Understanding the Psychological Effects of Child Sexual Abuse
The Power of Words
As far back as I can remember, words have always scared me. I was terrified of words. Not only did words scare me, I could not comprehend the implied meaning. I would read and re-read the same paragraph over and over again; trying so desperately to understand the meaning of each word or follow what was happening in a story.
Compounding the issue of comprehension, I couldn’t remember what I had read two minutes ago. So between not understanding the meaning of the written word, nor having the ability to retain what I had just read, I must say that learning was a nightmare. Did I have a learning disability? Possibly, I’ll never know.
As a child, (in my mind) I believed I was mentally retarded. I hid this and my other secret from the rest of the world. I never told a single soul until I was 31 years old.
So what did I understand? Well, for starters I understood very clearly the meaning of the word secret. I don’t ever recall being told not to tell anyone; but my intuition or should I say my protective instincts were always on guard and guided me to do whatever I perceived was necessary in order to survive. As denoted in one of my poems.
There is a game called censorship that lives within my head; the rules are quite intrinsic, to survive or be found dead.
Intuitively I always knew what to do, what not to do, what to say and what to not say.
Excerpt from the book: Incest Survivors by E. Sue Bloom: “Well known Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, known for her work on death and dying, describes this heightened spiritual strength of the otherwise damaged, ill, or deprived child: 'I have seen this strength over and over again, in the existence of an “inner guide” in many incest survivors.'”
I Felt Crazy!
There were no words to describe or express what was happening in my world. I could not relate to the English language as it did not apply to my world and my life. Crazy was about the only word that made any sense to me. I felt crazy.
Imagine being told, “It’s time for a 'nap'” and not wanting to go, first of all I believed I was too old for naps. Secondly, although there were no words to describe it; at the very least, the idea of it left me feeling sick. Knowing full well that there was no "saying no," I simply did as I was told. After mentally escaping the “nap” scene, through what we now know as the phenomenon of dissociation, I struggled to come back. With my father asleep and his arm draped over me, I had to be careful to not wake him up or all hell would have broken loose. I would slowly wriggle myself free from underneath the dead weight of his arm. I would stand up slowly, on my tip toes, placing one foot in front of the other; I would choose each step with precision in an effort not to squeak the floor boards. On one particular day my sister greeted me at the bottom of the stairs and proclaimed, “He would never hurt you because you’re special.” (Trust me, the word "special" has never sat well with me to this day). I would proceed to the bathroom, crouch down, huddled in the corner, overwhelmed with feelings for which I had no name. I remember hearing supper was ready. Panicking, I would quickly wash and powder my face so that no one would notice that I had been crying. I would then walk out as though everything was fine. Is it any wonder that crazy was the one word that made perfect sense to me? I knew crazy!
Word Associations and Mixed Messages
Comprehension was beyond my reach. Words were painful; words had different associations; therefore, they had different meanings. Words like safe, trust, love, self esteem were far beyond my comprehension. They were non-existent; in other words there was no real experience in my life to which I could relate these words. The implied meanings of the words had different associations or twisted meanings so to speak.
Touch was another one of those words that messed with me. The implied meaning as I know it today is to show affection. Today after many years of therapy I now know the difference between safe touch and bad touch. But in my world as a child of sexual abuse, it was distorted and had one meaning: to hurt. It was scary and confusing. It always made me feel sick, dirty and filled with shame. My immediate reaction to someone touching me was always to pull away, even as a young adult prior to my recovery.
In my poetry I mention the different associations of words like these two lines from my poem, "Once Upon A Time."
Peace was isolation. As in my poem, isolation became peace a way of survival; turning inward to speak running into denial.
The problem is when someone who is supposed to love you and protect you hurts and abuses you in the name of love. Love is no longer love; trust is no longer trust; both have been distorted and shattered. Innocence has been stolen. The caretaker has violated the child by putting his/her needs ahead of the child.
Psychological After Effects
What the child survivor may learn is rhetorical: unconscious messages that will continue to play out till the day he/she dies unless there is intervention or help is sought.
What’s mine is yours. She has no self. There are no boundaries. She is just an extension of the person who is abusing her. She is not worthy of being loved. She is taught she has no say. No rights. No feelings. Due to her size and the relationship with the caretaker/abuser she learns that she has no power.
Not to mention the host of after effects and psychological disorders that sexual abuse survivors may encounter as a result of the abuse and/or pushing things down for so many years.
To name a few: fear of abandonment, boundary issues, fear of being alone, guilt, shame, low self esteem, feeling worthless, feeling powerless, knowing and doing what the other person wants or needs, anger issues, inability to recognize or express feelings, depression, dissociation, dissociative disorders, post traumatic stress disorder etc. The list is endless.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Like so many war veterans, the horror often isn't felt until many years later.
So many times when you least expect it, memories seem to surface out of nowhere, more commonly known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. The events are re-experienced through intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks, hallucinations etc.
A sudden sight, sound, or smell that symbolizes or resembles the trauma can trigger a flashback, sending you immediately back to the original trauma and reliving the experience in the moment.
One of my triggers that comes to my mind was the sound of banging pans; it transported me back in time immediately. (A couple of times I was abused when my sister was preparing supper in the kitchen. My father worked shift work and I always had to take a “nap” with him).
Therefore, the sound of banging pans became just one of my many different triggers. It would provoke an edge of terror that would expose every raw nerve in my body. I would suddenly feel very small like a child. Many times I would just freeze; there was no voice. I felt as though I could not breathe. I would just be in shock, until it was over.
Another very simple trigger was putting on a seat belt. How quickly the seat belt across my chest became my father’s arm draped across my body. I immediately felt trapped and the flashbacks would start. After the abuse, I would find myself trying to weasel my way out from underneath my father’s arm in an effort to sneak out without waking him. He was a big man and getting out from under his arm was not an easy task for a small child.
Later in my recovery as an adult, I learned the art of getting grounded; calming myself down through self talk and reassuring myself that it was not happening today. Today I was an adult and was safe. It was no longer happening to me.
Other symptoms related to PTSD are insomnia, irritability, anger, poor concentration, hyper vigilance and exaggerated responses. It’s as if you are short circuited; the fight and flight response is ready to kick in with the slightest unexpected noise.
Individuals may feel depressed, detached; estranged, anger, guilt, intense anxiety, panic, etc. They often feel they have little in common with friends and family. They have difficulty relating to the everyday mundane experiences. I can remember attending my daughter’s soccer practices, sitting in the bleachers and listening to the chit chat of other moms talking about having their nails done, what was the latest fashion, etc. While my average day was struggling with, sleep deprivation, depression, panic attacks, triggers and flashbacks; trying to focus on staying alive and being a good mom.
Today, I realize that the meaning of words for me was derived from my experience as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Having experienced this during the years when most children experience normal so called psychological development, left me in the dust and arrested me emotionally at a very young age. I believe I was damaged at the very core. As an adult, I literally felt that I had to reconstruct my entire self.
As far as memory, was it impaired, or was it merely to busy repressing horrific experiences from my conscious awareness? My poor brain was in overdrive; trying to protect me and keep me safe. To this day, if I am sleep deprived or have any amount of stress what so ever, my memory is the first thing to go.
In conclusion: As a survivor of child sexual abuse, I learned a creative way to remove myself from experiencing something too cruel for any child to bear. In exchange, there was a loss of basic semantic knowledge and routine skills, like reading and writing or better off known as cognitive dissonance.
In hindsight, I might add: how could I possibly understand the real world when I was not able to make a connection with my own?
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© 2010 Sage Williams