Recovery from trauma – Judith Herman

The boys and girls of Carrolup outside their school classrooms. Photographer: Noel White in 1948/49. Noel & Lily White Collection.

The boys and girls of Carrolup outside their school classrooms. Photographer: Noel White in 1948/49. Noel & Lily White Collection.

Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery is a classic. Judith starts the recovery part of her book, in a chapter entitled ‘A Healing Relationship’, with some important insights into recovery and healing.

‘The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.

Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation. In her renewed connection with other people, the survivor re-creates the psychological facilities that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience. These faculties include the basic operations of trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy.

Just as these capabilities are formed in relationships with other people, they must be reformed in such relationships.

The first principle of recovery is empowerment of the survivor. She must be the author and arbiter of her own recovery. Others may offer advice, support, assistance, affection , and care, but not cure.

Many benevolent and well-intentioned attempts to assist the survivor founder because this basic principle of empowerment is not observed. No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.

In the words of one incest survivor, “Good therapists were those who really valued my experience, and helped me to control my behavior rather than trying to control me.”

Caregivers schooled in a medical model of treatment often have difficulty grasping this fundamental principle, and putting it into practice. In exceptional circumstances, where the survivor has totally abdicated responsibility for her own self-care or threatens immediate harm to herself or to others, rapid intervention is required with or without her consent.

But even then, there is no need for unilateral action; the survivor should still be consulted about her wishes and offered as much choice as is compatible with the preservation of safety.’

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