The Big Oak Tree
Do all 5-year old’s play this game?
It seems like nothing would ever be the same
Why do you look at me with that funny smile?
Why do you make me do these things so vile?
The feeling of the grass on my skin
The touch of your hand over my chin
“just keep quiet little one…
wouldn’t want anyone to spoil our fun”
Your eyes changed color as you had your way with me
I turned my face and looked at the big oak tree
Will the tree still grow after what happened today?
Will I want to come out again to play?
Will I embrace the sunlight on my face?
Or will I want to disappear without a trace?
I trusted you, you were my friend
But this was just the start of something that would never end I look back at you, your blue eyes so mean
Your hand covering my mouth, I can’t even scream
You took away my purity
Underneath the big oak tree
You walked away whistling a tune
And I was left on the ground, sending wishes to the moon.
When innocence is stolen
Understanding the adult survivor of child sexual abuse can be a very daunting and challenging experience. Sexual abuse victimizes a person, and the partner can play a crucial role in the recovery and healing process of the abused. The love and support of a partner, friends, and family, can encourage the process of healing. It is crucial for those surrounding the abused, to understand the mixed signals they convey daily. The abused can; in many instances, turn to their loved ones for help, but in the wink of an eye, turn against them. That is only one of the survivor’s unconscious defense mechanisms, saying: “I have to stop you now because you are getting too close to the pain.” The behavioral patterns of the abused can be destructive and confusing at times. It is not their intention to be disconnected from those surrounding them. The psychological wounds sexual abuse leaves on the survivor are devastating. The abused can come across as being strong and independent and, in an instant, be extremely needy and seem vulnerable.
What is sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse does not only mean a person is sexually penetrated, but it includes fondling, forcing a child to touch an adult’s sexual organs, inappropriate touching, forcing of oral or anal sex, using objects or fingers to penetrate the child, voyeurism, exposing the child to adult sexual organs, masturbating in front of the child, taking photos of the child naked, forcing the child into prostitution, among other things. In many instances, sexual abuse is not about sexual satisfaction, but about the abuse itself. It is a selfish act placing the perpetrator’s need above those of their victims. Many survivors tend to minimize or deny what happened to them because going back to those painful memories, can evoke feelings of anxiety and depression. When sexual abuse happens, it shatters the child’s trust in authority and they develop an inability to trust others. The abused loses their security, a distortion of boundaries starts to develop and they are left feeling fearful, helpless, and numb.
On many occasions the abused suppress their emotions and shut down their feelings, leaving them emotionally numb. They grow up to be adults disconnected from their feelings, being unable to experience a full spectrum of emotions. Survivors of child sexual abuse describe various emotions including, shame and guilt, low self-worth, fear, anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders, difficulty sleeping, flashbacks, impaired memory, trust issues, fear of intimacy, depression, and suicide ideation. The perpetrator stole their innocence and a chance to experience a carefree childhood. Regardless of the nature of the abuse that took place, it leaves a horrific impact on the survivor’s life, and the survivor needs to get to a point where they can acknowledge that what had happened to them, was wrong and not their fault. When a survivor talks, it is crucial to receive a positive response from those they trusted with their story. If the abused receives a negative response, they will experience the abuse all over again and will most probably retract. One of the first steps to healing is to begin to feel again. Many survivors are afraid to feel and experience different emotions. With the help of a counselor, the survivor works on embracing their feelings to gain fluidity of their emotions.
One of the main emotions survivors of sexual abuse face is anger. They might be loving and caring and in a split second, lash out in anger for no apparent reason. Anger comes in different forms and can be seen in passivity and uncertainty. Some survivors will, instead of lashing out at others, turn their anger on themselves by starting to hurt themselves, self-mutilation, eating disorders, etc. As a child, the survivor lost their power and by lashing out over others, or themselves, they feel they regain the power. The abused may also experience anger when experiencing unmet expectations. In most instances, anger is used as a coping mechanism. At times, anger is the only emotion the survivor can access and they will get stuck there, it also makes it easier for them to feel less vulnerable.
Guilt and shame
Many survivors don’t talk about their abuse because the feelings of guilt and shame overshadow them. “Guilt is when you feel like you’ve done something wrong, shame is when you believe you are something wrong.” Guilt helps people establish right from wrong. The child is too young to know where to place the responsibility, so automatically takes the blame for the abuse that occurred. In many instances, they start to believe that the perpetrators’ sinful behavior, was their fault and this causes misplaced guilt. Shame carries a deep inner feeling of exposure, and the abused feels naked to the world. From a very early age, the abused demeans and blames themselves for what happened. Confronting misplaced guilt and shame is very important in the recovery process. Until the survivor faces the truths, they live their lives as a victim.
Survivors of trauma learn that the world is a very dangerous place and that bad things happen to good people. They fear further incidences where they will be victimized and then avoid social situations. They become disconnected from others and may experience panic attacks and anxiety. Classic fears of survivors of sexual abuse include fear of intimacy, being alone, the dark, decision making or independence, dependence or vulnerability, authority figures, social situations, closed spaces, traveling away from home, and sex. One of the main goals of a counselor is to assist the abused to detect negative emotions. By learning to identify these negative emotions, the survivor is one step closer to experiencing freedom.
Relationships and intimacy
The abused might create havoc in relationships. They tend to fear abandonment and at the end of the day, “destroy” relationships to gain control over the situation. Survivors might make demands and have unrealistic expectations from their partners or family members. A typical sentence describing the survivor’s world, would be “I hate you, don’t leave me”. Partners and loved ones may feel confused and hurt by these behaviors and might see leaving as the only option. Intimacy is an area that gets affected severely in the adult survivor of child sexual abuse. In some instances, the abused goes into sexual overdrive and then something can trigger them and all the sexual drives get switched off. This can happen for various reasons: the survivor might be unaware of the abuse that took place, they might have known all the way but are struggling to fight painful memories and the sexual encounters take them back to the traumatic events.
Memories, triggers and flashbacks
Not all survivors remember when the abuse took place or even what happened during the abuse. Sexual abuse is so horrifying and stressful, that it’s very common for the abused to block those memories for years. By blocking out what happened, the child protects themselves temporarily, but as time goes by, these memories will surface. Although these memories are blocked from the subconscious, they still hold power over the survivor. These past forgotten memories will intrude on the present. Past hurt demands to be felt. Memories may creep up on survivors, these may include visual, auditory, sensory, bodily, and emotional memories. Unless the survivor confronts memories that pop up, they may continue to act out in many ways and this may establish unhealthy behaviors and patterns, leading to anxiety and depression. Triggers also cause a lot of anxiety in survivors. A trigger is an outward stimulus that causes a physical or emotional reaction. Flashbacks also cause a lot of anxiety in survivors. They can be blurry, dramatic, or very vivid. These flashbacks immediately take the survivor back to the traumatic event and forces the survivor to experience the trauma again. Flashbacks can be an indication that the mind is telling the abused that they are ready to face these fears and can start dealing with the past hurt.
Some survivors dissociate in different situations. At the time that the abuse takes place, many survivors dissociate, this is their way of dealing with the traumatic event. This happens because the abuse is just too much to handle and the person separates themselves from what is happening. By dissociating, the abused learns that when things become too much to handle emotionally, they can ‘leave’ their reality and not deal with the present.
Many survivors of sexual abuse, start believing lies about themselves. They believe that what had happened to them, was their fault, they aren’t valuable, and that they are damaged and cannot be loved by anyone. They start believing that to be loved and accepted, they need to be sexual or promiscuous. These false beliefs create a distorted self-image in the survivor and may lead to depression and anxiety, among other things. The abused may then create different ‘personas’ to deal with life, like the “Tough Person” – this person takes on a very hard exterior to keep people away from them. “Party Animal” – this person uses their sexuality to numb their pain. “Martyr” – they are the eternal victim, “Peacekeeper” – they self-sacrifice all the time, “Overachiever” – overachieve in all aspects of life and builds their self-worth on their achievements. “Underachiever” – their inadequacies leave them feeling numb by depression and the thoughts of failing, so they don’t even try.
In conclusion, adult survivors of child sexual abuse were robbed of their innocence and missed their childhood. They were forced to grow up before their time and the trust that they were supposed to have for the world around them, was shattered in seconds. That hurt child is hiding in each adult survivor of child sexual abuse. The counselor walks with the survivor on a road to recovery to rediscover the inner child and giving that child back their voice and power. The counselor plays an instrumental role in facilitating the survivor to allow the inner child to come out and show their playful self and help the survivor to release all the painful memories associated with their childhood. The survivor needs to realise that what had happened to them, was not their fault and that everything is going to be ok. The survivor will learn to nurture their inner child and relearn how to trust others, set up healthy boundaries, and soothe their fears of everyday life.
The Author: Marilize Howell
My name is Marilize and I am a wife and mother of 3, (soon to be 4) children. I am passionate about families and relationships and helping members of the family, understand each other better.
I want to help individuals (and families) going through difficult periods, transitions or mental and behavioral problems in their lives. Problems within the marriage, relationship or family doesn’t only affect the individual dealing with the emotions, but it also affects the family as a whole. I know the impact these problems can have on a family system and I am passionate about educating people affected by someone dealing with emotional or behavioral problems and help them find strategies to better cope in these situations.
My areas of interest include, but aren’t limited to:
Marriage and couples’ therapy
Child sand play therapy
Trauma, loss & grief therapy
Depression and anxiety
My aim is to create a safe space where you can experience empathy from me as if I have walked the road with you…
“One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things”
~ Charlie Mackesy