Sex and the Survivor
It’s a no-brainer really that one of the biggest areas we have to deal with in our lives is our sexuality.
I remember when I was young, not long after I had got away and left home and was trying to move on I suppose in my life – find the ‘life after abuse’, I came across a couple of books written by survivors. They were very different. One was a young woman who had become a prostitute after years of abuse and the other a young mother who was raising the child that came from her father’s abuse.
I was reading to feel less alone. When I had encountered the books it felt incredible to come across others who had been abused and I pored over every page looking for similarities and points of connection. There were many. And yet our outcomes were very different. I didn’t have a child and there was no way I would entertain the idea of selling my body. I couldn’t relate to that story at all. In fact for me this was when I think I first realised that a significant result of the years of abuse for me was how terrified of my sexuality I was.
Oh but I had become a Christian and was able, for many years, to hide my distaste behind the cloak of purity and I wonder sometimes if I was not joined there by others who found it easy to avoid sex on the pretext of waiting for the right expression when in fact we were simply turned off and scared. Or was it scarred?
Like many of my contemporaries, I met and became engaged to my husband, and we waited for the wedding night. It wasn’t hard for me. I didn’t mind at all. I wasn’t so naïve though as to think that on that blessed night it would all be wonderful. I knew enough then to at least realise that my natural aversion wouldn’t disappear when I said the magic words, ‘I do’. What I wasn’t prepared for was the extent of the damage done and the years of work ahead for me.
I look back at that honeymoon now and shudder. I remember someone saying to me before we were married that the honeymoon would be over all too soon and reality would kick in. They encouraged me to savour every bit of it. But the reality was, I was longing for it to end. It was the honeymoon from hell and I couldn’t wait to get back home and not be trapped with a man who couldn’t understand what I was going through.
He told me I needed counselling and I knew that was true but I needed much more than that. I needed a depth of understanding that simply wasn’t there.
The flashbacks were the worst part. I was never having sex just with my husband – there was always a third party as my memories surfaced and stole what was intended for pleasure and turned it into a horror movie that never ended well.
What began in passion was soon overshadowed by an overwhelming sense of terror that I couldn’t shake. I needed lights on. I needed to keep my eyes open. I had to focus my breathing. I had to keep telling myself that it would be okay. My first mantra’s were this is your husband not your abuser, but they quickly became lie still and it will soon be over. I didn’t know how to change.
Associated with the flashbacks was the physiological problem of pain. It wasn’t even in my head and I had no idea how to deal with it. I felt robbed. I couldn’t understand how something that left me feeling raw and violated all over again could be desired or desirable.
I came home from my honeymoon defeated and feeling like a broken ragdoll with no hope and worse, no one understanding the depths of my pain.
The years of abuse were stealing my present-day life as well, right before my eyes.
I spent many years trying to deal with my ‘problems’. Eventually my marriage broke down and despite the fact that we had eight children and in addition I had suffered several miscarriages, my sexual struggles were blamed. I was, my former husband said, damaged and irreparable.
In time I came to appreciate that while in some ways he was right, the truth is we are all damaged. He didn’t come to our marriage in perfection and while it was true that I had struggles, it was also true that he had an opportunity to help me but was not able. This was the flaw he brought to our marriage. And it was just as significant. He was never emotionally available to me in any way and the truth is he was simply
the wrong person to try to work through these issues with. He had no depth.
It’s funny now, so many years later, when I look back over that first marriage. How naive I was, and how unsure of myself. Before I even accepted his proposal we spoke of the years of abuse I had endured and the ways in which I knew myself to be scarred, and my husband was full of it will all be all rights, and I will be there for you. But in reality he wasn’t capable. I needed something he simply could not give. And neither of us really knew what it was.
Years later, I came to see was that it wasn’t so much that my sexuality was damaged as that this was the manifestation of the pain trapped inside. Of course if you are a victim of child sexual abuse sex will be problematic but the point is it isn’t our sexuality that is damaged through early childhood abuse, it’s our sense of worth, or ability to attach to a man and the fact that we have a mountain range of grief to deal with. These are the actual barriers to a health sense of our own sexuality. Next week we will look into some other aspects of our sexual struggles following child sexual abuse.
So how do we move forwards?
Dealing with false beliefs
Our sense of worth is reduced to nothing because we have been used.
We have learned from such a young age that our purpose, the reason for our existence is to meet someone else’s need.
We have learned that how we feel is insignificant, irrelevant and of no interest to those around us, in particular to those we had thought would love and protect us the most. One of the results of this is that we find it difficult to say what we want – to feel anything and to expect good things to happen to us. We don’t expect to be loved, valued or cared for. We are often empty and expect little but even the little we hope for doesn’t come our way. Every day this idea we have formed of ourselves is confirmed by those we choose, in our low view of ourselves, to populate our lives with.
I know of no other way to deal with this issue than the powerful use of affirmation and the relentless need to replace the wrong idea we have of ourselves with a healthier one.
Our thinking runs on train tracks littered with self-doubt, snagging on barbs of our worthlessness, but none of it is true. And every time we reiterate this wrong view of ourselves we are in essence agreeing with our abusers. Each time I think of myself as being of no significance other than meeting someone else’s need I give power back to that man who took my childhood so many years ago. He’s dead but I could still let him control my life. From inside my own head. Only you have the power to stop this for yourself and only you have that power over your own mind, but the truth is you do have it.
Every thought you think you choose.
When we have been the victims of early childhood abuse we frequently go on to form unhealthy attachments in our lives or struggle to attach to others at all.
Early on we learned that those we think are there to look out for us will hurt us. We came to find that it somehow felt right to feel unsafe. We have often learned to feel drawn to others who will hurt us as if this was the only natural thing for us to do and then when they do it feels normal. We feel somehow centred this way.
And more than this, we feel grateful to those who treat us badly because somewhere deep inside us we have a twisted idea that this is love.
Research has shown that there are strong similarities between children who are abused and hostage victims, survivors of terror attacks and concentration camp inmates (Fillmore, 1981, cited in Jones et al, 1987) Some of this research has suggested that this is in part why such children form bonds with their abuser despite them hurting them - much like how hostage victims show identification with their captors – known as Stockholm Syndrome.
The Australian Childhood Foundation offers training to professionals on the neurophysiology of child abuse in which a careful examination is made of the developing brain and the impact abuse results in for the child victim. Their studies suggest that for many of us our attachments are all messed up and that it is in unravelling this, working on this, that we will find new freedom from forming unhealthy relationships.
We can’t begin to really heal until we see how hurt we have been and we can’t do that unless we are willing to unravel. Undo the tacking stitches that we used to keep ourselves together long enough to get out, or until we were old enough to leave. It’s not an easy task and certainly not a pleasant one. For me grief has been at the heart of this recovery and allowing myself to actually grieve, to cry, to write and to process the enormity of the grief that I felt that I was not nurtured but rather used by those I longed for nurture from, that has allowed me to strip myself back and move forwards in my life in a healthier way.
I remember how as a young married woman I felt desperate to feel normal. I used to look at young women on the street and watch movies where young women seemed to feel sexual attraction and wonder how it felt for them, wonder if I would ever feel that.
I felt robbed, cheated and devoid of something that seemed to come so naturally to them. I never struggled to wait for sex until I was married, but sadly I didn’t have any real interest once I was married either.
It took me a long time to realise that part of that was because I never felt that attraction at all, and had mistaken someone obsessing over me as being love. I look back and can see how I had no idea what to look for. The cues were all wrong but I couldn’t see it.
As my marriage was ending I began to uncover the root cause of my sexual struggles.
It happened because of pizza of all things. My husband had been away. He had been working interstate for some months and while he was away I had discovered Co-Dependents Anonymous. I had been attending twice-weekly meetings for some months and was finally beginning to understand some of the struggles I had been living with. He had come home for the weekend and announced that we’d all have pizza for dinner. About to place the order he called out, perfunctorily, what would you like. We had been married 18 years by then and as he asked I froze.
During the months of his absence we had also sometimes eaten take-away pizza and when we did the children and I made a list of what we liked. They had their preferences and I had mine. We ordered a combination of what we all liked. But when my husband was home I found my mouth voicing familiar but unwelcome words – I don’t mind, you choose. And as I spoke them I realised that this is what I always did with him. I felt as if I could almost see myself slinking into the corner and hiding in the shadows.
At the next Co-Da meeting I attended I spoke of this and was staggered to hear others identify with me and share stories of similar experiences. It became a cathartic moment. I began then to realise how much I acquiesced to those around me – particularly my husband, poured out myself and wanted nothing in order to meet other’s needs, and how much I thought that even saying what I wanted was bad – wrong somehow. It was a powerful moment. And in processing it I began to find a way through the mire that prevented me from enjoying a sexual relationship.
A friend of mine speaks of writing by going through the back door. Not going directly at the thing you are writing about but slipping inside unnoticed, and then writing of the thing. I feel that this issue of sexuality is a little like that. I used to think about getting sexual counselling but I was too scared to! I would have had no words, not even known where to begin to discuss an issue that generated so much pain, so much angst. But in the end I had discovered that sexual healing didn’t come from the direct, it came from slipping in through the back door unnoticed and dealing with these other issues that influenced it – the faulty sense of self-worth, the attachment issues and the unresolved grief.
I had no intimate relationships for many years after separating from my husband and divorcing him – though I found those actions incredibly empowering. I had grown enough to realise that I had chosen for my husband a man who could only at best replicate the sense of abandonment I had grown to associate with love. He was not capable of showing me the kind of love that nurtures and I realised that I had chosen him especially albeit unwittingly. In ending the marriage I began to find a voice, a voice that wanted what was best for me.
Several years later, after doing a lot of self-work and moving forwards in my recovery, I met a man unexpectedly and fell in love – with him and not an idea of who I hoped he was! But I was scared. Had I done enough? Would it be different now? Was I sufficiently recovered? Would the work I had done show in this area?
We were only together for seven years and while it didn't prove to be a lasting relationship, it was, for the most part, the most wonderful adventure. Especially physically.
Early on we listened to one of our favourite artists, Brook Fraser as she sang the words I felt, ‘you play the chords in me nobody knew how to play’.
I am so grateful for the journey of recovery, to those I listened to who showed me the steps I was too afraid sometimes to take. I stumbled on, sometimes so hesitantly, but they led me through the maze my inner world had become into a meadow glowing with sunshine where I found that love is possible and that you really can find healing.
Even sexual healing.
♥ ~ Sue
© 2017 Susan Parry-Jones
© 2017 Susan Parry-Jones