Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Looking Back on an Abusive Childhood from an Adult’s Perspective

I recently read a book by a woman who independently discovered a technique used extensively in a form of psychotherapy called schema therapy. Schema therapy was devised by my colleague Jeff Young.

Beth Louise, the author, writes that she had spent years “…trying to fool myself.  Hiding from my past, from myself, and from everyone else…Trying hard to fake it. Trying hard to survive.  And to forget. Always trying, but never quite getting there.”

When later on she had children of her own, she felt the past welling up inside her, and the memories returning. At some point she took out a pen and wrote a letter to the child of her past - from the perspective of her adult self. She envisioned herself as an observer of that child rather than as that child.  She was not reliving the past, but observing it.

When the process became too painful, she would stop it temporarily, but then return to the disturbing images. She continued on this path and found it extremely healing. Since she was already a writer, she soon found that she had a book that others might be interested in. The resulting manuscript is now available as an e-book, In Shadow and Strength. Her hope is to “inspire others to forge their own paths towards healing.”

Her writings capture in a remarkable way the thoughts and emotions that take hold of a child who is in the middle of a spiral of abuse and neglect.

Reading it, victims of abuse can learn a powerful new technique to help themselves come to terms with their past, while non-victims can better appreciate the terror, guilt, helplessness and uncertainty experienced by abused children everywhere.

Little did she know that the process she had discovered was already a very powerful therapy technique - one that is central to schema therapy. In therapy, however, the therapist takes more of a leadership role by using “guided imagery.” He or she sometimes accompanies the patient on their “trip,” and may even have the patient imagine the therapist in the picture commenting on the action or talking to the participants.

In various sections of her book, Ms. Louise reveals how a child can come to believe that her environment is somehow a normal one, despite observing other children and parents interacting in a healthier family.

She talks about the feeling that perhaps there is something wrong with you, the victim, and how this belief can lead to a sense a guilt about somehow being responsible for what is happening to you. How this guilt can also serve to protect the image of the abusive and neglectful parent.

She reveals how a former abuse victim may go through life hiding her guilt, shame, and trauma, so that others might think there is nothing at all wrong. How doing so makes her feel herself to be a fraud or an impostor. How she believes herself to be counterfeit.

She brilliantly describes the child’s belief that, even when the parents are acting in a loving way, the good times are really just manufactured for the benefit of outside observers, and how they therefore felt phony.

She tears the shroud off the absolute terror and helplessness that comes from living in a chaotic environment with a highly unpredictable, depressed and angry mother.

A beautifully written book without any hint of sensationalism or exhibitionism, I highly recommend In Shadow and Strength.

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