The word abuse strikes a chord in many people. The very idea that someone would do such a thing to a little child or animal is hard to imagine. Healing from abuse is another story because it takes on many layers and levels, as we are looking at different types and various ways in which people react or have interpreted within, the tragedy which they have faced as a young person. Child abuse means emotional, physical and sexual. Children can face one, two or all three. By the time they are seen by a psychotherapist is relevant to their well-being and long-term happiness. It is possible though, to heal from abuse. No matter how horrible the pain you have suffered, you will get through this but as with any type of pain or suffering, it is important not to try to do it alone. Work with an experienced professional.
Depending on the age of the person, when they come into therapy, their developmental stage and what needs to be processed, would determine the course of treatment. With little children you might do play therapy. With adolescents you might talk about school, play a game. With adults you can get straight to the point, if they walk in ready to talk. Otherwise you have to work your way there just as you would at any age.
I want to speak to timelines though. Many people want to know how long it will take. This of course is where I speak of levels. When you are confronting abuse for the very first time, there are a lot of memories that will come up. You will still be suffering some form of post-traumatic stress symptoms. If there are other diagnoses that are more severe, then there are multiple issues to deal with other than just the abuse you have suffered. With a good psychotherapist, who is experienced in working with abuse clients, this is important. Yet it is not just experience but someone whom you feel connected to. Whom you feel you can trust. Who’s style you like. I’ve worked with many professionals in the abuse field, as a social worker. There were many times that new information would be told to me that a child had been holding on to for many years. I was not their first social worker or psychotherapist either. I am sure the same could be said of some of my own clients who went on to see other professionals. They might have felt more comfortable with a different person than I.
So the first level of healing from abuse is telling the story to that very first psychotherapist. Having this professional listen to all the terrible atrocities that you faced as a child. As I mentioned, I work with many hundreds of children but I also worked with adult survivors who were finally able to get it out. This is such a cathartic process. After you have done such a session for the first time, it is important to take care of yourself afterward.
What I like to do is have clients take some deep breaths at the end. The body takes on different shapes while exposing such a truth. The throat tends to remain tight and breathing is not an easy process. I will talk to them about drinking some water when they get home. Your body can dehydrate from exposing such knowledge, but also water is very cleansing. If people are open to and have the necessary materials, it can be good to use crystals or do a sage cleansing at home too. Something to rinse the negative energy from around you. Sleep is nurturing. A good hot bath. Eating good food (healthy food though, not going home to Twinkies or Oreos which will punish the body.)
It will take some time to go over the first stage of dealing with the effects of trauma. Once it is out in the open between the client and therapist, there is so much more to deal with. How it is effecting you now as an adult. Often relationships will suffer from childhood abuse. Many victims will go on to meet abusive men/women and if not at home, will enter abusive relationships in the workplace. Once one has been abused, it is not unusual to continue finding these types of people as an adult. This is why I think it is important to work with abuse as soon as possible.
Whatever timeline it takes for you to feel confident that you no longer need to talk to your therapist is up to you and the professional. Again it really depends on the person, the diagnosis, how long it has been and current environmental circumstances (whether you are currently in a safe relationship). My adult clients generally know when they are finished with therapy. This is when they feel they have some resolution to what they once knew. It is often when they feel some satisfaction in getting it out in the open and being validated for what happened to them. Most abused victims are told to get over it, leave it in the past, don’t worry about it, stop obsessing. Friends are uncomfortable discussing the topic and families most certainly do not want it out in the open. Denial has been a huge part of their life. Psychotherapy opens the door and allows the body to free itself just a little. The mind is absolved a little from all the guilt it has been carrying. I keep saying “a little,” because this is just the first phase of the process.
A very good thing to do once you have begun working on your abuse issues, is to do some type of movement. There are some types of bodywork and exercise that begin to heal the body in a different way from psychotherapy. I would recommend taking a Feldenkreis movement class, dance therapy, yoga, Tai-chi, but also if you are comfortable, I would do massage therapy, reiki work, accupressure or acupuncture, reflexology, some type of joint body work that is nurturing the body. First I am saying an exercise that will help heal the body and get it moving again. Second I am saying bodywork that will love the body, giving it safe touch and gentle touch. A re-programming of sorts. Body work and body movement help you to find your power once again. Talking about the abuse is one thing but you want to allow the release of tension within also. Talking about it will tense you up even more, so the body work balances it all out. Helps you to begin feeling again as some people tend to go numb or even space out (dissociate – which means you aren’t really there when you are touched by a lover). When you work with a licensed bodyworker it is different because their touch has nothing to do with sex, it is a completely different experience to be touched without expectations to perform.
If you are an exercise fanatic and do this already, that is good but I am talking about techniques that are gentle for the body. You can get a lot of aggression out spinning, punching bags, lifting weights and this is good for you but it isn’t nurturing, it is just another defence which holds in the pain. It is of course better than taking drugs or alcohol but the abuse needs to be dealt with and healed, not controlled.
Over time an abuse survivor who has moved on and begun to heal from the pain will consider talking to a psychotherapist once again in their life. The timeline for healing comes at different levels because as we age, we begin to look at life differently, we have more questions, obstacles come up we had not thought of. Also, a psychotherapist will take you so far. You need to go out into the world and experience life on your own without support. The next time you feel the need to see a therapist, you will want to see someone different based on where you are at in life. I am not saying you have to, you may only see a therapist once and that is it forever. Some people though will feel a need to re-visit once or twice again, under the guise of different conditions. It is not necessarily a new condition, it is just a new us facing the crisis at a different stage.
By this I mean that maybe you are going to get married but you are feeling nervous about taking this step. If you have been raised in an abusive household than you haven’t exactly learned how to be in a good marriage. Or you could already be in a relationship and begin to realize something about yourself that you don’t like. This is taking on your abuse healing at the next level. First you are dealing with what happened. Second you are dealing with how to live your life successfully, when you find you are not ready or have fears or concerns.
I think it is very intelligent for someone who has been raised in an abusive household to consider therapy before getting into marriage or a long-term partnership that involves living together. Even if the abuse in your childhood home was toward a parent and not toward a child, you have still learned inappropriate ways to be in a family. Relationships come with lots of self-help books but they don’t have you and your partners name on it. The guidelines on the pages are general not specific to you. There are always extraneous circumstances that make your relationship different from that of everyone elses. Books are good, don’t get me wrong, but some times people need more.
Another level of returning to psychotherapy can occur when a person has experienced new trauma. Being abused, harassed, or violated again in some way brings a whole new load of guilt and frustration to the adult or even older child. “I thought I had dealt with this in therapy, why did it happen to me again?” Why did I let it happen to me again?” “I saw the signs, why did I marry [them] anyway?”
This does not happen to all abuse survivors but unfortunately it is very common. It is more likely to happen if you have never had therapy at all. If you have had therapy, it can still happen because a new set of circumstances might catch you off guard. For instance, maybe you are accustomed to dealing with a typical type of batterer and feel secure in knowing you won’t meet this style of behavior again. The next type of person might be a player. Someone who is gifted at pulling a con. They don’t come off like an abuser, they come off like God’s gift to women/men. They can take advantage of you in many ways, generally it won’t be physical as it is more likely to be financial or emotional.
It is not your fault ever when you are taken advantage of by someone. Though you have to take responsibility for such a case as soon as possible. It is important to deal with it not let it go. Just as a rape survivor needs to get to a crisis lab immediately to gather the DNA and so forth, so must a victim seek counseling to work through the trauma of what just happened so that it does not build and get worse. Denial rapes your self-esteem and self-worth. When you are in a place where you are extremely vulnerable, the perpetrator has succeeded.
So the second level of psychotherapy may be after a trauma or it may be pro-active or preventative maintenance.
Healing from abuse is valid and necessary just as getting a splint for a sprain, or a cast for a break. The broken foot that is not set will never be able to walk again, properly. Likewise, if you have suffered from abuse in your childhood, life will be more difficult. Abuse hurts the mind, body and soul of a human being. There is research that shows a child’s development is stalled when they are being abused and then it continues to grow when it is being healed. Children who are abused have difficulties concentrating in school, therefore they are not getting a proper education. If you are an adult now, than you probably find you are not as capable of understanding things the way others do.
Healing from abuse makes your life easier to deal with and helps you to grow as an individual. The memories will not disappear forever, because you are still that child but they will begin to fade. The nightmares will go away or not return quite as frequently as you become stronger and more resilient as a person. The ability to face life each day becomes more manageable and less fearful. Your ability to build relationships come from a place of confidence. Most of all you feel like a new person and when you look back, the old you seems like another place and time. For all of this, it is worth it to face what happened and begin to heal.