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.. it would be of great interest to me which steps were taken by boarding school victims who arrived to stabilise themselves, as I experienced a comparable childhood situation (even though I wan not exposed to physical harm). Although I do have boarding-schoolmates I don't have any role model in my direct environment. Those who left school with me do not talk about their feelings. Most do not arrive to save themselves and remain stuck.


The people I talked to told me all about what they went through. It left many of them hating life, hating god, hating themselves. Many have (or had) violent tendencies to overcome, since they were raised with violence.

I worked with a small group. They are all doing well now. They all healed. All they needed was permission to heal. Even the most confused, traumatized victims may heal. It starts with telling their stories. If someone finally understands, it can heal the wounds.

Was your boarding school physically/sexually abusive, or just emotionally so?

First, thanks for listening. There are not many people who do.

I spent some time musing on whether boarding schools are emotionally abusive and what emotional abuse means. From my feeling, I'd say, yes, any boarding school is potentially emotionally abusive for some basic rule of how humans interact. I suppose with regard to emotional abuse most outsiders think about the beating teacher, but I encountered another kind of abuse which, in some sense, is possibly more difficult to bear than violence or cruelty, because with regard to hostility, at least you know you're being abused. I'm talking about emotional intrusiveness.

Most of my tutors were some sort of odd or unstable, orphans or isolated persons, immature or emotionally unreceptive and too tough. There has been a wide range of dysfunctions. For some reason, I guess I always had some radar on such things, and looking back now, I'd say that at least one or two of them might have needed a doctor themselves.

I distinctly remember "fraternalizing" and inappropriate touches like "tickling" 10-12 year old girls. I remember that me and one of my friends, we both couldn't stand it. I wouldn't directly put the blame on someone for sexually-motivated transgression but neither would I swear from today's POV that such events were completely non-sexual.

Most of my memories are related to the body. I was confronted to a lot of gawking (doctors) and touching (moulds) which I didn't like. Due to circumstances, a lot involved my inner thighs. I don't know whether kids have a perception of sexuality, but even now I'm not happy with showing flesh. I also dislike being touched.

Growing up in a handicapped school probably is most comparable to growing up in a retirement home. When I think back, all I distinctly remember are images of invalidity and sickness. Those memories are so strong that I even remember the smell.

Now, for a "little while" (some 12 years) I have been confronted with a total opposite - a worship of "beauty". I'm still figuring out how to cope with that.

Last but not least I also disliked things like sharing my shower with others, or having a tutor watching you. While I agree that it's "necessary", I nevertheless didn't like it.

So far my account on my unusual past. If you come up with some insightful comment, don't hesitate to share it.

Thanks for trying to describe it. Do you have any memory of other kids being sexually abused? Maybe you were picking up a vibe of sexual harassment, even if you were not personally assaulted?

I will keep thinking about it. That is just my first impression.

I would like to point out that it was not everybody at every time who did this. I just have memories of one distinct tutor. He was around 50 and seemed to be single, and probably considered me as his "daughter". Oddly (I only become aware of it now) that the other tutors encouraged me in accepting this role.

For example, I was asked to make a birthday card for him while the other kids weren't; it was just me. Of course, making a birthday card in itself is not of evil, but in my case, it seemed to enforce some unwanted familiarity I was not comfortable with. I only learned now that tutors are legally obliged to keep a certain professional distance, which some did not keep.

Said tutor mentioned some Oriental institution of a "female conversationalist", claiming that I should be a "conversationalist" to him. The other tutors firmly encouraged me with that.

Another incident I remember is my first "boyfriend", who was a civil servant, and around 20 that time (I was 12). In Germany, men must become civil servants if they refuse to render service in the military, for reasons of "non-violence". Of course, men become civil servants for all kinds of reasons, but some are nutcases, and this one was. He had never had a girlfriend and was showing some immature "soft" attitude. Of course I know now that it wasn't right but I used to hang around hugging him in the evening. Not spectacular but of course it wasn't right.

Civil servants receive no formal training in caring for people. They are cheap workforces in hospitals, homes for the elderly and boarding schools. In consequence, they do not learn how to behave with minors, and of course, nobody checks whether they are psychologically apt to do that kind of work. This was at my detriment.

As for the teacher I mentioned above, there was at least one girl who felt similarly annoyed with being 'tickled'. But taboos work so nicely - nobody talks about them.

I also could imagine that in case you're subjected to emotional abuse and under surveillance all your life, you never start to question it, probably believing that it is normal. As for the civil servant, I learned that after the end of his service he got himself baptized and went to Rome to become a Catholic priest. According to what I read of him, he completely lost touch with reality. From the flowery style in his letters I suspect him of being in the grip of some strict traditionalist group. I don't really care because everybody is responsible for one's own decisions, but judging upon his letters he indulged in cloyingly-sweet mysticism and devout 'romanticism'. In any case I do not have any influence on that but I feel concerned for the people he's going to behave as a priest, especially with regard to young people.

Thanks for considering my story.

More to come.

Hi Electra,

Simply the fact of being away from home, among strangers, and getting unwanted attention from an unknown older man would be traumatic for a child. There is a natural generational boundary, so perhaps the man's behavior violated your boundaries.

How to cope with such problems? I was advised meds and "play therapy", but none of this seems to work for me.

Meds are only a temporary solution. Like, how do you get off the meds if the pain is still there? Play therapy is good, but expensive. My method is to face the fear. Look straight at it, understand it, then put it in its place. As long as it's a scary monster in the closet that you don't understand, it will haunt you. When you put it in its place, you integrate it. Accept it as part of your history. Once you integrate it, you can realize that it's over. It happened in the past and is not happening now.

We all have monsters to conqueor. Doing that work gives us our character. It is our duty in life to come to terms with the scary things in the closet. It's good to have support and help - good friends we can turn to and speak our minds. You (and I) will know these situations are over when we can say, "You have no power over me anymore. I am free from your abuse."

Kids who thrive in hostile world
Experts begin to understand why some children overcome adversity.

By William Hathaway
The Hartford Courant

August 7, 2005

Rob Dolan doesn't know when his mother started to hate him. He thinks the animosity began well before the winter day in 1988 when his father took off on a long-haul trucking trip and never came back.

The way Dolan remembers it, things just got worse after that day, sometime around his 12th birthday.

After his father left, Dolan was banished to the basement with the family dog, a heavy chair always propped against the knob of the door. His mother would leave him freezer-burned bread and cans of tuna for meals, and sometimes she would hit him with a piece of a hose or door molding, Dolan says.

He remembers the shame of walking to school in clothes stinking of dog urine. Most hurtful, he says, is that his mother turned his younger sister and two younger brothers against him.

"I was a weak, pathetic, terrified kid," he says.

Traditional psychiatric theory predicted that Rob Dolan would be a troubled adult. Shaped by a hostile environment, Dolan should have developed behaviors that would condemn him to social and educational failure and perhaps chronic mental illness.

But that didn't happen. Removed from his home at 13 and cast into the child welfare system, Rob Dolan graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and is a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Now 28, he hopes to go to law school or, possibly, run for public office.

As it turns out, a surprising number of children who face extreme adversity not only survive, but thrive. And scientists now think they understand why.

Children who overcome profoundly adverse life events tend to have a genetic makeup that protects against the effects of chronic stress. They share certain personality traits and experiences that tend to inoculate them from the worst effects of trauma and abuse.

They are often intelligent and empathetic. They can look beyond the moment, and they stubbornly refuse to blame themselves for the abuse others have heaped upon them. Insights from their stories have prompted a movement in psychology that emphasizes building on personality strengths in abuse cases, rather than merely chronicling the psychic and physical toll.

Traits of resilience

The ability to control impulses and to foresee results of an action are hallmarks of children who weather trauma and abuse. Yet for much of the 20th century, most mental-health professionals and sociologists scoffed at the notion there was any such thing as a psychologically resilient child. The consensus view was that environment was the chief sculptor of behavior.

In the 1970s and 1980s, studies emerged that challenged that view and began to sketch the outlines of the resilient personality. One of the first was a Harvard study of men who experienced heavy combat in World War II. About half the men did not later suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Those men shared several traits: They tended to be altruistic, they had a sense of humor and they were able to turn off or control socially unacceptable impulses.

During the 1980s, evidence mounted that certain children also could thrive despite a hostile environment.

One of the most influential studies was conducted by Emmy Werner, now a professor emeritus of human development and a child psychologist at the University of California-Davis. Werner tracked more than 500 children born on the island of Kauai in 1955. Many were born to sugar-cane workers whose jobs were beginning to disappear. Those families faced high rates of unemployment, alcoholism and child abuse.

By the time these at-risk children reached their 20s, most had been arrested, reported substance-abuse problems, had children out of wedlock or were diagnosed with depression or other mental-health problems.

But one of every three children from these high-risk homes reported no such problems. They did well in school, held jobs, stayed out of jail and showed no signs of mental illness.

Werner and others continued to identify traits that are common to resilient children. Some seem to be inherited.

For instance, children with pleasant dispositions tend to have an easier time leading successful, happy lives than those who are born anxious or sullen. Children with high IQs have a better chance at bouncing back from trauma than those who score lower.

Resilient children also show an ability to plan, to see beyond the situations that cause them stress at the moment. They do not tend to blame themselves for the abuse or misfortune that has been visited upon them. They often develop a sense of their own competence, a confidence that they have mastered certain life skills.

Persistence, or the refusal to take no for an answer, is a trait of resilient kids, says child psychiatrist Kenneth Robson of West Hartford, Conn. In children who have suffered trauma or abuse, "passivity can be lethal," Robson says.

But what has really emerged, in study after study, is that resilient kids also need help. Children who thrive in the face of adversity almost always had at least one other person in their lives who cared, even if their own parents did not.

One conclusion of resilience research was inescapable -- and a surprise for many raised on Freud or deterministic psychologists such as B.F. Skinner. In the script of life, a bad beginning in childhood does not dictate a bleak end.

"Nothing is deterministic in children," says Joan Kaufman, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University. "These studies show us enormous hope. The idea that early bad things that happen doom us for life is something that is just not true."

A genetic part, too

Resilient children get help not only from other people, but from their own genes. It is clear that some children are born with a genetic makeup that can help them cope with a hostile world -- or make them more susceptible to anti-social behavior later in life.

Although scientists have not discovered the biochemical recipe for resilience, they are zeroing in on some of the ingredients.

Neurotransmitters, the brain's chemical messengers, and hormones that regulate emotions and stress response play key roles in how well a child will fare later in life.

People are also born with variations in the biological thermostat that regulates levels of hormones such as testosterone and cortisol, the master regulator of the stress response.

But the environment mediates how stress is regulated and can trump genes, research shows.

For instance, Kaufman at Yale has studied a group of maltreated children who possessed a shorter version of a gene that regulates the transport of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with mood. The shorter serotonin transporter gene strongly predisposes children to depression.

But if maltreated children with the deleterious gene also had friends, parents or other adults who gave them financial or emotional support, they had a rate of depression only slightly higher than children who suffered no abuse and had the longer version of the gene.

In other words, a social support system can largely negate the effects of biology and early adversity.

The lessons of such studies are clear. A few children seem to be genetically hard-wired to withstand a great deal of trauma. A few others who have genetic and environmental advantages still fall apart in the face of little or no adversity. Most are born somewhere between these extremes. And where a person falls along that continuum can change over time.

One way to ensure mental health is to build on the strengths that a resilient child has, psychologists say.

Rather than focusing on past abuse and trying to repair the damage it caused, many mental-health experts say they emphasize bolstering the individual's strengths.

"I try to work on the muscles that have survived," Robson says. "Those are the ones that they will be using the rest of their lives."

However, mental-health experts have not yet found a good way to discuss an individual's strengths.

The absence of words such as love and generosity in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, an exhaustive compendium of psychiatric symptoms, is so pronounced that a group of psychologists is developing descriptions of healthy traits for an alternative or supplement to the manual.

The therapists are part of a new movement, usually called positive psychology, that has set about training young practitioners to identify and build upon the positive traits in the troubled patients they treat.

With the help of mentors Dolan encountered in the child-welfare system, and his own ability to make the right decisions most of the time -- "I have always known that A plus B equals C, that there are consequences to my actions" -- Dolan managed to thrive despite the stigma of not living with his own family.

At the end of July, Lt. Rob Dolan headed to Iraq. He was so eager to serve that he volunteered to replace a public-information officer who was wounded in western Iraq, a hotbed of foreign terrorists.

He says he is in love with a woman in the Air Force stationed in San Antonio, and that he has never been happier.

"I don't need to prove myself to anyone anymore," he says.

William Hathaway is a reporter for The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Mail to e_complexus[at]yahoo.com


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