This morning I opened up the newspaper and to my surprise…Euthanasia is now administered to sexually abused, chronically ill children around the age of 12, if they feel that they cannot move on with their lives. The article went on to state that many more people are choosing euthanasia as a result of mental illness. As a psychologist, I may be able to shed some light on how to cope and intervene without taking such desperate measures. (Taking my personal history of mistreatment into consideration, I might not be the most objective observer, but at least I speak only the truth.)
If this topic concerns you, I’d like you to know that I understand…I have been where you are. It is easier to be ‘put to sleep’ and simply restart at another time or place, but what lesson are we teaching? What we are basically saying to others and ourselves is “It’s okay that you’re hurt, but since we can’t fix you, how would you like us to assist you in your suicide?” when we should be letting them know that they don’t have to go through this alone…that they don’t have to die, because the world is corrupt and there is little other free support.
Many that fall victim to a sexual predator can’t simply forget or move on, especially children. They no longer view themselves as innocent. Moreover, if the parents push their own responsibility for the abuse onto their child, this can develop into severe identity problems. After less than a year, their view of the world becomes distorted. They begin to feel guilty and undeserving. Many stop speaking, eating and socialising. Every breath they take becomes a reminder of how responsible they were for what happened… The pain, they feel, doesn’t vanish. It festers…but many never say a word for one reason: The majority get hurt for being hurt.
This can occur in countless ways, but most commonly, victims of sexual assault express how these experiences continue to harm them internally, which leads to one of several negative reactions: (a) apathy/cold indifference, (b) dismissal, (c) misplaced rage, (d) misplaced sadness
Many of the people I’ve worked with struggled to make their voices heard initially. When they discuss what they how they feel during recovery, close relatives tended to drift off topic. One minute they’re crying their eyes out about how Uncle Joe bent them over the table, nearly tearing them a new asshole, while the relative that they’re confiding in is too occupied, thinking about how Uncle Joe still owes them a tenner. In my early student years, I despised conducting family therapy for that reason, simply because sometimes there is no happy ending. Some people will never love their children or family members the way they would like them to. With or without the application of force, they probably never will, but telling a survivor that is painful. It pries into a primal fear of abandonment that we all share. No child should be expected to deal with abuse and then neglect, it sets very bad standards and lowers expectations in others from the outset.
None of the responses listed above are rational or even helpful but that has never stopped people. However, before we judge, it’s vital to understand that they don’t know how to cope with the situation. If forced to confront the reality of the situation, they’d shut down, cry hysterically or experience a depressive episode. It should be noted that approx. half have traumatic experiences of their own that they keep bottled up that need to processed first before they can support loved one’s through such tough times.
On a related note, we can all be rather self-centred without meaning to be, when someone we care about shares something to deeply personal. However, when we don’t take them seriously, it can have grave consequences. Particularly, when the tables turn. Many abused children drift apart from friends or relatives that are then later abused…and the first person they call is someone they know who experienced similar. Although what these friends often do not take into consideration is that no half-hearted apology makes up for something like that. In frequency, these friendships were imbalanced from the start. One cared more about the other and less about themselves. Then, the assault occurred and they no longer care about their own life, let alone the problems of the former prom-queen, social butterfly or alpha female of the group.
Post-Traumatic Stress: Dependent on when, where and how an assault takes place is important when it comes down to moving forward. Many survivors struggle to return to their old life. In cases, in which a boyfriend is a part of the equation, recovery can become complicated. Whereas some men are more supportive than others, the subject of sexual intercourse is bound to cause tension, unless there is ample space for open dialogue.
Identifying Stressors & Flashbacks: After a traumatic event, latent impressions of the experience inadvertently imprinted themselves on the mind. Survivors can develop aversions to the opposite or same sex, tools used during the assault, specific locations etc. For example, if an individual was tied and gagged during repeated assaults, they can easily be spooked by S&M. Conversely, some survivors unconsciously relive the experience by engaging in self-destructive behaviour, which can become heavily sexualised.
Although typical responses are sadness, rage, panic or other forms of extreme emotion, when coming into contact with a stressor or object/subject that triggers a flashback. From personal experience, I’ve found that resistance is futile. The more we resist the memory or image, the more it rages underneath the surface. Therefore, it is highly important to be patient and don’t be too hard on yourself. Reminders will crop up, but they don’t have to rule your life. One day, you’ll be able to look at something that would usually remind you of the worst times in your life and it’ll no longer be the root of your stress or the first thing you are reminded of.
Confront your stressor, but don’t go overboard. If it scares you, approach it slowly. If it angers you, charge at it with all your might. If it upsets you, let it out through a good cry, but never bury it. Burying a stressor is dangerous! The more you aim to ignore it, the more ferociously it’ll come through. If it sets your teeth on edge, there’s a reason. Learning that reason will benefit your personal growth and make your more resilient.
Stressors can awaken memories of a time, when we felt powerless, violated and/or deeply injured. In combination with flashbacks, they give the impression that the event is still ongoing. In a split second, a survivor can feel as if they are right back where it all started…As if no time passed. The lines between the past and present can become blurred, particularly if the abuse remains ongoing or happened not too long ago. In other words, living in present time becomes a challenge, when we are locked in a mental prison of our past. Every deeply traumatic experience forces us to re-learn how to live. That means learning how to accept what happened and moving forward.
Survivors Guilt: Thousands of men, women and children throughout the ages have experienced the most horrific forms of sexual abuse. Some of which survive, when those close to them did not. Driven by the experience, some strive to make their lives mean something. With every nightmare, failure and accomplishment, the guilt compounds, until it literally becomes the prime motivator behind their actions. In their eyes, the amount of suffering they feel was created by them, through whatever they did. In rare cases, it can manifest through the very fact that they survived, whereas others did not. More importantly, it is something that they cannot forgive, overcome or let go without assistance…Without some form of acknowledgement that it is okay, others simply need to hear that there is nothing wrong with them. They did what they needed to do to survive and they are still loved regardless. In cases with a high suicide risk, associated with survivors guilt, it can be very helpful to give them to opportunity to express themselves without being judged or criticised. In therapy, I use the method of creating a safe space for them to share their thoughts or unburden their darkest secrets. This can be easily done with friends or relatives at home. In some extreme cases, survivors just need to hear that they are forgiven to forgive themselves, which is more effective when it is conveyed by people that knew them before the event.
Relationships: As a survivor, the world no longer looks the same, nor do we connect to it in the same way. Opening ourselves to others can become difficult for the lack of empathy or shared experience. To the average man, women can be instantly downgraded to just another ‘rape-case’ or ‘woe-woman story’. So many women avoid sharing as to not make themselves look like a victim. This makes genuine relationships difficult and fosters commitment issues.
Many women choose not to share their past experiences with prospective or actual partners. Although this may seem like a justified defensive measure, how close can we truly be to someone, when we shut a part of ourselves off? If they cannot accept that part of ourselves, how can they accept us for who we truly are? My personal advice is for survivors to take a chance. If we never openly discuss what happened, how are we meant to find closure? How are we supposed to be expected to live with what happened, when we can’t acknowledge it to those we love?