I recently finished the book “Elizabeth Smart: My Story” and I loved it way more than I thought I would. I learned so much from it and wanted to share some of what it has to teach about resilience and healing in the face of trauma.
For those of you who don’t know, Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her home at the age of 14 by a transient man who pretended to be a prophet, she was then held captive as one of his “wives” for 9 months, she lived in a constant state of abuse and fear, but was eventually rescued and returned to her family. She’s now happy, healthy, married, and an advocate for children’s rights.
I initially read this book because I wondered if it would be a helpful book for some of my clients with sexual trauma. But I also resisted reading it because I feared that it would be too heavy, too painful to read. And while there definitely were some really painful aspects to the book, which I’m sure would be triggering for many, the book never went into any graphic detail. I mean, I guess it handled the horrible reality of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a child in a way that I would consider helpful, not harmful. That being said, there were times I definitely was looking forward to the happy conclusion while reading about her 9 months of suffering.
To Buy this Book:
How did she overcome trauma?
So what I want to focus on is what helped Elizabeth overcome a traumatic situation without lasting negative effects. How was she able to be so resilient?
As I read through the book, as a trauma therapist, I was constantly thinking that the way she was talking was an indication of how good of work her she had done in therapy- she had resolved most of the key crises of trauma:For example:
Crisis # 1. Responsibility
(Is this my fault? Shame. “I am broken, dirty, deficient, unlovable because of what has happened to me”)
Elizabeth was consistently clear, these actions were the result of evil choices by Evil people. Elizabeth was able to feel that her family would still love her and eventually got married to a wonderful man.
Crisis #2. Fear/and Safety (hypervigilance, flashbacks, nightmares)-Elizabeth describes how she felt in a constant state of danger during her ordeal. How her compliant actions were always a result of fear for her safety or for that of her family. And that after her captor was behind bars for life she now feels safe from him.
Many trauma survivors continue to experience the perception of danger in flashbacks, hyper vigilance or general anxiety. But Elizabeth describes herself as feeling safe.
I was somewhat stunned to learn that she didn’t do any counseling or therapy after her ordeal. I assumed that the reason she was able to recover was due to good treatment, but I was happily wrong. It’s easy for me to forget that out of all the people who experience trauma, I only see the subset who aren’t able to recover without treatment.
So how did she recover?
What factors made this possible?
Now I want to say first off, do not take any of this as judgment, each person has their own journey. Don’t blame yourself if your journey has been different from hers, but let’s see what we can learn from her process:
#1. A Choice
One thing that stood out to me is something that she did the day after she was rescued. She decided to not let her abductor take any more of her life or happiness. She made a decision to not allow herself any self pity. She describes this as a conscious choice.
#2. Support Network and Healthy Attachment
She grew up in a home with supportive parents. A consistent, reliable, loving environment. This healthy attachment lays the foundation in our brains for the ability to love ourselves, forgive ourselves, be consistent, and have emotional stability. After her ordeal, she returned to a loving family and community support. Unlike many trauma victims who grow up in abusive homes where their brains learn that the world is unsafe, that they are unlovable, that they are just objects for pleasure or pain-Elizabeth had a solid foundation in who she was. And she returned to a home that was welcoming and supportive. How much difference does that make? Many of the trauma victims I work with are not only struggling with inner feelings of doubt, but their family responds to their recounting their trauma with blame, condemnation, shame, or a cold shoulder. I even had a client who, when she finally revealed to her mother that her stepfather had been sexually abusing her for years, her mother responded by calling her a “slut”and a home-breaker. So having that family support made a huge difference for Elizabeth.
Another factor that Elizabeth mentions is her faith in God, throughout her entire ordeal were experiences that reminded her of God’s love for her. One such experience that made me sob was when, during her first months of capture, they were out of water and she went two days without water in the intense summer heat. After going to sleep with dry mouths, and no water for miles, she woke up in the middle of the night to find a full cup of cool water that had appeared at her bedside while her captors slept. Despite the evil in the world, she was able to stay strong in her faith in God and his love for her.
Another active step that helped her was gratitude, she would sometimes lay awake at night during her captivity, after rape and starvation and deprivation and think of the things that she was grateful for. Her family. Her future. God’s love. Etc. Gratitude is a trait of the resilient.
#5. Horses and Music (Experiential Therapy)
She also credits horseback riding and music, as two forms of her personal therapy, working through emotions and fear and memories in a way that healed her on a deep level.
#6. A Belief in our Inherent Ability to Heal
The last thing I want to mention is this statement that also left me a little stunned: From her book “There is significant historical precedent that indicates that what I’ve been able to do is not terribly unusual.
“The truth is, history is replete with stories of human suffering. The world has been full of brutality and abuse and suffering since the beginning of man. There are examples of those who suffered abuse as I did, maybe in different forms, or from different sources, but I am not the first one to suffer at the hand of an evil man. And there were other kinds of challenges. Some of my own ancestors were early pioneers. They faced suffering and starvation, the loss of their children, the loss of other loved ones. They too endured the gamut of emotions, from utter devastation to lifesaving miracles. but the human spirit is resilient, God made us so. He gave us the ability to forgive. To leave our past behind. To look forward instead of back. I’m not the first one who has ever done this. People have been doing it for generations. Since the beginning of time, people have found ways to heal.” (My Story, Page 298)
I love that reminder, that we all stem from a millennia of survivors. Our ancestors have been doing hard things for thousands of years, and we all have the inherent ability to heal, written into our hearts, our DNA, our souls.
Thank you Elizabeth for reminding me of this.