Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Sexual Abuse Survivor Speaks Out

In response to my blog article about the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, Nancy Smyth commented that people stand by and do nothing, at least in part because they don't understand the tremendous impact that sexual abuse has on children.  Then I received a response from a child sexual abuse survivor who spoke about the impact from personal experience. So I decided to share a survivor's perspective to help us all understand a little more about why it is so important to take action to stop sexual abuse. I am grateful to the author for giving me permission to feature this description of what a child sexual abuse survivor can go through.

"As a trauma victim, I would just like to say we have to do something about sexual abuse in this world. People can't ignore it and turn their heads. It just keeps it going more and more.  "You see, even though they hid it years ago it still happened. The worst part is the abuser  says "if you tell, no one will believe you" and  "this isn't bad what I'm doing; I am supposed to do this to you" and "it's all your fault; you're the troublemaker or you wouldn't be in this position."  So you keep it quiet for as long as you can, thinking you're the bad one, not the abuser. Trying to keep everything to yourself until it has you in such a state that your stomach constantly hurts, you become very nervous, and you have fainting spells."

"Then you get enough nerve to tell but you are too young to know the words, so you make up your own words for it. You tell a police officer that these people are "bothering" you.  Well, all the officer does is to tell them to stop bothering you because he doesn't know what "bothering" means and the abusers made it seem like it was only a joke - all in fun. Then another day you get brave again and you tell a teacher. Now keep in mind you're just in first grade at the time. The teacher just says "that's a very big  accusation you're making on these people; they can get in big trouble for  this. Are you sure you want to say this about them?" Well first of all you have no idea what a big accusation is, except that its a really, really big word. Then you hear the word "trouble" and that is just what the abuser told you from the beginning:  "If you tell, no one will believe you and any way they would say it's your fault; you're the troublemaker." So you just freeze, not wanting to cause more trouble, just wanting to take back anything you said about the abuser at all. And keep silent hoping you won't get hurt again."

"The next thing you do is just try to forget about it. You go through life saying  "ok no one found out about it today so I'm good."  You continue doing this every damn day of your life until you get so scared and sick and put it so far out of your mind you don't even know it happened. Until years later when you start having flashbacks and eventually wind up in therapy. If you're lucky like me you get a good therapist. You start to trust someone with your secrets for the first time in your life.  Then  you remember more about the abuse and you immediately go into denial. Then you go back to believing it happened, but you tell yourself  "it was my fault; I was a troublemaker."  So the abuser still wins because here you are blaming yourself and acting as if the abusers are innocent and it was your fault. So you spend a lot of years in therapy with PTSD*, until the whole thing clicks and with EMDR** you are able to get yourself back together.  But unfortunately the more times the abusers abuse you, the more things trigger flashbacks and you get confused and blame yourself all over again. Then sticking with therapy you get to the point with EMDR where you realize "hey this really isn't my fault." 

"So yes, it is uncomfortable to talk about but just think of how uncomfortable it is for a child or a teen to go through it. Day after day having to keep it a secret until they're sick to their stomach or passing out. Then later on after you blanked it all out of your mind and you don't want to believe it, then it comes back to haunt you.  You question if it's real because you think you would know if it happened. But you don't know until you face it again. PTSD causes a lot of suffering up into adulthood. Sometimes you can't even work if it  is so traumatic that you keep forgetting where you are and feel like a child being abused all over again, right in the middle of the workplace.  So basically your life is ruined but the abusers are so damn sneaky they get away with it."

"Just like Penn State--from what I think I understand, people knew it was happening and didn't care to stop it.  Well how about we stop it NOW!  How many more victims do we have to ruin?  How many victims can't even go to work because no one wants them flipping out in the workplace?  How many victims can't even go to people's homes visiting or to the store because they don't know if they will be triggered, and are actually afraid to go out by themselves?  How many more children, young teens, even young adults are going to be victims of sexual abuse?  Why?  No one wants to talk about it.  Like Andrea said, they turn their  head, don't believe it or simply change the subject.  And if  the victims don't get the correct help they go on forever trying to keep it quiet.  Feeling ashamed, blamed, or hurt so bad they think suicide could be  in order.  Is It fair?"

*Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs when traumatic experiences from the past keep intruding on the present.  There are three categories of symptoms:
 Re-experiencing symptoms:
     •Flashbacks; reliving the trauma
     •Nightmares about the trauma
     •Intrusive recollections of the trauma
Avoidance symptoms:
     •Avoiding reminders of the trauma
     •Emotional numbness; hypoarousal
     •Blocking out memories of the trauma
Hyperarousal symptoms:
     •Hypervigilance; always in fight/flight mode
     •Exaggerated startle response
     •Anger outbursts
     •Sleep disturbances
 **Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an eight phase therapy method developed by Francine Shapiro to treat trauma. Traumatic experiences can be so overwhelming that the ability to process them and gain perspective is blocked. These traumatic events can get stuck in the nervous system the way they were initially perceived, with the same images, sounds, smells, tastes, and body sensations and resulting emotional reactions, urges and beliefs.  EMDR stimulates the memories and allows the brain to digest them, determining what is useful and necessary and discarding the thoughts, feelings, sensations and physiological arousal that are no longer needed.  New information is linked to the original events and related beliefs, feelings and body-based symptoms using bilateral eye movements, sounds or sensations.  This is believed to jumpstart stalled adaptive information processing  in a manner similar to what takes place during REM (rapid eye movement)  sleep.  Traumatic experiences are reprocessed and put in perspective so that they no longer interfere with day-to-day living. For more information about EMDR, see my new website http://EMDRNJ.com


  1. Thanks for sharing this Andrea, and thanks especially to the courageous woman who let you share her story. As more people begin to understand the impact, I believe that fewer will stand by and let it go unchallenged.

  2. Dear Nancy,

    I am grateful to you for inspiring me to highlight this survivor's story.

    It is interesting what assumptions we make about child sexual abuse. I had carefully removed any indication of this survivor's gender and you still concluded that it was a woman. I probably would have reached the same conclusion. If two seasoned mental health professionals who specialize in trauma treatment can make that mistake, what does that say about societal assumptions about the sexual abuse of boys?


  3. Actually, my assumption was based more on the fact that women are much more likely to seek help in therapy than are men (for sexual abuse or any other problem).

    I've had very few men who voluntarily sought help for childhood sexual abuse....most of them came into treatment reluctantly due to other issues that forced them into treatment (through an EAP, or through a DWI). Childhood trauma (including sexual abuse) was never the reason they entered treatment.

    I think that says volumes about the messages that our society gives men about their emotional sides and about needing to "tough it out." I believe the societal assumptions about sexual abuse in boys are much more likely to be in this domain, rather than in denial that it happens to boys. I've observed personally that the sexual abuse cases that get the most press coverage seem to be those of men abusing boys, not men abusing girls (which is the most common form). I think that's because these stories feed societal homophobia.

    But my comment about courage doesn't change regardless of the gender of the author...it takes real courage to both confront a sexual abuse history in therapy, and real courage to speak that truth in public.

  4. Dear Nancy,

    Thanks for clarifying. You make an excellent point. In my clinical practice, the survivors I have worked with have also been disproportionately female. I agree that males are taught to tough things out and I have seen firsthand how this gender stereotype and the fear of being labeled homosexual make it harder for men and boys to seek help and talk about sexual abuse trauma.

    Hopefully, the courageous men who are speaking out now, in the aftermath of the Penn State and Syracuse University scandals, will help society to overcome misconceptions about child sexual abuse of males and pave the way for others to speak up.

    As a society, we need to teach boys that it is healthy to ask for help when they have a problem and that it is safe to disclose if they are sexually abused. We need to educate society that sexual abuse does not define the sexuality of the victims because sexual abuse is not consensual sex and we need to work to eliminate the homophobia that causes so much bullying, shame, depression and suicide of our youth.

    Thanks again for your comments.