I’ve been in recovery from my childhood abuse for thirty years. For the last 18 years I’ve worked with thousands of survivors as both a therapist and a trauma recovery coach. Healing from childhood abuse is a complicated, lengthy and tricky process. Survivors need a lot of help and support to navigate recovery.
But there are three million reports of childhood abuse, involving six million children, every year (Childhelp). One in four girls and one in six boys will be subjected to sexual abuse before the age of eighteen (Centers for Disease Control). The United States doesn’t have nearly the amount of resources that are needed to help that many victims. If a child or adult survivor is lucky enough to get counseling or mental health support the frequency and quality of services are often less than adequate.
Every day I talk to survivors who don’t have access to counseling or therapy, either because they cannot afford it or because the services simply don’t exist where they live. Other survivors can access counseling, but they need more than the one hour of help they’re getting every week or every other week. That is not enough support for someone in the thick of recovery from childhood abuse.
LACK OF HELP
I wish it were. It would be wonderful if we could process the years of painful shame, despair and betrayal that we feel. Believe me, we would love to have it be that simple and easy. But it isn’t. Abuse doesn’t disappear with a finger snap, even when we work as hard as we can with helping professionals who are highly educated in abuse recovery. But when we don’t have services available, or those that are available are not from professionals educated in abuse recovery, we can work and still not gain an inch of ground.
When I began seeking counseling for my childhood abuse, my HMO decided I was only in need of therapy every other week. When I asked why I couldn’t see someone more frequently I was told that they didn’t want me to become dependent on therapy as a source of support. Immediately I was ashamed of wanting more help, because obviously only weak, dependent people wanted such a thing.
So I stumbled and fought my way through my abuse with only two hours of therapy per month. This was before the internet existed, so I couldn’t turn to the Web for support groups, chat rooms or discussion forums. There were no Twitter Chats or Facebook groups available to me. I couldn’t even find any in-person support groups for childhood abuse survivors.
I was in so much emotional pain. But instead of offering me more help, the providers at my HMO made me feel worse. I was told I wasn’t feeling better because I didn’t want to, that I must be motivated to stay stuck in my pain because I got pleasure from it. They made it clear that my inability to recover was my fault. I was malingering, weak, and unwilling to change.
Eventually, feeling like my pain was my fault, I attempted suicide. Thankfully, I panicked and called 911 after consuming a lethal dose of medication and alcohol. I endured one more useless, demoralizing stay at my HMO’s psychiatric ward.
After that, summoning a courage I didn’t know I possessed, I walked away from the shoddy and meager resources my health care provider was offering and found a private therapist. She recommended a private psychiatric hospital program designed specifically for survivors of childhood abuse. I borrowed the money and admitted myself.
MY TURNING POINT
That hospital stay was my turning point. It was the first time my mental health providers treated me like a valuable part of my treatment process. They didn’t shame or blame me for not making progress in my recovery. They listened to me, valued my input and understood the depth and breadth of my pain. They educated me about abuse and how it affects victims. Then they established a treatment plan with my therapist for my release. Included in that plan was receiving therapy twice a week. With their help and the additional support, I finally began making substantial progress in my recovery.
I was lucky. After fighting through years of inadequate help, I finally got the amount and quality of support I needed. Many survivors have not been as lucky. Every week they show up in my email inbox, Twitter stream, and Facebook feed spilling pain from their hands into mine. They need help that our mental health system either doesn’t have available or is unwilling to make available.
It has become clear to me that if survivors are going to receive the amount of help and support they need, that it is going to have to come from someplace other than the current mental health system. Where, instead, will it come from? Us, fellow survivors.
We need to establish a network of trained survivors who will support and help their peers.
We need a system of frequent, open meetings and peer sponsors like the addiction field has with the Alcoholic’s Anonymous model. I’m not advocating 12 steps for survivors, but I am strongly advocating the system that provides support groups offered around the clock in virtually every city in the United States. I am advocating a system of sponsors, where a peer further along in their recovery will mentor and support a peer just beginning process.
Why do I want this system of meetings and support to be lead by abuse survivors, rather than professional mental health providers?
- First, because there simply aren’t enough mental health providers to facilitate the number of meetings needed to support the millions of survivors who need help.
- Second, I believe abuse survivors are best helped by other abuse survivors. An abuse survivor never would have limited me to two hours of therapy a month because they know the painful complexities of recovery. An abuse survivor never would have shamed me for not recovering with that inadequate amount of help. We understand one another in ways non-survivors don’t.
Of course there are exceptions, and of course, not every abuse survivor can provide good peer support. I’m not advocating that all abuse recovery work should be done by survivors. There should still be the involvement of therapists and psychiatrists, as there are now. But this model of relying heavily upon recovered peers as support and recovery help has been used very effectively in the addictions field for years. I have no reason to doubt it wouldn’t be as effective in the field of abuse recovery.
We desperately need the field of abuse recovery to change. Survivors are suffering every day, some of them turning to alcohol, drugs or suicide to alleviate their pain. We cannot, however, depend on the mental health system to help us. We have waited too long with little to no results.
It’s time for survivors to come together and solve the problem for ourselves. We need to launch a grassroots movement to coordinate and provide some of our own care through a network of peer support meetings and mentors. And we need to do it now, before more survivors are lost to drugs, alcohol, incarceration and death.
It’s time to stop depending on others to save us and start saving ourselves.
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