Child Sexual Abuse Is Not The Same For Everyone

Content Warning: Child Sexual Abuse, Trauma,

In my work with people who were sexually abused as children, the notion of a hierarchy of abuse regularly comes up. Sometimes, people diminish their own experiences because someone else has had more extreme experiences. I remind them that our abuse has many elements: There’s the physical experience itself; the effect that has on our psyches, and on our emotions – which is sometimes referred to as our ‘reactions’ to the abuse. What also impacts us is the severity of abuse, as well as the duration of it, and the existing relationship (if any) we have/had with the perpetrator. Then there’s the support – or lack of support – we get from the people around us. Trauma is caused, not just by what happens, it’s also caused by what doesn’t happen – the understanding, the support, the interventions. All these threads weave together to create the fabric of our trauma.

All traumas are not equal, and the impact that being sexually abused has can be very different from person to person. Some manage to come out the other side of their experiences relatively unscathed. Some don’t make it out alive. Most of us exist somewhere in the middle of that continuum – and slide a bit up and down it depending on how a given day is treating us, and on how our recovery is going.

Pitting survivors, and their experiences, against each other is singularly unhelpful. Pointing to someone who reveals they were abused and ‘are fine now’ as an example of how all victims should feel/act/behave without unpacking the differences in experiences diminishes the lived realities of those who were more affected.

For illustrative purposes, let’s take a look at two different, hypothetical women – Anne and Zoe.

Anne was sexually abused, several times a week, by her father from the age of three, until she was twelve, and he died of a heart attack. The abuse included oral, digital, and vaginal rape. Anne’s mother facilitated the abuse by ignoring the obvious signs of it, and telling Anne that she was a ‘very lucky girl’ to have a father who loved her so much. Anne was not believed when she disclosed to her teacher. When her parents found out she had disclosed, Anne was punished for speaking her truth. Further, her mother blamed Anne for her father’s heart attack, telling the child that her ‘lies’ had caused the stress that was responsible for his fatal cardiac arrest.

Zoe was shown pornography by a male neighbour, on several occasions, over a six-month time period, when she was eleven years old. Later, her neighbour coerced her into adopting poses similar to those in the pornographic images he had shown her. He then took photographs of her in those poses, for his own enjoyment. When Zoe disclosed her abuse to her parents, they immediately believed her, and told her that the abuse had not been her fault. They engaged with the authorities, and supported Zoe through that process. They also ensured she had appropriate therapeutic interventions.

It will come as no surprise to you that Zoe fared a lot better than Anne did in terms of recovery. To compare them, and to berate Anne for not ‘getting over it’ while Zoe carves a successful career in her chosen area, might help Zoe feel better about herself, but it’s not going to do anything to help Anne, or to help greater understanding in the community of the long-term effects of child sexual abuse.

Our experiences are unique to us, and our reactions to them are, too. To expect and ‘Anne’ to react to her experiences of child sexual abuse in the same way as ‘Zoe’ is unrealistic, reductive, and – ultimately – damaging.

Borderline Nonsense

Borderline Personality Disorder – is it the ‘hysteria’ of the 21st century? If you remember, the word ‘hysteria’ was coined in Egypt about 2000 years BCE. Hysteria is a mental disorder only attributable to women, on account of our ‘wandering wombs’. The belief used to be that women’s mental health was adversely affected by their wombs – which (it was asserted) moved freely around their bodies, and a woman’s mood depended on where in her body her womb had decided to scuttle off to. As a ‘genuine’ diagnosis, Hysteria was only removed from the DSM in 1980.

I find Borderline Personality Disorder problematic for a number of reasons; it’s applied to women more than to men. In fact, over 75% of people to whom the label is affixed are women. I’m also aware that the women who are told that they have ‘borderline’ have histories of trauma – usually child sexual abuse, and often the trauma of being raised by a narcissist. In many cases, these woman have experienced both – child sexual abuse, and a narcissistic parent. I have a huge problem with normality being pathologised – it’s normal to react to trauma in certain ways, but to decide that these normal reactions are somehow indicative of a ‘personality disorder’ speaks to the patriarchal nature of psychiatry. It also reveals that there is a lack of desire to understand trauma and women’s trauma in particular.

Let’s take a look at the essential elements of ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’, shall we? The following is an indication of the statements that are put to people (usually women) to ‘test’ them for this ‘diagnosis’.

Source: Help Guide

Let’s unpack these symptoms, shall we?

I often feel ’empty’ –

Do you know who else often feels ’empty’? Trauma victims. Many of us with histories of abuse, who live with PTS feel ’empty’ until we have managed to learn to process our trauma and then we feel less ’empty’. It’s not a disorder. It’s a reaction.

My emotions shift very quickly, and I often experience extreme sadness, anger, and anxiety –

This is typical of those of us who have anxiety. The ability to regulate our emotions can be difficult – not least because this regulation has been stunted by the effects of childhood trauma/s. It’s also a sign of the neurobiological effects of maltreatment.

I’m constantly afraid that the people I care about will abandon me, or leave me –

People who have insecure attachment – those who have narcissistic mothers, who have experienced abuse or neglect in their early childhoods – are often afraid that the people they care about will abandon, or leave them. It’s a completely normal reaction.

I would describe most of my romantic relationships as intense, but unstable –

Here’s the thing – women who have been abused as children are often preyed upon by abusive men (that’s a whole other blog post). Abusive men are known to love bomb the objects of their affections, and to gaslight them. This results in intense, but unstable romantic relationships. Way to victim blame, DSM!

The way I feel about the people in my life can dramatically change from one moment to the next – and I don’t always understand why –

Those of us who were unlucky enough to grow up with abusive and / or narcissistic parents soon learnt that our thoughts and emotions did not belong to us: We were told what to think, and how to feel, and had to express thoughts and feelings that aligned with those of our abusive parent/s’. Our feelings were often ignored and / or invalidated. We learnt to adjust the presentation of our emotions very quickly. This coping mechanism, which helped us to survive, does not simply fall away when we become adults. Blaming a survivor for the behaviours they had to adopt in order to survive is a whole other level of victim blaming.

I often do things that I know are dangerous or unhealthy, such as driving recklessly, having unsafe sex, binge drinking, using drugs, or going on spending sprees –

These behaviours are all common to women who were sexually abused as children. When everything is dangerous, nothing is dangerous. Unsafe sex is an unhealthy behaviour that is a ‘classic’ indicator of child sexual abuse. All addictive behaviours have their roots in trauma (refer to the excellent, and accessible writings of Gabor Maté for more on this). Depression is also diagnosed by ascertaining whether or not the person is engaging in ‘risky behaviour’. Depression is bad enough – people don’t need to be told they also have a personality disorder.

I’ve attempted to hurt myself, engaged in self-harm behaviours such as cutting, or threatened suicide –

Every woman I know who has a history of child sexual abuse has been driven to externalising their trauma and their overwhelming feelings of helplessness in the form of self-harm. Many have also been driven to attempt suicide. This is a normal reaction to very abnormal circumstances.

When I’m feeling insecure in a relationship, I tend to lash out or make impulsive gestures to keep the other person close –

Again, this is an effect of insecure attachment. The fear of abandonment can be very intense for those of us who were not loved as children; who were neglected, abused, or both.

Women who are ‘tested’ for Borderline Personality Disorder also report being asked if they had difficulty knowing what they thought, or believed; or taking on the opinions of those around them. This, apparently, is a symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder. Do you know what it’s actually a symptom of? Trauma (let me know when you spot the pattern here). Women who are raised in abuse (including narcissistic abuse) learn, very quickly, and from a very young age, what they are ‘allowed’ to think. They learn that what they think and feel is not important. They learn that it is unsafe to express an opinion, or behave in a way that is authentic to them, but not aligned with what their parent/s tell this is expected/accepted.

Choosing to pathologise the normality of women like me – who were horribly abused, and / or neglected – is helpful to no-one except the psychiatrists who make coin out of labelling women with a non-existent disorder. It helps only those who wish to tell women that their – entirely reasonable – reactions are problematic; and persuading women that there is something wrong with them because they react in completely normal ways to completely abnormal events.

I’d like to see this ‘diagnosis’ addressed, seen for what it is, and removed from the DSM and the diagnostic lexicon.

Safety Device

(Content Warning: References to Child Sexual Abuse, link to graphic piece on the effects of Child Sexual Abuse)

It’s been an interesting few weeks. As some of you may know, there is a Fear Nua* in my life and I’m enjoying all sorts of things that, for many people are ‘normal’ but for me are beyond any experiences I’ve had to date. It’s all good, though. It’s all good.

I’m not about to gush about him, because he is a far more private person than I am – and I respect that – but also because so much of what’s going on is private and personal to us and to the third entity that is our relationship.

I will, however, say this much: I’ve been learning an awful lot from him. One of the biggest lessons I’m learning is my own value, my own right to be, and my own right to be who I am. I’ve also been crying a lot more than usual, but they have been happy, and / or healing tears. Like last week, when I suddenly had a thought that had my eyes leaking; I’d resigned myself, years ago, to the thought that I would die without ever knowing the love of a good man, without ever knowing what it would it be like to be in a relationship with a man that wasn’t abusive. I really believed that I would die without being in a relationship where I was valued for who I am – or that I would ever be with a man who enjoyed being with me, rather than one who merely wanted to possess me, and crush me. Now, I know that’s not true. And, oh! The joy of that. The absolute fascination with being with someone who values my ideas, my opinions, my thoughts, my mere presence is something I know I can’t adequately explain.

A few days after we met, he mentioned, in the course of conversation, that he had been researching how to be with a woman who had trauma as a result of child sexual abuse. He wanted to know how best to react, how best to treat me, taking my history into account. Reader, you could have knocked me down with a feather. Never, ever, ever, has a man I’ve been with, or even a man I’ve been married to, shown the slightest bit of interest in finding out how they could make being in a relationship easier for me. I knew, then and there, that he was A Keeper.

Then, yesterday, he presented me with the bracelet you see pictured above. It’s a safety device, and I’ll explain why.  Having already read this piece, he was anxious to work with me to ameliorate the effects any way he could. We were making progress, but then he had an idea. He reminds me that I have chosen him. That I choose him, repeatedly, every day, every hour, every moment that we are together. That I could choose to walk away, but I am choosing to stay because I am choosing him. As he is, likewise, choosing me. He needs me to feel safe. To know that I am safe with him, everywhere, all the time, no matter what. He would prefer if I stayed present when we’re together, because he is no threat to me, and I need to know that, and be able to remember that, and remind myself of that any time I feel I need to.

This bracelet serves that purpose: by simply seeing it, I am reminded of him, reminded that I am always safe with him. Touching it has the same effect, and – if I move my wrist slightly – the tags you can see chime gently, providing an aural reminder.  As my friend Jane Mulcahy noted, tweeted to me ‘It’s v lovely & delicate, H. Like affection, intimacy & trust.’  I think she put it perfectly. This piece of jewellery has the added bonus of being beautiful. A bit like himself, really.


*In Irish,
Fear Nua (pronounced Farr Nooa) means ‘New Man’.

 

 

Damage

 

The damage that is done to individuals who are sexually assaulted cannot be underestimated. There are a number of variables, and some people will find that they are affected in certain ways and not in others. No one, however, is only ‘mildly’ affected by sexual assault. There is research to suggest that the longer the abuse goes on for, the more the person will be affected; that intra-familial abuse (abuse by a member of the abused person’s family), and child sexual abuse affect a person to a greater degree than ‘just’ a one-off assault or an assault that takes place when a person is an adult.

It has been suggested that this is because an adult already has a sense of self; they already know themselves as a valuable person and a person of worth. They know to be outraged at the gross violation they have been subjected to. They know they did nothing wrong (even though we live in a society that loves to victim-blame and tell victims they are the root cause of their own victimisation).

What all victims and survivors of sexual assault have in common, however, is an attack on their sense of being safe. We all suffer, to a greater or lesser degree, from PTSD. Some of us suffer poor self-image, low self-esteem, and a myriad mental, psychological and emotional difficulties. We’re at a greater risk of self-harm, too. My own breasts are still scarred from attempts to try to hack them off when I was a teenager; sure that being born female was the root of all my problems and that if I could perform a double mastectomy on myself with a carving knife, men would stop sexually assaulting me.

There is often physical damage, too. Apart altogether from the immediate and obvious damage done to abused flesh, and the damage done by self-harming, girls who are abused often find (like I did) that there is damage done to their reproductive organs, which impacts on their ability to have children of their own.

Forming and keeping intimate relationships is an area fraught with difficulty for those of us who were abused. Particularly if the abuse started in childhood – because we are primed to almost expect to be abused. I wrote a bit about that in my book, Gullible Travels: 

‘My family spent years and years teaching me that I was less than nothing – I was useless, worthless, good-for-nothing, lazy, ugly, stupid, fat, ridiculous, disgusting, full of notions, a waste of space. Touch was abuse. My family spent my entire childhood teaching me to hate myself. I was a model student.

As an abused child, I had a job. My job was to save myself. By saving myself, I don’t mean stopping the abuse – I just mean getting through it alive. My job was to get out of there in one piece – physically at least. My job was to stay alive. When that is your job description, knowing what’s expected of you is not difficult: You do what the person in charge tells you to do. You stop questioning. You stop listening to your own instinct because to do so could be detrimental to your health. Then, you stop recognising your own instinct. That’s when you really get in to trouble. Your instinct is there to protect you – to stop you from doing dangerous things. If you can’t even recognise your instinct in order to pay attention to it, you are in real trouble.

Your brain takes sides against itself and against you. One half tries to understand how the people upon whom you depend for everything are untrustworthy. You cannot trust the only people in the world that you are supposed to trust. But you have to. Otherwise, what will happen to you? Where will you live? What will you eat? If you run away (which you try, unsuccessfully, to do) what will happen to you then? Will you run away to something that is worse than what you’re running from? You don’t know – so you stop fighting.

The other half of your brain decides it’s better to stop trying to figure out what’s going on. Autopilot is a better option, this half thinks. It thinks that is the way to get you through safely; stop asking questions, stop fighting. Take a deep breath. And hold it. Both sides of your brain just want to get you through the horror safely. Their definitions of ‘safe’ don’t match. But if you get through this alive, you can sort that out later. Or try to. Or you can avoid it. If you get through this alive, you will have choices. If you get through this alive, you can address all the horror later. Or not.’

Of course, a huge problem with not hearing your instinct as a child is that you continue to be unable to hear it as an adult. This, then, leads to the phenomenon of revictimisation; where people who were sexually abused as children or teenagers are vulnerable to further abuse when they are adults. This, then, compounds the damage already done to them.

The damage that sexual abuse does to the victim and their family is all too often underestimated. It is long-lasting and far-reaching, a fact that is often over-looked by people who haven’t lived through abuse.

It make me marvel, as a woman living in Ireland, how Irish people bang on about the famine and post-colonialism and the damage it has done, and continues to do Irish people and the Irish psyche. This year, the Rising of 1916 is being commemorated and there is much discussion about the effect it has had on the Irish and the Irish psyche. Yet, there isn’t a single person alive who remembers either the famine or the 1916 Rising and it’s accepted as legitimate to discuss at length how they have effected Irish people; while people who were sexually abused during their own lifetimes and are profoundly effected by it, are told to be quiet and ‘get over it’. Which, of course, just adds to the damage.