by Dr. David Schopick
Those who have experienced abuse often see themselves as victims, and indeed they have been victims of horrible experiences. However, in order for healing to take place, it is important for those who have suffered abuse to take back control of their lives. They need to see themselves as survivors, as people who have overcome, and who will go on to become strong, healthy, and capable of living fulfilling lives.
People who have suffered sexual abuse, whether as a child, teen or adult, often partially blame themselves for the abuse. They may see themselves as flawed, guilty or even dirty. If they at times accepted the abuse or even initiated sexual contact in order to avoid further punishment, then the burden they place on themselves is even greater. What they need to realize, and what therapy can help them understand, is this: You are examples of the very bravest human beings. Rising up from despair and dealing with painful memories and disclosure are true acts of courage. You may not have been able to refuse the act of abuse when it occurred but you are now able to refuse to accept the guilt, shame and responsibility for what happened.
Transitioning from victim to survivor is an important part of the healing process. That said, recovery does not happen overnight. You must be patient with yourself. Expect setbacks when they come and forgive yourself for not being perfect. Your courage and hard work will be rewarded with a better understanding of yourself and increased self-respect and self-love.
Ways to Cope
In the first article, we talked about monster therapy and how, in my experience, people often found it helpful to see their abuse as a monster that must be brought into the light, examined and then vanquished. Monster therapy is all about learning to identify ways to heal on your own.
Some who have experienced abuse want to confront the perpetrator, seeking an apology or some sort of redress. Believing that an apology or a confrontation is key to being healed is a mistake. The apology or confrontation puts the power back in the perpetrator’s hands. No apology may be forthcoming; the abuser may try to put part of the blame on the victim; the abuser may be dead, moved away or otherwise unavailable. Thus it is important to not allow the abuser to have any more control over your life. The time when he or she controlled you is past, and now you take control. True healing cannot be achieved at the whim of someone else. True healing comes from within. YOU are in control of your thoughts and feelings, and coming to realize this will put you on the road to achieving inner strength and self-respect.
This does not mean you cannot express outrage and pain over what was done to you. In fact, it is essential that you do so. But the way to express this is to yourself, through therapy, and not necessarily to your abuser. Take back your own power. Focus on what you can change–which is yourself and your inner world–and not on what you can’t which is the abuser and the past. Once you can do this, you can move on without the extreme anger, powerlessness, guilt and shame that may have crippled you in the past.
Some who have experienced abuse find it therapeutic to write a letter to the abuser, even though that letter is not sent. Others create journals or express their feelings through art. Some draw the abuser or pictures epitomizing their suffering. Others may move on from this and draw pictures of how they see their future–giving themselves a goal to strive for.
All of these methods can be very therapeutic in helping people cope with abuse and move forward into better lives.
De-Stress and Relax
We all need to manage stress, but survivors have a special challenge. It can be difficult to overcome bad memories and truly relax. I usually recommend that my patients learn therapeutic breathing techniques, meditation, mindfulness or self-hypnosis. These therapies can be very useful in helping people on their quest to find serenity and wholeness. I call them “monster antidotes” to be used when the pain and terror of the past seem overwhelming.
The essence of life is breath so when you are able to master your breathing, the more you are apt to feel that you control your own body–not the abuser. Controlled breathing is a wonderful way to relax your body and it is easy to learn. Open your mouth slightly, this will relax your jaw, and help your whole body to relax. Breathe slowly in through your nose, then out through your nose. Inhale. Exhale. Slowly. As you repeat this for several minutes, your blood pressure will lower and levels of carbon dioxide in the blood will lower as well. Slow, steady breathing is the opposite of your body’s response to panic, so as you breathe in this way your body will become calm.
Meditation can begin with controlled breathing but works best if you can spend 15 to 30 minutes by yourself. Once your breathing is calmed, begin repeating a positive thought or word over and over until nothing exists but the word and your breathing. This should be a word that evokes feelings of calm such as “serenity” or “peace.” Gradually, your body will relax.
Your therapist can teach you effective self-hypnosis techniques that can also be useful in reducing stress.
Remember, you are brave, you are courageous, you are a survivor. And now you are on your way to learning a new healthy way to live.
In addition to more than 25 years of experience in private practice, Dr. David Schopick is also the author of “Safe at Last: A Handbook for Recovery from Abuse” which highlights the use of “monster therapy.