What lies beyond Trauma?
I saw some of the program on Tony Slattery the other night and was struck by how the vibrant young man from the 1990’s had transformed into a confused distressed man 30 years later.This had been an awful journey for him but he was honest and open about where he is today. His desire for change was clear. What touched me most was not only his honesty about his addictions, past and present, but how the sexual assaults that he had suffered over 50 years earlier still had such strong impact on him today.
He wasn’t aware of how much of this pain and suffering he still carried. The impression I had was that he thought that he had dealt with it. He believed that because so much time had passed that he should be over it. But he wasn’t! The anguish was as strong as if it had happened last week or last year.
It brought to mind a client I saw some years ago, who had not only been abused in a religious establishment but had also been sexually assaulted on a regular basis by her brother. All of this had taken place over 50 years earlier and was still so painful that she could only allude to what had happened. She was also still very embarrassed and felt guilty as if she had some responsibility for the dreadful things others had done to her.
The damage done to innocents by the awful things that other people do to them goes beyond most people’s imagination. The flashbacks and nightmares that cause them to relive, if not the actual experience, then the emotional trauma of that experience, can have a debilitating effect on their lives. These are not memories that fade with time, the emotional memories stay with them forever unless they are carefully supported to process and accept them. They might try to suppress them but the damage remains and often affects their lives in ways they are not always fully aware of. This seems to feel worse when the perpetrator is someone who was supposed to protect them or who they saw as a role model.
This is why, not only is it important that the right help and support is readily available to all victims of abuse, but that we, as a society, take responsibility for being vigilant to try and protect the vulnerable and to expose the perpetrators. We need to be careful how we do this to ensure that only the guilty are exposed, but we do need to question suspicious behaviour, even when it is someone we admire or respect. History has shown that position and status are not grounds for innocence.
In many cases the perpetrators also need help and support to enable them to understand what drives their despicable behaviour. That is not to say that they should go unpunished, because without consequences it can be difficult to accept that behaviour should change.
So when children tell us stories that seem to be made up, listen, ask them gently for details, reassure that they won’t be in trouble and if necessary report it, to the relevant authority and the police. Usually children will easily fill in the details when telling the truth and the story will be consistent when told more than once. If it turns out to be made up then look carefully at what may have motivated the child.
Maybe we need to think seriously about what drives people to do these awful things, usually to the young and vulnerable. There are many things that we as a society see as fairly acceptable but that affect a small percentage of the population and encourages them to prey on others. We need to consider carefully what these things might be and whether we are prepared to let this continue. Is this something that you could live with if it was one of your loved ones who was abused?