One of the most negative consequences of childhood sexual abuse is that survivors typically experience recurrent echoes of the trauma in their adult years, such as: flashbacks, sensitivity, reactivity, irritability, confusion, anger, eating disorders, sexual problems, somatic complaints, helplessness, phobias, depression, and anxiety. There’s no definitive way to predict which, when or for how long reverberations will be felt, but when they are it can be quite challenging for both the survivor and the important relationships in a survivor’s life, particularly if family members and friends don’t understand the dynamics. This also applies to police, journalists and the judicial system. In fact just yesterday I read an article on the internet (www.goo.gl/alerts/L3JMG) about the National Association of People Abused as Children (www.napac.org), a non-profit in the UK, urging the media to avoid the term ‘historic’ in reporting about those who have survived abuse because many are still living with the consequences; there’s nothing historic about it for them.

Author Sandra Cisneros, in her short story Ten, in Women Hollering Creek and Other Stories, writes that “... when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one….” It’s a lovely passage when thinking about a child growing up in a safe, healthy, happy environment, but her words develop a sickening flavor when applied to a child experiencing sexual abuse – wounds that accumulate and penetrate deeper into the child’s psyche as time goes on, where like cancer, they do their most deadly work internally. And recovery from abuse, even with its sweet promise of deep healing, is most often a complicated, difficult process during which the survivor is assaulted again and again by the emergence of repressed memories of early trauma through flashbacks, blips of memory, intense feelings, and sensations.

Recovering from sexual abuse is best done through psychotherapy with an experienced therapist and within an informed circle of caring outside of therapy: support groups, friends, and family. This is because the survivor is vulnerable to the reactivation of deep emotional pain. It hurts if someone makes an insensitive, critical  comment like “Just get over it and move on!” or, “Just slay the dragon and be done with it!” Both comments reflect ignorance about the dynamics of healing, and also an impatience with the time it takes for the survivor to integrate his or her traumatic history in a healthy way. The comment about slaying the dragon is interesting because on the one hand the dragon is a perfect symbol.  Dragons are intelligent, venomous creatures who live in dark, damp places and like to eat children – sounds like a perpetrator of child sexual abuse to me! But it’s hard to slay a large creature who's spitting fire at you. Surely that would take internal and external strength, the appropriate weapons, mental acuity and a significant amount of time.

Sexual abuse is an evil act, and the survivor, who in childhood was an unprotected victim of that evil, is a witness to it, a bearer of horrifying truth - truth that must be known in order to hold the perpetrator accountable, to understand, to educate, and ultimately to prevent its repetition. This means that the survivor must speak about the “unspeakable” things s/he has experienced.  It is in the telling of the story that liberation occurs. As Judith Herman, MD points out in Trauma and Recovery , “Remembering and telling the truth about dreadful events are prerequisites for both the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.” There is no shame in the fact that it may take a long time.

It takes as long as it takes.

*For more information relevant to this topic peruse the following excellent websites:

www.giftfromwithin.org

www.joyfulheartfoundation.org

,www.rainn.org

,www.pavingtheway.net

www.napac.org.uk

About the Author

Catherine McCall

Catherine McCall is a Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and the author of Never Tell: A True Story of Overcoming a Terrifying Childhood.

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