The Devastating Wake of Childhood Sexual Abuse
By Kendall Wolz
Mental Health and Wellness Manager at Mosaic Georgia
Childhood sexual abuse leaves a continual path of destruction long after the crime has ended.
Most people acknowledge child sexual abuse is heinous, but when we educate others or use legal terminology to describe the crime, we rarely capture the devastation it brings. Many avoid reckoning with the long-term impacts of sexual abuse because it is uncomfortable, frightening, and a reality they do not want to believe. It is a lot easier to dismiss a victim’s story when you do not think about what the future holds for them.
Through resources Mosaic Georgia offers, such as our counseling services and Wholeness Collective healing programs, survivors will have the opportunity to experience brighter days and rebuild the various parts of their life that they may initially believe are permanently compromised. Each time they find spaces mutilated by an abuser’s crimes, it feels like they die another death. Mosaic Georgia creates a place of safety, while promoting the health of those impacted by sexual violence and pursuing justice alongside them.
I hope you will continue reading, despite the discomfort it may cause.
I hope when you hear about childhood sexual abuse occurring in your community, you will think about what the victim’s healing will involve before you think about what the perpetrator may lose.
I hope you will have greater insight into why victims cannot simply “get over it.” Victims do not choose this path- the perpetrators chose it for them.
Abuse Steals Imaginations
I will never forget the day I realized my imagination had been broken, destroyed. I loved playing with Barbie dolls as a child. I could spend hours with a hundred different narratives to play out. When my abuser forced me to do things that a child should never know exist, it altered the lens through which I saw the world. It was no longer a safe place. My playtime was interrupted by the new reality of what I believed (step)daddies and daughters were to do. When I looked at the barbies after the abuse started, I did not see a safe, loving Barbie and Ken doll to take care of and nurture the little Kelly doll. That narrative was no longer my reality. My brain literally could not move past the abuse to create an imagined healthy family dynamic. I stopped playing with my Barbies altogether. Children need to engage in imaginative play for healthy cognitive, relational, and language development. Abuse steals imaginations.
Abuse Defaces Self-Image
When I was an elementary student, I witnessed a man exposing himself in a nearby sauna while I swam in a hotel pool. This incident and my response clearly demonstrate how abuse negatively altered the way I saw myself and my responsibilities. Though I was still in elementary school, I wholeheartedly believed that it was my duty to enter that sauna to do the same things with that man that my abuser had done to me. Had it not been for my younger siblings in the pool with me, and my desire to protect them, sweat and tears would have poured from my face in that sauna. I struggled to see a future beyond what abuse required of me. Abuse defaces self-image.
Abuse Maims Autonomy
As I moved into my teen and young adult years, it became evident that the rules I lived by because of the abuse dismissed my desires in relationships. It is without question that childhood sexual abuse causes difficulties in trusting others, but it also causes difficulty in trusting oneself. I was taught not to trust my gut. My gut instinct as a child told me that what my abuser did to me was uncomfortable and maybe wrong. But the prevailing belief was that adults do not hurt children. The only way I could reconcile these conflicting experiences was to reject my gut feelings. In later relationships, I did not trust my gut instinct because the abuse narrative would hijack my cognitive processes and pressure me to yield to the desires of others. I did not believe I had the right nor the authority to reject what others wanted from me. Abuse maims autonomy.
Abuse Dismantles Felt Safety
I think one of the most disheartening impacts of childhood sexual abuse are the sensory triggers that survivors literally cannot control. Over the years, many of the triggers that once plagued me daily have been desensitized- thanks to time, distance, therapy, and medication. I can remember the days in high school and college when I would experience multiple triggers in a single day. These triggers were instances like seeing the same work truck my abuser drove or passing a restaurant where we used to eat together. Trauma triggers activate our sympathetic nervous system resulting in the perception of danger. Our fight or flight response takes over and our sense of safety evaporates. It sometimes feels like the abuse is happening again. In those moments, strong emotions of fear, sadness and anger become overwhelming and hard to manage. Over time, I have learned to identify many of my triggers, but I am not always able to prevent them, and I discover new ones each year. Triggers can disrupt a seemingly normal day at the most inopportune time. It is hard not to feel defeated because, in some ways, my abuser’s actions still impact me. Abuse dismantles felt safety.
This represents just a few of the long-term impacts of childhood sexual abuse. I hope reading this has provided a greater understanding of how childhood sexual abuse affects a person long after physical freedom from the abuser has been granted. Putting the future of survivors at the forefront and recognizing the long and burdensome path they will travel toward healing, creates an environment where it is more likely for abusers to be held accountable for the choices they make that leave such a path of devastation.
Maybe then perpetrators will face heftier consequences for this crime. Maybe then perpetrators’ futures will not be considered more significantly than victims.
Maybe then, more disclosures will be met with belief and support.