What help can I get from therapy if I’ve been abused?
A trained and caring therapist will give you a chance to be believed, heard, and cared about in a safe and non-judgmental setting. For me, figuring out my past felt like putting pieces of a puzzle together and there were always missing pieces. I needed a safe person to help me. During my childhood and much of my young adult life, I worked very hard to stuff the pain, the rapes, the people, and the emotions inside. At about age 29, the memories and feelings started popping up like the Whack-a-Mole game at the arcade. It felt like I had the mallet in my hand and I was whacking it all back down, but my past began popping up faster than I could manage.
During different periods of my life, I tried various coping methods such as food (carbs), alcohol, self-harm and so much more to avoid the surfacing emotions and to push back the memories. It only helped temporarily and then I had to drink more, binge more, cut more, etc. The self-harm episodes began requiring medical attention. I needed a safe person who understood the craziness. That’s how it felt, like I was going crazy. But the truth is, I was reacting very similar to other survivors who have endured sexual abuse during childhood. To help me figure out how to manage the symptoms and learn healthier coping skills, I needed someone trained in trauma recovery.
Prior to entering into a therapeutic relationship, I tried getting support from family members, but that was a disaster. For example, when I tried to check out what I was remembering with some of my relatives, there was either denial, blame, or a challenge. “You weren’t 3 years old when we lived on Grant St. You were 5!” First of all, what does it matter if I was 3, 15 or 80? No one at any age deserves to be abused. A family member’s need to split hairs over a detail means that person is not able to be a safe support for you.
A trained therapist instead will remind you to be patient with yourself and not get stuck on exact details. They understand that traumatic memories are stored differently in the cells of our brain and will sometimes resurface in vague ways. They will also be able to reassure you that processing these memories will take time but eventually help you leave the trauma and pain behind. You are amazing and very brave to have survived. You deserve to have someone believe your story and care about your pain!
Another benefit of counseling is having someone to help you challenge any lies you believe about yourself. Abuse breeds shame and guilt. Lies take residence in our mind and a good counselor can help you challenge your false beliefs. By the time I was 8 years old, I felt like a whore and believed I was dirty. Pedophiles are master manipulators at convincing their victims that the sexual contact was either mutual or that the child is at fault. I heard statements such as:
“You know you like this.”
“You wore that dress so that I could easily get to you.”
“If you didn’t want this, it wouldn’t feel so good.”
These messages cause feelings of shame, guilt, loneliness, anger and so much more. Sadly, there are still many people in our environment who do not understand the complex dynamics between an abuser and a victim. A victim may feel genuine love for his/her rapist. A wife may love the husband who beats her weekly and a child usually loves the parent who abuses them. We often don’t understand our own emotions and actions. False beliefs such as, “It was my fault” or “I am worthless” become rooted in our soul until someone helps us uncover the lies we believe and aids us in the fight to believe the truth.
The truth is, the abuse was not your fault, you are not bad, you are not dirty, you are precious and you are lovable!
The most important part of therapy is the intimate, yet safe, relationship. Make sure you find someone with whom you feel comfortable and who has safe boundaries. If you had cancer, you would look for a doctor well trained in helping someone with your particular diagnosis. For example, there are many therapeutic techniques used to help survivors manage symptoms such as anxiety, flashbacks, and triggers. Do your research. You are precious and deserve to be well cared for.
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