One of Steven Levenkron’s storytellers told him that cutting was like medicine for her fears, because the psychological pain of the abuse is greater than the pain of the mutilation. Cutting also gives the victim control over who inflicts the pain, in contrast to the powerlessness experienced when being raped. The physical pain of the mutilation also releases endorphins, which are opiate-like substances produced by the brain to kill pain. It is easy to see how people could become addicted to the release of this substance by self-inflicted pain. Self-mutilators also get relief from seeing the blood seeping from their wound.
It can be argued that cutting is a cry for help, but it is also likely that the sense of shame engendered by abuse may be magnified by the shame of cutting, and hinders disclosure about the abuse. These feelings are increased as the victim further withdraws from human contact, and is imprisoned in fear of rejection. They find it difficult to confide in their families. It robs children of self-esteem and self-worth, and damages their trust in people, making them see the world as a hostile place. This is increased if the child is infected following sexual assault, because occasionally this can result in the transmission of a sexually transmitted disease such as herpes, gonorrhoea or syphilis.
Sexual abuse fills a child with shame, and they bring this into adulthood. Shame is a powerful and painful sense of the self being damaged and worthless. The feeling of shame can be intensified if the child experiences physical arousal and pleasure from the abuse. This applies to both boys and girls. Feelings of arousal and pleasure create guilt, confusion, and self-loathing.
All humans have to negotiate the difficult challenges of life stages, from birth until death. The abused child, however, not only has to survive the challenges of childhood and adolescence, but also must carry the burden of the abuse. It is a heavy burden, and distracts the child from dealing with normal developmental tasks, such as becoming independent, creating a unique identity, having a sense of achievement, and nurturing self-esteem. If you want a comprehensive exploration of sexual child abuse at the various life stages from infancy onwards, I suggest you read Felicia Ferrara’s blog Childhood Sexual Abuse. Developmental Effects Across the Lifespan.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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