
What a child loses when things go wrong in the family is trust. Trust in those first adults - mother and father, who were your only known protectors. Their unavailability, neglect or downright abuse – sometimes through no fault of their own (illness for example), breaks the bond of the first close relationship that stands as a template for all future relationships. When early relationships are unpredictable or frightening, the child grows up feeling that no relationship can be stable or safe. The two elements of love - trust and hope, cannot be summoned up for later relationships. Then the abuse by other adults in the children’s home or school confirms and solidifies this feeling of aloneness in a malign world. Feelings are numbed. Being emotionally ‘spaced-out’ and unaware of the depth of your feelings is really a defence against the painful feelings of rejection but all therapies will try to bring these into consciousness.
As therapy progresses and feelings do come to the fore through talking, remembering and dreaming, the person can become overwhelmed with rage at the adults who abused them or failed to protect them. This is a critical point of the therapy and for the person who is not prepared for this, it becomes harder and harder to continue. However, the professional counsellor or psychotherapist understands this and helps you come to terms with this and all your old assumptions about an unjust world. You will see things in a healthier perspective so that you can let go of the anger and the grief over the childhood loss of normality and you will find these feelings really do fade away into a memory that no longer activates the fight/flight system with all the bad consequences for your health.
By Dr Beverley Steffert