I talk to a lot of people who have trauma from their childhoods and see the struggles they have in their lives today and in trying to heal. They need love, acceptance, and a lot of listening to. I think a lot of people not touched by trauma know, at least intellectually, that such trauma leaves long lasting scars and makes the victim’s life more difficult. I suspect, however, that they do not realize how pervasive it is; how it effects so much of someone’s life and how hared it is to heal from it, especially when you're talking about someone who was traumatized as a small child. It’s easy to think, that was such a long time ago, why haven’t you gotten past this yet? In addition, many Christians will think, you just need to forgive, forget, and move on. It is true that forgiveness is part of the healing process, but when childhood trauma is involved, forgiveness is complicated. I’ll explain that a bit more further down.
First, let me tell you a little more about how I know what I’m sharing here. First, while I did not grow up with trauma, I did grow up in a home that was dysfunctional in some pretty obvious ways; I don’t want to be very specific here. So, I know a little about the dynamics of knowing things aren’t exactly “normal” in your house and yet not knowing what you don’t know. I also know about developing coping skills that aren’t too helpful when you’re grown and making your own life. And I know something about how healing and forgiving can take a long time.
Second, in the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people who had horrific things done to them when they were children. I have talked to some who have healed, some who have healed partially, and others that who have not been able to heal much, yet. I have also done a lot of reading about this subject and have asked about a million questions from folks who know. I am not really an expert but there seems to be a need to explain something about healing and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to friends and family of victims of childhood trauma.
I am writing this because as I talked to friends with PTSD, they often find it difficult to explain it to others, even friends and family that truly care about them and want to help. They often don't understand why someone with PTSD can't just put it behind them and move on -- or at least why they don't heal more quickly. So, I am hoping to shed some light about this.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is actually a normal response to a very abnormal situation. When a child is the victim of violence, especially at a very young age, the child is confused and doesn’t understand the hurt and pain. Since the child has no way to escape it or to protect themselves, they learn to cope by doing things like disassociating which involves “going away” -- removing themselves mentally from the situation. This helps the child to survive but being detached and so young means they don’t fully understand what happened or why. They may also disassociate to the point of not even remembering what happened. To further complicate things, the perpetrator purposely deceives and confuses, often telling the child that this was somehow their fault; perhaps they say the child was flirting or “asking for it”; the child is told they were bad. The child may start thinking that innocent play was wrong because it meant they were asking for this. In short, right and wrong get completely mixed up.
I know from my own experience that things you learn as a child stay deep inside you, unquestioned, for many years. If the adults in your life that are supposed to protect you are treating you that way, then you must really be bad. Part of healing is bringing truth here -- that you weren’t perfect but the perpetrator is the one that was in the wrong. No matter how a child behaves or misbehaves, it's never alright to abuse them. You may realize some of the really obvious wrong things were wrong, but you are probably missing many less obvious things. The children grow up, still believe lies about how life is supposed to work, and the lies are still hurting them. Worse, while they might not abuse their own children as adults, they may copy some of the harmful patterns that they never recognized as wrong.
Blocked memories do occur; this is probably related to the disassociation. There has been a lot of controversy about this because in decades past, therapists have gotten some to “remember” something that never happened. Now, thankfully, therapists are very careful about making suggestions now. However, true memories really are blocked at times; I have talked to people who have physical and emotional scars but no clear memory of how they got them. They may have flashbacks of images that don't make a lot of sense. They may have "body memories" where their body reacts in unusual ways for no apparent reason. In other cases, memories are not formed when abuse occurs in a very young child.
Most, if not all, survivors of abuse have, at one time or another, used some form of self harm as a way to cope with the physical and emotional pain, the feelings, and the fears. Some develop eating disorders as a way to make themselves less attractive in an attempt to protect themselves. A woman might avoid eating in an attempt to look less feminine -- or overeat so as to not be as pretty. Some cut themselves, not as a way to try to commit suicide but as a way to deal with the pain. These are dangerous practices, but it is very difficult to stop. As survivors being to heal, they learn new, healthier ways of coping, and these dangerous self harm behaviors begin to diminish. Meds can also help with this, too, by blunting the pain and making it easier to deal with the pain.
In addition, many or most also deal with depression, anxiety or panic disorders, and phobias. These can be trying for friends and family, when a survivor wants to avoid certain situations and you and they both know that it really is mostly likely safe. Much patience is required; abuse is extremely damaging.
If you have met someone with PTSD, you may have noticed that one thing that happens is that they trigger. Triggering is when a word, a sound, a smell, or a situation reminds them of past trauma and they are suddenly there again; that’s called a flashback. The pain, the fear, the feelings flood back and they feel as if it’s happening all over again. There are ways to try to cope with triggers -- feet flat on the floor, look around and see where you really are. Sometimes, things don’t quite cause a trigger but do cause a lot of anxiety; worries of a more vague nature.
I have talked to some about ways to de-trigger. The best way is to heal but that is a long slow process and actually involves triggering because that’s a link to the memories (ok, half my friends who have PTSD just stopped reading), but in a place where they know they are actually safe -- like with a therapist. A faster way to de-trigger is to use desensitization techniques. This is where you are again in a place that you know is safe and then, for example, speak a word that usually triggers you and use the coping skills above to deal with the triggering. You repeat this and gradually get used to the word itself not actually being dangerous, that the bad things you expect to happen do not. The latter technique does not address the underlying problem, but it can help someone with PTSD be able to function more easily.
I am planning to write more on this, in particular about forgiveness and healing -- generally about how and a bit about how hard it is. I'll add links to future posts here as I add them.
Please remember that there is more to this that I know and tons more I don't. God has allowed me to help some friends in their struggles, but I've also been learning that people are very complicated. If you know someone who survived childhood trauma, do not put them in a box of any kind, not even from what you learn here. Listen, listen, listen. Don't assume you understand their experiences. Love them and don't judge them. Help them be safe and feel safe. Show them what God's love looks like.