From a young age, our children are taught that they are the authors of their own life story. Sadly, however, too many of these children grow up and find themselves stuck in someone else’s story, at the mercy of cruel authors who have no qualms about transforming what could have been a fairy tale, into a horror story.

Elizabeth Oosthuizen, a counselling psychologist at Akeso Specialised Psychiatric Clinic in Milnerton, Cape Town, believes that counselling can help victims of domestic abuse ‘re-author their life stories’.

“Unfortunately, no one can erase the past. We cannot change the start of the story. But, with on-going care and guidance, we can help victims of abuse to regain control of their own story, and so alter the storyline to create a happier life journey,” she says. Although statistics on domestic violence and abuse are hard to come by in South Africa, the unacceptably high rates of murder and rape suggest massive levels of violence in our homes. The official crime statistics for South Africa hold that there were 17 068 murders in 2013, equating to 47 every day; five times higher than the global average for that year.

Oosthuizen, who has counselled numerous abuse victims during the course of her career, defines abuse as actions – either verbal or non-verbal – used by one person in a relationship to control the other. These actions can take many forms, from physical and sexual, to  emotional, or financial. Although there are many theories that help us understand and define the abuse cycle, Oosthuizen finds co-dependency theory a useful tool when helping patients to break free from the cycle:

“There are two parties in a traditional codependent relationship, one of which – through his or her actions – enables the actions of the other. In an abusive relationship, the persecutor of abuse uses his or her actions to gain control of the victim; but as the victim begins to internalise these actions and relinquish more and more control to the persecutor, so he or she actually enables the cycle of abuse to continue.”

Oosthuizen explains that the deeper in the cycle the victim is, the more he or she begins to believe that “I’m not OK, but you – and by extension, your actions – are OK.”

And this belief, in turn, enables the persecutor to justify his or her actions. “At this point, the victim’s behaviours, social interactions, communication, self-confidence, boundaries and general emotional and physical wellbeing will all crumble!  “The end result is that the abusive and violent behaviour of the persecutor becomes the author of the victim’s life journey.”

Oosthuizen adds that the resultant psychiatric disorders that present in victims are often related to the victim’s ‘inner author’ challenging the new status quo, albeit subconsciously. “Of course, depression and anxiety disorders are common in victims of abuse – and are really a silent cry for help from the ‘inner author’,” says Oosthuizen.

“Once victims understand that their depression or anxiety – or any other disorder for that matter – is a manifestation of the real problem of abuse, they can begin to seek help to break out of the cycle.”

The good news is that once the victim recognises the cycle of abuse, and shows a willingness to break free from it, counselling can help him or her regain control of their own life stories.

“Our aim is to help victims of break free from their codependent relationships, not only physically, but also psychologically, in order to assist them become independent, anchored individuals who are in control of their own lives and can begin the process of re-authoring their life stories,” Oosthuizen concludes.

References:

ISS Crime Hub: Explaining the official crime statistics for 2013/14. Found at https://www.issafrica.org/uploads/ISS-crime-statistics-factsheet-2013-2014.pdf

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