The long-term effects of child sexual abuse are staggering. It impacts all aspects of a survivor’s life because they often end up with limited job skills, their educational goals are sidetracked, and some become homeless. Trying to find mental health services to assist survivors in recovering from the trauma of child abuse are often not available or the insurance is too expensive.
Abusing substances for many survivors becomes a relief mechanism to tolerate the painful psychological and body memories as they come up. A typical scenario goes something like this. While this example uses food, it applies to the use of drugs, and/or alcohol as well.
It starts with an image that flashes. Fear immediately follows then the internal chanting. “That didn’t happen to me. It didn’t happen.” Panic starts to rise in our throat with the message, “I have to eat. There is nothing in this entire world that can make me more content than the food I love. You’ve done it again, you fat cow. You are such a loser.”1 The self-hatred has set in.
This thinking could have been triggered by a real or perceived loss or a disappointment in separating from a significant friend. We, as survivors, begin to experience a tension growing within ourselves, along with the feelings of anger, fear, and guilt which increases in intensity and gradually interferes with our daily functioning.
After some time when the food or alcohol or drugs we use no longer is strong enough to stop the pain, some survivors start to self-mutilate. It can involve self-cutting, self-burning, or repetitively and compulsively having one’s body tattooed or pierced.2 When these measures don’t work, thoughts of suicide sometimes come up.
What we survivors don’t realize is that we may be reenacting the trauma we suffered silently with these self-abusive behaviors. We are unconsciously trying to master our previous trauma by telling ourselves that we are now in control—even though we are abusing ourselves. It seems like experiencing the physical pain is not as bad as feeling the emotional pain. There is an insatiable hunger, though, to feel connected which has its origin in not being securely attached to our mother when an infant.
I used to tell my therapist, “I am emotionally starving to death.” Self-abuse is an unhealthy way of “feeding ourselves,” but at least knowing the cause of our behavior can help in turning these actions around. Instead of blaming ourselves, it is better to understand that we are unconsciously searching for the nurturing we never had, and to find ways of meeting that need.
1 “Promoting Women’s Economic Security,” Toolkit to End Violence Against Women, Chapter 6, Violence Against Women Office, October 2001