Even though you work hard to forget abuse, its effects can lurk under the surface. To protect ourselves from painful memories, we might try to escape in alcohol, substances, or try to shut down and withdraw emotionally, interfering with our functioning, our relationships and our ability to experience life’s pleasures. Similar to the post-traumatic stress experienced in combat and crime, survivors of child abuse may experience a recurring sense they are reliving the trauma.
It’s difficult for adults to break free of patterns that were established during repeated childhood abuse. Chaotic feelings are imprinted so deeply, we may seek chaotic feelings when we’re looking for familiar ground, opening ourselves up to situations that reenact the the very thing we wish we could forget. To break through the prison of numb, disconnected feelings we might resort to stimulating ourselves through violence, crime, anger, jealousy, lying, manipulating, stimulants, starvation, cutting ourselves or other desperate, destructive acts.
While these feelings may seem like a cruel life-sentence, many people reach beyond their past, and end the cycle of pain by working hard and opening up to healing agents. In individual and group therapy we search for insights to help us rebuild the damaged parts of our psyche. And we learn skills that were denied us as children, such as asserting our needs, managing anger, improving self-esteem and soothing our anxiety. Twelve Step programs such as Adult Children of Alcoholics can help us let go of the pain as well as the addictions, break through our isolation, and build up our trust in the human community.
Trust and intimacy
Victims of child abuse learn not to trust those they love. This interferes with relationships. And while it was a trusting relationship that hurt us, it is also trusting relationships that can help the healing process. In the give and take of relationships they must learn to fulfill each other’s. By extending the reach of this mutual service, each can enlist the other as a healer of our wounded heart.
While this plan sounds simple, it requires courage and hard work to overcome the deeply learned distrust of those closest to us. So we need to energetically and patiently learn how to overcome our distrust through individual and couples counseling.
Writing, art, music and movement
Trauma in early childhood occurred before we had words to interpret what was happening. Even at older ages, brutal, frightening, sorrowful experiences hit us so hard our emotions become flooded beyond our ability to explain. Without words, we can’t access our memories, and so we can’t apply our adult tools of understanding.
Humans use words to help explain and understand the world. Our beliefs about the world help us stay sane. To heal from trauma, we need to extend our words and our wisdom deeper into the wellsprings of our childhood experiences. By writing in a journal, soul searching dialog with trusted individuals, and participating in groups, we can find words for our pain. By using art, dreams and other visual dimensions we see and heal images of our pain. By working with music, we learn to transcend the sounds of our pain. By dancing, stretching, yoga and other movement we connect with and break through traumatic body memories. Methods such as role-playing and story-telling release us from the primitive interpretations and understandings our childhood mind first placed on these troubling events. We need to honor all the dimensions of our traumatic memories in order to move forward.
Filling in missing life skills
In our abusive household, we learned that adults got their way by anger, manipulation, violence and secrecy, and when they were overwhelmed they used substances, complained or acted out.
We had few role models to show us more artful ways of coping with life. Our caregivers didn’t teach us how to assert our needs, and instead taught us that expressing needs is dangerous. Our caregivers didn’t teach us how to soothe our anxiety. In fact, rather than soothing us, they often escalated the tension and stirred up the chaos.
Now, as we work to evolve into healthier, happier individuals, we need to take stock of our skill set, and develop strategies and methods that will help us become the person we want to be.
When we don’t know how to soothe our feelings we feel pressured by our emotions, and may even feel that we have no control over them. These out-of-control feelings can drive us to drink or anger or acting out.
We can improve the quality of our lives by learning how to comfort ourselves and soothe our own agitated feelings. There are many effective methods that we can learn as adults, such as deep breathing, calming self-talk, stretching and relaxing muscles, and avoiding trigger thoughts and situations.
Introspection opens us up to others
As adult survivors of abuse, little things can stir up memories of terrifying danger. These private memories start us down roads that separate us from others, and even make us feel detached from ourselves.
To regain our whole selves and to share ourselves with others we need to learn how to accept our emotions, to put words to them, and to communicate them. Improving our emotional awareness and grace requires a commitment to therapy, individually and in groups, Twelve Step programs, self help reading and tapes, and other healing work.
Learning to express our needs
As abused children we were not allowed to express our needs, and if wedid ask for help we were punished or humiliated. So we developed other ways to deal with our feelings. We stuffed them down, or we used magical ideas like wishing for a savior or having fantasies of punishing our abuser. Or we learned how to relieve our feelings in roundabout ways such as pouting, temper tantrums or running away.
Rather than waiting for others to read our minds, or trying to manipulate and punish them by withdrawing or acting out, we now learn to express our needs appropriately in direct statements. Asserting needs turns out to be a fundamental skill for harmoniously living and working with people in the world. If we don’t know how to assert ourselves, we need to learn this skill now.
Guilt and other negative belief systems
As children, we grasped only a tiny corner of the world, and when we tried to explain the chaos and pain around us, we often blamed ourselves, convincing ourselves that somehow we were responsible for the family’s pain, and if we could only be better everyone would be happy. Later our self-blame was so familiar we didn’t notice or question it. These beliefs undermine our self-esteem.
We not only have negative beliefs about our own role. When we grow up in danger, we see, right from the beginning, that the universe is dangerous. (This belief is not universal. Many abused children find solace in positive fantasies of angelic, protective presence.)
As we try to adapt to a healthier life, we can work to replace negative impressions of ourselves and the universe with positive ones, through prayer, positive thinking, and therapy.
Most abusers themselves were abused or abandoned as children
How could an adult attack an innocent child, the child who has been given to them as a sacred charge? Most abusive adults are dealing with the horrific memories of their own childhood abuse. When the pain of childhood bubbles up to the surface, abusers are swept up in angry memories of their helpless, terrified state. Their child-mind cries out to somehow relieve the pressure of a lifetime of rage, longing to lash out at the abuser, but instead lashes out at helpless children, repeating the nightmare and passing the pain on to another generation.
All too often, a parent struggling with inner turmoil turns to alcohol to dull their own inner pain, but alcohol also clouds judgment and releases inhibition. In this uninhibited state the natural mandate to protect our children is swept away, overpowering our vows we would never treat our kids the way our parents treated us.
A hundred years ago, child-abuse was ignored, and even now, while society has made strides in recognizing this scourge, far too many children are still being injured. Because it is so widespread and damages so many individuals so profoundly, child abuse puts a huge burden on society. While society seems powerless to stop it, we individuals must remember that society is a collection of individuals, and to the extent we can create change in our sphere, we create change in the world.
As we look beyond our individual selves we recognize that by joining together with others, we have a greater voice. We can join community organizations or contribute to them, and through voting and communication with our elected representatives, we can try to raise awareness and collective concern over these important issues that affect us all. By making more institutions responsive to the issues of abuse, and directing more energy towards healing mental health issues we can reduce the harm to children.
To raise us from infancy, our caregivers must provide food and shelter, nurturing, safety and detailed training. Their guidance and support becomes the emotional bedrock upon which we build our personality. But parents, mere mortals, struggle with their own burdens such as emotional turmoil, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, illness, and difficult work schedules. These issues impact the quality of their parenting and sometimes their care tragically drops below the minimum level of decency, into verbal, physical and sexual abuse and abandonment.
When we have grown up with abuse, we suffer the consequences, and now must do what we can to heal and rebuild the parts of ourselves that were left un-cared for and untrained. With help from counseling and soul searching we can grieve the lost joy and safety we wish we had, allowing ourselves to move beyond anger to forgiveness. Reaching out to others we can learn that we are not alone. By realizing that the trauma and horror was not our fault, we stop blaming ourselves, and compassionately revisit that vulnerable child within us to reframe our pain and rebuild our lost innocence.
See also: Anxiety, Assertiveness, Boundaries and Intimacy, Child Within, Couples, Groups, Identity, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Self-esteem, Soothing, Trauma, Twelve Steps, Visualization
Courage to Heal, a guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis
Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child by John Bradshaw
Creating Sanctuary : Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies by Sandra L. Bloom
Twelve Steps to Self Parenting for Adult Children of Alcoholics by Philip Oliver-Diaz and Patricia A. O’Gorman
Getting the love you want, a guide for couples by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.
Trauma and recovery, the aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror by Judith Herman, M.D.