“Dear Survivor”: A letter about the hard truths of healing from child abuse

Dear Survivor,

Credit: Oldangelmidnight from Northampton, MA

Credit: Oldangelmidnight from Northampton, MA

“Because then I knew it was over.”

That’s what most strive to feel about the lingering effects of childhood abuse, although not about the actual events. Those are long gone, and often dissociated from awareness.

Rather, most want to end sleepless nights and startled awakenings; feeling as if they live in a parallel universe, outside the world inhabited by ‘normal’ people who lack histories of abuse; intrusive images, feelings, sounds, and smells; the desire to drink, smoke, toke, shoot up, sex to oblivion; the avoidance of intimacy because of a seemingly endless reserve of anxiety simmering below a brittle surface of civility; or fighting because the rage never seems to dissipate and you just want to push back, because the planet is not big enough to hold all your hurt, let alone the emotional needs of another person.

At the first inkling of the wish to heal, some try to barter with themselves as a way out of this paradoxical life of repetitive chaos. This often starts with a naïvely made promise with oneself to be good. This promise usually starts with the belief that by being good and trying really hard, one day life will finally, if not miraculously, turn out differently. This is not an easy promise to let go of; even when it’s obvious you are failing miserably at keeping it.

Even so, there will still be a part of you that keeps the promise. Why? Often because of the secretly held wish that if you finally get it ‘right’ the love that wasn’t there will materialize, or your savior will come and magically change everything (releasing you from both effort and responsibility), or the opportunity for revenge will become available, and there you have it: the transformative moment you have waited for has arrived.

This I can tell you is a colossal waste of time and the imagination. Even if the perfect love, the ideal savior, or the opportunity for the most humiliating payback becomes available, you will never become who you might have been had the abuse never happened, or get the time back that you have wasted waiting for your personal Godot.

You might think I am giving you that old song and dance about picking your ass up off the curb, brushing off the dust of trauma, stomping its dirt from your shoes, and manning up to life’s inevitable trials and tribulations. Not at all. Rather, I think childhood

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Georgia juvenile court judge galvanizes statewide child trauma initiatives

Judge

Douglas County (GA) Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker and “Dalton”

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Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker is an activist judge for the children of Georgia – the children she loves who do not get what they need for healthy, successful lives.  She’s seen how the children are failed when they come back to court again and again. Now she’s doing something about it.  When she takes over later this year as the president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, she’ll have a national platform to promote changes in polices and practices to prevent and treat childhood trauma.  For now, she is spreading the word around the state of Georgia through conferences in four different regions, with the first one held January 10 at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

Woven into Judge Walker’s Georgia Summit on Complex Trauma keynote address to more than 400 participants —  including judges, their staffs, child and family services professionals, and advocates — was a description of a painful case from her work as a judge.  She began her presentation on what science tells us to do for children who have experienced complex trauma with a photo of herself (shown above) holding “Dalton.” He was the first drug-free child in the court’s family drug treatment program; his mother “Tonya” was a participant (both names are pseudonyms).

During the 10 years that “Tonya” had been in and out of her court, Judge Walker did not know her story. When she found out, she learned that  “Tonya’s” mother was alcoholic, emotionally abusive, and manipulative.  At age seven, “Tonya” was raped by a 50-year-old neighbor who was later incarcerated but freed after three years.  She tried drug treatment in

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Tom Ska “sex talk” doesn’t shy away from addressing assault and abuse

One of the reasons British director and comedian Tom Ska did this 7-minute video about sex is that the first time he had sex, he was forced into it. As you’ll see below, that may have inspired him to address sexual assault in his version of the “the sex talk”:

I made this video because I never had ‘the talk’ and instead “learned” everything about sex through the Internet and society as a whole. In short: I had a pretty unhealthy and ill-informed understanding of sex, sexualities and sexism. I also look at my audience and see a lot of young adults and teenagers who, much like I was, are in need of a little education. When a third of women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes it means at least 1 in every 9 of my subscribers will face sexual abuse at some point. I simply don’t feel comfortable just ignoring a statistic like that when I potentially have the ability to inform people at potentially stop even ONE instance of sexual assault, rape, bullying, unwanted pregnancy, shame and overall ignorance.

Want to reduce mental illness? Address trauma. Want to save the world? Address trauma.

Our Earth and and moon.

Our Earth and moon

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Different explanations have been given for the increased number of people suffering from mental illness. Some have claimed the increase is the result of ever-expanding diagnostic criteria and syndromes that risk medicalizing normal emotional reactions. Others argue the increase is the result of the pharmaceutical industry financially courting the medical establishment as well as using advertisements to attract potential users of their medications. While both these arguments seem correct, they nevertheless fail to address that an increasing number of people regularly experience despair and anguish and are struggling to make a meaningful life, if not keep themselves psychologically, socially, and financially afloat.

I would like to suggest an additional explanation for the increase in mental illness: The upsurge is the result of the collective failure to alleviate conditions that contribute to trauma-related stress. I also believe the mental health field has stood in the way of people overcoming mental illness and returning to growth-centered lives. In particular, models of mental illness as chronic, genetic-based disorders gives us the sense that we are reaching the origins of our suffering — that is to say, the genes we inherited — when in actuality, we risk denying the traumatizing conditions in which many of us grew up or continue to live. Although a diagnosis and medications may provide temporary relief, they may also cause Americans to evade making the challenging changes that are necessary for moving into an emotionally sustainable future.

Childhood abuse and other emotional damaging experiences are so prevalent today that trauma-focused psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk claimed the single most important health problem facing Americans is our exposure to what are increasingly referred to as “adverse childhood experiences,” which have been rigorously

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Trauma-informed psychotherapy puts the body – and love – back in mental healthcare

AloveFor the past 50 years, psychotherapy has taken a back seat to biomedical psychiatry, largely due to reliance on medications for the treatment of mental disorders. Yet clinical evidence increasingly points to chronic, unresolved traumatic stress as the source of many — if not most — mental disorders. Furthermore, longitudinal analyses show continued use of psychotropic medications is bad for the body, even causing chronic diseases. Granted, medications can stabilize a body wracked by recurrent distress, but such an approach is hardly a long-term cure. According to psychiatrist and trauma specialist Bessel Van der Kolk, “dramatic advances in pharmacotherapy have helped enormously to control some of the neurochemical abnormalities caused by trauma, but they obviously are not capable of correcting the imbalance.” To correct the “imbalance” often requires learning to inhabit one’s body and relationships in new ways.

Fortunately, the psychotherapeutic treatment of psychological trauma has advanced significantly the past several decades. In part, this is due to scientific discoveries of how the body and relationships naturally defend against traumatic stress. In particular, trauma-informed psychotherapies that draw from neuroscience and attachment studies are more holistic and scientifically based than ever before, although they often support the intuitions held by originators of psychotherapy such as Pierre Janet, Sigmund Freud, and C. G. Jung.

The neurobiology of trauma

Pierre Janet was the first to recognize how the body responds to present events as if past traumas were recurring — what today we call flashbacks. He observed patients

“continuing the action, or rather the attempt at action, which began when the [traumatic event] happened, and they exhaust themselves in these everlasting recommencements.”

Today we know the neurobiological reasons for flashbacks. Unlike narrative memories that seamlessly integrate

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Attachment theory through a cultural lens

Father and child (photo by Fredrik Lidarp), Australia

Father and child (photo by Fredrik Lidarp), Australia

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In an article titled “Attachment and Culture (citation below),” Heidi Keller exposes attachment theory’s Western, middle-class assumptions. She argues:

… the definition of attachment in mainstream attachment research are in line with the conception of psychological autonomy, adaptive for Western middle-class, but deviate from the cultural values of many non-Western and mainly rural ecosocial environments.

Keller shows how attachment theory, particularly research that follows on the heels of John Bowlby’s original theory and Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Procedure, assumes the most formative attachment relationship occurs between a mother and her infant. (For a further discussion of Bowlby’s and Ainsworth’s work, see my post, Let There Be Love!) But Keller points out that the primacy of the mother-infant bond for attachment may only be the norm “in Western middle-class families which compose less than 5% of the world’s population.”

In most cultures and socioeconomic groups, limited

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The shame of incarceration: new evidence on sexual victimization

The power of data to combat denial and distortion is dramatically illustrated in “The Shame of Our Prisons:  New Evidence,” a review of studies carried in the October 24 issue of the New York Review of Books by David Kaiser, chair of the board of Just Detention International (JDI) and Lovisa Stannow, JDI’s executive director. Kaiser and Stannow say that the uniform denial of the widespread problem of prison rape has changed now that good data is available. The carefully conducted surveys by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reviewed by Kaiser and Stannow have found consistent findings: “The same factors that put inmates at risk of sexual abuse show up again and again, as do the same patterns of abuse involving race and gender, inmates and guards.” The data discredits the assertion by prison officials in recent years that inmates fabricate claims of sexual victimization in order to cause trouble.

Kaiser and Stannow report that the studies [Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2011-12: BJS National Inmate Survey (NIS) and Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2012: BJS National Survey of Youth in Custody (NSYC)] confirm important findings from earlier surveys (e.g., extraordinary numbers of female inmates and guards commit sexual

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Carl Jung and the ‘leap of faith’ into individuation

The Red Book has been described as Carl Jung’s creative response to the threat of madness, yet it has also been seen as a deliberate exercise in self-analysis. I believe it’s likely both. When creating The Red Book, Jung knew he was on the verge of madness, and he also knew his analytical skills and expertise as a psychiatrist were his best chance at alleviating suffering, if not creating the conditions for transformation.

In many regards, The Red Book reads like a healing journey — a phrase often used to describe the reclaiming of self after a history of abuse — which is a transformative period that happens for many people committed to overcoming early life trauma. On the way to an authentic self there is first the need to step away from the person one became to survive abuse. Those confronted with this journey often

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Want your ACE score? Now there’s an app for that!

ACE icon Ever wonder why you, your relatives or friends can’t stop smoking, over-eating, drinking, doing meth or other drugs? Why you’re a workaholic, a rage-aholic or shopaholic? Why you’ve shed marriages like a snake sheds skins? Or why you have trouble keeping a job or making friends?

Maybe it has something to do with your — or their — ACE score.

Many people who learn about the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) and take a 10-question survey based on its findings say two things: “Now my life makes sense,” and “Why didn’t someone tell me about this years ago?”

The ACE Study uncovered a stunning link between childhood trauma and the adult onset of chronic disease, social and emotional problems.

The study’s researchers – Drs. Robert Anda and Vincent Felitti — measured 10 types of childhood

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Take that leap of faith: advice about beginnings, endings in trauma therapy

Photo of paraglider. Copyright © 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.

One of my teachers at Pacifica Graduate Institute called psychotherapy “the hope manufacturing business.” And frankly, if my first meetings with a therapist left me feeling dejected, I’d likely think that person was pretty lousy at her or his job. Psychotherapy is time-consuming, expensive, and shines a spotlight on the painful stuff we have difficulty getting over on our own. Most of us are pretty miserable before we seek help from a therapist. And most of us go to therapy because we believe if we change, we’ll feel better, if not actually become a better person.

It takes courage to admit to a complete stranger how you are suffering and all the things you don’t like about yourself. The entire enterprise goes against the status quo of maintaining appearances as a likable, full-functioning, if not enviable person.

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