He is still seven years old. He is still being given the special treats he loves and the extra attention he savors by the counselor he trusts. He is still being groomed. There are back rubs he enjoys . . . and then there is more. Did the counselor really mean to do what he did, or was that by accident? There is confusion. The seven-year-old submits because he is afraid to suddenly say no. Daily, the abuse continues and escalates. Although he looks like a very eligible 30-year-old, he is still seven years old, still terrified of trusting, because that means getting tricked.
He is still seven years oldShe is still five years old, and her older brother is still holding her down and doing what he feels like to her. She is still hearing the footsteps of the rest of her family, walking in the living room above, unable to protect her from what is happening in the basement right below them. She may appear to be a 55-year-old woman now, but anytime she hears people walking on a floor above her, she is still being violated.
Trauma and the Brain
Often, well-meaning people are not able to understand why many survivors of abuse are not able to “just get over it.” When one understands the mechanisms of the brain and the way it stores and retrieves memories, however, the picture becomes clearer.
Traumatic experiences remain encoded in a primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, which automatically goes into “fight or flight” mode when triggered by certain stimuli, even decades later.
The lower part of our brainstem, unlike our far more complex prefrontal cortex, doesn’t have the level of sophistication needed to be able to tell the difference between triggers that signal real danger and those that do not. Footsteps above or even a particular place or food can elicit an automatic response that floods the body with terror, since those stimuli are neurologically linked to the approach of the abuser.
Survivors of abuse would love to be able to move forward with their lives! Why would anyone want to feel trapped by depression,So how can we help? PTSD, dissociative disorders, eating disorders, drug addictions and anxiety? Unfortunately, these are the diverse symptoms that may manifest in survivors of abuse.
Treatment and Support
Since trauma resides in the mind, body and spirit, it can be extremely hard to recover from its effects. Recent advancements in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), however, have demonstrated the neuroplasticity of even the lower brain, proving physiologically what our Jewish texts have always made clear—that great healing, though clearly challenging, is possible.
So how can we help?
For one, it’s important that survivors get the treatment they need. Clinical experts with comprehensive knowledge of the most effective treatment modalities for healing trauma can be very helpful to survivors in the recovery process.
But you don’t need an advanced degree in psychology to be there for someone who is suffering. The awareness alone of how survivors are haunted by flashbacks and are trying to avoid certain triggers can help you respond with more understanding and compassion. In Ethics of Our Fathers (2:5), we are wisely encouraged not to judge people unless we have been in their situation.
Here are some examples of things that are usually helpful to say (if said from the heart):
● I’m sorry this happened to you.
● If you ever feel like talking, I am here to listen.
● I care about you.
● How can I be of help?
● I don’t know what to say.
Prevention and Protection
We are learning that 95% of sexual abuse is preventable through education, so let’s continue to calmly and clearly teach young children how to be aware of inappropriate behavior and how to respond. If we are proactive, then it is unlikely that a child’s intuition will be easily disarmed by the perpetrators that they encounter.
There still remains a widespread myth that predators appear scary, when they usually strive very hard to appear just as pleasant and altruistic—and sometimes even more so—than most people. Children need to learn that even people who act nice in many ways can sometimes listen to their yetzer harah (evil inclination), and they should be sure to tell a trusted adult if any inappropriate behavior occurs.
As adults, we should know that even if the statute of limitations has passed, and a perpetrator of abuse can no longer be prosecuted for a particular crime, the crime should still be reported to theSexual abuse is a particularly invasive type of abuse civil authorities. If the predator is still alive and not incarcerated, he is still likely to be molesting children. In numerous cases, decades-old reports have helped to apprehend active perpetrators.
The Pure Soul
Sexual abuse is a particularly invasive type of abuse, as it destroys innocence. What was stolen cannot be given back. The defilement, however, is unable to reach into the deepest levels of the soul, the infinite part of oneself that is always connected to G‑d. For protection, a survivor’s inner core may have become well-hidden. Wrapped and trapped in fear, the soul’s light may appear darkened, but beneath all the protective coverings, it still exudes a uniquely beautiful light full of Divine energy that is as pure and radiant as ever. Our appreciation of this, combined with patience and dedication, can help us support all those who are still hurting.
Like everyone else, survivors of abuse yearn to be loved. And their unique light, which has been clouded over, still yearns to shine.