Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: In Relation To Child Abuse Survivors
The beginning of reconnection is usually attibuted to the fortuitous occurence of a trigger - an event or circumstance obviously associated with or reminiscent of the original trauma. There must also always be the simultaneous occurence of a positive trigger before the reconnection can begin. For instance, the survivor may have found someone trustworthy to talk to (therapist, friend, partner, support group) and may finally feel safe and sane enough to explore and accept her feelings.
The pain and disorientation can be balanced by focusing on the positive trigger. During this process, survivors should ask themselves, "Why now? Why didn't I remember this two years ago? Five years ago?" The answer lies in the conjunction of this trigger, along with the negative one, which tells the survivor "you can afford to reconnect now...you have the power, judgement, insight and support that you truly did not have as a child. It is safe enough."
Walling off parts of the trauma was once the solution to an unbearable situation. Eventually, it causes problems in the mind, heart and spirit, in one's relationships with the child within and others, and in one's work. Trauma, if left unresolved, is destined to be re-enacted in one of those vital aspects of the self.
To recognize that a mother is exploiting you for her own ends, or that a father is unjust and tyrannical, or that neither parent ever wanted you, is intensely painful. Moreover, it is frightening. Given any loophole, most children will seek to see their parent's behavior in some more favorable light. This natural bias of children is easy to exploit.
It is not just the child's body that is abused or neglected. Troubled families mess with a child's mind. Virtually all survivors believe that their ability to think, to intellectually master the challenges in their lives, was of of their greatest strengths as children. Like other coping mechanisms, their over-reliance on rationality fell into obsolesence and became one of their greater weaknesses.
Children struggle to make some sense of a loved one's abusive and neglectful treatment. If the child understood what abuse really was, a random and violent imposition of another's will onto a relatively helpless person, he would despair at such hopelessness and betrayal. Therefore, he uses every mental effort to make himself seem in greater control while transforming the abusive parent into the safe and loving caretaker he so desperately needs. Such lies of the mind require mental gymnastics.
Children don't do this thinking in a vacuum. In some situations they are told what to think. In most cases they are influenced by the abuser's faulty thinking and by the rationalization of the adults who passively enable the abuse to go on. Children hear what those powerful adults say and what they don't say.
On top of the abuse and neglect, denial heaps more hurt upon the child by requiring the child to alienate herself from reality and her own experience. In troubled families, abuse and neglect are permitted; it's the talking about them that is forbidden.
Minimization is a thinking error designed to protect the injured self, making one seem a little less injured. The need for it can lessen as the survivor can afford to embrace the full reality of the past. (Refraining from denial is an act of courage for survivors. They have to choose quite literally between being alienated from themselves and reality...or being alienated from family members who still deny abuse.)
Many survivors minimize their abuse by comparing their experience with others':
* At least it wasn't a parent, it was only my sibling/uncle/grandparent
* At least I was a teenager, not a toddler
* At least it didn't happen as much as in other families
Empathy for others is healthy only when balanced with empathy for the self. What good does it do to try to feel another's feelings if one cannot feel his own..?
In troubled families, the thinking around who is responsible is convoluted at best. Abusive parents externalize, blaming other people, places and things for their behavior. They compensate by controlling everyone around them. But...in their heart of hearts...they feel out of control. They must blame others because it is too painful to take responsibility for their unhappiness. Children are easy targets because they cannot challenge their parent's thinking errors. Few children can argue when facing an enraged mother. Hearing accusations often enough, children come to believe that they are responsible for their parent's troubled behavior.
Unfortunately, children receive an internal psychological payoff when they believe the abuse is their fault...a false sense of power. The child can let the unfairness and danger of the violence shatter him, or he can tell himself, "I'm not frightened or angry or sad or helpless or innocent. There is nothing wrong with this situation. This is happening to me for a good reason. This is happening to me because I deserve it, because I provoked it, because I was put here on Earth to endure such things. There is really nothing out of the ordinary about this."
The child is doing the best he or she can do to make sense out of the abuse or neglect, by feeling guilty and responsible, thereby holding on to the illusion that he or she is in control of what is truly out of control. This illusion of power seems better than acknowledging that one has no power at all. Such pseudologic quells feelings of hurt, rage, terror, confusion or sadness...rationalizing them into a deep freeze.
The child's sense of guilt and responsibility is useful to the abusive parent, who believes he isn't abusive..that it is the child who forces him into being abusive. The nonprotective adults want the child to bear the guilt so they won't have to face the harm their neglect is causing. So...the dance of the violent family begins: Children are responsible for adult's behavior...adults are responsible for nothing.
Faced with random, senseless abuse, a child begins to think herself as inherently unlovable.
Believing oneself to be guilty, responsible, or in control of others' hurtful behavior can be a tenacious habit. Many survivors deal with any overwhelming experience - physical illness, abandoment by a friend or spouse, academic or job demands - by "comforting" themselves with the illusion that they are in fact in control and to blame. An enormous amount of energy is sapped by this irrational guilt.