Survivors of childhood sexual abuse may believe that since the abuse happened so long ago it would be better not to rehash the past. They may avoid feelings and memories in order to function in their day-to-day lives. However, the abuse may still be affecting them. Triggers (internal or external reminders of the trauma) may bring up unresolved emotional issues. Some common situations survivors may find themselves in that make them realize they should seek support include:
- I am reacting unusually to situations differently than before.
- I am having emotional or sexual problems that are not getting any better.
- New circumstances have made me more aware of past experiences.
Challenges for Survivors
Intimate Relationships and Personal Boundaries
Trust is a crucial issue for many survivors throughout their lives because it was broken as such a young age by the very people who were supposed to care the most for them. Because survivors of childhood sexual abuse may have had to keep the abuse a secret in order to protect the family, as a result, many survivors may feel they have to put the needs of others above their own. Because their personal boundaries were invaded when they were young, adult survivors may have trouble understanding that they have the right to control what happens to them.
Some adult survivors report problems with anger. It may be anger against a particular person, fate, or a higher power. They may even feel angry with themselves for not being able to stop the abuse, angry with the abuser, or angry with parents or care givers for not protecting them. These emotions need to be acknowledged and validated.
Being abused as a child means the loss of many things- childhood experiences, trust, innocence, normal relationships with family members (especially if the abuser was a family member). Survivors must be allowed to name those losses and grieve them.
Fear, anxiety, and being ‘always on guard’ and the Art ofRemembering
Fear and anxiety are normal responses to trauma. Some survivors have experienced traumatic amnesia or delayed recall of memories of child sexual abuse. Traumatic amnesia is a particular response of the brain that prevents a child from having any conscious recall of the abuse. It is associated with extreme emotional trauma. Memory loss has a reason: we may have been so young when abused that we were unable to form thoughts or put our feelings into words. Memories can’t be forced; they will come back when the brain is ready to handle them.
If you were sexually abused in childhood there may be things that bring back or ‘trigger’ memories. These include not only obvious things like childbirth, Pap smears or the way your partner touches you sexually, but also everyday things such as colors, kinds of furniture or vehicles, sounds, or smells, which bring back memories or feelings associated with the abuse. These experiences can trigger a flashback, which is a re-experiencing of the abuse as if it were occurring at that moment. It is usually accompanied by visual images, or flashes of images, of the abuse. This is one of the ways of remembering the abuse.
- Counseling. This could mean seeing a psychologist, social worker, or therapist, or speaking to someone on a crisis line or at a women’s center.
- Keeping a journal. Some survivors find that recording thoughts and feelings in a journal or diary helps them manage their emotions.
- Connecting with others. Nurture relationships with people who make you feel good about yourself and make it a priority to spend time with friends and family.
Reclaiming Your Sexual Self after Abuse
Healing begins at different stages for different people. Sexual abuse influences a survivor’s ability to establish and maintain healthy sexual relationships. Sexual concerns often emerge naturally after survivors have resolved feelings of anger and fear about the abuse, and begun to feel better about themselves. For many therapists and survivors, addressing sexual issues is seen as a final stage in sexual abuse recovery, but sexual concerns come up at all points in sexual abuse recovery.
Sexual abuse can disrupt many facets of our sexuality, including:
- How we feel about our gender
- How we feel about our bodies, sex organs, and bodily functions
- How we think about sex
- How we express ourselves sexually
- How we experience physical pleasure and intimacy with others
It takes time and effort to develop a positive sexual self-concept. Not only do we have to watch for the false conclusions and negative beliefs about ourselves that resulted from the abuse, we also need to replace old ways of thinking with new, healthy ones.Begin your journey only when you feel ready for it. Go slowly and trust yourself. Sexual healing is usually never as fast as survivors and intimate partners would wish. Sexual healing is a profound personal growth work. During the process you will probably look closely at who you are, how you feel, what has happened to you in the past, and how you now take care of yourself and relate to others.
Childhood Sexual Assault.
The Wounded Heart- Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Allender, Dan B. (1990).
Why Me? Help for Victims of Sexual Abuse (Even if They Are Adults Now). Daugherty, Lynn B. (1984).
The Courage to Heal Workbook- For Women and Men Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. Davis, Laura (1990).
Victims No Longer- Men Recovering From Incest and Other Child Sexual Abuse. Lew, Mike (1988).
Legacy of the Heart- The Spiritual Advantage of a Painful Childhood. Muller, Wayne (1992).
On the Path- Affirmations for Adults Recovering from Childhood Sexual Abuse. W. Nancy (1991).
The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse. Wendy Maltz (1991/2001)
The Courage to Heal. Ellen Bass & Laura Davis (1988).
Adults Molested as Children: A Survivor’s Manual for Women and Men, Euan Bear & Peter T. Dimock (1988).