Male adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse: Men coming out of the shadows
The talented footballer, Andy Woodward, has courageously disclosed his ordeal at the hands of his football coach. Since then, Paul Stewart, David White and Steve Walters have also spoken publicly about their ordeals, waiving their right to anonymity as victims of child sex abuse. The NSPCC's hotline has now received hundreds of calls. People seem shocked that football is involved. The so-called 'beautiful game'. We struggle to make sense of such news. We cannot comprehend that the human condition is ultimately flawed. That some people who have power over others, will abuse such power. Instead, we want to believe that only select groups of individuals are responsible for all the hurt in the world. Quite simply, abuse transcends colour, race, religion or sexual orientation. Somewhere along the way, those amongst us who abuse those entrusted in their care, have lost their humanity.
Who hurt you? Someone you trusted? If you are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, you will have been left in considerable pain. During your early years, the abuser(s) managed to isolate you, alienate you and somehow separate you so that they could take advantage of you. Was it the sports coach, scout leader, your babysitter or uncle? It could have been your grandfather, stepfather, teacher or preacher, the priest or choirmaster? The neighbour, mum's best friend or friendly face in the pub? Any older adult who by default, knew they had you feeling overpowered.
For a man, coming to terms with abuse rocks the very core of your identity. The identity you believe means what it is to be a man. Idealisms exist of male strength, macho, tough, unflinching - a hard-man. Whenever a memory triggers, you find yourself somehow back there in your head. You numb out, lash out and, at your darkest moments, seek ways of bailing out. Your mind flashes back to times when you felt helpless, powerless, guilty, inferior, humiliated and ashamed. To the times when you felt as if you were less than a man. To when your identity seemed as shaky and unformed as a newborn lamb. You may become suicidal at worst, or at best retreat into black and white thinking that serves to narrow your worldview and interfere with your emotional development. Every shape you believed that gave you the master keys to the foundations of understanding the world is, in your skewed reality fuzzy, muddled and clouded with anger as you mistrust, misread and misinterpret your loved one's very often kind intention. Your relationships break down, as you struggle to come to terms with the daunting realisation that a major part of your childhood was so cruelly stolen.
Your mind simply cannot compute the trauma and your body cannot feel that, which is located and buried so deeply within. To cope with the battle inside, the conflict you feel, you find it safer to divide humans into either/or positions. In such manner, yourself and others are either good or bad, clever or stupid, strong or weak. Hero or villain. Your logic and reasoning is faulty, short-circuiting as you mistakenly conclude that either you are a victim because you 'allowed' the abuse and as a result are left feeling weak, anxious and unable to cope with life's challenges. Or you believe you must be sick and perverted because you 'wanted' it. As a male, you were brought up to believe that you are in charge of yourself, to dominate and compete. And win life's game. "If only they really knew me", you tell yourself that no-one could ever possibly like you, want you or love you so you hide away with your shame causing you exponential damage, disturbance and pain.
For a male child, a boy, a young man, your abuser groomed you, which manipulated you into believing that you were responsible for the abuse coming your way. That the type of relationship they set up with you was normal, what everyone does, how it's just practice and how you are in fact the bad one if you dare to complain, should you ever reveal the truth of their depraved, wicked and cruelest of games. Our sexual organs are meant to be stimulated. Human beings are meant to get turned on. However, if being turned on happens when we are too young to understand, we know little of our own biology, we cannot possibly comprehend what is really going on. On the one hand, there is innocent play and sexual discovery between peers. On the other, when someone uses this knowledge as an excuse to tell you it is all your fault, it is abuse. They twist the facts to make it appear as if it was you who gave them the signal to bring it all on. Maybe you knew it the first time - or maybe you never really knew it was wrong. You dissociated, numbed out, pretended it wasn't happening. The only way you coped is because at the time, it had no name. Until as an adult you find yourself in relationships, hurting people again and again. Left in a permanent state of vulnerability, you realise you're not coping. You feel weak, weary, worn out and confused. Along the way you have begun to realise that for you, relationships are tricky. Maybe you gamble with multiple partners, hide away with secretive lovers or become completely confused over your own sexuality? Are you gay? Were you always gay? Or were you simply born that way? Or you can't help but wonder have you been 'turned' gay as a result of the abuse, that in those earlier years, kept coming your way? Or if abused by a woman, are all women to be feared, are they always set up in your mind as an object of hate?
Perhaps you have turned to drugs or alcohol or internet porn? Gaming, self-harm, or any other form of lashing out at others? In fact, who cares? You may have got to the stage where you will go for any risky situation, such as unsafe sex, insatiable shopping, eating disorders or illegal criminal behaviour that leaves you feeling stimulated. High. A release. Your humanity is now itself spinning out of control until you feel the withdrawal, the crash, regret, fear, guilt and shame. And then wanting to be found out, wanting to be punished, wanting it to stop, but not knowing how, the cycle repeats itself all over again. You are so angry, your mind kills in fantasy, striking your demons down and leaving them for dead. Until the next time, they rear their ugly head. Personality disorders, emotional abuse, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) manifest, as your safety-seeking behaviours keep you running away from yourself.
The abuse has created a catastrophic clash of symbols into a chorus of unwanted thoughts, desires, compulsions and questions that appear to have no answers. No answers that you have been able to find on your own. No answers that help create enough distance between the events of the past and the living moment that is yours now. Therapy moves away from the shadows of denial, providing a map to begin to guide you through the distance required on the path to peace, the road to recovery, the journey towards healing. You can find your way out of the darkness, towards the light inside your true self. The true self that was taken during your childhood abuse. The repair and restoration of the horrific break in your personal boundaries. Your private self now intact, you are transported into the here and now, a million miles away from the painful memories from which you survived.
Forgiveness doesn't excuse your abuser. Nor take your truth away. However, what therapy does, is give you is the opportunity to break free from the chains of isolation that keep you locked and tied, frozen in time, to the wretched experiences stuck in your mind. Abusers abuse the imbalance of power they hold. The reason they abuse is always "because I can". Therapy provides you with a different kind of relationship. An intimacy that exposes your vulnerability, the type of relationship that usually would leave you feeling unimaginably afraid. A relationship of trust from where you can walk together, having your experiences witnessed, believed, validated and affirmed. A safe space, free from isolation, fear, anxiety and helplessness, towards personal power. A space where your recovery is supported, where you can learn to make choices, to decide on reparative and restorative action, in the calm comfort of reconciliation and find the peace within you deserve.
"Peace is our gift to each other" - Elie Weisel.
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About Amanda Perl
I am a BACP accredited counsellor and psychotherapist, a CBT practitioner and member of the British Psychological Society. I am the course lead for a stage four BACP accredited counselling diploma. My private practice reflects my belief that each of us is unique with the potential for growth and development and can move forward in our own way.