The anxiety in her voice was unmistakeable. “I had to go out and look for her,” she explained. “She doesn’t know where she is or what she is doing when she’s like that. I had to go.”
This was not an unusual conversation. Many supporters and partners, as well as survivors and therapists, phone the PODS helpline or contact me via email. I am not the fount of all knowledge but sometimes just speaking to someone else who has been there, who understands and can empathise in this world of disbelief and denial, is helpful. Over time, patterns begin to emerge, conversations similar to this one and I have begun to recognise some very powerful dynamics at work in the support of people with complex trauma.
This is what I refer to as the risk of rescuing. The scenario involves someone, usually with DID, supported by one or more huge-
I want to offer some of my experiences from various angles: I am the husband of a dissociative survivor, I am a qualified counsellor, I run the PODS helpline, and I also have experienced damaging pastoral care within a church setting. I don’t have all the answers, but, having learned the hard way, I do have some sense of why relationships which we intend to be healing and reparative can so often end up as a further source of hurt and shame to people whose lives have already been so blighted by abuse and trauma.
The backstory to this particular phone conversation was familiar. The caller was supporting a lady with DID whose partner was unsupportive. Dissociative fugues were common, disappearing off not knowing where she was or what she was doing. Self-
At first glance, of course she had to go. Who wouldn’t? You feel responsible: you are caring for this person, she is staying with you so that you can keep her safe, she disappears … if anything happens, how do you explain it to her partner? She is your responsibility. And that responsibility comes at the cost of tidal waves of anxiety and increasingly frantic attempts to help make things better by not leaving her alone, by responding more promptly to her distress cries, and by taking charge of dangerous items in her possession such as tablets and knives.
This is a scenario that I have witnessed first-
“You don’t understand,” you cry, torn between these two realities. “This person has no-
But supporting someone and carrying the weight of responsibility for their safety, their life, and their recovery exacts a heavy toll. Sooner or later, even if for only a moment, compassion gives way to irritation. At times you begin to feel that you are being manipulated. She vents unspeakable anger at you when you fail to respond quickly enough to a cry for help. She seems ungrateful for all the other times you dropped everything to run to her aid, and the cost to your relationships, your work life, your family. You feel hurt and unappreciated. And then you catch the feeling and remind yourself that she cannot help it because she has DID and she doesn’t even know what she’s been doing. You berate yourself for your lack of love. You try harder. Perhaps you decide to take a slightly firmer line, and you counter every one of her negative confessions with preacher-
If only she would realise that she’s not bad. If only she would accept what happened. If only she would ‘go there’ and remember properly. Flailing against the powerlessness you feel, the despair that creeps in at your most exhausted moments, you rally yourself with lists of things that will turn the situation around, milestones that need to be achieved, things that she must do if she is going to get better. You start to feel desperate with her level of desperation. You worry for her in a way that she doesn’t even worry for herself. Alienated from your own support network because of their disapproval at your involvement in this lady’s life, her recovery becomes paramount, not just for her sake but to vindicate you and prove you right.
And before you know it, you’re not just supporting her. You’re rescuing her, and even controlling her. And you’ve stopped helping her at all.
If the required breakthrough doesn’t come soon enough, anger and frustration can mount as you face the impossibility of your situation. “I can’t help you if you don’t even want to help yourself!” Compassion vanishes and in floods irritation bordering on rage – that you had to go out to find her again last night, that despite promising that she hadn’t been storing up tablets she had managed to overdose again. Eventually, perhaps, you crack under the strain of helping someone who doesn’t seem to want to help themselves (or at least that’s your burnt-
Yes, it happens.
Many supporters do come alongside people with complex traumatic symptoms and do a fantastic job. They provide just the right level of input and neither stand at a distance nor become dangerously enmeshed. But it requires a lot of wisdom and a very firm sense of self, with good boundaries and a clear understanding of their limitations. It is not an easy balance to strike. I have spoken to dozens of people, either supporters or survivors, who have experienced the level of enmeshment described above and where the relationship has gone disastrously wrong. I have seen it with some of the ‘help’ that my wife received right after her initial breakdown, and I experienced it myself in another ‘helping’ relationship. Numerous survivors have told me of how they had a ‘wonderful friend’, ‘an amazing lady from church’, even a therapist, who was there for them all the time, who was absolutely brilliant, who saved their life … and who then ‘abandoned’ them. The confusion and hurt from that, lasting as it does many many years and infecting and threatening all future relationships, seems to outweigh any initial benefit there might have been. So I have become very wary of the risk of rescuing.
So what goes wrong and what are the dangers?
There are many facets to the problem, but I believe that the fundamental issue is one of powerlessness and control. We saw in the scenario above, which is a composite of many different situations, how the initial compassion and genuine desire to help is usurped over time and replaced by frustration and control. There are two dynamics here at play: why does the survivor need rescuing? and why does the supporter need to be the rescuer?
At first glance, it seems obvious why the survivor needs rescuing: their life is chaotic and out of control. They switch between parts of their personality and have no memory of what has just taken place. They are not able to decide for themselves on a course of action and they need a safe adult to take care of them. Psychiatric care is out of the question as they are so afraid and so ashamed, and surely it will only make things worse. Many people, in all sincerity when faced with such a scenario, would respond with a heartfelt, gut-
But the person in question is a survivor. That does not mean that they are weak, and incapable, and powerless. It means that even as a child they survived things that most of us cannot even imagine. If they survived overwhelming trauma as children without any support, surely they can survive the aftermath of it now as an adult? Support is vital, but we cannot do it for them. We have to recognise their autonomy, their responsibility, and their capability. Many survivors struggle to see this for themselves and are convinced that they are ‘crazy’, ‘pathetic’, ‘weak’ and that they ‘can’t’. But the powerlessness that they subjectively feel in relation to their current circumstances is a symptom of trauma, not an objective reality. Somehow, they have managed to survive thus far, and somehow they will continue to survive. Although I take very seriously the risks of self-
What I have found is that the profound powerlessness that survivors feel is entirely understandable in light of the powerlessness that they experienced as children. But it is an echo, a memory, an affective flashback of how they felt back then. It is a communication. It is vital that we hear and respond to that communication, but that we understand it in symbolic terms and do not respond to it as if it is the truth. The reality is that the survivor you are supporting is no longer powerless, however much they feel it. It is when we are sucked into believing their reality – the reality that subjectively they feel with the force of a gale force wind – that we cease helping them and start, unwittingly, controlling them for our own benefit. We have to be able to retain our own boundaries and our own frame of reference, and slowly invite them to reassess themselves and the world around them and see if they really are still powerless and if they really are still under threat now as an adult.
Trauma disrupts a survivor’s sense of time, making it difficult for them to distinguish between past and present. So the powerlessness that they felt there and then is experienced powerfully by them here and now. It is possible to affirm the reality of their subjective experience whilst also gently pointing them towards the new reality of life now.
Every child enduring trauma and abuse wants to be rescued: that is understandable, normal and of course entirely adaptive for their survival. The reality is that they endured repeated instances of trauma and abuse where they were not rescued, where no-
It is not therefore surprising that crises become more frequent when there is a supporter to jump in to rescue. Instead of realising the need to learn to swim, the survivor can shout repeatedly for the lifeguard. In the early stages, this actual rescue is sometimes essential, but it can quickly develop into a pattern. There will always be triggers and difficulties in a dissociative survivor’s life, especially in the early stages, which can lead to crisis situations. If they are rescued every time from those crises, they will never need to learn to manage the triggers better or trust themselves for the answer. Rescuing sets up a pattern of behaviour that precludes new adaptive and positive ways of behaving. The survivor is confirmed in their belief that they are powerless and unable to care for themselves. But at the very same time, they are made to feel satisfyingly powerful as their actions, or those of their alters, elicit a response from people around them. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, survivors begin to see that they can control others’ behaviour, and this is a strong antidote to the terrible discomfort of powerlessness that they have always had. It is not therefore surprising that they allow themselves to wander into dangerous circumstances, with the double reward of both being rescued (alleviating the awful feelings of childhood) and of being powerful (by eliciting a reaction). None of this is necessarily conscious, but it is real.
Some supporters can also err worryingly into the realm of invading the ‘safe space of free will’ between two people and can become controlling in their attempts to help. Many of us thrive on ‘needing to be needed’: it is reassuring and pleasurable to our own egos to be the hero-
At all times we need to respect the survivor’s free will, their autonomy and their responsibility for their own life and recovery. If the supporter takes on that responsibility, either by wresting it from the survivor or by accepting it as the consequence of the survivor’s abdication, there can be no recovery. People only recuperate from childhood abuse and trauma by regaining their sense of self-
What I have also found is that ‘crisis’ in a survivor’s life can be caused by a range of factors, one of which is their adaptation to the relationships around them. One survivor told me that she would phone her supporter in the middle of the night under the guise of ‘crisis’ because it was the only time when she could be assured of her full attention. The supporter in fact encouraged this, saying that she wanted her friend to realise that she was no longer alone as she had been as a child. All that happened was that they both got very little sleep and the survivor came to believe that she could not survive without her supporter on the other end of a night-
Thinking that 24-
With or without DID, it is common for supporter and survivor to fall into adult/child roles, which at best are patronising (“I’ll do that for you …”) but after a build-
So what should a supporter do? I am in no way suggesting that people back off and refuse to get involved with people with DID: quite the opposite. Survivors need as much support as they can get and healthy, balanced, supportive relationships can have a hugely positive impact on recovery. But ‘too much commitment can equal no commitment’ and extending beyond what is sustainable for the long-
So supportive relationships need to be sustainable and consistent. Offer only what you can continue to offer for the long-
Keep believing in recovery, keep believing in their capacity to survive (especially considering what they have already survived) and keep believing in their capacity to recover too. Maintain a safe space for free will to operate, and if you find yourself saying, “I had to …” then step back and consider where that duress has come from. Is it because you need to be a hero? Is it because the survivor is asking you to enact their recovery and maintain their safety for them? Your boundaries are your responsibility, not the survivor’s. When things become enmeshed, it is the supporter who needs to take responsibility for it because they are the one who holds the power in the relationship. Supporting is about giving freely, not under compulsion, and the survivor should also be free to receive what you have given, or even to reject it. The only way to recover from abuse is for all parties to be operating out of free will.
Supporting a survivor with DID to recover from trauma is challenging, but it can also be hugely rewarding and even life-
(c) PODS 2012