PTSD Survivors of Child Abuse and Healing

Adults can recover from PTSD resulting from child abuse.  Some survivors don’t know they have a highly recognizable and treatable anxiety disorder called PTSD ( Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), which has been associated with Vietnam Vets, the Holocaust, mass murders, natural disasters, rape, kidnapping, accidents, torture and other extraordinary happenings.We are naturally dependent upon parents as infants and children. Children depend upon parents or guardians for safety. But when that sense of safety is betrayed, coping mechanisms develop such as dissociation. This allows for survival, but later as adults, symptoms such as hyper-vigilance, anxiety and the numbness of feelings permeate, hindering normal relationships. But healing can happen when one is put into a safe environment to explore feelings. Immense feelings of anger and betrayal of the injustice may erupt, profound sadness for a time, but in the end, one can breakthrough and for once live in reality and be happy.

“It is the emotional and psychological setting in which sexual maltreatment occurs, and with whom it has occurred, that makes the difference and causes lasting damage” states an article by the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse. Children’s natural helplessness is turned into terror when abused by a parent. In a normal household when a trauma occurs like a car accident, the parent is there for support, comfort and love. When the source of trauma is within the family, there is an absence of healing. Children learn to pretend they are somewhere else to endure the trauma which is called dissociation. They blame themselves for their parents’ not loving them. They believe that they are not good enough to be loved. Their self-esteem plummets. They freeze feelings.

“When a victim or survivor is disbelieved, shamed, threatened into silence, or when the disclosure is minimized or becomes cause for punishment, the trauma inflicted by willful ignorance compounds the original trauma.” Protective numbing, denial on the child’s part becomes a survival skill. However, as the child grows into an adult, if not dealt with, “it is destined to be re-enacted” in other relationships.

Survivors minimize abuse for years on end until one day a trigger may happen and the psyche is ready to unearth the wounds of yesteryear. Now in a safe place to feel the feelings which may come on as a tidal wave of grief. But when the losses are fully mourned, the trauma losses its power.

Fugue

People often ask me what is a fugue, when they see the title of my novel. What is dissociation disorder?

A fugue can be a piece of music split apart from the whole symphony, similar but different. The Greek definition means “flight.” To take flight. Dissociation Disorder is a broken off piece from the whole. There are many types of Dissociation Disorder. There is Dissociative Fugue which is short -lived, Dissociative PTSD and the most famous type, Multiple Personality. Dissociation was once seen as quite rare, but today therapists are saying it occurs more frequently. Martha Stout, author of “The Myth of Sanity” writes that “moderate dissociation is a normal mental reaction to pain and fear and that even the most extreme dissociative reaction-multiple personality is more common than we think.” We all dissociate when we daydream.

The mind is a wondrous living computer. The cerebral cortex filters enormous amounts of stimuli that bombard us everyday from inside and out. The living human brain is also hell- bent on survival.

A traumatic event can be overwhelming for a child. The child has no life experience nor perspective to draw from. If a small child for instance is left accidentally by his/her mother, they may actually believe she is never coming back, he/she may eventually curl up in a fetal position, helpless.

In the case of a small child who witnesses a horrific event, the mind filters the event, puts the memory deep within the subconscious, so he/she does not have to feel the pain again as a recurring memory.

In dissociation disorder, this has happened a number of times due to many events. The response happens again in the adult due to triggers that relate to an actual excruciating memory. It can simply be a sound, or a smell or even a picture paired with the frightening experience.

Take Elaine, for instance, a beautiful young woman, who did a stint as a model and even started a business selling handbags. But she is continuously plagued by severe episodes of depression. It affects all her important relationships. When asked what is wrong, she doesn’t know. Her misery finally forces her to seek therapy. She undergoes hypnotherapy where she uncovers horrific memories of her childhood, living under the roof of a sadistic father. A sadistic father who threatened her with horrible things such as making a stew out of her pet white rabbit if she disobeyed him. Uncovering these memories is painful, but the truth of why she is the way she is, is revealed and that is priceless.

Many patients, decide that it is too painful to uncover memories. But Elaine decides she is going to make it worth all the struggle. She is going to make her life COUNT. She makes the effort to fill her life with passion and joy after having come out on the other side. This is the stance that many with severe Disassociation take, of appreciating life much more than the average person, perhaps freaking out over their iphone breaking. They have a clarity about them and know themselves well.

Dissociative Disorder is how the mind survives the unimaginable. It is adaptation.

Warrior Heroines

Mother always said I’d be a late bloomer. Little did she know just how late. I chuckled to myself as I walked down the lane on a winter’s day.

Summer is just a memory now. The fragrances, the bright colors, the abundance of growth are gone. Snow flurries dance in the wind as I pass one by one the neatly bricked houses that were once surrounded by colorful impatiens in shades of red, pink and purple. Horticulturists call these flowers “busy Lizzies” or “impatient Lucys.” Much like the women who lived inside these houses, I thought. Busy with career, children, impatient with their lives. Busy having it all.

There are now naked brown vines where “heavenly blue” morning glories once bloomed. These flowers are often tied to fences and mailboxes. They need lots of support to show their charms. Unlike wild, carefree black-eyed Susans that spring up unexpectedly in ditches and rock piles.

Women historically have been the caretakers in birth and in death. As midwives, they brought new life into the world, and as caretakers they ease the passage through this world. Many folktales from Europe, from countries such as Hungary and Germany, are actually a kind of map of the psyche handed down to us by ancient grandmothers. Full of archetypes, the fairy tales tell how to take care of the feminine soul.

They speak of renewal, of recovering that which was once sacred, and making time to replenish the self. They speak of growth and attaining knowledge and wisdom. They tell of the green apple which is young and tart like a young woman; it slowly matures on the tree and in time it becomes luscious red, ripe with sweetness.

Once must learn how to be kind. How to cultivate long-lasting relationships. How to spot a crisis. How to be firm but gentle.

There are women who are not necessarily doctors, lawyers or CPAs. They are the warrior heroines who do battle every day with fate, and identify oppressors inside and out. Often it is a silent one. Their adversaries are ominous: AIDS, cancer, poverty, depression, grief, abuse and trauma. Sometimes they confront more than one of these challenges at a time.

They continue to fight the good fight for they have discovered on their journey that even “the devil works for God.” Confronting the shadow within, they look fear in the eye. Carol S. Pearson, author of The Hero Within, writes of the wicked old woman who asks questions of her mirror. Because she is honest with the mirror, she becomes free from all her fears except one.

“I fear death. I fear change,” said the old woman to the mirror.

“Yes, they are frightening. Death is a closed door, and change is a door hanging open.”

“Yes, but fear is the key,” laughed the wicked old woman, “and we still have our fears.”

There exists, also within, a Gardener who overturns the soil periodically. She plants and cultivates for new growth according to the rhythms of life. Pruning, making beds, preparing. My nasturtiums were bedraggled from the hot summer sun. They forced a bloom or two, bright orange and red, in desert-like soil. Nevertheless, they did bloom.

A bitter unforgiving wind kicks up suddenly. The busy Lizzies and impatient Lucys are but a summer memory. “Be prepared,” the swift bit of wind announces. Beauty alone does not sustain one through the icy snows of winter. One must be strong from within, from long summer growth.

Be prepared, my friend, be prepared.

June Sitler
Published “Nashville Eye” March 21, 1996.

PTSD

When one hears Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, the image of a Vietnam Vet comes to mind. However, many people from all walks of life may suffer from this disorder. They are the survivors. They can be people who live in the inner city, those who have suffered the loss of a loved one, survivors of childhood trauma in adulthood, or a man or woman after a divorce. Or they can be witnesses, rescuers or survivors of catastrophic events. They can have reactive depression and even a dissociative disorder.

Can we heal from PSTD? Not completely. I have figured out my triggers and I still have occasional night terrors but the uncontrollable shaking, reactive depression and chronic anxiety have dissipated. Learning to ride your dragon, can open portals to a new life.

I cried in grocery stores. At unexpected moments. Hiding my tears. There are times I felt that if I ever start crying I would never stop. As a child, it was demanded of me to endure incomprehensible suffering without shedding a tear. I began to understand how tragic my childhood was in my middle aged years when depression became overwhelming after the birth of my first child.

Trauma comes from the Greek word meaning “wound.” Among professionals it is defined as “an emotional state of discomfort and stress resulting from memories of an extraordinary, catastrophic experience which shattered the survivor’s sense of invulnerability to harm.”

One way, the only way to survive these traumas is to numb yourself. By pushing painful memories and feelings down and away, we can cope. However, as time passes by, if we do not deal with these original feelings, they may begin to affect our conscious behavior. We may numb ourselves to a point where we are no longer responsive to our own family, we avoid friends and finally in severe cases we avoid all human contact. In the case of dissociative disorder, the person takes on a whole new persona. It can be a whole new personality lasting years or of short duration called a fugue state.

Usually, the person appears to be coping, well even. They may be going to work every day as if nothing is wrong, but on the inside, they may be feel they are falling apart.

In this society where expression of feeling is often viewed as a weakness on the part of the individual, one must not hesitate to seek help. Help is out there and you need not “tough” it out alone.

Psychotherapy is not a luxury, nor should one be stigmatized for it. Finding someone you can really talk to about your trauma without judgement, is the most important thing you can do for yourself. Professionals can help you re-experience the trauma little by little so you can remember it as a whole in the here and now and not feel wounded by it. You can begin healing. There are many ptsd stories to be told.

Common coping mechanisms that are counterproductive are such things as living in denial, blaming yourself or others for the catastrophe, overprotection and avoidance. When people are living in denial they refuse to talk about what happened to them. “Naming and talking about our experience, no matter how tragic, take much of their control and power away”, writes Robert Hicks in his book, Failure to Scream.

Sometimes we become numb to our feelings because we grew up in a dysfunctional family. (50% of all families have been described as dysfunctional) In these cases, it is not considered a disorder, but an ineffective mode of dealing with feelings.

Pain, Fear, Anger. Invite them in for tea. Use your best china. Give them space. Recognize them for what they are. We feel the bad so we can feel the good once more. Cry the river of tears. Tears are the salve for wounds of the heart. Take hold of your fears, trace them down into your subconscious. Make the subconscious, conscious. Trace your fears to the root, whether it be in your past, in your family, in your self, in the culture, both or all. You will also find your broken dreams, your creativity and much more. Archetypes abound in the collective unconscious, Magnificent discoveries await you.

Joseph Campbell told the story of Igjugarjuk, the shaman or priest of a Caribou Eskimo tribe in northern Canada, in his book, The Power of Myth. Igjugarjuk told European visitors that the only true wisdom “lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone open the mind to all that is hidden to others.”