By Cassandra Rustvold, LMSW, MEd, Trauma Therapist at Gentle Path at the Meadows
Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) has the potential to transform the trajectory of one’s life in a multitude of ways. While the effects of childhood sexual abuse are largely individualized and can manifest at different points throughout the lifespan, commonly reported symptoms and long-term effects include dissociation, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, relationship difficulties, and addictive or compulsive patterns of behavior (Aaron, 2012).
The sexual functioning and sexual identity in adolescence and adulthood is a particularly vulnerable factor in survivors. When a child suffers sexual abuse, sexual arousal becomes activated prematurely and can largely impact the survivor’s sense of autonomy over their body and sexual sense of self (Roller, Martsolf, Draucker & Ross, 2009).
It can also draw early connections in the neural networks of the child’s brain that associates sex with power, fear, shame, confusion, secrecy and/or pain. It is not difficult to imagine why those whose sexuality has been impacted are more vulnerable to struggles with intimate relationships and sexuality.
When attempting to reconcile one’s abuse, a particularly confusing component for survivors of CSA is the experience of pleasurable physiological responses to their abuse, in conjunction with their emotional and psychological distress. Children who have experienced these positive and pleasurable feelings often report feelings of shame and responsibility tied to their abuse and sexuality, and may experience an overall distrust of their bodily reactions (such as arousal) or physical dissociation (Hunter, 1990 & Long, Burnett & Thomas, 2006).
This fusion of shame, secrecy and pleasure has the potential to predispose one to sexual aversion, sexual anorexia, dysfunction, or compulsion; thereby deterring them from developing healthy sexual scripts in adulthood.
Three commonly experienced symptoms of childhood sexual abuse are also cornerstones of sexual addiction: compulsivity (the inability to control one’s behavior), shame, and despair.
In sex addiction, shame and despair act as a precursor to the beginning of future cycles, where the need to keep emotional pain at bay leads to mental preoccupation as an escape. The result of this addictive cycle often includes isolation, anxiety, alienation from loved ones, a breaking of one’s own value system, and secrecy; all things that often increase feelings of despair and a yearning to escape and repeat the cycle.
When an individual is struggling with intrusive thoughts of their sexual abuse or insidious negative self-talk as a result of their abuse, the lure of escape through addictive patterns of behavior is not only compelling but sometimes a means of psychological preservation.
In Dr. Patrick Carnes’ book The Betrayal Bond, eight trauma responses common among individuals who meet the criteria for sexual addiction are identified: trauma reactions, trauma pleasure, trauma blocking, trauma splitting, trauma abstinence, trauma shame, trauma repetition, and trauma bonding.
These patterns of behaviors are often unconscious attempts to reconcile, reframe, or repair the abuse that happened in youth. Unfortunately, they do not always accomplish this task and can result in perpetuated psychological and emotional damage.
Gender differences also appear to play a role in how these difficulties manifest in adulthood and whether or not someone will seek out help.
Even in 2016, boys and men are still provided with narrow cultural and familial messages about what it means to be a masculine. This narrative includes such things as devaluing emotional expression and vulnerability, while prioritizing promiscuity and maintaining control.
Research has found that male survivors are less likely to report or discuss their trauma and more likely to externalize their responses to childhood sexual abuse by engaging in compulsive sexual behaviors (Aaron, 2012). For a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse, these expectations are in large conflict with the need to shatter the secrecy of their trauma and/or obtain and maintain healthy sexual relationships; both of which require an open and honest dialogue.
For men struggling with childhood sexual abuse and sexual addiction, learning to abstain from problematic sexual behaviors that reinforce abusive sexual scripts is just as important as learning how to develop healthy intimate bonds and create a sexual identity that is affirming.
For someone attempting to face these complex issues the importance of having acceptance and unconditional, non-judgmental support cannot be understated. It is the abusive and negative interpersonal interactions that created the pain and it is the supportive and affirming ones that have the power to lift it.
At Gentle Path at The Meadows, we specialize in creating this space while offering a host of trauma-based services that are informed by the most current understanding of the nature of trauma and its impact on the person as a whole. Additionally, the therapeutic focus at Gentle Path includes not only learning to identify which components of one’s sexuality are subtracting from the quality of their life but also identifying or creating ones to enrich it.
Give us a call today at 800-244-4949.
Aaron, M. (2012). The pathways of problematic sexual behavior: a literature review of factors affecting adult sexual behavior in survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 19(3), p. 199-218.
Carnes, P. (1997). The Betrayal Bond. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data.
Hunter, M. (1990). Abused Boys: The Neglected Victims of Sexual Abuse. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data.
Long, L. L., Burnett, J. A., & Thomas, R. V. (2006). Sexuality counseling: An integrative approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.
Roller, Martsolf, Draucker & Ross (2009). The sexuality of childhood sexual abuse survivors. International Journal of Sexual Health, 21, p. 49-60.
By Tracy Harder, MSC, LAC, Survivors Workshop Facilitator
Do you remember the one question you missed on that fourth-grade science test that kept you from scoring 100 percent? Or the word you missed in every spelling bee you were in? I do.
In fact, I am very clear about the fact that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius and I am not a big fan of the words centennial, hippopotamus, or receipt. I have suffered from most of my life from perfectionism, which to me is no joke. Feeling shame about making a mistake and having the initial reaction of wanting to hide it is not fun. In fact, just the thought of writing this blog gave me anxiety. How can I possibly measure up to the people who have written blogs and have Ph.D.’s and more experience than me?
My perfectionism developed and honed from a very early age. I remember when I turned four or five my parents took me to a fancy restaurant for crab legs. (What the hell?) I remember sitting there, prim and proper, with my hands folded in my lap. I remember people telling my mother what a wonderful, well-behaved child she had.
My mother beamed, and basked in the compliments. I figured out quickly, “Aha! This is how I earn my mother’s love and approval!”
From then on, I strived to make perfect grades and to always toe the line, always trying to be “good enough.” For you see, my beloved mother is a perfectionist herself and her perfect little girl reinforced her need to be good enough too.
Pia Mellody, in her book Facing Codependence, says, “Everybody’s poop smells. To be human is to be imperfect.”
She goes on to say that functional parents do not hold themselves up as the higher power in the family—the god and goddess if you will—and that when they make a parenting mistake that affects their children, they own it and make amends. But, what about those of us raised in a home where our parents were the god and goddess reigning supreme? A home in which mistakes were not okay?
I love my parents and through my own work, which has included going through The Meadows’ Survivors I childhood trauma workshop myself, I realize now that they were parenting out of their own trauma brought on by dysfunctional messages they got from their parents.
Perfectionism has been a friend and a foe in my life. As a friend, it helped me a few years ago to organize and plan from the ground up what I must say was a pretty amazing wedding –although I was a complete and nervous wreck the day of. It also enabled me in some ways to complete a difficult counseling program and earn a Master’s Degree, but it took repeated attempts.
As a foe, it literally drove me to drink. And then, even after getting sober through a 12- step program, I continued to attempt perfection in my step work, which resulted in a relapse. Trying to be “perfect” can also alienate me from people, because my attitude becomes, “ I want to be perfect and am sure you must want to be as well, so let me show you how!” In respect to the core issues of The Meadows Model of Development Immaturity, this attitude is indicative of “better than” self-esteem, invulnerable boundaries, good and perfect reality issues, and containment issues of being out of control with controlling others.
Or, as Pia would say, I turn into “a tight ass.” This is not good for my relationships, to say the least.
For those of you reading this and relating, here are a few helpful techniques I use to alleviate the stress of perfectionist thinking:
The pain of the five core development immaturity issues mentioned earlier, and relationship issues drove me into therapy and 12-step programs. Both made it possible for me to practice these techniques.
As a result, there has been a considerable improvement in my relationship with myself and in my relationships with others. After all, who am I to think I could ever be perfect? Through the practice of admitting my mistakes to others I have realized that, for the most part,I am the only person who is not okay with my mistakes.
This corrective experience illuminates the fact that the people in my life now are understanding and forgiving. More often than not, they share their experiences with similar situations, thereby increasing intimacy and strengthening these relationships.
Perfectionism will always be a part of my personality, but the good news is that through insight and action it can definitely be managed.
The concepts and therapeutic exercises that comprise the Survivors I workshop, are the same ones that drive the overall treatment philosophy for all of The Meadows programs. Participants explore the childhood trauma that fuels self-defeating behaviors such as addiction, mood disorders, and troubling relationships. They also work on processing and releasing negative messages and emotions rooted in their pasts, and find the freedom to fully embody their authentic selves.
Those who register for Survivors I—or any of the Rio Retreat Center’s other 16 workshop offerings— on or before June 30 will receive a 25 percent discount. Call today at 800-244-4949.
Dan Griffin, MA is a Senior Fellow at The Meadows and an expert in men’s trauma and recovery. The following essay was published on his website in 2015. You can learn more about Dan’s workshop at The Meadows, A Man’s Way™ Retreat, by calling 800-244-4949. You can also find his books online.
I hated my father for a very long time.
Of course, when we are honest with ourselves most of our hate comes out of deep hurt. And that is exactly what it was for me: I felt deeply hurt that my father was never quite able to be the man that we seemed forced to celebrate every Father’s Day. He was never quite able to be the father that I needed. If he made it through the day’s “celebration” without getting drunk and/or yelling or berating one or all of us it was a good day.
I do not say this to defame or castigate my father. He was a much more complicated man than his alcoholism or his abusiveness. He was brilliant, talented, creative, funny, a good provider, and even sensitive.
Though I can probably count them on both hands, there are times when my father showed up as the father I believe he truly wanted to be. The man beneath the armor.
But it would be disingenuous to act as if there was not a much darker side to my relationship with my father.
Inextricably connected to my ability to be a father has been the healing work I have had to do around my relationship with my father who, sadly, lost his own battle with chronic alcoholism twenty years ago, at the age of 54.
His tale is one that has been told far too often, written in the Book of Men and Masculinity throughout the ages. These tales lack a Hallmark ending and no two dollar card can make it all okay.
As a man in long-term recovery from his own addiction, I am not only changing my story but I’d like to think I am even changing my father’s story.
The more I have been able to free myself from the pain and hurt of my fractured relationship with my father the more I have been able to see him as a human being who was full of suffering, trapped in the armor of masculinity in which he ultimately suffocated.
The process of forgiveness in my own relationship with my father has not been about forgetting him or even “the good, the bad, and the ugly” experiences, but simply letting go of the hurt. The more I have been able to let go, the more I have been able to emerge as my best self.
It has not been perfect. There are vestiges of the best parts of my father and the worst parts of my father still inside of me. There will always be. For that I am actually grateful; all of those experiences have helped to create the man – and father – I have become.
A lot of what I learned about how to be a father I learned from my father. I learned a lot about what not to do and how not to be. Every young man watches the men around him to figure out how to be a man. How to treat women. How to treat kids.
My father was not a horrible person. He was just a very sick person. He had a lot of childhood trauma that I had no idea about until after his death. My father didn’t talk about his daily life so there was no way he was going to open up about some of the most painful experiences of his life. So he just went into the basement and listened to his country albums. Or spewed the toxic poison of his pain all over the people who loved him the most.
Such is the sad experience for so many men with trauma. I found a worksheet from his time in treatment where he stated so simply, “I’ve never thought anyone would even care about my problems.” My heart broke when I read those words while cleaning up his office shortly after his death.
The real truth? I miss my father. Not a week goes by that I do not think of him and what we could have had. I talk to him all of the time. I have spent the past twenty years asking him to be the father he never could be while he was alive as I have navigated the inevitable trials and tribulations of life.
My relationship with my father has transformed over the years since his death as I have matured. As I have gotten glimpses into my own darkness. As I have come to realize how people experience me versus how I want to come across. All of that has brought me closer to the father I never met.
I think about the father he wanted to be versus the father he was. I think about who he was in his heart of hearts. That is the father I celebrate – and grieve – on Father’s Day. The truth is, I never hated my father. I just hated the fact that I never really got the chance to meet him.
Thomas was very sick, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. After trying other treatment programs, he thought that maybe happiness and sobriety were just not in the cards for him. At The Meadows he learned how trauma, shame, and guilt keep people stuck and prevent them from being able to maintain their sobriety. He also learned how to let go of that shame and guilt and to have hope again.
If you need help with addiction, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, emotional trauma, or other mental health issues, please call The Meadows today at 800-244-4949
Terrie was a child born from an extramarital affair. Growing up, she felt like she was unwanted by everyone in her family except her mother. As an adult, she found herself reaching a low point in her life, and tried working with several different therapists. Because of her family history, and because of her skill as therapist herself, she was able to mask her true feelings really, really well. So, her attempts at individual therapy failed.
Feeling hopeless and desperate for change, she went to The Meadows. Learn how the program helped her find her power and break free from false beliefs and love addiction.