4 Stages of Healing from Childhood Abuse

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.

About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
This entry was posted in Abuse, healing, Louise Behiel, recovery and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to 4 Stages of Healing from Childhood Abuse

  1. iceman18 says:

    “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.”

    The whole post was spot on. I especially like the portion of your summary above.

  2. Great post. Been through all those stages – the last one is the most satisfying 🙂

  3. Michelle Beattie says:

    Great post, Louise. As with anything in life, hard work must be done before the reward can come.

  4. iamnotshe says:

    I love this. I find that my life is fuller and richer … just by the amount of phone calls i make. I am OUT THERE, living, sharing, receiving: Not hiding, nor am in contant pain. I can look at family members and feel empathy and love, where that was NEVER possible before. Don’t get me wrong, there are still things i’d like to do in my life, but as for day to day living and the FULLNESS and love i feel inside, i would never have dreamed i could be so “involved”, or alive! Such good news, innit? xo m

  5. Joan Leacott says:

    I can’t begin to imagine the pain and conflict arising in these situations. But I’m grateful there are therapists out there who care, who work so hard with a person to help them achieve the life they deserve. Thank you, Louise, and all others like you.

  6. Jill James says:

    It is a long road to travel, but so worth the effort. The knowledge that you are stronger as a whole than the things done to you.

  7. As a child protection worker my experience was different than yours – the boys I worked with were abused by mothers and older sisters or aunts. Girls were not generally abused by biological Dads but were abused by step-fathers and step brothers as well as cousins or uncles. That being said, the people doing the abusing were generally abused as kids. It is one of those generational “gifts that keep on giving.”

    I find that kids raised in such situations don’t know what “normal” is. Often they internalize blame. Even if they realize it is not their fault and what is happening is fundamentally wrong, they still don’t end up with a good grasp on “normal.” If you have never experienced “normal” then you may think that Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best or (gods help us) the screwed up “reality TV” families are “normal.”

    It is a darn hard road back to balance and it takes an entire lifetime. It is a journey, not a destination.

    • It’s interesting to me how our experiences differ. But you would have had a much larger population to work with, so your numbers are probably much closer to national averages. I agree kids raised in these homes don’t know normal – at all. and part of the work is to figure out a realistic and workable definition of normal. it is a hard road back and definitely a journey. thanks for stopping by. as always I appreciate your perspective.

  8. What you describe here sounds a lot like recovering from addictions and eating disorders. We gradually move from surviving to thriving, a place where recovery becomes past tense. It stays a part of us, but it doesn’t rule or define us. Such wonderful insight, Louise. Thank you!

    • You are absolutely right August. It is a very similar journey. People who start down the paths you mention often struggle to know what is normal after they stop the destructive behavior. And I totally agree – eventually recovery becomes past tense and we move beyond the search to ‘a fuller living experience’. thanks as always, for stopping by August.

  9. Thank you for writing this. I wish more attention were paid to preventing child abuse, for its effects are life-long. Raising children is one of the most important things we do as human beings, yet it’s one of the things for which we are given the least training.

    I was a victim of physical and emotional abuse before the term “child abuse” was coined. Although I hated my mother at the time, I recognized that she thought she was doing the right thing. After I left home, I forgave her, put the whole thing behind me, got married, had children, and lived the life I wanted to live. The experience made me a more empathetic teacher. Though I knew I suffered some negative effects (shyness, low self-esteem, an uneasy relationship with my parents, and more), I chose to shut the abuse in a far corner of my mind. Until my younger brother and I finally talked about it on my thirty-seventh birthday. My brother had gone through therapy, but it did not help him. His misery reawakened everything I’d suppressed and plunged me into eight months of PTSD, eight months that are a blur to me. I read about a book a day to take my mind off the cycling memories, slept little, and have no idea how I managed to teach and take care of my family. I finally sought help from the school’s child study team and, correctly recognizing the problem, they directed me to a therapist who worked with Vietnam veterans. He helped me reach the fourth stage, and that has made such a difference in my life!

    • I am so glad you sought the help and got it. Many of my clients’ experiences mirror yours – they put the abuse behind them and got on with life, but were still dealing with a constellation of problems caused by the abuse. The 8 months of PTSD must have been horrific for you. How sad. But now you’re at the fourth stage and life is different. What an awesome journey. I’m so glad you stopped by and shared your experience.

      Good for you for getting help and living a rich, full life.

  10. Debra Kristi says:

    You are doing some wonderful things here Louise. A tough journey, but worth it.

  11. I know someone who could benefit from a little counseling with you. Mostly because not all counselors are effective…and even seem to encourage people to hold on to the anger. This person thinks they’re beyond the abuse, but there’s still far too much rage at times, and I just don’t know how to help them anymore. I don’t really know how you do it. Even with training, how do you work with these people and not wind up depressed yourself?

    • Oneo f the benefits of being self employed and working alone is that I only work with people I want to. LOL I have had a few people who were more interested in ‘going to therapy’ than getting well. Seemed tome, they didn’t want to change but wanted a stage to announce to yet another person how bad their life was.

      Well, I’ll put my history up against any one’s. so I don’t get sucked into the drama. Second I only accept clients by referral, so people know what I’m about before they arrive. And third if a client is truly more interested in drama than work, I fire them LOL

      As long as people are making progress and working i’m there. But life is too short for drama. I tell them that in the first meeting. and give them the same right – if it’s not working for you, please find someone else, because it’s your life.
      we can’t give people something they don’t want. So it’s not depressing but rather a pleasure to help people move through their past into their future. thanks Kristy.

  12. So sad. It’s good to know that with a strong supportive group of people who love you you can overcome the evils and live a healthy productive life.

    Thanks for the information.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  13. Eden says:

    As you say, even after stage 4, we’re never “right”. We’re also never wrong. We’re finally, though, just us. I do wonder though if those who are holding on to the grief are doing so because they’ve become “stuck” not because they want the drama, but because they don’t actually understand where the abuse really lay?

    Loved this, Louise. So many thoughts stirring…

    • I think there are a multitude of reasons for people staying in the grief. It’s not wrong – it’s just where they are. Unfortunately, often with that place, comes drams. Not always to be sure. and yes, I think it’s because, as seen in step 1, they don’t know there was abuse or they don’t know how enormous it was on them or they can’t cope with the reality that this was done to me. hard stuff for all of us. Glad to see thoughts are stirring, Eden. that’s good.

  14. bethfehlbaum says:

    YES! Exactly! Those stages were me exactly. I am happy now, living a complete and fulfilled life at the 4th stage of recovery. Woohoo! Now I am all about spreading the word that recovery is possible–it’s a hell of a hard journey but it’s possible.
    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    The Patience Trilogy

  15. For most individuals total recovery is something that’s sort of around the corner and across yon glen. It depends on the person, their innate resilience, and the trauma suffered – it is the old “same flame that melts butter tempers steel” issue.

    I believe that ACoA is one of the bastions of hope for adult children of alcoholic and dysfunctional families. And these days you can get phone meetings, chat based meetings (stepchat.com) and F2F meetings. I work ACoA in addition to Al-Anon and ACoA is what I believe (hope/pray) will help me get through the final part of my repair work.

    I also have to remember that “The Laundry List” of traits in “adult children” are not character defects, they’re coping mechanisms that kept us safe as children and to which we return time and again out of familiarity. http://www.adultchildren.org/lit/Laundry_List.php

    When I look at some of the new characters dreamed up by folks like Sherrilyn Kenyon these men have been abused past the point of death (and some of her books have made me feel nauseated they are so graphic) so they are profoundly disturbed individuals. I’m not sure I would want to attempt to “fix” anyone that totaled IRL and I have a certain concern that the fantasy that anyone so damaged could be rescued by romantic love is a recipe for some woman without a real clue walking into a very bad situation. But that’s the social worker in me recoiling. Because of the readership of romance novels (educated, 30’s-60’s) I sometimes wonder if there is a disservice being done with the concept that all a bad boy needs is a good woman. Just sayin…

    • I totally agree. love does not fix damaged souls – it simply provides fodder for more violence. great point. we had ACOA here in Calgary but don’t anymore. our groups didn’t follow the traditions and ended up collapsing in on themselves. but al-anon is alive and well. for me, I go to OA and keep my sanity in that way. the steps work for me. because of them I got into therapy. and because of the combination, I live a better than decent life.

      thanks again for your insightful comments.

  16. Louise, in response to your comment to Debra ~ YES! There absolutely is a benefit. I’ve learned so much here about myself and my family from your posts. They have helped in ways too numerous to mention, but just know you are a part of my healing every single day.

    I was in the fortunate place of living a full life when something happened that brought my abuse into the light ~ something I never imagined happening. The reactions were exactly what I thought they would be, denial, ignorance, etc, except one person told me in no uncertain terms that I was culpable in the abuse. My adult mind knows she’s wrong, but the frightened child inside worries that she’s right. Unfortunately, it makes having a relationship with her very difficult and yet she sees nothing wrong with what she said. Families! Can’t live with them, can only kill them off in our novels. 🙂

    • Tameri, thank you so much. I’m sorry you’re going thru this. It’s an awful situation to be in. My mom denies any knowledge of my dad’s activities. UHM NOT. not possible, not likely not even in a fairy tale. So I take it that’s her opinion and I do my own thing.

      I tell my clients who feel this guilt to go look at children playing in the playground at school. How many of those little kids are sexual beings? How many are playing in a sexualized manner? None of them. we are the victims. Hang onto that thought and know that I know that – absolutely and completely.

      by the way I have a sister I can send you for one of your books LOL


I'd love to hear from you. What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s