is so close to being loved
that for the average person,
they are almost indistinguishable.”
― David Augsburger
The other day, a spiritual abuse survivor and friend I met last year in Moscow, Idaho, posted the following quote by Dr. Diane Langberg on her Facebook wall. Please read it slowly and carefully. Knowing and understanding this could be the very gift you use to help propel a survivor in a positive direction towards healing.
One characteristic of dealing with survivors of trauma is the repetitious nature of that work. Survivors will say the same things over and over—“How could my father do that to me . . .” They will be repetitious in dealing with their emotions—“I am so angry that . . .” And they will repeat their losses again and again—“I cannot believe so-and-so is dead . . .”
Expect it, and learn to sit with it. The magnitude of the trauma is so great that repetition is necessary. The mind cannot imagine what happened. It cannot hold such a thought. Bearing the intensity of emotions is impossible and so the feelings must be tried on again and again. These are attempts to bear what cannot be borne. They are struggles to integrate into life what does not fit because there are no categories. Be patient, and then be patient some more. ~ Diane Langberg, Suffering and the Heart of God
What happens when people are finally out of a toxic and abusive environment, completely free from abuse? Is it over? They might think it would be over, but sometimes that is where the difficulty begins as they realize what was done to them, what was stolen from them, how they were used, harmed, controlled by someone else. This can be a long process, and it may not seem like it is going anywhere because of the repetition that Dr. Langberg refers to above. But it’s so important to note that the pattern of a survivor repeating their story over and over again is very normal.
I remember meeting with Pastor Ken Garrett and a group of friends at a picnic. Most of the people there had been part of the cult that Ken was involved in. At that time, it had been over 12 years since people had left the cult. Some of us shared our abuse stories. It was a safe place. We all understood abuse and wanted to listen and share in their suffering. I looked around the group. I saw tears streaming down cheeks as stories were shared. Even though this had happened over 12 years ago, the pain was still very real. I believe this opportunity was another step in their healing process. It was another time where they could say with their voice and be heard what was done to them.
Survivors will feel the need to repeat their stories. This is when they need people who will sit with them in the trenches. It is as if when they repeat their experience, they are finally allowing themselves permission to understand that it really happened to them, not someone else over there. The abuse issue, when the survivor was in the abusive environment, kept the reality of abuse at a safe distance emotionally, because it would have been far too difficult to process then. It is by repeating the same story over again that the blinders slowly fall off. Truth of the abuse is acknowledged, and they come to their own conclusions about what they incurred, “Oh, that is why I felt or responded this way,” “I didn’t realize how he needed to use me for his own personal gain,” “by abusing me, he stole this from me,” etc.
It is very important that survivors process what happened to them and that they are able to make their own connections. This is often what happens as someone is telling their story. They are hearing themselves speak it out loud. They are connecting with their own story and making conclusions about what happened to them. Finally, they are giving the abuse and conflicts the time they deserve, but this time in a safe environment without outside distractions, and especially people who might minimize their story, dismiss it, or even blame them.
Greater love has no one than this,
that one lay down his life for his friends.
One of the amazing things about this process of a survivor telling their story to someone safe, is that they are doing a lot of their own work. As Dr. Langberg said above, when they are in the midst of an abuse situation or environment, their brain is working hard to survive. It doesn’t have time to connect with the emotions. Their energy is used up for questions like: what is going to happen next? how should I respond? how can I get out of this situation? There may or may not be clarity about the situation. While they are in the midst of the trauma or abusive situation, they may not understand or have identified that they are in an abusive situation, but there is a sense of conflict, nonetheless, and that conflict takes energy.
I was speaking with a domestic abuse survivor yesterday, and she was telling me about the confusion and conflict she felt. Because she wasn’t experiencing physical abuse, she didn’t know that she was experiencing abuse, so she minimized her own abuse as simply a relational issue. This is what can often happen with spiritual abuse. There may not be an awareness that an abuser has used their power or influence to control you. You may identify uncomfortable feelings, but the abuse word may never register.
I have been the recipient of people who have chosen to go into the trenches with me and my abuse journey. It is the most generous and incredible gift I have received. Having someone give you their time, listen to you, acknowledge your pain, your loss, be nonjudgmental is a rare gift these days. But it is life-changing.
Are you willing to get your feet all mucky and dirty in a trench? To listen to stories of anger and pain? Next time you see a trench, let it remind you that you can be a gift to vulnerable and abused people by choosing to give the gift of time. You can acknowledge their pain and loss, encourage them, and simply be there.