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The Cleveland Tragedy, Complex PTSD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Three young women were just freed from a ten year kidnapping ordeal in Cleveland. They had to live their captivity in the dungeon-like confines of a house. There, they were raped, starved, beaten and kept in chains by the man who kidnapped them. They were treated in the most dehumanizing ways possible. Police reports sate that the women were kept captive with ropes and chains. They were kept isolated and were rarely allowed to leave the house.  The women were abducted between 2002 and 2004. Their horrible and shocking situation lasted for ten long years.

Year after year, the clock ticked by and the calendar marched forward, carrying the three women further from the real world. They were pulled deeper into an unimaginable nightmare. Now that they are freed, their ordeal is not over. Next comes recovery from sexual abuse and their sudden, jarring reentry into a world much different from the one they were kidnapped from a decade ago.

A big part of their road to recovery that they face is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In fact, their’s is a form of trauma called Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). The symptoms of Complex PTSD are similar to regular PTSD but are much more long lasting. Symptoms of C-PTSD include:

1. Emotion Regulation Problems:
People with Complex PTSD experience difficulties managing their emotions. They may experience severe depression, thoughts of suicide, or have difficulties controlling their anger.

2. Changes in Consciousness:
Following exposure to a chronic traumatic event, a person may repress memories of the traumatic event, experience flashbacks, or experience dissociation and derealization.

3. Changes in How a Person Views Themselves:
Symptoms in this category include feelings of helplessness, shame, guilt, or feeling detached and different from others.

4. Changes in How the Victim Views the Perpetrator:
A person with Complex PTSD may feel like he has no power over a perpetrator (the perpetrator has complete power in a relationship). In Complex PTSD, people might also become preoccupied with their relationship with a perpetrator (for example, constant thoughts of wanting revenge).

5. Changes in Personal Relationships:
These symptoms include problems with relationships, such as isolating oneself or being distrusting of others.

6. Changes in How One Views the World:
People exposed to chronic or repeated traumatic events may also lose faith in humanity or have a sense of hopelessness about the future.

Perhaps one of the most baffling of all the symptoms are guilt and what is known as the Stockholm Syndrome.
Guilt stems from self blame for having allowed one’s self to get into trouble in the first place. In this case, the girls accepted rides from the kidnapper. Of course, they knew him because he was a neighbor and trusted by the three young women. In addition, guilt stems from the conviction that one should have escaped. When this false belief is combined with the outrageous attitudes of others that they should have escaped, the results are devastating. No one should blame these women for any of the horrible things that happened to them.

The Stockholm Syndrome refers to the fact that hostages express sympathy and empathy for their captors. In fact, this happens to the extent that they even defend them. According to the FBI, 27% if all victims show evidence of this syndrome. This is viewed as a psychological self defense by identifying with the perpetrator.

People can and do recover from this type of tragedy. Therapy such as Cognitive and Exposure Therapies go a long way to help reduce symptoms. However, these women have a long road ahead and we can only hope that they make a full recovery even they can’t alter what happened to them. One of the ways that some victims cope, when they are ready, is to help other traumatized victims and to write about and publish the story of their captivity.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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