Recovery from trauma and abuse
A recent survey by the office for national statistics published this month (August 2016) has shown that one in 14 adults have suffered some form of sexual abuse as children. On average 7% of adults reported having been abused in childhood, 11% of women and 3% of men. There are terrible figures but perhaps not surprising. The research also showed that three out of four victims did not report their abuse, fearing being blamed or not being believed. Abuse in childhood is without doubt traumatic, but often because of that getting help and then recovering can be very difficult indeed.
What is trauma? The word derives from the Greek word meaning "to wound". A traumatic experience has the effect of piercing through our outer shell, leaving us vulnerable to psychic pain and suffering. The psychological impact of trauma was only first exposed as a result of shell-shocked soldiers returning home from the battlefields of the First World War when they suffered from terrible nightmares, flashbacks and other symptoms.
There are other situations which cause a traumatic response, and abuse in childhood (whether emotional, physical or sexual) is now understood to be potentially traumatic for the developing mind.
Sometimes the memory of the abuse will have been cut off from awareness for many years, not exactly forgotten but not present either. Then the memories and images can be triggered, perhaps by some situation or by association. In July 2016 the BBC reported on a new initiative to provide specialised maternity care for women who had been victims of sexual assault or rape, in recognition that such women may experience overwhelming anxiety in their pregnancies and labour, as a consequence of ways in which this might replicate the earlier trauma of not having control over their bodies. Sometimes the traumatic memories can be unleashed by something else entirely inconsequential, the lyrics of a song, a certain place, a smell, but can be no less devastating.
When a trauma has not been processed it can sit in the mind dormant waiting to be unleashed. It may cause great difficulties in that person's life, restricting relationships, undermining trust and the chance to experience happiness and contentment. Those who have experienced sexual abuse may also have other symptoms of unresolved trauma, such as eating disorders, self-harm, and other ways of behaving that put themselves at risk. It is hard to trust when a traumatic experience has pierced through one's protective boundary, and when parental figures or those supposed to care for the child have failed to protect them or even worse been themselves responsible for the abuse.
It is painful and difficult work but whilst the trauma remains untouched in the mind the potential for unhelpful and even destructive ways of behaving also remain a possibility. Talking is hard, but it can bring relief. With that comes the necessity to face this situation and over time heal from these wounds and lessen the power of the earlier trauma to influence and shape relationships in the future.
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About Catherine McCabe
Catherine McCabe is a psychoanalyst working in private practice in London. Her first training was at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust and she has a MA in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. She then trained at the Institute of Psychoanalysis and is a full member of the British Psychoanalytic Society (BPAS). She is a full member of the BPC and BACP.