Life-long coping

Tamela Burckhardt, a survivor, with husband Ralph Burckhardt at their Mescal area home.


[Part 3 in a series with regard to sexual abuse and exploitation.]

It’s a lifelong process, the road back to whatever falls within the range of “normalcy” that is unique to each individual as they deal with the fallout of having been sexually abused.

The vastness and enormity of it all often overwhelms and consumes survivors deep down to their core. Their path back toward recovery is both arduous and painful — but also uplifting — and only really happens when one confronts the myriad of emotions and issues that befall the persons who have been victimized of such crimes. It’s a double-edged sword of sorts for the persons who must endure reliving and talking about the traumas perpetrated upon them by sexual predators.

For Tamela Burckhardt the path toward recovery has at times been excruciating. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, abuse of heavy drugs and alcohol, to help mask feelings of inadequacy, guilt and shame. Mental health professionals, while quick to point out there really is no exact quotient per se, point out those are all issues in common that survivors of abuse commonly must deal with. And there are many others.

But she also has emerged stronger and now helps counsel others who are just now taking their initial steps toward recovery.

“It’s not a perfect healing… you’re never going to be the person you were, but you could be a stronger person, you can be happy... you can get back to that point. But there is no such thing as a perfect healing,” Burckhardt, 49, explained.

As she tells it, having not really known any other way, Tamela thought the abuse was normal. “I know it sounds strange but it had gone on for so long that’s all I’d really known.”

Dealing with the ensuing aftermath as an adolescent was agonizing. “I didn’t deal with it, I was a drug addict, I self medicated,” said Burckhardt. “All the emotional problems… I felt guilty, I felt that it was my fault because I got told that all the time from my abusers. At the same time, I know it sounds strange, but I thought that was the normal because it’s all I’d ever known. It wasn’t until later that I realized this isn’t normal.”

“There is no typical, everyone responds differently” when it comes to dealing with the emotional and behavioral issues that present themselves as survivors grind toward recovery, explains Jared Wilhelm, LPC, a longtime mental health professional at Southeast Arizona Behavioral Health Services in Safford. He’s also quick to emphasize exploitation and abuse are not victimless crimes.

But on the flip side, he said, survivors who deal and confront their issues, through fortitude and resilience, are able to rise above and come out wounded yet stronger. “The trauma does not have to define them,” says Wilhelm.

But there is no denying the emotional scars and wounds will need healing, lots of healing.

“I won’t ever be fully healed,” says Tamela. “But I get a little closer each day and I’m able to handle it a little better each day.” Seeking help, though, is paramount, a point Wilhelm stresses as well. “This isn’t about getting people to SEABHS, this is about getting people the help they need. There are resources available… there are online support groups, seek them out. ” said Wilhelm. “You can find happiness again.”

The  “disassociation” Wilhelm says are why drug and alcohol abuse are often emotional crutches for survivors. “What happens is children and others who are being abused may try to go to a safe place in their mind as a coping mechanism… and drugs and alcohol can have that same effect.”

Clean and sober now for several years, Tamela helps others on online support and crisis intervention.

“What I say to anyone who may be trying to deal with this on their own is get help —   immediately,” said Tamela. “Once you start dealing with it all… that’s what it takes. It won’t ever be the same, whatever normal is, but that will never be. You just try to get as close to whatever that is for you and take it day by day.”

Of course, some days are better than others, she says, even after all this time. She also credits husband, Ralph Burckhardt, with offering the support she still and will continue to need.

When they met, Ralph said he could tell there was some underlying problem, and she credits him as being a rock when it comes to helping and support her as she continues in her recovery.

It’s a work in progress, she readily admits. As far as advising others who may be grappling with the same issues: “You have to talk about it… the first step toward healing is talking about it.”