Is it possible to heal from this? Or at least survive it?
January 19, 2013 7:34 AM   Subscribe

If you have experienced child sexual abuse and came to some sort of healing what do you wish you had known from the beginning? What words of advice do you have for someone just beginning to go down that path?

I have been in therapy with an excellent therapist who I trust for two years now. I have learned to deal with a life long depression. I have learned to deal with being raped. And then the memories resurfaced of sexual abuse by my older brother when I was a young girl. I am not sure when it started but it only ended with his suicide when I was 13.

I find myself feeling like I am going crazy on a daily basis and struggling with deep shame, self hate, disassociation, etc. All the fun stuff. I am trying my hardest to hold on but I am not sure if it gets better? Does it? What helped you through?

All I really have is my therapist as I have no real friends to speak of. I have tried online forums but find them overwhelming and more aimed at venting while I am trying to maintain my focus on healing and not letting the rest of my life fall apart (failing!).

Books? Poems? Personal stories? Anything you can think of to let me know it wasn't my fault and other people get through this alive with some sort of ability to be even mildly sane again?

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

I am so so sorry that this happened to you.

The writer Barry Lopez was on Fresh Air last week to talk about his experience being sexually abused as a child for years. I think he's one of the most skilled people I know for putting words to things that most of us would find hard to describe. You might want to give the interview a listen. Until his recent article in Harper's on the abuse he has been known mostly for his nature writing, which I really love. It's almost hard for me to square my image of him as an immensely talented, nuanced, mature writer with his own self-image of someone who is fundamentally broken. His story was helpful for me to understand how a person might be affected child sexual abuse.
posted by stinker at 7:46 AM on January 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm so sorry that you're going through this, anon.

Please establish a throwaway gmail account and have the mods post it here. This is a question where people who can relate to your experience may want to remain anonymous as well.
posted by longtime_lurker at 7:50 AM on January 19, 2013

Mod note: Added throwaway email address.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:29 AM on January 19, 2013

You have my heartfelt sympathy and support.

A small thing, but it may help a bit: realise that you are not alone, by far. Many of us have been through similar experiences and can relate.
I'm one who has, and I refuse to be ashamed and remain silent about this; after all, what happened is not my fault and does not reflect badly on me in any way. Just like it's not your fault and does not mean anything negative about you.

We were so little still. How could it have been our fault? The older person should have known better... and nothing, nothing we may have said or done excuses what that person did. Please try to believe that, as it's true.

Yes, it will get better. You'll get through this. Good luck, good healing to you, e-hugs if you want them and contact me if you want to.
posted by Too-Ticky at 9:15 AM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm sending you an email, but I wanted to chime in here for future people who come to this question seeking help.

It get's better. It does. Right now it sucks, so fucking bad. It's terrible and everything is stupid and you just want to scream and cry but sometimes it seems like you don't have a voice, or tears or hands or arms or anything and you're just floating. But it gets better.

Here's something you need to know: everything you're feeling right now, it's true. It's all valid and you're doing a great job. And in the future, you won't feel these things as much. Sometimes you wont feel them at all. And then you'll go back to feeling them again. And all of that is okay. Any feelings now don't negate future feelings, past feelings, etc. And vice versa. I know this is a common thing- to be afraid that if maybe you do end up handling it well then it wasn't a big deal after all. But that's not true. Whatever you feel is true, is true. That helped me get through it, allowing myself to feel whatever I wanted, and counting every single feeling as valid.

What also helps: Anger. When you go through trauma like that, it's natural and expected for you to feel either intense emotion, or none at all. And for a long time the emotions I had were just like you described- shame, self-hatred, etc. But there was just this breaking point, one day, when those emotions receded and I just felt pissed. It's not fucking fair that it happened to you. Be angry.
I don't know if being angry helped me to process it logically, or being able to think about it logically helped me realize that I should be angry, but they go hand in hand, and that moment, by far, was the biggest turning point in being able to feel empowered and independent of what happened.

Now, lets state the obvious because sometimes it's just nice to hear it from other people:
•It wasn't your fault.
•It was their fault
•You did nothing to deserve this
•You're still a great human, and deserve happiness
•Your life is yours. Your body is yours. You have complete autonomy now, and you should feel empowered by it.
•You are not what happened to you
•You're doing a great job
•Don't sweat the small stuff. Relapses happen. It's ok to have an off day.
•Don't worry about the things you're not doing that you'd like to. Focus on all of the things you've done so far
•You're doing a great job.
•It wasn't your fault
•It was not your fault
posted by FirstMateKate at 10:33 AM on January 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

It is absolutely not fair you have to go through this.

You could be curing cancer or writing an opera with the energy you have to devote to recovering from something that is in no way your fault. Get hella angry about this as often as you need.

For me, when I was first dealing with my sexual abuse experience (20 years ago) what helped the most was being in a therapy group specifically for women survivors. You may be different, of course, but I found it tremendous to be with 8 other women at weekly meetings going through similar stuff. I could get a much better sense of the work we were doing -- and that some days are good, some days are hideous, but we all made progress. When one of us was falling to pieces, someone else was in a good place and could help. I'm in touch with several of these women to this day (it "got better" for all of us) and to say they saved my life is not an overstatement.

As I said, that approach is not for everyone (a lot of people just want privacy with an individual therapist) but if you think it might help, check resources at a local university, womens shelter, feminist bookstore, etc. Or ask your therapist for a referral. There are groups out there. And I think in-person (via online) matters here.

Other than that, remember two things:

1.) Just recognize that you will always have days when you feel crazy. Some days you will be knocked flat with awful memories and intrusive thoughts and you just have to get. through. it. For me, the news of the Penn State scandal wound up being a real punch in the stomach, and I had to avoid most of that story. That's OK. That's life for a lot of humans for different reasons. It doesn't make you crazy or "less than" other people.

2.) With that will NEVER be as bad as it is now. You are in the belly of the beast, my friend. Other stuff will happen, life will get messy ahead, certainly, but honestly nothing has been as all-out debilitating for me as the early months of acknowledging the reality of the sexual abuse and all the tangled family stuff that came with it. Nothing.

Be kind to yourself, find your tribe, and let time help heal you.
posted by pantarei70 at 11:17 AM on January 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Phew. I'm very sorry that you are feeling this way. I'm going to try and answer your many questions as best I can from my perspective.

Is it possible to heal from this? Or at least survive it?

Yes, you will survive this. You can and will survive this. If you ever get to the point where you think you cannot survive this / are experiencing suicidal ideation, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255 and talk to someone and remember this thread or other kindnesses from other support structures. A lot of people like you and think you are pretty great, and I'm one of them.

As for healing from this, yes it is possible. It also depends significantly on what you choose to define for yourself as healed. I know I will always carry the scarring and the weight of childhood sexual abuse with me, but I do consider myself partially healed as well. For me that came in the form of rhetorical shift (I consider myself a survivor now, I used to default to the word victim), a condensation of triggered episodes (my triggers used to be much lighter and easier to hit, now I have a more robust self-stabilization system), a capability for discussing my abuse and abuse in general in public spaces (/wave) and so on. I think everyone probably feels differently when they make it to a point of considering themselves at least partially "healed" but you will make it there. You can make it there!!

If you have experienced child sexual abuse and came to some sort of healing what do you wish you had known from the beginning?

Phew, that's a really really great question. I REALLY wish I had thought to ask someone this earlier in my process. You are really smart and insightful for asking this question, and you should feel proud of yourself for that.

Things I wish I had known (phrased as 'things I wish someone had told me' because I feel like I'm using the word "I" too much)

1. Not only was the abuse not your fault, your needs while healing from the abuse are not your fault nor an imposition on the professionals that will help you. Your needs are important and valid.

2. Not only are you not irrevocably broken, you are not broken. You are whole and good and worth making time to make even better.

3. Your abuse is not who you are, and won't define you. You do not have to tell anyone that you don't want to tell. For people close to you that you do tell, be patient with them. They may need time to process that information. They should be supportive and kind to you. If they are not, you need to find a different friend.

4. Your abuse will not stop you from being a great and successful person. This isn't the end of your life, or your goals, or your happiness. You are bigger than your abuse.

5. Early in recovery and as your healing progresses, you may find yourself in situations of interaction or being alone and feel sad and anxious and angry and hopeless in regards to your abuse. Try and keep track of what those situations were and attenuate your behavior to a degree. (what I mean here, for me, was to start keeping a little list, literally in a journal, of situations and conversations that triggered me. I started to see those on the horizon coming in, and take steps to prepare myself or avoid them entirely. You may find that some aren't obvious at first, at least they weren't for me.)

What words of advice do you have for someone just beginning to go down that path?

I'm going to have to heavily caveat this advice, but here it is:

Get on a healthy diet and exercise regimen and stay on it no matter what. Cut out any and all recreational drugs and alcohol, and I'm including cigarettes but not necessarily including marijuana.

I am not advising you to smoke pot, I'm leaving that avenue open as a possible tool in recovery with advice of a doctor.

I REALLY WISH someone had told me to get on a good diet and exercise regimen. It took me about 12 years into recovery before I did that, and it's made a massive difference and improvement. Your brain is literally fed with happiness chemicals when you have a good diet and exercise well.

If you smoke cigarettes, quit them as soon as possible. I only had partial success in quitting 3-4 times for 6-8 months each time in the last 10 years, until I found e-cigs and quit a year ago. Nicotine ain't great either, but I'm stepping it down gradually and seriously the smoke is such a killer.

I find myself feeling like I am going crazy on a daily basis and struggling with deep shame, self hate, disassociation, etc. All the fun stuff. I am trying my hardest to hold on but I am not sure if it gets better? Does it? What helped you through?

I'm so sorry you are feeling that way on a daily basis. That's incredibly difficult to deal with, but you can do it.

It does get better. It really does.

Some things that helped me through:

Consuming media of some kind helps to calm intrusive thoughts and redirect my focus from a snowball of anxiety into something else. For me specifically, I tend to use high-bandwidth information shows that pump a lot of data into my head at once along with some humor. QI (episodes are on YouTube, search for QI XL) are a great example of this, and my go-to mainstay. Books are a pretty good one too, but I find that they are more difficult to calm racing / intrusive / anxious thoughts because the heavy lifting is still being done by your brain. Visual media is easier for me. Browsing MetaFilter is also really good for me, but I setup a MyMefi rule on the Blue to exclude tags that have triggers in them. Also, a complex puzzle videogame, or an immersive role-playing game, have been helpful for me in the past. Try and avoid most videogame communities though, as they are not so great with the triggers thing. MeFightClub is the MetaFilter gaming club, and I have never ever been playing with anyone from there that has used the r word or other things. Ever.

Also, sharing your story in some fashion can help sometimes. Sometimes it's better to do that in places where there's no "feedback" that might trigger a reaction. Submitting a photo to Project Unbreakable is an example of a share-space with no possibility of negative feedback that I made use of. It felt really good.

All I really have is my therapist as I have no real friends to speak of. I have tried online forums but find them overwhelming and more aimed at venting while I am trying to maintain my focus on healing and not letting the rest of my life fall apart (failing!).

Books? Poems? Personal stories? Anything you can think of to let me know it wasn't my fault and other people get through this alive with some sort of ability to be even mildly sane again?

Yeah, the online forums aren't usually too great right off the bat. I have used them in the past, but really as a countermeasure against isolation or panic. Like I was saying before, sharing can help. Just sitting down and typing about it for a while can be helpful. In the early days, I would sometimes sign up for an account on a mental health forum and make a cry for help or share my story just to do it. I sometimes would check back, sometimes I would not. But the point was not usually for the feedback, just to feel like I was sending up a flare. That is okay to feel sometimes, that isn't unusual or unnatural or bad.

I know it feels like your life is falling apart but you can do this. Really. You aren't insane, and you won't feel this bad forever.

Another word of advice I wish I knew: try and research how you feel, when you can. I know it sounds weird to some people, but it wasn't always obvious to me that some of the symptoms I was experiencing were in fact symptoms. That not everyone felt, say, strong anxiety at certain times of the day. Sometime researching symptoms of PTSD / depression / anxiety can help to mentally lock-in a symptom or concept that had been nebulous before. And once you understand more of the beast you are wrestling with, the better equipped you are to discover the beasts' weakness and vulnerabilities and win that tug-of-war.

This is a longer comment than I intended and I think that's all I can say on the topic for now (knowing your limits also helps!) but I'm going to close by sharing this letter that one of my heroes, Stephen Fry, wrote to a fan that had written him seeking advice. Stephen is bipolar (and made a great documentary on the subject called The Secret Life of the Manic-Depressive) and I frequently turn to it to remind myself of the age old adage This Too Shall Pass.

Dear Crystal,

I’m so sorry to hear that life is getting you down at the moment. Goodness knows, it can be so tough when nothing seems to fit and little seems to be fulfilling. I’m not sure there’s any specific advice I can give that will help bring life back its savour. Although they mean well, it’s sometimes quite galling to be reminded how much people love you when you don’t love yourself that much.

I’ve found that it’s of some help to think of one’s moods and feelings about the world as being similar to weather.

Here are some obvious things about the weather:

It’s real.

You can’t change it by wishing it away.

If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can’t alter it.

It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.


It will be sunny one day.

It isn’t under one’s control as to when the sun comes out, but come out it will.

One day.

It really is the same with one’s moods, I think. The wrong approach is to believe that they are illusions. They are real. Depression, anxiety, listlessness – these are as real as the weather – AND EQUALLY NOT UNDER ONE’S CONTROL. Not one’s fault.


They will pass: they really will.

In the same way that one has to accept the weather, so one has to accept how one feels about life sometimes. “Today’s a crap day”, is a perfectly realistic approach. It’s all about finding a mental umbrella. “Hey-ho, it’s raining inside: it isn’t my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it, but sit it out. But the sun may well come out tomorrow and when it does, I shall take full advantage.”

I don’t know if any of that is of any use: it may not seem it, and if so, I’m sorry. I just thought I’d drop you a line to wish you well in your search to find a little more pleasure and purpose in life.

Very best wishes,

Stephen Fry
The weather will improve. I wish you the best. Feel free to MeMail me if you need anything.
posted by lazaruslong at 11:57 AM on January 19, 2013 [21 favorites]

My situtation was nowhere near as bad as yours (serial groping over several years by a family member, full support of family when I came clean at 16.).

There is one thing I wanted to say, though. While it was happening, I felt perversely powerful. Like I was making this happen because I was so irresistable or something. I think I was turning my powerlessness into something that gave me a feeling of agency. The bad thing was that this made me feel like a monster, like I was abnormal and not fit for human society. This feeling of being a monster caused the worst damage, worse than the abuse.

So if you have had either of these emotions, you're not alone. And it wasn't your fault, none of it, even if you feel you didn't do enough against your abuser, or even if you feel you somehow encouraged him. You were a kid. You were the one to be protected. It wasn't your fault.

Now, I am happily married, have a child of my own and with time the past has lost its power over me. My abuser died of natural causes. In my mind, I tell him "go in peace".
posted by Omnomnom at 11:59 AM on January 19, 2013

Oh, and as for what I wish I could tell ten-year-old me:

It's not true that this makes me (you) bad and weird. It just makes HIM bad and weird.

And even if you (I) enjoy some aspect of the abuse (in my case, the extra attention I got, and the strange kind of power I seemed to have over a grownup) that still does not change that fact. Not even a little bit.

posted by Too-Ticky at 12:11 PM on January 19, 2013

On preview:
Not only are you not irrevocably broken, you are not broken.

I tell myself "what do you mean, broken? I am a valuable antique!"

You know, that Ming vase or that Victorian chest of drawers and the dealer's. They're not new and they've got the cracks and scratches to prove it, but damn, they are cool.

I think every experience can add depth and understanding to you and help you in later times. You will find a way.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:11 PM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

a poem:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

~ Mary Oliver
posted by zia at 12:58 PM on January 19, 2013 [16 favorites]

I second everything LazarusLong and the other wise commenters have said. They are the voice of hard-earned experience.

So just a few more disjointed thoughts:

1. It gets better. Don't blame yourself. Keep seeking answers. You will overcome this. Your life is about more than what happened to you. (see above)

2. You could be curing cancer or writing an opera with the energy you have to devote to recovering from something that is in no way your fault. Get hella angry about this as often as you need.

I totally agree with this. It is so frustrating and enraging. I also urge you to cure cancer or write an opera. PTSD symptoms are terrible and hard to understand and stigmatized, but you can push through it and do something amazing in the world anyway. Focus on doing something incredible, outside of just recovery.

3. To answer your question -- "AmIWhatHappenedToMe"? No. You are not. You are a miraculous and beautiful creature who is suffering from the after-effects of trauma. You are not only what happened to you. You are so much more.
posted by 3491again at 1:58 PM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

In addition to continuing therapy, I would strongly suggest that you check out Paul Gilmartin's podcast, the Mental Illness Happy Hour. He's a comedian with a history of severe depression, and he has other creative types on to discuss some of the dark, serious crap they've dealt with in their lives, sometimes including abuse. It's changed my life, really. It's funny, sometimes, but it's really more about people being honest about difficult subjects and getting past negative thinking. As he often says, "You are not alone." I don't know how many times I've heard a guest on his show describe some neurosis or personality flaw that I never imagined anybody else had.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:04 PM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I sent you an email. But for the sake of others reading this, who were struck by similarities to their own life - as I was - I wanted to post here too. I am happy to talk more openly over memail than here.

The feeling of shame and disgrace can go away, but the toll that it takes on your identity is the hardest part. I have lived most of my life by defining myself as a victim. Most of it was subconscious patterns I fell into without understanding why those patterns just kept repeating. Why people kept hurting me. Why I had every friendship disappear and people abandon me. Why there was this desperate need to prove that I was good enough, even though the only person who didn't believe that was me. Why I felt like my feelings were stupid, my thoughts were stupid, and my needs were stupid.

Why I felt so alone. So lost. So broken.

Trust is something that should be earned slowly and lost quickly, and for people with the kinds of atrocities in their past that many of us have, trust is something we just don't understand. How easy it is for some people to make friends in a deep and lasting way, where we feel like someone truly understands us, and won't hurt us.

But as I'm learning (literally, today), life can't actually get much worse than it is when you're at your lowest. The worst has already happened. So opening up to others, trusting them with small pieces of yourself, is not a risk. It's a life raft. And even if they float away, you're not any worse off than you were before.

There are people here - me included - who will listen, care, and sit in silence with you. It feels like you're alone, but you're not. Metafilter may only be a web community, but it has quite literally saved my life on one occasion. You reached out here because some part of you wants to trust us, that we're going to listen and care about you.

And it's worth it. I promise.

Here are a few of the quotes that I have clung to through the past year:

Eugene O'Neill said, "Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is the glue."

C. S. Lewis: "I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God. It changes ME."

And Anne Lamott, my favourite:
"But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart. But since your life may indeed have fallen apart, the illusion won't hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: softness and illumination."

"We try to do our best, and then a whole snowy hillside buries a thousand people. Life is eruptions, spasms, just as in our families. If you keep your heart open, these traumas beat you down. But against all odds, something emerges from the wreckage in our hearts, so we can bear witness; collect donations for the families, or the town where the fire broke out; to childhoods destroyed by charming tyrants; to miners trapped two thousand feet down. Love falls to earth, rises from the ground, pools around the afflicted. Love pulls people back to their feet. Bodies and souls are fed. Bones and lives heal. New blades of grass grow from charred soil. The sun rises."

The sun will rise. And flecks of joy will start to creep back in. I've seen it from both sides, and as dark as it is right now, those flecks of joy are worth it. Keep going. We are here for you.
posted by guster4lovers at 9:41 PM on January 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

let me start by saying: congratulations- you have lifted the veil. it's painful as hell. you feel like you may be going mad. that's good news. because you are actually feeling what happened to you. it's the hardest thing you have to do. it feels like to go there, to feel those things will kill you but it won't. you already survived.

feel your feelings. talk to your shrink about these feelings. let them come pouring out of you like the bilious filth they are and always keep your mind on one clear fact: it was not your fault, you are not *ever* to be blamed. mourn that your childhood that was taken from you. let yourself grieve that loss. give yourself the generous sympathy that was denied you as a child.

a book which gave me a great deal of help was the drama of the gifted child. the premise of the book is simply that only the most gifted can survive these types of horrors as it takes a great deal of mental capacity to generate elaborate landscapes necessary to hide such a terrible reality.

please- feel my faith and my hope as i walk down this path just slightly before you, i am with you, as i pull myself forward, as i find new joy in life, i wish for you to find a place of deep internal love and self respect. you deserve nothing less.
posted by memi at 8:47 PM on January 21, 2013

What I wish I had known? That it wasn't my fault. It took years before I even heard that from anyone. It wasn't my fault that he did that to me. It wasn't my fault that my mother had to work 60+ hours a week to support us after she kicked him out. It wasn't my fault my siblings had to do without because my suddenly single mother could barely support all seven of us. It wasn't my fault my mother would cry herself to sleep from worry. I was carrying around ALL that responsibility on the damaged shoulders of a child. And no one thought to tell me it wasn't my fault. (Well, until Oprah faced the cameras and told me. Not a huge Oprah fan, but I will forever cherish her for that.)

One of the hugest breakthroughs for me came when, years later a college friend asked, "Did you love him?" Yeah, yeah I did. He'd been my step-father since I had been very young. I loved him and trusted him. No one had ever asked before. Why had no one told me that having loved my perpetrator was okay too? That there wasn't something wrong with me?

What I can really offer is what I've learned over these years. There WILL be a time when you are no longer "a victim"... you'll be a "survivor". And, there will be a time when even that doesn't define you. It takes a lot longer than anyone of us would like, but the time does come when how you define yourself will have nothing to do with what happened. But allow yourself the time for that to happen; that kind of betrayal takes a lot of healing to mend the spirit. It's really hard to heal when you're punishing yourself for not healing fast enough.
posted by _paegan_ at 2:57 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

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