Healing from the effects of sexual abuse
There are some columns I write because I want to and some because I feel I need to. Today's column definitely falls in to the latter category. Like the vast majority of you, I am deeply troubled when I hear tales of young children being victimized and having their innocence stolen away. This is horrific under any circumstances, but when the abuser is a parent, one who is charged with protecting the child, the offense seems even more dastardly.
While we all realize that child abuse typically leaves scars that can last a lifetime, we tend to underestimate the damage it can inflict when the victim grows and marries. I don't have statistics, but I'm confident that a tremendous number of marriages have ended because the parties didn't realize that childhood abuse was the enemy and they didn't seek appropriate help and counsel.
Please read this column and think of someone you know who needs this information. Our columnist, Dawn Scott Damon, is the author of "When a Woman You Love Was Abused: A Husband's Guide to Helping Her Overcome Childhood Sexual Molestation." By sharing this information you might play a key role in saving and strengthening a marriage, perhaps even your own.
By the way, the plan for next week's column is to focus how to love a man who was abused. Another I wish was not needed, but obviously is.
Not over when it's over
I'm one of thousands of victims who have suffered life-long, aftereffects of childhood sexual abuse. My spouse became the "other victim" of my sexual abuse.
I walked down the aisle with my long, white flowing wedding dress. The billowing, chiffon layers and crystal-beaded edges were exquisite. It was my wedding day, and I felt like a princess. In fact, it was the first time in my life I felt like that.
Turns out, it would be short-lived.
At age 19, I came into my marriage with more than my neatly box-up wedding dress, crystal beaded veil and a cassette copy of Karen Carpenter singing, "We've Only Just Begun." I carried with me the deep, dark secrets of childhood sexual abuse.
I didn't mean to be secretive. I'd mentioned to Terry before our marriage that my father sexually molested me. But when I saw the look of horror on his face, I downplayed it. After all, I reasoned, my sexual abuse is over now. I never have to speak of it again. I minimized its impact on me, just as I had been doing for over ten years.
But the minimalistic perspective of my abuse wasn't reality. The truth we both discovered is that sexual abuse is not over when it's over. And indeed Karen Carpenter prophesied when she sang, "We've only just begun."
The sexual abuse aftermath Terry and I faced subtly made itself known in our lives. It was a devastating revelation to us. Like a ghost rattling its chain from the cellar below, my pain clattered deep within me. Finally, unresolved trauma oozed out from my body and soul in mystifying, disruptive symptoms that debilitated me, wreaked havoc in our marriage and nearly destroyed Terry.
Anger, rage, fear, sexual fears, shame, panic attacks, depression, anxiety and numerous other side effects plagued my life. We remained ignorant that the cause of our problem was directly connected to my sexual molestation some fifteen years earlier. This was a classic example of how couples are unknowingly impacted by childhood trauma. After 28 years of defeat and disillusionment, our marriage ended.
Both of us shattered.
Both of us victims.
Today, the statistics are alarming. It's reported that one out of four girls and one out of five boys have experienced sexual abuse.
Reports also reveal the vast majority of those sexually abused never tell, and therefore, they never get help. Instead of recovery, victims go through life broken, emotionally wounded, bleeding in soul and spirit.
If we could track that child into adulthood, we may find a life riddled with bouts of depression, anxiety, failed relationships, numerous jobs, unfinished projects, addictions and eating disorders.
On the other hand, we may not outwardly recognize any psychological or emotional injury, or visibly see their scars and wounds, but they're there. These victims suffer in silence.
A survivor, who has not found help, still hurts.
What can I do?
If you have a partner who's been affected by sexual trauma, you may feel disappointed, confused, frightened, helpless and unsure of how to help your loved one. You have a "special needs" spouse who requires much love and support. And if your spouse has shared their abuse story with you, they've let you into a very personal and vulnerable sacred space. Here are a few ways you can handle them with care:
BE SAFE: Be careful not to make judgments or ask questions that infer guilt, such as, "Why didn't you stop it?" These statements push the survivor deeper into shame and withdrawal.
LISTEN TO THEIR STORY: A survivor needs to share their story. Sometimes several times over. Be patient. Don't interrupt, make flagrant facial expressions, or try to psychoanalyze. Listening intently is a wonderful way to show support.
DON'T TRY TO FIX THEM: It's a common response. We want to solve problems. But survivors usually fear a response that says, "You should confront the abuser," or "Have you told the police?"
FOSTER A HEALING ENVIRONMENT: A spouse can help facilitate recovery in powerful ways. Unconditional love and acceptance provide a safe backdrop that empowers a survivor to explore their healing in a place where no judgment lives.
RESPECT BOUNDARIES: A survivor's life was invaded, violated. Personal boundaries were trampled on and ignored. A spouse can help the healing process by respecting their partner's personal boundaries.
KEEP HEALTHY BOUNDARIES FOR YOURSELF: Rebuilding boundaries is essential for abuse survivors. But you can best help a survivor as you build and maintain your own healthy boundaries. The healthiest of marriages are those between husbands and wives who find the balance between caring for each other's needs and maintaining sound and responsible personal boundaries.
FIND HELP: Abuse aftermath rarely goes away by itself. If you suspect your marriage is suffering as a result of past wounds, seek counsel. Healing is possible.
Hear more from Dawn
I hope you join me in appreciating Dawn's courage in bringing her story to the world. Evil thrives in darkness and perhaps casting away the secrecy will lead more women to seek help and recovery. I'm so pleased that Dawn is scheduled to be my guest on "TWOgether as ONE" on Monday. You can hear the program on KLJH 107.1FM or at www.kpcl.org and clicking on the stations tab. TWOgether as ONE airs every Monday from 6 to 6:30 p.m.
Ron Price is the co-founder and executive director of the Four Corners Coalition for Marriage & Family, a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to strengthening and equipping marriages and families in the Four Corners area. He can be reached at 505-327-7870.