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How To Help A Friend Cope With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Caused By Childhood Abuse
Effects of child abuse as adults may manifest suddenly.
Childhood Abuse Has Lifelong Consequences
If you look up “listening to a friend with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “ online, you will find a large page of entries that give all kinds of tips on how to support and listen to survivors of trauma. In this article I want to discuss specifically how to listen to survivors of childhood abuse. A lot of this information can be generalized to survivors of all types of trauma, but I want to make the information provided here very specific to my own situation.
My father was an abusive alcoholic. Like most abusive parents, he kept his abuse secret. To the outside world he was charming and funny and clever and smart, and he was often those things to me when he was sober. When he was drunk and sometimes when he wasn't, he was hateful, mean-spirited and violent. He was emotionally and physically abusive. He kept me isolated from others, and he controlled me and my mother with criticism, insults, unreasonable demands and physical abuse. Yet others always told us how witty, charming, funny and smart he was.
My father thought that he was a good parent. He believed that he was a better parent than his mother before him had been because he never hit us with objects. He was proud of the fact that he only hit us with an open hand and not his fists or a fly swatter or a shoe. He told tales of his own childhood and of being chased to church with a fly swatter in the days when fly swatters were made of metal. He told of how his mother had suddenly decided that he should be circumcised when he was 13 and called in the town doctor, a well-known drunk, who attempted to tie him to the kitchen table to perform the surgery. My father told me these stories of his bad childhood in order to convince me that he was a good parent. I believed him because he was my father.
Withholding Opportunities Is Abusive
My father held me back from entering school until I was almost seven. Kindergarten was optional in those days. When I finished first grade, the school quickly recommended I move forward to third grade, but my father refused. When I finished fifth grade, the school recommended I move forward to seventh grade, but my father refused.
When I entered junior high, I was enrolled in all academic classes. I was taking band and drama, making friends and becoming involved in social activities. Suddenly, my father decided to move our entire family to a small town and a house situated two blocks away from the local school. There was no band, no drama and no academic classes. I had no friends, so my father was never bothered by people entering our home, and I never needed to be driven anywhere for any social events. In this environment, I was the school nerd. I was filled with so much anxiety that I could barely breathe all day every day throughout the rest of my school years, and I wondered if other people felt the way I felt. Now I know that they did not.
When I was about to graduate from high school, one of my aunts said to my father "I guess you'll be going around looking at colleges now." My father told her I would live at home, go to North Texas State University, major in journalism and minor in English (because that's what he had done), work full time and pay for it myself because that was "good enough" for me. I left home very soon after I graduated from high school.
Implicit Support Of the Abuser Hurts Years After The Fact
When I was a very small child, my mother would often take me to visit relatives to escape my father’s drunkenness on the weekends. A few years ago, I learned that during one of these weekends, my father showed up drunk, with a gun and threatened to kill everyone if my mother did not bring me home. So she did, and nobody did anything, yet when I was growing up my relatives frequently said, “You know your mother and father really do love you.” I thought this was normal. I thought that everyone's family reassured them constantly that their parents actually loved them. I was an adult before I realized that this is not the case. Parents who actually love their children don’t do things to derail their children's education and make their lives miserable. I was an adult before I realized that parents who love their children protect them, as opposed to slapping, screaming at, criticizing and insulting them or allowing this to happen.
Recovery is an ongoing process...
A Scene From "The Guitarist Amplification"
- Sheldon can't stand everyone around him arguing as it triggers childhood memories.
This isn't the scene I describe in the article. That one is not available on video, but this is a good one. Funny as it is, it contains a grain of truth.
- A Very Timely and Pertinent Statement From Patrick Stewart
Patrick Stewart isn't only a Starfleet captain. He's also a friggin' amazing human being.
- Tell your story! Join Hub Pages!
Why Can’t Abuse Survivors Just Get Over It?
Now I am in my 50s, and you may very well think that I should be “over” it. The fact is, adult survivors of childhood abuse are never “over “ it. At least once a week, sometimes more often, I suddenly become aware of a way in which my childhood negatively affects my everyday life. I suddenly realize that something I have believed all my life is a lie, or I am exposed to a trigger that throws me far back on the path of self growth and personal development I have tried very hard to follow over the past 20 years.
I found this phenomenon to be very poignantly illustrated by actor Jim Parsons who plays the character, Sheldon, on the popular television show, The Big Bang Theory. In a 2009 episode called The Guitarist Amplification, we learn that Sheldon is incredibly upset when others argue around him. At the beginning of the program, Penny and Leonard, two other main characters get into an argument while the three are playing a board game. Sheldon tries desperately to lighten the situation by attempting to get Leonard and Penny refocused on the game. He calls their attention to the fun of the game with a bright, cheery, brittle voice. When this fails and they continue arguing he runs to the kitchen and begins to throw ice into the blender to drown out the sound of the argument. When Penny slams out of the apartment and Leonard goes to the kitchen to tell Sheldon that the argument is over, Sheldon angrily squeezes an orange over some crushed ice and offers Leonard a victory snow cone for “winning” the board game. All this is done with a false smile on his face.
The scene is funny and brilliantly played by Parsons. The complexity and nuance of his performance very accurately mirrors the jumble of emotions that occur when a triggering event brings back the experiences of an abused child. The survivor’s inner child tries desperately to lighten the situation and to make the argument stop, failing that the child escapes and attempts to block out the situation. When the situation is over, the child pretends it didn’t happen and feels a mixture of joy that the stressful situation has ended and anger that it occurred at all. A survivor of childhood abuse has a very strong need for self protection and may do and say things that seem out of character, illogical and inconsistent when confronted with triggering events. Very often, this is not something the survivor can control.
Learn Emotional Connection
- Podcasts - Raphael Cushnir | Raphael Cushnir
Emotional connection counselor, Raphael Cushmir, teaches the concepts of cradling, surfing and rewiring, which may have great potential to help survivors of childhood abuse. Listen to some excellent and helpful podcasts at his website.
What Are Triggering Events?
Triggering events are events, pictures, sounds, smells and many other things that may mentally and emotionally throw a survivor of childhood abuse right back into the time of that abuse. Of course, these differ from one survivor to another. I am like Sheldon in that arguing, yelling, swearing and violence are strong triggers for me that may affect me for several days.
Recently, I had a situation in which a relative spent quite a bit of time in my home helping with a home improvement project. This relative has a tendency to swear and yell nonstop the entire time he is working on a project. This is incredibly distressing to me, and it triggers a tremendous amount of anxiety and fear. Although I am deeply grateful to my relative for helping me, I'm always very distressed during and after each project. I always vow that I will never ask him to help me again, and then my mind practices the coping skill of completely forgetting (blocking out) the event until next time, so it happens over and over again. This last time, I felt very strongly that it was an abusive behavior, and it was very distressing to me.
What is abusive behavior?
How Does Childhood Abuse Affect An Adult’s Everyday Life?
Surviving abuse affects different people in different ways. For me, interpersonal relationships are extremely difficult. During this recent home improvement project, I was very upset and anxious. Simultaneously, I was in the process of attempting to get to know and befriend a man. I had told him some things about my childhood, and as people often do, he had attempted to make some sense of the situation and to give me reasons why the childhood abuse had occurred. He attempted to redirect my thinking so that I would not judge my father for his actions. During the time of the upsetting home improvement project, I turned to my new friend for support, and he did come over to provide a buffer (because the yelling and swearing behavior doesn't occur when others are present) during part of the project; however, he also put quite a bit of energy into providing “good reasons” why my relative might be behaving as he was. And now that friendship has apparently dissolved.
I realize that giving reasons and explanations is a natural tendency for many people. In fact, this person actually told me that he had a natural tendency to try to defend people who are not present to defend themselves. And while I understand that this is a natural reaction, it's important to me that people who wish to be my friends “have my back“. It's important to me that when I summon the courage to tell my story and seek support, the person I'm speaking with realize that if my father were present, he might be so charming and funny that it would be hard to imagine him being abusive. Alternately, if he were present and no one else was, he would hit me and yell at me. There are not good reasons for this, and attempting to convince a survivor of childhood abuse that there are good reasons for past (or present) abuse is not helpful to the current situation.
7 Steps That Are Also Helpful For People With PTSD
- What to Say When Someone is Having an Anxiety Attack | www.healthcentral.com
Suppose a friend or family member suffers from anxiety. You want to be supportive, you have learned how anxiety impacts their life, but you still don’t know what to say or do when an anxiety attack strikes.
- Listen with radical empathy!
This sermon by Paula Northwood of Plymouth Congregational Church provides a good description of practicing radical empathy.
How To Listen To Survivors Of Childhood Abuse
At first, you probably won’t know your friend is a survivor of childhood abuse. When a survivor of childhood abuse summons the courage to tell his or her story, it is important that you believe, reassure and encourage rather than placing the survivor in a defensive position by trying to give reasons and/or make excuses for the abuser. This falls in the same category as blaming the victim and should be avoided at all costs. When you are listening to a survivor of childhood abuse, it's important to remember this.
In his excellent book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner explains that when a person experiences a traumatic event and asks “Why me?”, the person is not seeking a list of reasons. What is really called for in this situation is reflective listening. It’s understandable that you may not want to join the survivor of childhood abuse in denouncing the abuser; however, remember that you are friends with the survivor, not the abuser. Offer support and encouragement with phrases like “That must have been very frightening. I’m sorry that happened to you.” This can be followed and amplified by reflecting the survivor’s statement by saying something like “It sounds as if you felt…” or “I hear you saying…” and then rephrase what the survivor has said. This demonstrates empathy and understanding.
What to do when bad things happen to good people...
Believe, support and comfort...
A Supportive Friend is a Bridge Over Troubled Water!
What Can Friends Of Survivors Of Childhood Abuse Do?
Understand that many survivors of childhood abuse, myself included, have gone through a lot a personal growth and development and may have arrived at the point of being secure and content in many ways; however, some events trigger regression. This may test your friendship. If you are a true friend of the survivor, you will not abandon your friend in a time of anxiety.
In another example from Rabbi Kushner’s excellent, classic book, the rabbi tells the tale of a little boy who is late arriving home. His mother asks why he was late, and the little boy says that his friend’s bicycle broke, and he stopped to help. The mother says “But you don‘t know how to fix a bicycle.” to which the boy responds, “I didn’t help him fix his bicycle. I helped him cry.” This is what is needed by survivors of childhood abuse at various times throughout our lives, especially after experiencing a triggering event.
If you are friends with an adult survivor of childhood abuse, it is important that you understand that triggering events often call forth memories and sudden flashes of insight. This will always be the case. The processing is ongoing, and it is not possible to just “get over” it. To be a true friend to a survivor of childhood abuse, it is important to believe the survivor and to be a present, consistent, supportive and a nonjudgmental, reflective listener.
Copyright:SuzanneBennett:March 25, 2013
Also of interest...
- When Bad Things Happen to Good People
Sometimes the traditional model of forgiveness will just not work. Rabbi Harold Kushner offers an alternative model.
- Highly Sensitive People - The 5 Types Of Highly Sensitive Person. Which Are You?
An excellent article that explores the effect of abuse on highly sensitive people.
This homily from Msgr. Don Fischer resonates deeply with me...
"Let's just say a person living an ordinary life together with other people & a family, when there's that constant pressure to not make mistakes, when mistakes are met with anger & resentment & shaming & all that. What happens if that wasn't there? ...Something shifts in people when they're not under that kind of pressure...maybe it's nothing more than the release of ...all that shame & anger & fear of making mistakes -- maybe that's the key then that we become more open to the most amazing conversation that goes on between your heart & God's heart that somehow begins to guide you & you start being able to be the kind of agent in this world, this kind of vessel, your self transformed ...therefore able to transform others. " ~ Monsignor Don Fischer, Pastoral Reflections Institute
Jesus’ life shows that spiritual success can differ from the world’s success....