Helping My Wife Survive Childhood Sexual Abuse
My wife revealed to me that she had been sexually abused by her stepfather. The process of healing has been difficult, but together we are working towards her recovery.
I clearly remember the day my wife, Liz, told me that she had been sexually abused as a child. We were watching TV but I could tell she wasn’t really interested in the show.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her, unaware that her answer would turn my world upside down.
She turned to look at me, as if searching for an answer. Then she blurted it out.
“My stepfather sexually abused me when I was a child,” she said. “I’ve never told anyone about this. You believe me, don’t you?”
There was a long period of silence as I searched for something to say. Liz stared at me, waiting for a reaction.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Why would your stepfather do such a thing?”
Then it all came flooding out.
Liz told me about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, how she’d wake at night to find her stepfather watching her with a strange, mad look on his face, how he’d ruin her clothes, embarrass her in front of friends and family and, in later years, get jealous when she dated boys.
It wasn’t until later, when I began reading books on the subject, that I came to realize that the crisis stage was a necessary part of the healing process.
She told me about the episodes in the bathtub, the attic, and all of the times she tried to tell somebody and how nobody listened or did anything about it, and how the stepfather moved the family often so she wouldn’t get close to neighbors and squeal on him.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the first step on a long and very winding journey for Liz and me. She spent the next year in therapy, healing from the torment of her past.
It was an especially difficult time for me as well, especially when Liz reached the crisis or emergency stage. This was the time when everything in her life seemed to be falling apart.
It was one of the most trying times. Liz felt hopeless and helpless. She experienced doubt and despair.
The crisis stage came on suddenly and without warning. Liz became overwhelmed because she was trying to remember what she’d pushed to the back of her mind for so many years. The haunting memories of abuse were disturbing. She had to make sense of it all.
She was flooded with memories, but didn’t have the skills to cope. She didn’t know how to control her emotions or how to deal with them. Sometimes it was all just too much for her.
During this stage, Liz would go through a whole range of emotions. Sometimes she’d threaten to throw in the towel. She’d say it was better to suffer in silence than go through the pain of healing from the abuse. At times, she’d get so overwhelmed that she’d talk about running away from it all, away from anybody who knew about her abusive past.
During those episodes, I’d give Liz the time and space she needed to sort out her feelings. Once she was ready, we’d sit and discuss the problem.
I found the key during the crisis stage was to remember that it’s actually a step forward for the survivor. Any time someone heals from a traumatic experience they go through a stage where they get overwhelmed by all the problems. It’s typical for a person who is healing from childhood sexual abuse to go through a period of this type of upheaval.
I now realize that Liz had to go through the crisis stage in order to deal with her past, sort it out and get on with her life.
When Liz was suffering, I tried not to panic. I tried to support her and make sure she didn’t cause any harm to herself.
When a survivor begins to remember all the abuse that occurred in the past, it consumes her thoughts, all her waking hours — and sometimes her sleeping hours as well.
Liz felt like she’d never get a rest from her past. It was all she talked about.
There were also periods where everything would be going smoothly and her recovery seemed imminent. But the bubble would eventually burst. Something would happen that would trigger a relapse. She’d be doing so well, then just as quickly slip back into a world filled with problems.
It was frustrating to see Liz go through this and equally frustrating to experience, but it was all part of the process, as she’d eventually get on the right track again and move forward.
I have read that there is no set time for a survivor to remain in the crisis stage. I found that Liz would work through a problem and go on with her healing, only to get thrust back into the crisis stage again. It was disappointing and frustrating to see. I thought she was progressing then suddenly she was back in crisis again. Eventually, and slowly, she progressed.
The crisis stage can be worse for some survivors than others. Some can get through it merely with the support of a partner. Others require lengthy periods of professional help.
I think the best thing I did for Liz was keep life stable. I talked with her and provided a listening ear during the crisis stage. Often, she just needed someone to talk to, someone to listen to her story, help her put it in perspective. It sounds rather simple, but just listening to Liz and letting her verbalize her thoughts was perhaps the best medicine for her.
In many ways, I was lucky during the crisis stage. Liz had been seeing a counselor and when times got tough all she had to do was book another appointment. She’d average one session a week during the initial stages of her healing. Eventually, it tapered off to once a month until one day we went to the counselor and had nothing to talk about. It was time to go it alone.
Usually, we’d see the counselor together. That helped because it helped me better understand what Liz was going through.
The counselor was like a good friend. Liz talked about her problems and the counselor helped steer her in the right direction.
It wasn’t easy getting Liz to see a counselor in the beginning, as she thought doing so was admitting failure. I just kept reminding her that help was available should she choose to see somebody.
There was no point in pushing Liz. She had to make the decision to reach out. I couldn’t do that for her.
Eventually, Liz decided she was ready and asked me to help her find a counselor. I called the local sexual assault center and was given some names. We phoned one and booked an appointment. We were lucky. The counselor was good and kept Liz on track through the healing process.
How much professional help a survivor needs and for how long depends on the emotional state of the survivor, how clearly she remembers the abuse, the type of job she might have, how much time she can devote to healing, whether she has a family and has to devote a lot of her time to others, what type of supports she has and how much natural ability she has to cope with hard times.
In addition to counseling, I also read as much as I could about childhood sexual abuse. Sadly, I found that a child who is the victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness and an abnormal or distorted view of sex. The child may become withdrawn and mistrustful of adults and can even become suicidal.
I also found that childhood sexual abuse happens all the time. The National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington, DC, reports the prevalence of child sexual abuse is difficult to determine because it is often not reported and is not uniformly defined, however, experts agree that the incidence is far greater than what is reported to authorities.
Studies by David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center in New Hampshire, show that one in five girls has been a victim of child sexual abuse, and that children are most vulnerable to childhood sexual abuse between the ages of seven and 13.
A 2003 report by the National Institute of Justice, meanwhile, indicates that three out of four adolescents who were sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well.
Looking back, the crisis stage was the toughest period in the whole healing process for Liz because it was so overwhelming. It was also tough because we thought it would never end. It wasn’t until later, when I began reading books on the subject, that I came to realize that the crisis stage was a necessary part of the healing process. I wish I had known that at the time. It would have been a big help knowing that Liz would make it through.
I remember the counselor telling Liz that the crisis stage would pass, and when it did the bad memories from her past would be replaced with good experiences of the future.
The counselor was absolutely right.
The crisis stage did pass and when it did Liz continued on her road to recovery.
Grant Cameron is an award-winning journalist and author living in Ontario, Canada. He has written a downloadable PDF book called What About Me? for men who are helping female partners recover from the effects of childhood sexual abuse. To order a PDF, go to www.helpforpartners.wordpress.com. Grant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.