This was posted in the members' section by Sabata. I thought it was profound enough to post here.
Counselling Issues: Why can't I get on with my life?
Some impacts of childhood sexual abuse on the life of adult survivors.
By Juliet Summers B.A., B.S.W. (Survivor 1961 - 73)
Many people believe that, because the abuse happened as a child, as an adult the survivor should now just 'forget about it and get on with life'. If it were this simple, many survivors would do it! It is not this simple however. Survivors were not given the opportunity to experience a 'normal' childhood and they cannot go back and re-experience it. Childhood is where all humans learn the basics of adult behaviour. It is where they learn to talk, to walk, to feed themselves, dress themselves, to relate to others and how to decode all manner of verbal and non-verbal messages. When this learning process is distorted through abuse, it is impossible to change or erase the lessons learnt once adulthood has been reached. This is not to say that a survivor cannot lead a perfectly happy and fulfilling life, but they will never be the same as a non-survivor. The way a survivor is taught to think and act is forever different from a non-abused adult. This altered way of thinking affects relationships with their families, partners, close friends, their own children and with themselves.
If someone is skeptical about this statement, then ask them to try a simple experiment. Ask them to do two things in their life differently from the norm. Ask them to brush their teeth with their non-dominant hand and to brush their hair with their non-dominant hand. Once they have done this, ask them to imagine that, for the rest of their lives, brushing their teeth and hair will be that difficult. It won't feel 'right'. You look in the mirror and know that you can't quite do it. You can see others around you who seem to have no problems with it, but your own hands are clumsy. There are knots in your hair that you can't quite reach, or the part won't go straight. You resign yourself to the fact that you will never be able to make your hair look as good as everyone else's. Even if you get it done professionally, this is only a temporary solution. You know when brushing your teeth you've missed some of those back molars and scooping up the water was a nightmare so you used a little less than was needed. You know that eventually this type of tooth care will lead to decay but resign yourself to having to pay for the dentist bills and being admonished for your delinquency. You have learnt that others will attribute the reason for these behaviours to either a deliberate choice on your behalf or some undesirable personality defect such as laziness. But you endure, you get by.
Now tell the person to imagine that the reason they have to do this is merely to titillate and amuse some grown-up. Ask them to reflect on how they would think about life knowing that everyday was going to be a struggle and all because someone else selfishly used you for their own gratification when you were young. Now tell them to blame themselves for allowing it to happen and to feel the guilt that they are unable to tell anyone about it. This experiment may give a non-abused person a small insight into the life of a childhood sexual abuse survivor. Instead of teeth and hair brushing being 'different' for a survivor it is everything.
What Is This Thing Called Love?
Adult survivors therefore, do not have the same outlook on life as non-abused adults. As a child, someone they trusted hurt and manipulated them. Not understanding what was happening, but somehow 'knowing' that it was wrong, they assimilate many deviant behaviours into their understanding of 'normality'. They grow up with a different view of many of the cornerstones of inter-human relationships and interactions.
An example would be the concept of 'love'. Often the abuser will say that they love the child. The non-offending parent(s) will say they love the child. Love is then understood to be a good thing - people who love you care for you, comfort you when you are sad, give you presents on your birthday, make you feel happy etc. It is also a bad thing that leads you to get physically hurt, to become terrified at times, makes you feel embarrassed or dominated. It will include forced involvement in activities that must be shrouded in secrecy and which you will not be able terminate, avoid or have any control over. To a child being abused, this becomes what 'love' is. Upon reaching adulthood the social pressure to find a life partner to love and that loves you in return is seen as a dubious or alarming goal. The survivor may also 'love' someone else and may view this emotion in themselves as forever corrupted. Anyone who proclaims love may 'naturally' be viewed with suspicion, perhaps dread or fear, or at best with wariness. The other person's motives will always be open to speculation.
To try to grasp complex emotional concepts like love, children group experiences into simplistic extremes. Good or bad, black or white, there is no grey. They can't differentiate between one trusted adult's behaviour and that of another's. Therefore, if one trusted adult abuses them, this experience is not taken away by the non-abusive relationships they experience, it just becomes part of their understanding of 'relationship'. The child learns not that 'some adults do bad things', but that 'all trusted people can do bad things.' This includes even the child itself. Like many other aspects of their developing psychological make up, this distrust becomes an integral part of their socialised constructs - their sense of how they see themselves and others and how people relate. It is just the same as their sense of humor or ability to reason. As with these psychological traits, once it is integrated it can never be 'unlearned' or erased. It 'just is'.
In adults, this total acceptance of distorted worldviews form the basis of many survivors beliefs about their 'true selves'. These views are like coloured lenses placed on the eyes of the survivor - they see everything through them and are usually totally unaware of their existence. It forms the core of their beliefs of themselves and of how others see them. It is through these lenses that they observe others interactions with themselves. As the beliefs are tainted with shame and guilt, they promote isolationist or self-destructive behaviours (I hate myself, you have no idea what I'm 'really' like, I am unlovable, you're only being nice to me because you want something). It is common for these beliefs to go unchallenged until the survivor begins sexual assault counseling.
The family interactions become the child's preoccupation. The quality of the child's day, the level of terror they must endure is dictated by external influences, always. This has lead to comparisons made between the trauma process displayed in survivors and that displayed in combat troops in war. Just like the foot-soldier, this situation galvanizes the child's sense of survival. Adult survivors continue to display this inner strength and resilience. They have vast amounts of courage and heightened skills for coping under extreme conditions. Survivors have adapted to continually being in a state of readiness.
As a consequence, the family unit is seen paradoxically as a place of support and of pain. Within the family is where a child learns the concept of authority and respect. They are taught to respect authority. To obey authority. This adds to the confusion of the concept of 'family'. On the one hand, there is kindness and caring from the non-abusing family members with whom the child willingly bonds. On the other is suffering and degradation from the abusing member(s), which the child tries to avoid, but yet is also bonded to. However, to a child a family is one whole unit. In order to reject the abuser, they think they must reject the whole family. Children are vulnerable. In order to survive they must remain in a family unit.
They come to believe that the abuse is the price they pay for remaining a part of their family. They believe they made a choice and therefore must accept the consequences. This adds to their guilt and self-blame (it was my fault). The authority figures in their lives are not perceived as benevolent dictators as in non-abusive families, but as tyrants with absolute control and little compassion or empathy. Feeling 'trapped' and powerless becomes a common understanding of being a part of a "family". In an adult this view is evidenced in statements like; I don't respect anyone, I have no respect for myself, I have problems with authority figures, s/he was trying to take over my life so I left, they are the boss I must do as they say, I can't visit my brother/sister, my abuser might be there.
A "Mother's Love"
To a child, their primary caregiver's powers are unlimited and omnipotent. Therefore, regardless of whether the primary caregiver (usually the mother) intervened or even knew of the abuse, the child assumed that she did know and therefore chose to do nothing. We are socialised into believing that mothers are supposed to love and protect their child. Mothers are supposed to make things better. To the abused child, none of this was true. Adult survivors often harbor deep hostility and resentment towards their mothers for these reasons.
In order to resolve their resentment towards their mothers, adult survivors must reconceptualize the cultural stereotype view of mothers. They must understand that mothers are not omnipotent, that they are humans and that they have flaws and weaknesses just like everyone else. Mothers also must work hard to reestablish a genuine intimate relationship with their adult child. Just saying 'I'm sorry, I didn't know' is not enough. It is hard for victim/survivors to accept the fact that many mothers were successfully duped by the offender into believing that there was nothing going on. This manipulation by the offender is aimed at keeping the crime a secret so that it can continue.
It is not surprising therefore, that adult survivors often believe that they have never 'known' a mother's love. Mothers and primary caregivers in general may be regarded with suspicion from an early age. This paradox is in conflict with a child's natural state of dependency and innocence. It often results in children learning to equate dependence with trepidation and even fear. In adult survivors it is common to see this belief fueling behaviours which ensure that a degree of distance and independence is maintained from those they choose to be close to. It also enables many survivors to be able to 'cut their losses' in a situation they find undesirable and to quickly start afresh, for instance by changing jobs, moving house, ending a relationship etc. On the other hand, feeling overly dependant on someone or something for an adult survivor will often trigger depression, panic attacks, anger or helplessness.
The child quickly learns three vital lessons:
That they are powerless to escape from abuse once the scenario begins.
That they are powerless to prevent the abuse from happening permanently, and
That no one is going to 'rescue' them.
The objective now becomes to avoid abusive situations on a day by day basis.
A child is not psychologically able to understand the complexities of human interaction. They have no concept of a man feeling powerless through work pressures and compensating by exerting his power over his family through abuse. The child knows the abuse is happening for a reason (it must). They use their limited life experience and equate the abuse with a concept they are familiar with - punishment. They have already learnt that punishment is only metered out to a bad child. The child comes to the realization that the real reason for the abuse is due to themselves. They are the bad ones. This belief is often encouraged by the abuser. "You're special/different/bad, I have to do this". In adult survivors this belief is converted into self-hatred and self loathing and causes profound psychological damage. If left unchallenged, it will remain a part of the adult survivor's self-concept for life.
With the child's new 'It's my fault, I'm the bad one' belief firmly in place, suddenly things begin to make sense. There are now a myriad of reasons why the abuse occurs. Now there is hope. Now the child believes they can control the abuse or stop it completely by being 'good'. The longer they are abused, the more minutely they examine their actions to isolate the offending behaviour and eradicate it from their routines.
Behaviours and beliefs linked to this survival mentality are very difficult to alter when internalized during the dependency stage of childhood. Each time an adult survivor tries to change them, they literally feel they are taking their lives in their hands. They firmly believe their lives will be decimated by even the smallest modifications to their carefully constructed routines and beliefs.
And so the child analyses everyday incidents and uses these observations to predict when abuse (punishment) is most likely to occur. These predictions are achieved through staggering amounts of both conscious and unconscious observations and calculations. Some examples: observing that if mother applies a certain shade of lipstick, it means she is preparing to visit a particular person's house. That if the car keys are placed on the bench it means someone is going out (=danger), but if they are tossed onto the bench, it means that no one is planning to go out (=safe). That when the abuser raises his eyebrows 2 millimeters while looking at the child's crossed legs, then he has abuse on his mind, but the same action while he is looking at the child's hands means it will be alright (=crossed legs bad). If the abuser inhales or exhales in a certain way there may be trouble (=don't let this happen/run and hide when it does).
This learnt hyperawareness continues on into adulthood and is why survivors often seem 'psychic' or aware of trivial details that no one else is. It is also common for survivors to habitually sit close to doors or windows, to avoid confined spaces when others are present and to 'just know' when someone is in a bad/angry mood. This strengthened sense of others makes survivors empathetic friends. The hypersensitivity enables many survivors to write stories full of de>