A woman’s journey of healing from a lifetime of abuse

Below is the story of Anna, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, and her journey toward healing from a lifetime of abuse with the help of therapists and the Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) program at St. Clair County Community Mental Health.

When Anna reached out to St. Clair County Community Mental Health (SCCCMH), she was at the end of her rope. She had been to treatment facilities. She’d seen a psychiatrist who took advantage of his position and suggested she clean his house naked. She had tried therapy multiple times. Anna wanted help, but she was finding it more difficult to reach for.

In a last-ditch effort, Anna says she was able to find the support she needed through the Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) program at SCCCMH.

“This was it for me,” says the Kimball Township resident. “This was the last time I was going to try.”

Alexandra Gabridge, DBT and Outpatient Clinician at St. Clair County Community Mental Health.Alexandra Gabridge, DBT and Outpatient Clinician at SCCCMH, says Anna is not alone in feeling that way.

“When people come in and they're just so done, like this is the last-ditch effort, we'll grab onto that and say, ‘Okay, we hear you. We see you … We’ll face whatever comes next,’” Gabridge says. “I think just that validation of what you're saying, experiencing, and how you're acting makes sense - not that we're condoning it, or loving everything that's going on - but it makes sense to really help somebody open up to this idea of trying one more thing like DBT.”

While SCCCMH offers a wide variety of treatment and therapy options for those in need, the DBT program is an intensive, one-year program that requires participants to be absolutely dedicated to their treatment plan.

“We will only take people if they want this,” Gabridge explains. “We don't want to set anyone up for failure by putting all these demands on them to attend individual therapy, weekly skills training, having homework, and keeping a daily diary card.”

She says that throughout the program participants go through four modules: mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance. Mindfulness helps you practice how to be present without judgement, focusing intentionally on the moment while interpersonal effectiveness focuses on how to ask for what you want and say no while maintaining your self-respect. Emotional regulation helps you change the emotions you want to change and distress tolerance helps you learn how to get through a stressful situation without trying to escape or seek out ways to numb your feelings.

While there are components of the program that are standard such as the four modules, there are also aspects that are tailored for each individual such as what is tracked in the daily diary card. Some participants might be tracking substance use, while others are tracking binge eating or purging behaviors.

Alexandra Gabridge, DBT and Outpatient Clinician with St. Clair County Community Mental Health, goes over skills with an individual in the Dialectical Behavior Therapy program during a group session.

The program also works with participants on life skills, such as how to engage and communicate with people who may not have been through the same life experiences.

“People who have experienced significant trauma, who have Borderline Personality Disorder, often do struggle to make friends because their normal isn't everybody else's normal, their normal is being neglected, their normal is being abused, their normal is being screamed at yelled at degraded and belittled… To engage with other people who have not had to deal with that type of invalidation or degradation can be challenging,” Gabridge says.

She says that, because of this, people in the DBT program tend to either overshare information about their personal life or not share at all. Those who overshare, unaware of the traditionally accepted social limits, don’t realize how what they are saying could be perceived by the general public.

“Once they have that awareness of what the difference is between their normal and other people's normal, we talk about the impact of discussing their normal versus other people, and how to skill them up to be able to engage in effective, healthy communication with people and then slowly, methodically, strategically open up safely,” Gabridge says.

Skills such as this have benefits for participants not only when it comes to making friends, but also when it comes to interviewing for jobs and then keeping those jobs. This is one of the skills that Anna says she learned in the DBT program because, for a long time, she experienced difficulties making friends and understanding that her “normal” was not their “normal.”

“I didn't know how to make real friends, real commitments, because I did not understand why they weren't involved in sexual, physical, mental abuse,” she explains. “And then when they did, I assumed that was fine because that's just how it's supposed to be.”

Anna thought “that’s how it’s supposed to be” because, from a young age, sexual, physical, and mental abuse had been commonplace in her life.

“My journey began very, very young - too young to remember,” Anna says.

She says she grew up in a “normal middle-class home” with her mother, father, older sister, and younger brother.

“I was sexually, physically, and mentally abused all my life by my biological sister who lived with us - she is five years older than me - and by my maternal grandfather, and then there were some boys in the neighborhood later down the road,” she says.

Her parents both worked full-time jobs, often leaving the three children at home alone.

“My mother and father, looking back, I suppose they did the best they could with how they knew how to do things,” she says. “I’m assuming that my mother was also abused from the stories I've heard from others, so she didn't know very much herself. My father worked a lot.”

At the time, Anna says she didn’t know that the abuse she was enduring, particularly at the hands of her sister, was inappropriate. At home, sex or consensual touch was never talked about and at the private school she attended through eighth grade, it was never addressed. She says that as a teenager when she did open up to someone, that person didn’t help.

“The first time I came forward was to a boyfriend of mine, and he decided it would be a great thing to hear about during experiences, if you will, intimate ones,” she says. “So, I never knew it was, like, a ‘thing.’”

Anna says that during high school she started to realize her experiences weren’t normal, however, she continued to have difficulty making friends due to her experiences.

At 21, Anna gave birth to her first child. Shortly after, she spent time at Harbor Oaks Hospital, which treats mental disorders, drug addictions, and psychiatric needs. During her stay there, Anna contacted her sister and asked if the abuse she remembered actually happened or if she was making it up in her mind.

“Her response was, ‘Yep.’ That was it. I said, ‘Can we talk about it?’ She said, ‘What do you want to know?’ I asked her a few different things, and she said, ‘Yep, but I ain't got time for this bullshit.’ And hung up the phone,” Anna recalls.

Eventually, Anna did tell her family about the abuse that had occurred.

“It was told to be hush-hush. We don't need to talk about this. It happened, let it go,” she says.

By her mid-40s, Anna had tried various counseling and therapy programs. As a way to cope and escape from her pain, she says she started becoming addicted to surgeries.

“Every single one I needed, but I started to like the feeling of going under and being gone for a while,” she says.

Then, in 2020, her brother passed away.

“It killed me because I was starting to get through to him. He was also severely abused by my sister,” Anna says.

“I was 45 or 46 at the time, and I knew for a fact that if I didn't get help, I'd be dead before I was 50,” she says. “No doubt in my mind - somehow, someway, either I would do it or it would just happen. And I knew this.”

It wasn’t long after that Anna reached out to SCCCMH and became enrolled in the DBT program. In addition to learning how to communicate effectively, Anna says she has learned how to use her voice for herself through the program.

“I've always had a voice for others, especially children, but I'm starting to understand I can use my voice not just for others, but for myself,” she says. “I have cut all ties to my family, except for my children, because they have chosen to take my sister’s side. Now, instead of feeling hurt, anger, or betrayal, I feel peace. I feel calm.”

While the DBT program has been Anna’s lifeline, it’s just one of the many programs offered by SCCCMH. They have multiple programs and therapy options that meet the unique needs of individuals, and a wide variety of groups that anyone receiving services through SCCCMH can participate in – from groups focusing on coping skills to groups that teach cooking skills to groups that support setting healthy goals and everything in between.

Gabridge says these groups are a great way for people to receive mental health services and support, especially right now when there’s an influx in demand for SCCCMH’s services.

“Right now, people are seeking mental health services… We want to be able to meet the needs of each individual person without feeling like we're not able to provide the most quality services because we're stretched too thin,” she says. “So, I think these classes are a great option for people to recognize the ways to learn information without necessarily that one-on-one individual therapy.”

No matter what program or group ends up being the right fit, Anna shares that if you are struggling, taking that first step and reaching out is worth it.

“It's not easy, but it's saved my life,” she says. “It has saved my life. I can say that honestly - without a hitch, without a hiccup. Nothing. I would have been dead by 50.”

So, if you find yourself at the end of your rope, needing help, she has a message.

“Reach,” she says. “Just one more time. Reach. If you've done it 100 times and you feel you can't anymore. Just one more time, for yourself, just reach. They'll be there for you.”