Over the years, I have worked with many victims of abuse, women or men who were abused in childhood (I do not work with children). Sometimes the abuse consisted of neglect; often it was physical, and emotional. For many, it was sexual. I find it interesting that in my practice, the men who were sexually abused as children were abused by someone outside of the family. the girls were all victimized by their fathers. (That is not the statistical norm but it’s the numbers from my practice.)
I’ve worked with people of many ages and at different stages of remembering and recovering from their abuse. They seem to go through a sequence of healing. Usually the healing takes years but for those who do the work and continue to be aware and alert to the process, a successful conclusion is inevitable.
1. We are victims of the abuse.
In this stage, survivors may or may not remember the abuse. Or they may or may not acknowledge the extent of the abuse. For example, they feel weird, or different, or dirty but have no memory of abuse happening to them. Or they remember the abuse but discount it, after internalizing the messages of their abuser, saying it wasn’t that bad (for example, ‘Sure dad had a temper but we deserved the punishment). Regardless of whether we remember it or recognize it for the trauma it was, the abuse is still driving our lives. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not unusual but rarely undiagnosed.
2. We are survivors of the abuse.
In this stage people know what happened. They’re conscious of the things that were done to them and the enormity of the crimes committed against them. They are often swamped with pain and have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and know what it is. For abuse victims, PTSD looks similar to war vets. Remember, they have survived a war against them. Sounds in the night, the other side of the bed dipping when someone climbs in, the smell of semen or intercourse in specific positions – any and all of these may cause an emotional abreaction – a situation in which long repressed emotions are triggered, expressed, and released. The key here is that victims are aware of the abuse but it is still a dominant influence on their life. Talking about the abuse still brings up deep emotions. Nauseousness, anxiety and fear are still the hallmarks of their emotional life.
3. We are people abuse happened to.
At some point in time, usually with lots of therapy, supportive friends and a recovery plan in hand, victims stop being victims. They move beyond the abuse controlling and managing their lives to knowing it’s in the past. The emotional abreactions cease, for the most part (no one is ever guaranteed that they will be gone forever). Victims can talk about their abuse without being overwhelmed by emotion. They can share their story appropriately but are not driven to share it indiscriminately.
4. The abuse is just stuff.
At some point, with diligence and a willingness and drive to move beyond the abuse, it becomes a moment in the past. I don’t want you to think the victims minimize what happened to them. Nor do they discount it. Rather, they know about it, recognize its affect on their life but have moved beyond the pain and the destruction. It is now another detail of the past, like the town they were raised in, who their grandparents are, or the school at which they attended first grade.
At this stage, former victims are living rich and full lives. They are not perfect, but neither are they hobbled by the tragedy in their past. Best of all, they can share their story or not – usually in the context of helping others understand that thriving is a given, if you do the work to get there.
What I’m outlining as occurring in steps actually happens in a long slow process. The work is not easy. Nor is it short. At times, recovery seems as painful as the original abuse. But the reward of doing the work is a life well lived. Ironically, once former victims move beyond what was done to them, they become able to put the past in the past. And then they get to choose the path of their future – without the shadows that haunted them.