Matt Pavlik is a licensed professional clinical counselor who wants to see each individual restored to their true identity. He’s written two books: Confident Identity and Marriage From Roots To Fruits. He has more than 15 years of experience counseling individuals and couples at his Christian counseling practice, New Reflections Counseling. To learn more about identity check out his blog about identity at ChristianConcepts. Matt and his wife Georgette have been married for over 18 years and live with their four children in Centerville, Ohio.
Sexual Abuse Recovery from a Christian Perspective
The problem of childhood sexual abuse is not new. Millions of adults bear the emotional scars and continue to secretly carry the emotional burden of abuse that occurred twenty, thirty, or even forty years ago. Clients frequently come to counseling and say, This happened so many years ago and I have never told anyone.
Understanding the Wounds of Sexual Abuse
That sexual abuse has emotional consequences is obvious for the most part. But spiritual consequences are just as real even though they might not be the first thing you consider. If you were abused as a child, you probably struggle with spiritual issues as well as the emotional ones. You might:
- Question how a loving God could allow you to be abused as a defenseless child
- Be furious with God for allowing your abuse
- Believe God intentionally inflicted abuse on you as punishment
- Part of the healing journey includes looking at these spiritual questions and finding a deeper spiritual understanding of yourself, God, and the world.
Unfortunately, as a child going through abuse, you won’t be able to find a satisfying answer. Believing God is good when you’ve never really experienced His goodness is nearly impossible. This also applies to an adult who hasn’t yet experienced healing and recovery.
Only when you’re older and experiencing healing, can you hold and accept these two seemingly contradictory facts:
- God is 100% good.
- God doesn’t prevent sin and suffering in a world where evil and brokenness are real.
What do you have left if you doubt God’s goodness? If you choose to give up on trusting God, who else can you go to for comfort and healing?
God wants you to make the most of the cards you’re dealt — your life circumstances; He provides no guarantees beyond His promise to never abandon you. God is with you but you will still suffer in this life.
Wounds Last Until They are Treated
The wounds don’t fade away on their own. They require attention and care to heal. God designed you to not forget important information about your trauma. You need to process what happened to you so you can learn from it, heal, and be strengthened to prevent further injury.
The consequences of trauma are twofold:
- The specific moments of abuse, as you go through them
- The years of living with the ongoing pain after the abuse has ended
The consequences continue until you receive the nurturing, truth, and resources you need to heal. The damage done is magnified the younger you are when the abuse starts.
Children are, by nature, innocent, trusting, and vulnerable. When children are abused, the abuse is never their fault, but they — because of their limited understanding of the world and inability to make sense of what has happened to them — almost always believe that they either caused or deserved the abuse. Many of them carry their misguided sense of shame and guilt into adulthood.
After you’ve experienced the trauma of abuse, but before you’ve embraced that you need or want to pursue healing, you’re caught in limbo. You live with two impossible constraints:
- Total disinterest in acknowledging, confronting, and re-experiencing the pain
- Consistent, annoying reminders that the pain isn’t going away
Early in the recovery process, denial and dissociation win out. What you can’t handle is easier to keep buried. Whether you’re aware of the unresolved trauma or not, it will continue to impact your life. Denial never eliminates the underlying woundedness and dysfunction. An untreated wound will only become more infected with time.
Untreated Trauma Has Serious Consequences
Emotional pain you don’t confront directly will eventually surface in your life — usually at the most inconvenient moments. Life experiences trigger (bring to your conscious awareness) the emotional suffering. This is likely to happen in three ways:
- You feel safe. You’re far (whether temporally or geographically) from the traumatic experiences. Keeping your guard up takes tremendous energy. As you relax, you drop your guard. This means you’re more vulnerable and sensitive. You’ll come in touch with feelings you didn’t know you had.
- You engage in activities that are linked in some way to your abuse. These aren’t abusive experiences, but they feel that way because they’re closely tied to abusive memories. Sensations (whether touch, smell, taste, sound, or sight) or words (a familiar phrase) can bring up the past.
- You experience something similar to your childhood abuse. You’re abused, this time as an adult. For example, as a child, your brother’s friend hurt you when he touched you. Now your boyfriend or husband does the same or similar.
You might not believe it but being triggered (without being re-abused as described in #3 above) is a good sign. Being triggered means, even if only subconsciously, you’re ready to pursue healing. You no longer need to keep the trauma buried.
As you attempt to recover from abuse, you’ll experience some extreme emotional symptoms and you’ll likely choose coping behaviors to manage the symptoms. Many successful, seemingly well-adjusted adults continue to suffer the far-reaching effects of abuse.
Emotional Symptoms: Boundary and Identity Confusion
The primary, most debilitating, effect of abuse I encounter is a profound distortion in a person’s self-understanding. Serious trauma like sexual abuse involves a threat to personal integrity. Sexual abuse is a personal invasion that severely disrupts a child’s normal emotional development.
All relationships have a normal and healthy way to function. Both parties must benefit and not be harmed by the interaction. Sexual abuse forces a child to meet someone else’s desires (perverted as they are) at the high cost of physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual harm to the child.
The following is a representative list of the emotional consequences of abuse:
- Feeling helpless
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Trouble concentrating
- Sadness or depression
- Irritability or anger
- Being easily startled
- A constant state of anxiety
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of confidence
- Self-hatred and shame
- Frequent panic or always on the verge of panic
- Difficulty trusting others
- A desire for isolation
- Feeling estranged from everyone; no one can possibly understand you
- Chronic relationship problems
- Fear of emotional or physical intimacy
Coping Behaviors: Attempts to Control the Pain of a Wounded Identity
Coping strategies are necessary but they have negative side-effects. The following is a representative list of behaviors you might engage in to cope with the symptoms of abuse:
- Under-eating or overeating
- Under-sleeping or oversleeping
- Withdrawing from (avoiding) relationships
- Ruminating and overanalyzing
- Constantly thinking about the event or constantly trying to avoid thinking about the event
- Emotional numbness
- Outbursts of anger
- Alcohol or drug use
- Dissociation or splitting
Coping is a last resort attempt to manage the pain, a temporary measure when a healing relationship isn’t available. Coping as a permanent part of your life isn’t true healing.
Coping is like the bandage put in place until the body has time to heal the wound. Coping should be phased out over time. As you heal, you put on smaller bandages — you activate a coping strategy that has fewer negative side effects.
Part-two Healing the Wounds of Sexual Abuse and identifies areas survivors can address such as 1.) Stop avoiding the pain 2.) Remember the trauma 3.) Grieve the loss 4.) Expose the lies and 5.) Experience the truth.