Skip to content

Defusing abuse victims' dark secrets

In the second part of our series on child sex abuse, the News talks to a therapist about how she helps heal the wounds inflicted by traumatic events.

They live, work and play among us; hiding in plain sight; a walking, breathing time bomb.

Lurking deep in a vault in their head is an explosive dark secret.

Induced by trauma, its now securely locked away from harm and the unforgiving light of reality.

To most of us, the hosts are regular people our neighbours, friends, colleagues, going about their business, taking kids to school, working, shopping for groceries.

What the eye doesnt see is a human being, creaking under the weight of shouldering a hidden package of sexual abuse suffered as a child.

Its a parcel in their mind ready to ignite at any moment, given the correct detonator and the perfect storm of ingredients.

It can be the birth of a child, having your own child abused, getting married, a relationship breaking down, said Leigh Malone, a Richmond-based therapist with Family Services of Greater Vancouver.

Or it could be a series of adverse events in their life, and they are having difficulty holding down a job.

And sometimes they could be trying to get clean from an addiction and the past all comes pouring out.

Its usually something thats happened to them in their adult life that (triggers them coming forward).

Knowing the circumstances that led to an abuse victim whether it be a child or adult entering Malones life as a therapist is a vital part of how she can begin to help the person heal.

We always enquire into how (the abuse) came to light, we always ask what prompted them to come forward, said Malone, who has 15 years experience in the field and now works under the umbrella of the TASA (Trauma And Sexual Abuse) program.

How the person has been handled or not handled up to that point is a very important part.

We need to make sure that the basics have been done before we begin the therapy.

If a new client is a child, then the police-based victim services will usually have been the first port of call for the victim.

Quite often, however, Malone is very much on the front line if the victim, whos now an adult, wants to talk about a traumatic event that took place decades ago.

Its not uncommon that this kind of referral comes our way. Its not until something triggers it in later life that it all comes to the surface, Malone said.

We would work with the client to explore how shes been affected and work to undo that. A typical way to look at therapy is that a person has been traumatized and were treating that trauma.

Treating that trauma usually falls into a three-stage model explained Malone.

People find that they just come in and talk about the trauma. But we find thats not always the thing to do, she said.

We first help them re-establish a sense of safety in their lives. We do this for a while before they even start to talk about the abuse.

Second, we can then deal with the trauma because, having improved the sense of safety, theyre now in a stronger position emotionally to talk about it.

The final chapter looks at integrating the client back into their lives in a different way than before.

Its a life that has probably changed so much and has been disrupted so much by the trauma, added Malone, who has sometimes dealt with children as young as three.

We do see three and four-year-olds, but that work is more with the parent in helping them to support the child.

As far as what form the therapy takes, it totally depends on the client and what trauma they have experienced, explained Malone.

We know that one size does not fit all, she said.

There is cognitive behavioural therapy: What we feel is determined by what we think. This will drive our behaviour.

And sensory motor psychotherapy looks at how your traumatic experiences are held within your body and memory.

There are many methods employed by therapists to help smooth the painful path tread by sexual abuse victims.

Whatever they are, its night and day compared to 40 years ago when a seven-year-old Margaret the adult featured in Wednesdays News, who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of an alcoholic babysitter first told her parents of her pain.

All that time ago, there would have been very little (support), Malone said.

At least she was believed, it seems, by her parents. Thats not always the case.

Many years ago, however, we went from offering a little help to quite a bit. More recently, there has been even more growth in the support.

People who want to talk to someone about abuse, suffered as a child or in later life, can refer themselves for the initial interview, said Malone.

Initially, well decide if this is a good fit for them, she said.

They then go on a short wait list, although sometimes it can take a matter of months. After that, I can see them for once a week for up to a year.

We work on whatever is pressing for them. We kind of take their lead.

Also on the front line of helping to heal the deep wounds inflicted by abuse are community-based specialists who deal with domestic violence (sexual, physical, elder), often before its even reported to the police.

They, said Malone, understand the impact of abuse and help people navigate the justice system, should they want to bring matters to court.

They can help people make decisions and actually accompany them to the police and be with them right through to court if it goes that far, Malone said.

- If you, or someone you know, have been the victim of abuse, the Richmond Family Violence Prevention Network is a group of organizations able to help. Call Victim Services at 604-270-6229. In an emergency, call 911.

- If you want to contact Family Services of Greater Vancouvers Richmond office, its at 250-7000 Minoru Blvd. Or call 604-279-7100.