August 30, 2016

Escaping the Hands of the Abuser - Part 5

Today, we conclude our series with Ivonne Meeuwsen. She explores the new concept of "post-traumatic growth" and shares with us how she found freedom from the past.

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There's no such thing as Post Traumatic Growth

Every so often a new term hits the block. Post Traumatic Growth is such a term. The idea is that having experienced trauma helps people build strength of character. I say this is at best a bunch of bullcrap and at worst a snow job, trying to make the perpetrators look good. Let me explain.

Why Post Traumatic Growth is hogwash

'What doesn't kill us makes us stronger' is one of those sayings that seems to underpin the idea of Post Traumatic Growth. On the surface it feels true enough. After all, pressure creates diamonds from coal doesn't it? It's a nice idea to think something good might come out of all this trauma. But what is the sobering truth about the trauma of child sexual abuse?

1. Child sexual abuse does kill

People who have been abused as a child are 12 times as likely to take their own life before the age of 30. Twelve times as likely! Child sexual abuse kills those who are unable to cope with the stress and rigours of surviving. Let's face it, many of us aren't survivors at all. 

2. Child sexual abuse doesn't make you stronger

People who have been sexually abused as a child tend to have a high score on the ACE-index. The ACE scores the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences someone has as a predictor of trouble later on in life. What does it mean to have a high score? It means you're more likely to suffer from a number of physical and psychological disorders, including (but not limited to) heart failure,  depression, diabetes, COPD, and alcoholism/dependency issues. 

3. Childhood sexual abuse stunts the growth of the individual

The stress response of flight, fight or freeze is activated and since the child has neither the option to fight the perpetrator (usually an authority figure) nor to flee from the agressor, the only option left open is to freeze. If this happens once and the child is well cared for, the child's resilience is usually enough to bounce back from a traumatic experience. Most childhood sexual abuse is not a one time only occurrence. Repeated, chronic trauma makes the freeze-reaction semi-permanent and stunts the growth of the individual.

BUT! Trauma can be turned around

Healing is possible, even though conventional wisdom tells us otherwise. There is evidence that even major trauma can heal completely in young children. In a long running study among abused and neglected orphans in Romania, it turns out that children who were placed in loving homes for the rest of their childhood were, upon reaching adulthood, indistinguishable from children growing up in loving homes. Healing is possible and from my personal experience, I can tell you that it's also possible for adults who still carry the burden of their childhood miseries. Life can become about living, instead of mere survival.


Post traumatic growth spurt?

Trauma can be overcome and when people who have been sexually abused go on their healing journey, there appears to be a growth spurt. A period of accelerated growth occurs, when you discover your true self in the process of healing from the past. Freed from the constraints of the past, the freeze finally over, the individual often grows into their own strength at top speed. All the effort that has gone into keeping yourself suppressed is finally freed up to create what you want out of life. In many of my clients, I have seen a tremendous growth spurt happen, comparable to puberty and a midlife crisis wrapped into one!

We should call it "Post-Healing Growth" instead!

This growth spurt is not the result of the traumatic experiences, which is why I take issue with the term 'Post Traumatic Growth'. It is rather the effect of healing from your trauma that allows you to grow (rapidly) into the person you can become. 

My personal experience of post-healing growth

After healing, I still have a difficult time finding my way in the world. I don't have a lot of experience with determining what I want, what I like, who I want to be in the world. I feel like I am at a dead end. I have just moved into a new apartment and sit on the bare concrete wondering what color I want to paint the walls, and I can't do it. I can't make a choice. Overcome with the fear of making a mistake, I sit there for almost six weeks. Then a good friend breaks my deadlock. When for the umpteenth time I utter, desperately: 'I can't make a choice! I don't know what I like and what I don't like', she tells me something that has become my life motto: 'Ivonne, just choose a color for the walls. We'll paint it and if you don't like it, we can always paint over it!' 

Free at last, free at last

We paint my walls in different shades of purple, which they are to this day. It is my first experience of freedom of choice. Deep within I know that I am free to paint the walls any color I want. Without fear of doing it wrong, without fear of being judged on it. Without my biggest fear of being stuck with the choices I make. After that I make experimentation a way of life. My way of tackling new things. It opens up so many doors. I find out the kinds of things I like and the kinds of things I'm good at in rapid progression. Not everything I try works out as well for me as the purple on my walls, but that's not a big deal. When something doesn't work, I try something else. One way or another I make it work for me. I reframe any failed experiment as a learning experience, and I have learned so much in the past 10 years. 

I love my life and the way I live it. I've become me in ways I never dreamed possible. I'm free from the past, free at last.



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Ivonne Meeuwsen is author of several books on child sexual abuse. Ivonne is a survivor herself of sexual abuse from the tender age of 12 until she was 19. In her book, I Thrive. Healing from Child Sexual Abuse, she relates her story, not just about the abuse, but about dealing with the long term effects of child sexual abuse. The book gives clear insight into all the major issues resulting from child sexual abuse: social anxiety, fear, dissociation, depression and more. She tells the story from the inside out, so people who have not been abused can gain insight and understanding, whereas people who have been there will find themselves saying, "Yes, that's how it was." 
Ivonne studied social work and coaching and has a thriving practice as an online coach, specializing in child sexual abuse. In addition, she organises symposia, trains and supervises therapists on healing from child sexual abuse.

2 comments:

  1. I totally agree with your take on "Post-Healing Growth." For those of us who have taken this journey, I think we can all agree we crawled before we stumbled, and tripped before we walked. The progression can take years and at times nearly cripple us. The growth will never happen overnight for those of us who survived childhood sexual abuse. We we can all agree on is incredibly liberating moment when we realize we've been running for a period of time without even realizing we're near the end of a journey which will never entirely end.

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  2. Great article. As someone who knows I fully agree with you. I always hated this line anyway. It can take years of healing for the victims. Without adequate help and support the abuse overshadows everything for many years to come during adulthood.

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