HEALING FROM CHILDHOOD TRAUMA
A discussion to accompany the reading of A STORY LIKE TRUTH by Deborah M. Padgett
The topic of childhood trauma is a difficult one for almost everyone, regardless of his or her personal experience with it. Thoughts come to mind:
· How graphic will the descriptions be?
· What’s to be gained by rehashing old memories we can do nothing about?
· Everyone suffers trauma to one extent or another. What’s the harm in just putting it all in the past and moving on?
· Is this going to be another expose by an angry, bitter, vengeful and needy person?
· What’s the point in exposing myself to someone else’s story of harm done?
It’s understandable and common, when hearing the story of a child being treated with physical violence, neglect, cruelty and sexual invasion to become horrified, angry and move immediately to blame, outrage and a cry for justice and accountability. While this is understandable, I do not want to talk about blame, forgiveness, justice or accountability. I do not want to talk about who did what to whom and when and where and what should happen to them as a result of their actions.
I want to focus exclusively on the healing that leads to thriving. I want to look at, not the how and why of the damage to the child in the wake of abuse, but to isolate the damage…. The long-term effects that keep an individual stuck if healing does not take place.
Each story is different. Mine is one of never being certain of safety or protection in my own home because of my father’s unpredictable acts of rage and violence, specifically directed at me, from the time I was less than one year old as well as being unsafe from sexual molestation in the home or presence of my maternal grandfather. The best description/visualization I’ve ever seen of what this lack of safety does to a child is a video I saw online several months ago. In it, a young boy, 8 or 10 years old, looks to all the world like any other boy. He has a home to go to. He has his own bedroom. His physical needs are provided for. His mirror/shadow image is beside him always but is shown as an expressionless dead weight. Every where the little boy goes, everything he does, he lifts and carries the dead weight of his lifeless self. He rises to dress in the morning and has to hold upright the limp weight of his damaged self. He goes to the breakfast table and remains vigilant that his shadow self remains upright in the chair next to him. He lifts and carries his lunch box, his backpack, dons his coat and boots and shoulders the weight of his other, separated self as he walks to the bus stop and waits to carry himself onto the bus and into the long day ahead. He knows no other world. He doesn’t know that other boys his age walk freely and unencumbered. He is exhausted. He aches. He tries to look and behave like a normal boy but he doesn’t know what normal is. Some days the weight feels nearly too heavy to bear.
What does this child need? What would remove the weight? What would stop his pain and his sense that he’s all on his own against the world?
Does he need someone to take his abusive father and grandfather in handcuffs and haul him or her off to prison?
Does he need to go to court or the police station and be subjected to relentless questioning about who hurt him and how much and why that’s such a problem for him when clearly, he looks just fine and he should be grateful to have a meal on the table and a roof over his head?
Would it help him if someone told him he just needed to understand that Daddy and Grandpa are under a lot of stress and only hurt him like that because they’ve had such hard lives?
No. I don’t think so. What this child needs is rescue.
What keeps rescue from taking place?
Secrecy, shame & denial.
Let’s think for a minute what has to happen for this child to be rescued.
1. Someone has to notice something is wrong and speak up.
a. Why doesn’t this just happen?
i. If this boy was sexually molested by his grandpa and he tells his mother (whose father we’re talking about here) what are the risks to the family? If these risks are taken and there is significant fallout, who is to blame? If the boy just keeps his mouth shut and carries his own secret (and the valueless dead weight of himself) no one is hurt but him (for the time being at least…)
ii. If the boy comes home from Grandpa’s feeling confused, humiliated and violated and fails to do his chores he will be dragged by the arm from the dinner table without explanation, Dad will become red in the face with rage, slam the bedroom door behind them and belt him until he cannot move or finds a way to escape and run from the house.
iii. In this household the father’s authority is absolute. The child’s mother does not take him in her arms when he escapes his father’s belt. She does not come to soothe him in his room after the beating. Nothing is said. Nothing is done. He cries himself to sleep. He wakes in the night screaming. He is punished for screaming. It is a cycle from which he cannot hope to extricate himself.
As you can imagine there are a variety of possible outcomes for this child. If the cycle continues until he is involved in school sports or some other extra-curricular activity and he happens to show some promise, it’s possible a caring adult will extend a loving and caring hand and the child will feel a sense of safety in that adult’s presence. He will possibly feel moments of refreshment and value. He will see himself as having some value to someone. He will likely stay away from his home as much as possible. He may be drawn to groups of peers where he feels some sense of power or recognition – whether that is for positive or negative behavior is a matter of happenstance. He will long for love and affection. He will long to be seen as worthy of some response other than brutality.
If the child suffering the abuse in the family is a girl, she is at significant risk for being seduced and raped by adult males in position of authority. She will long for the comfort of the arms of anyone. Her chances of rescue by a caring adult are about 50/50 in ratio to being harmed by an uncaring adult predator.
Because of the climate of denial and secrecy surrounding family violence and sex crimes against children most children do not receive rescue and grow toward an uncertain and volatile future. They exhibit symptoms of a range of mental and emotional illness. They engage in risky sexual behaviors, petty crimes and substance abuse. Their concentration and sense of right and wrong are severely compromised and they have trouble making sense of the decisions that might put their lives on a healthy path to self-sufficiency.
Significant rescue is likely to come only after troublesome acting out in the teen years or beyond. Feelings of inadequacy, confusion, self-doubt and shame can sabotage a life. When the sense of being all-wrong gets overwhelming it can be life-threatening. In some cases feeling “all wrong” can lead to feelings of rage toward self or others.
The effects of childhood trauma can be debilitating in a variety of ways. I sometimes like to look at the damage of abuse similarly to the damage that takes place in a person’s life from an illness or an accident. When it’s looked at in this way it becomes clear that blame and retribution are irrelevant. What becomes relevant is the need for rescue, accommodation, therapy/treatment and ultimately, healing.
A significant difficulty in healing is the invisibility of the wounds of child abuse. We can’t see that something is wrong so we don’t realize the child is in danger. The sooner a child is rescued and receives the care necessary to healing the greater the benefit to that child and to society at large.
A child’s view of himself is not independent of the treatment he receives at the hands of his caretakers and the authority figures in his life. If a small child is greeted with welcome, warmth and delight he will grow to believe he is worthy of these things and will learn welcome, warmth and delight toward others. If isolated and treated as an unwelcome burden worthy of derision, beating and molestation he will necessarily respond as a beaten animal, at first bringing to bear an instinct to fight for survival but ultimately retreating into a numb and dark state of being. This is the mental illness born of child abuse. This is the broken state in which we leave the unprotected child if we fail to provide rescue.
We know so much today about the effects of treating children in this way and we know what is needed to bring that child back into the light of welcome and acceptance and healing. I like to imagine that one day, when it is discovered a child has been hurt in this way… or to put it another way, when we have a diagnosis – look at it as if a child has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness – say, leukemia, diabetes or cerebral palsy – Our response as family, friends, the medical and mental health community will be to instantly take that child into our care and set a program of treatment and therapies toward healing. It’s simply not the case that there’s nothing to be done for such a child. At any point we recognize a child broken by abuse we can begin a course of treatment toward healing and wholeness.
This is the importance of bringing the stories of abuse into the open light of day. Adults who were once abused children are stigmatized by society. They are ashamed that they feel so damaged. They don’t want to be labeled as weak and needy or, even, crazy. They feel a burden on their families. If they tell their stories they draw back the blinds on prominent and well-respected adults who raised them. They are seen as selfish for not protecting the reputation of the adult abuser. Congregations will fall. Classrooms will crumble. The family will be left destitute without it’s provider. If the child will simply keep his story to himself, all of this devastation can be avoided (or so the thinking goes). This is why rescue seldom happens and why the burden of shame so often crushes the abused child. Suicide is not always a single violent act. It can happen over time as a result of PTSD, depression, situational bi-polar disorder, addiction and a relentless sense of being a burden on family and society. With rescue, therapy and healing,individuals can live rich, loving and rewarding lives. With safety and welcome comes the ability to feel rather than numb our emotions.
What it takes to heal:
1. Acknowledgement of injury
2. Assessment of the extent of the injury
3. Availability of treatment
4. Freedom from fear and hardship in obtaining therapies and treatment
5. Continued research and resources applied to discovering a cure for the damage done
I am not saying that individuals who harm children should not be held accountable. That’s a discussion for another time and perhaps for individuals concerned with law enforcement. Children are powerless to stop these crimes in their own homes. I don’t foresee a resolution to that dilemma. I think what is necessary is widespread recognition that children are sometimes in grave danger within their own homes and families. Widespread recognition that the sooner the hurt is diagnosed, the sooner the healing can begin.
As an adult, having only recognized that damage had been done once I left home and began to recognize “normal” I have gone in and out of shame, blame, denial and acquiescence to the realization that I could not thrive simply by the force of my will alone. Over the 46 years since I realized I was in need of help to be well, the field of study surrounding child abuse and its treatment has continued to expand and deepen so that we now know the processes/therapies/treatments and practices that heal the wounded child. We know that, untreated, child abuse leads to further violence in society. It leads to depression and other forms of mental illness. It leads to substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, suicide and the perpetuation of violence in our homes and communities.
As a society we do a grave disservice to ourselves and our future health and safety when we look upon those who were abused with pity and condemnation for their inability to thrive. We need to ask ourselves if that is how we look at children who, through no fault of their own or their families need medical attention, therapies and cures to thrive in the face of life threatening illness or accidents.
As I said at the beginning, this topic is complex and many faceted and we could talk for days and days about all of its ramifications.
What I want to be clear about is this:
Today, therapies and treatments and practices exist that can heal the adult who was injured as a child. These are not quick fixes and often times life long treatment is required. I now believe we waste valuable time with our accusing and begging to be believed and insisting on prosecution and holding to the idea that we cannot heal until our perpetrator admits guilt and our families embrace us and acknowledge our stories as truth. This is no more true of healing from child abuse than it is in healing from leukemia. I want to see the discussion of health and thriving after injury separated from the discussions about who is to blame and how severe their punishment should be and whether or not forgiveness is in order.
Healing from child abuse does not require that someone is held accountable. It does not require that anyone forgives or admits guilt. The child who is unwelcome and unloved in his family must learn he is of value regardless. He must learn kindness and compassion for himself and every living being. When he can offer these inherent rights to himself and extend them to others he breaks a cycle of violence toward himself and the larger world. It is a basic truth that when we know our own value we are capable of valuing others and I believe it goes the other way. Until we know our own value we cannot properly value others.
The other day I was with a group of friends and acquaintances who were discussing their thanksgiving experiences with home and family. One by one they described this or that family member as “crazy”, “needy”, “narcissistic”, “selfish”… Each complaint issued was affirmed by another member of the group as they described how discounted and marginalized and disregarded and misunderstood they felt by the people with whom they had their most intimate family ties. They shared stories about time after time attempting to get a family member to give them what they craved… recognition, acknowledgement, acceptance, delight… and all to no avail. They talked of all the times they had tried to get close to these people and always came away being criticized, insulted or feeling used, judged and misunderstood. I saw, heard and felt the deep need each had for simply being seen and accepted for who they are, flaws and all. All the old and not so old hurts and insults were laid on the table and each woman received a nod of approval and support for how right she was in her condemnation of these family members who just never found a way to treat them as they felt they deserved to be treated. I recognize myself in them. I spent many years telling anyone who would listen about how badly I was being treated and had been treated and how invisible and unheard and how judged and negated I felt by my family members. I think I thought I could be cured of the hurt if I just talked about it enough and had my indignation validated enough times. I realize now that it’s unlikely there will ever come a time when shared condemnation of others will result in healing.
I’ve learned a lot about the stories we make up about other people and about ourselves that are a result of faulty thinking. I’m wanting to keep it all pretty simple nowadays.
It’s so basic. It’s about this moment. It’s about breathing in. It’s about breathing out. It’s about extending a welcome. It’s about feeling and expressing delight in the living, breathing presence of another.
Here is my practice:
After years of therapy, medication, study, research and practice I have arrived at a place of peace, ease and acceptance. This peace, ease and acceptance is solidly mine. I have it to keep and to hold and I have it to offer to my loved ones, my acquaintances and the stranger I meet on the street. When fear visits I briefly lose site but I have a daily practice that takes me quickly away from the fear and back into the truth of my peace, ease and acceptance… I’ve learned to recognize when fear is dictating my responses and when I allow it to do that I am in danger of hurting myself and others. It comes down to the quote I cited in the A STORY LIKE TRUTH. It’s from Barbara Kingsolver’s ANIMAL DREAMS. She says this. “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for, and the most you can do is to live inside that hope. What I want is so simple I can hardly say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat. Enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed.”