Sexual abuse is traumatic not only because of what happened, nor just because of how its affects linger. Sexual abuse is also traumatic because it is hard to make sense of it. When meaning is made of sexual abuse, rarely is it done in ways that promote resiliency and feeling hopeful about the future. At least not initially.
Many make sense of sexual abuse by blaming themselves — because they took the wrong way home, because they drank too much, because they trusted someone they had every right to trust, especially if the perpetrator was someone close to them. They tell themselves that it shouldn’t bother them so much, or they should be over it by now. Granted, self-blame gives some sense of control, which can feel meaningful. But it isn’t true, and it doesn’t heal.
Instead, self-blame more likely leads to repeated efforts to recall what happened, and imagine ‘what if’ scenarios in which life played out differently. However, such replay and reenvisioning rarely makes sense of sexual abuse in ways that lead to letting go and moving on. Rather they increase the likelihood of shame, rage, low self-esteem, bitterness, and doubting one’s sanity.
It may be human nature to repeatedly remember experiences like sexual abuse that profoundly alter the life course. Even when we feel we have completely overcome a traumatic experience, major life changes and unexpected events will lead us to re-examine our lives, requiring us to once again make meaning of life’s traumas.
As we change, so does how we remember the past, along with how we see ourselves and the possibilities we imagine are available to us. With experience and wisdom, we change our ideas about the kinds of careers and lifestyles we deserve, and the people we imagine might love us for who we are. In a couple of weeks, I’ll address this natural cycle of self-reflection and how it relates to recovery from sexual abuse. This week’s focus is on how we make sense of sexual abuse according to our neurobiology, personal beliefs, and the societies in which we live — all of which can contribute to a general sense of life as meaningless, and become obstacles to the persons we hope to become. Then we’ll look at ways to start resisting the futile pull into a senseless past.
The capacity to meaningfully resolve sexual abuse is often impaired by natural, neurobiological reactions to traumatic experiences. Sexual abuse causes conflicting and overwhelming emotions and body sensations. Depending on the circumstances and the perpetrator (someone close to you, an acquaintance, or a stranger), you may have felt fear, shame, nausea, rage, helplessness, and/or betrayal. You may have even been sexually aroused, which can be very confusing and wrongly contribute to self-blame. You may have dissociated, feeling nothing at all.
Whether you experienced emotional and physical activation during the abuse, or were completely shut down, or both (at different times), such states are not always conducive to creating an integrated narrative. Instead, you may feel confused about the order in which events occurred, or have difficulty remembering exactly what did transpire. This is very common, and has to do with how the brain encodes memory. During overwhelming conditions like sexual abuse, the process of creating memories is altered. Rather than going through the neurobiological steps that eventually result in a coherent account of what happened — which is what commonly occurs in non-threatening contexts — ‘pieces’ of memory, such as perceptions, body sensations, and emotions, remain unintegrated and unresolved following traumatic and overwhelming experiences.
After the sexual abuse, fragments of unintegrated memory become fodder for flashbacks. They get activated by stimuli the brain and body interpret as similar to the traumatic event. For instance, imagine feeling anxious about an upcoming job interview, which is quite normal, nevertheless your own anxiety becomes a reminder of how you felt during the abuse, and escalates to a point that it feels impossible to follow through on your goal of getting a new job. Since it’s difficult to clearly witness being unconsciously triggered by traumatic reminders, it would be quite natural to assume your anxiety is evidence you don’t deserve a better job, or you’re not ready for change, which might make your anxiety meaningful, although it would be an inaccurate assessment of why you feel the way you do.
Or imagine seeing a man in a jacket that is the same color that your perpetrator wore, or has the same facial hair. Maybe you don’t consciously register the similarity, or maybe you do. Nevertheless, as you start to feel fearful and agitated you decide you have to leave where you are in order to calm down. After too many of such incidences, you may no longer feel safe leaving your home.
These kinds of traumatic memories occur unconsciously. Nevertheless, we can struggle to make them meaningful. It’s natural to want to explain seemingly irrational behaviors in ways that make sense, but unfortunately when frequently triggered by traumatic reminders, most of us start to judge ourselves as somehow failing at life. We can seem irrational even to ourselves, and start to feel ambivalent towards goals and relationships. On the one hand, we think we want to do something, like get a new job or experience intimacy with our partner, yet on the other hand, we have feelings or body sensations that cause us to suddenly change our minds. It’s a bit like the rational, goal-seeking part of the brain is constantly fighting with the emotional part. And we simply don’t make much sense to ourselves. As a result, life can increasingly seem futile.
Creating meaning of sexual abuse also depends on beliefs we hold about ourselves, especially those surrounding intimate relationships, sexuality, and social acceptability. These beliefs include what we believe we deserve, how we believe we should be treated, and what we believe other people’s treatment of us says about our inherent value as human beings. Perhaps more than any other type of trauma, sexual abuse is perceived as damaging self-worth, making it impossible to return to perceiving oneself as the person one was before the abuse. Many have difficulty reaching goals after sexual abuse, or feel they no longer have opportunities they once had, whether career choices, spirituality, artistic expression, intimate relationships, and more. Others can be highly successful in certain aspects of their lives, yet nevertheless feel they must hide the part of themselves that holds memories of the abuse, and often feel like imposters. I think of sexual abuse as like a black hole that constantly steals energy from the person one desires to become — except that hole often feels like it is inside oneself.
Societal attitudes also influence the kinds of meanings we give sexual abuse. Unfortunately, too many of us have experienced the stigma, if not taboo, that for centuries has over-determined the meaning of sexual abuse. For too long, sexual abuse has been seen as an experience for which 1) the victim is at least partially to blame and 2) she is implicitly expected to remain silent about what happened, if not feel ashamed about it. Even if no one knows about the abuse except ourselves and the perpetrator, we can nevertheless feel profound shame. Furthermore, it’s not unusual for women after sexual abuse to feel an attachment to their perpetrator as if he holds some power over their self-worth. Granted, the #Metoo Movement is making it safer for women to share their histories of abuse and challenge their abusers. Nevertheless, the majority of us have had to silence our histories, or were ignored, blamed, or neglected when we did share what happened.
By our nature, we are social beings. Not only do we need the capacity to create integrated narratives of events in order to make them meaningful, we also need others to hear our stories. I like to quote the late psychologist Jerome Bruner on this point, who wrote, “Don’t we, too, have to tell the event in order to find out whether, after all, ‘this is the kind of person I really mean to be’?” And yet we need opportunities to tell what happened without the threat of stigma, if not scapegoating, that historically has been the dominant reaction to sharing histories of sexual abuse.
It’s so important to believe you are not irrevocably damaged, or somehow tainted, by sexual abuse. Such beliefs keep a person stuck in the past, longing for who they were before the abuse, and unable to see all that is still possible. The only remedy I have discovered for this painful reaction to sexual abuse is to get focused on recovery. Specifically, identifying why you want to engage in recovery work.
The Why of Recovery
For each of us, the why of recovery is different. Maybe you want to recover because you have kids and you want to be more present to them and their needs. Maybe you’re having trouble keeping a job, and you need to engage in recovery so you can support yourself and/or your family. Maybe your sick of being obsessed with someone who hurt you. Maybe you feel isolated. Maybe you feel creatively blocked. Maybe you’re just tired of feeling scared or depressed. Maybe you want to enjoy sex. Whatever the reason, it helps to figure out why you want to recover from sexual abuse, and then prioritize this why as having the most meaning for you, since it is about who you are now, and who you want to become in your future.
Your why may change over time, or you might have several reasons why you want to engage in recovery work. Some of these reasons may even seem to contradict each other, which is perfectly fine. What’s important is that you start thinking about your why — not the why you feel you should have, or the one someone else wants you to have. Your why.
When I started the process of recovery, my why was ending flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse. Yet my why has changed a dozen times since then. My why has been about intimacy in my marriage, productivity in my work, regaining my spirituality, and other reasons. Having a specific why has helped motivate me to continually engage in recovery work, since I’m focusing on who I want to become rather than what happened, which is painful for me. Having a why doesn’t mean suddenly the fragmented memories or obsessive remembering disappear. Rather, having a why is a way to turn away from these natural reactions to sexual abuse and start creating a more hopeful view on life. Even small goals when reached can counteract a defeatist mindset. This is how resiliency is built: one success at a time.
When I haven’t been good at having a why, I have been more susceptible to feeling stuck in the past and old ways of coping. In fact, many formal definitions of recovery focus on having the desire to make goals and fulfill them, as well as consistently engage in activities that make life feel purposeful. Being dedicated to your why also requires you to take good care of yourself, if you are going to succeed. By having goals and taking steps toward them, you start making a new kind of meaning of sexual abuse — one that doesn’t revolve around what happened, but instead celebrates how you have overcome it.
Below are a few questions that may help you determine your why. You can always share your responses in the comments below, but please review the Guidelines for Commenting if you haven’t already, and always prioritize your recovery. Next week I’ll cover a bit more about goal setting and simple ways to increase the likelihood of success.
What is your “why” for recovering from sexual abuse? You may have one reason or twenty. Try to write them all down. If you have more than one, try to arrange them according to importance.
Ask yourself, “If I were to be fully recovered from sexual abuse, what would be different about my life?”
How would you feel different? Ho would you behave differently? Would you have different thoughts? What kind? Would you feel differently in your body? What would you feel? Would you no longer misuse or abuse substances? Would your relationships be different? Would sex be different? Knowing the answers to such questions — including knowing which of these questions feel most important to you — can be useful for thinking about how you want to focus your recovery work.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).