Leaving the family system: An honourable choice

As a therapist, I have worked with people who have been beaten, raped, psychologically tormented, severely neglected, and in many other ways profoundly betrayed by their parents or family members. Never, in my 15 years of working with people, have I heard of one of these abusers taking responsibility for what they did. Most of the time, my client is the one person in the family who is dealing with the abuse. The rest of the family and extended family refuse to talk about the incidents. Frequently, they belittle the truth teller, depict them as the one in the wrong, and even call them crazy. These clients over years of time, experience blame, shaming, walls of silence, verbal attacks, and are disowned if they continue to try and bring up the subject of past abuse. Many clients pretend the abuse never happened in order to stay close to family members while secretly suffering from the horrors of the damage. Most people don’t realize how common the pattern is- the one who remembers loses everything. The one who got hurt carries all the pain. The one who was a child victim is victimized again as an adult. It is wrong and it happens everyday.

Some survivors of abuse who come to terms with the atrocities of their childhood recognize that some family members if not all of them are too toxic to be in contact with. In more blatant terms, some people recognize that crimes have been committed and no justice has been served. There is an understanding that a child’s life was threatened and damaged, that the abuse caused lasting physical, emotional, sexual, relational, and energetic effects. When this reality is faced, usually after years of intense therapy, some people choose to cut off contact with direct offenders or portions of their families, for months, years, or forever.

What I have witnessed as a therapist is that this boundary is essential for some survivors of abuse. The healing really begins once this boundary is made. Once they have clearly decided that the perpetrators behavior is not healthy for them to connect with, they are then ready to feel, express, open up, and trust themselves and others. For these people, pretending or ignoring the abuse is not an option.

It is important to say that the decision to cut off family is an incredibly painful one that comes with huge losses that are hard to imagine from the outside. It is one of the hardest choices a survivor will make. We live in a culture, in a world, where family is everything. Parents who abuse are protected in our culture. Once doors are closed, parents can get away with almost anything. People who do not speak to family lose all resources- money and all financial safety nets, comfort, basic support, tribe, belonging, and roots. Not only that but they become “different” than most others in the world, are shunned and isolated for an act of survival and self-preservation. Some friends of survivors feel such discomfort when facing the reality of what can happen in families that they lobby for the norm that families must stick together. Once again, instead of the survivor getting support, they get misunderstanding and criticism.

We do not live in a world where abuse is acknowledged and dealt with as an epidemic, relentless, radical situation. If we did, there would be systems of support that help families, children, and adult survivors prevent and heal from trauma. There would be programs in schools teaching children about abuse and encouraging them to speak up about things that are happening to them. There would be extensive programs for all parents to learn and share about abuse prevention and treatment. There would be funding put forward for a complete revamping of our foster care system, which, as it is, does not protect children in foster care. The entire mentality of “family” would be questioned and explored in our communities and organizations to foster support at every level of functioning.

One out of 4 girls and one out of 6 boys will experience contact sexual abuse by the age of 18 (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, 2005). This statistic should cause the kind of alarm that is aimed at war and environmental break -down. What could be more important than a child’s safety? Isn’t it obvious that child abuse becomes the stem of violence that pervades our nation and beyond?

The people who have lost their parents and families due to abuse deserve the utmost respect and support. These people have risked it all to heal and stand up for the truth. These people are heroes and angels who hold a horrific reality for everyone else. They have suffered and escaped, and for that, I bow my head in reverence.

This article was written by Rythea Lee. Her new book Trauma into Truth: Gutsy Healing and Why It’s Worth It is available at Amazon.com. Rythea Lee has a private practice in Northampton, Massachusetts and teaches workshops and classes for healing and self-expression. You can read more about her and her dance theatre company, the Zany Angels, at http://www.zanyangels.com . You can also see Rythea Lee perform on youtube.

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