September 27, 2005

Bouncing Back

The other day, I found myself in the position of revealing my son's experience of sexual abuse to the director of his school, a certified therapist. She said, in a way that was meant to be reassuring, that kids are really resilient and he seemed fine.

It's a common misperception in many societies, and a neat vicious circle. We cherish beliefs that diminish abuse. "Telling kids how wrong incest is just makes them feel worse." Or "Kids are resilient; they can bounce back from just about anything." Or "If they were really traumatized it would be obvious."

It's understandable that talking about sexual abuse would be taboo. After all, in an abusive family, talking about it is certainly taboo. So many of us carry that lesson out with us into adulthood, imposing it on each other and ourselves. But it has tremendous effects on the world. In the courts, in the legal system, in the field of child protective services, in fiction and television and movies, we only recognize the most extreme effects of abuse. The everyday faces of abuse survivors, and their vast numbers, are ignored along with their experiences.

And of course, this silence just leads to more abuse. While some unhealed survivors instinctively act out the experiences they aren't acknowledging they had, the rest of the world fails to understand what abuse looks like and remains powerless to help. Silence and denial breeds abuse, which in turn breeds silence and denial, which in turn....

The reality is that many people survive abuse by becoming experts at hiding it. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' 2002 report, Summary of Key Findings from Calendar Year 2000, "Approximately 3 million reports of possible maltreatment are made to child protective service agencies each year. In calendar year 2000, these referrals concerned the welfare of approximately 5 million children." As if that were not enough, they estimate that the actual rate of abuse and neglect is three times greater.

We are a nation of abuse survivors, and one of the main traits of abuse survivors is a tendency toward extremes. We don't recognize emotions, experiences, or realities unless they're extreme and undeniable. The dysfunctions caused by abuse are so prevalent - debting, substance abuse, emotional problems, sex and love addiciton, codependency - that they are hidden in plain sight. They begin to seem natural, normal, so that we recognize only the worst crises (suicide, for example) as ominous potential signs of abuse. The result of this is an almost ironic denial of all but the most obvious effects.

One of the great myths in United States society is that if we tell children no one should touch their "swimsuit areas," they will instantly and clearly report any sexual abuse and it will be dealt with by a responsible and caring adult. This is a wonderful fantasy, but it falls apart for a number of reasons.

For example: Abuse is rarely that clear-cut; children may not have a responsible and caring adult to tell; that adult may not believe them; children may feel that the abuse is a deserved punishment; they may be so starved for attention that the abuse seems almost desirable; they may be too traumatized or too young to remember and report the abuse; they may be coerced by the adult and feel guilty; they may be afraid of repercussions if they tell; and they may never even hear that they should tell. Furthermore, it is unreasonable and unfair to make children responsible for their own safety.

The nice thing, though, about vicious circles is that they are easy to break. A vicious circle means that two negatives are feeding into each other and growing stronger. But it also means that those negatives are dependent upon that relationship. If we can take out just one of those variables, we can destroy or even reverse the cycle.

We can't control whether people abuse one another. But every person reading this has the power to end the denial and the silencing that fuel abuse. We can start learniing about abuse: what it looks like, what effects it has, how to respond to it.

We can be open to the possibility that we were abused in some way, and be willing to recognize our own abuse. We can choose to recover from our past traumas and discover how to help others as a result. We can speak out to spread understanding and compassion about abuse. We can work together as informed survivors and allies to change the world. Abuse does not have to lead to shame, silence and self-destruction. It can lead to strength, self-awareness, freedom, emotional health, vast widespread healing and the end of abuse. It is our choice.

comment on this piece. (c) 2005 catherine h.