On May 23, 2013, former NHLer Theo Fleury, who was sexually abused by his hockey coach in the 1980’s, completed a 10-day “Victor Walk” aimed at raising awareness about childhood sex abuse and the need for healing. Yet, what exactly needs to be healed?
A ‘Little Warriors’ ad cited that “60% of women with panic disorder are victims of sexual abuse.” The charitable organization’s website (www.littlewarriors.ca) provides additional statistics around the consequences of childhood sexual abuse such as “70% of sexual abuse survivors report excessive use of drugs and alcohol.”
The link between childhood abuse and both mental health and addiction is significant. Author and physician ofVancouver’s Onsite detox centre, Dr. Gabor Maté stated he had “never met a single female patient down here [at the centre] who was not sexually abused as a child.”
Although girls are almost twice as likely to experience childhood sexual abuse, Maté observed that if his male patients had not been as a child sexually abused, “they were physically abused, abandoned, neglected, serially abandoned, or serially neglected.”
Regardless of the abuse, these actions cause immediate and long-lasting emotional and psychological suffering. Jung noted that the enduring emotional impact of childhood trauma “remains hidden all along from the [person], so that not reaching consciousness, the emotion never wears itself out, it is never used up.”
The intense feelings of anger, helplessness and shame along with horrific memories of the abuse are overwhelming for the child. Unable to process the emotions and events, trauma gets stored in the body. Physically, the person may later experience headaches, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and gastro-intestinal and pelvic complaints.
On a neurological level, studies by Allan Schore and Bessel van der Kolk show specific changes in the brains of traumatized individuals. These changes correspond to noticeable inabilities to process feelings and to self-reflect, inhibited creative capacities and the altering of one’s sense of identity.
It is this shattered sense of self that brings real psychic suffering. As analyst Petra Affeld-Niemeyer observed, for many traumatized people, “It is as if the soul stopped breathing.”
How does one cope with such psychic suffering? As statistics show, one way is through addictive behaviours. Maté concluded that “the fundamental dynamic” which drives his patients’ addiction is the “immense pain that they have never been able to resolve or haven’t had the help to resolve.” The individual who has experienced trauma longs for (as we all do) the reconnection with his or her true self.
Researcher Robert Anda noted that the cumulative, long-term and invasive effects of traumatic childhood events are “likely to be invisible to health care providers, educators, social service organizations, and policy makers because the linkage between cause and effect is concealed by time.”
Many people, even those with traumatic backgrounds, do not fully see the connection between past abuse and current behaviours, body symptoms and psycho-emotional suffering. In most cases, time does not heal the pain; yet, awareness of these can lead to hope.