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HEALTH PLUS MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT

Eighteen years later after her murder, they still hold on to her favourite scarf, though her scent from it has faded, her parents say “holding it takes them back”, and returns them to her cheerful smile. Eighteen years later, there is still no justice or even change as last week, we lost another young girl senselessly.

Kathy* remembers the feeling of her abuser’s fingers around her neck. Sometimes all it takes is a whiff of familiar cologne to recall the rib he broke and it starts to ache. She escaped an abusive relationship 12 years ago but relives what happened through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); a mental health condition that can occur after various kinds of trauma. She was only recently diagnosed last year, the year she was forced to be in isolation with her thoughts.

Trauma can result in serious stress and detrimental health consequences for survivors.

Right after she escaped her abuser, Kathy was “petrified” to be alone. A friend stayed with her in the place of refuge. “I wasn’t able to take care of myself,” Kathy shares. “She would have to remind me to eat and help me go grocery shopping. The best way to describe it is that I was a zombie.” Scared that her abuser would find her, she was often too afraid to leave the house. If she heard even the slightest noise, her heart rate would skyrocket, a stress rash would creep across her cheeks, neck, and chest, and she would start to shake. “I was a wreck,” she says.

GASLIGHTING

Many survivors also struggle to mentally reorient themselves after an abuser has tilted their world on its axis.

This is an abusive manipulation tactic meant to loosen someone’s grip on reality. “Abusers accomplish this through various methods: lying, sabotage, trickery” shared another survivor. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse seen in many traumatic relationships. It’s the act of manipulating a person by forcing them to question their thoughts, memories and the events occurring around them. A victim of gaslighting can be pushed so far that they question their own sanity.

A decade later, Kathy has made incredible strides in her healing process. But like many survivors, she says she has sometimes struggled with everyday things that remind her of what she went through. She relives every moment of her trauma, when reading of the most recent reporting of events in T&T but wishes to do more to help other survivors like herself heal.

WOMEN AT RISK

Research indicates that women are twice as likely to develop PTSD, experience a longer duration of posttraumatic symptoms and display more sensitivity to stimuli that remind them of the trauma.

Although women are at greater risk for negative consequences following traumatic events, many often hesitate to seek mental health treatment. Survivors often wait years to receive help, while others never receive treatment at all. Untreated posttraumatic symptoms not only have tremendous mental health implications but can also lead to adverse effects on physical health.

PTSD is different for each person, many survivors have triggers that evoke memories of the trauma they experienced and lead to intense physical and emotional reactions.

Survivors may experience physical symptoms, such as:

– palpitations

– sweating

– nausea

– headaches

– panic attacks

– gastro-intestinal problems

– cognitive dysfunction

– problems with memory and focus

– sexual dysfunction

Although the mental and physical symptoms of PTSD stress can be quite debilitating, it is also treatable. In fact, there are a variety of effective treatment interventions for women who have survived traumatic events, including cognitive-behavioural therapy, group treatment, pharmacotherapy and psychodynamic interventions.

Is Healing Possible?

These symptoms sound devastating because they are. But people who escape any form of violence can and do heal, often figuring out what works for them along the way.

Some survivors turn to counselling or therapy, of which there are many different kinds. Kathy found a counsellor and started discussing her residual anxiety and other negative emotions, along with how to handle them. Having an unbiased yet invested person to talk to helped her move past what she calls “the stigma”.

“I was so disconnected from friends and family during my abusive relationship and I subsequently had spotty relationships afterward, so I didn’t have too much of a safe haven to express what I was feeling,” she says.

For some survivors, therapy works especially well in conjunction with meditation. Kathy took up the practice after her counsellor mentioned how beneficial it can be. “I’ve found meditation to be extremely effective in quieting the noise, guilt, echoes and remnants of doubt this type of experience can put you through,” she says.

HELPING OTHERS HEALS YOU

Some survivors find it particularly helpful to use activism as a way to lead current victims of abuse out of the darkness.

“I knew that when God allowed me to survive what I survived, he was calling me to reach others and help pull them out of the filth,” Kathy says. She started volunteering as a domestic violence advocate with a faith-based organisation. “It was a blessing to help people, and in helping them, I found my wounds started healing.”

She also shared, “With every person I helped, I was saying: I am NOT worthless! I am useful, I am strong, I am smart, I am capable. That gave me strength.”

Although the road to healing can be filled with obstacles, it is indeed possible.

All it takes is a few moments of speaking with a survivor to understand the tremendous strength they possess. They are the most resourceful, resilient, kind, compassionate people I think I have ever come across.

Healing is indeed possible, but it takes time and patience as healing is not linear. Healing is a journey inward.

* Name was changed to protect the survivor’s identity