Rebuilding Circles of Trust
One way I kept my soul strong in childhood was looking to the beauty of the branches of trees to send me support for survival. Their power and sturdiness reached me and gave me a way to hold on when I was trapped in a home of violence and abuse. In the midst of hopelessness, I realize that one strategy children like me come up with is forgetting, walling it off, being able to grab a lunch box with nothing in it, so to speak, and walking to school as if nothing happened the night before. I look back at this self with the greatest respect.
When my memories started arriving, I assumed that the members of a neighborhood support group which I’d been in for eight years would continue to respect me, too, but it wasn’t that easy. I wanted to explain that I was the same person who they liked even though I now had a big story that I was unraveling, but we couldn’t talk about it. I was careful as much as possible not to share too many details of what I was learning, but I was in an emergency stage of these memories emerging for the first time. My general anxiety and fear leaked out and must have been hard to be around.
A woman in the group came to my home one day, sat on my porch and announced that she thought my memories were false. I shook my head and explained the process of how you get memories, how they arrive, and you discern that finally, your deepest self is able to speak. She became agitated and angry, and her face got increasingly tight.
Afterwards, I remembered that previous to this she had told the circle that she and siblings were abused in childhood but she felt that better way was not to address it. I realized it was threatening to her to have me listen to what she was pushing away. I reflected upon this and really tried to have an understanding. We were making different choices and I needed to respect her as much as I wanted her to respect me.
Later she insisted to the others in the group that she was being helpful to me by telling me my memories were false. I plummeted. I had to leave the group. We’d become a mismatch.
The night that happened, weeping in my bed, I decided that nothing could harm my heart. I said I’m going to lie here wrapped in covers and keep sending love from my heart out into the world.
I learned how to make myself a sanctuary where I could receive my own story, be the compassionate witness I deserved, and form a life.
At that time I started to write essays that would help others in a similar situation. I tried to see things from both sides. I wrote with compassion about the effort to avoid the secondary smoke of trauma. I looked at how hard it is for friends to hang in there when a big story erupted. I pretended there was a reader who really wanted to hear my advice about how friends could give support if they learned that someone had been abused in childhood. When I couldn’t get through the day or when I was afraid to go downtown because I might run into one of the members of the group, I’d write in the book.
I had heard people say -- Are you still dealing with that issue? It feels like you are taking up too much space and you’re acting like your needs are more important than ours. Why don’t you move on and forgive? I knew in my bones that there was a way to talk about this but I couldn’t effectively speak up on the spot and explain. Instead at home I’d open my laptop and write to my imagined reader who I felt could understand.
Over the ten years, I have met new friends and tried to accumulate wisdom about this process. Unfortunately, I have also experienced other instances of aversion and shunning. Yet more times than not there has been a reciprocity of support, and I have learned to be more skillful about mutual friendship negotiation and setting boundaries. What follows is one section from writing that has accrued.
I hope it will help others.
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A person who had a car accident can come in late and explain to co-workers -- “I’m dizzy this morning because of that car accident a month ago and it’s still affecting me.” Most likely people will nod with understanding and the person will be respected. But who can speak this request for support? -- “I’m dizzy and I came in a late today because I’ve been dealing with nightmares and flashbacks from abuse in my childhood and when they come on it’s exactly like it’s happening all over again.”
“Circle of trust” is a phrase coined by Andrew Vachss, a lawyer and child abuse consultant. Vachss begins his article, Child Sexual Abuse within the Circle of Trust, with these words: “For many years, I’ve explained that the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse is not committed by the kind of roving serial perpetrators who can be ‘profiled’ for trash TV. Most child sexual abuse takes place within the child’s circle of trust, starting with parents and radiating outward to teachers, coaches, religious authorities, babysitters.”
The staggering number of people who have experienced abuse by a trusted person constitutes a hidden epidemic. The Wikipedia biography of Vachss states his assertion “that society's failure to protect its children is the greatest threat to the human species.”
How do we transform the isolation of violence? I think that when friends give understanding and support they create a new circle of trust.
If you have a friend, a co-worker, or family member who trusts you enough to tell you that they have been abused, here are five important things to keep in mind.
1. Respond. Express that you’re sorry that it happened to them.
When a person has been violated, they have been isolated. The one who did it very often works to convince the one experiencing violation that it’s their fault. Be clear on your friend’s side and voice that you care. Even if it happened decades ago, the wounds from something so serious will still be alive today.
2. Believe their story.
Take their side. Most abuse is done by someone within the child’s trusted circle, someone who makes sure to appear respectable. This adult has been betrayed as a child or teenager – don’t betray them further. Don’t ask for details to check their facts. Give them the courtesy of being in charge of their own story.
If you don’t believe them, you can privately ask yourself these questions:
Do you not believe things like this occur?
Do you not believe it happened to them?
What might be happening inside yourself that brings up this response?
3. Only give advice if requested. Instead, ask what would be helpful.
Let us be the experts on what we need. It is disrespectful to make remarks that minimize the situation or imply that you know a way we could get over this quicker. Think about how hard it is to live through violence that is fundamentally destabilizing and yet also go forward successfully in the present. It’s not difficult because we are doing it wrong or making it worse. It’s intrinsically difficult.
It is very intrusive to ask – Have you forgiven? Not only is this a private matter, but it is a sign of health to be angry at having been violated. The details of a healing journey are to be owned by the person and not up for public scrutiny.
4. See their essential strength.
See this person as a hero who has been handling suffering day after day for years. Give them the dignity of being in charge of what they do to heal.
Don’t diagnosis them or accuse them of being permanently broken. The situation that they survived was searingly horrific. They made it through. Hold a picture of them that is supportive.
5. Include them. Phone them. Invite them. Welcome them.
It’s a double betrayal to feel left out of life for something that you didn’t cause and then be left out of social circles. To heal from the betrayal of child abuse is a lifelong journey and we want to figure out how to have mutually supportive friendships.
If you are telling yourself you’ll relate to them when they are more healed, see if there’s a way you can discuss what isn’t working in the friendship.
Most people who have lived through the unfairness of violence don’t want to fling themselves on friends like someone drowning who nearly pulls you under. If you’ve had a bad experience of someone asking too much of you rather than taking self-responsibility, don’t assume that all people who’ve lived through trauma will act this way.
Find ways to negotiate boundaries in your friendship. You can set up a practice of sharing headlines rather than details. It can feel supportive just to be able to say -- “I had the worst experience of new memories today,” without having to be specific about what those memories were.
Set up a fair rhythm of back and forth, each of you taking turns for sharing news or asking for support. If things feel unbalanced, talk about it.
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We are changing the social dislocation of trauma. I get inspired by the way that we can actually change the aftermath of this scourge of abuse by changing how we treat the people who have suffered from it.
As I share these thoughts, there arises a syrup of healing that has been boiling down from lots of experiences. I keep a file of examples of ally support. Here is a letter I got that still radiates light:
I hope you got through the winter solstice time all right;
I know that's a difficult time for you.
My thoughts have been with you.
These simple words remind me that I am no longer alone but joined by a world of caring people, and this really counts. I can wake up inside and heal within a circle of people who understand.