How We Heal From Abuse
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
Opening Note: This article is a contribution from Dr. Melissa Perrin, a clinical psychologist featured in Season 2 of the Restorative Faith podcast. She appears in episode 2 where she discusses the psychology of repression and episode 6 where she describes the neurological effects of pornography. However, her most extensive contributions are in episode 5 where she discusses the impacts of clergy sexual abuse. Although we briefly touch on how victims can experience healing from sexual abuse, Dr. Perrin and I agreed that the path to healing deserved a more robust conversation. If you or anyone you know has suffered from abuse of any kind, please share the information in this article liberally as it is critical to restoration.
The First Step
Healing from the impact of sexual abuse is much like healing from a physical wound.
The psyche and body receive the impact of grooming, complicity, sexual abuse and shame.
Abuse is, ultimately, power over someone else’s body, choices and experiences.
The physicality of the abuse is distressing and shocking in the totality of the moment[s].
The body heals but can experience phantom reactivity as if stuck in the moments of the abuse itself.
As a psychologist, I work with individuals who have been abused physically, sexually and emotionally. I am often asked: What do I do to get over this? When will I forget this happened? How can I manage my memories? What if the things my abuser said about me are true?
We humans often make the mistake of thinking that when I heal, the injury will have vanished and I’ll forget it ever happened. We say: “I just want to go on with my life as it was before I was abused.” We hope to return to “normal;” to life as it was being lived before we were abused; before we understood that we have been abused.
For some folks, the awareness of abuse is ever present and demanding of our attention. For other folks, the awareness of abuse is buried or placed behind a plexiglass wall in a compartment of the mind. The mind is aware the abuse happened but holds it tightly and away from the emotional center so that life can be lived.
What is the foundation of healing?
Remember that this did not start with you. Most likely, it did not stop with you.
Know that resilience is an outcome of this pain and the healing process.
Understand that there are no do-overs and Life insists on being lived in forward motion.
Grief is part of healing. Allowing the grief to be present speeds the path.
Understanding your abuser is the best way to separate your Self from the abuser’s Self.
Understanding your abuser does not excuse the abuse.
Healing begins or deepens when we recognize the fact of the abuse. This is no easy task.
Recognizing the fact of the abuse means that the Body remembers, the Mind narrates a dark tale and the Self recoils. One task, upon recognizing one’s history of abuse, is to search for and claim the part of you that was left behind with the event[s] of abuse. We can see, with 20:20 hindsight, what our younger self could not see, could not predict and could not protect ourselves from. Sadly, we judge our younger selves harshly and recoil from the abuse with shame and embarrassment.
Push against this very human impulse. If you can, greet your younger self with gentle awareness. One of the most important actions for healing is to befriend that younger self who may have been unprotected, may have made distressing choices, was vulnerable and was abused. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, imagine someone who cares for you taking that younger self to their hearts and hold that younger one close. What matters is the younger, wounded, shameful self is acknowledged and protected.
Healing from abuse often requires us to reclaim our identity and our sense of self. When wrestling with the fact of having been abused, folks will repetitively review assessments and declarations made by their abuser about them. They report wondering: “Is it true that I deserved this? What is it about me that I was picked to be abused? Is it true that I will never amount to anything?” Who is correct about me: me or the person who harmed me?
The act of reclaiming our identity from our abusers can be one of the most harrowing stages of recovery. It can take years. The steps to reclamation are full of paradox and are distinctly unpleasant. The paradox lies in the feeling of having been infected by the abuser; of feeling as if one cannot get away from the abuse and the impact of the abuse. In order to come out from under the burden of carrying the event[s] and the abuser, our task is to see clearly the humanity of the abuser.
The goal of this clarity is not to excuse or continue to carry the abuser. There is no excuse. Upon understanding the humanity of the abuser, we are better able to separate ourselves and our understanding of ourselves from the abuser. When we understand the driving forces within the abuser, we can recognize that the abuser’s choices and actions often had little to do with us but instead were engaged in to manage the abuser’s dysregulation, social isolation, helplessness and ego. This separation, what was the abuser’s what is mine, is powerful. It starts slow but builds momentum.
Steps Towards Healing
Don’t do this Alone. You might be self-sufficient in all other areas of your life, but healing from sexual trauma benefits from a support system.
Name it and Claim it. Allow the fact of the event[s] to be part of your story. Tell someone.
Work with a clinician to find language about the abuser, the event[s] and the impact of the abuse. Therapists facilitate recognition and can help make the implicit, explicit. These points of growth spur healing and give traction to forward motion.
Work with a Spiritual Director to lean into a larger existential narrative.
Build a meditation practice. You can use an app, a Spiritual Director, a yoga practice. Understand that, at first, meditation will be uncomfortable because painful thoughts and unfinished business will rise to the surface. Guided meditation and working with a Spiritual Director can give some structure to this practice.
Take a break, daily, from screens, ear buds and podcasts. Give your mind a moment or ten of simply being still, quietly thinking its own thoughts.
Move your body. Walking, biking and swimming are bilateral exercises that help organize thoughts. We often feel better after 20 minutes of these exercises and we emerge with a level of clarity to our thoughts.
Have patience. You are engaged in the task of integrating this material into your timeline with your understanding, not your abuser’s. This takes time.
Below are series of resources for you to utilize during your journey of healing. I would like to end with a quote from Bishop Desmond Tutu's book Made for Goodness p. 137 [Adapted]:
We know that:
Pain cannot be unmade,
That Life cannot be unlived,
That Time will not run backward and that
We cannot un-choose our Choices.
But God has promised that:
Pain can be healed,
Our Choices can be redeemed,
Our Lives are Blessed and that
Love can bring us home.
May you walk with the knowledge that God covers you with forgiving Love and brings you home.
Guided Meditation: Tara Brach and R.A.I.N [Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture]
Yoga with Adriene: Free, short and gentle yoga practice
Locate an EMDR therapist: https://www.emdria.org/find-a-therapist/
Locate a Psychologist: https://locator.apa.org