She’s got two young daughters of her own these days, and a loving partner too — but Sofia still mourns the family she lost.
Her daughters barely know their three aunts, Sofia’s younger sisters. It was trauma that tore their family apart. Sofia’s parents divorced when she was 10, and two months later her mother started dating Alejandro. Soon he had moved into their home.
“The abuse started very slowly,” she tells me. “At first, he became furious for no apparent reason, and called my mother names.”
But then it got worse. Alejandro started beating her mother whenever something set him off. The children took refuge by hiding in Sofia’s room: Sitting together in a tight circle, they pretended to be magicians — waving their hands in the air, casting imaginary spells on the villain in their own home.
“I know it sounds odd, but we felt so out of control that we wished something bad would happen to him,” she says. “We wanted to make him disappear.”
There was no magic answer. Things escalated and soon Sofia became his next victim. She remembers one moment when Alejandro started attacking her mother, and Sofia yelled for him to stop. He responded by grabbing her long hair and yanking her into the bathroom.
“He banged my head against the bathtub,” she says. Then he opened the front door and literally threw Sofia out of the house. “I landed in the prickly bushes. I’m sure that the neighbors heard something, but they never tried to help us.”
He never hurt the younger children, but things got worse until the point when he punched straight through a window during a fight.
“There was blood everywhere,” Sofia says. “He took a large piece of glass and held it against my mom’s neck. My mom got away from him, but I don’t remember how.”
That threat was, finally, enough to convince her mom to leave. That didn’t end the anguish, though. The trauma turned inwards, and Sofia stopped eating and started obsessing about her weight, which plummeted to a mere 80 pounds. And, as she got older, she started dating men who physically and emotionally abused her: Alejandro had not only stolen Sofia’s self-worth, but also her ability to receive love and kindness.
Now Sofia is 45. She says her torment was made even worse because she never felt like there was an adult looking out for her. Her mother never tried to protect her family from the physical and emotional abuse, which left its own scars.
Sofia’s mom never could discuss the abuse they had all survived, and died before it was ever addressed. Her sisters were in denial, too, and every time Sofia tried to talk with them in person, they blamed her for the family’s problems.
“I decided to send my sisters an email, but only one of them responded. She told me that I was the ‘problem sister,’ which made me feel guilty. It made me feel like I was the crazy one.”
She felt abandoned by the people she had tried to protect and as a way of coping, she started purging and cutting.
“It helped me to express my pain and my rage. It was a way to release these feelings instead of holding them inside of me. It sounds bizarre, but cutting felt relieving. I know how to cope with physical pain, but my emotional pain seems like a black hole. It’s never-ending.”
Sofia was never one of my patients, but as a psychologist, I’ve worked with many people who have similar stories to tell. My clinical experience tells me that adult survivors of abuse tend to feel very isolated and confused about how to heal. Too often, they’ve lived their lives secretly, with nobody who will validate the abuse that they survived. Even worse, the caregivers who hurt them are often still part of their lives, which makes it difficult for survivors to sort through their complicated feelings of anger, guilt, and sadness.
One former patient of mine, Benjamin, severed ties with his mother because she’d physically tortured and emotionally abused him his entire life. She would beat him with a broom whenever he made the smallest mistake, and withhold food from him whenever she thought he was lying to her.
She couldn’t even let him leave for college without getting in the last word: The day that she dropped him off at university she told him never to return home, and had the locks changed on the doors of their house.
In some ways, her abandonment was a relief. Benjamin took her advice and didn’t speak to her for many years, even when she tried to reach out to him. But once he got engaged, he found himself at a crossroads. His fiancée knew about his abusive childhood, but didn’t fully understand why he couldn’t repair his relationship with his mother.
Our society isn’t very forgiving of children (even adult children) who have disdain for their caregivers, even when those feelings are justified.
Rose, another patient of mine, told her college roommate that she wasn’t inviting her parents to graduation because they had verbally abused her. Her roommate was aghast and scolded Rose — didn’t she owe it to her parents to send them an invitation? When Rose explained that her parents had always called her a “fat loser,” her roommate discounted it. “They gave birth to you,” she said. “They are your parents.”
We’re trained to be beholden to the people who bring us into the world, even if they destroy us. Society holds more negative views of those who abandon their families than those who are abused by them.
These cultural messages make it particularly difficult for survivors to cope with their abusive caregivers. They often feel guilty for ending the relationship and never feel seen or heard. I’ve seen many patients who wished to divorce their parents, but are deeply ashamed for entertaining the thought.
Yet, according to the National Children’s Alliance, almost 700,000 children are abused every year, and a quarter of kids will suffer from some form of maltreatment before they turn 18. These statistics suggest a lot of adults are trying to cope with the abuse that they endured as kids.
Benjamin was able to avoid his mother for much of his twenties, but when he got engaged, his fiancée thought that he should try to “let go” of these uncomfortable feelings so that he could finally repair the relationship with his mom.
He felt confused. His engagement had opened up emotions that he had walled off for years, yet a part of him wanted to honor his fiancée’s request. Benjamin wondered if he could set his anger aside and finally contact his mom.
Despite what many believe, however, some families cannot be stitched back together with a generous dose of forgiveness. Research on trauma indicates that this particular road to healing is not only unhelpful, but can actually be deeply harmful. Many survivors of abuse have post-traumatic stress disorder and experience flashbacks — and subsequently try to steer clear of experiences that trigger their emotions.
But while somebody who is in a car crash might steer clear of driving for a while, bypassing trauma triggers is particularly tricky when the triggers are your parents or caregivers, and they’re still part of your life. Instead, the person who is encouraged to forgive their abuser can become trapped in psychological anguish.
Cutting off ties with an abuser isn’t easy, however. In my professional experience, it’s difficult for adults to end these relationships, because the younger part of them may still hold out hope that one day they will receive the love and care that they desire. It’s terribly painful to realize that the people who should have loved you more than anyone in the world are never going to care for you in the way you needed. When patients acknowledge this heart-wrenching truth, it can create a river of consuming grief — and for some people, this pain feels more unbearable than the abuse they survived.
Through our work together, Benjamin came to realize that he didn’t have a healthy view of anger. His mother had used her rage as a weapon to hurt him, and that meant he had a lot of aggressive feelings, too.
He worried that if they reunited, he might act out his anger — but he came to understand that anger is an emotion, while violence is an action. Physically hurting others isn’t the only way to sort through this intense feeling.
Benjamin eventually found a middle ground. In the months leading up to his wedding, we talked about different ways that he could reach out to his mom. I talked about the profound aloneness that many adult survivors experience. I gently brought up the idea that his fiancée could be with him — in person, maybe or by his side if he called — if he decided to contact his mother. I told him that his fiancee’s presence might offer him some healing.
While he didn’t invite his mom to the wedding, he did contact her. With his fiancée at his side, he finally confronted her about the abuse. Like many abusers, she wasn’t able to own the damage she had inflicted upon him. And after their meeting, she sent him a letter “breaking up” with him yet again.But Benjamin felt relieved because this time his fiancée had seen his mother’s toxic behavior. Finally someone else had witnessed what he endured for years.
While there are many forms of therapy that can help to heal trauma, the psychiatrist and trauma expert Bessel Van Der Kolk says some types are more effective at helping survivors work through their pain. Trauma victims often have difficulty talking about the horrific things they endured, so bypassing with somatic therapy — physically-directed activities like yoga or meditation — is one way survivors can connect with their emotions. The idea is that the body captures memories of helplessness: These therapies can help survivors regain a sense of physical safety and eventually put words to the trauma that has afflicted them for years.
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, a trauma-based psychotherapist in New York City and author of blog “The Change Triangle”, uses a particular form of treatment known as Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) to help her patients heal from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
“For a survivor to heal their trauma, they need to be accompanied by another with whom they feel safe and connected,” she says.
When anything traumatic happens to us, it stirs up a lot of emotions. These feelings can be overwhelming. If no one’s there to help us, we’re alone. In a desperate attempt to survive, we develop defenses, such as cutting, self-starvation, or turning to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with our pain.
AEDP helps patients to feel less isolated in their trauma by undoing the sense of being alone that often leads people to develop defensive strategies like cutting, self-starvation, drugs, or alcohol.
Instead of focusing on unhealthy thoughts such as “I am a bad person for feeling angry,” AEDP therapists teach the patient how to pay attention to their physical sensations. The idea, says Hendel, is that the connection between mind and body heals trauma.
It’s not uncommon for some survivors to “deny” their anger and continually try to please others as a way to avoid their own aggressive feelings. Other individuals may direct their anger outward and use it as a way to keep people away.
When patients say things like, “I know I had it bad, but my mom was struggling,” Hendel sees the guilt, asks her patient to name the feeling, and then gets them to ask it to metaphorically step aside.
“We use this technique so that the patient can connect with the emotions that they have buried,” she explains.
Sofia chose her own way to heal. She’s seen many different psychotherapists over the years, but talk therapy never actually worked for her: too scary, not enough trust. Instead she took medication for her depression and improved her well-being through exercise.
“I used to do yoga every day, and it helped me. It was the time that I took for myself, and it was a way to release the anger that I’ve held inside of my body.”
After years letting out her anger in destructive ways, she’s finally found healthier ways to express her emotions. In addition to yoga, she shares her story with others.
“I never used to talk about being abused. But telling other people helps,” she says. “These experiences, including the abuse and the abandonment from my sisters, are a part of my narrative. They make me the woman, partner, and mother that I am today.”
People often assume that we can “get over” our traumas by pushing away the past. But childhood abuse isn’t something that you can ever erase, says Sofia.
“You can’t just forget about the memories because they haunt you.”
Dr. Juli Fraga is a licensed psychologist in San Francisco who specializes in counseling on women’s health concerns, including prenatal and postpartum depression and reproductive health concerns. Names have been changed to protect patient confidentiality.