Reflections on Hope

by Yvonne M. Dolan, M.S

Upon learning that I specialize in the treatment of sexual abuse and trauma, people both in and outside my field often ask, "Don't you find that terribly depressing?" Actually, the opposite is true. I find working with survivors of sexual abuse both inspiring and, admittedly, sometimes heart rending, but never depressing. An integral part of working with survivors is the process of focusing on the small and large acts of private courage and heroism that allowed them to become, and continues to empower them to be what they are: SURVIVORS. Sometimes they have accomplished this despite all odds.

Sexual abuse, like other horrific traumas, is a veritable "baptism in fire." If you do not let it destroy you---and each person has to find their own way to accomplish this---the inevitable work required to overcome the effects of the abuse will make you an exceptional person. Some of my clients have compared it to a Shamanic Journey. In the Shamanic tradition, a person suffers a terrible trauma and survives it, although inevitably the process of survival requires every ounce of inner strength he or she can summon. Once the trauma is over, the act of moving beyond the trauma, coming to terms with it, healing from it, is the vehicle for becoming personally gifted and exceptional--in this case resulting in the role of Shaman, or Healer. Sexual abuse survivors are healers too, initially of themselves, by necessity, and later, sometimes of others, too. Someone once said to me while in a group of survivors, "Every time I witness other survivors overcoming their abuse, I heal a little bit more."

I think most survivors of severe trauma at times contemplate suicide. I know I did. I was sexually abused between the ages of 3-10, repeatedly and by multiple abusers. I repressed the memories for many years, and in retrospect I certainly see why. I needed every ounce of strength I could summon to confront this information. Despite the fact that I had already been a psychotherapist for over a dozen years, had a good marriage and a supportive network of family and friends, my biggest fear in confronting the reality of my victimization was that I would never overcome the effects. This is a very frightening feeling, and it is not surprising that many survivors struggle initially to stay alive, much less achieve hope, in the early stages of healing from sexual abuse.

Hope was not initially available to me from within, at least not in the sense of a strong belief that I was going to have a positive future. This initial difficulty in believing in a positive future is one of the most common symptoms of sexual abuse. But while hope was not initially accessible, endurance was available. By endurance, I am talking about the simple act of willing oneself to act "as if" they believe a positive future is possible, a message to the self that sounds something like, "I will stay alive; I WILL get through this somehow, even if I don't know how right now." It is perhaps more an act of will than a belief. Fortunately, endurance can lead eventually to hope, as it did for me. But the survivor has to endure long enough to find that hope. This decision to endure during the recovery process can be compared to a mountain climber pounding a piton into the rock to secure his ascent. Once the piton is in place, if the climber slips and falls off the side of the mountain while in the process of scaling it, the climber may still be hurt or traumatized by the fall. But he will survive and not be killed by it. The fall will be controlled, and its danger limited.

Sexual abuse survivors have a tendency to think in terms of black and white, all or nothing; and this tendency complicates the challenge of being sufficiently patient with oneself and with the recovery process. Often when sexual abuse survivors are being critical of themselves, they are blind to the fact that given the abuse they experienced they have already accomplished remarkable things. Because they are now experiencing some particularly difficult challenge, or painful integration, they may not be able to see what they have already achieved; they may not be able to see the proverbial forest for the trees. But in fact, they are in the midst of the larger process of doing a very heroic job of confronting the abuse, systematically overcoming the symptoms and moving on in their life.

In my work, I am very interested in what allows each person to eventually find the kernel of hope, often buried under layers and layers of self doubt that allows them to stay alive long enough to claim their life and create a satisfying world for themselves. I am fascinated by the process people go through to survive during the time before they can find the first glimmer of hope. One of my clients once told me that she intended to proceed AS IF she had hope until she began to experience the real thing. Eventually she did. This is not always the case, but for her it took about five years. And I was so proud of her endurance. Enduring is perhaps the most crucial condition for moving beyond the abuse and fulfilling hope in creating or reclaiming a life worth living, a life that is something to treasure.

If there was one thing I could communicate to anyone struggling with the effects of sexual abuse, it would be to ENDURE. It is possible to overcome the effects of sexual abuse if you allow yourself enough time and enough support. I speak from compelling personal experience, not just my own, but those of my clients and many friends and colleagues: there is life at the end of the tunnel. Don't give up; you will eventually reach it, and it will be more than worth the struggle.

NOTE: Yvonne Dolan trains psychotherapists nationally and internationally in practical techniques for treatment of sexual abuse. She has authored several articles and two books, most recently, Resolving Sexual Abuse (1991, W.W. Norton), and is currently at work on a new book describing the characteristics of sexual abuse survivors who live healthy, functional lives. She loves her life.

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