Ask Dr. Leigh: Can survivors of childhood sexual abuse heal?

Ask Dr. Leigh: Healing the Wounds of Sexual Abuse

“I am an adult survivor of long term sexual abuse and trauma. 
Is there hope for me that I can ever heal from so much pain?”

Over the past twenty-seven years, countless survivors of childhood trauma and sexual abuse have asked me this question. They wonder, at twenty-five, forty-six, or sixty, why the pain and suffering of their childhood continues to cause such a disruption in their lives. Friends, relatives, and family members have been impatient and sometimes judgmental as they shake their heads in confusion and ask, “Why can’t you just get over it? It happened so long ago.”

You have been in countless hours of therapy and are struggling yourself to make sense of your emotional pain. Will it ever go away?

To begin, healing is a process. It is not a destination. As an individual heals, he or she will cycle through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and resolution. Each time the cycle is activated, healing occurs.

Healing does not mean forgetting what happened to you nor does it imply that you are going on with your life as if nothing ever happened. Rather, healing it is a process that helps you accept your past as a part of who you are today.

Many years ago, early in my career, I had the opportunity to work with a young girl who had been abused early in her childhood. At our last session together, after working together for five years, she drew me a picture of a large red heart with a small black dot in the center. She explained the picture in this way:

This is my heart. I love my family and my friends and I am happy most of the time. But the dark spot in the center is my abuse. It is a scar in my heart that opens up if I bump into something that reminds me of my abuse. Then it bleeds and hurts all over again. Eventually the hurting will stop, the wound will scar again, and I can go on with my life. But the scar will always be there in my heart. It is a part of who I am.”

This is the essence of healing. It is not forgetting about the abuse you suffered and pretending it never happened. Healing implies accepting the abuse and understanding that, no matter how many hours you spend in a therapist’s office, it will always be a part of you. It is what you do with this pain that makes the difference in your healing.

Healing also implies making meaning of your suffering. Those individuals who can find some sort of meaning in what happened to them, not only survive childhood abuse; they triumph over it. When inmates in the infamous concentration camp of Auschwitz came to Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and fellow prisoner, for help, he guided them to find meaning in their suffering. These inmates actually learned that if they could give their suffering some sort of meaning, they could  triumph over the evil that was surrounded them.

What happened to you is unfair, senseless, and cruel, but to truly heal, it is important to find some meaning in your suffering.

On the whole, survivors are insightful, have an uncanny ability to read others, and are empathic to other’s suffering. They have learned lessons in the world that others who have not been abused will never understand. They know first-hand the powerlessness of childhood and have witnessed the evil in this world that unleashes its power on innocent victims. It is what survivors do with this knowledge that makes the difference. Take for instance the mothers that lost their children in car accidents involving drunk drivers. They took action and founded Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. (MADD) Today, Madd is a formidable player in legislation involving drunk drivers.

This does not imply that you must rush out and start a public movement in order to heal. Finding meaning in your childhood abuse can mean subtle changes such as: in the way you respond to your children, your kindness with strangers, your empathy with other survivors, or your creative outlets such as writing and drawing that give life to your memories.

To all of you who have experienced childhood trauma and sexual abuse, have patience with yourself and remember that healing is a process that will last your lifetime. If you accept the fact that you have survived childhood abuse and understand the courage and strength it took to do so, you can accept yourself more fully. And if you can incorporate your painful memories into something that is meaningful for you and possibly to others,  you will triumph over your abuse.


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