In an article in a recent professional publication, William L. White, MA, an addiction counselor for 26 years, writes about a 17 year study in Illinois communities of traumatized women whose addiction led them to abuse or neglect their children. Project SAFE (1986-2003) yielded some interesting observations. All of the women studied had been traumatized at early ages, involving physically and psychologically invasive forms of victimization over long periods of time rather than a single event. Perpetrators were from within their own family or social network, marking a significant violation of trust. They generally were not believed or were blamed for the abuse of which they were victims when it was discovered. Those women who went on to perpetrate violence on their own children suffered three additional factors: serial episodes of abandonment, desensitization to violence through prolonged witnessing of violence against persons close to them in their developmental years, and violence coaching from others on transmission of a technology of violence and praise for violence from the family or social environment. These traumagenic factors resulted in a variety of problems in personal and interpersonal functioning.
The women in the project differed widely in their level of adult functioning. Some were profoundly impaired while others had extraordinary levels of resilience and positive personal and social functioning. While some differences were attributed to the number and intensity of tramagenic factors they’d endured, another force was quite evidently influential in those with resilience. They possessed high levels of “recovery capital”. This is internal and external assets that could be mobilized to initiate and sustain recovery. Recovery capital is of three types: personal recovery capital, family recovery capital, and community recovery capital. Each offers an opportunity for developing services and programs to capitalize on the capital and bring it to bear for the benefit of the women in recovery.
Many women who were given little chance of success achieved levels of health and functionality that no one, most importantly the women themselves, could have predicted.
The lessons that came out of this lengthy study:
- Hope is the critical ingredient to successful treatment and recovery of traumatized women. Most have developed incomprehensible capacities for physical and psychological pain. What can bring about change is not pain, but the discovery of hope within relationships that are personally empowering……from volunteers, staff, peers in recovery, and within the larger community of healthy and recovering persons who reach out and accept the women. Being around others who have overcome difficulties makes recovery “contagious” by example of transformed lives.
- Life-limiting mottoes must be challenged and experientially deconstructed. Some of them are “I am unlovable; I am bad; there is no safety; everybody’s on the make; no one can be trusted; if I get close to people they will leave me or die; my body does not belong to me; I am not worthy; recovery is too hard to achieve.” To do this the process must be solution focused, confrontation must be accomplished in safety, and it must be of sufficient duration with continued support beyond the acute stages of recovery. The negative self –talk messages must be experientially challenged while providing enduring support in relationships of acceptance, regard, respect, and security. And new mottoes for living must be crafted the process of story reconstruction. “I have a new story of who I have become and what I can do.”
- Development of a personal identity that is reinforced and supported in a community of acceptance and understanding is essential to healing. The women must learn to transition from toxic dependencies on drugs, people, and enabling institutions to healthy interdependence and mutual accountability among other women and children. Welcoming places where “community capital” is generously supplied and available long term is as important as one’s personal resources. A strong community-focused culture of healthy self- concept and competence must be built and mobilized.
- Effective parenting depends upon experiencing the essence of such parenting oneself. Parents cannot give to their children what they have not personally experienced. Mothers must be reparented through healthy supportive relationships, skill development, modeling and coaching. Effective parenting will emerge in middle to late stage recovery after stabilization has occurred and transition to focusing on the quality of personal and family life for long-term recovery begins. There must be support for development needs of children during the mother’s recovery and scaffolding developed for the whole family with the same supports being provided to the mother. Time for bonding with children, healthy new activities to stimulate the ability to see new family dynamics beginning, etc.
- What begins as a focus on the psychopathology of traumatized women quickly shifts into emphasis on the creation of a healthy, healing community within which the transformative power of recovery is nurtured and celebrated.
There is no better place for these things to occur than within a faith-based, family-friendly environment where there is nurturing care and counseling. The best model for interdependent, mutually accountable, healing environments is within the Christian church, we believe. What was observed in the Illinois study is confirmed in the experience of Titus 2 volunteers and staff, as women experience the renewal of hope and the development of new mottoes for living, healthy accountable community, and focus on them and their families.