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  • Kimberly Key Ph.D.

Surviving Abuse

Abuse thrives in stress and isolation; and is increased by a pandemic.

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Abuse is abysmal. It leaves multiple scars and acts as a contagion to others around and the generations that follow. It is not a worthy legacy one wants to inherit—or leave behind. And yet, it is pervasive. At least a quarter of all adults report being abused as children with 1 in 5 women and 1 in 13 men reporting they were sexually abused as children (WHO, 2017). Unfortunately, the environment that breeds abuse has been fueled by the isolation, stress, and economic impacts of the current pandemic.

Abuse thrives in stress and the protection of isolation. People who abuse generally have poor control in managing their stress and can often view significant others, intimate family members, and pets as objects that need to be controlled. People who abuse typically employ an array of manipulative tactics along with threats, intimidation, and violence to elicit the desired response from those around them. People who resort to intimate partner violence (IPV) tend to view family members like pawns in a chess game who serve their will. While some abusers seduce their loved ones with a dance of apologies and kindness and promise never to do harm again, followed by steps of further abuse, other abusers will remain impassive and dose out a steady stream of complaints while still receiving loyal attention from their loved ones.

Part of the problem of abuse is the loyalty of loved ones who endure abuse. Some suggest there is a conditioning of abuse victims who go through the emotional extremes with the abuser and then feel the mutual relief when the abuse subsides. This traumatic bonding experience can keep loved ones together. There may also be a survivor rationale that keeps one in an abusive relationship as there can be a heightened risk of escalated torture, stalking, and even death for those that have left their abuser. Another variable that has been suggested is that a victim of IPV often grew up in an abusive environment which created a type of set-point for how one defines and experiences love. In other words, abusive love feels normal. Overlaying all of this is the added danger of intoxication by alcohol and/or drugs which can cause increased violence and increased tolerance of it.

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Survivors of childhood abuse often have higher adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Research has shown that children who have experienced maltreatment, malnourishment, neglect, and sustained high amounts of psychological abuse revealed long-term changes in their brain architecture, neural wiring, immune response, psychiatric health, and were more prone to addictions, lower life-spans and had higher rates of medical diseases (Zarse, Neff, Yoder, Hulvershorn, Chambers, & Chambers, 2019). The mitigating factor to these grim results is resilience.

A lot has been written about resilience and the myriad of professions that help people heal would probably not exist if a remedy did not exist.

The word remedy sounds simple, however, resilience is as complex as the conditions that create abuse. Resilience is not one thing—it is a combination of multiple observed in people who found a way out of their personal abyss.

Polizzi and Perry (2020) compared the stress of COVID-19’s pandemic to resilience and post-traumatic growth found among survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. They suggest activities that may be beneficial for abuse victims and trauma survivors who are concurrently dealing with the aggravated stress imposed by the pandemic. They cite the 3-C’s model (control, coherence, and connectedness) and recommend journaling, mindfulness, and practicing loving-kindness meditation (LKM).

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As I reflected on my own traumatic and abuse experiences in childhood and adulthood, I found these suggestions to mirror practices I undertook without realizing the resilience it was enhancing. My self-disclosure is simply offered as a way of empathizing. If someone who did not understand pain and abuse told me to meditate and practice loving kindness, I am not sure I would embrace the suggestion. In fact, I may have resisted it because I was being told what to do. (Maybe.) Instead, it was reading the Diary of Anne Frank when I was very young that profoundly changed how I lived and survived in the world.

First, Anne Frank taught me to write a diary. Any pain I felt I suffered was addressed in my own writing. Knowing what Anne Frank suffered made any of my complaints seem small and petty. I did not see myself as a victim, ever. More important, Anne Frank taught me how to love and forgive. Her last entry expressed loving-kindness as people were seeking to capture her and her family: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are still good at heart.”

Her words seared my heart and soul. There is an expression that "hurt people hurt people." While some people may show a callousness and an inability to have empathy for others, perhaps the greatest victims are the ones who harden their heart. They give up loving-kindness. In doing so, they miss out on feeling the depth of love, care, spirit, and resilience. They try to control others instead of harnessing the control from their heart—which seeks to love and not harm.

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In the war of abuse and disease, perhaps we can be comforted by another heroine, Mother Teresa, who had this version of the paradoxical commandments written on the wall of her home for the children of Calcutta:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.

The good you do today will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway. (This version is credited to Mother Teresa.)

Kimberly Key, Ph.D. - website - books


Polizzi, C., Lynn, S. J., & Perry, A. (2020). Stress and Coping in the Time of Covid-19: Pathways to Resilience and Recovery. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 17(2), 59–62. Retrieved from

Zarse, E.M., Neff, M.R., Yoder, R., Hulvershorn, L., Chambers, J.E., & Chambers, R.A. (2019). The adverse childhood experiences questionnaire: Two decades of research on childhood trauma as a primary cause of adult mental illness, addiction, and medical diseases. Cogent Medicine, 6(1). Retrieved from


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