From Surviving To Thriving: Empowering Survivors by Training Professionals, Breaking the Cycle by Healings

Jan Hawkins

A Lecture given at the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ISPCAN) 11th International Congress, Dublin, August 1996.

I am filled with optimism to be a part of this conference. To realise the network of those of us working to break the cycle of abuse is widening means that we are nearer to a more humane society. Each of us is working in a different way to contribute to the breaking of a cycle which has been with us as far back as history is documented. The media interest currently is on sexual abuse, with more recent attention given to the controversies around ritual and satanic abuse. Some years ago it was physical abuse. Emotional and psychological abuse are less well documented. Yet, what the media fail to get across is that abuse is not necessarily on the increase: instead there is an increase of people saying it shouldn’t happen.

More and more of us are risking naming abuse in our own lives, acknowledging our own pain and working from that experience for a more humane society. Unless adults who were abused are able to recognise the damage caused to them, they are in danger of continuing the cycle of abuse with their own children. If insufficient professionals are able to acknowledge abuse, and who work in a way that empowers healing, where can Survivors go to enable them to break the cycle?

When Freud first declared the real existence of trauma resulting from sexual abuse, he was publicly vilified. In 1897 then, he made a dramatic about turn leaving his patients and future generations of Survivors of childhood abuse, vulnerable to accusations that their symptoms are entirely the result of seduction fantasies. A huge investment in the honouring and revering of parents adds to the forces against acknowledging the harm done by childhood abuse. The “seduction theory” also caused damage, by putting the responsibility for abuse onto the child, making the perpetrator the victim. We meet clients still who have tried to tell a therapist what has happened to them, only to be met with the attitudes, beliefs and judgements which stem from this theory. This leads to an experience of reabuse.

People have come to our groups having been rejected by other groups, for a number of reasons, for example because of their inability to cope without self-harming. Some have come after experiences with numerous psychiatrists and/or therapists have left them feeling hopeless and inadequate. Labels like “attention seeking”, “manipulative”, “psychotic”, “personality defect”, do nothing to validate the person, nor allow them to tell what has happened to them. There is very little understanding, it seems, of the most common features of the legacy of abuse, which can manifest in ways that simply attract these labels. Survivors of childhood abuse have been the victims, and unless professionals open their hearts and minds to the legacy of abuse - and, to the possibility for change ( a radical idea for some) - revictimisation occurs. The legacy of abuse has been well researched and documented, so why is it that we hear over and over, from adult Survivors that they have been unable to find a place to work through the legacy inflicted upon them by their experiences of childhood abuse?

How do we transmit the knowledge and compassion evident in the literature, and evidenced by the delegates here, to more of those who are working directly with Survivors?

My work is in support of adult Survivors of all types of abuse, individually with Survivors of abuse, and also in groups. Our groups seem to be unique, in that they are mixed and focus on all types of abuse and neglect, rather than on one. There seem to be a number of groups for Survivors of sexual abuse, but little or nothing focusing on the other aspects. From our experiences in running groups, it became clear that when the participants began to focus on their legacy, it placed a huge strain on their relationships. Consequently, we began to offer workshops for what we refer to as Allies - those people who care about, live with, are in relationship with, or otherwise are supporting a Survivor in the healing process. These workshops attracted, partners, parents, friends, counsellors and social workers. It was the social workers and counsellors who asked us where to go for further specialised training. Over and over the participants in our groups were asking us to recommend therapists who could work with these issues, and over and over we found our choices limited. We knew many excellent and experienced therapists, but very few who could work with Survivors. I was on my way to one of these groups pondering these points, and wondering how to find more of those who could accompany Survivors on what is often a harrowing journey, when it hit me! I have a background in lecturing, and know about development of educational courses. My colleague and I had experience, and had both been involved in whatever workshops we could find on the subject of abuse, to develop our own skills. We knew some excellent therapists working in the field. It felt rather like one of those old B musicals - “let’s make a show!”. We offer an in depth professional, recognisable and accredited Diploma. In the current climate with the so called “False Memory Syndrome” lobby undermining Survivors, we wanted to ensure that our training would mean something. In some ways it is astounding that, in Britain, ours is the only in depth, professionally accredited course focusing on all types of abuse.

We offer training which is academic and theoretical in nature, but more importantly highly experiential. This allows those who have completed the required amount of counselling training and experience, the opportunity to explore their own issues with all types of childhood abuse. It allows development of empathy which enables students to work at a deeper level with their clients, empowering them to address the pain and loss involved in their childhood. This, in turn, supports those adult Survivors who have children, to look at their own parenting skills. Without any healthy parental modelling, how could they possibly know how to offer “good enough” parenting to their own children? Of course, we often find that our clients are doing a “good enough” job with their children, through a recognition that they do not want to hurt their own children the way they were hurt themselves. Yet often these Survivors inflict terrible abuse on themselves, being unable to recognise that they too deserve protection.

One of the written assignments has the title “Once a Victim, Always a Victim: Discuss” - this allows students to research the literature, and explore their own professional practice for attitudes which may be counter productive for clients, and which may assume that the cycle of abuse cannot be broken. This title never ceases to cause difficulties for the students - victims who remain in the “victim role” (as some refer to it), are well reported (though with very little understanding in our experience): those who move from victim to victimiser are similarly well reported. Some who move from victim to Survivor are becoming more widely recognised. The next group who receive little, if any, recognition are those who move from victim to Survivor to Thriver. What are the markers of this shift?

  • Acceptance of the reality of harm, and recognition of the ways in which this harm impinges on adult lives.
  • Honouring coping strategies like dissociation, and learning to use them in positive ways
  • Recognising triggers into past unhealthy behaviours, and taking positive steps instead
  • Breaking patterns of abusive relationships, looking instead towards healthy mutually respectful relationships
  • Developing compassion, patience, and gentleness for the self
  • Developing the ability to feel in the present, and to trust those feelings
  • Developing healthy boundaries that allow personal growth
  • Breaking the cycle

How we can play a part in encouraging the process from victim to Survivor, and from Survivor to thriver, is something which underpins everything we do on the course.

I would like now to give a more immediate example of what training like this can mean. How do we play a part in breaking the cycle? One student who has just finished our course, gave a common reason for applying: that her counselling training had never looked at childhood abuse, so when faced with clients who were talking about it, she was feeling inadequate. She wanted to know more, and has given me permission to discuss her experience. One of J’s issues echoed others, in that she wondered what right she had to work with Survivors, when she had enjoyed such a happy childhood. We also hear an alternative view from Survivors, who feel that only other Survivors could understand what it is like for them. Then there is the suggestion that Survivors must never work with Survivors. These debates arise regularly in our work both with Survivors and professionals. We feel strongly that the nature of our course allows participants to explore the subject deeply, to clarify where they stand on the issues, and empower them with knowledge, skills and experience which develops potent companions for the healing journey.

After the first intensive weekend, during a tutorial, J confided that she felt as if she was seeing abuse everywhere. Like so many who come to work with us, acknowledging that abuse happens is the beginning taking the blinkers off. After our first weekend she felt she had no blinkers at all, was overwhelmed by what was there in front of her. She was not sure she could continue with the course, and questioned her ability to carry on counselling at all. Working with these difficulties herself, in therapy, supervision and with the group, she moved from that position, to feeling her skills were being developed. She has found herself more able to be empathic with clients where she recognised in the past she would have felt unable to respond. She has been witness to huge shifts in her clients, and has been able to offer deep compassion through her therapeutic skills. The academic requirements of the course are demanding, and require students to focus not simply on the relevant literature and theoretical material, but also on their own personal journey, and how these two aspects relate to their professional practice. J has incorporated these aspects in very moving assignments, charting the shifts and changes in her clients and herself. If we can empower adult Survivors to acknowledge their own pain, they will not inflict abuse on the next generation. People who are healthy and thriving are able to play their own parts in breaking the cycle of childhood abuse.

I would like to end on a poem J wrote about a client - J is not a Survivor of childhood abuse, but the poem I think demonstrates the depth of her empathy, and her experience in accompanying her client as an “enlightened witness”, on the journey from victim to Survivor, and to thriver. It also demonstrates the shift from well meaning counsellor at the beginning to empathic companion at the end of the course.

The poem is called: Turn Around Mama

See me now Mama
See me grown
I’m not so small
So all alone
I’m not so scared
Nor so confused
I’m “yours” no more to be abused

See me now Mama
See me strong
Know my rights
See “your” wrong
Wasted years
Tasteless dreams
Bitter tears
Unheard screams

Did you hear me cry Mama?
Did you hear me call?
Did you ever once fucking wonder
About me at all?
Did I ever matter?
Did you ever care?
Was I just a dumping ground
A rumping ground
A thumping ground
For you to share?

Turn around Mama,
Turn around
I’ve turned inside out
Upside down
To and fro
I’ve been to places where
There was no place to go.
I’ve been to Hell Mama
But I’m getting well Mamma
I’m finally being “cared” for
So I’ll be your “bloody victim” no more!

JC 1996.

Jan Hawkins
Contact Details:
The Foundation for the Developing Person
376 Hale End Rd,
London, E4 9PB

Tel/fax: 020 8 531 9760
Copyright © Jan Hawkins 1996.

This material may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.



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