I lost my 2-year-old daughter on a crowded playground once: I blinked, and she was gone. Panic rising in my throat, I ran circles around the park’s perimeter, screeching her name, before finally spotting her by the swings. From that point on, I vowed I’d keep my eyeballs glued to her in public. A few months later, I lost (and found) her again. So much for that.
Call me a horrible mom or call me human, but those few minutes where I couldn’t pinpoint my daughter’s whereabouts were the most frightening of my life. That’s why I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the parent of a truly missing child like Amanda Berry—who, in 2003, vanished just a day before her 17th birthday and remained MIA for ten years. My heart pounds, my knees weaken, and my eyes get teary at the thought.
But unlike many other kidnapping cases, Berry’s story has a happy ending: On Monday, the 27-year-old escaped the Cleveland home where she’d been imprisoned along with her six-year-old daughter and two other women—Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32. Police arrested their alleged captors; the reunited families rejoiced. Still, what lies ahead for these survivors is hard to say. Due to their long captivity, child abduction experts theorize they face a long road to recover.
“It’s pretty likely they have PTSD,” says Caroline Landis, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and professor of pediatrics at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland. They may also suffer from Stockholm syndrome, where they came to empathize with their captors. Their joint confinement might have also presented some potentially damaging psychodynamics along with the obvious morale boost.
“They had each other for support and comfort—that might have been lifesaving for them,” says Lawrence Balter, a child psychologist in New York, New York. But on the flip side, “In situations like this where there are multiple hostages or prisoners, it is not unusual for one captive to be treated far worse or to have a psychological response that is more severe than the other prisoners,” explains David Sack, M.D., CEO of Promises Treatment Centers. “The person whose treatment is less severe or who copes with it better often feels guilty that they did not/could not do more to help the more severely affected victim. This guilt can haunt them for a lifetime.”
The good news? Over time, approximately 70 percent of PTSD patients improve significantly. “PTSD is highly treatable, and I’d like to think that these women will be on the front lines of receiving those treatments,” says Landis. One technique, called Imagery Rehearsal Therapy, helps replace recurring nightmares with more pleasant and empowering thoughts. Trauma patients have also found surprising success taking drugs typically prescribed for hypertension like Prazosin and Clonidine.
Not that we should expect these women to bounce back and spill their story on primetime TV anytime soon. “Elizabeth Smart didn’t talk to the media until perhaps a year after her escape,” points out Donald Freedheim, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University. Smart, who was kidnapped from her bedroom in 2002 at 14 and rescued nine months later, hopes that Berry and the others won’t feel pressured to dwell on their ordeal too much. “I hope that they realize that there is so much ahead of them that they don’t need to hold on to the past,” Smart told ABC’s Good Morning America. “They don’t need to relive everything that’s happened, because their rescue is proof that there are good people out there.”
Another kidnapping survivor, Jaycee Dugard—who was abducted at 11 and remained missing for 18 years—echoed that it may take time before these women want to relive what they’ve been through. “These individuals need the opportunity to heal and connect back into the world,” Dugard said in a public statement. “This isn’t who they are. It is only what happened to them. The human spirit is incredibly resilient. More than ever this reaffirms we should never give up hope.”
I wholeheartedly agree, and pray that this event will bring more attention to the issue of missing kids. It’s a nightmare no parent should ever have to endure, for two minutes or ten years.