By Sheri Heller
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
– Kahlil Gibran
The intention of this article is to encourage the healing of the traumatized child. Carl Jung said: ” In every adult there lurks a child – an eternal child, something that is always becoming, is never completed and calls for unceasing care, attention and education. That is the part of the human personality which wants to develop and become whole.” Healing from trauma is a complex and courageous journey back to the eternal child…returning to the inherent longing for wholeness.
Trauma is a penetrating wound and injury, which threatens one’s life. Trauma arrests the course of normal development by its repetitive intrusion of terror and helplessness into the survivor’s life. Chronic child abuse results in fragmentation of the overall personality. Under these conditions identity formation is stymied and a reliable sense of independence within connection is ruptured.
Judith Herman, M.D., wrote in her groundbreaking book “Trauma & Recovery”, “repeated trauma in adult life erodes the structure of the personality already formed, but repeated trauma in childhood forms and deforms the personality.” The child trapped in abusive circumstances must find a way to preserve a sense of hope, trust, safety, and meaning under terrifying conditions, which contradict those basic needs. To survive, the traumatized child must resort to primitive psychological defenses. The abusers, who the child is unconditionally dependent on, must be preserved in the child’s psyche as caring and competent, so as to ensure survival. The primary attachment must be preserved at any cost. As a result the child may deny, wall off, excuse or minimize the abuse. Complete amnesias known as dissociative states may occur. Dissociation can be so severe that a fragmentation of the personality can result in the emergence of alter personalities.
The pinnacle of tragedy is that the child must conclude that it is her inherent ‘badness’ that is responsible for the abuse. Paradoxically this tragic conclusion offers the abused child hope that’s/he can change his/her circumstances by becoming ‘good’. Yet despite the child’s relentless and futile efforts to be ‘good’, deep within she feels no one really knows how vile her true self is, and if they did it would certainly ensure exile and ostracism. For children who are sexually abused this perception of self as damaged goods is particularly profound. The sexual violation and exploitation by the abuser becomes internalized as further evidence of her innate badness.
As much as the child struggles to deny, minimize, bargain with and co-exist with the abuse, the impact of chronic trauma seeps into the deep recesses of the psyche and in the body. Psychologist and author Alice Miller states, “our childhoods are stored in our bodies.” What the conscious mind refuses to ‘know,’ the psychological and physical symptoms express. The body speaks of the abuse through chronic hyper-arousal as well as through difficulties sleeping, feeding, and overall disruptions with biological functions. States of dysphoria (confusion, agitation, emptiness and utter aloneness) further amplify the disregulation of the body.
Long after the danger is past, traumatized people relive the events as though it were continually recurring in the present. Traumatic events are re-experienced in an intrusive-repetitive fashion. Themes are re-enacted, nightmares and flashbacks occur, and there is a persistent state of danger and distress.
States of denial and numbing alternate with the intrusive flooding of memories. The stimuli associated with the trauma are avoided through denial and numbing The survivor experiences restricted affect, no recall, diminished interests, and an overall sense of detachment.
As survivors attempt to negotiate adult relationships, the psychological defenses formed in childhood become increasingly maladaptive. The survivor’s intimate relationships are driven by a desperate longing for protection and love, and simultaneously fueled by fears of abandonment and exploitation. From this place, safe and appropriate boundaries cannot be established. As a result patterns of intense, unstable relationships occur, in which dramas of rescue, injustice, and betrayal are repeatedly enacted. Hence, the survivor is at further risk of repeated victimization in adult life.
Recovery from chronic trauma and abuse cannot occur in isolation. The trauma survivor requires a reparative, healing connection with a therapist who will bear witness to a history fraught with inhumanity, while offering empathy, insight, and containment. Through this relationship healing can occur. Control can be restored, along with a renewed sense of personal power and connection to others. For progression in recovery to occur the capacity for self-care and soothing needs to be established. The ability to create a modicum of predictability and self-protection are also necessary. Developing these life skills may entail the incorporation of medication management, relaxation techniques, bodywork, creative outlets, and establishing a replenishing home environment and a responsibility towards basic health needs.
Traumatic losses also require a bereavement process. The survivor must fully face what was done, and what the traumas led the survivor to do under extreme circumstances. The survivor is challenged to mourn the loss of one’s integrity, the loss of trust, the capacity to love, and the belief in a ‘good enough parent’. The survivor now has the ego strength to face the profound level of despair that would have shattered her in childhood. Through the mourning process, the survivor begins to reevaluate her identity as a ‘bad’ person, and in so doing begins to feel worthy of relationships that allow for authenticity and nourishment. Eventually the survivor experiences the traumatic experience as a part of the past, and is ready to rebuild her life in the present. The future now offers possibility and hope.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote in “Women Who Run with the Wolves”,
“Being able to say that one is a survivor is an accomplishment. For many, the power is in the name itself. And yet comes a time in the individuation process when the threat or trauma is significantly past. Then is the time to go to the next stage after survivorship, to healing and thriving.” At this stage the trauma survivor is ready to move beyond survival to express freed up potentials. Engaging more actively in the world requires the survivor to identify and pursue ambitions and goals that were previously dormant. She is now able to connect beyond the wounded self/ego and engage in life from a place of Divine creativity. She is ready to love beyond the personality and extend herself through empathy and service. Rather than struggle with resisting loneliness, fear, powerlessness and myriad forms of suffering, she is open to and accepting of all that life contains. She is aware that the lessons towards growth are many.
Much of the reparative work at this stage of recovery involves challenging nihilistic and fatalistic assumptions about the self and the world. The trauma survivor intent on thriving, is challenged to give life to a perspective, a philosophy that goes against her internalized beliefs, and to reconstruct a reality that makes room for the existence of faith and hope. For this to occur the ego must attach to the abstract for a deeper transcendent meaning. Creativity, spiritual belief systems, philosophy, ethics, service, personal integrity, etc. are all part of that exploration. This exploration lends itself to the survivor discovering a spiritual perspective that is sustaining and affords connection to others.
Integral to this spiritual perspective is the journey towards healing and actualization. This journey has taken on a deeply complex metaphysical meaning, and it informs one’s sense of pride and purpose. It is a journey towards wholeness, where the Divine Child archetype is encountered. Embodied in this archetype is the totality of our being and the transformational power that propels us along the path of personal growth. It is here that one discovers one’s true Self.
Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW is a New York Psychotherapist (NYC), addiction specialist and interfaith minister in private practice. Rev. Heller incorporates a traditional psychodynamic approach to her sessions and draws on diverse spiritual and creative vehicles to facilitate the healing process. For more information about Rev. Heller’s services please visit her website at SheriTherapist.com.