AT risk youth

Learning about Trauma from an Abuse Survivor

Research has linked dysfunctional family relations in adolescence to adverse mental health in adulthood. Understanding that poverty rears its head in forms of deprivation beyond the material sense, MWS works with families to address complex issues beyond financial challenges. In this series spotlighting our past articles that explore the complexities of poverty, we look at how MWS worked with an abuse survivor to turn her impoverished upbringing around.

Cindy first got to know Anne* when Anne’s mother approached an MWS FSC in 2012 for financial help. While looking into her case, Cindy, a trained social worker formerly with MWS, found out that Anne and her sibling had been abused by their mother in their younger years. Anne was aged 16 then, and her sibling was 13.

“Anne’s mother often directed her anger at her children and hit them till their faces were bruised and swollen. Before going to work, she would often bind the hands of Anne and her sibling so that they would not misbehave, and she would leave them to starve in the dark,” she recounted.

According to Cindy, Anne dropped out of school early and became pregnant at the age of 18, which led to more problems at the home-front.

“Anne wanted to be a good mother to her child but her own mother berated her often, calling her incompetent. Between the struggles of being a new, young and unwed mother and her own mum’s verbal abuse, Anne started to fall apart.

“She cut herself to cope with her pain, and got into numerous conflicts with her mother and sibling. At times, the conflict escalated to physical violence and she would verbally abuse her sibling when she was frustrated. As a result of the extensive abuse, Anne also began to doubt her self-worth, and had a difficult time trusting others,” explained Cindy.

Most people could have easily attributed the violence to Anne, and simply labelled her as ‘problematic’. However, Cindy recognised the impact of early childhood trauma on individuals, and recognised Anne’s behavioural problems as cries for help.

Between the struggles of being a new, young and unwed mother and her own mum’s verbal abuse, Anne started to fall apart.

“When I began to recognise these behavioural difficulties as trauma symptoms, I realised that Anne needed us to engage her in a diferent way. I needed to help her experience emotional safety with us. This meant that I had to interact with her in a way that validated her pain and built trust. It meant just being there for her while she cried, even if I had to just sit silently outside her house when she was unable or unwilling to open the door.

“It also meant that I had to be mindful about what I had promised her. If I said I would call her at 1pm, I called her at 1pm. No excuses. If I said I wanted to talk to her mum, I would let her know, and share with her what I would be saying to her mum. I also invited her to ask questions and clarify the purpose of my engagement with her mother. This translated into a respectful, sensitive and trusting relationship between Anne and me,” shared Cindy.

Embarking on Trauma-Informed Care

Anne experienced with her mother what we consider a trauma bond, a strong pull to someone who hurts you, said Cindy.

“I tried many ways to mediate between Anne and her mother and to address her mother’s abusive behaviour, but Anne’s mother was often unremorseful.

“Again, I had to understand that Anne’s mother’s lack of remorse came from a difficult place. Anne’s mother was herself a victim of abuse and violence and that sometimes made her feel overwhelmed when things did not happen in the way she expected.

All these added to her difficulty in understanding the impact of her behaviour on Anne,” added Cindy. When Cindy’s attempts at mediating between Anne and her mother did not work, she advised Anne to move into a women’s shelter. However,
Anne had a hard time disengaging from her mother while having to deal with disparaging remarks from other women about her situation.

“I met with Anne regularly in the shelter then to offer support and counsel. I helped her learn to value herself and see that she had the power to control how her life turns out,” she recalled.

As Anne began to heal after her physical and emotional emancipation from her mother, Cindy turned to helping Anne manage the manifestations of her trauma.

“As she continued to experience flashbacks, sleepless nights, hypervigilance and panic attacks, my role shifted to helping Anne manage her post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Meanwhile, Anne continued to care for her child, and worked hard to keep her job,” shared Cindy.

Anne began to heal after her physical and emotional emancipation from her mother.

Valuable Lessons Learnt

In her 6 years of helping Anne, Cindy has learnt a number of valuable lessons, especially in how she interacts with individuals and families, and in the way she guides her colleagues in engaging FSC clients.

“It is far too easy to ignore the voices of the less vocal, and the less visible. I have learnt that it is critical to understand their worldviews too. I always remind myself and my colleagues to lean in and listen to their narratives.

“Anne taught me and my colleagues to be less judgmental and more empathetic, to go beyond labels and stereotypes, to reach out to engage, understand and to learn to embrace the complexities of each person’s life,” she said.

Cindy also came to understand that deep-rooted issues are at the core of those who may not behave according to social norms and expectations.

“Anne’s experience made me realise what massive impact adverse life events can have on an individual’s functioning, and how seemingly simple activities of life can be more challenging for them,” she explained.

More importantly, Cindy learnt not to treat individuals like Anne as victims.

“Anne is more than a victim. I learnt to recognise her strengths, especially in her darkest moment, without negating her pain. She showed me that those struggling in difficult and complex situations are also capable of developing and desirous of relationships with others.

“Only when we relate to survivors of abuse as fellow human beings with
both vulnerabilities and strengths, and see them as more than victims, can we develop a more inclusive, humane and empowering society,” she explained.

Today, Anne is married and is a loving mother to her child. She also holds a stable job and has many friends who often seek her advice.

*Not her real name.

This story was first published by CNA Online on 29 June 2019. It has been reproduced for Uncommon Voices Issue 1 / 2021, with additional reporting by MWS.

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