How Deep are the Scars of Abuse?

A number of people have contacted me  over the past few months, wanting to talk about their victimization. These emails describe a wide range of feelings, reactions and heartbreak. For adults who were abused as children, the emotional outcome is as varied as people are. There are no hard and fast outcomes – there is only your outcome and it’s as perfect as perfect can be. It is always normal.  And it is always healthy.

So let’s chat, in a general way, about the emotional outcomes for people who were abused as children.  These outcomes are affected by a number of factors:

1. Do you remember the abuse? While this sounds like a silly question, many adults don’t remember what happened to them as children. It is either so ugly that it is buried deeply or the victim has put it away to allow her familial relationships to survive or perhaps the victim dissociated during the abuse so there are few memories registered. The latter is, ironically, not unlike an alcoholic blackout in which the memories are not be imprinted on the mind.

2. How old were you when it started? And how long did it go on? If you were regularly abused from a very early age, in a perverse twist of the mind (mostly to cope) the abuse may be more normalized.  Since it has always been there, it is just a fact of life.  Clients come to me and knew something was wrong but didn’t know what.  They assume it’s their mental health problem, when in fact they were physically and/or sexually abused well into adulthood.  I’ve been asked: “How can a woman allow that to go on without reporting it?” The answer is fairly simple: “It’s all she’s ever known.”  If that is your ever-present reality,  then it is all you’ve ever known and it is ‘normal’ to you.  (Note, I didn’t say healthy, but normal.)

3. Who are you? What are your emotional strengths? We are all wired differently. And each of us reacts to abuse in our own way.  Some people will experience one event and be as traumatized as another person who was repeatedly assaulted and/or raped. Their is no ‘right’ reaction. The one you’re experiencing is perfectly correct and natural for you.

4. Who is your perpetrator? Generally, the closer the relationship between victim and perp, the deeper the emotional trauma. This is not always the case, but when the relationship is one that should have nourished and supported us, the damage is usually deeper and longer lasting.  Please notice all the qualifiers. If you were sexually abused by a minister, teacher or scout leader you knew or a stranger you didn’t, I am not saying your abuse doesn’t matter or it doesn’t hurt. That is not my intention at all.  The outcome of being victimized can vary when we have cultural expectations of protection, nurturing and love from the person who victimized us. If you’re not safe at home, where can you be safe? If your home was the site of the abuse, why would you want to be there? What lengths will you go to to avoid being at home and enduring the company of your perpetrator?

5. What was the abuse you suffered? Abuse occurs on a continuum of ugliness and violence and sadism. For most of us, physical abuse ranges from slapping to punching, kicking and choking. It extends from leaving a red mark to serious injuries. This kind of abuse is never a one-off but rather is a cycle of stress relief for the perpetrator who used your behavior (your childish behavior) to justify his out of control actions. For sexual abuse victims, the range is also wide. On one end of the spectrum is inappropriate jokes, conversations and comments about body parts and body functions and the sex act. Across the spectrum is oral, anal, and vaginal rape, either by a single perpetrator or a group.

Please note the word rape. Sexual abuse is NOT sex.  It is rape! I strongly object when the press or others talk about a man having sex with his daughter. That statement enrages me. Please, let’s call a spade a spade. For victims, owning that they were raped, usually repeatedly, by someone they know, puts the experiences into the context of violence, being forced and deprived of any choice. Women seem more able to sympathize and empathize with another woman who was raped. And yet, those same women may minimize their experience as ‘just’ sexual abuse….Take a deep breath, Louise. Be calm…Relax.

Okay, I’m better now.

6. How long did your abuse continue? Women tend to minimize their experience if it only happened a few times. My male clients, once they admit that rape or physical abuse happened, are horrified whether it happened once or a hundred times. I’ve noticed, as a therapist that your issues will usually be a lot deeper, your reactions more ingrained if the abuse went on for a long time. Or if you got pregnant as a result of the rape, whether the child was carried to term or not.

7. Was your abuse acknowledged by others?  When you remembered it or began dealing with it or asked for help, who did you first tell? Or after some therapy, who did you share this painful truth with? Our abuse was extraordinarily painful. We are victimized by someone and when we go for help our truth is denied, and sometimes we are punished for lying. Or we are told we asked for it. Or that we are rotten people because _______ (fill in the blank with the name of your perpetrator) could not and would not do something so disgusting and vile. This disavowal of our experience can be as traumatic (or more traumatic) than the original abuse! Not only were we traumatized by the original event, but when we built up the courage to bring it forward we are victimized again – usually by a person who can’t deal with our experience; one who needs to put it back on us or they would have to deal with their failure to protect us. Or they refuse to change their opinion of a family member to accommodate something so vile. It is always their failing and never yours.

8. Who long did you carry the abuse around before you sought help? Adults who were physically abused often have less trouble acknowledging what happened to them. In conversations about their childhood, they may make comments like “my dad had a horrible temper” or “dad like to his us kids”. But rarely do we talk about the sexual abuse that was done to us. This is part of the cultural reticence to discuss anything to do with sexuality and our bodies ‘down there’. But it is can also be a lingering sense of personal responsibility (I” enticed him because I was so provocative and sexy”). It can also be from the fear that we will be pitied or the risk that others won’t believe us. And if we’re minors, there is the omnipresent risk that telling may ‘destroy’ our families because the perpetrator will be sent to jail.

There are other factors that affect how deeply we are injured by childhood abuse but these are the main ones, from my experience. Again, it is important that you not take this short list and chastise yourself because ‘you’re overreacting’. However you react is your experience and it is your truth and it is normal for you. Don’t give any credence to what anyone else tells you. And don’t let this post make you feel worse because your reaction doesn’t follow this simple list. We are wonderfully complicated people and life isn’t as simple as an 8 point list.

If you used (or are using) drugs, alcohol, sex, food or other substances or activities to numb the pain, please seek help for the addiction first.  After we become addicted to a substance or behavior, our brains change. It is important to get our gray matter on the road to recovery before we start to deal with our past, otherwise, we give ourselves a repeated and continual reason to continue the harm that was done to us  in childhood.

Does this list make sense to you? Would you like to add to it? Change it? Remember you are the expert in your life.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
This entry was posted in Abuse, adult children, Louise Behiel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to How Deep are the Scars of Abuse?

  1. Becca Huston says:

    I think your words and message were great. However, I would like to hear what you have to say about emotional abuse and neglect, which leaves incredibly deep scars also, and are so often unseen and unacknowledged.

    • Both emotional abuse and neglect leave deep scars, I totally agree. And they do deserve information in a separate post. I haven’t focused so much on them, because I haven’t had a request to do so. Now that i have stay tuned and I’ll share what I’ve learned. thanks for stopping by.

      • iamnotshe says:

        Hello lady! I’d be interested in the emotional neglect and abuse as well … erm something about narcissists if that’s in your deep, deep well of knowledge. On the other hand … this was PERFECT post. As pefect as perfect can be. I love that! Gosh darn!!! xo

  2. prudencemacleod says:

    Hi Louise, yes this list makes a lot of sense. The scars run deepest when it is family, I am sure. I was abused physically and emotionally as a child and later in my first marriage. I am gifted (cursed) with a magical memory, nothing is ever lost, just misplaced for a while. I have used alcohol, drugs, excessive exercise etc to cope over the years.
    However, the scars are just the proof that I was the stronger for I survived and thrived. I have forgiven all and everyone involved, yet only one person has ever acknowledged their part in it all.
    As I read your post I recognized so much of my life and the people in it. It amazes me that there are people who understand all this and can make sense out of it. I wish there had been someone like you around fifty years ago.
    Humans are such interesting creatures; I love trying to figure out what makes them tic.
    Another great post; loved it.

    • Pru, thanks for sharing so honestly. I’m glad these osts make sense for you. We who are victims often are the least informed about what happened and why we feel the way we do. I totally agree that you are the stronger for sirviving and thriving after using so many substances and activities to cope. well done.

  3. Great post. I would love to learn more about PTSD as a result of childhood abuse.

  4. Great post. I like your differentiation between normal and healthy.

    • In my experience, much of what we consider normal is not healthy. Lying, cheating, looking out for number 1, etc etc etc, have all become ‘normal’ in many parts of our countries (especially during elections) and yet none of these are healthy, in my opinion. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Joan Leacott says:

    Brava for lifting the lid on the ugliness that can be hidden within a family. I’m with you–my blood boils when I hear of an adult using his/her power over those he/she’s meant to protect.

    • It’s a crime that seems to be on the increase. Or maybe I’m just hearing about it more. If there was successful tratement for pedophiles it wouldn’t be so scary but I have not heard of anything that can ‘cure’ them. and so our children keep paying the price. It totally makes my blood boil.

  6. “Remember you are the expert in your life.” I love that! Another great post, Louise. Like Prudence, I wish I’d had you in my life long before now, but maybe you came into my life at just the right time. It’s easier to take all this in and process it now that I’m an adult, happily married, and have the love/trust of my close family.

  7. Heidi says:

    “There are no hard and fast outcomes – there is only your outcome and it’s as perfect as perfect can be. It is always normal. And it is always healthy.” I like that. It’s grounded in grace and reality. Thank you for being here.

    I just read a poetic version of the struggles of abuse here: http://sherrietheriault.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/all-better-now-2/

    You’re dead on about the grey matter. First things first.

  8. Shelley Kassian says:

    Scars run deeper than we know. Your words are insightful and helpful in the healing process. Thank you for sharing them.

  9. Why are there never any easy answers or solutions to problems? (sigh)

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  10. asraidevin says:

    I don’t recall being abused, but I have many signs that I was. but since I don’t have any memories, I’ve always felt like i didn’t have the right to claim it. Maybe I am projecting, but maybe it’s real. I work with what I do have the feelings that come up, because regardless of what happened the feelings are real.

    • You’re very wise, Asrai. Sometimes we never remember the abuse. But if we have the feelings, then we have to deal with them because they’re real, regardless of their cause, just as you said. You may never remember. or you may find, as I did that I had memories my child’s mind has camouflaged, so that I had a specific situation in my memories but not the enormity of what happened. it was weird when the ‘stage setup’ melted away one day and I realized what had really happened. very weird, but I also knew it was the truth.thanks for your honesty. This stuff is so difficult.

  11. Louise,

    I read this and read it again. And then I read it again. There is so much here I can relate to and that makes me sad on one hand and grateful on the other. Not grateful for the abuse (though it has made me who I am today in many ways…) but grateful to have found a good therapist in my mid 20′s who helped me make sense of the abuse. I of course, thought it was my fault and that I deserved it. No. I am also looking forward to your take on PTSD (and perhaps OCD as it relates to trauma) It is so strange how our minds and hearts protect us. I am really wondering about the narcissism aspect to abuse also. I know my mom was an alcoholic but the more I read and remember and write the more I realize that there was far more trouble in my mother than just booze. I feel sorry for her; most of the time.

    Thank you very much for your blog!

    XO Jen

  12. Jen, thank you so much for your kind words. Thank God for your therapist. Freeing you from the tyranny of the past.
    I think every alcoholic is a narcissist – the big book of AA says “selfishness and self-centeredness was the root of our problem.” Those words are simply a nice way of saying narcissism. So there’s lots there for you to have dealt with. PTSD is coming up – next week. and I’ll give some thought to OCD. I don’t have much experience with that in my practice because I don’t have that expertise, but I’ll give it some thought and do some research.

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