HOPE FOR THE HEALING OF SURVIVORS — By Brian mark Hennessy
“Sexual abuse has been called “soul murder” and sexual abuse by clergy is an icon of spiritual felony”.
( Note: Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea is author of Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church and a psychologist who has been working with sexual abuse survivors for 30 years. In the second of a four part article in the National Catholic Reporter, (which can be accessed on-line at NCRonline.org.), Mary discusses the commonality and damage of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including clergy sexual abuse. In the article below (abridged and paraphrased by Brian Mark Hennessy) Mary focuses on the hope that most trauma survivors can heal because of inherent or learned resilience and through access to forms of healing resources).
Resilience: Since the 1980s, when child abuse and domestic violence emerged from society’s skeleton closet, researchers and clinicians have rightly prioritized the tremendous wounds caused by adverse childhood experiences. One of the ways in which Survivors can cope with the severe trauma of abuse is the learning of the skills of resilience. Resilience researchers have investigated the genetic, biological, social and spiritual factors contributing to resilience. They and others have identified a number of factors that appear to endow an individual with resilience:
• Above average intelligence.
• An internal locus of control. A sense that the individual can determine his/her own fate, even when trauma occurs.
• An optimistic cognitive style. Resilient individuals tend to be able to find the silver lining in even the darkest, most thunderous clouds. They are able to imagine a time when life will be better.
• A close, safe relationship with at least one adult not involved in the trauma. This is an area in which abusive priests were often the most despicable and damaging. Children known by predator priests to be in difficult home situations, or kids who came to the priests for advice or comfort about other traumas, were often selected as victims. Instead of responding to an already hurting young person with kindness and mercy, abusing clergy too often became another trauma for the child or teen.
• A consistent faith and/or cultural traditions that provided hope and a steady belief system. Once again, we see the travesty of priests whose sexual violations robbed victims of a faith-based building block of resilience to life’s challenges.
• A good sense of humor, even when life is tough.
“It is important to note, however, that all researchers point to sexual abuse while young as a particularly pernicious adverse childhood experience that results in multiple times the risk of experienced in other trauma-related challenges”.
Telling the narrative: Unlike the first time around, the survivor has control of the timing and pace of being “in” the original adverse experience when telling their experience. Memories can be painful and sometimes are at first acted out as much as “remembered” in the way we usually think of that. It may be in therapy that survivors put some of their traumatic experiences into words for the first time. Doing so begins to structure the memories, gradually taking some of the affective heat out of them.
”It is essential for a trauma survivor to tell their story to another who bears witness to it”.
Differentiating between past and present: Something happening in 2016 that is sufficiently evocative of some aspect of the earlier experience creates a kind of time travel. Survivors then experience themselves as if the ACE is happening right now. They feel and act in ways that confuse them and those around them. In therapy, the survivor gradually is able to register and process a situation as it is now and to react accordingly.
“With post-traumatic stress disorder, time is distorted”.
Integrating the personality: One of the wonders of the human psyche is its ability to cope with the awful. When trauma has been especially severe, the mind may split experience into a variety of compartments representing elements of ACEs that would be too overwhelming to process, store or remember as a whole. . In therapy, survivor and clinician identify dissociated aspects of the personality and work with them to foster a more unified internal world for the patient.
”Dissociation allows some aspects of the personality to grow and even to thrive while other parts remain trapped in timeless terror, rage and helplessness.”
Re-entering the body: Many survivors of abuse and/or neglect are alienated from their bodies. Some coped as children by leaving their bodies during traumatic times.
Patients describe having been on the ceiling looking down at the child being abused or standing at the door with their hands over their ears as “he” was penetrated anally by a priest.
Repairing the sense of self: I have never encountered a survivor patient who did not in some way blame her/himself for the early trauma. The viciousness of the patient’s self-loathing is often breathtaking. Putting guilt and shame where it belongs — on the shoulders of the adult who committed harm or enabled someone else to harm — loosens internalized attachment bonds to figures that once were loved and vitally important to the survivor. The patient is in a predicament: Selfblame protects those attachments but requires cognitive and affective contortions that deplete resilience; relinquishing self-blame and self-hatred and putting the adverse experience in proper perspective with blame placed on the responsible adults is a loss of attachment bonds that is terribly painful. It also can evoke long-held-at-bay rage that the survivor has usually turned against the self.
Anger, rage and a demand for restitution often marks a period of trauma recovery that is important in restoring wholeness.
Mourning: Perhaps the most soul-searing yet most necessary component in trauma therapy is the survivor’s mourning for the childhood that never was and never will be. Survivors almost universally feel cheated at some point in therapy. They have suffered, cried, raged, worked hard to heal and there is no restoration, no making it up, no justice. As one patient cried out,
“This is too much. I can’t stand it — I won’t — you can’t make me. I can deal with the abuse — maybe, perhaps. But the idea that I can’t go back, that my childhood is broken forever — I can’t live with that. I won’t know that I never was and never will be just a kid.”
When the survivor seems to have completed a mourning process and is functioning well on most days in most ways, the good trauma therapist begins almost to turn the tables on the survivor. Having spent perhaps years encouraging the patient to relate their narrative, feel the pain and loss, have empathy for the terrorized child they once were, and mourn the childhood that is gone forever, we guide the patient into considering what life can be now, reminding them (if it is true) that no one is traumatizing them now. It is here that the therapist can help the survivor build or expand on resilience.
It is another tragedy of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis that faith was often shattered along with body and mind boundaries.
(If any Comboni Survivor recognises the impacts of adverse childhood experiences and feels that he needs professional assistance, then they may contact Mark Murray on this site who will strive to assist by suggesting appropriate counselling services. Alternatively, Survivors of childhood abuse can seek the assistance of their local General Practitioner Doctor who will be able to refer them to an appropriate specialist).