Anne was a successful competitive swimmer growing up but abruptly gave it up in high school. Her explanation for abandoning the sport she loved was strange, yet her family and friends accepted the dramatic shift in interests. She said she never looked back. Now, however, as a wife and mother, Anne was suddenly struck with memories from her swimming days.
The memories were haunting as she started to remember being molested by her swimming coach. At first, her memory was sketchy but then as she thought more about it, it came back like a flood. Her decision to stop swimming was because of the “incidents”. She never told anyone then about it and was reluctant to talk now. But the memories were getting worse, so she reached out to a therapist for help.
How does this happen? One way a person learns to cope with intense trauma or abuse is to dissociate or detach from their immediate surroundings. For some, this is a natural reaction born out of a survivor instinct. For others, it requires effort and practice to shut down feelings, intentionally ignore surroundings, and completely disengage. In the case of long-term abuse (physical, emotional, mental, verbal, financial, spiritual, or sexual), the dissociating can reoccur as post-traumatic stress like reaction when triggered by a similar situation, object, or person. Or in Anne’s case when her daughter took an interest in competitive swimming.
What happens at the moment? This unexpected response activates feelings of anxiety, panic, or even paranoia as fear cripples the person into believing that they will never be free from the abuse. For those like Anne who don’t remember the event initially, it can come back like a flood. Even those who have learned new coping mechanisms, healed from the trauma, and done considerable therapy to recover can still be affected. This does not discount the work done previously; rather, it is a manifestation of reality and intensity of the abuse. This is also called complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).
Why is this happening? Most people don’t realize the full impact of an abusive situation when they are in the middle of it. This is especially true when the abuse occurs as a child. Children have a unique ability to bury difficult situations, hide from harmful people or environments, and discount their hurt. As adults, this is far more problematic because life experiences tend to build on each other, especially negative ones, resulting in a volcanic type of emotional response. Adults who hear or witness children experiencing the same level of abuse usually react protectively as they simultaneously become aware of the severity of their mistreatment. This, in turn, brings the maltreatment to the surface with greater than expected emotional reactions.
What can be done? This is the ideal time to reach out for help from a professional and heal from the abuse that has occurred. Trying once again to bury the event and ignore the feelings will only increase the intensity of reaction and delay the recovery process. It usually spills out as anger to those closest to the victim which can create unnecessary dysfunction in an otherwise functional relationship. The process is not as time-consuming as most believe but it is specific to each event.
What is involved with healing? Sometimes, even when healing has already occurred, a dissociative reaction can be triggered by a new situation or person. This does not invalidate the healing process; rather, this is a time to remind the person that they have recovered. By remembering the transformation from victim to victor and the lessons learned about self and others through recalling the progression, a person can experience further healing. The simple act of reminding a person where they began to where they are now helping to create a more realistic perception.
Why are the feelings more intense now? In many cases, a victimized person is so numb when the abuse occurs that they feel very little. When this is compared to a healed person who is more self-aware of their emotional responses, the feelings appear to be more intense than they are. This comparison is similar to watching a sporting event from the top of a stadium without assistance to watching it with binoculars. The binoculars provide clearer vision and everything seems more intense when it is closer. Feelings work in the same manner. It is not always because a person has not healed properly from an event that they are hurting now. Instead, it can be because they are aware of their feelings now that it hurts.
How can a proper perspective restore peace? When a more accurate perspective is brought to light, a person can quickly reduce anxiety and restore peace. It is also beneficial to speak words of encouragement, reminding the person that the cycle of abuse can be broken. Being retriggered by an event, object or person does not mean a loss of freedom. Viewing these events as an indication of progress from the reality and intensity of the abuse is therapeutic.
By seeking out a therapist, Anne was able to finally heal from her traumatic abuse as a child. This gave her a much better perspective when her daughter started competitive swimming and a greater awareness of victims and victors.