I’m struggling right now. I am a survivor of incest and the young adult mental health system. I’m a divorced mother of two and currently in a good relationship. However, I’m suffering from flashbacks and having difficulty coping when the kids are screaming. They’re not in danger from me, but I know my warning signals and am not sure what to do. Can you please offer some advice?—MG
Thank you for writing. Through sharing your story with others, you are giving words to your experience, which is something you may not have been able to do when you were younger and being abused. By coming forward in this way and breaking the silence that often surrounds trauma, you inspire others to do the same. Of equal importance is your ability to feel concern for your children and your desire to protect them from your current difficulties. The fact that you are in a good relationship and exhibit empathy for your children despite your difficult history is a testament to your amazing strength.
It’s estimated that more than half of the U.S. population has been exposed to a traumatic event. These include experiences of war, being lawfully and unlawfully imprisoned, and childhood sexual, emotional, and physical abuse and neglect. Trauma becomes a disorder when the traumatic event(s) is persistently re-experienced (flashbacks), when related situations are avoided, when the person feels emotionally numb, or when there are symptoms of persistent arousal. Often, chronically traumatized people are unable to experience their bodies as safe havens of rest or comfort, or even experience their bodies as their own.
The core feeling that comes from severe trauma is disempowerment. Your needs, wishes, choices, and feelings were not only ignored, they were violated. You mention that you are experiencing flashbacks. Flashbacks involve reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again with the emotions, sights, smells, and other sensory components that made up the experience. While flashbacks are an attempt to work through the trauma and discharge the intense energy associated with it, they are often experienced as intrusive and overwhelming. Flashbacks are a common symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry describes the feelings associated with PTSD as “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation.”
Another characteristic of PTSD is hyper-vigilance, or remaining in a heightened state of readiness long after the threat has passed. This takes its toll mentally, emotionally, and physically. Those with PTSD often experience severe headaches, depressed immune systems, gastrointestinal disorders, tremors, rapid heartbeat, and choking sensations. Trauma appears to affect parts of the brain—the subcortex, such as the amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and also the brain stem. These areas are less accessible to conscious or verbal thought. Once traumatized, it is harder to verbally and emotionally access the root of the problem, and begin to heal it.
This is why therapy is so important for your recovery. If you haven’t done so already, please begin individual therapy with a therapist who specializes in adult survivors of childhood incest. Key topics to discuss with your therapist are:
- Your age at the time of abuse. Children pass through important stages of development, and younger children are more vulnerable to traumatic experience.
- Who committed the abuse? What is their relationship to you?
- If you were able to talk to anyone about the abuse, how were you responded to?
- How long did the abuse last?
- Was this kind of behavior considered “normal” in your family?
- Did you have other relationships in your life where you felt safe, loved, and supported?
If you have the time and resources, you might also benefit from group therapy. A reputable therapy group that supports parents who were incest victims as children may be ideal. Depending on what stage of healing you’re in, your individual therapist will know if group therapy is right for you. The quality of the group leader’s expertise and experience is extremely important. Some trauma survivors find the experience of being in a group and listening to other’s pain to be overwhelming.
I also recommend that you read two books to help educate yourself on trauma. The first, Trauma and Recovery, is by Judith Herman, MD. In it, Dr. Herman offers a timeline of how and when society became able to begin to openly and honestly work with trauma. She provides case histories of those whose experience may be similar to yours. She describes the stages of recovery which include: safety, remembrance, mourning, and reconnection. She also defines seven criteria for the resolution of trauma. These include being able to successfully manage symptoms of PTSD, being in control of memories by either electing to remember the trauma or put the memory aside, being able to talk about the trauma with your feelings intact, and the restoration of your self-esteem.
The second book that you must read is Waking the Tiger, by Dr. Peter Levine. He reports that somewhere between seventy-five and one hundred million Americans have experienced childhood sexual and physical abuse and believes that you can move out of survivor status and into true healing. He has worked with traumatized patients for over twenty years and looks to the animal world for understanding and insight in helping to heal suffering caused by trauma.
Dr. Levine believes one key to healing trauma is uncoupling the feelings of helplessness, immobility, and disempowerment from the fear associated with it. He writes, “When a frightened animal comes out of immobility, it does so with an intense readiness for counter-attack, or in a frantic, non-directed attempt to escape. All the energy it used in desperate fight or flight before it collapsed or froze now re-emerges explosively as the animal comes out of immobility. As human beings, we are seized often by sudden and overpowering surges of emotion. If these surges are not acted upon, this energy becomes trapped and associated with enormous amounts of rage and terror. Fear and the fear of violence to self and others reactivates the immobility, extending it, often indefinitely, in the form of frozen terror. This is the vicious circle of trauma.”
Dr. Levine believes that you can experience a cathartic and healing release from trauma, and that it is best to do so one small step at a time. He views non-adaptive responses to trauma, like PTSD, as being frozen biological energies that seek discharge. When you access and integrate this frozen energy, you “wake the tiger” to your experience. It is no longer lying dormant waiting to ambush you. You move into healing by consciously holding your experience but managing the energy differently this time. His approach includes many body-based awareness exercises. You can learn more about this theory, research, treatment methods and case histories, by visiting traumahealing.com. There is also information about finding a practitioner who’s trained in this method.
Another great online resource is the Women and Trauma Project. The site lists many self-help resources like books, workbooks, and videos that can be used in conjunction with your therapy. It’s designed to empower women who have survived trauma and are looking for effective solutions to their problems. The site also provides links to other organizations and professionals working in the field of women and mental health.
Please write again and let us know how you are doing.
I am thirty years old and writing this story in hope of finding help. I have been struggling with bulimia for over three years now. I have lost my job and my life over it. I went to an eating disorder program but it didn’t help much. I am now obese because I stopped for a month, but then relapsed. I gained so much weight so fast that I don’t have any control over it now. I’m still struggling with the bulimia and I’m now thinking of starting to take a diet pill. I am so desperate right now. I’m afraid that I will fall back into depression and try to commit suicide again. I don’t know what to do anymore; I am tired, overweight, and frustrated. Help, please! Thank you very much.—RA