An interview conducted by Alton Pelowski with Sharon Froom, coordinator of the Trauma Recovery Program for the Diocese of Kalamazoo. (Originally appeared in "The Good News" in two parts -- Februrary and March 2007.)
How did the Trauma Recovery Program come about?
When the bishops met in 2002 in Dallas about sexual abuse within the Church, they mandated that each diocese respond not just legally, but also to the emotional and pastoral needs of people who have been hurt as children. Our bishop was responsive to our suggestion that we implement the Trauma Recovery Program as a way to respond, not just to people who had been hurt by Church personnel, but any adult Catholic who was a survivor of childhood abuse or severe neglect.
Our program proposal followed consultation with Dr. Colin Ross, who is an expert in treating adult survivors of childhood trauma.
The bishop agreed that we could implement the Trauma Recovery Program in our diocese free of charge to anyone who was abused as a child and has unresolved trauma issues. We started the program in 2002.
What makes the Trauma Recovery Program unique?
This particular model overlaps with a lot of other interventions, but it has some characteristics that are very distinct from other models for work with people who have been hurt as children. One is that it focuses on the present and teaches skills to live more effectively in the “here and now” – rather than rehashing the past. Some models focus on trying to retrieve memories, and our belief is that’s not where the work is. The work is to learn to regulate feelings and to develop better relationship skills in the here and now.
It also has as one of its tenets “therapeutic neutrality” – which means that we don’t focus on the accuracy of the person’s story, but rather on the feelings that accompany that history. That way, you can help them move forward without deciding whether what they’re remembering is 100 percent accurate.
In what ways is it similar to other programs?
Empathy is at the core of all clinical work, and this model was derived out of accurate empathy – really listening to the experience of trauma survivors and building a model based on their report. It’s also very much an addictions model, in that people who are hurt are “addicted” to avoiding their feelings, and their drug of choice is whatever strategy works to not face those feelings. It’s also a cognitive model, because we put a lot of energy into helping people look at what cognitive distortions they’ve developed. It’s a behavioral model, in that we help people learn to gradually expose themselves to what has historically been triggering experiences. It’s also a mind-body-spirit model, consistent with some of the new modalities of learning how to calm the body. Trauma survivors historically have a lot of physical symptoms, because of what stress does to the physical body. Helping them to learn how to manage and regulate physical arousal is very important to physical as well as emotional recovery.
Do you have an idea of how many people have experienced childhood trauma?
The percentage is very high if you consider all types of trauma. Trauma includes physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or severe neglect. We define trauma as an event, coupled with a child’s vulnerability, that creates an obstacle to normal development. This is a difficult construct to measure because it involves the individual’s subjective experience. Whether someone has been traumatized is best determined by their difficulties, not just by their report of what happened to them.
Do you find that people in the groups have experienced a variety of different kinds of trauma?
Does that benefit or detract from the group in any way?
Actually, it benefits. One of the characteristics that trauma survivors hold in common is their belief that their situation is somehow profoundly unique. One of the great benefits of group therapy is their discovery that what they are experiencing is what trauma does to ordinary people. When they recognize that a variety of experiences can result in the same dynamic, that’s very healing.
When we consulted with Dr. Ross, one of the things he counseled us was not to replicate an error they had already made – and that was to have homogeneous groups. For example, they did groups with women who had all been victims of domestic violence. What they discovered was it was harder to get people with common trauma experiences to focus on the trauma dynamic, because they were preoccupied with commiserating and comparing their situations.
What does the spiritual component of the program entail?
The spiritual component is incorporated into every aspect. Each session begins and ends in prayer. The prayer content is specific to what we’re working on and helps participants get grounded in the “now.” When we talk about the tendency of survivors to blame themselves for what happened to them, we talk of God’s desire for them to be whole and good to themselves. The unit on grieving their lost childhood is drawn from a faith-based model.
We also address the fact that survivors are often estranged from the Church and God, regarding them as failed rescuers. We explain why this is apt to be true, which is an important first step in healing those wounded relationships.
Approximately how many people have gone through the program?
About 120 have completed the first 8-10 week module, what we call the “learning group.” Early on, it was eight sessions; now it’s 10. About half of the participants go on into what we call the “support group,” which is an additional nine sessions.
How many people participate in each group?
Six to 10 people. No more than 10.
Are people in the group aware of what kind of trauma the other members have experienced?
We discourage them from sharing specific information about what happened to them. By the end of the 10 sessions, they have some idea of what each has been through, but we do not allow them to tell their stories in group. That’s not where the work is; and it can be triggering for others – and that’s not helpful.
Who facilitates the group?
Each learning group is facilitated by two mental health professionals and a priest. The support group component is facilitated by one mental health professional. The mental health professional are thoroughly trained in the model and have a wealth of experience working with trauma survivors.
What has been the response of people who have participated?
Very positive. Folks have shared that this has saved their lives; given them hope for the first time; that they’ve had years of therapy, and this has been the most helpful.
Is this something that is meant to take the place of therapy?
No. In fact, we strongly advocate, but don’t insist, that people receive therapy as they go through the program – to support the process. If they’re already in therapy, we advocate that they share with their therapists that they’re attending and encourage them to share the materials.
Do people find that trauma recovery is a lifelong process, or do they find that a real healing takes place through the program?
There is a real healing that takes place and it’s a lifelong process. The metaphor that I use is it’s a lot like learning a foreign language. The optimum window for language learning is up to age 10, and if you don’t know the language by age 10, you’re pretty apt to always have an accent. You can become fluent, but you never speak as a native speaker.
That’s how I think this is. You can become “fluent” in good self-care, but you’ll always have an accent. Over time, you can get better, but your past will always be your past, and those old strategies that you’ve used for so long to try to protect yourself will surface when you are sufficiently stressed. In those stressful situations you will always have to willfully elect to override them.
What age constitutes “childhood” trauma?
We are generally talking about 0-18. In some cases a participant may not be able to name a specific trauma, or the identifiable event may have happened in young adulthood. The age, or even the event, is not as important as the challenges they are facing. That is what determines whether they are an appropriate candidate for the program.
What is the age range of the participants?
We’ve had participants from 20 years old to 70 years old.
Can you give examples of unhealthy ways of dealing with past trauma?
Behaviors such as drinking, gambling, promiscuity, self-injury, compulsive shopping, over-work, preoccupation with others’ problems, etc. What these all have in common is they are ways to avoid feelings, which is the primary agenda when you have unresolved trauma.
Do you require that people actively participate?
Participants are informed at the beginning that they will be encouraged to participate, but they decide if and what they will share. Each unit includes homework and they are encouraged, but not forced, to share their questions and learning in group.
What would be an example of a homework assignment?
Each unit has homework specific to the content covered. For example, we ask them to list things that are different now then in the past when they were hurt. This helps them recognize that things may feel the same, but are not the same. In a later assignment they are asked to name their cognitive distortions. In another assignment they are asked to identify triggering situations.
Do people find that they’re managing their feelings better during the course of the program?
In most cases, yes, they will report that they are. In some cases – and we caution about this at the beginning – people actually will in some ways feel worse before they feel better. They are letting go of one way of managing feelings and they have to practice before they feel competent handling them another way. It can be really unsettled for an interval of time. That’s why we encourage therapy.
Do you find that people who participate are practicing Catholics? Are people reconciled to the Church through it?
Participants’ relationships to the Church cover the whole spectrum – from active involvement to active estrangement. There have been participants who have reported a softening of their anger toward God and Church as a result of their experience in the program. Several have taken a new look at coming back to the Church.
Sharon Froom is a limited license psychologist who, in addition to coordinating the Trauma Recovery Program, works as a therapist within the St. Thomas More Parish community.