How My Love and Support Helped My Wife Heal From the Trauma of Child Hood Sexual Abuse
By Grant Cameron
It was several years ago, but I clearly remember the day my wife, Liz, told me that she had been sexually abused as a child.
We were watching TV and I could tell she wasn’t really interested in the show.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her, unaware that her answer would turn my world upside down.
“My stepfather sexually abused me when I was a child,” Liz said. “Now I’m getting harassing phone calls from him.”
There was a long period of silence as I searched for something to say. Here I was, suddenly presented with a startling revelation. I was dumbfounded.
Liz stared at me, waiting for a reaction.
Questions began to flood my thoughts. I really didn’t know what to think.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Why would your stepfather do such a thing?”
Then it all came flooding out.
Liz told me about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child and how she’d wake at night to find her stepfather watching her with a strange, mad look on his face, how he’d ruin her clothes, embarrass her in front of her friends and family and, in later years, get jealous when she dated boys.
She told me about the episodes in the bathtub, the attic, and all of the times she tried to tell somebody and how nobody listened or did anything about it, and how the stepfather moved the family often so she wouldn’t get close to neighbors and squeal on him.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but while I listened to Liz recall the torment of her childhood, I had taken the first steps on a long, arduous and rocky journey that would change my life forever. From that day on, I’d learn more about a strange and very distorted world — a world I didn’t know existed — the world of the childhood sexual abuse survivor.
Liz spent roughly a year going through the process of healing from childhood sexual abuse. It was a roller coaster ride at times. And, as a partner I often had nowhere to turn for help.
But now, having gone through the healing process with a survivor, I am able to provide some insight into the problems that partners face.
My experience is written from the perspective of a male partner of a female childhood sexual abuse survivor. However, I am very aware that it’s not uncommon for males also to be abused as children.
When Liz was going through the healing process, I often felt helpless. Although I cared for her deeply and wanted to take away some of her pain, it was difficult because I didn’t know where to turn to for help. There wasn’t a lot of material out there for husbands of childhood sexual abuse survivors. As a result, I ended up writing a book about our experiences in hopes of helping others.
At first, I was a little hesitant at the thought of sharing our personal experiences in a book, but Liz was adamant that it would help others. She had no problem sharing her story if it meant helping partners of others who are healing from childhood sexual abuse.
From my experience, I can tell you that helping a partner heal from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse isn’t easy. It can be a long and very winding journey. The road to recovery will have many ups and downs and be fraught with anger, frustration and despair.
I found that one of the most difficult periods in the healing process is the crisis or emergency stage – a time when everything in the survivor’s life seems to come apart at the seams. It can be one of the most trying times for both the survivor and supporting partner.
The survivor may experience feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Partners may experience feelings of doubt and despair.
The crisis stage can come suddenly and without warning. Sometimes during the healing process too much happens too fast. There’s just too much activity at once. The survivor is unable to handle it and gets overwhelmed by the whole process.
This happens because in the initial stages of healing a survivor focuses all her energy on bringing back the haunting memories of the abuse – something she must do in order to sort out the past.
When she’s at this point in her healing, the survivor wants to remember everything that happened to her. But bringing all the memories back can also be a very traumatic and overwhelming experience for her.
It’s a particularly difficult time for the survivor because she is trying to remember what she has tried to forget for so many years. Now, she must desperately seek the missing pieces to the puzzle so that she can put them together in her mind.
With Liz, the crisis stage was overwhelming. She was suddenly flooded with memories, but didn’t have the skills to cope with all the problems that also come with remembering the past. She didn’t know how to control her emotions and how to deal with them. Sometimes the emotional trauma was just too much for her.
Liz would go through a whole range of emotions. At times, she questioned whether the abuse really happened. Other times, she’d do everything she could to remember the incidents. There was no way you could tell on any given day how she’d feel.
Often, she’d get overwhelmed. Sometimes she’d threaten to leave. She’d vow never to see her counsellor again. She’d say it was better to suffer in silence than go through the pain of healing from the abuse. She’d get so overwhelmed that she’d talk about running away from it all, starting a new life away from me and everybody else who knew about her situation.
When Liz was overwhelmed, I’d give her the time and space she needed to sort out her feelings. I knew she really didn’t want to leave and that the real problem was caused by her abusive past.
Once she was ready to talk again, we’d sit and discuss the problems she had. I found the key here, as is so often the case with the healing process, is to try to remember that it’s all part and parcel of the recovery process for a survivor.
In actuality, the crisis stage is really a step forward. It’s something that is necessary for the survivor to go through. Any time someone heals from a traumatic experience, they go through a stage where they get overwhelmed by all the problems. It’s quite normal for a person who is healing from childhood sexual abuse to go through this type of upheaval.
During the crisis stage, the survivor might be unable to cope with her feelings or she might act in a very disoriented manner. She may have very strong emotions or none at all.
However, the survivor has to go through the crisis stage in order to deal with her past, sort it out and get on with her life. That’s an important point to remember when things get tough.
Try not to panic during the crisis stage. Two panicky people won’t do any good. The role of a partner is to support a survivor and see she gets through the stage safely and without causing any harm to herself.
It can be really tough, there’s no doubt about it. Although the survivor may be a strong person, it’s likely that her defenses will be very low at this point.
This is a time when the survivor may be in dire need of help from a professional. It’s best to try to talk about this before it happens. It’s best if the survivor has agreed to let you seek help for her if she gets to a point where she can’t cope.
I was lucky during this stage. Liz had already been seeing a counsellor and when times got tough all she had to do was book another appointment. She’d average one session a week during the initial stages of her healing. Eventually, it tapered off to once a month until one day we went to the counsellor and had nothing to talk about. We knew it was time to go it alone.
We’d see the counsellor together. She had a few sessions on her own. It helped that we saw a counsellor together because it helped me better understand what she was going through.
Partners and survivors shouldn’t be embarrassed at seeing a counsellor. The healing process can be traumatic and overwhelming at times.
A survivor shouldn’t hesitate to go to a counsellor, mental health clinic or sexual assault centre if they need the help. A survivor will probably find them very helpful. The professionals at clinics and sexual assault centers are very caring people. They often have years of on-the-job training in how to deal with such matters. Their advice can be invaluable.
If the survivor appears to need professional help, discuss it with her. Don’t hesitate to talk to her about it if you think she’s ready to reach out.
Word of mouth is the best way of finding a good counsellor. If you know someone who has been through the process, don’t be afraid to ask him or her for the name of a counsellor. They’ll likely be more than helpful in pointing you in the right direction.
Failing that, call the local family counselling center or sexual assault center. They’ll have names of counsellors available.
In many ways, a counsellor is like a good friend. The survivor has to trust the counsellor. Remember, that doesn’t happen in one visit. It takes time for the counsellor to earn the survivor’s trust. Give the counsellor a chance to earn that trust. If, after several visits, a survivor doesn’t like the counsellor, the two of you should not be afraid to change to another.
If the survivor does want to change counsellors, however, make sure she’s doing it for the right reasons. Some of the right reasons might include:
- The survivor can’t seem to open up to the counsellor.
- The counsellor doesn’t seem interested in what the survivor has to say.
- The counsellor seems to be going too fast for the survivor.
- The counsellor has so many clients the survivor can’t book regular appointments.
- The survivor gets a bad feeling from the counsellor.
Suffice it to say, it’s better to err on the side of caution if you think the survivor needs professional help. In other words, strongly suggest getting help. If she refuses, try talking to her about the situation. Keep a close eye on her all this time and, if she does get to the point again where you can suggest the option, try and see what the response is. Keep trying, but don’t keep nagging her every five minutes. That won’t do either of you any good. She’ll get too used to refusing and eventually she won’t even think about what you’re asking.
In most cases, if a survivor is at a real loss as to where to turn for help, she will see a professional if you suggest that option to her, but not too forcefully. Remember, she doesn’t need anybody pushing her around at this stage. Suggest, but don’t order her. Somebody who is in real emotional pain will jump at any opportunity to rid themselves of the anguish and suffering they’re feeling if the option is presented to them in the right manner. It’s certainly better if she goes of her own free will. She’ll get more out of the advice from the professionals.
There is no set time for a survivor to remain in the crisis stage. As with the rest of the healing, the survivor may work through a crisis, and go on to another stage of her healing, only to find her thrust back into the crisis stage. It may be disappointing and frustrating, but each time she takes a step back she’ll likely end up taking two steps forward in the long run.
Liz would often go through periods where everything would be going smooth. Her recovery seemed imminent. But the bubble would eventually burst. Something would happen that would trigger a relapse. She’d be doing so well, then just as quickly slip back into a world filled with problems. It was frustrating to watch, equally frustrating to experience, but it was all part of the process, as she’d eventually get on the right track again and move forward.
The crisis stage can be worse for some survivors than others. Some can get through it merely with the support of a partner. Others require lengthy periods of professional help. How much professional help a survivor needs and for how long depends on the emotional state of the survivor, how clearly she remembers the abuse, the type of job she might have, how much time she can devote to healing, whether she has a family and has to devote a lot of her time to others, what type of supports she has and how much natural ability she has to cope with hard times.
When a survivor begins to remember all the abuse that occurred in the past, it consumes her thoughts, all her waking hours — and sometimes her sleeping hours as well. It can flood a survivor’s memory. She may never get a rest without thinking about it. Her thoughts and feelings may suddenly overwhelm her to the point where she can’t cope.
The best thing a supporter can do during this stage is to try to keep things as stable as possible. Give the survivor a solid base to work from.
The crisis stage is likely the toughest period in the whole healing process because it comes upon the two of you so suddenly. The crisis stage hits you without warning. But again, it’s a necessary part of the healing process.
Perhaps your best defenses in the crisis stage are foresight and knowledge. Sometimes just knowing the stage will pass makes it easier. Knowing the survivor will make it through this stage is a big help. Talking with the survivor and lending her your supportive ear are the best things you can do during the crisis stage. Often the survivor just needs someone to talk to, someone to listen to her story. It may sound rather simple, but it is perhaps the best medicine for what’s on her mind.
I remember the counsellor telling Liz that she’d eventually get through the crisis stage and replace the bad memories of her past with good experiences in future.
Looking back, she was right.
While the crisis stage can be traumatic and trying, once it passes the survivor can continue on her road to recovery.
Grant Cameron is an award-winning journalist and author living in Ontario, Canada. He has written a downloadable PDF book called What About Me? for men who are helping female partners recover from the effects of childhood sexual abuse. To order a PDF, go to www.helpforpartners.wordpress.com. The book is $15.95 (Cdn). Grant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.