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Healing from Trauma: Embracing the Irrational

I once met a bright young guy with a successful career and an active social life who had endured horrific, ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of his father. John was engaged in a prolonged argument with his therapist. On the surface, the position he took seems absurd. He kept trying to convince his therapist that his parents had been right about him all along: He was insane. He knew the facts about the abuse; he just kept trying to convince the therapist that he had concocted them himself. For his part, the therapist wouldn’t budge. Clearly, John was not crazy.

Why would John do this? Because of my own trauma history, I understood him implicitly. But a trauma specialist might be more convincing. “Everything about us—our brains, our minds, and our bodies—is geared toward collaboration in social systems,” writes Bessel van der Kolk, medical director of the Trauma Center of Boston and author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. “Children have no choice but to organize themselves to survive within the families they have…I have never met a child below the age of ten,” he emphasizes, “who was tortured at home…who, if given the option, would not have chosen to stay with his or her family rather than being placed in a foster home.”

But John was an adult. Now, with support systems in place, surely he could see how irrational it was to keep letting his parents off the hook. Why was he torturing himself with visions of insanity?

The only way John could have survived his childhood, gone to college, and become successful in life was to distort reality: He had to believe that his parents were on his side. To face the truth meant accepting a horror of such magnitude that the adult John feared he would unravel—his integrated sense of self had been CREATED within a distorted belief. If he popped that bubble, would he cease to exist?

Healing can’t come from trying to reason with people about their abuse. “These responses are not reasonable and therefore cannot be changed simply by reframing irrational thoughts…Nonetheless, learning to recognize irrational thoughts and behaviors can be a useful first step,” Van der Kolk writes. “Generally, the rational brain can override the emotional brain, as long as our fears don’t hijack us.”

Survivors of childhood trauma have been hijacked. Often, this fact is a source of great human-skull-x-rayshame-we “ought” to be more in control. Seeing himself as crazy gave John a reprieve from feelings of abject terror and vulnerability. “It couldn’t have been that bad,” John reasoned. “I must be nuts.”

Actually, vulnerability is the terrain where healing takes place. Like John, we need to “reconstruct our inner map of the world.” This phrase of Van der Kolk’s carries great power. My healing moments have come when I stop talking about trauma; when, with help and guidance, I’m willing to revisit an inner world of absolute chaos and discover that it does not overwhelm me. That world includes the entire body–the nervous system, muscles, and guts in which trauma is encoded. Reason is an ally at those times. It tells me that what I’m experiencing is actually normal. It tells me that I’m not crazy, that my brain has processed trauma, unlike ordinary linear memory, in irrational, cubist slices.

Our culture still values reason above all else.But reason alone can’t heal.  It’s “reasonable”  to treat the symptoms of trauma with medication; it’s “reasonable” to expect traumatized people to simply drop the past and get on with their lives. The problem is that we’ve been trying to do that, and it doesn’t work. Trauma has never been reasonable. I would argue that until we are all willing to face and come to healing terms with our own vulnerability—John could be me. He could be you—trauma will continue to be, in Van der Kolk’s words, “our most urgent public health issue.”

 

 

 

 

Child Sexual Abuse: The Real Reason It Doesn’t End

When a victim comes out against an abuser, it throws their shared community into a collective mind f**k. People can’t get their heads around the truth: “He’s such a nice guy! He’s helped so many inner city youth/he’s a deacon in the church/he founded the shelter for wombats.”

In order not to get caught, to appease their tortured consciences, whatever: perpetrators often cultivate a rich, wholesome community life. They actually do good things. Can anyone say “Jerry Sandusky”? People trust the guy, and the truth is profoundly disorienting-so, rather than rethink reality-pow! They attack the victim.

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Last week in Kansas City, good family man and pillar-of-his-community Darren Paden pleaded guilty–and was sentenced to 50 years in prison–for “repeatedly sexually abusing a child for at least a decade.”  Paden and his victim live in Dearborn, Missouri, such a small town it’s really an extended family of 500 people–and it’s now divided. The girl he abused, now 18, has been ostracized and shunned by more than half the community. Some claim that Paden broke down under a too-forcible police interrogation. (He confessed after only a couple of hours.) But if other people insist he’s innocent, it just makes it harder for a self-confessed offender to change his ways.

A warm, church-going man, Paden “has a lot of good, positive things in his life, too,” said his aunt, who wrote to the court pleading for leniency.  That “too” says a lot. It implies she believes he is an abuser. Yet  faced with two irreconcilable images of someone we believe we know, one must prevail as being “the real person”; and so, we take sides. A community will maintain its sense of stability at all cost. Therefore, the victims of sexual abuse are labeled as community-destroying pariahs.

Matthew Sandusky, the adopted son and victim of Jerry Sandusky, faced a terrible choice in choosing to testify against his father. The elder Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse in 2012. As the jury went to deliberation, Matthew approached police: He also had a story of abuse to tell, admitting that he had lied to the grand jury by previously supporting his father. Ultimately, Matthew did not testify in court, but the sticky consequences of coming forward spun out nonetheless. In his July, 2014 interview on Oprah, Matthew struggled with the implications for his family–“they’re innocent,” he said, holding back tears.  It’s a telling word.  He knew his own children would be treated like criminals. In fact, they were harassed to such an extent that the family surname has been changed and is not publicly known.

Washington Post Story about Oprah Interview

Viewing the characters in these too-true stories as either devil or angel is destructive because it promotes a false view of human beings (we’re all good or all bad). It promises golden opportunities to the next “closeted” child molester: If you’re clever and charming enough, even after you confess your guilt, half the town will be convinced you’re innocent. The truth is far more difficult. Yes, Darren Paden did many lovable things for his neighbors; and Yes, he did molest that young woman. Yes, Sandusky raped all those boys, and, Yes: he did do a whole lot for Penn State.

“Missouri Town Rallies in Support of Convicted Child Molester,” a current headline reads. As long as we keep viewing other people through a lens of black-and-white moral absolutes, we miss the point of Matthew Sandusky’s story: You can love someone even as you identify him as a criminal. We are also partly culpable for the perpetuation of child sexual abuse. And we aren’t helping perpetrators take responsibility for their crimes.

Child Sexual Abuse: Finding a Healing Community

This wasn’t an easy week for me. There was a lot of self-focus, some deep grief about things over which I have no control, some regret, nights of worry.

But last night I watched videos about CNN’s Top Ten Heroes—people who are working with what they have, within their communities, to relieve suffering.

Richard Joyner, a pastor in North Carolina, has substantially reduced death rates in his rural community by drawing all ages together in a gardening program. Maggie Doyne used saved-up babysitting money to start a now-thriving school for street kids in Nepal. Sean Gobin, a combat veteran, found that hiking the Appalachian Trail helped him readjust to life back home. His non-profit offers veterans the same solace and camaraderie.

What’s it really about? The lone visionary may be a catalyst, but healing arises within community.

THERE IS A WAY OUT!

The door is no longer locked.
 

Revisiting my tough week, I wondered: What do I have to give? Not someday. Not when my worries are resolved. Today.

Well. There’s one major social problem I know a lot about: child sexual abuse and its aftereffects.

And one thing I can do: I can write. And I’ve got a blog. Which, however many readers it has, is a kind of community.

If you’re not interested, please scroll up and click a CNN link. It’ll take your mind off gun control.

Actually, a blog is an ideal way to navigate this complicated terrain. It preserves privacy among readers. How many people who live with the fallout of sexual abuse would go to a Meet Up group for “victims”?

Yeah.

I won’t necessarily tell my own story in these posts. Years ago, I was in a support group for women who had been sexually abused as children. It was efficiently run by a therapist who was conspicuously not one of us. She was a shining example of mental health. She offered professional insight while we all struggled to trust one another—and her. It wasn’t a great model, frankly. We were expected to expose our raw shame to someone who seemed immune to shame. It’s not that I wish she had shared personal information; it was more a question of subtle emotional tone, the expression in her eyes. The hardness in her voice.

That’s not full community.

Maybe others found it helpful, but the best I can say is that the group didn’t harm me. Our leader’s problem was not her professional training, but her persona—by her apparent strength, she unwittingly reinforced our view of ourselves as damaged.

Yes: it’s extremely important for adults who were sexually abused as children to tell their stories. Abusers-and complicit family members-thrive on your silence. If you’ve never told anyone, it’s a horrible burden.

But. And this is big. You have to tell your story at the right time. To the right people. Men and women who were abused as children are conditioned to placate others. The inner voice of self-protection was muzzled long ago by our abusers, and it can be tempting to ignore it later on. Just because someone is friendly does not mean she/he has the ability to hold your story with deep respect. For me not to tell my story is an acknowledgement of all those who aren’t yet ready.

If you were abused, you have a right to your own body. You have a right to your emotions. You own the copyright to your story. 

If you were abused, you are not alone. Your tribe is out there. Given generally accepted statistics (1 out of 4 girls, 1 out of 6 boys), it couldn’t be otherwise. The tribe you discover may be small, but to trust even one person with even a whisper of your story can crack the shell of isolation.

–Check out my recently released short story collection, The Beautiful Name. “You Say you Want a Revolution” explores sexual exploitation in the teacher-student relationship.