A past traumatic event can affect perceptions of the present and future

Sometimes, facing the future means confronting the past

Mechanicsburg, Pa.    Saturday, May 28, 2016

“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel confused. I thought everyone had bad intentions. I trusted no one. Not even my wife. I mean, I wanted to, I didn’t really believe she would do something to hurt me, but I just couldn’t fully trust her. I was always trying to figure out other people’s angle. What did they really want?”

A traumatic event in the past can seriously color the future, sometimes without our even being aware of the event’s impact, says Brooke Brown, clinical director with Diakon Family Life Services - Capital Region in Mechanicsburg. The counseling and behavioral health program recently received two grants to expand its focus and services on treating trauma.

The young man in counseling also “had a hard time with anger. It seemed like anything could set me off. It got to the point where my marriage was falling apart. I was stressed out at work and one day I lost it with a co-worker. As a result of that blow-up, I was referred for anger management sessions by our human resources department. That just made me angrier. After all, it wasn’t even my fault.”

“Realizing he was on the brink of losing his job—and perhaps his marriage—he decided to come to us for counseling,” says Brown. “He told me that he assumed he would come in for a few sessions, check off the work form that he’d gotten therapy and be done with it. He was wrong.”

“In therapy, I explored what happened to me and learned skills to deal with it ....”

“It turns,” he now says, “that I actually needed to work through some major stuff. And it had nothing to do with peer relations at work.”

The man had experienced sexual abuse as a child. 

“Typically,” says Brown, “men who experienced a traumatic event such as sexual abuse as a child are not inclined to seek help for it. But, as with this client, an adult-treatment program called Cognitive Processing Therapy can be of enormous help, not only with incidents of sexual abuse but also other traumatic experiences including violence, accidents, the death of a loved one and so on.”

“I was fine answering my therapist’s questions until she started asking about my childhood and if anything had ever happened in my life that had a negative impact. I don’t know why,” the client now says, “but I told her the truth. I’d been holding onto it for so long that I just had to let it out.”

The man described sexual abuse at the hands of a relative a few years older than he.

“I didn’t use the terms sexual abuse, but I told her what he did. As a child, I spent a lot of time at my counsin’s house. It started out as wrestling and tickle fights. He would ‘accidentally’ touch me in places I was not comfortable with, but he just laughed it off or acted like it didn’t even happen.

“Eventually, he did things on purpose and threatened to tell my mom and my friends if I told anyone. He told me that he would make sure that everyone knew I was the one who did it, not him. I was scared. I didn’t know what to do. I thought he was my friend, my family. How could he do this? It went on for years. I never told anyone. I didn’t want people to know. To think I was somehow responsible. Eventually, we moved away. And I guess I thought that if I didn’t think about it and didn’t tell anyone about it, it wouldn’t affect me,” he says.

Years went by and, in fact, he didn’t think about it. But there were times when, suddenly, he would have nightmares about it. And he would get depressed thinking about it.

“I felt guilty and ashamed. As I got older I didn’t want my girlfriends to know. What if they thought it was my fault? Or that I really did like it? I definitely didn’t want my wife to know. What kind of man would she think I was?”

But now, safe in counseling, the young man began to tell his therapist about what had happened.

And she began to explain to him traumatic events and their often-devastating impact on people, if left untreated.

“She explained that when terrible things happen, they can affect us deeply. In therapy, I learned that I could explore what happened to me and learn skills to deal with it and, then, focus on changing the beliefs, feelings and behaviors I had about myself and others,” he says.

In fact, he learned he could change trauma’s impact on his life.

“The sexual abuse is still a part of my life, but I have healed from it and I am proud of myself for not letting it continue to mess up my life. I’ve worked on my relationship with my wife. She knows about what happened to me and we are stronger for my having shared that knowledge. I really underestimated her and myself. And I can now manage my anger much better when it does surface!”

For additional information on Diakon Family Life Services’ trauma-focused treatments for children, youths and adults, visit our website. In addition, the news portion of our site includes information on two recent grants to expand trauma-focused therapy. 

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