Monday, June 05, 2006

From Fear to Fascination: Polar Reactions to Trauma

Foster Females & Sexual Trauma
A friend of mine wrote me recently. She had been working with two foster teenagers, both of whom had experienced a sexual assault. Their reactions seemed to be polar opposites. One frequently indulged in promiscuous behavior, and the other deeply feared physical intimacy.

My friend observed that, Marital intimacy is so complex; especially when you add in abuse and the foster care culture. I wish there were one simple thing I could tell them (and myself I suppose) to just have a "normal" view of intimacy and sex.

These two extreme reactions are very common.

Forged by Fire
Picture this painful scenario... A child is forever damaged by fire. This same terrible event happens to two young women. One reacts by avoiding fire at all costs. The other becomes inordinately fascinated by fire, leading some to speculate that she might be a pyromaniac.

Both survivors are ruled by their fascination and fear of the force that almost destroyed them. Neither of these two women can see the middle ground between the two extreme reactions. They might even bounce from one extreme to another.

(I apologize for the timing of this analogy. I have wracked my brain, and I cannot come up with any other comparison that captures the essence of sexual damage so aptly. If you think of one - please tell me).

A disruptive, traumatic experience, such as a sexual assault, wrecks double damage upon the adolescent female:

1.) It has the potential to deeply impact their understanding of sexuality, love and relationships.
2.) It has a profound effect on their adult behaviors regarding physical and emotional intimacy.

One external reaction is fear and avoidance. Sex becomes something to be feared. Sexual situations, and even humor, might trigger post-traumatic stress disorder.

Internally, the young woman is shouldering trauma-related guilt and shame. Was it her fault? Is she 'the sort of person' to whom these things are bound to happen?

Upon closer inspection, the 'fascination' response isn't that different than the response born of fear.

Sexual addiction also involves guilt and shame. By acting out sexually, the young woman might be reliving the guilt she experienced after the rape. What is she thinking? "This is how I can have power." "This is what I deserve."

Acting out in itself can be a form of emotion-avoidance. The fear can be experienced as a rush or a high. Sexuality can become a drug to escape painful thoughts or feelings.

Healing & Balance
What then? Is there hope for the female survivor of rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse? Can sex ever be a way to connect with another human being, rather than to 'numb out'? Can that sort of intimacy be experienced, or will it forever be overshadowed by fear?

From my personal experience, I believe that progress in this area is possible.

It's not short and simple. It's not quick and easy. It requires time, hard work, honesty, and discernment in choosing trustworthy friends.

Here are some of the strategies that researchers (and I) have found to be the most effective:

Personal choices: Taking responsibility for unwise decisions. Choosing self-protection, rather than self-destruction. Finding liberation through forgiveness (of self and others), self-respect, self-control and by seeking insights and awareness.

Involvement with others: Seeking out a healthy group of people who can provide validation and acceptance. Experiencing love and nurturing. Having friends to encourage progress and celebrate accomplishments.

Seeking accurate perceptions of self and others: "As a man thinks in his heart, so he is."
-Self-perception: Having a sane, healthy view of self.
-Perception of men: I could write an entire blog entry on this issue.
-Perception of sexuality.
-Perception of relationships.

Some people might find what they need to heal in a support group. Others might work through painful issues with a trusted counselor. Still others find a church group or a close-knit community that meets at least some of their needs.

As my friend observed, foster care exacerbates the wounds from this type of traumatic experience. Repetitive abandonment and displacement increases self-blame. She, I and several of our fellow foster alumni would like to see more research and therapeutic progress in this area. In the meantime, we are committed to supporting those within our circle of influence and seeking health and balance for both them and ourselves.

Kaltman, Stacey, et al. Psychological impact of types of sexual trauma among college
women. Journal of Traumatic Stress; Oct2005, Vol. 18 Issue 5, p547-555.

Street, Amy, et al. Impact of childhood traumatic events, trauma-related guilt, and
avoidant coping strategies on PTSD symptoms in female survivors of
domestic violence. Journal of Traumatic Stress; Jun2005, Vol. 18 Issue 3, p245-252.

Woodward, Clare, et al. Positive change processes and post-traumatic growth in people
who have experienced childhood abuse: Understanding vehicles of change. Psychology & Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice; Sep2003, Vol. 76 Issue 3, p267-283.

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Lisa, I get it completely. I was never sexually abused, but I have had the "fascination" complex with other bad experiences. Neat post.
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