Pretty little Amy, only nine years old, was playing near her inner-city home when a stranger raped her in full view of her young friends. Worse than the assault was her father's condemnation that placed full blame on her for letting it happen, and the onset of rejection. His words, "It's your own fault," formed an unceremonious branding of the child as a "less-than" that would be confirmed by periodic acts of sexual assaults against her as time went on. Each subsequent violation of her personhood was committed by people who were supposed to love her, not by strangers.
By the time she entered her teen years, the original Amy was gone. There remained the form of a maturing female who knew no power of her own except for the ability to gain attention and meet survival needs through the sexual use of her body. So she sold it in order to exist. When she discovered that crack cocaine worked miraculously to lift her away from the anguish of nonexistence, she became a loyal slave to it.
She was only in her late teens when her body would no longer bring enough money for both living and crack. So she sold her body for crack only. She came down with pneumonia, and while in the hospital she was diagnosed with AIDS. It was found that that she had carried the virus for a very long time. She estimated that she might have infected more than 150 men. Even while she was hospitalized, with oxygen at her nose and, a feeding tube in her throat, and intravenous lines in her veins, she continued to accept the clients who came to her hospital room for their usual service. She lived almost two years after the first hospitalization, but because her lifestyle remained unchanged, she was dead by 24.
Larry - Growing up Abused
Larry was neglected in foster homes from birth to age 2, when the real trouble began. His adoptive father hated him. He was yelled at, beaten, thrown out to agencies, brought back, cursed, ignored, insulted, and belittled until he was farmed out permanently to a boys' home in his early teens. His adoptive mother, living in terror that her husband might kill both of them, kept her mouth shut and even remained living with the man long after the boy had grown up.
To this day, the young man has told no-one but his therapist that when he was four he used to wake up from nightmares about something hard and slimy under his blanket. When he awoke and felt the mattress, he wondered where the substance came from and what it was.
All of his life, he was tormented by his uncertain sexual identity. Even as this book was being written, he wondered whether he was bi-sexual or homosexual. But there is one thing he knows for sure: He is gay, and in his mind, it's his rightful punishment.
Love of money has been called the root of all kinds of evil. But child abuse is a root that runs deeper, spreads farther, and holds a specific, predictable consequence: the loss of personhood and often of life itself.
While AIDS is only one example, it is a recurring demonstration of abuse leading to a deadly disease. When a mind is set off course, the body follows.
In 2004, I presented a continuing education class on domestic violence for a medical center in Jacksonville, Florida. I began my remarks with this statement "Domestic violence begins at age four." Abuse at the hands of a partner in early adulthood does not arise out of a vacuum merely by the poor choice of a mate. Rather, maltreatment from this stage on is very often the natural outcome of a type of "brainwashing" that begins early and receives reinforcement many times through the years.
It is during the early years that humans acquire their first ideas about who they are, and, unfortunately, they believe these falsehoods for the rest of their lives. Victims are initiated into a pattern of abuse, including self abuse, not in adulthood, but in childhood. As a matter of fact, every one of us comes into adulthood with a second-hand opinion of who we are.
When a little child is called brilliant, stupid, beautiful, ugly, hopeless, helpless, good, bad, a blessing or a curse, the child has no choice but to accept these assertions as "gospel". What other source of information does he have? He can absorb only the information available to him.
These messages are communicated just as well or better by what is unsaid. The glances, the pauses, the scowls, the smiles, the visual forces, speak indelibly, although without sound. The child's self-definition derives from these impressions. They are permanent; like initials carved in the bark of a young tree that only enlarge as the tree grows.
You may have wondered by now why an example of male abuse has been included in our opening case histories, when little girls are abused, especially sexually, far more often. The reason is that the effects are the same. Female sexual abuse is far more prevalent. A press release by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1996), revealed that girls are sexually abused three times more often than boys but that boys have a greater risk of emotional neglect and serious injury. According to the same source, abuse and neglect cases rose from 1.4 million in 1986 to nearly 3 million in 1993. The number of seriously injured nearly quadrupled from 143 thousand to 570 thousand in the same time period. I am using the pronoun "he" only as common practice in describing child development.
When the child reaches adolescence, having mastered the lessons about who he is, he is driven to experiment. His concept of self may not work in the peer group, so various trial personalities and their accompanying behavior must be rotated until one works. Not to fit in means annihilation, not just rejection, and today the consequences can mean physical attacks as well. Clothes with the wrong label might literally be torn from his back.
In adulthood, the urgency to meet life on its own terms; that is, deal with the challenges of living, becomes more pressing, with countless choices to be made. One's identity, or a solid sense of who one is, determines the direction of these choices. But this idea of "self" is no more than a chance configuration. It is formed by combining the second-hand opinions received in childhood with the results of adolescent experimentation. Victims enter adult life with the greatest possible handicap: believing they know who they are and being wrong, or, alternatively, having no idea whatsoever. Either case requires dependence on someone else.
While child abuse might harshly be stated as "raping the personality", even children reared in fairly normal homes still suffer a "molestation" of their identity through the communication of false information about themselves. The messages can even be seemingly positive. I have met nearly-retarded people who were told all of their lives that they were brilliant, and the result was a life of endless frustration as they attempted to achieve goals that were impossible for them. And worse, they left unattended very great possibilities in other realms that would have paid off with great enrichment.
But the tragedies I have seen over 20 years of practice mostly result from destructive, even malicious, assertions about the child's nature on the part of parents, teachers, siblings, and other influential members of the early social circle. This "programming" has cheated them out of a fulfilling life that could have fostered the greatest joy of all: being and celebrating their own self. Indeed, for those who are spiritual, blossoming into the fullness of one's being, with the hidden talents, gifts, and abilities thoroughly explored, is the highest honor to one's Creator, however that divine entity may be defined. It might even be argued that such is the highest form of praise. One victim proclaimed:
For the first time in my life, I have been given the greatest sense of freedom: to know that the career I have chosen, that of a dedicated mother and wife, reflects the real 'me' and therefore is honorable, is a huge joy. I don't have to listen to the old messages, that I'm no good, that I'm bad. I have spent my whole life feeling like a worthless piece of sh-. No matter how hard I tried, my father and step-mother would always put me down. I could do nothing to make them happy, to accept me. I could not make them give me the affection and feeling of worth I need so badly. I'm not to blame for their inabilities as parents. I'm learning that I didn't cause their unhappiness, that the messages I was given as a child were false. I have always believed bad things happened because I was a bad girl, that I was unworthy to have a mother, that it was my fault that a neighbor molested me-my fault because I was the one who went into his house. I have let people abuse me verbally and physically because I believed that is what I deserved. Today, I'm learning I don't deserve to be treated that way. I am finding myself, my true self! There is hope for people like me, and I believe if doctors become aware of what child abuse does, people like me can recover instead of being misdiagnosed, institutionalized, given improper medications, and ending up suicidal.
The Statistical Evidence
As far back as 1997, 41 states reported that nearly 1,000 children were known by child protective agencies to have died as a result of abuse or neglect in each state reporting. These agencies further estimated reports of physical abuse at the 3-million mark nationwide, but admit that a high but unknown percentage of cases are never reported. (U.S. Dept. Health and Human Services, 1997).
Recent statistics are even more staggering, as illustrated by one single state, South Carolina. The website Childwelfare.com, hosted by Duncan Lindsey, indicates a child population of 1,009,641, with 11,246 of these children abused in 2002 alone. (This is a national site, where your own state can be examined.) Nationally, this source reports the highest percentage of abuse to occur in the 0 to 3 age group (16%), followed by 4 to 7 (13.7 %), then, 8 to 11 (11.9%), 12 to 15 (10.6%), and 16 to 17 (6.0%).
But as serious as these abuses are, they do not match the greatest damage: the message that abuse implants in the child permanently.
Another patient reports:
I used to have images cross my mind, then quickly dismiss them. I had no reason to believe anything like sexual abuse had happened to me. After all, no-one in my family had said anything tragic had happened to me or my family when I was four years old. My pain escalated in adulthood until I was brave enough to consider that something had happened and gave myself permission to explore the idea. I was like a computer unable to proceed until the sequence was right. I've learned to pay attention to these images-that is, flashbacks-sometimes visual, sometimes almost being audible, all packed with feelings. My molestation was filled with emotional messages which I have believed for 43 years. My assailant was my "true love". "Don't tell anyone. They won't like you," he said. These messages were recalled only by my being in a group. While others were sharing, little pieces of my own life started to come together. It has been a lot of painstaking emotional pain to discover all this, but it's been worth it, to be able to proceed with my life. Now, at 43, I am finally rid of the garbage and reasonably happy. When my molester almost got caught, he abandoned me, and left me feeling false guilt, that it was my fault. To make matters worse, I was a victim of a dysfunctional, negative, and abusive family that fed on my weakness. I was the oldest of seven children and was told how to feel, how not to feel, so I believed I had no right to my own feelings. That apparently made it harder to discover what I do feel and to trust those feelings as cues to my recovery. I couldn't do anything fast enough or well enough to meet their approval, adding to my distress. The weather even had an affect on me. The sun casting a certain shadow triggered deep emotional feelings of fear, sadness, and aloneness. The same with certain sounds and music. I am learning to pay attention to these things, to recognize them and deal with them and get healthy.
Too few professionals are up to date on what they need to know about the devastation of child abuse. The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC), an organization I highly value and depend upon, conducted a survey of professional needs (APSAC, 1994).
There is simply not enough competent help for abuse victims. Interdisciplinary people working in the field cited as the most difficult aspects of their work, "heavy workload, low pay, public laws and policies that impede my work, and lack of communication with interdisciplinary colleagues."
One woman believes she would not have survived if she had not found our therapy group. A psychiatric nurse as well as a survivor of child and domestic abuse, she says our understanding and treatment go far beyond what is now being offered in the field at large.
They have given me an understanding of the trauma, so that I can live with it, on a daily basis. Healing of trauma takes time, understanding, encouragement, and compassion that few professionals are willing or able to give, in my experience. My doctor has been gifted in this field. He has saved my life and given me a sense of peace within that I have searched for in a therapist for years. The ideas he presents make sense and give people hope that they can overcome the trauma that has been inflicted on them.
APSAC reports that child protective agencies nationally were able to investigate only 28 percent of cases in which children were harmed by maltreatment in 1993, compared with 44 percent in 1986. An anonymous, inner-city teacher, writing in the Society's booklet, "Connecting with Kids," reports,
I see a lot of this kind of thing [child abuse], but D was one of the most troubling kids I'd seen. At seven years of age, he was fatalistic, foul-mouthed, and jumpy. He was hypervigilant-he seemed scared all the time, and he was utterly unable to concentrate. You'd see a flash of sweetness in him now and then, but mostly he was too on-guard for that. The day he came in with a welt on his cheek, I decided it was time to call child protective services. The caseworker hooked up with the police to do a home visit, where they found total chaos-filth, rotating boyfriends, violence among the adults, violence in the neighborhood. Both the mom and several of her boyfriends had been in and out of prison. Mom had dealt some drugs. Years ago, people would have said that D was a "troublemaker"-now we say he's a kid suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of violence in his home and neighborhood. (APSAC Advisor).
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)is one of the more easily definable outcomes of child abuse. Most severely victimized children, in my experience, can be accurately diagnosed for PTSD. Not until adulthood, when life stresses compound, do they eventually seek treatment; that is, those few who do. As for the children, they are often diagnosed with hyperactivity, attention-deficit disorder.
Traumatized people often abuse alcohol and other drugs. They are found everywhere at Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Current estimates of the number of female incest survivors in A.A. range from 40 to 80 percent. Similarly, about an equal percentage of men in these groups have survived some sort of physical abuse as children, according to many studies. (A.A. World Services, New York 1998). Nearly 100 percent of these victims have never been treated. Those who relapse the most-or completely give up-tend to be those who have been through the worst nightmares that life has to offer children. The public at large seems to blame the male homosexual for the AIDS epidemic. However, the group spreading the disease most rapidly today consists of intravenous drug abusers. Many of them, perhaps easily the majority, were pointed toward the needle not by the peer group but by the abuse in childhood. Perhaps some make it all the way to elementary school before their true selves are mangled. But one thing is sure in my experience: Rarely does a substance abuser know who he is.
Excerpted from AM I BAD?by Heyward Bruce Ewart, III Copyright © 2007 by Heyward Bruce Ewart, III, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission.
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