Archive for November 23, 2013

Sexual Trauma – The Highest Predictor of Alcoholism

Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston.

This is a solid, well-researched account of alcohol’s harmful effects on those of us who are vulnerable to substance abuse.

I remember hearing Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, expert childhood trauma clinician, researcher and teacher, explain that when anyone presented for treatment with a history of child sexual abuse, he asked what they used to dull the intolerable pain of child sexual abuse: street drugs, prescription drugs, cigarettes, food binges, etc.? Those who have lived through childhood trauma need something, he explained. The pain is too great to bear without some substance to numb it.

Johnston described her interview with David Goldman, chief of the laboratory of human genetics at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in the United States. Goldman told her that genes play a strong role in alcoholism, but “The strongest single predictor for both alcoholism and depression is having been sexually abused or traumatized in childhood. … Sexual abuse is the strongest predictor” (p. 81.)

Those of us who have histories of child abuse, especially child sexual abuse, would do well to take in Drink’s information. The author’s sharing of her own struggle with alcohol is heartfelt and honest. Growing up with an alcoholic mother, Johnston swore never to be like her mother, but ended up drinking heavily, beginning in university. By the time she was a superwoman editor, mother and successful public figure, she depended on wine to smooth over fatigue, anxiety and any other uncomfortable feeling.

I was in the large audience at this year’s Kingston Writers’ Fest when Johnston talked about her life and her book. She has a lovable vulnerability, an unusual characteristic in a trauma survivor. (Most of us hide any sign of struggle or pain.) Her book describes how she became more and more authentic as she healed: more and more Ann.

There is a disturbing increase in drinking among women in general, she tells us. Realizing this, wine makers and distillers have developed marketing strategies and products targeted exclusively to women. Girls’ Night Out wines, Mommy Juice and Mommy’s Time Out, berry flavoured vodkas and fruit coolers are all aimed at the female consumer.

Johnston describes the disturbing prevalence of heavy drinking on university campuses. (Such is not the case in community colleges.) Drunkenness is considered part of a rite of passage, normal behaviour for those who have left home, usually for the first time. Many vulnerable women begin their problem drinking in university. She urges academic communities to tackle this problem.

Realizing she had a problem, Ann Dowsett Johnston promised her then-boyfriend she wouldn’t drink alone when she moved to Montreal to be Vice President of McGill University. Loneliness and the stress of the new job soon had her finding sleep by drinking too much. At last, she tells us, she crashed and headed for a residential treatment centre to deal with her alcoholism.

I highly recommend this book to survivors of childhood trauma and to anyone wishing to better understand the damaging effects of alcohol on vulnerable populations.

Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, Ann Dowsett Johnston, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., Toronto, Canada, 2013.

Guest Post – My Story of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Over the last few days I have been reading many blog posts on other people’s stories of child sexual abuse and their experiences of recovered memories and/or recovery from the unspeakable pain they have lived through. I am struck by their strength in their ability to be vulnerable in telling their stories. Today I feel stuck somewhere between my need to hide away and my need to scream out my truth. But I have come to the decision to take a leaf out of these other inspiring people’s books and share some of my story.

For nearly 18 months I have been in therapy, initially triggered by a then recent episode of emotional abuse from a sibling. I had been bullied my whole life by this person and needed to break the cycle of fear and anxiety I seemed to still be in, despite us no longer living together and us both now being in our mid-late twenties. So I began, what has become the intense and painful process of working through my life.

Years before this I had uncovered memories of an incident which happened on a holiday when I was 8 years old. Without going into the specific details (I still struggle to speak of them) I was attacked by a stranger and physically and sexually abused. I feared for my life. Thankfully, before it went even further than it did, my attacker let me run (I assume he heard the voice in the distance that I heard and thought he would be caught). I told no one. On my way back to my family, in the traumatised state I was in, I was nearly knocked down by a car and so I could attribute my state of terror and the physical signs to this. I told no one. I thought it was my fault. And somehow, I locked away the memory of the attack for nearly 15 years before the memories came flooding back one day a few years ago.

When the memory began to surface (in what I now know all too well to be through flashbacks and recovered memories) I only told one friend. When I began therapy it took weeks and months to talk about this incident and still to this day I struggle to process and talk about it as more flashbacks take me through more and more emotions around this incident alone.

As I have been working through these issues of abuse and other significant parts of my life (including many deaths of close family members, self-harm issues from my childhood, alcoholism in my family and issues from previous childhood therapy), I have also uncovered more abuse from my childhood. For the last six months I have been bombarded with memories and feelings of being sexually abused by two very close male relatives between the ages of 3-11. Both died years ago, one in very traumatic circumstances. And there was further sexual abuse from another male who was closely linked to my family for a year or so within this time. He is no longer in our lives I am glad to say.

Looking back, in some ways I always knew. But then I could never have said it out loud or bring the memories to mind in most cases. The memories were buried so deeply and some still are. So much of my life is clicking into place in a way that I cannot fully explain – like I am getting some of my jigsaw pieces back, one by one.

In one sense it is amazing to begin putting my life together. There were so many parts to it that I could not really explain, that made me feel like I was not ‘normal’ at times: my inability to form long-standing romantic relationships with men, sexual issues, dissociative problems, a history if self harm, vulnerability to emotional abuse, my issues around therapy (despite having been brought up in a family of therapists), my history of depression, anxiety, and now what I clearly see as PTSD, the shame and guilt I have felt throughout my life (in addition to the shame I have faced in being brought up in a very religious family), my inability to express anger, my need to keep people at arms-length emotionally and not accept support, my underlying knowledge that my family’s ‘perfect’ image was a lie …the list goes on. And each are talking probably points in themselves for later blog entries.

However, though my life is clicking into place, there is nothing I wouldn’t give at times to take it all away and for it not to be true.

Navigating my way through the flashbacks and the feelings about my abusers feels impossible at times. With the two family members who sexually abused me, I find particularly myself overwhelmed by grief on many levels in recent weeks and my feelings are so conflicting. It is a mine-field to work my way through.

And the impact it has on my relationships in my current life is also difficult to work through. I still haven’t spoken to most family members about all this, so being around them is difficult, particularly because of the conflicting feelings that come up about their role in my life – and I emphasise conflicting, they are not all negative.

I have only told a handful of people about my abuse (hence my need to keep my blog anonymous for now) and on the whole only in the last few months. Another (non-abusive) sibling is now providing me with a lot of support (when I let her) as she always has, even before I recently told her of my abusive past. We are trying to work around each others’ needs and emotions. I have great support from a few friends who I have shared this with and even many of those who don’t know provide me with a lot of support when I find it in myself to reach out for help. It is hard to change the habits of a lifetime.

My therapy is increasingly becoming fundamental in my process, and the support I have from my therapist is invaluable. He is very experienced in sexual abuse issues and works with me in a very person-centred way, which is what I need at the moment. I find myself pulling away at times, I come away many weeks feeling like I have been hit by a bus (my counselling-hangover as I see it) and I have to work through so many issues of trust on a regular basis, but overall I can see how valuable it is for me in facing my past, my present and my future.

I started this blog for a few reasons. In spite of keeping silent with many people in my life, I have a need to share a lot if my thought processes. To find a voice. It is partly for my own needs in writing – I find it very therapeutic and have done for years now. But I also have a need to be able to help others in their process – if only one person gets anything from my writing (blog posts or poetry) then it is worth it. Even if it just helps one person to become more aware that these things happen in life then it has done its job. We all need a voice.

And for me, reading other people’s stories in books and online has helped me a lot. This is in addition to the inspirational writing I continually find and read which is not always directly linked to abuse. Writings on many aspects of life, love, loss and healing give me great strength to carry on in all this and I gain a lot of insight into my own self in their expression.

It feels difficult to say this today as I am feeling very vulnerable and more low and exhausted than feels bearable for the week ahead, but deep down I know there is hope somewhere in all this. Even if it sits deep deep down in me at times like this. And I know this because even after everything I have faced in the last 18 months, I am still standing. I am by no means at the end of this road (I don’t think it ends actually, just changes I think). I am learning regularly that there may be new lows to hit, maybe new memories to uncover, and many many hard new and painful things to face along the way, but with the help of the support networks I am trying to create or tap into for myself I will keep going. It is not easy. But i will get there (wherever ‘there’ is), I do believe it is possible. We are all still standing after all.

This post is by Anonymous at The Power of Silence blog.