How Deep are the Scars of Abuse?
A number of people have contacted me over the past few months, wanting to talk about their victimization. These emails describe a wide range of feelings, reactions and heartbreak. For adults who were abused as children, the emotional outcome is as varied as people are. There are no hard and fast outcomes – there is only your outcome and it’s as perfect as perfect can be. It is always normal. And it is always healthy.
So let’s chat, in a general way, about the emotional outcomes for people who were abused as children. These outcomes are affected by a number of factors:
1. Do you remember the abuse? While this sounds like a silly question, many adults don’t remember what happened to them as children. It is either so ugly that it is buried deeply or the victim has put it away to allow her familial relationships to survive or perhaps the victim dissociated during the abuse so there are few memories registered. The latter is, ironically, not unlike an alcoholic blackout in which the memories are not be imprinted on the mind.
2. How old were you when it started? And how long did it go on? If you were regularly abused from a very early age, in a perverse twist of the mind (mostly to cope) the abuse may be more normalized. Since it has always been there, it is just a fact of life. Clients come to me and knew something was wrong but didn’t know what. They assume it’s their mental health problem, when in fact they were physically and/or sexually abused well into adulthood. I’ve been asked: “How can a woman allow that to go on without reporting it?” The answer is fairly simple: “It’s all she’s ever known.” If that is your ever-present reality, then it is all you’ve ever known and it is ‘normal’ to you. (Note, I didn’t say healthy, but normal.)
3. Who are you? What are your emotional strengths? We are all wired differently. And each of us reacts to abuse in our own way. Some people will experience one event and be as traumatized as another person who was repeatedly assaulted and/or raped. Their is no ‘right’ reaction. The one you’re experiencing is perfectly correct and natural for you.
4. Who is your perpetrator? Generally, the closer the relationship between victim and perp, the deeper the emotional trauma. This is not always the case, but when the relationship is one that should have nourished and supported us, the damage is usually deeper and longer lasting. Please notice all the qualifiers. If you were sexually abused by a minister, teacher or scout leader you knew or a stranger you didn’t, I am not saying your abuse doesn’t matter or it doesn’t hurt. That is not my intention at all. The outcome of being victimized can vary when we have cultural expectations of protection, nurturing and love from the person who victimized us. If you’re not safe at home, where can you be safe? If your home was the site of the abuse, why would you want to be there? What lengths will you go to to avoid being at home and enduring the company of your perpetrator?
5. What was the abuse you suffered? Abuse occurs on a continuum of ugliness and violence and sadism. For most of us, physical abuse ranges from slapping to punching, kicking and choking. It extends from leaving a red mark to serious injuries. This kind of abuse is never a one-off but rather is a cycle of stress relief for the perpetrator who used your behavior (your childish behavior) to justify his out of control actions. For sexual abuse victims, the range is also wide. On one end of the spectrum is inappropriate jokes, conversations and comments about body parts and body functions and the sex act. Across the spectrum is oral, anal, and vaginal rape, either by a single perpetrator or a group.
Please note the word rape. Sexual abuse is NOT sex. It is rape! I strongly object when the press or others talk about a man having sex with his daughter. That statement enrages me. Please, let’s call a spade a spade. For victims, owning that they were raped, usually repeatedly, by someone they know, puts the experiences into the context of violence, being forced and deprived of any choice. Women seem more able to sympathize and empathize with another woman who was raped. And yet, those same women may minimize their experience as ‘just’ sexual abuse….Take a deep breath, Louise. Be calm…Relax.
Okay, I’m better now.
6. How long did your abuse continue? Women tend to minimize their experience if it only happened a few times. My male clients, once they admit that rape or physical abuse happened, are horrified whether it happened once or a hundred times. I’ve noticed, as a therapist that your issues will usually be a lot deeper, your reactions more ingrained if the abuse went on for a long time. Or if you got pregnant as a result of the rape, whether the child was carried to term or not.
7. Was your abuse acknowledged by others? When you remembered it or began dealing with it or asked for help, who did you first tell? Or after some therapy, who did you share this painful truth with? Our abuse was extraordinarily painful. We are victimized by someone and when we go for help our truth is denied, and sometimes we are punished for lying. Or we are told we asked for it. Or that we are rotten people because _______ (fill in the blank with the name of your perpetrator) could not and would not do something so disgusting and vile. This disavowal of our experience can be as traumatic (or more traumatic) than the original abuse! Not only were we traumatized by the original event, but when we built up the courage to bring it forward we are victimized again – usually by a person who can’t deal with our experience; one who needs to put it back on us or they would have to deal with their failure to protect us. Or they refuse to change their opinion of a family member to accommodate something so vile. It is always their failing and never yours.
8. Who long did you carry the abuse around before you sought help? Adults who were physically abused often have less trouble acknowledging what happened to them. In conversations about their childhood, they may make comments like “my dad had a horrible temper” or “dad like to his us kids”. But rarely do we talk about the sexual abuse that was done to us. This is part of the cultural reticence to discuss anything to do with sexuality and our bodies ‘down there’. But it is can also be a lingering sense of personal responsibility (I” enticed him because I was so provocative and sexy”). It can also be from the fear that we will be pitied or the risk that others won’t believe us. And if we’re minors, there is the omnipresent risk that telling may ‘destroy’ our families because the perpetrator will be sent to jail.
There are other factors that affect how deeply we are injured by childhood abuse but these are the main ones, from my experience. Again, it is important that you not take this short list and chastise yourself because ‘you’re overreacting’. However you react is your experience and it is your truth and it is normal for you. Don’t give any credence to what anyone else tells you. And don’t let this post make you feel worse because your reaction doesn’t follow this simple list. We are wonderfully complicated people and life isn’t as simple as an 8 point list.
If you used (or are using) drugs, alcohol, sex, food or other substances or activities to numb the pain, please seek help for the addiction first. After we become addicted to a substance or behavior, our brains change. It is important to get our gray matter on the road to recovery before we start to deal with our past, otherwise, we give ourselves a repeated and continual reason to continue the harm that was done to us in childhood.
Does this list make sense to you? Would you like to add to it? Change it? Remember you are the expert in your life.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.