Your memory can be categorized into a few different functions and trauma can affect these functions in several different ways. This is because your memory is related to several different areas in your brain that serve different purposes. Trauma can affect your memory in significant ways that impact trauma recovery.
There are 4 different kinds of memory, each associated with different parts of your brain, and each affected slightly differently after trauma. The combination of trauma’s effects on the different areas of the brain associated with memory accounts for why survivors of trauma often have difficult remembering specific details of the trauma, or why they may have confusion about the order of events that happened around the time of the trauma.
Semantic Memory and Trauma
This kind of memory has to do with remembering general knowledge, such as knowing who the president is, knowing what an orange is, or knowing the difference between a truck and a car.
Semantic memory is associated with the temporal lobe and the inferior parietal cortex in the brain. Information from different parts of the brain, such as words, sounds, or images combine to form semantic memories. When trauma occurs, it can prevent the brain from combining this information correctly to form semantic memories.
This area of memory is particularly damaging for children exposed to trauma, because their brains are still in the growth and development phase and so trauma can have a devastating effect. Children exposed to trauma can literally have their brains re-wired to stay in survival mode, which can affect them when it comes to behavior and learning for years.
Episodic Memory and Trauma
Episodic memory has to do with how you remember specific events, including traumatic memories. This can include memories such specific words or actions that occurred during a traumatic assault, memories of the physical or emotional pain you experienced, or how scared you felt before, during, and after a traumatic event.
The hippocampus in the brain is the area associated with episodic memory and is involved in creating and recalling episodic memories. When a trauma occurs, episodic memory can become fragmented and the sequences of events can get jumbled up in your brain. You can think of it like your memories being in a file cabinet. They might be all in order before a significant traumatic event happens, but trauma is like someone opened up the file cabinet and threw all the files on the floor and mixed them up.
These episodic memories can become confused, and trauma survivors might even begin to doubt themselves when their memory doesn’t line up with certain facts such as the timeline of when the trauma happened or what happened shortly before or after the incident.
The impact of trauma on episodic memory is especially difficult when the trauma involved a crime and there is law enforcement involved. Law enforcement is always looking to sort out the facts and verify timelines when they are doing an investigation. When a trauma survivor’s memory doesn’t completely align with discoverable facts, law enforcement might question their version of events. This can leave survivors feeling self-doubt and sometimes re-traumatized by the law enforcement process.
Procedural Memory and Trauma
Procedural memory has to do with retaining memory about how to do things, such as remembering how to ride a bike or drive a car, or remembering the code for a gate or security system.
The striatum is the area of the brain associated with procedural memory. When trauma impacts this area of the brain, it can change patterns that were previously engrained in your brain. For example, you might find that you forget to do things that you normally do by habit, or you might forget certain details that you need to remember.
Trauma can even cause you to unconsciously tense up your muscles because you have been thrust into survival mode by the traumatic event, and this can cause pain to build up over time. Tension can become a habit that forms because you always feel on edge after a trauma. Particularly for people who have held onto trauma for many years and haven’t been able to heal from it, this physical pain can stay stuck in your body and manifest as aches, pain, inflammation, and muscle tension.
Emotional Memory and Trauma
Emotional memory has to do with the emotional response you get from triggers, such as feeling scared or anxious when you drive past the location where a traumatic incident happened. You could also experience emotional memories when you have to face a person who abused or assaulted you.
The amygdala is associated with these emotional memories surrounding traumatic experiences. Sometimes, a trigger can cause an onset of emotional memories to surface, and you may feel like you are re-living the event in your mind. This can cause significant emotional distress, fear that continues to re-surfaces, and recurring intrusive thoughts about the traumatic experience.
Emotional memories in response to triggers affect almost everyone who has experienced a traumatic event in their life. Coping with triggers is an integral part of trauma recovery and is one of the earliest challenges that survivors face after a traumatic event or situation. Emotional memories can last a lifetime and can significantly affect a survivor’s mental health and overall wellbeing.
Integrating Traumatic Memories in Trauma Recovery
All of these effects of trauma on the brain means that trauma recovery is about more than just trying to figure out how to move past the trauma. Trauma survivors need support to understand what is happening inside their minds so that they know what is happening. It’s hard for survivors to feel like they can move on with their lives when they face triggers all around them that constantly bring them back to the traumatic event.
Trauma survivors may feel like they are going crazy because of all of these responses going on in the brain. The brain is a highly sensitive and complicated organ, and it functions to keep every area of your body alive. That means that when it senses danger, it’s going to react in whatever way is necessary to keep you alive.
Your brain wants you to react to every trigger because it is protecting you from potential danger that would be traumatic again for you. This causes a lot of distress, because you might feel like you’re on high alert even when you don’t want to be. Learning to cope with and rationalize what is going on in your brain may take practice and support.
When it comes to memory, remember to think about the file cabinet and how much disarray has happened to cause your memories to be foggy or disorganized. You can try to put things back in order bit by bit, which might help you to integrate more of your memories and gain a fuller picture of what happened so that you can shape your own understanding about your experiences.
However, try to be kind to yourself by not furthering self-doubt when your memories are fuzzy and unclear. You may not remember every detail about the trauma that happened to you, but you know how your experiences made you feel, and that is even more important. Processing the feelings that you had before, during, and after a trauma is just as important, if not more so, than the details of the event itself.
Trauma recovery can be difficult because it’s never fun to have to sort through all your emotions and talk about difficult experiences. Working with an experienced trauma recovery specialist and gathering support from caring loved ones are the most important steps in recovering from trauma, regardless of the specifics of the trauma that you have experienced.
When a person experiences a trauma, the brain reacts in several different ways which can affect the life of that person moving forward. Just as a physical injury from a traumatic accident can affect your body at the site of the injury for years to come, your mind can be also be impacted for years after a traumatic incident, whether due to a physical or psychological trauma.
Trauma causes an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and fear of potential death, serious injury, serious loss (death of someone else), pain, or entrapment. These overwhelming feelings and fear cause the brain to react in ways to try and protect itself. Traumatic experiences can overwhelm the brain’s ability to cope using normal methods of stress relief, and thus alternative coping methods have to be developed, which can cause disruption in the lives of people trying to recover from trauma.
In order to understand why people may have certain reactions to traumatic events, it is important to understand what trauma really is and the range of ways that the brain reacts to the trauma.
Defining Traumatic Experiences
Trauma can occur in response to major onetime events such as natural disasters, a car accident, witnessing or being a victim of violence or a crime such as sexual or physical assault. It may also occur in response to chronic or repetitive experiences such as child abuse or neglect, military combat, neighborhood violence and crime, wartime atrocities, physically or emotionally abusive relationships, and long-term deprivation.
The most important thing to understand about trauma is that it is based on a person’s subjective experience. Two people could experience a similar incident but react in very different ways. The objective facts of the experience do not always cause the same reaction in everybody, so it’s important to understand that it is the individual that defines whether the experience was traumatic or not.
Whether a person perceives an incident as being traumatic or not often has to do with how much danger they were in during the event, whether loss of life occurred or could have occurred, whether it was a one-time incident or an ongoing experience, whether they have access to reasonable safety measures, how much support they have from friends and family, and whether they are validated or shamed for their experiences.
What are the Symptoms of Trauma
When a person has experienced a trauma, such as a sexual assault, a home invasion, or a significant loss, they may experience a wide range of symptoms in reaction to the trauma. Remember that these are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL situations. These symptoms may include:
- Emotional distress
- Distressful and intrusive memories
- Constant feeling of being in danger
- Sleep disturbances
- Emotional numbing or disconnection from others
- Inability to trust others
- Hyper-arousal (constant worry or checking behaviors)
- Physical reactions (headaches, muscle aches)
- Uncontrollable fear
- Confusion about timing or order of events
- Feelings of guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Difficulty concentrating
These are all indications that the brain is attempting to either prevent further trauma from happening again by keeping you in a constant state or arousal or protecting you from potential emotional distress by suppressing upsetting or painful emotions. It is also normal to experience an increase in these symptoms in reaction to another stressors that arises or surrounding a stressful time such as an anniversary or other significant date related to the trauma.
The Effects of Trauma on the Brain
When you have experienced trauma, your brain goes into a state of hyper-arousal, basically because your fight or flight response has been triggered and your brain reacts by trying to prepare you for potential danger. That potential for danger reverberates through your entire body, including your limbic system and your autonomic nervous system.
Your limbic system includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala, as well as other areas of the brain, and has to do with processing emotions and forming memories. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating many bodily functions, including your arousal to emotional circumstances and the functioning of your autonomic nervous system (blood pressure, breathing rate, sweating, heart-rate). The hippocampus helps you convert what is happening in the present moment into long-term memories. The amygdala helps to control reactions to stimuli, such as aggression and fear.
When trauma triggers a stress reaction in your limbic system, it can feel overwhelming because your brain is not used to dealing with such a high level of stress, and so its functions can be negatively affected. This reaction in the brain accounts for why some trauma survivors have difficulty recalling the correct order of timing or certain details of the event.
It’s not because they are lying or exaggerating, which some trauma survivors are accused of when their memory is impaired due to a trauma. It is because the part of their limbic system responsible for creating and storing memories was flooded by stress and the entire system was reacting in ways to focus solely on surviving the traumatic situation. Unfortunately, this memory impairment in reaction to trauma is often used against survivors to try and minimize what happened to them or cause doubt in their account of the events.
The truth is that when traumatic events happen, your memory can get mixed up and certain events may not be organized correctly in your brain’s memory filing system, so to speak. This doesn’t mean that a survivor’s perception of events is invalid, it just means that their memory may have been damaged during the traumatic event, which can cause further confusion, shame, or embarrassment about the traumatic event.
Your autonomic nervous system includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, and it is responsible for alternately preparing you to handle a dangerous situation, and then calming you back down when the danger is over.
During a stressful event, the nervous system releases the stress hormone cortisol to give you a boost of energy to react to the dangerous situation. Normally, when a stressful even passes, the nervous system will then regulate your hormonal output and bring your back to your normal homeostasis. However, when a major trauma overwhelms your system in reaction to the perceived danger you are in that flood of stress hormones might remained heightened, leaving you feeling stuck in a constant state of hyper-arousal.
This state of hyper-arousal gets exacerbated when you are being constantly flooded with stressors, such as being stuck in an abusive relationship (where you feel you’re always walking on eggshells), or if you experience multiple triggers back to back (such as losing several loved ones in a short period of time). This relentless stress to your system causes your brain to react in a way that can feel like you are constantly on the look-out for the next potential danger or loss, and can make it hard to get back to a period of relative emotional stability.
When to Seek Treatment for Trauma
Trauma recovery can take time, and there is no hard and fast time-line for how long it takes for each individual. However, if you have been experiencing the symptoms described above for more than 3 months after the initial trauma, you may need to seek out professional help. Remember that it is normal to have these emotional reactions to trauma, but talking with someone in a safe environment can help you to process your fears and the emotional damage that you have endured.
If you have people who you know are supportive and understanding, it can be helpful to talk to those who care about you and explain what you are going through. It can be hard to reach out for help, but it is so helpful when you feel supported by those who truly care about you. Talking about trauma can be hard, so turning to a professional therapist or a support group for people who have been through similar traumas can be incredibly healing and help you get to the next level in your recovery.
If you are experiencing any of the following after a trauma, please consider seeking out a professional with experience in trauma recovery:
- Severe fear, anxiety, or depression
- Trouble with functioning at home or work
- Disturbing nightmares or flashbacks
- Avoiding more and more things to prevent distress
- Unable to talk about the trauma with caring friends or family
- Feeling overwhelmed or frozen in life and unable to move forward
- Abusing substances to feel relief from emotional distress
Trauma recovery involves processing memories related to the trauma and the feelings that were triggered during and after the event. An informed trauma therapist can help you to face feelings and memories that have caused you distress and discharge some of the emotional energy or anger you may feel related to the traumatic event. You may also learn new ways to cope with overwhelming feelings and learn how to re-build your ability to assess safety and build trusting relationships.
Trauma disrupts your body and your brain’s ability to feel safe and at ease. Your nervous system may feel like it is stuck in overdrive and you can’t calm down or feel balanced. In order to dispel that excess energy and feel safe again, you may have to go through some uncomfortable things, like talking about painful memories. Don’t push yourself to do things you’re not ready for, but recognize that healing takes time and you don’t have to go through it alone.
For more on trauma recovery, see this post on 5 Things Needed for Trauma Recovery.
Anger is an emotion that we all experience, but learning to manage anger is an important skill to have when it comes to developing and practicing emotional intelligence. Part of having high functioning emotional intelligence is understanding and coping with all of our emotions in a healthy way, including anger. Anger management can be a problem for some people, but there are definitely some skills that you can work on to help with this problem if you are one of those people.
In order to build and maintain strong anger management skills, it can be helpful to look at where your anger is coming from, how you react to anger, and what you need in order to gain control of your anger. It is also important, though, to understand what anger is and why it is so hard to manage for some people.
Why Do We Get Angry?
Anger is an emotion, of course, but it is also what therapists sometimes term as a secondary emotion. This means that anger is an emotion that we experience in reaction to another emotion. For example, you can feel disrespected, and then feel angry about that. You could also feel frustrated, betrayed, overwhelmed, irritated, or in grief and feel angry in response to those emotions as well.
Part of anger management is learning to tap into the primary emotion that your anger is in response to. When you feel angry, you need to acknowledge and cope with that anger, but ultimately you will need to understand what the primary emotion is that you are having, because that is the emotion that still needs to be dealt with. Understanding WHY you are angry is just as important as learning how to react to that anger in a healthy way.
How to Build Anger Management Skills
When I work with clients on anger management, we work on managing anger through basically a 4-part process. Here is a breakdown of the process that we go through to learn anger management skills and gain control over anger:
- Learn what your triggers are
First you need to work on learning what triggers your anger most often. Whether it is situations that happen at work, small daily frustrations that overwhelm you, feeling disrespected by how someone speaks to you, or feeling ridiculed in some way, learn to identify what your triggers are so that you can be prepared to face them when they happen. You WILL get triggered in life, so we all have to understand what situations are most likely to cause us to react.
- Develop coping skills to deal with your reactions to anger
Everyone needs to have a good arsenal of coping skills to manage overwhelming emotions, including anger. You might need to practice taking a timeout to go for a walk when you feel out of control, learn deep-breathing techniques, go pound it out in the gym, or take up journaling as a form of self-expression. It is fine to remove yourself from a situation to give yourself a chance to calm down. Find out what works for your by trying some different things, whether that involves releasing that angry energy in an appropriate way or learning self-soothing techniques to calm yourself down in the moment when you feel very reactive.
- Understand the primary emotion from which your anger is coming
Once you’ve had a chance to calm down, you need to examine what the primary emotion is that you are reacting to. Did you feel disrespected by something that was said? Did you feel dismissed or ignored in some way? Are you feeling irritable because you are in grief? Learn to frame your anger as a secondary emotion and always try to identify what the underlying emotion is that you are having.
- Learn to express and address the primary emotion when addressing your anger or when in conflict with others
When you understand the primary emotion you are having, think about how to resolve the anger you are feeling by expressing that emotion in an assertive way. You can address the anger too, just be sure that you are not ignoring the root of the problem, or you will still feel angry, hurt, and frustrated. You might need to say something like “I feel angry because you called me an ugly name, which was hurtful and I felt very disrespected”. You are not denying the anger or pretending it doesn’t exist or isn’t valid, but you are taking it a step further by understand what triggered your anger and why you were having that emotional reaction. Ultimately, you need to resolve the feeling of being disrespected, not just the anger that was your reaction.
How to Know When You Need Help With Anger Management
Some people who experience significant anger management problems feel very out of control when they get angry. In extreme cases, some people even black out or go into explosive rages. When anger has become this overwhelming, it is important to seek professional help because your anger may be rooted in serious emotional traumas.
Sometimes anger becomes a reactive response over a long period of time because anger is an easily accessible emotion. We often deal with difficult emotions like rejection, fear, and insecurity by masking them with anger. Accessing and expressing that anger is easier and quicker than dealing with those other emotions, which can be scary.
Oftentimes it takes going through a process of understanding the very beginnings of your anger problem in order to heal and move forward. Anger can have deep roots that may have originated from childhood traumas, the type of messages you received from your family or by what you saw modeled in your home growing up. This means that you may have developed the use of anger as a coping mechanism when other forms of emotional expression were not safe for you.
When you are at the point where anger is affecting your relationships with people in all areas of your life, or has caused you problems in your employment and/or resulted in legal issues, you probably need to look into getting some personal attention from a therapist or from an anger management group to help you gain control over your anger. If you have faced significant consequences in your life due to anger, such as losing relationships, a job, property, or your freedom, then you need to seek help.
Having Real Control with Anger Management
You want to be in control of your anger, not have your anger control you. Being in control of your emotions rather than having your emotions control you is part of emotional intelligence. Sometimes we mistakenly think that aggressive expressions of anger put us in control because we can intimidate others into doing what we want or forcing them to listen. In reality, though, aggression towards others doesn’t result in real control. In fact, many people often feel ashamed about their behavior when then act out in aggression when they are angry.
If you find that you can control your anger at some times, but in other circumstances you feel out of control, then I would challenge you to think about whether you are using selective self-control of your anger management. For example, if you can control your anger at work, because you know you will get fired if you act out in aggression towards your boss (even though you may want to), but you then act aggressively towards your partner at home and say you can’t control it, then you might be using selective self-control.
If you can control your anger at work, then you CAN control your anger. You can use the same skills you have to use at work to keep yourself employed when you are dealing with problems at home. If you cannot control yourself regardless of the circumstances or potential consequences, then you probably need to seek counseling or other professional help in order to gain real control over your emotions and reactions.
The goal of anger management is not to never feel angry. The goal is to be able to express anger appropriately and without aggression towards other people. You can absolutely express anger in an assertive and appropriate way. You will actually feel more in control when you learn how to manage your reactions with strong coping skills, tap into the primary emotions you are reacting to, and express yourself assertively to address both the anger as well as the primary emotion you are having (ie: frustration, rejection, fear, or sadness).
Building a healthy response to anger will help you in all areas of your life, because you will be in control. When other people can push your buttons and you aren’t in control of your response, then it’s almost like they can control you like a puppet. Who is really in control at that point? You don’t want other people’s behaviors to dictate to you what your reaction is. Emotional intelligence is about understanding your own emotions and being in charge of how you react to those emotions, so practice using the 4 steps outlined above to help you gain control over anger and put yourself back in control.
Recovery from trauma can be a complicated, long, and difficult process. In truth, a traumatic experience is not always something that a person can get over, but there are ways to heal and work through a traumatic experience. Trauma recovery is about stabilization, healing, and building back mental and emotional strength that may have been damaged by the trauma.
Trauma occurs when an event or series of events happens to a person that threatens their safety, or they witness trauma occurring to another person, or it could also occur when an intense emotional loss happens. These situations can happen in the course of an act of violence, a natural disaster, the loss of a loved one, especially in disturbing or unusual circumstances, or after experiences of abuse.
Trauma causes recurring, intrusive, distressful memories or thoughts related to the trauma, flashbacks or nightmares of the trauma, and physiological reactions such as fatigue or insomnia. The psychological impact on those who suffer from trauma-related symptoms can be intense and painful. Recovery from trauma involves learning to live with the new reality created by the trauma, processing the event and the emotional response to the trauma, and learning to both release the emotional pain and simultaneously accept that there may always remain some pain. It can be incredibly daunting for people who feel vulnerable and injured from a traumatic event.
Whether you have experienced a trauma yourself, or you know someone who has, it is important to understand some of the things trauma survivors need in order to recover and heal from a traumatic event in their life. Here are some of the most important aspects of trauma recovery that I have found are needed to support those who have experienced a trauma:
Trauma often involves a threat to personal safety or the safety of someone you care about. This can happen due to exposure to war or other civilian violence, sexual assault, domestic violence, or childhood abuse, or in the case of the death of a loved one or the near death of yourself. That threat to safety causes survivors to live in a state of hyper-arousal, due to an ingrained instinct for survival. When your safety is threatened, you have to drop everything and try to achieve a sense of safety again before you can move forward with your life. This is why is is so important for trauma survivors to feel safe. This might be accomplished by increasing security at home or other areas, or by avoiding areas that trigger a sense of fear or safety threat. It may also mean building a sense of emotional safety by setting boundaries with others or limiting contact with people who have been abusive.
A major barrier to healing from trauma is when survivors are not believed when they talk about or report their experiences. When you have experienced a traumatic event, and then are told that you are a liar or that you are exaggerating your experience for attention, this causes further trauma. A world that already doesn’t feel safe feels even more threatening. Survivors may feel that they are being blamed for their own victimization, or that their own word about their personal experience is not valid. If you are not in the position of a court of law that needs to make judgements about an event to determine legal procedures, then you do not need to appoint yourself as the judge and jury of someone’s experience. Leave the evidence questions to the courts, and be supportive of the people you care about. If you have been traumatized, seek support from those who do believe you, and limit your engagement with those who express disbelief or judgement about your trauma. It can be incredibly painful when those who are supposed to care about you do not believe you, but there is support out there from professionals and advocates that can help.
People who have experienced a trauma need to be understood in addition to being believed. Validating someone’s experience by listening to their story and understanding why the experience has impacted them in the way that is has is key to trauma recovery. Trauma survivors need to know that the people around them that care about them are listening and understanding them, so that they feel safe expressing themselves and working through the process of healing. Validation can be provided by family, friends, caregivers, helping professionals, and communities. Feeling validated that your trauma is understood by others to be real and impactful can help you feel supported when you are trying to recover from a traumatic experience.
Empathy is different from sympathy, in that sympathy means to feel sorry for someone, whereas empathy means to really understand how someone is feeling. Trauma survivors benefit from receiving empathy from those who have experienced similar traumas, or who can relate to the feelings a trauma survivor is experiencing. This can be done through support groups or through group therapy, or by talking to a friend who has gone through a similar experience. Being engaged with others who truly understand your trauma can help you feel less isolated and more validated throughout the healing process. You don’t have to experience the exact same thing to be empathetic, though. If you want to help by empathizing with a trauma survivor, you can do so by trying to relate to their feelings of fear, shame, loss, and uncertainty. This doesn’t mean that you need to relay all the times when you have felt those emotions as well, as you don’t want to turn the conversation back around to yourself when you’re trying to be supportive. But it can mean just saying that you understand what is is like to have those feelings, and you want to support their healing throughout their recovery process.
Traumatic events often occur with an accompanying loss of control. If someone has been violent towards you or violated your rights, you probably felt out of control during the event because your power was taken from you at that moment. If you have experienced a loss or are grieving, you may feel out of control due to an inability to prevent a death or other losses from happening, and knowing that you do not have the power to bring them back. Reinstating power in other areas of your life can help you regain that sense of control that was lost during the trauma. This might mean reclaiming your right to set boundaries with other people or systems, or it might mean learning to say NO in stronger and more assertive ways in response to things you don’t want to do. It may also mean finding ways to heal through advocacy, such as mothers who have lost children to drunk driving do when they join an organization like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Finding ways to exert your power in a healthy and productive way can help the trauma recovery process. If you want to support someone who has been traumatized, helping them to reclaim that power and respecting their choices about how to reclaim that power can be one way to support those individuals.
Trauma recovery is a unique process for each person who has been through a traumatic event. While the recovery process might involve therapy, support groups, learning new coping skills, advocating for needed changes, and reclaiming lost power, each person’s needs will be different. Some people may find power in forgiveness, while others may feel that they need to hold onto their anger for awhile. That has to be okay, because no one should dictate how a trauma survivor recovers. When we dictate how trauma survivors find their path to recovery, we actually disempower them, which is counter-productive. Instead, listening and supporting people without judgement or attempts to convince them what they need to do is more effective and helpful. Keeping these 5 needs in mind when we try to support the people in our lives who have experienced trauma will help us all to be better friends, family members, and neighbors to those who have already been through enough trauma.
Many people struggle with healing from an abusive childhood, and when the abuser was a parent, the healing process can be particularly complicated. Everyone has a unique story and the impact on individuals is affected by many different factors. The severity, frequency, and tactics of the abuse, and emotional strain on the victim all impact the degree to which people are able to cope with and recover from past trauma. One area of struggle can revolve around the concept of forgiving your abuser.
Forgiveness is often one our culture’s go-to prescriptions when it comes to dealing with painful incidents that continue to impact our current lives. These prescriptions may come in the form of religious instructions, moral obligations, and the promise of healing. While forgiveness may be an important and helpful step in the recovery process, it is important to understand who it is being done for and why. Otherwise forgiveness itself becomes confusing, complicated, or even meaningless.
At one time in my career I was working as a hospice social worker. Most of my patients were very elderly, and the majority of them had supportive and loving families who had the comfort and peace of the patient as their priority. However, occasionally I worked with families where there was significant emotional strain in the relationship between the dying parent and the adult son or daughter, sometimes due to past abuse by the parent. Needless to say the issues each family was dealing with were unique and there were long and fraught histories involved. I had some family members who spoke to me about their own process of forgiveness and how it helped them to heal and find their own peace, and I had other families who had no interest in a dramatic reconciliation at the deathbed. They were tired of being judged for keeping their distance from a formerly abusive parent, and their own healing was better served by strong boundaries and detachment. Our society loves a Hollywood ending, and popular culture is littered with depictions of those reconciliations.
When I am working with clients to process and heal from childhood abuse, we discuss forgiveness and what it means for their individual recovery process. Some of the things we have to figure out through that process include knowing who the forgiveness is for (the victim, the abuser, or someone else), how it will or will not facilitate their healing process, and why it is being given. The answers to those questions help people come to an honest conclusion about whether they want to forgive their abuser, whether it will help at all, and the intentions behind that forgiveness. I don’t ever tell people that they need to or have to forgive their abuser in order to heal and recover from an abusive childhood. If people feel forced to take the moral high ground by offering forgiveness to someone who may or may not even be in their life anymore, they may continue to struggle to recover because it feels insincere and obligatory. However, if that forgiveness is offered for the right reasons and at the right time, it can be an important step towards releasing the control trauma can have over their life and emotional wellness. The “right reasons and right time” are not for me to decide. Those decisions need to be made by the individual who is healing from that trauma.
As friends, families, communities, and caregivers, we can place value on forgiveness without making it into an obligation for people who have been abused. Coping with the emotional labor of processing the abuse inflicted by a parent who is supposed to love and care for you is difficult enough without having social pressure to rush the process and bring it to a convenient and neat conclusion. Allowing abuse survivors to direct their own recovery and determine why, when, how, and if forgiveness is a part of their healing journey is a more supportive and intentional way to promote recovery.
This past Friday, Olympic Gold medalist Aly Raisman delivered a powerful victim impact statement at the sentencing portion of convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar, former doctor to the USA Gymnastics team. Nassar pled guilty to 7 counts of sexually abusing minors, but he has been accused by over 150 athletes of manipulating his position as their doctor by sexually abusing them under the guise of providing medical treatment. The depth and scope of his abusive practices are horrific, but as with many of the abusers who have been exposed over the past year and half, he had a network of people behind him helping to cover up his abuses and discredit or silence his accusers. Raisman made clear in her statement that victims everywhere are fed up with being silenced and dismissed by saying “You do realize now the women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time are now a force, and you are nothing.”
I have spent much of my career working with survivors of sexual abuse, both as a victim advocate and as a therapist. The criminal justice system has long been a source of frustration for me and my clients, both because of its re-victimization of survivors who do come forward, and the difficulty that victims have with receiving any kind of justice at all. Specifically, I find myself infuriated when cases are dismissed outright because “there is no evidence”. The message this sends to everyone is that a victim’s testimony is not evidence. It is only when dozens and dozens of women come forward with the same stories that their word can be trusted and used in a court of law. It takes a powerful army of survivors to put away 1 single abuser. This is the broken system that victims are forced to contend with if they want any measure of justice for the crimes against them. We don’t do this with other types of crimes.
Raisman spoke forcefully against her abuser in court, questioning the system that allowed his abuse to continue for years and calling him out directly for being a manipulative predator of the worst kind. It can be difficult for a survivor to see Raisman, who is a successful, high profile woman, speak out in court and think “I couldn’t do that, she has more security, money, and support than I do; I have too much to lose by speaking out”. Yet one of the first things Raisman acknowledged when she began to speak was that she was scared, and she didn’t want to come to deliver her victim impact statement. Even strong, powerful women can feel scared and small when facing the prospect of speaking out against an abuser. No one is protected from criticism when speaking out about their own abuse, because our culture has ingrained an atmosphere of victim blaming and doubt into our collective response to crimes of sexual abuse. I have personally borne witness to enough horror stories of how victims have been treated to know that we have a serious, serious problem. Policies have gotten better over the past 40 years or so, but in practice, much of the shame and blame continues.
Sexual abuse survivors need first and foremost to feel safe again, which means being believed and supported when they come forward. When their experiences are minimized and dismissed, or when they are blamed for the actions of their abusers, the healing process is damaged and it may take years or decades before they are able to seek help again. Healing after sexual trauma is possible, but we can all contribute to making this process more accessible to survivors by believing and supporting victims and taking their claims seriously. However, until the criminal justice system undergoes reforms that will enable more victims to confront their abusers in court, countless victims will go without justice and countless abusers will remain free to continue to perpetuate their crimes. The problem of sexual abuse, harassment, and exploitation continues daily. Anyone who cares about this issue must continue to speak out in support of survivors and demand changes in the systems that perpetuate the abuse if real change is to be made.
If you have been a victim of abuse, please know that while your circumstances may be unique to your particular experience, there is a lot of support available to survivors these days. It is important to know who, in your personal network of people, you may be able to trust and confide in for support. Yet even if you do not have a supportive group of family or friends around you, you can find support by reaching out for help from your community and from online resources. Finding an individual therapist or support group is one way to start the healing process. However, there are also many other online resources and forums where you can receive information and support if you are not ready to seek support in person or if you have difficulty finding resources in your area. If you have not been victimized, but know someone who has, you can be a supportive presence to them by believing them, listening, and providing reassurance that that abuse was not their fault, and that you are willing to stand by them as they heal and seek help in whatever form they need. Do not try to force the person to go to the police if they are not ready or do not want to report. As discussed, the criminal justice system sometimes serves to re-victimize and cause more pain to survivors. However, if a survivor does want to report, you can encourage and support them through that process, or help them to find a victim advocate. For more information about support and resources, visit www.rainn.org, or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.