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Not just surviving, but thriving

by
03 April 2020

One in five people in the UK is said to have experienced significant abuse in childhood. There is hope of healing, says Giles Lascelle

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SOMETIMES, my psychotherapy clients tease me about how often I talk about their journey. The reason is that it is such a good metaphor for the process of healing and recovery from trauma. It is also a very necessary one.

Journeys have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They can be long or short, and they may go through many different types of landscape or terrain. While we are on that journey, we may find all sorts of obstacles that we need to overcome, but also many different things to discover and learn.

Every journey has its destination, but the destination is never going to be the whole experience. The destination — the life overflowing with goodness — is something we have to keep in mind. We have to keep hoping, or we have little or no incentive to keep on going through all the tough times. But abundance, wholeness, and freedom are not the fruit of a single moment. They are things we grow into through our journeying and wandering in the wilderness.

There is a reason why the Bible is so full of stories about journeys. Whether it is the children of Israel in the exodus from Egypt, the journey of encounter that Jesus took into the wilderness, or the journey of the prodigal son, they all have one thing in common — those who are on these journeys are shaped by them.

When the children of Israel left the slavery of Egypt, they were free in body. The journey across the desert to the promised land of abundance should have taken them two to three days, but they were not ready for their destination. Their minds and spirits still followed the same patterns of thinking, feeling, and reacting, as if they were still in bondage.

As well as seeing it as a historical account of God’s dealings with Israel, it may also be helpful at the same time to read the story as something of a parable about how each one of us makes our journey out of bondage to freedom and abundance. As survivors, we have a journey to make from the slavery of being a victim of abuse into the “promised land” of freedom, and an abundant life. In practice, that journey of recovery and growth is far from straightforward or quick.

We may be free of the abuse we suffered, at least in as much as we are no longer under the direct control of our abusers. Nevertheless, we still have the mindsets, the attitudes of heart, and the responses of those who are still enslaved by abuse. We need a breakthrough, and we need to be set free, but we don’t break through to our destination; we break through to our journey.

Of course, the quick-fix solutions, the instant cures, and the golden calves are always going to appeal to us. Every single creature is wired to avoid pain and discomfort. When we have already been through so much, why wouldn’t we hanker after a shortcut to the destination?

One of the hardest things for us to learn as survivors is that there are no shortcuts. If there were, the destination would be different.

Contrary to what we may want to believe, it is the journey cut short that leads to the second-class life. When we are tempted to cheat ourselves of the journey, the wholeness and freedom we discover at the end of it is superficial. It looks good on the outside, but inside we are still suffering the pain and distress of wounds that have not adequately healed or been cleansed of infection.

The truth is, we are survivors, not because we have come to the end of our journey, or even because we have reached a certain point along the way. We are survivors because we have chosen to begin. We have chosen to embrace the journey of healing and recovery, wherever it may lead us, in full knowledge that it will be hard and painful at times, but still holding on to hope, and open to the possibility of being transformed by the discoveries we make along the way.

 

ONE of the effects that a traumatic experience has on us is to flood our bodies and brains with difficult-to-handle emotions — primarily fear, but also anger and sadness. When our trauma is severe or repeated, as it often is when we have been abused as children, it knocks our body and mind’s systems for keeping our emotions stable offline. As a result, we struggle to regulate our moods.

This means that the overwhelming majority of us will struggle with things such as anxiety or depression, at some point in our adult lives. Even at a less obvious level, almost all of us experience difficulties with things such as low self-esteem and lack of confidence.

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Anxiety and depression are generally seen as being at the lower end of the scale of severity in terms of mental health. At what is sometimes considered to be the more severe end of the scale, when we have been abused or traumatised over a long period of time, the disruption to our ways of processing feelings and thoughts can lead to us having some major mental-health problems. These would include things such as bipolar disorder, various personality disorders, and schizophrenia.

I should probably say at this point that I and many others working with adult survivors believe that the prevailing models of mental-health diagnosis and treatment in the UK, and much of the developed Western world, are not really fit for purpose when it comes to helping survivors of complex trauma and abuse.

The biomedical model, as it is known, views mental-health problems as being diseases, which have their origins in some as yet undiscovered genetic predisposition, or in other neurochemical imbalances of mysterious origin. The model works on the assumption that these mental disorders are for the most part lifelong conditions that can be treated and managed with medication, but which, in all likelihood, cannot be cured.

Trauma, and especially childhood abuse, is an injury inflicted deliberately by others. Understanding this is vital to those recovering from trauma.

One of the most damaging effects of childhood abuse, in particular, is that often those of us who have been victims blame ourselves in some way for what has happened to us. If we are able to view the abuse we suffered as having caused emotional and psychological injuries, it helps us to assign responsibility for our distress where it rightly belongs: with those who traumatised us.

 

I SOMETIMES think of our soul (or personality) being like a pottery vase, with the abuse that we have experienced being like blows inflicted on the vase, which damage it. In the same way that the vase becomes cracked, broken, or even shattered into pieces; so our soul, or our personality, becomes fractured to a greater or lesser degree by the abuse we have suffered.

Instead of being a single coherent whole, our soul (our mind, or our personality) will be dissociated into a number of different parts. Each of these parts is disconnected from the others. Sometimes this is a small disconnection, when the pottery vase is cracked.

At other times there may be a larger disconnection, as if one or two pieces were broken off the vase. Occasionally, the fracturing and disconnection is more complete, as if the vase were shattered into pieces and fragments.

Our journey of healing and recovery is like taking those cracked and shattered parts of ourselves, and gradually putting them back together again.

 

PERHAPS unusually for a mental-health professional, I question the language that speaks of mental and emotional distress in terms of disease or illness. These things are not helpful, and they are not true for us as survivors.

Whether we like it or not, there is still a stigma attached to mental illness. Although no one may quite like to say so out loud, it carries connotations of uncleanness and shame. Those who are so afflicted are outcasts from the mainstream of society.

Those of us who have been abused as children already feel ourselves to be unclean. We are often filled with shame. We believe ourselves to be unworthy of inclusion. Anything that reinforces those feelings in us is not going to be of much use to us on our journey of recovery and healing.

The other problem with what is sometimes known as the disease model, or biomedical model of mental illness, is that it seems to view most types of emotional and psychological distress as being incurable illnesses: these are conditions that we can learn to manage, but we should not hope that we can ever fully recover.

When we are living with the turbulent thoughts and feelings that are the long-term legacy of the abuse we suffered, such a view can rob us of our hope. It is as if we are being told that the best we can expect is a managed OK-ness, but a life overflowing with goodness is for ever beyond our reach.

Many types of mental distress arising from child abuse are often labelled as incurable illnesses. However, they are in fact nothing of the sort. They are injuries that, with the right help and support, we can overcome and move on from.

The trauma-informed church

THERE is a phrase that has gained common currency in the world of counselling and psychotherapy in recent years: trauma-informed. It is used to describe professionals and services that are aware of some of the latest thinking about trauma and how best to support survivors.

A trauma-informed church, above all else, has to become a safe space for survivors, because without safety, survivors will not stick around, let alone be able to grow and heal. Safety means a great deal more than simply keeping people physically safe. We also need emotional and spiritual safety if church is going to become all that we need it to be: a part of the solution, rather than just another part of the problem.

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Many of the ways in which some churches have failed survivors are the result of ignorance and misunderstanding rather than any bad intent. If a church does not understand the nature of trauma, and in particular childhood abuse and the impact it can have on us, it will inevitably make mistakes. It is important that the church quickly learns to minimise those mistakes. Survivors are strong and resilient, but we are also fragile and broken.

There are a number of things that a church needs to have in place to make it a safe space for survivors:

 

Safeguarding

Every trauma-informed church needs to have in place comprehensive policies and procedures. By this we mean a range of policies and procedures that define how the church is going to respond to vulnerable people, whether they are children or adults.

The reality is that survivors by definition are vulnerable. They are vulnerable to being triggered. They are vulnerable to being shamed, exploited, controlled, and manipulated. That doesn’t take anything away from their strength and resilience. It doesn’t mean that they won’t grow beyond those vulnerabilities. It simply means that for many of us we still struggle with life from time to time.

How is the church going to respond when we are triggered? How is it going to respond when we don’t necessarily behave in the ways that might be expected of us? How is it going to react when our marriages come under strain because of the wounds we are carrying? How about when we come into a meeting smelling of alcohol, because it’s the only way we can face dealing with that large a group of people without having a panic attack? What is your first step when a survivor feels that someone in authority in the church has done, or said, something inappropriate? What are your next steps after the first one? What are you going to do when you can’t get someone calmed down, and you’re worried that they might harm themselves or try to end their life?

All of these are real scenarios that can easily happen in a church that welcomes survivors. Without a safeguarding plan in place, the chances are that the church will default to its traditional positions, based on lack of information and misunderstanding. A plan is more than policies and procedures; it is what results when some of these things are thought about, and people really consider what the most helpful and responses to some of these situations might be.

This might sound a little daunting, but it really isn’t rocket science. These are the sorts of things that all churches should at least be thinking about, even if with smaller congregations the elements of any plan are less formalised.

Perhaps a good starting-point is to identify some survivors who would be willing to sit down with the leadership of your church and share about their experiences, and what they think they may need to help them feel safer.

 

Working alongside professionals

A trauma-informed church needs to be willing to work alongside mental-health professionals, such as counsellors and psychotherapists, when it comes to supporting survivors of abuse. Prayer and other spiritual input are important. Supportive community is important. But, the chances are, that for much of the journey of recovery and healing, the input of therapists and others with experience and skill in helping survivors is probably going to be needed.

No one in church should ever discourage a survivor from seeking proper therapeutic support. No one in church should ever tell a survivor that they should simply stop taking any psychiatric medication. Where changes need to be made in the support or input that a survivor is receiving, this should always be done in consultation with survivors and their therapists and other supporters.

It is also important to realise what working alongside actually means in practice. It does not mean simply referring survivors on to the professionals, and then either washing your hands of them, or carrying on as usual. It means talking with the therapists, and others, to find out what it is that the church can provide that is going to be most helpful to those on their journey of recovery and healing.

To be fair, this is also something of a two-way street. Mental-health professionals haven’t always been the best at working alongside churches for the benefit of survivors. All too often the professionals display a degree of arrogance in thinking that they and only they have the answers for survivors. It is also true that not all mental-health professionals are themselves trauma-informed, or have the resources available to respond appropriately.

One important part that a trauma-informed church can play is to advocate on behalf of survivors, and help them to identify and access the most appropriate forms of professional input.

 

Education and training

Proper education and training are vital if a church is going to become trauma-informed and learn to support survivors of abuse more effectively. This doesn’t mean that every church has to have trained counsellors and therapists in its congregation. It simply means that those in leadership, in particular, and the rest of the church in general need to have a basic level of understanding.

It isn’t OK for those who follow Jesus to remain ignorant of those in need. Otherwise church becomes just another bunch of religious people, no different from the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37). Survivors of abuse are all too often left metaphorically naked and bleeding by the side of the Jericho road.

Those who love and follow Jesus have the resources to help them, at least to some degree. We know our wounds look ugly and can even be frightening to those who aren’t used to dealing with such things. Just noticing and responding with ordinary kindness is a good start.

But we also need you to inform yourselves, and not hide behind your ignorance. With education about what to look out for, and training in how to provide basic help and support, the church can do a great deal to alleviate our suffering. It can also help to point us in the direction of people and places where we can get more specialised help.

There is also a need for some in the church to be trained to a slightly deeper level. General emotional first aid is always going to be helpful, but there will be times when survivors are going to need a greater level of support. Those who are serving the church in pastoral care, prayer ministry or inner-healing ministry definitely need to have a greater level of understanding about trauma and abuse, and how to provide effective support to survivors.

There is plenty of general training around to inform people about abuse, and how to support survivors. Some courses are quite specialised, and aimed at professionals. However, there are others that are more aimed at helping to inform and educate family, friends, and other supporters of survivors. There are even specific Christian training courses tailored to the needs of churches, ministries, and other believers. I founded a charity that was partly set up to provide this sort of training and education to the Christian community.

 

Survivor support groups

When a church is trauma-informed it opens up all sorts of possibilities for supporting survivors that did not exist before. One of the things that I have always encouraged the survivors I am helping to do, is to identify a small group of people who can be called together as a support group.

Church can be an ideal context for creating small groups of people who come together to support survivors in different ways. These groups don’t have to have a large number of people in them. In fact, better that they don’t. Typically, survivors may not be comfortable with too many people having input into their lives at the same time.

The criteria for what makes a good support group are not complicated. Everyone should ideally have a basic level of training about trauma and abuse. Everyone will have some sort of positive personal connection with the survivor. Not everyone in the group will support in the same ways. Some may be willing to sit with a survivor while they are distressed, or having a panic attack. Some may be willing to offer mostly social contact or practical support. Others may be prepared to pray in an informed way on a regular basis.

One of the main functions of a support group is to plan what to do in specific circumstances: how to respond to a call for help; how to support each other when one of them is concerned about the survivor; what to do when they feel that more help than they can provide is needed.

Everything is done in agreement with the person being supported. In fact, they are seen as an integral part of the group, not just as the passive recipient of the group’s time and energy.

 

This is an edited extract from Breakthrough: The art of surviving, published by Instant Apostle at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10).

Giles D. Lascelle is an ordained minister and psychotherapist specialising in childhood trauma. He is also an abuse survivor and founder of the charity Breakthrough.

www.traumabreakthrough.org

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