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Counselling for Survivors of Child Sex Abuse.

Here at Counselling Connections this week we have been discussing aspects of counselling for survivors of child sexual abuse. We are sometimes asked by people who are considering undertaking counselling to outline how it works in practice. To consider coming to counselling to talk about sexual abuse is a very difficult decision to make. Survivors often say to us that they put off the decision, sometimes even for years because the prospect of beginning to talk about it is so daunting. It is easy to find lots of reasons to avoid it. This week we want to take a look at some practical applications of counselling work for adult survivors of sexual abuse.

One of the first conditions of therapy for child sexual abuse is trust. It might seem like stating the obvious but you have to feel that you can really trust your therapist. We are very aware of this requirement and we feel strongly that it important not to rush things. If you have been sexually abused you will know what it feels like to have your wishes, your rights and your personal space disregarded. This happens in a psychological way in abuse in addition to the violations of your body. It is crucially important not to do anything in therapy that might cause you to feel re-traumatised. There are so many feelings associated with this that it is hard to know where to begin. So we say that the starting point is in establishing trust in the therapeutic relationship so that you do not feel obliged to disclose anything that you don’t feel ready to talk about.

We understand that revealing details of past abuse has to be a gradual process for a number of reasons. First among these reasons is learning to trust your therapist. Another reason is related to the ways in which trauma affects memory. It is not uncommon to have only snippets of memory of the things that happened. You may also have partial memories of events that you don’t feel sure about and can’t swear whether they happened or not. You will be able to learn to distinguish between these. Additionally, when you come to therapy and start to deal with some of these memories you may gradually begin to remember more detail. This can feel quite disconcerting to experience but it is perfectly normal. Our unconscious mind stores memories away in different ways in order to try to protect us from the trauma we experienced. Unlocking memory is a gradual process that can be dealt with in therapy, sometimes over a number of years.

The issues of trust and of memory raise the question of being believed. This is the third aspect of counselling for survivors of sexual abuse that we want to talk about this week. One thing above all others that prevents or delays people from coming forward to talk about their abuse is the fear that they won’t be believed. Child abusers often plant ideas in the minds of their victims about what might happen if they ever tell. These might be threats against you or your family. Or it might be that they have suggested to you that the abuse was somehow your fault or that you colluded in it. It takes an enormous leap of faith to tell about your abuse for the first time. You will be watching very carefully for any reaction or doubt on the part of your therapist. We understand the difficulty this creates especially in the light of what we have said about the effects of trauma on memory. We will listen to what you have to say with openness and without making any judgement of you.

There is a lot more that we could write about abuse and the legacy it can leave. It is a subject we will return to again in our journal. For this week we just wanted to discuss those three points. Firstly, building trust in your therapist and not rushing to disclose detail. Secondly, to understand how trauma affects memory and learning to trust your recall of what happened. And thirdly is the experience of being believed in a safe and non-judgemental setting. Then we can continue with the therapy and work towards coming to terms with child sexual abuse.

Counselling Connections, Dundalk.                    

Understanding child sexual abuse.

Here at Counselling Connections we are, like many of you, following with interest the public debate on the subject of child sexual abuse. We try to refrain from public comment because our interest in the area is in quietly and privately working with survivors. Much of the public discourse in Ireland on this subject for over a decade now has surrounded abuse by church figures and subsequent cover ups. These issues have been the driving force for major social change. This change continues; we are still in the middle of the storm so to speak. And only with more time will we as a society come out the far side and then be able to look back at these times and fully understand what has been happening; how we used to be and how we are now.
From our experience of working with survivors there are a couple of aspects of abuse which we can perhaps help to shed light on; things which if they were better known would help the wider understanding of what happens in abuse and hopefully make it easier for people to come forward. The first of these is the very peculiar psychological hold which an abuser exercises over his/her victim.
We are familiar generally with the term ‘grooming’ and the idea that an abuser will spend some time trying to charm and earn the trust of a potential victim. The child can be manipulated into feeling quite special and having been specifically chosen by this adult. Repeat offenders will become accustomed to what traits or vulnerabilities to watch out for in their victim. It is often something which is difficult to come to terms with later in therapy as the full realisation of this process dawns. But at the time, initially at least the abuser’s real motivation has not yet been revealed and the child can feel quite special.
This is where it gets confusing. The psychological hold that the abuser relies on for secrecy is kept in place by fear. Sometimes this is enforced with either a threat of or a display of violence. The child is taught in no uncertain terms that they cannot even contemplate crossing this angry, frightening, powerful adult. We believe that what happens here is actually a sophisticated survival mechanism. Given the odds and their relative weakness in the face of the power of the adult, the child gives over their will completely. The abuser knows this, and plays on it.
A particularly difficult aspect of this psychological hold is that the child feels that in being powerless to act that they have in some way allowed the abuse to happen. This is not true. We can see that this is not true when we look at the size of the child compared to the power of the adult but this does not stop abusers from making children feel responsible for their own abuse. This is one of the major reasons why it is difficult for survivors to come forward to report abuse. The abuser knows this and plays on it. The child may feel like they will get into trouble if they tell and sadly time and again this fear has proven to be true. This needs to be changed.
If the psychological hold of the abuser is one thing that needs to be better understood so too does, what we here at counselling connections we call, ‘The Language of Abuse’. This is a difficult thing to describe. We feel that it is not well known or understood. If we take it that what we describe about the fear of coming forward is true then imagine what ways a child will, at different times try to let people know about what has been done to them. Some of their understandings of what happened will be couched in the language and understandings of their age; they won’t have the vocabulary or understanding of sexual matters to say it out straight.
Additionally, revelations will often only be made obliquely because the child or vulnerable adult even years later is still expecting that they themselves will be blamed or that they won’t be believed or understood. This means that a particular kind of language is used, often in a kind of code in referring to what was done. This is what we call The Language of Abuse and we feel that the subtleties of it need to be better understood in order to facilitate people in coming forward to tell their own story. It is important to believe a child, it is important just to let them talk and not to lead them. If someone is revealing details of sexual abuse to you they will be watching your reactions very, very closely. If they fear your reaction they will stop talking and often withdraw what they have already said.
This applies equally to adult survivors who reveal their stories years later and who will have a lifetime of experience of living with abuse. There is much more to be understood in this very complex field but these two points, the psychological hold of the abuser and the language of abuse are two particular aspects that, if they were widely well understood would we hope make it easier for people to come forward. If you have been abused and would like to seek counselling see our contact details or online booking for details of how to make an appointment to come to see us. Or look for qualified counsellors in your own area.
Counselling Connections, Dundalk.

The Voice of the Child.

Here at Counselling Connections this week we have been reading and digesting the contents of the Report of the Inquiry Team to the Health Service Executive into the Roscommon Child Care Case. It is another catalogue of sustained and chronic abuse meted out, in this case by parents, against Irish children.  It is by no means the first report of its kind. Recent reports have focused on abuse perpetrated on children over decades by members of the Roman Catholic Clergy. These reports highlighted a litany of horrific abuse and cover up over decades. That the reports found that there was an official cover up is important because cover up means that somebody knew. A lot of people knew and did nothing. The voice of the children was not heard; they had no-one to speak for them.

Over 95% of abuse however is not perpetrated by religious. Much of it happens in families and the same silence and cover up is to be found there. The events described in the most recent report occurred subsequent to the Kilkenny Incest Investigation, the report of which was published in May 1993. That report expressed the hope that the publicity attached to the case, the subsequent investigation and the analysis and conclusions would make it easier for people to take action sooner. The authors of the report further hoped that agencies and professionals would be alerted earlier to signs of abuse. It was noted in that report that the victim’s mother was aware of the sexual and physical abuse being carried out on her daughter by her husband. While the responsibility for the abuse, the report states, rests with the father there were others who were aware of it and did not act to protect the children.

A similar family structure is outlined in the more recent Roscommon report. They note that the father ‘ruled his home by exercising considerable control over each member of the household’. The authors go on to state that he exercised the same ‘controlling stance in relation to the professionals working with his family’.  This is a structure we see again and again in our work with adult survivors of childhood abuse. There is a man at the head of a household or operating in a religious capacity who rules over his family or his flock with a reign of fear. This fear becomes an important element in allowing abusive situations to develop and continue. People are afraid to speak out, afraid to confront him and this facilitates a continuation of abuse. The voice of the child is not heard.

Collusion or a conspiracy of silence is frequently found in cases of abuse. This may even find expression at a societal level in the reaction to the publication of the various reports. There may be feeling of ‘oh no, not another report’, what might be called ‘abuse fatigue’ where ordinary people who are unaffected by childhood abuse have become tired of listening to the details of it and simply switch off. There is also the feeling which we detect with the publication of these reports that they bring ‘closure’ to the story of abuse and that the issue has finally been tackled and can be put away. This is a very dangerous false sense of security to allow ourselves to be tempted by.

Commentators have said that abuse was happening at the time these reports were published and we can be sure it is happening now. These comments are supported by the fact that the events described in the most recent report occurred subsequent to the 1993 report.  The men who carry out this abuse and those around them who collude with it are not deterred by the mere publication of reports. Stronger, more assertive action is required to meet abuse head on.

The most recent report finds that ‘voice of the child’ was not heard in this case prior to the children being taken into care. There was too much emphasis on trying to work with the parents and not enough emphasis on balancing this with the rights of the children. The children were not independently represented in the successful High Court proceedings taken by the parents to prevent the Health Board from taking the children into care. There is a Constitutional issue at work here. Despite this, the long-promised referendum on Children’s Rights has been sidelined in the legislature for reasons of short term political expediency despite all-party support. Once again, the voice of the child is not heard.

At Counselling Connections we are familiar with stories of stolen childhoods from our work with survivors of childhood abuse. The picture of collusion and silence is all too familiar as families, groups and society turn their faces away from the horror of abuse. In this vacuum the abuser thrives.  Our message this week is a simple one. The voice of the child must be heard.

FB, Counselling Connections Dundalk.

On being entombed

On being entombed, in a mine or in a mind.

Last week it seemed the whole world watched transfixed as 33 Chilean miners were successfully released from a 69 day ordeal during which they were trapped deep below ground when the mine they were working in collapsed. It is a tribute to the men and their rescuers that a potentially disastrous situation was brought to a successful conclusion. We wish the miners good health as they readjust to life above ground and in particular in dealing with the demands of their newfound celebrity.

These events brought welcome relief to a world growing weary of bad news stories of debt and recession. They also got us thinking here in Counselling Connections and talking about the notion of being entombed and various meanings around this. In the first instance we were struck by birth analogies in the manner in which the miners were rescued and delivered back to the world from ‘mother earth’, if you like. But our focus has remained on a different, darker aspect of what the story brings up for us when we reflect on our experience as counsellors working with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

There is a psychological equivalent of the ordeal which the Chilean miners have endured. There is a dark place where the light of love or any kind of nourishment does not shine. There are boys and girls who have grown up to become men and women for whom there never appeared to be any prospect of either rescue or escape. And they have been walking among us, apparently free and in broad daylight while at the same time enduring the psychological entombment of abuse.

Natascha Kampusch’s book ‘3,096 days’ was published last month telling the story of her 3,096 days captivity at the hand of her paedophile captor. She is a young Austrian woman who was kidnapped at the age of ten and kept in a cellar for eight years. Her story is reminiscent of that of another young Austrian woman, Elisabeth Fritzl who was held captive in a cellar for 24 years by her father. In Elisabeth’s case she was repeatedly raped by her father and bore six children and suffered one miscarriage with him. These are horrific stories.

It is with sadness that we report to you that we are aware of many quiet lives lived by many people in our own localities who share some of the experiences of Natascha and Elisabeth. Psychological abuse is an intrinsic part of sexual abuse. The abuser maintains silence and keeps up his perverse practices with a reign of psychological terror which prevents the victim from speaking out. It is not unusual for such a perpetrator to be well regarded in his locality, someone with some standing in the community. He knows this and the child knows this and this is the psychological entombment of which we speak and which can last for year after year after year. No light of love, no oxygen of hope, no prospect of escape reaches into this particular tomb of abuse.

Learning to speak, to finally say the unsayable; finding someone to listen, someone who can understand, who will wait with you as you shine a light in these dark chambers is the beginning of the way out. There is relief and some comfort to be found in the resurfacing that can be achieved after a long therapy process to deal with these unspeakable things. It is long, slow and painful and at times deeply confusing to look back over chronic traumatic events and reorder these in your mind and slowly come to terms with them.

The president won’t be waiting to greet you when you emerge from the therapy room. Nor will there be press, nor cameras nor applause. But there can be a quiet, we hope contented, sense of being free and of living your own life anew. Anew or maybe even for the first time ever.

FB & MMG, Counselling Connections Dundalk.

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