As loved ones of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, we work hard to provide the support necessary to accompany our survivors through their healing journey. However, being that supportive person can lead us as loved ones to experience our own secondary trauma.
I am the loved one of two adult survivors, my husband and my young adult daughter. My husband’s father was an abusive man who only felt powerful when going after my husband as a child. He turned his sights on our daughter as a young girl.
Both my husband and daughter disclosed a few years ago, and our house became one of chaos. I developed my own Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and I too had to find a way to heal from the pain and deep sorrow I felt.
My own secondary trauma increased with various events, while empathizing and attempting to help the survivors in my life on daily basis and feeling our other daughter slipping through the cracks. Two crushing incidents stand out. First, the devastating sob released from my daughter when a jury found her perpetrator not guilty. And second, sitting with my husband on the bathroom floor as he was curled up in a ball in a severe flashback, re-living body blows.
Everything began to build up. I reached a point of severe depression and no longer found joy in anything. I felt unmotivated, couldn’t wait to have a couple of beers every evening to feel numb, and I gained over 20 lbs. I didn’t have an answer when people asked me what I liked to do or what made me happy. I didn’t even know where to begin to feel happiness again.
A wonderfully supportive therapist suggested I try EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a form of psychotherapy used to treat PTSD and unresolved trauma.
I likened EMDR therapy to an experience I had whitewater rafting down the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe 20 years ago. The rapids on the Zambezi River were enormous, class 5 and 6, and I had never done whitewater rafting before. On the second rapid, our raft flipped, and I came up under the raft, panicked for a moment, and worked my way out from underneath the raft and to the surface. The rest of the day, I met each rapid with utter excitement and trepidation.
This is how I felt each week with EMDR; excitement because it made me feel better and trepidation because of the surfacing of buried emotions that left me feeling emotionally exhausted after each session. The EMDR process for me was like going through a whitewater rapid, where we faced the wall of water and continued up and over to the other side.
EMDR brought me to the peak of my emotions, feeling every bit, and moving through to the other side, to a state of calm. EMDR helped me reach and let loose the pain so that true mourning could take place. Before, I had been afraid to touch that level of pain, scared that if I released it, it would never end and would eventually destroy me. Instead, holding onto the anguish was slowly annihilating me.
I am grateful to a fabulous therapist who bore witness and sat with me through that tortuous pain. Things began to shift internally, inexplicably. After six sessions of EMDR, I was ready to move on. I felt happy, and I made decisions that made me happier. I found a new job, dropped my PhD, recommitted to exercise, enjoyed time with my family and actually laughed.
Our loved ones deserve our unconditional support in their healing, but remember: You may need your own healing as well.