By Lily DeVilliers
One of the real problems that I have with the current societal view of abuse survivors is the heavy emphasis on self-help-centered 'healing' and 'recovery' from the abuse.
Domestic violence falls under the category of 'traumatic shock' - any event that destroys the internalized set of assumptions, patterns and understandings that we all use to operate in the world every day. Along with combat veterans, earthquake victims, hostages and prisoners of war, survivors of spousal abuse have to tear down their entire understanding of the world, people and love, and rebuild the whole system from the ground up to incorporate the new information that the people closest to you can actually be the most dangerous.
The problem with self-help overall in this context - the 12-step programs, soul-soothing books, meditation and general emphasis on moving on, moving forward and leaving behind - is that it may be working directly against the best interests of anyone suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Self-help seems to assume what the name already implies: that the source of the problem is in the victim's perception of her own self, not of the external world, and can be fixed or addressed by applying personal change. For a survivor who has already had her world-view profoundly altered by domestic abuse, forcing a re-assessment of the self before the world-view is reintegrated may appear to produce good results, but in many cases it may be working against permanent long-term recovery.
Self-help urges several things that make sense individually, but which add up to a tangle of contradictions when taken together. The survivor is variously urged to 'move on at once' but also not to 'repeat patterns'; to 'learn from the experience' but not to 'blame others'; to 'empower herself' so as to avoid further abuse and at the same time to 'accept responsibility' for her part in it. She's to 'examine what happened' but not to 'brood' or to 'dwell'. None of these directives makes sense.
Traumatic shock and the genuine need to rebuild a new world view make these conflicting instructions seem reasonable, but overall they add up to greater confusion and psychic splitting rather than less. If a survivor is to figure out what was missing from her reality before the abuse, but she's not allowed to be 'overly negative' or 'play the victim' by blaming anyone else, then the only person she can end up finding responsible is herself. And yet being 'empowered' is supposedly the key to avoiding further abuse. So does that mean a survivor who takes responsibility for being abused the first time is sending a firm message to future abusers? And if it happens again, is it her fault again for not being 'empowered' enough to avoid it?
It makes a great deal more sense to just allow the survivor to speak clearly about the abuser: what he appeared to be, what she sees him as now, and what actions, issues and behaviours from him might account for the difference, rather than turning her eyes in towards her own self. It makes more sense to allow her to compare that difference to what she's previously believed to be true about men, and then to expand that knowledge to include pathologies like battering, rather than insisting that she just change the view of herself. It would make more sense to allow her to develop anger and force and clarity, rather than urging transcendence and imposed serenities.
The trouble with the self-help approach for spousal abuse is that in this context, responsibility does belong elsewhere than the victim. And learning from the experience does inevitably involve increased negativity about human nature. These are the real tools that will allow survivors to rise again with increased strength, not hamper them.