Friday, October 30, 2015

Family Abuse, Evaluating Your Experience

A significant source of pain for survivors of abuse is the never-ending internal conversation: What happened?, Did it really happen?, Did what happened rise to the level of abuse?, and How bad was it?

Answering these questions is difficult for two reasons. First, abuse is recalled in fragments because it registers in the older, nonverbal parts of the brain (the reptile brain).  Second, there is no commonly understood scale of "badness" or "realness" outside of ourselves to help make sense of the past, and sometimes the present as well.

The good news is that there are objective ways to evaluate your experience.  They are derived from new understandings about how human beings develop, the nature of trauma, the mechanics of memory, and the components that make up resilience.

In this article, we will pick one of the most easily understood evaluation tools, a list of Basic Human Needs.  This list is a compilation of what every human, in every culture, needs to have in order to live a healthy, well-adjusted, complete life.  Meeting them does not depend on wealth, access to electricity or plumbing, age, or gender.  Significant gaps or failures of access have consequences for the human being who experiences them.

Here's a typical version of the list:

How to use this list to evaluate your experience:  

1.  Read the list to yourself, preferably out loud.  Look up words you don't understand (like empathy or efficacy).  Notice how the words are grouped under larger categories.  People who try this are often surprised to see how large the "Connection" and "Meaning" categories are.

2.  Pick one period in your life, like childhood or your current situation, and cross out the words on this list that you don't feel were (or are) available to you.  Notice the pattern of what's missing and what remains.

One woman who was leaving a long-term romantic relationship said she crossed out everything but air and water, and "sometimes I even felt there wasn't enough air in the room because he was so controlling."

In many families, especially ones where being seen and not heard is the standard for behavior for children, food, shelter, and a place to sleep covers the parental responsibilities.  The rest is the job of school, a sports team, and then whomever you hook up with.  There is no recognition that a child can't wait 18 years to feel belonging, hope, or nurturing.

3.  Take a few minutes to look at the picture that emerges from crossing out/what's left on the Basic Human Needs List. The visual image you have created by crossing out what was missing for you provides a new kind of information about what you have, and have not, experienced.  Often, it's a picture that feels very sad. If you can tolerate it, sit with the sadness for a few minutes. This is a sadness you've been holding onto, without acknowledging or feeling it. Part of you already knows what this picture is showing.

4.  If this were a list of vitamins and nutrients, the next step would be obvious.  You would see where your diet is lacking and you'd know what to add to improve it for better health. This list works the same way.  Now that you see what has been unavailable for you as a person, you can make changes to fill in the gaps.  For example, if sharing and mutuality are not part of your experience, you now know that these things are important (not frivolous demands made by needy people), and you can look for safe ways to bring more sharing and mutuality into your life.

If you are unable to make changes, the picture you've made using this list can show you how bad things are, and validate your sense that things aren't right by naming what's going wrong.  Use it to answer the questions in the first paragraph:
What happened?/  What's happening?
Did it really happen?/  Is it really happening?
Did what happened rise to the level of abuse?/  Is it abuse?
How bad was it?/  How bad is it?

Where this list won't help you:  Abuse and neglect are like yin and yang, two interconnected sides of what can go wrong for human children and adults.  When you are planning how to fill in the gaps, it doesn't matter whether you classify "lack of honesty," for example, in the relationships you are looking at as abuse or neglect.  

Before you fill those gaps, you might feel not only sadness but also anger at those who failed you. How normal of you!  You might want to take this list and show it to your parent or partner to prove their treatment of you is wrong and hurtful.  Again, how normal of you! In fact, the more abuse and neglect you have suffered in your life, the greater the urge to confront or punish those responsible.

But the odds are the reality you've discovered in the list won't help you get through to those who have failed you. Within the family, blaming and confronting an evil parent or even a guilt-ridden apologetic one, has a backlash of guilt evoked by our universal code of honoring parents that is worse than walking away. Happy endings are rare, and the burden of repairing the damage still falls on the child.

If you look to the justice system, you'll have a long wait and a great possibility for disappointment. Even people whose perpetrators get the death penalty rarely report they feel better, let alone have the missing pieces restored.

The course of action that works well for most people is to remake their lives with the help of diagnostic tools like the one above.  The world is a diverse and lively place where you can find people who will respect and validate your needs.  There's no reason to look back.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

What Does It Take to Recover From Abuse?

There are many human beings on this planet who have endured and survived abuse and neglect. Modern common knowledge has asserted in response to their pain that if you are still alive, you will recover by some natural internal process determined by your character traits or as a result of "resilience".  

Some people do indeed "buck up" and "move on", at least they appear to have recovered. Many more live shortened lives distorted by the painful residuals of what happened in the past.  In recent decades, there has been a push in the healing and scientific community to figure out something that works better than pushing recovery back on those who have suffered.

While many talented, interested people have contributed to a better understanding of recovery, we refer here to published work done by Judith Herman, M.D., Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., and Peter Levine, Ph.D.  All responsible approaches to healing draw on the wisdom of earlier talented people.  Dr. Levine's work also connects with healing traditions from older cultures where shamans and the human community did the recovery work we now expect from doctors and therapists.

Isn't recovery a personal quest, defined differently by each person?  It certainly is personal because abuse and neglect* are directed at you personally, unlike natural devastation generated by large impersonal forces (like storms and wars).  Abuse works because it upsets the biology of living things by distorting or denying the things we need to keep mind, body, and spirit healthy.  The study of recovery is based on what we have in common as humans, a reality that underlies the truth that abuse is personal.

What does abuse look like?  Here's a sample of some of the possible ways abuse can destabilize a human being, any human being:

Physical:  Starving, beating, restraining, taking away housing, money, jobs, etc.

Psychological:  Isolation, humiliation, subjugation, preventing education or consistent loving relationships, etc.

Spiritual:  Persecution, prejudice and discrimination, unreasonable demands and blame, etc.

What works?  Cycling through a personal process that hits 3 different areas of human life, physical and emotional safety, remembering in a way that moves what happened into the past, into a safe-to-access story that acknowledges the pain but doesn't overwhelm any more, and reconnecting with yourself and with others - being able to accept and give love and care again.  The "personal" in this process is the part where you control how and when and with whom you work on recovery.  It doesn't mean you do it alone. Reconnecting is all about including others.  Safety and Remembering are both private and inclusive of others, including animals.

The drawing below (based on Judith Herman's work) is a reminder that this is not a linear, "check off the box and move on to the next thing" process.  It seems to work out best as a "little of this, little of that as tolerated" cycle.  Every small success makes tackling the other aspects easier.

Where do willpower and character play a part in recovery?  They don't.  While none of these components is going to happen without your cooperation, you can't will yourself into recovery any more than you can will yourself to get over the flu faster. Positive thinking has its place, but it is not a way to recover from abuse.  Denial, and the always popular "not talking about it", just lets the consequences of abuse roll on under the surface, affecting everyone in its path.

Recovery in this model (which is based on examining the actual recovery process of thousands of survivors of abuse) is about doing, in small steps, the actions and mental shifts that hit one or more of these three marks, over and over again.  Abuse doesn't break a person down in a day; recovery takes time too.

What about resilience?  Resilience is currently understood as what you have in your past that can help you re-establish safety, remembering, and reconnecting.  If you had a secure childhood, it helps your recovery from adult abuse because you have a baseline to which you can refer.

Fortunately, you can build resilience for the future by going through the recovery process. Avoiding recovery uses whatever resilience you had, and leaves you very vulnerable to any future stress.  Even the normal things like aging, illness, changes in circumstance are more destabilizing if they are piled on a life already depleted by abuse without complete recovery, which includes all 3 elements.

What now?  Read the books by Herman, van der Kolk, and Levine, visit their websites for videos, classes, therapists who carry on their work with clients (using the links in the third paragraph above).  Building your recovery around these components has worked for many many people.  I hope you will become one of them and have a richer, calmer, and fuller life as a result.

(* rather than say "abuse and neglect" every time, I'm shortening it to "abuse".  All abuse has an aspect of neglect and all neglect is abusive.  The usual definition is that abuse is something someone does to you, and neglect is something someone does NOT do that should have been done.)