The numbers are staggering. On average, sexual abusers harm 100 children before they are caught and children must tell 7 adults before someone takes action. Lost in the background of the serial sexual abuse that our society seems to tolerate are these victims. Given the numbers, it takes a great deal of courage for a young sexual abuse victim to report his or her abuse to anyone, even those closest to them, much less go public. So, let us not forget the Penn State nine kids who have been willing to shed light on this travesty. What do they need?
As a psychotherapist for over 35 years who has worked with hundreds of sexual abuse victims, I know the depth of the inner drive for justice and protection that these innocent children/adults carry. I have heard cries of human agony—gruesome accounts of incidents that have severely damaged people’s lives. They always stun me, and I am momentarily suspended in denial that we humans can inflict such pain on one another—often to the ones we are supposed to love the most.
When children are sexually abused, it rips to shreds everything good they have ever believed about people and the world. I have seen people whose entire lives were impacted by a single incident of childhood sexual abuse. Their innocence is stolen, along with their trust, self-esteem and sense of safety in the world. Many, if not most, blame themselves and often harbor the secret, initiating a pattern of isolation and self destruction that can last a lifetime.
Men and women with histories of sexual abuse often develop serious eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia or obesity, and resort to self-medicating through drugs or alcohol to mask their fear and shame. They often live lives of chaos and underdevelopment, hiding these addictions and distancing themselves from friends and family. They can be filled with pangs of intense emotions, including fear, anger, and sorrow. Or they can present themselves as numb and half dead, devoid of any feelings. They hide the truth, terrified of being authentic, and often run from intimacy, not knowing how to deliver or receive love.
If you were sexually abused, you need and deserve help. Keeping secrets not only prolongs your suffering, it also delays your healing. Initiate a campaign of healing by telling someone you can trust about your abuse. Then find excellent professional help in your hometown or travel to it if need be. Those who succeed reach out for the help they need and surround themselves with support.
Though it is often a long journey, you can take your tragedy and turn it into something useful in your life. I have seen that for those who repair enormous trauma, it’s like climbing a mountain; the higher the climb the more able the climber. Those who reach the summit have an enormous reservoir of skill, strength and wisdom.
To assure your success, I urge you to begin today to build an encouraging, compassionate, loving and forgiving relationship with you. Promise yourself that if you fall, that you will be the first one there to pick yourself up. Each time you express these words of loving support to yourself, you breath life in. Having a close, supportive relationship with you makes it possible to begin the journey ahead.
I know there is abundant possibility that you can heal these deep wounds and have a life that is productive, fulfilled and loving. Though you may have had moments of hopelessness, I bear witness to the fact that people can and do heal all the time.
Mariah Fenton Gladis, LCSW, BCD