Lesser known fact about Sigmund Freud – early in his career he was all but laughed out of his field for suggesting that sexual abuse within families was a significant social problem. To remain respected he recanted his findings. Toward the end of his career he went back to his original claims and backed them up, demonstrating that this ugliness was indeed not simply at the fringes of society.
We’ve known for many decades now that sexual abuse is a significant social problem. We’ve made gains in our efforts to create awareness and reduce other forms of sexual assault, but we remain largely at a loss with regard to what happens within a family unit. Our laws treat children as property and we continue to maintain startlingly underfunded and overworked Child Protective Services as our primary form of intervention.
Our discomfort acknowledging the prevalence of sexual abuse is evident in the language we use. Media reports tend to minimize its significance and impact. One rarely reads of a child being raped. One reads of a child being “molested.” I’m repulsed every time I read about a child of 12 or 13 who engaged in “sex” or “sexual acts”, when in fact a child of this age is incapable of consent.
We water down and minimize because we are sickened to imagine what so many children experience. We cannot expect to make significant gains with social problems we’re uncomfortable discussing. It’s additionally problematic that our social problems are intimately connected to each other. As we struggle to make progress in prevention and intervention of substance abuse; we overlook the frequently underlying dynamics of surviving childhood sexual abuse.
We have language for “gateway drugs” but fail to identify gateway experiences. There’s little or no shame in admitting to alcohol or marijuana use. There are a myriad of obstacles to discussing a history of sexual abuse. The degree to which surviving traumatic experiences in childhood lead us toward addiction and alcoholism cannot be overstated.
We need to re-conceptualize “dual diagnosis treatment” as existing within a social context that perpetuates shame. We have language for disgrace but not for transformation. I have the honor of serving what our society labels as: drunks, junkies, druggies, whores, and welfare cases, who are characterized as immoral, weak, lazy, and crazy.
What I often see professionally are the combined effects of residual grooming, (the molding processes that manipulate a child’s understanding of their abuse), the excessive loyalty of being an Adult Child Of An Alcoholic/Addict (ACOA) and the social stigmas of living with addiction(s), mental health conditions, and being a survivor of what remain unspeakable acts. Each of these individually can be debilitating. Their combined impact requires that the survivor progressively claim personal power and develop a new identity.
Children who survive abuse and neglect learn shame from their earliest days. Every one of us was placed at greater risk of abusing substances because we survived traumatic losses at the hands of those who were supposed to protect and nurture us. Yet we live in a world that does not grasp the disease of addiction and are afraid to hear our stories.
We search for those with similar experiences. We find people we relate to in self help programs and group therapy. We seek out clinicians who get us. Bit by bit, we come to understand ourselves and we cease our self destruction, hiding, and hopelessness. We learn to speak the unspeakable. We accept that we need not be ashamed of what was inflicted upon us. We learn to live one day at a time.
We come to take pride in what we incrementally overcome and refuse to allow anyone but ourselves the right to define us. We come to accept that we are forever works in progress and that “failure” only occurs when we stop trying.
The outside world rarely learns of our successes. Our milestones occur privately in therapists offices, in AA, and NA. We are supported by kindred spirits and we celebrate with only the closest and most trusted of loved ones.
The average person will never experience the joy of witnessing transformation, much less achieve it for themselves. They cannot grasp the heroism of maintaining sobriety, overcoming the feeling of never being clean, or the guts it takes to break free of unhealthy loyalties. We remain marginalized and misunderstood. Mores the pity, for we are the very best of people.
When at last we are no longer stigmatized, we will revolutionize. Too many of our brothers and sisters become forever buried under the shame of judgment. What we survived does not define us. Our resilience and determination to achieve the lives we want does.