Abused as Children – Answer (27 June @ 04:13pm)

What you are doing is very brave and the best thing for you – and that is getting help and advice.

You are most welcome to continue writing to me and I will be glad to write back either here on the answer page or to your email address if you feel ok to provide one.

What you are going through is a result of trauma and happens to most people who were abused as children. I am so sorry that you are going through this.

Whenever someone experiences trauma, she or he will go through several different stages. The five listed here are most typical, but there may be others too. A person will spend varying amounts of time in any one stage (it can be years). Some stages may be skipped altogether; many people recycle back and forth in random and varied order through them.

DENIAL STAGE

In order for a child to survive abuse, she or he must accept the blame. Children cannot comprehend the idea that the people responsible for their very survival are sick and incapable of taking proper care of them. Incest victims often used denial systems that sound like any of these: “My situation wasn’t that bad”, “He only did it once”, “He never penetrated me”, “I already dealt with it”, “I already forgave”, “He was sick”, “He’s dead now”, “It happened a long time ago”.

Denial systems helped us survive as children, but they became ropes that hung us as adults. Denial continues our feelings of isolation because we are incapable of trusting ourselves or anyone else. If we shut off feelings of pain and anger, we shut off all our feelings including joy, love, compassion, etc. It is imperative not to stay stuck in denial because one can’t get over a loss if one refuses to acknowledge its reality. If a sexual abuse survivor is going to recover well from the impact of the sexual abuse, s/he must let her/himself remember the incident(s) and feel whatever s/he is feeling inside.

ANGER STAGE

When we recognize our pain, anger naturally follows. Anger is healthy and as appropriate response to pain. The sense of unfairness, irretrievable opportunities, loss of innocence, feelings of being exploited, realizing that he got away with it, questions like, “Why should I be hurting still?” are all common responses and they make us feel angry. We need to find healthy and appropriate targets for our anger. Some beat on inanimate objects, some do physical activities, some write uncensored letters or plan confrontations (then burn it), some cry, some talk, some scream (into a pillow or blanket). By doing these things, we’re proving to ourselves that we can control our anger; anger isn’t controlling us. By allowing ourselves anger, we avenge our pain.

BARGAINING STAGE

When looking at the abuse, we can feel very desperate. We may make pleas that sound like any of these: “God help me now and I’ll be a better person”, “God if you give me children, I’ll be a really good parent”, “I’ll work through the incest, but don’t ever let me be raped!”, “If you get me out of this, I’ll never be promiscuous again”. Pleas and promises are common ways of trying to escape the complex problems of incest.

DEPRESSION STAGE

The denial, anger, and bargaining have not removed the horrible reality of incest. The deep sense of loss is still there. There is a tremendous mourning process. We need to mourn the fantasy family, our innocence, lost time, our habit of avoiding intimacy, and emotional closeness, isolation, re-victimization; the list seems overwhelming, because it seems endless. The magnitude of the recovery process itself is incredibly depressing.

ACCEPTANCE STAGE

Acceptance says that incest is not a handicap; it’s an inconvenience, a temporary setback. We will not minimize or rationalize the trauma and pain incurred by us as victims, but we know that we can come through this tragedy without irrevocable emotional damage. We may even be stronger at the conclusion of this problem.

We know and believe in our hearts that we were innocent victims. We know that we didn’t control the abuse. We don’t have to convince anyone else of our innocence. We truly love the child inside us; we believe her and we treat her with respect. Inside, we have merged both parent and child. We are not powerless anymore. Recovery is possible. We can bloom where we’re planted. Incest is one part of our lives, only one part!

Recovery is a process; eventually we will settle in acceptance. Until then, we must remember that patience is something that we give ourselves today, and that this too shall pass.

Any sexual contact, covert or overt, between a child and a trusted individual, damage the child, whether these contacts included suggestive remarks, pornography, fondling, acts of sexual aggression or torture. These need to be dealt with assertively. These contacts scar virtually all facets of victims’ lives since we are left with little or no self-esteem. At least one out of five boys and one out of three girls will be abused before they reach the age of eighteen. The child’s emotional growth will be arrested at the age of the first attack, and the victim will probably not begin to recover until adulthood, if ever.

Boys, as well as girls, can be victims of sexual abuse. Anyone can be an abuser, especially if the perpetrator is perceived by the child to be in authority, including father, grandfather, uncle, mother, brother, friend of the family, aunt, teacher, clergy or another child – the list is endless.

Some of the social maladjustments arising from sexual abuse are alcoholism, drug addiction, self-injury, prostitution, promiscuity and sexual dysfunction. Eating or sleeping disorders, migraines, back or stomach pains are just a few of the physical consequences that we may suffer. Food, sex, alcohol and/or drugs deaden painful memories of the abuse and obscure reality temporarily. If we perceive obesity to be unattractive, and if we believe we were abused because we were attractive, we may overeat in a misguided attempt to defend ourselves from further sexual assault.

“I felt like throwing up” is a common response among victims, and bulimia is a way of acting out that feeling. Anorexia can be another form of self-punishment, eventually leading to the ultimate self-victimization, suicide.

A number of emotional problems may emerge from the abuse, including inability to trust, perfectionism, phobias, avoidance of both intimacy and emotional bonding. The denial system that insured our survival as children now prevents us from enjoying unencumbered adulthoods. We don’t trust our own perceptions; we were forced to become an expert in disbelieving our own senses. We tried to convince ourselves that we overreacted and that nothing really terrible happened: “My daddy would never REALLY hurt me”. When reality is too painful for children’s minds, we learn to fictionalize. It is extremely painful to give up the fantasy family since children see themselves either in reflected glory or disgraced shadows. Therefore, we sometimes make excuses for the abuser: “He was drunk at the time”, “He had it rough as a child.” We take responsibility for the assault(s): “I was too attractive”, “I was too sexy.” The abuser probably reinforced our own nagging guilt and questions we had concerning our own innocence. Essentially, we defend the perpetrator by minimizing, rationalizing and taking on the blame. If we continue to use these coping mechanisms as adults, we are set up to be abused in current relationships. With a support group or counsellor, we can learn to accept the fact that we were abused rather than loved by the abuser. We can learn to seek out only healthy, loving relationships. We have been accustomed to accepting only crumbs, believing that we do not deserve anything better.

We may have parenting problems, always second-guessing decisions, which is another result of distrusting our own perceptions. We may: avoid parenting altogether, try to be a perfect parent or repeat the abuse. The worst possible consequence is when we perpetuate the abuse onto the next generation.

Another repercussion of sexual abuse is that we often regard authority figures with anxiety. Passivity is comfortable because it is familiar, and we may accept familiar misery rather than risk unfamiliar change. An experiment in learned helplessness was conducted in which dogs were forced to endure painful electric shocks without means of escape. A second group of dogs were compelled to endure shocks and quickly escaped when it was possible. When the first group was shocked again, with escape now possible, they did not leave. They had been conditioned to endure pain. This experiment explains why so many of us are sexually abused as adults by therapists, spouses, counselors, doctors or bosses. We are accustomed to losing battles and to feeling powerless. We may not believe we can win. Assertion is a difficult concept for sexual abuse victims.

Our inability to trust affects our sexual relationships, too. Women who have been abused by men will often say, “I don’t trust any men, they only want sex.” Boys abused by women may feel that all women are threatening. Abused boys may feel compelled to believe they MUST be homosexual. The assaults have sometimes been associated with emotional or physical pleasure, and this fact reinforces the suspicion that we must be homosexual: “Both my uncle and a male teacher were attracted to me, and it feels good, I liked it, so I must be gay.” In defense of the abuser, we may say, “I must be gay, and my abuser sensed it, that’s all.”

Another result of the confliction of messages of sexual abuse is that many of us confuse sex with affection and love. Many women will say, “The only time my father ever gave me any attention was in bed”, “I was special to him then”, “I felt loved.” Since she desperately needs validation, this woman may become promiscuous. She needs to know that a promiscuous child is often the result, but never the cause of sexual abuse. She believes if someone has sex with her, then that partner automatically loves her. She has confused sex and love.

When the abuse is physically violent, perhaps even painful, we may confuse sex with control and power. A typical comment might be, “When I have sex with someone, I feel like s/he is controlling my body. I feel that as I respond to her/him, she/he is manipulating me, and I am a puppet all over again.” We may shut off all sexual feelings and retreat from all sexual contact: we fear everyone that will use and abuse us.

Changing self-destructive patterns is a slow process, but with a support group or counsellor we can learn that it is possible. It takes tremendous strength for us to put ourselves in a position to examine and feel this pain. We need incredible courage and reliable professional help. At Rape Crisis Helderberg, a 12-step self-help recovery program is an available resource for adult survivors. A statement read at the end of each meeting remind us: “The pain is temporary, but denial and its consequences are forever.” When we tire of the consequences, and become willing to work diligently on the sexual abuse issues, we are then on the way to living our lives as survivors rather than victims.

Call 083 484 9409 or 021-851 1390 to speak to someone or write to me on admin@crisiscentre.org.za.

You can get over this.

Kind regards,

Lynda

 

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