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Working together as a community to overcome the stigma of child abuse

Working together as a community to overcome the stigma of child abuse

13 November 2012

Written by Dr. Cathy Kezelman, President Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) Photo reproduced from fanpop.com

This article speaks about an issue which many people find uncomfortable, and that is the issue of child abuse and its often long-term impacts. It’s an issue which has long been steeped in stigma and taboo and yet it is one which is prevalent in all communities including the Jewish community.

The fact is that an estimated 4-5 million Australian adults have experienced childhood trauma in one form or another, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse, as well as neglect, or growing up in situations of family or community violence. Growing up with a parent with a mental illness, who abuses substances or has been exposed to other forms of grief, loss or abandonment are other forms of childhood trauma.

Trauma which is interpersonal i.e. perpetrated by one human being against another, and is repeated, prolonged and extreme, and occurs during the crucial developmental years of childhood, can be especially damaging. Because of its many potential effects on health, mental health, relationships, and ways of coping, it impacts the very social fabric of our society. It affects not only its victims but those with whom they are in contact as well as the children they go on to have. Yet such trauma is often not recognised, acknowledged or appropriately addressed.

Many of us have a lived history which includes such traumas, traumas and effects which can leave one feeling isolated and alone, alienated from a society which does not like to talk or think about such matters. While many trauma survivors manage well, a lived experience of trauma can leave us struggling day to day with our emotions, relationships, sense of who we are and where we fit in the world.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Advances in neuroscience have established that the trauma of even early childhood abuse can be processed. Just as negative experiences affect the growth and development of the brain so too do new positive experiences provide opportunities for recovery. The brain can change, new pathways can form and people can move towards recovery. This is a time for hope and optimism but it is also a time to start acknowledging the reality of people’s lived experiences and the support that adult survivors of all forms of childhood trauma need towards recovery.

I am a survivor of child sexual and emotional abuse, the many effects of which I have struggled with for many years. I wish to share some of my personal story to show that recovery is possible with the right support, acceptance and understanding.

At the time my trauma came to the fore I was working a GP. I had been a GP for twenty years and worked hard juggling the demands of practice with a family of 4 children and a foster child. In April 1998 when I was in my mid 40’s my niece was killed in a car accident. I grieved for her, as one would expect. However as other members of my family started to come to terms with their loss I was becoming more distressed. I started to feel anxious and then had my first panic attack. I thought I was going to die! The panic attacks became more frequent, the anxiety generalized and I grew depressed. Then came a series of nightmares and flashbacks as the trauma stored in my subconscious unlocked.

For anyone who doesn’t know what a flashback is – it is a re-experiencing of prior events in which one is thrown back into reliving a trauma from the past, rather like what has been described in soldiers returning from combat. For me, then a 45 year old woman, I would suddenly relive being a 4, 6, 10 year old child in abject terror and pain, experiencing acts for which I didn’t even have the words. Such flashbacks would strike out of the blue and take me over. For several years flashbacks ruled my days and the past, dominated the present, while my every-day life took a back seat.

Soon I could barely function; I was forced to leave work and seek help. I consulted a clinical psychologist who was empathic and validating. However it still took me an eternity to trust her and to feel safe, or understand that she could keep me in mind. Not her fault - all were foreign concepts to me, as I had not been cared for and nurtured as a child. After some months in therapy it became apparent that I had virtually no memory for 10 years of my childhood. I didn’t appreciate the significance of such a period of traumatic amnesia back then – that such a period of memory loss often reflects a time of profound trauma.

I spent most of the next 2 years in bed, completely immobilized, and battling thoughts of suicide. The lengthy psychotherapeutic process and relationship of trust I established with my therapist finally put me on the road to recovery but the responses of many of those around me certainly made that struggle, so much the harder.

While my immediate family sought to support me, they didn’t know how for a long time. They were scared and confused, and my children were still young. My husband had his work cut out just keeping the family together. The reactions of my extended family however and of many of our friends exacerbated my sense of alienation, and that of my husband and family.

People were scared by the change in me, and in us. They labelled me. I was sick and it appeared to be a mental illness. Physical illnesses are not nearly as frightening. Many people didn’t know what to say and instead of simply saying that they didn’t know what to say, or just being there, for us they gave me and us a wide berth. Only a couple of friends were able to reach out to me at the time and extract me from my withdrawal. With many I felt rejected and abandoned and that worsened my feelings of isolation and depression.

As is common to many survivors my family of origin denied my childhood trauma.

They negated my experiences and invalidated my responses. My mother called my suicidal thoughts and gestures ‘reckless’ and I was lumped together with my father who had a psychiatric label and told I had his genes. The reactions of my medical colleagues didn’t help either. In fact my medical colleagues, who one would have imagined would have been empathic and supportive, bolted faster than anyone. As soon as I became a mental patient and was forced to give up work as ‘a doctor’ they didn’t want to know me. I lost any connection I had with my colleagues and felt more alienated and alone than ever.

Over time I did start to feel safe and protected, as my therapist provided me with a space in which together we could explore whatever I brought into the room. I processed the trauma and made sense of it, as much as one can and today live a productive, emotionally connected and full life. It is my wish that all survivors of childhood trauma be afforded the same opportunities. I have not forgotten my trauma; it will always be a part of me but it no longer dominated my existence and rules me.

One in five of people have been abused as a child. Such trauma is common and potentially enormously destructive. Yet despite possibilities for recovery as a society and communities adult survivors of childhood trauma often cannot find the right help and support they need to move on with their lives.

The legacy of child abuse is, for the most part steeped in secrecy, silence and collective denial, elements which are fuelled by ignorance, fear and disgust. There is a pervasive belief that the trauma occurred such a long time ago that people need to just get on with it and over it. Instead of us as a society embracing those who have been affected and working with them towards recovery we continue to deny the prevalence of trauma along with its impacts and its costs. And we pathologise its presentations and dismiss and minimise its repercussions, leaving individuals struggling simply to get to first base. If we can only as human beings learn to be there for one another, listen, empathise and understand that such reactions are understandable in the context of trauma, people who have been abused in childhood will begin to overcome their shame and self-blame and speak out.

In recent years, the Australian media has reported on cases of child sexual assault much more frequently. But the focus has often been on the horror of single cases, stories which need to be told but yet ones which still allow us to ignore more substantive educative messages. A persistent collective consciousness of the lived reality of complex trauma remains elusive and we continue within the throes of an entrenched societal ‘traumatic amnesia’. We try and externalise the trauma and tell ourselves that it doesn’t occur within our community, or religious or ethnic group.

Over recent years we have witnessed widespread revelations of abuse, often of a systemic nature within an array of institutions and organisations. Many of these institutions and organisations have sought to protect themselves and those who work in them rather than to prioritise accountability, justice, child protection and victim support. And in the process they have discredited and often re-victimised those courageously speaking out. Hopefully that is starting to change.

However, the vast majority of child abuse occurs within the home and family. Yet family business is still perceived as being private and as a result acknowledgement of abuse and violence within it is often repressed. ‘Family secrets’ are preserved. In my family the focus was on keeping up appearances externally rather than acknowledging the harm going on within.

The desire for us as a society to keep these matters secret was highlighted by the NAPCAN 2010 survey which revealed even if a child disclosed sexual abuse only 34% of Australians would call the police and report it. We feel it is not our problem and turn away.

Perpetrators use secrecy and silence to hide their crimes and if secrecy fails they attack the credibility of their victims. Secrecy, silence and discrediting occur not only organisationally and institutionally but societally as well. Collectively we recoil from stories of abuse and often blame the victim for making us uncomfortable and effectively for their own victimisation. Blaming, silencing, punishing and re-victimising victims are national practices which conspire to ostracise victims and deny their opportunities for recovery.

It is time to speak openly and candidly about the factors which foster ongoing abuse and how to mitigate them. More survivors and the organisations which represent them are starting to speak out but they need to be heard by a society which is ready to listen. Only through acceptance and understanding can they can overcome the inappropriate shame and self-blame, imposed on them by their abuse, to find health, wellbeing and fully rejoin their communities.

To find out more go to www.asca.org.au and for support call 1300 657 380 to speak to a trauma therapist (If the call is not answered directly it will be returned as soon as possible)

Monday October 29th is Blue Knot Day, a national awareness day for adult survivors of childhood trauma. Someone you know? For more information or to donate go to www.asca.org.au/blueknotday

Contact Dr. Kezelman on ckezeleman@asca.org.au or call 0425 812 197

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