By Shari Botwin
We hear plenty about crimes of violence against women and children, especially when celebrities are involved. But we rarely hear the stories from the victims' point of view. What happens to them? What's involved in recovery? Is it even possible to live a full life?
According to the national organization Childhelp, 80 percent of people 21 and over who were abused as children develop psychological disorders, and two-thirds of people in treatment for alcohol or drug abuse survived abuse.
I am a survivor of childhood abuse. I am also a licensed clinical social worker who counsels adult survivors of trauma and abuse. For the last 18 years, I have been treating people recovering from eating disorders. Almost 80 percent of my patients report acts of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse by a caretaker or authority figure in childhood.
The shame that comes with being in an abusive situation in childhood is indescribable. For years, I walked around feeling worthless and hopeless. I wanted to disappear. I thought anything bad that happened was my fault. I didn't trust friends, adults, or authority figures. I survived by dancing, writing, and attaching to mother figures who would boost my self-worth. I used symptoms of an eating disorder to numb the pain and distract from my reality.
When I entered my early 20s, I was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Once I became independent, I wanted to reclaim my right to live a full life. I got myself into therapy, having no idea of all the layers of shame, guilt, and fear I would uncover.
So many victims of abuse stay silent. The fear of being disbelieved or the shame that comes with admitting to being a victim keeps many people from even acknowledging their abuse. It is so important for people to understand that speaking out is not the problem; the abuse is the problem.
Survivors are protective of their perpetrators or anyone else linked to their abuse. Other people are put ahead of the abuse, and then the cycle of self-destruction (eating disorders, alcoholism, sexual promiscuity) takes hold and continues throughout a lifetime. I have met many patients who could not maintain relationships with friends, bosses, or partners because of the impact of their abuse.
To live fully, survivors need to understand their experience. I spent years in therapy telling my story, followed by years of allowing myself to grieve all that was lost. Around the age of 35, my life began coming together, and the shame that came with my abuse finally dissipated. I began to accept and understand my experience and the impact my abuse had on me. Finding loving relationships is all I ever needed and wanted.
Allowing myself to become a mom has been a lifesaver. It was not until I became a parent that I fully understood how vulnerable I had been as a child. I could finally let go of the shame and feelings of fault about my abuse. I could finally value my body and my life, and my fear of repeating the cycle of abuse lessened once my baby arrived.
Abuse is awful and should never happen. However, when survivors allow themselves to break the silence and own their experience, there is so much hope for them.
When sexual-abuse or domestic-violence scandals fade from the headlines, there is little thought given to the aftermath of trauma or the hope that comes from being in recovery. More people stepping forward and breaking their silence would be proof that recovery is possible and that survivors can live full lives. Even someone who has experienced trauma can be a good parent and be in a safe and healthy partnership.
I mourn for my childhood, but despair no longer consumes me. I know who I am and where I come from. If I start to feel isolated as a parent, I choose to ask for help and know I cannot be perfect. I tell myself every day that as long as my son knows he is loved, he will be OK. I am healed by watching him feel safe and happy.
Many survivors of abuse could give themselves the gift of living fully. They must understand that the abuse was not their fault and find the words to tell their story.