Few news stories are as grim as real-life episodes of abduction, long-term confinement and abuse. The media has gone hog wild in the past week as it delivers new details about the nightmarish case of three Cleveland women who were held against their will for approximately ten years.
Even in your wildest dreams, you probably still could not imagine anything as horrible happening to you. When something so horrific happens, how does one recover? Of course, it’s hard to know how to make sense of something that makes no sense at all. Can these women, or anyone who experiences a trauma so severe, truly move on to have normal lives, or will they be forever traumatized?
Let’s start with the definition of trauma. A couple elements are required for an event to qualify as a psychological trauma: the person’s ability to integrate his or her emotional experience is overwhelmed, and the person subjectively experiences a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity.*
The issue of control has everything to do with trauma. Part of what makes the experience for the Cleveland women so traumatic is the total lack of control over their circumstances. The major and life-threatening stress that follows an abduction and confinement can lead to extreme symptoms: psychotic episodes, labile mood or severe depression, suicide/homicide attempts, dissociation, and extreme sleeping and eating problems. Post-traumatic stress symptoms may appear, including reliving the event or nightmares. Based on my experience with men and women who have experienced major psychological trauma, it will take time for these women to regain emotional equilibrium. They may never trust male strangers again and will be extremely fearful – maybe even clinically paranoid – about the motives of unfamiliar men in their lives. They may be fearful about making plans for the future as they can’t fully trust that they will ever have control over future circumstances.
Social Reunions: These women should be asked whom they want to see when. Everyone around them should be careful to not put pressure on them in any way: They’ve experienced more stress in recent years than most people will experience in their entire lives.
Where to Recover: These women should recover wherever they are going to feel most safe. Some trauma victims will prefer to stay close to home, while others may feel the need to recover far from home. If the Cleveland women need a break from their surroundings and neighborhood, they should go somewhere quiet, away from cameras and media. An environment with plenty of nature can help, too: grass, trees, mountains, ponds, lakes or oceans can soothe individuals whose central nervous systems have been under siege from stress. Nature is one of the best vehicles to help a person get in touch with repressed feelings, which is why many private drug rehabilitation facilities and mental health clinics feature aquatic and equine therapies, among others.
How to Express Yourself: The Cleveland survivors need to be reminded that when ready, they should try to express themselves in whichever way suits them best. Talking to family and friends – or even themselves – in the quiet of a private room can help them vent their feelings. Writing, too, is incredibly helpful for individuals who have experienced a psychological trauma. Whether these women want to document their thoughts in a journal, write letters that never get sent, or just scribble random thoughts here and there, the point is to express the thoughts so they don’t lead to greater anxiety or internalized shame. You might be surprised by the next intervention to encourage expression: making art. For trauma victims, talking or writing about their experiences early in their recovery sometimes hits too close to home, bringing back all the fear and anxiety from the original trauma. Art therapy gives recovering men and women a no-stress, fluid way of expressing themselves. With art, there’s no right answer or set structure, which can make these women feel safer to express their feelings.
Help Others: Many trauma victims find that helping other trauma victims helps them, too. The three Cleveland women should first focus on healing themselves, but they may find that volunteering in the future for missing-child organizations, for example, allows them to take some of the skills they developed in surviving their own trauma and use them to help other victims recover.
Psychotherapy/Counseling: Intensive trauma-focused therapy could help the Cleveland women – or anyone who’s experienced a trauma – gain clarity into their ‘trauma narrative’ and regain the belief that they have control over their life and environment.
In the past week, I read that Jaycee Dugard, who has her own survival story to tell, made a statement in response to the Cleveland women being found alive. Ms. Dugard simply said that the human spirit is incredibly resilient. As a therapist, I know this is true. I just wish bad things didn’t have to happen for all of us to learn that lesson.
Learn more about Dr. Seth Meyers and his book Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.
*Pearlman, Laurie Anne, and Karen W. Saakvitne. Trauma and the Therapist. New York: Norton, p.60, 1995.