Recovering from abuse, a discussion with Susan Lemere, ESME’s Guide for Addiction
One of the great challenges of leaving an abusive relationship or surviving sexual assault is the feeling that one faces a lack of support. Because abuse is isolating and shaming, it contributes to feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy. Additionally, abusers frequently use external measures of power, such as controlling finances or time spent with friends and family, which can make it especially difficult for survivors to leave.
One of the most important steps in leaving an abusive relationship or healing from sexual assault is to seek out the help of a mental-health professional who has experience working in the fields of domestic violence and sexual assault. Not all mental-health professionals are created equal, and it is important for survivors to feel they are heard and understood.
My colleague, Susan Lemere, has worked in the mental-health and addiction field for the past 20 years, and she also has worked with several abuse survivors, so she understands the unique issues facing survivors. Lemere also has an MFA in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College, and as a Solo Mom to two children, she understands the difficulties and struggles that single mothers face.
Q: Could you take a moment and describe how it feels when an abuse survivor comes to you for help?
A: Well, in addition to being a therapist, I’m also a woman and a survivor, so when it comes right down to it, I have some of the same feelings my clients have during sessions. Often, it’s a mix: glad the person is asking for support, worried about their situation, angry about the prevalence and harmfulness of abusive behaviors, and hopeful that things can get better, especially now that the client is not trying to go it alone.
Q: When you’re helping an abuse survivor, what are your priorities?
A: That’s an interesting question. I think the No. 1 worry a lot of clients have about seeking help is this idea about conflicting agendas—the worry that someone will try to pressure them into a particular action or force a particular opinion on them. But a good therapist or counselor doesn’t approach the work that way.
Let’s say I have a new client who tells me she has been raped by a coworker. Knowing how devastating rape is, I will probably have the wish the rapist is arrested and convicted, and that these actions will hopefully deter him from ever doing it again. But the client may not want to go to the police for any number of reasons, including mixed feelings about the person who raped her (which happens often with acquaintance rape), concerns about the job, and fears about being retraumatized by the legal system. My job is to help the client sort out her thoughts and feelings, and decide what she wants to do. I can give her factual information, but I should not persuade her to take one course of action versus another because that’s acting as if she isn’t capable of thinking for herself or managing her own life.
To put it a different way, my job as a therapist, and therefore my priority as a therapist, is to be helpful. My client and I may not always see things exactly eye to eye, but we should feel like we are on the same team.
Q: Abusive situations are different, but patterns often are involved. How would you define recovery from abuse?
A: I define recovery from abuse as a gradual process in which, increasingly often, experiences and feelings of safety and well-being replace experiences and feelings of harm, danger, and negative interaction. Three very common themes in this kind of recovery are learning to trust again (others and one’s self), developing self-compassion, and gaining or reestablishing a sense of personal power.
Q: What specific issues do you encounter when working with solo mothers who have survived abuse?
A: Solo Moms who have survived abuse are dealing with a tough situation on top of a tough situation. This is a subject that we’ll be revisiting a lot here.
For the short run, let me just say that abuse tends to be terribly isolating, and single parenting can be, too. So when it comes to single mothers who are dealing with abuse concerns, the recommendation to get help and support goes double. With that said, I also want to acknowledge that reaching out for help, especially for the first time, can be really hard, and it’s really OK to look for help in whatever way makes sense for your circumstances.
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