Can a Survivor move on?
I was asked not long ago if we Survivors ever come to the place in our recovery where we can put the abuse behind us and get on with our lives. I have been asked this question in many forms from my abusers, from friends, and from other family members. The questions left me quite defensive because it was implied I was doing something wrong by bringing up the past and dwelling on it. It was also implied that I was getting worse, or was stuck. But this time, I felt the question was out of genuine concern, and I realized that people who are not familiar with the recovery process don’t understand it, and we can use this opportunity to educate them.
If you have a Survivor in your life, you may have wondered or even asked a similar question. I would like to answer this question out of my own life experience and from what I’ve gleaned from the experiences of other Survivors who have touched my life. Most people have no idea what goes on behind the closed door of a therapist’s office between a client and therapist or in a support group setting. My hope is that you will have a better understanding of what abuse therapy is all about after reading the information.
One misconception some have is that we sit week after week in the therapist’s office and talk about our abuse and our abusers. At some point in the process, we usually do talk about incidents of abuse. For some it can take years to feel safe enough to confide their abuse to someone. Some of us went into the therapist’s office after having memories return or after realizing the significance of the abuse and disclosed fairly soon in the counselling sessions. For myself and other Survivors I know personally, talking about our abuse is very difficult, especially the first time. There is a lot of shame attached to each memory of abuse, and that has to be worked through. With each incident there may be feelings of “I asked for it. It was all my fault.” That may come from a Survivor who sat on her Daddy’s/Mummy’s lap and was fondled while doing so. He/she may have even told her he/she wanted it. These mixed messages lead to profound inner turmoil.
Some may only talk of the incident(s) one time, others may have a need to talk about it a lot until they’ve worked it through—that means they’ve remembered, put the guilt on the abuser and off themselves, and let the trapped anger, fear, and hurt out.
It was easier for me to understand when I realized it was, and still is, a grieving process. A person who became a quadriplegic after being hit by a drunk driver, or lost a loved one, would rarely be condemned for going through the stages of grief. Many people know that the grieving process takes a minimum of a year, usually longer. It seems very difficult, however, for Survivors as well as those who love them to allow that same freedom and time to go through the process.
Abuse recovery is recognizing our many losses. Survivors have lost their childhood, their innocence, and their sense of value. Many have lost the father or mother relationship so needed by children. If a Survivor chooses to confront an abuser, often, instead of working out the issues involved, admitting the abuse, and getting help, the Survivor is further victimized. What semblance of relationship there once was is gone. All of these things need to be worked through. Survivors often don’t have the skills or the tools to know how to work through these issues without help.
In my own therapy and in the six groups I have now been a part of over the last five years, both as participant and facilitator, most of the time is spent learning how to cope with the life we now live in a healthy fashion, learning how to take charge of our own lives, changing destructive behaviour patterns, learning to set boundaries, recovering from addictions and compulsive behaviour, learning how to live with our spouse, children, and friends, learning how to feel and express those feelings in a healthy, safe way instead of stuffing them or having them spill out everywhere, learning how to let go and move forward when our parents are no longer in our life, and learning how to deal with the day to day struggles that emotionally healthy people seem to do naturally. It took many years to get messed up inside, and it may take many years to undo all the damage and to heal.
But there is hope, and to answer the question, I would have to say we do get on with our life—in fact those of us in recovery are getting on with our lives everyday we hang in there. We may look pretty bad for a while, but so do people going through any other grieving process. The end result is worth it.
As Survivors come to the close of their recovery, they will be able to let you into their life in a closer, more intimate way. They’ll come to the place where they can let it go because they will have gone through the pain, felt the feelings (including anger and forgiveness), and finally will be able to come to an acceptance of the events of their past.
With that acceptance will possibly be a sense of “wellness”—the realization that, “I am a better person because of what happened. I am more sensitive to other people’s pain, I can help others, I’m more creative,” etc.
Trust the Survivor in your life to know when it’s time. If done prematurely, a Survivor can still suffer after-effects and symptoms as before. The time will come when there will be no more haunting memories to sort through, no more re-victimization going on. Tools will be ingrained to help through the difficult times. There will be a good support system in place and an ability to utilize that support. There will be an awareness of distorted thinking and the skills to combat it. The Survivor will be ready to face life boldly and confidently because he/she has faced the ugly demons of the past and won. It will come.
You can help, too. Give the Survivor time and space. Don’t worry about the different stages you see her or him in. Survivors can get stuck at times or reach a plateau, but I haven’t seen them stay stuck as long as they continue their recovery work and have the needed support. Plateaus can be an important part of the process to give time for reflection or changing focus. Also, you might experience this time as a relief.
It helps to remember that you don’t have to fix the Survivor. That will only frustrate you both if you try. Just be there. Let the Survivor guide you in what is needed. It may be just listening, holding, or encouraging. You can facilitate in the healing process by sharing in the pain and rejoicing in the victories.
Finally, you can use this opportunity to get in touch with your own issues as well. As the Survivor lets you in on the pain, struggles, and the victories, it may bring up things for you. Grow along with your loved one. When the Survivor is no longer in crises, let her or him help you with your struggles. This will help keep balance in the relationship and will also help in the Survivor’s own healing.
Being a part of a Survivors life can be a rewarding opportunity as you watch and participate in the miracle of healing in a life that has been damaged by childhood abuse.