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Recovering from the trauma of incest

Published: 
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS

The whole idea of placing incest in the realm of this dialogue on mental illness is because research clearly points to its high prevalence rate and the devastation it leaves in its tailwind. I thought to get us at least thinking/rethinking, and maybe talking, but I’ve had mixed reactions. 

I met an upstanding couple in Port-of-Spain last weekend and had an encouraging conversation with the wife. She offered commendations and an expression which went like this: “I read your columns on incest. Keep up the good work. I guess it has to be said and I am glad you chose to say it. Someone should.”

And I’m smilingly thinking, “I wish it wasn’t me,” while thanking her for the support. As I conclude the issues of incest for now, I wish to do so with the understanding that while all the issues of criminality and violations are necessary to the discourse, it’s the healing of the broken lives that I find most important.

Every individual is unique and in that uniqueness is an array of responses to the trauma of incest. Among those responses is recovery. And I say that not to give false hope to those who may have long-term struggles or to those who may be irreparably affected, but because I know people who are considered recovered.

I have one friend who has had psychotherapy and who leads a “normal” life, and another with whom I have an even closer relationship who had both psychotherapy and a faith-based intervention and who now shares a “forgiven” relationship with the relative who fathered her child when she was a mere child.

For some survivors, the struggle may be more challenging and may constitute “depression, low self-esteem, self-blame, dissatisfaction with life, anxiety, dissociation, difficulties in relationships, a tendency to be either domineering or submissive, an inability to trust oneself and others, problems defining healthy sexuality, self-destructive behaviours including suicidal ideation, difficulty dealing with anger, stress-related illnesses, addictions, eating disorders, and acting out sexually.

Beyond the anger, depression and other traumas, for survivors who pursue healing, quite often it begins with the overwhelming pain and confusion where the “the perils of silence” collide with the risk of speaking out, says www.womansweb.ca.

The following are excerpts from the advice given to survivors of incest on the Website Woman’s Web.

• Clarity of feelings and emotions
For adult survivors of child sexual abuse, a key component to healing is to express and share their feelings. This can be achieved by survivors learning to acknowledge and identify a wide variety of feelings and emotions, as well as finding ways to release them without hurting themselves or others. A good support team is recommended.

• Regrouping
This phase involves positive changes in survivors' attitudes and feelings, where they develop a new sense of trust in others but, most importantly, start to trust themselves. It includes learning from the past, examining the present, and planning for the future. Many survivors have suggested that this stage represents a transition from merely existing to actively living.

• Moving on
This stage includes a shift in focus from the negative experiences of the past to positive plans for the future. Painful feelings and emotions do not dominate memories from the past. Positive coping skills… assist survivors in moving on with their lives. Several coping skills that can help survivors to move on include learning to love and accept themselves, recognising and celebrating personal growth, creating a healthy support team, grieving current losses as they occur, learning to deal with stress effectively, and recognising when it’s time to let go of painful feelings connected to the past.

Finally, it’s important to understand that children and adolescents who are victims of incest and who may or may not have had interventions may begin to participate in self-destructive behaviours.

Some of these are “cutting themselves; running away from home; hostile or aggressive behaviours; promiscuity; sexual play with themselves, dolls, animals or other children; copying adult sexual behaviour; displaying sexual knowledge beyond what is normal for their age; urinary infections; unexplained pain, swelling, bleeding or irritation of the mouth, genital or anal area, and suicide attempts” (www.heartandsoultherapy).

“Abuse memories can show up in dreams, meditative states, nightmares, and daydreams, and can be reflected in phobias, fears, repulsions, compulsions, panic attacks, sexually compulsive behaviours, and aberrant sexual practices,” among other issues.

Uppermost in my mind is that incest survivors must get the help to understand and accept that the abuse is not their fault. It did not happen because of something you did. Incest is abuse of power where an adult charged with protecting a child, violates the child/trust. It is the adult who is at fault—culpable, criminal.

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