This series is focusing on the issue of struggling with focusing on your own needs. The series begins here.
Here is the last part of the reader’s email:
And I feel selfish for thinking sometimes that soooooooo many people have been abused that my experience is diminished because it almost seems like it’s the norm for a woman to have a past history of sexual abuse. Does any of this make sense or is it just rambling?
Unfortunately, it is normal for child abuse survivors to minimize their abuse. In the book Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman explains the reason for this:
Though [the abused child] perceives herself as abandoned to a power without mercy, she must find a way to preserve hope and meaning. The alternative is utter despair, something no child can bear…By virtue of these defenses, the abuse is either walled off from conscious awareness and memory, so that it did not really happen, or minimalized, rationalized, and excused, so that whatever did happen was not really abuse. Unable to escape or alter the unbearable reality in fact, the child alters it in her mind. ~ Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery, pp. 101-102
This is what we do as adults when we minimize our abuse, and we learned it in childhood. Most people who have heard my story tell me that it is one of the most extreme stories of child abuse that they have heard. Nevertheless, it took me a long time to pull out of the “others had it worse” mentality.
The bottom line is that even one incident of abuse is too many. If some monster raped my son one time, it would be far too many. That one incident would cause him to have nightmares, flashbacks, self-loathing, etc. There is no value in comparing our abuses because every incident of abuse is damaging.
I sometimes have people tell me that they feel like, after hearing my story, their abuse didn’t matter. I always tell them that, if they want to compare abuses, then let’s compare the healing. If I can heal after what I have been through, then you can heal, too. Let’s not focus on what broke us; let’s focus on the hope of healing.
I agree that having a history of sexual abuse is pretty much the norm for women (statistically one in three to one in four women, depending upon which study you cite). Rather than making the abuse less important, I think it makes society more terrifying. Child abuse is an epidemic, but society doesn’t want to believe it.
Let’s put this in perspective. President Obama recently declared the swine flu a national emergency because more than 1,000 people have died from it, over 20,000 have been hospitalized, and “many millions” of Americans have already had it (presumably without long-term aftereffects). People are referring to this as an epidemic, right?
The United States has over 307 million citizens. Statistics are that one in four women are sexually abused by age 18. Let’s assume that half of the Americans are women – that makes 153.5 million women. If one in four have been or will be sexually abused by age 18, we are talking about OVER 38 MILLION WOMEN who have been or will be sexually abused. (I am not even factoring in the one in five to seven men who have been sexually abused.) We are using words like “epidemic” to describe a flu that has only been serious enough to hospitalize or kill under 25,000 people, but we don’t see the brutalization of 38 MILLION WOMEN as an epidemic??
Never minimize the impact of abuse. These same women (and men) struggle with flashbacks, eating disorders, self-injury, drug abuse, suicide attempts, and all of the other crap that we deal with. Your abuse WAS “that bad,” and it needs to be healed. You deserve to heal and be freed from the aftereffects of the abuse.
Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt