Every time Linda opens the newspaper and reads about another influential man accused of sexually assaulting women, her stomach clenches. Like so many others, she knows what it’s like to have had had a powerful man take advantage of her dependent position. There’s just one difference.
Linda’s abuse happened when she was 8 years old. The perpetrator was her father.
For survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the almost daily revelations of sexual harassment in Hollywood—and throughout the country—can be particularly painful. Even though the victims of sexual assault in the news are adults, their vulnerability and dependence on a needed male authority figure who betrays their trust can rekindle the pain of the early sexual abuse in incest survivors. Like with any trauma victim—especially someone with PTSD–memories, feelings, and sensations can come rushing back.
When Linda began therapy, she had only fuzzy memories of her father standing at her bedroom door while, terrified, she pretended to be asleep. As an adult, she often felt anxious and on guard, and, not surprisingly, had trouble sleeping. She rarely enjoyed sex with her husband, and often found excuses to avoid it. With bosses and boyfriends, she had a history of quickly connecting to seductive male authority figures who were critical, controlling and often betrayed her, just as his father had done.
Linda’s experience is typical for child sexual abuse survivors—being overwhelmed by feelings, an aversion to sex (or, sometimes, hypersexuality), a tendency to repeat the trauma as an adult despite having little or no conscious memory of what happened. When she entered therapy, Linda was again faced with a powerful male authority figure—in this case, me. Would I betray her as well? It was vital that I help her feel safe and trusting by letting her feel in control of the pace and not forcing her to confront painful memories until she felt comfortable. Over time, we were able to retrieve long-forgotten feelings from age 8 and help her become less overwhelmed by them in the present.
Nonetheless, Harvey Weinstein and other bombshells, still unfolding weeks later, at first triggered panic attacks and disturbing nightmares in Linda. I reassured her that this is normal under the circumstances, that it did not mean the work we had done together had unraveled. In fact, our work on understanding and mastering the original trauma allowed us to confront her symptoms far more quickly this time around. As a result, each new revelation on the news unnerves her less than the one before. She has again regained her footing.
Early sexual trauma has a devastating effect that never completely goes away. However, with therapy and hard work, it can be better incorporated so that person can live a fuller life in which she is a survivor, no longer simply a victim.