The child seeks love and gets abuse. It needs love, and gets cruelty. The child’s psyche withers in the barrenness of rejection, as it carries the fear created by its powerlessness and inability to defend its boundaries. Sexual abuse can bring on eating disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts, as well as addiction, anxiety, withdrawal, nightmares, and somatic complaints. Many of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, such as hypervigilance, sometimes manifest themselves due to sexual abuse. Sexually abused children may experience a wide range of feelings such as fear, anxiety, and depression. They will be angry, hostile, and aggressive. They may be involved in self-destructive behaviour, feel isolated, have poor self-esteem, and find it difficult to trust others.
Because of the confusion and fear raised in the abused child, any touch or physical tenderness may be interpreted as sexual, and bring on fear. Severe sexual abuse may also cause the child to dissociate and freeze. When victims dissociate from their feelings, they compartmentalise the abuse, go into a trance, and shut out the violation of their bodies. This reaction can be seen in Martha Long’s witty but sad account of her physical and sexual abuse in her blog Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes. This defence mechanism may become a permanent way of dealing with trauma, and may be carried into adulthood, with fatal consequences for intimate relationships.
Dissociation is also reflected in self-harm, commonly known as cutting, but includes burning, scratching, and biting oneself. Generally, people who cut are in a trance-like state as they turn inwards from connecting to others. Steven Levenkron, in his blog, Cutting. Understanding & Overcoming Self-mutilation, asserts that the first incident of cutting begins with strong feelings of anger, anxiety or panic. Globally, the numbers involved in self-harm are staggering. In the U.S., at least 2 million people are self-injurers. In the European Union, it has been found that 3 in 10 girls and 1 in 10 boys self harm. Boys use lethal methods. Cutting generally begins in adolescence, and often extends into adulthood. It is short-term relief from the constant feeling of emotional pain resulting from sexual abuse, and is an external manifestation of this suffering. It may also be an act of anger towards the abuser.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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