Road to Recovery for Adults Molested as Children
ADULT SURVIVORS OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ASSAULT or INCEST
There are two categories into which you, as an adult survivor of childhood sexual assault fall: either you were molested by a family member, someone in a parental/authoritative role, or you were assaulted by a stranger. Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain, you have a long and very difficult road to recovery ahead of you. This violation of one’s most personal boundary, especially during the developmental stages of childhood, can have very long-lasting and devastating effects on your childhood growth, physically, emotionally and mentally. This is why you may have never known, or have completely forgotten, how to express any emotions except sadness or hopelessness.
In cases where the perpetrator was someone in a parental or authoritative role, the fact that this intrusion upon your sexual boundaries came from someone who was supposed to love, protect and/or nurture you, can be a very frightening realization. Even to allow yourself to fully understand this means also to know how completely powerless you were. Thus, you may try to obliterate every memory of the assault. It is a shame it seems you cannot bear.
To know how tremendous the problem of sexual assault among children is, let’s examine the statistics. According to a report from the National Victim Center and Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center in 1992, six out of ten of all rape cases occurred before survivors reached the age of 18. In other words more than 61% of our adult population has experienced some form of sexual assault as a child. In order to discuss the ramifications of childhood sexual assault, it necessitates a thorough understanding of the issues involved. Although many of them run parallel to those of the survivor who is sexually assaulted as an adult, certain issues such as trust, self-esteem and forgiveness go even deeper.
SETTING LIMITS & BOUNDARIES
You may have difficulty with setting limits and boundaries. Past experiences have given you little hope of ever having any control over what happens to you. During the recovery process there is a need to understand that you are no longer the child who was powerless to stop the abuse perpetrated on you by the adults in your life. Not only do you have more power now, but you also have the right to say what happens to you. You have the right to choose your sexual partners, and you have the right to make any other decisions that affect your life.
MEMORIES & FLASHBACKS
You may experience the constant and repetitious return of certain memories surrounding your assault. They can be very disruptive, constantly reminding you of what happened. A flashback is the sudden occurrence of a visual image of the assault. It returns with all of the emotions and feelings experienced at that particular time and can be very frightening. Both the memories and flashbacks may have been triggered by a familiar face, place, certain sound, smell, etc. The important thing is for you to realize that they are only pictures and recollections of what has already happened, not of what is going to happen, or what is happening to you now. The perpetrator(s) can no longer hurt you in that way again.
Often, the mind will not allow a memory to surface until you are at a place where you can deal with it. This could mean that you are at a place where you feel both emotionally and physically safe or you now have access to a support system when the memories become overwhelming. Once you realize that you have control over these memories/flashbacks, and that you can actually choose when to think about them and when not to, the memories lose their power and you are able to get on with your life.
Although this is one of the most common issues that you have to deal with following a sexual assault, it is also the most difficult emotion to get in touch with. As a survivor who was abused as a child, perhaps you spent many years covering up real feelings and emotions. Your anger was powerless and had little or no effect on the actions of the perpetrators in your life, so you learned how to suppress your anger. Or you may have been too young to know that what was happening to you was wrong.
The healing process involves helping you get in touch with your feelings of anger. The anger felt toward your perpetrator(s), toward the adults who should have protected you and didn’t, and the anger that arises from self-blame needs to be acknowledged and experienced. It involves helping you to understand that you have the right to feel angry about what happened and that there is nothing wrong with expressing your anger in positive ways. Unexpressed anger may lead to depression. Healthy expressions of anger free you to move beyond it. Seeing a therapist, keeping a journal of your thoughts, or talking to someone you trust enables the anger to move from the inside to the outside so that it can be dealt with effectively. Remember it is an issue that is bound to come up sooner or later and it is only after working through the anger that you are able to really let go and move on.
Being abused as a child means experiencing the loss of many things. First there’s the loss of childhood experiences. Carefree, happy, nurtured, protected and unencumbered by serious things: this is what life should have been like as a child. How could you be carefree when you were carrying a secret as big as being sexually assaulted by a family member on your shoulders? As an adult molested as a child , it you may find it difficult to let your guard down and experience happiness, for fear of losing control. There is also a loss of innocence that is experienced.
Since incest involves parents and/or other family members, there is a loss of trust. The very people who were supposed to nurture and protect you were the abusers. There is a loss of a normal relationship with a parent, a loss of childhood memories, and a loss of the right to choose your first sexual partner when you are old enough. The list goes on and on. However, now the time has come to name these losses, grieve over them, and bury them once and for all. This may mean having some sort of ritual where they are finally put to rest. All losses need to be mourned just as we mourn for our loved ones when they die. This helps to bring the grieving to closure.
GUILT, SHAME & BLAME
Part of the healing process is reminding yourself that a child can never be responsible for being sexually abused. Adults are responsible for protecting and nurturing any child that is placed in their custody. All of the blame needs to be placed firmly where it belongs, with the perpetrator. You need to understand that although these people are your parents and/or others who were in positions of authority, they were adults who abused their positions of authority and need to be held accountable.
As an adult molested as a child you may carry a lot of guilt because you did not try to stop it. It is up to the adult to know better. A child should not be expected to know the difference. Children often actively seek the affection of an adult and will sometimes accept any show of affection as an affirmation that they are loved.
Although you may accept the fact that it was not your fault and that you did not do anything to cause the abuse, it sometimes takes a little while longer for your sense of shame to subside. Society goes a long way in perpetuating it. Survivors are blamed or disbelieved so much after making the decision to disclose, that few want to come forward. Unfortunately, the secrecy continues to clothe the incident in shame. It is only in breaking the silence that the shame begins to dissipate. The more you talk about the abuse, the less shameful it becomes and the more empowered you become to move forward in recovery.
As discussed earlier, learning to trust again is very difficult. You entered this world as an innocent child, a child who should have experienced nurturing and protection in a caring and loving environment. Instead, you became the recipient of pain and suffering, shame, and guilt at the hands of family members who abused you. You became the little prisoner and sexual toy of an adult. Perhaps you grew up in an unsafe environment. One or more adults in your life may have been manipulative or insensitive. Therefore, you had no reason to believe that others in your life would be any different. So you became unwilling to take the risk of being deceived again.
If you cannot trust the people in your most immediate environment, how do you step out of that space to begin to trust others? This is the dilemma that is difficult to overcome. It is the fear of trusting others, of being hurt and experiencing that pain all over again that makes this so difficult. You may go from one extreme to another, not trusting at all or trusting too much. This is where setting limits and boundaries become very important.
First, let yourself know that as an adult you have the right to choose the people with whom you want to begin a relationship. You are not the same child that had no control or power in your past familial relationships. Also remind yourself that trust does not come automatically, it has to be earned. It is permissible for you to test the person with whom you want to develop a relationship by asking them to do small favors to see if they can be trusted. It is also permissible to go back to not trusting someone if that trust is violated. The important thing is for you to take one step at a time and allow yourself to take whatever time is needed to learn or regain the ability to trust.
You develop many different coping skills to help you deal with trauma. Some of them are healthy and some of them are not; however, all of them are very important because they enabled you to survive whatever you were going through. These were the skills that worked, and you often did not know any others to use. Part of recovery is recognizing those coping skills that are not healthy and replacing them with healthier ones.
When examining past coping mechanisms it is important that you forgive yourself for any coping skills used that were not healthy. Once again, these skills served a purpose and fulfilled a need at that time. For instance, you may have developed a habit of drinking excessively whenever any memories of your childhood sexual abuse arose. This behavior was repeated again and again, and was a way for you to anesthetize your feelings so you didn’t have to re-experience the pain that returns with the memories.
When you allow yourself to go through the feelings and emotions of a childhood sexual assault, help and healing comes much faster. You can do this in a safe environment where you can receive the support and information needed. As an adult survivor, these coping mechanisms helped carry you through a painful childhood all the way into adulthood. It is important that you give yourself enough time to learn and develop new and healthier skills to cope in the future.
SELF-ESTEEM & ISOLATION
Being an adult survivor of childhood sexual assault, you may have a problem with issues of self-esteem. This is a result of hearing all the negative messages from your perpetrators while being abused, as well as feeling that you were somehow responsible. As soon as you realize that being abused was not your fault and that 100% of the responsibility for what happened belongs to the perpetrator, the quicker you can move beyond this false perception of yourself. Those negative messages might have completely obliterated any positive image you may have had of yourself.
Statements such as: “You are a bad girl,” “You were a little tease,” and “You made me do this to you,” etc., reinforced the idea that you were to blame for what happened. A child that grows up with the shame and embarrassment that somehow they caused a family member to sexually violate them is too young to understand that a child can never be responsible for being sexually abused. You carry this burden for years, your self-image plummets, and it takes time and lots of work to heal from your perpetrator’s lies.
The recovery process begins by reaffirming your role as a survivor of a very traumatic experience. What happened, happened to you. You did not ask for it or cause it to happen in any way. You need to know that your feelings and emotions are normal reactions to what happened. You have the right to feel your feelings and to be able to express them in a healthy, safe environment. Also, no one has the right to tell you when you should or should not be “over this.” There are people who do care and agencies where you can go to receive the support and information you need. There is no time limit for the recovery process.
You can begin taking care of yourself by first acknowledging and celebrating your successes, no matter how small. Looking back and remembering how other traumatic events were dealt with in the past and comparing them to present coping skills used, will enable you to see what progress has been made. Remember that as an adult you have more power and control over what happens to you. You also have the right to do what’s good for yourself. You can set boundaries and say “NO,” and you have the right to be respected for that “NO.” Find ways of affirming how important you are. This could begin by making a list of ways to nurture yourself and referring to that list whenever there is the need to feel more relaxed, calm, cared for or centered.
Because intimacy is such a close bond between two people, you may have a hard time establishing a bond. Entering into a close relationship with another person involves trust, respect, love and the ability to share. You may often flee from intimacy. Sometimes you may hold on too tightly for fear of losing your relationship. Both reactions are a result of having been sexually abused as a child. In incest cases, the trust you so innocently gave was violated, your personal boundaries were not respected, and you never felt the love and caring that comes from growing up in a normal family environment.
You need to understand that you can develop the skills necessary to learn how to be intimate with someone else. It just takes time. It is always risky to open up and allow yourself to enter into a relationship with another person. True, you may experience hurt or disappointment; however, it will not destroy you. You can assess what happened, learn from it and move on. No one can predict or control another’s behavior; however, you can develop skills that will better prepare yourself for entering new relationships. This is one of the goals of the healing work that needs to be done.
The very nature of the assault has a tremendous impact on you as far as sexuality issues are concerned. First of all, as an adult who has been sexually assaulted as a child, you have to deal with the fact that your first initiation into sex came as a result of sexual abuse, perhaps at an age when you could not even verbalize what was happening to you. Yet your body, which remembers perfectly, stored those painful memories for years. As a result, you may experience the return of body memories while engaged in a sexual activity with another person. This can be frightening, especially when the source of these memories is not readily available. It can also be frustrating as it may inhibit you from participating in any type of sexual act with your partner.
1. Anyone has a right to say “NO” when they don’t want to be touched or engage in sexual activity.
2. People are not objects to be used as pleasure tools for other people. We are all individuals with equal rights.
3. What we do to our own bodies is our business and should not be dictated by another.
4. No one ever has a right to abuse another person.
5. Men and women have equal responsibility during sexual activity.
6. Women have the same sexual rights as men for self-experimentation and self-exploration
7. Women and men both have the same sexual right to be assertive.
8. Women and men have the same freedoms to be sexually active and to receive pleasure from sex.
You need to understand that your partner and the perpetrator (s) are two different people. The memories and flashbacks are just that, images of something that has already happened and not predictions of what is going to happen.
The important thing to know about forgiveness is that there is no rule that says that you must forgive the perpetrator in order to heal and recover. This decision is entirely up to you. What is important is that you understand that sometimes not forgiving may become so encompassing that it grips you like a vise, bombarding you every moment with thoughts of ways to get revenge. This is very damaging. It serves no purpose and can end up being very self-destructive. Anger is a valid reaction to the abuse; however, there are ways, as was discussed earlier, of expressing it in a safe and non-threatening manner.
You may decide that you are not ready to forgive the perpetrator. This is permissible as long as you do not allow “not forgiving” to become like a canker sore, eating away at you. Forgiveness may mean just learning how to “let go.” The key is for you, first of all, to forgive yourself.