There is a story in the Bible about an honorable man named Job. He experienced one tragedy after another in rapid succession. The Sabeans raided his oxen and donkeys and killed his servants. Fire from God burned up his sheep and killed more servants. The Chaldeans stole his camels and killed those servants. A strong wind caused the house of the oldest son to collapse while all of his children were there sharing a meal. Every one of them died. He was afflicted all over his body with boils. Finally his wife offered no kindness by saying, "Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!" His friends came to share in his grief. However in the end all they did was add insult to injury saying he must have done something to bring this upon himself.
The subject of crazy families came up in a discussion with an acquaintance. She shared a couple of stories about her daughter and sister. I picked two that graphically displayed the selfishness and cruelty that I endured being raised by two malignantly narcissistic, rage-filled parents. Her jaw dropped and she slowly turned her head left and right in amazement and disbelief. When she finally found her tongue her reply was, "When we go through things in life and come out on the other side we find we have gained strength and wisdom." Here was a Job's comforter who just didn't get it. You have to pick your battles and this one wasn't worth it. I kept my mouth shut and changed the subject.
Going through bad things doesn’t necessarily teach us anything. I remember author and presenter John Bradshaw sharing that a woman came to him for counseling who was married to her fourth brutal alcoholic. She didn’t see the pattern and couldn’t understand how she kept falling in love with these guys.
In the book Wonderful Tonight author Pattie Boyd describes her marriages to George Harrison and Eric Clapton. They were alcoholic, avid drug users, and repeatedly unfaithful. George had an obsession with chanting; Eric with fishing. They often treated Pattie abominably. At its worst she would call her sister or a friend and leave for a while. A repeated statement when in these predicaments was, “I didn’t know what to do.” Pattie knew she was being abused and neglected but had no idea how to set boundaries or when to leave them permanently. Her childhood was horrible with a neglectful mother, two abandoning fathers and grew up at boarding schools. Just like Pattie we can keep doing the same thing because we don’t know what else to do.
The logic that going through bad things will us make us stronger can also be a fallacy. Crushing situations can simply crush us. Psychiatrists and psychologists who work with children of parents with personality disorders say that they are raised as hostages, concentration camp victims, and prisoners of war. Trauma rewires the brain. Their MRI’s can be identical to those of vets of the war in Afghanistan. They end up with post traumatic stress disorder, dissociative identity disorder, low self-esteem, emptiness, anxiety, depression, inability to self-soothe, hopelessness, the inability to trust, emotional numbness, hypervigilance, self-loathing, and the inability to give or receive love. Growing up in chaos can actually kill you later from a stress related disease, suicide when years of unprocessed pain becomes too much, being murdered by your deranged spouse or significant other (You knew nothing about healthy intimacy to pick a safe, loving life partner.), or being so consumed and preoccupied with the misery and commotion of your life that you have an accident, vehicle or otherwise, because you weren’t concentrating on your surroundings. Finally your body can be alive but you can be dead inside. In this scenario the brain has been so overloaded with trauma that it has shut down all but the basics of functioning. You are now a robot, an automaton, just sleepwalking through life.
To demonstrate how inappropriate this acquaintance’s statement was imagine this: Would you ask someone who was a survivor of a concentration camp, “How did living in the horror and terror of Aushwitz for 4 years make you stronger?” How did watching the smoke from the crematorium knowing that every single person from your family tree was in that smoke make you wiser? The questions are ludicrous and show no compassion for how this person has suffered or what they have lost.
Job’s comforters rub salt in an already gaping, oozing wound. This is in no way giving permission for those of us who have been abused to remain stuck for the rest of our lives in pity and self-righteous fury. Once the trauma ends (if it ends) we must dedicate ourselves to pulling ourselves from the wreckage and move towards a baseline of stability This often requires a superhuman, time consuming effort to get to a place that normal people take for granted. (That is part of the reason the traumatized are so misunderstood.) We don't feel strong or wise. We are just doing what we have to do to get out of pain and carve out a place of safety and security.
To move towards healing we must emotionally review the past and process the grief, loss and anger at what has been done to us. Because trauma rewired our brains we are fighting our own thought patterns to get well. Essential to healing are kind, gentle, patient, loving friends. We need to see what normal looks like and have the opportunity to practice it. We may require support groups or a therapist. Medication might be necessary for a while to even out the anxiety or depression. There are ways victims can be helped. However simply blowing off the tragedy by making such mindless statements only increases the victimization and the sense that nobody understands what we have gone through. Here is a Web site of therapists in the Dayton area who have a specialty in working with trauma victims: http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/prof_results.php?city=Dayton&state=OH&spec=19