Recently I had the opportunity to read a book authored by one of my mentees, a graduate student working on her doctoral degree in psychology. I was initially apprehensive about reading the book, I wasn’t sure if I would like it or that I wanted to delve into her narrative of prolonged sexual abuse and physical trauma. After much deliberation I decided to give the book a read, to say that it was relatable, and inspiring is an understatement. I developed a greater appreciation for her strength and willingness to tell her story, not someone elses story.
The book touches on the many losses we can experience in life, some of which requires time and maturity to both see and accept. The story begins when the author is five years old with vivid memories and descriptions of events that is often associated with trauma. She describes both her fears as well as resiliency when placed in a situation of being abused by someone she expected to trust. Many of us are aware that memory can be faulty, however, most scientists and clinicians agree, if the memory is of a traumatic event it is likely to be stored. Memory storing typically occurs because of the key role emotions play in what has happened to us, how we “experienced” the event(s). On any given day, our brains store or “encode” only some of the things we experience. What we pay attention to is what’s more likely to get encoded. If an event elicits an emotional reaction in us, then it’s more likely to make it into our memory.
The stress hormones, cortisol, norepinephrine, that are released during a terrifying trauma tend to render the experience vivid and memorable, especially the central aspect, the most meaningful aspects of the experience for the survivor. Specifically, sexual abuse survivors or other people who have experienced traumatic events tend to remember the most essential and frightening elements of the events in vivid detail for life. This is meaningful for several different reasons as it sheds light on the ongoing problem of child sexual abuse as well as the need for ongoing support for survivors, often, well into adulthood.
One of the things that struck me about the book included the suffering and trauma experienced by the other family members, albeit, nonsexual. Family members residing in the home with the abuser all suffered, individually, uniquely. Each responding to the trauma in a different way, each unwilling to discuss it as if it would some how shatter the masks they created of “normalcy”. The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. How an event affects an individual depends on many factors, including characteristics of the individual, the type and characteristics of the event(s), developmental processes, the meaning of the trauma, and sociocultural factors.
Challenges Related to Trauma Include:
• Loss of hope or vision for the future
• Substance/alcohol problems
• Sexual dysfunctions
• Low self-esteem
• Trust issues
• Mood/anxiety disorders
• Intense and intrusive recollections
• Avoidance of emotions
• Sleep disorders
• Eating disorders
• Negative sensations associated with the trauma
• Maladaptive coping skills
• Challenges establishing and building intimacy
In closing, I asked the author what prompted her to share such a personal story with others and her feelings about expressing her vulnerabilities to her readers? Her response was unexpected, she stated rather matter of fact, “I created my first mask as a child, I used it to protect myself from others, but, I realized I needed to speak to those that have experienced sexual trauma. I needed them to know in a world that often does not see us, we matter. Although, we are no longer children, we still struggle, and we are stronger than we give ourselves credit for. We deserve to love, rather than exist”.