Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Sexual Abuse: A Survivor's Story
My palms are sweating, my heart is beginning to pound, and I am already near tears. I have just written my first sentence and I am already having an emotionally difficult time in writing this post. I feel the subject is so important that I am willing to do this in hopes that I will help someone else who has been through this. This isn't some academic research article. I am writing this as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
Caution: This post may contain content which is an emotional trigger for others who suffer from PTSD and who have endured sexual abuse. So do proceed with caution and it may be good to have someone on hand you can talk to if you find yourself dealing with overwhelming emotions.
I am fourty-four years old and my abuse took place when I was five years old. Although it has been more than several decades since this abuse took place, I still re-live the fear and terror of that time. I can remember details surrounding the abuse and my abuser with sparkling clarity. But I still cannot remember the actual traumatic events after all this time. I am finding that this gap in memory is not so uncommon and actually is part of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
My father had just died when I was four. Shortly after my father's death a friend of my father came to visit my mother and me on a frequent basis. This man would bring me expensive presents including a huge dollhouse with real lights. He always had gum and candy to give to me as well. He never came to our house without something to give to me. My mother in her grief and distraction allowed this "friend" to babysit me.
I have a memory of sitting on this man's lap and him chiding me that I wasn't my mother's little girl anymore, but his. And that is as far as the vision unfolds before my fear kicks in and my memories go no further. My memories pick up when I am talking to my mother and I am repeating words I have no understanding of their meaning. My mother looks at me in disgust and then panic. She wants to know where I have heard such words before. I tell her that our friend has told them to me. It is then that I am whisked away to the doctor.
I remember feeling confused and frightened during the examination. An overwhelming sense of shame comes over me as the doctor speaks privately to my mother. I don't understand why at the time but I feel dirty and bad as though I have done something terribly wrong. The next memory I have is my mother bringing me to a courtroom. In my disjointed memory, I see him. He is sitting with this back to me. Somehow aware of my presence, he slowly turns his head towards me. He smiles. And I feel pure fear.
Although it was the last time I physically saw this man, I continued to see him in flashbacks and nightmares many years later. As a matter of fact, I can still see him now.
My mother's reaction was extreme over protectiveness based in fear and paranoia.
Whenever there was a knock at the door she would hide me in a closet because it could be the "bad man." Over time I began to startle whenever someone came to the door or even when the phone rang. In my short lived life the bogeyman was kept real and alive. I developed phobias, had nightmares, and felt anxiety and fear every day of my young life. I hate this man for what he did to me and for what he took from me. He robbed me of my innocence and a childhood free from fear.
The human spirit is capable of unfathomable resilience. My childhood was filled with both physical and emotional trauma and yet here I am today to tell my tale. If I give anything to you today my fondest wish is to impart hope.
People and especially children live through all sorts of unimaginable things. And many survive. Survival and suffering seem to go hand in hand. Are we stronger for it? Perhaps. But I would gladly give up this strength for memories which don't involve fear. Even today, peace of mind is difficult to achieve. But it is not impossible. Life goes on and we must roll along with it.
How many people experience sexual abuse?
In an article by J. Douglas Bremner, M.D. entitled, "The Invisible Epidemic: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Memory, and the Brain" the author cites a statistic of sexual abuse as a cause for PTSD: "....a prime cause of PTSD is childhood sexual abuse. About 16% of American women (about 40 million) are sexually abused (including rape, attempted rape, or other form of molestation) before they reach their 18th birthday." And I have a feeling that this estimate is a low one. Many cases of sexual abuse go unreported.
How can sexual abuse lead to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?
Sometimes we experience things which are so traumatic and stressful that physical changes to our brain can take place. According to the literature, PTSD sufferers can also suffer from impairments to the hippocampus which is important for learning and memory. It can also affect the medial prefrontal cortex which regulates our emotional reaction to both fear and stress. PTSD is not just a psychological thing. It also has a physical basis.
What are some of the signs and symptoms of PTSD?
According to Help Guide.org some of the symptoms may include:
- Flashbacks of the event or the times surrounding the event as though one were re-living it.
- Physical manifestations of the flight/fright response such as sweating, increased heart rate, hyperventilation, or nausea in reaction to any reminder of the event.
- Feelings of great distress and depression.
- Intrusive memories which you seemingly cannot control.
- Failure to recall important details of the traumatic event.
- Heightened startle responses.
- Great anxiety and fear when discussing the traumatic event.
- Sleep problems
- A feeling of emotional numbness or inappropriate affect to talking about the trauma.
- Difficulties with memory and concentration.
What can be done to help you get through this?
I cannot stress this enough but finding a skilled therapist or counselor is one of the best things you can do. You don't need to go through this alone. I found a wonderful therapist in my early twenties to help me. It was a difficult and painful process but I can honestly say that therapy does help with this.
There are also support groups for PTSD as well as sexual abuse where you can talk with others who have been through similar experiences. You are far from alone in this. There are many others who share your pain and have survived.
Here are some further resources :
The National Institute of Mental Health has an index of articles about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that you may find here.
The Anxiety Disorders Association of America may also be a way to find a therapist skilled in handling both sexual abuse and PTSD
You may also find information and assistance from the Sidran Institute: Traumatic Stress Education and Advocacy
And lastly here is an open directory of support groups for sexual abuse survivors which you may find here.