Someone sent me a link to the story of Brigitte Harris who accidentally killed her father after she found out he was intended to molest other children as he had molested her. Unfortunately, her story is not rare. But she said something which deeply saddened me.
As a result of early and prolific sexual abuse by her father, Brigitte suffered an onslaught of PTSD symptoms which she self-medicated with a constant flow of alcohol. She states that she searched the internet in an attempt to find out what to do and although she found lots of sites telling her it wasn't her fault, no one told her what to do to help herself. I did a search myself and she was right. Most of the information I readily found was aimed at teaching people the signs of sexual abuse in children and advocations that people fight to protect children from "stranger danger". Some sites list symptoms and advocate for counseling (which is crucial), but they don't tell you how to help yourself.
Counseling is really, really important. But finding a counselor who is competent in dealing with trauma and childhood sexual abuse may not be that easy. And you may not be ready or able to take that step. What else can you do to help yourself?
What to Do
Realize it Really Happened
Most peole who are molested as children try to tell someone, but they are rarely believed. The molester also works on their minds to terrorize them into silence. The molester may even convince the child they are the perpetrator of the abuse or that it is not happening. The family may exert a lot of pressure on the victim to keep quiet and go along in order not to rock the boat. Unfortunately, this happens a lot.
Cutting through all the mind games and finding ways to validate what happened to you if crucial. Whether it is finding a counselor who believes you, a sibling who knows you are telling the truth because it happened to them too or a support group of survivors fighting the same demons - please find someone who hears and believes you. Anyone who continues to deny that it happened or tries to shut you up is probably not acting in your best interest.
Find at least one person in your life who hears - and believes - you.
Realize it Was Not Your Fault
Many of my clients were molested at very young ages. The majority of them also believe that they seduced the molester. Yes. They believe at the age of five years old they seduced an adult. If you can remember how old you were when it started make yourself aware of what that age looks like. Go to a park or a McDonald's playscape and try to find a child who is that age. Watch children of the same age play until you get it. There is absolutely nothing sexual about a 5 year old child. Many people have trouble realizing that about themselves. But when they look at their children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews it is readily apparent.
Realize You Must Speak the Unspeakable
Abuse is about power and secrets. That's how the molester controlled you. Break free from those chains. Telling the secret is how you gather support and help to heal. Breaking the silence is how you start to take control back.
Realize there are Books Available
There are two books which are classics in the field of therapy when addressing childhood sexual abuse. The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis is for female survivors and Victims No Longer by Mike Lew is for male survivors. Start with the books, not the workbooks, etc. (Links to these books can be found at the bottom of this article.) These are the handbooks for healing that counselors use.
Realize You are Not Alone
This is paramount. A lot of survivors are convinced something is wrong with them instead of the abuser. Seeing other people struggling with the exact same issues not only provides you with a powerful support group but also helps you see what you look like - a normal person who has experienced a very abnormal situation. An innocent who was preyed upon. You can see that this happens to normal, intelligent, good people. You can find out what others are doing to help themselves. You can share ideas about coping techniques. You can find support when you are struggling with the trauma symptoms. You can see that if it affecting other pepole's lives the same as yours. You can find powerful allies. You can be heard - and believed.
Unfortunately, childhood sexual abuse is not uncommon. There are many, many people struggling with the same demons. It is absolutely crucial that you find them. The molester most likely isolated you with the "secret" in order to control. Your first step to freedom is to open your mouth and connect with others who can hear and believe and understand what you are saying. It is important to realize that your family may not be the best place to start, especially if you were molested by a family member. In many cases, they will have to take responsibility for their response (or lack of response) to what was happening to you and they may not be ready or willing to do that. You may find it easier and safer to start with strangers. Yes, that is sad to say, but most childhood sexual abuse is not perpetrated by strangers. It is perpetrated by family. And most childhood sexual abuse, when reported to a mother or other family member is ignored or denied. If this describes your family, look for help in the community.
Realize you Need a Healthy Support System
The absence of a healthy support system makes it easier to slide down into the abyss. It makes it easier to let go and give up. It makes it easier to turn inward on yourself. It makes it so much harder to heal. Look at the videos posted at the bottom of this article to see the differences in two people who took the chance to open up and tell someone else. The earlier you open up, the sooner you can get help and relief. The sooner you may avert some of the tragedies seen in the cases below.
Notice I said HEALTHY. A healthy support system doesn't encourage you to hush up about it so you don't rock the boat. Or to "get over it". If you could "get over it" you would, right? A healthy support system doesn't advocate that you keep yourself numbed out of your gord on psychiatric medications, drugs or alcohol so they don't have to hear what happened to you. A healthy support system calls you on your self destructive behavior and advocates for you when your self care is failing. People who truly care about you will give you constructive feedback. They will notice if your drug or alcohol intake is increased and gently nudge you to look at what is going on. They will not offer you a drink. They will notice when you don't sleep, don't eat, are coming out of your skin, or going off on people again. They will gently give you feedback that is meant to help ("Are you feeling OK?" "Are you sleeping OK?") rather than feedback which is meant to harm ("You're just crazy and need to get back on your meds.") They empower ("Didn't you say you felt a lot less anxious when your went running everyday?") rather than cripple ("Here, have a beer, that'll calm you down.")
Realize You May Have Been Traumatized
It's important to realize you were probably traumatized and you probably have symptoms which require treatment. You will need to get the trauma treated. There are a great number of techniques you can use to address trauma symptoms. I talk about a lot of them on this blog. My preferred methods do not require anything which causes problems of its own (i.e. drugs or alcohol), methods which are inexpensive and empower you to heal yourself.
Realize How Important Control Is
Trauma is about being out of control. During the original trauma you were out of control of the situation and, as a result, you were seriously harmed. As your brain fights to protect you and keep you safe from further harm, feeling like you have control over the situation is important for feeling safe. When I see people with "control issues" I immediately think trauma.
You will not be able to control the entire world, but the more control you have, the safer you will feel and the less control you will need. It's terribly cyclical. Look at your life and try to identify areas where you can get more control and feel safer. Look for areas where you can make an active choice. If you are in a dangerous relationship, you need to address that. If you are abusing drugs or alcohol and it's getting out of control, you need to address that. Look at your relationships. Are you surrounded by people who are constantly immersed in drama? You may need to make some changes. See where you can eliminate chaos, drama and disaster. Getting your life quiet and sane will create a quiet space where you get in touch with yourself and work on healing.
It's also important to be aware of control when you seek treatment. Whether you are looking for a therapist, psychiatrist, medical doctor, support group or coping techniques - the more control you have in the relationship or interaction, the safer you will feel and the faster you will be able to pursue healing.
A psychiatrist who listens to you and allows you to participate in your care is crucial. A therapist or counselor who empowers you to care for yourself and make your own choices. Your support system, whether it be a support group, family or friends, should empower you to find the answers you need to heal yourself. All of the people around you should encourage you to talk about it, not keep the silence.
Realize How Important Self Care Is
Self care and self esteem are closed connected. Attending to your self care is a way of nurturing yourself. It is also a way of affirming that you are worth caring for. Maintain a household that is clean and full of things you love and value. Maintain healthy relationships. Develop a list of self soothing techniques to heal yourself. Rearrange your schedule so you can attend that yoga class that helps you feel so much calmer and focused. Take the time to prepare healthy meals for yourself. Buy clothes that you feel good in. Go to the gym and workout to feel more empowered. Take time to play with your kids or walk your dog. The molester violated your very being. The opposite of this is to nurture and care for your being.
Realize You May Need Medication
If your trauma symptoms are so severe you are having to self-medicate to be able to function you need to consider psychiatric medication. Medication cannot cure trauma symptoms. In fact, trauma can't really be "cured", if you defined cured as eliminating all symptoms completely and restoring you to your functioning level prior to the abuse. You have been altered for life. However, you do NOT have to be at the mercy of your trauma symptoms. You can master them and get control over them. But you will need the time, energy, patience and stamina to develop those skills. You cannot do that work if you are high or drunk to numb the pain, dead on your feet because you haven't slept for days because of the nightmares or coming out of your skin from panic and anxiety. This is where psychiatric medications can help. They can damp down the symptoms enough for you to be able to function and do the work.
A lot of people do not want to start taking psychiatric medications because they don' t want to be drugged or they fear being stuck on medication for the rest of their life. Many people with trauma symptoms think of psychiatric medications as a crutch. They are not entirely wrong. Medication, especially in the case of trauma, can be a crutch. So what? Crutches are necessary if your leg is broken. You need to keep your weight off that broken bone in order for it to heal. Psychiatric medications can serve the same function, keeping the trauma symptoms from bearing down on you so you can go to your job, which keeps your health benefits in place and your rent paid, so you can attend counseling or your support group and do what you need to heal yourself.
Where do you go for medication? You will to find a psychiatrist. This is a medical doctor who specializes in psychological disorders. It is important to find a psychiatrist you can really talk to, who listens to what you are trying to do and is supportive. Your psychiatrist should be willing to talk to your counselor or other members of your support system to confer with them about how effective the medications are. Your psychiatrist should respond to concerns or complaints from you that the medications are too strong or are not controlling symptoms effectively enough.
Realize What to Look for in a Counselor or Therapist
When I first started working with trauma survivors everyone told me the same thing, you have to get the memories out and process them. At the time I was working with a veteran of Vietnam who beautifully described his trauma symptoms as "The Monster in the Box". As I sat across the room from him we both realized that pulling all that trauma out into the room would be a huge mistake. We only had one hour and this man had to get up and walk back out into the waiting room, the world and his life. We realized, as should your counselor, that the FIRST thing you have to do is to develop the skills to get the monster back in the box. Babette Rothschild, author of The Body Remembers calls this "putting on the brakes". When you learn to drive a car, you don't start with the gas pedal. You start with the brake. You have to know how to get the thing stopped first before you learn to accelerate. The same is true with trauma and your counselor should demonstrate an awareness of this. If they jump in and want to know all the gory details - they are working for them, not you.
Trauma is about being out of control. You didn't have control of the situation and you got hurt as a result. To add insult to injury, your trauma symptoms contribute to your feeling of being out of control. Your thoughts, feelings and behaviors seem beyond your control. Your thoughts race out of your control keeping you up all night with anxiety and nightmares, preventing you from forming thoughts because you keep reliving the trauma in your head, making you "crazy" with panic attacks which come on without warning. You cry and/or rage without rhyme or reason and without being able to prevent or stop it. You're anxious all the time. Your moods are all over the place and you don't seem able to do anything about them, nor do you know what mood you will have at what time. You are easily triggered, but you don't know what is triggering you or why. You suddenly float out of your body and can't get back in it or understand what causes it.
A therapist's first goal should be to educate you about what is going on within your mind and body to cause these symptoms and to give you tools for dealing with them. You should begin with calming techniques, what to do during a panic attack, how to control anxiety, what is triggering your rage and how to calm yourself. You should also work on developing self care. Do you eat a healthy diet? What kinds of foods calm rather than provoke trauma symptoms? Your therapist should talk to you about exercise (yoga or body building can be extremely helpful for trauma symptoms). They should find out who is around you and whether those people are helping or harming you. Their first efforts should be to educate you about how trauma works then to give you the tools to help yourself. And those tools should be within your reach. If you are on a fixed budget and they want to sign you up for their expensive six week EMDR program, who are they really helping? They should be sensitive to the resources you have available, where you are in the healing process and accept feedback and input about what might or might not work for you specifically. If they claim there is one technique which works for everyone, step back and pay more attention. I've never found anything which works the same for everyone. I have a toolbox of techniques and ideas. I try to give clients a host of choices and encourage them to try what makes sense to and feels comfortable to them. I want them to realize and exercise their power to choose. I want to encourage them to develop their own healing program designed specifically for them. This encourages them to make active choices and empowers them to search out their own solutions and make their own decisions. It also eliminates me as the "expert" who cannot be questioned or challenged. You should be the expert in your own healing. You alone know what works for you and what doesn't. You may need knowledge, ideas, techniques, inspiration, comfort or validation from your counselor. But you also need the freedom and the power to choose. If you honestly try something but it isn't comfortable or doesn't work - they should hear, believe and respect that. A good therapist may not know all the answers. No one can. But they should be there 100% to walk with you on your path and at your pace. You should feel empowered and hopeful when you leave them. Most of all you should feel respected and cared for.
I hope this helps. This is a big topic and I'm sure I haven't covered everything. I'll post more information as I think of it. In the meantime you can read more articles about trauma and sexual abuse on this blog. You can also find links to free videos below and links to the books I mentioned.