A Survivor's Journey - The Impact of Abuse
I recognize that it’s impossible to separate how much my life - the way I act and think - would be different if I hadn’t been sexually abused. Being sexually abused changed me in both profound and small ways. I believe that the abuse magnified existing, latent and emerging impulses and thoughts. I don’t believe it’s useful or even possible to identify how different I would be if I had not been abused. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge what consequences feel directly tied to the abuse I sustained. My objective in writing this, after all, is to provide perspective rather than definitive connections. And much of what I describe here are common reactions to sexual abuse. My experience is therefore not unique at all. Rather it is all too common. Above all, I write this with the intention to help others understand. I hope you will read it with that in mind.
What follows, therefore, is a brief list of ways I believe the abuse impacted me, both during high school and the years that followed.
The Chorus of Critics - This is what I call the unproductive voices in my head that grew in volume and confidence during high school. They ganged up on me, preventing me from focusing in school, on the sports field and even during social interactions. You’re not good enough. What makes you think you can do that? You know you will fail! Voices of doubt are part of the human condition. For most adolescents, they come and go. Mine just sat on my shoulder and yelled at a volume that drowned out a lot of what was going on around me. To say this was a distraction is an understatement in the extreme. I was berated incessantly. If things were going OK, the critics told me things were about to go south any second. If I was doing something poorly or received a bad grade, they jumped up and down and screamed. You see? We told you this would happen! Why do you even bother?
Over time and with lots of therapy, I began to recognize the power that the Chorus had over me and how damaging they were - and also the reason they existed. They were part of my protective shell. Today I’m more practiced at talking back to them, thanking them for protecting me from being disappointed or hurt. I try to recognize when they are helpful. The vast majority of time, though, they hold me back. Thankfully, they hold less sway with me today than they did earlier in my life when I couldn’t separate them from the truth.
Shame - The Chorus of Critics are fueled by shame. They have a voracious appetite for it. They have an encyclopedic memory of my behavior and thoughts, and they used this evidence to remind me that I wasn’t worthy, wasn’t good enough, that someone else was more deserving. While I knew intellectually that the abuse was not my fault, this shame guided my behavior. It created this self-sabotaging doom loop that prevented me from committing to anything wholeheartedly. If I didn’t succeed, I could always tell myself that at least I hadn’t really given it everything I had. This played out in the classroom and on the sports field primarily, but it was a pervasive mindset that informed the calculation for many decisions. As with the Chorus of Critics, I began to see how detrimental this mindset was for me - particularly in my professional life. Knowing something is bad for you is important. Changing the well-worn grooves on this vinyl record took years.
While I would sing with passion and emotion in front of my bedroom mirror in my high school days, I held back in front of my band mates. I did a semester program with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) my fall semester of my first year of college. When my trip leader suggested I consider taking the Instructor’s Course, I was flattered and terrified. I could never be that much of a leader, I told myself. I never applied.
I thought I had processed the abuse over the years, much of that in therapy sessions but also with close friends and family. What I realized, however, was even recently, as I wrote my first blog post, some of the words that came out of my head and onto the page were still laden with guilt. Seeing the words and phrases on the page gave me an opportunity to recognize the shame that still infiltrated my words. Once I could see it, I was able to re-think and then re-write the details, using words that were more appropriate for the power differential and conflict that the abuse created within me.
Self-Doubt / Lack of Confidence - The manifestation of the Chorus of Critics and the shame was a crippling lack of confidence. If I wasn’t worth my parents or the school leadership sticking up for me, for protecting me, I certainly wasn’t going to do it on my own. I was, in my own mind, only at the school because of my family history and because my mother worked in the development office at the school. Why else would the school have admitted me? Any merits I thought I could contribute and might even be recognized for were invisible at Milton.
Substance Use- I started using weed in 7th grade. That was early compared to many of my peers. I had friends who were 1 and 2 years ahead of me in school, so I was exposed at a younger age than most of my classmates. And after the bike trip, when the leader abused me, being high was my preferred state. It was my escape. I got high during school, and I often got high after finishing my homework at night. I drank too, although I didn’t like the feeling of being out of control. And with a family history of alcoholism, I was always wary of drinking too much.
The allure of being high led me to experiment with other substances. I suppose the Chorus of Critics helped me as I experimented because I often found myself caught up in the cacophony of their droning reminders of my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. I believe that my fear of becoming an alcoholic combined with the Chorus of Critics playing such a loud soundtrack actually prevented me from going down the rabbit hole of addiction - an all too-common result of sexaul abuse. Cannabis, though, was always a reliable escape.
Aversion to Leadership - I neither trusted nor wanted to be a leader. Leaders had failed me at Milton. The leader of the bike trip failed me by abusing me. The Head of school failed me and others by not holding my abuser accountable, enabling him to abuse an untold number of other students until he was finally fired for abusing another student five years after the school knew of my abuse.
The pinnacle of my leadership was when my small group expedition on NOLS voted me to lead them. This was a three-day trek through Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. There were no roads where we were heading. We just had a destination and a time we needed to be there. While leading this type of group was comfortable to me, when it came to more formalized institutions, I steered clear. Not only did I not trust leaders, I wasn’t good enough in my own thinking. I didn’t deserve to be a leader. Avoiding leadership is, in business vernacular, a career limiting move. I tried to muscle through my early career with this internal conflict playing in the background. I worked in positions that weren’t a good fit for my aptitudes. And after nearly 20 years in large corporate jobs, I left that world behind. This freed me up to create my own comfort with leadership, but that sentiment still lingers: a holdover from mistrusting leaders.
Need to be liked - The one area that I actually felt successful was in friendships. I valued friendships more than anything. While this is still true today, I am less likely to do or say things to others that I think they want or I believe will make them like me. In high school, my need to be liked was nearly pathological. I feared people disliking me. This wasn’t true for teachers, but maybe that’s because I was abused by one.
For me, having friends and being likable was my only ammunition against the Chorus of Critics. The only time I could prove them wrong was in my friendships. At least people like me. I can make friends easily. And the longer I know them, the more I can be myself. What a great feeling. I didn’t have to work as hard with my childhood friends. I knew they were with me, but with others I always had lingering insecure thoughts that I was one stupid move away from being cast out. The Chorus of Critics knew this fear, and they reminded me often.
Adult Life - I have written here mostly about the impact of my abuse that I carried with me through high school. The reality is that these impacts don’t just disappear over time. It’s not like an external wound that you can care for with salves and bandages. These internal wounds stay with you. Sometimes they deepen over time while other times they fade in the hold they have over you. But they don’t typically get better over time without mental health support.
For some, even seeking mental health support is stigmatized, seen as a weakness or disloyalty to one’s family. I am lucky that I knew therapy would be important for me. And I’m lucky that I could afford it. And yet even with the work I have done over the past 40 years, I carry these scars with me. Many are not so lucky. They don’t or can’t afford to seek therapy. For some, the pain becomes too difficult to bear. Suicide and substance abuse are very common results among victims of sexual assault. In a 2001 study in Australia, “young people who had experienced child sexual abuse had a suicide rate that was 10.7 to 13.0 times the national Australian rates.” And in a 2001 National Institutes of Health study, 72% of participants with substance abuse reported past sexual abuse.
For me, recovery and healing is ongoing.
I am lucky. Many victims of abuse become swallowed by the shame. They often turn to substances to relieve the pain, to escape from it. For others, the dark specter of depression is a constant visitor. Many turn to suicide, unable to bear the weight of their pain. Unable to see a way out.
Intervention - ideally early intervention - and support from family and friends is essential for healing. There is a way out.
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If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. If you're having suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). If you are located outside the United States, call your local emergency line immediately.