Dancing in the Shadows by Laura Bryannan
SURVIVOR "CHECKLIST"Did you know that many incest and sexual abuse survivors are not aware they were abused? The psyche effectively blocks the trauma from the conscious mind so the person can continue to move forward and function in life. However, the trauma is never completely erased from a survivor's experience. Some survivors who have no conscious memories of abuse have always had a feeling something happened to them but, because they can't remember anything specific, they tell themselves the feeling must be wrong. If you are one of these people, there is a good chance that you are right-- something did happen to you, even if you can't remember exactly what. So, don't let the fact that you have no solid memories or "movies" keep you from exploring this issue.
Incest and abuse survivors often develop telling pathologies as they grow up. These pathologies are actually the various ways a survivor learned to cope with the abuse as a child, and were extremely healthy (perhaps even lifesaving) at the time, but are now in the way of their becoming a fully-functioning adult. So, if you've been working on a specific problem in yourself for some time and haven't been able to get anywhere with it, it's possible that you haven't been asking the right questions about it.
The book Secret Survivors, by E. Sue Blume (John Wiley & Sons, 1990), has a checklist of some of the many symptoms that can develop from sexual abuse. Of course these kinds of symptoms can develop from other causes as well, but if you see yourself in the discussion below, it's worth asking yourself the question, "Is it possible that I am this way because I experienced incest or sexual abuse as a child?" I'd like to summarize some of the most relevant points below.
Do you have issues with your body? Problems such as swallowing and gagging sensitivities, eating disorders, addictions to drugs or alcohol, skin carving or other self-abuse, the need to wear baggy clothes, or a fear of removing clothing even when appropriate (swimming or bathing, for example) often have their roots in childhood sexual abuse.
Survivors often have trouble expressing their anger, or live in constant fear of the anger of others. Some survivors, on the other hand, find anger and violence extremely erotic. Others are rage-alcoholics, and have trouble seeing the damage their outbursts have on the people around them. Another path survivors take is to become obsessed with suicide and death, or they spend their life in and out of depression. Many survivors remember being terminally shy and afraid as a child and, as adults, get very nervous when being watched; extreme cases border on paranoia.
Constant hand washing, lock checking, and other obsessive-compulsive behaviors are often unconscious attempts to clean what feels defiled, fix what feels broken, or secure what feels unsafe. Unexplainable fears about particular rooms or people are another clue. Abuse often leaves one feeling different from the rest of humanity, or even crazy.
One of the biggest red flags is loss of memory. If you can't remember anything before the age of six, for example, it's possible you've blocked out something painful to know about. Some survivors get more specific in their block-outs: they can remember being little but not their childhood bedroom or the kitchen, etc. Sometimes a survivor will only block out a specific person. If grandma lived with your family as a child but you can't remember any interaction with her, this is an important clue.
The pattern I've noticed to be most prevalent in otherwise healthy persons who do not remember being abused is a sexualizing of the identity. Survivors are taught that the way to get love is to put out sexually. So, when survivors become teens and young adults they often do just that! Are you someone who has had a long and somewhat promiscuous history of relationships with people who just aren't right for you--people who are unstable, substance abusers, violent, emotionally-withholding or unfaithful? It's possible you've simply been acting out what you were taught as a child.
Another clue can be found when the above-described person finally breaks that pattern and finds a healthy, loving partner to be in relationship with. A woman who has been a "hot mama" in unhealthy relationships often finds that, in a loving relationship, she loses her interest in sex entirely! Or, she wants to be sexual but finds that, instead of arousing her, her usual turn-ons now bring uncomfortable, icky or scary feelings.
The converse of this issue also occurs. I have seen many survivors let go of otherwise loving relationships because their partner's sex drive was not as active as theirs (the sex drive of an abuse survivor can be like a bottomless pit of need, by the way). Since people who were sexually abused often have their entire self-worth wrapped up in their sexual performing, a survivor has a hard time believing that their partner can really love them if they're not having sex as often as the survivor needs to feel safe.
A tangent to this problem is the woman who experiences her loving, kind and supportive partners as boring. A woman coming out of an abusive background will generally feel attracted to people who mirror the energies of her abuser. If her abuser was angry and violent, only these kinds of partners turn her on. If her abuser was distant, keeping her always at arm's length, she can only fall in love with distant, emotionally-withholding partners. If you are someone who thrives on emotional turbulence and high drama in your relationships, and are bored to tears with the loving folks you've met, you may be stuck in a self-abusive pattern that began in your childhood.
Another path abuse survivors take is to become totally asexual. These people often gravitate toward the myriad religious and philosophical systems which teach that sexual expression is a hindrance to one's spiritual development. This, of course, is the ultimate safe place for many abused people. Survivors in this environment are encouraged to spend their entire lives cut off from their bodies; freedom from sexual impulses is seen as a high spiritual goal. Thus, the survivor will never have to confront the awful memories that lie beneath the surface of their consciousness.
These are only some of the more obvious ways sexual abuse survivors act out. If you don't see yourself in any of the above descriptions, but still feel that something happened to you, please continue to explore this possibility. Incest and sexual abuse experiences are as varied as there are humans on this planet, and not all damaging experiences ever involve actual sexual activity. Sometimes all it takes is one inappropriate touch or glance--baby sitter fondling little girl's crotch, or uncle watching niece in the bathroom--and a child can be permanently shamed. Parents who tease their daughter about the size of her breasts (or who allow other family members to do so), a divorced father who tells his daughter all women are whores, are often setting up patterns in their little girls that may never be healed. These things are also abuse, even though intercourse never occurred.
The fundamental rule you should remember when reviewing your history to look for clues of abuse is this: there is a usually a good reason for every strange thing you notice about yourself. If you have phobias, sexual kinks, behavior glitches, etc., there is a very good chance someone taught them to you! These kinds of things did not come from the Original Manufacturer, they developed from misuse-of-product. No matter how bizarre the behavior or phobia, I have yet to discover a woman who did not ultimately find that it was produced by some corresponding form of abuse.
So, if you have fantasies of being tied up and sexually tortured, there's a good chance someone did that to you and you've blocked it out. If going into the bathroom after dark gives you anxiety attacks, there's a good chance that something horrible happened to you in a bathroom at night earlier in your life. Give yourself permission to believe that these kinds of behaviors have a reasonable and rational cause and you'll find that your life is full of clues about what may have happened to you.
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Last Updated: 7jun10