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The Psychological Impact Of Child Sexual Abuse Is Way Deeper Than You Might Have Imagined, Here’s How

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By Ankita Nawalakha:

I was 16, in class 11th. Wondering why I always fell for guys who were jerks, who hurt me. Wondering why was I so under confident. Wondering why my friends told me that my body language was very different, very.. Inviting. Why I felt as if I was always in a conflict? Why did I feel I was constantly running away? Then I remembered why. It all started when I was 7 years old. He was my cousin, nine years older to me. It went on for nearly 6 years. Every single day. It was painful. It was horrible. But today, I am proud to say thatYes, I am a survivor of child sexual abuse.

child sex abuse in India

This is the story of Shubhi (Name changed),who, like many others, is a survivor (Not a victim!) of the monstrous deed of child sexual abuse (CSA). While many studies have been done on the numbers, the statistics of child sexual abuse, scant attention is given to what happens to a young girl or boy who goes through the trauma? How do they cope up with it? Does it have any long-term psychological effects? This article is an attempt to answer all these questions.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past. As it turns out to be, the effects of CSA manifest themselves in adult life. There are certain common behavioral responses to child sexual abuse, though it is important to understand that no single woman or man shows all the behaviors enlisted here and each impact or indicator can be related to issues other than CSA too.

The Impact on How survivors Live Within the Broader Society

Most survivors of CSA find relationships and friendships a challenge because trusting is difficult. They either trust people too much, get easily hurt by them, or feel unable to trust anyone, even themselves. They are always looking out, staying alert for safety, finding it difficult to relax among people. Some have learning difficulties because they had little confidence and couldn’t concentrate at school. Others become relentless overachievers, working to prove to others and themselves their worth. Most survivors feel like they have a bottomless pit of anger inside, which can well up at unexpected times. There is recognition about the right to be outraged about what happened and survivors want to channel this passion and energy for healing. Shubhi believes that in her teen-years, she became mistrustful and developed strategies to become invisible (withdrawing, becoming very shy and passive, trying to please everyone and keeping them happy at her own expense). On the opposite side, others become untouchable (rebellious, run away, sleep around, get drunk, do drugs etc.) so that they could make sense of an inner life that yelled at them ‘you are not loveable and you never will be!’

The Impact on Relationships with Partners

Studies show that women who were abused as children, sometimes choose partners that control, overpower, use and abuse them. They have found themselves in unhappy marriages and violent partnerships where the focus is always on the partner. Being controlled and manipulated is well-known territory, so they readily move toward controlling, calculating and abusive people because this is familiar. It is what they know from childhood. In other cases, they feel insecure in relationships believing that they are unlovable, so require a lot of reassurance. They often have problems communicating what they really feel to their partners, fearful of honest communication and the possible consequences that may bring. Also, there is a tendency to blame themselves when things go wrong and frequently underestimate their own abilities. However, the most heartbreaking effect is that many women agree to physical intimacy even when they don’t want it because they are either conditioned that they could not say ‘No!’, or have no secure boundaries established around their body. Shubhi recalls how apprehensive she was around her romantic partners, how she felt scared, how disconnected she truly was and unable to express her feelings.

The Impact on Parenting

Parenting is another aspect of life that has been impacted by CSA. Women who have undergone the trauma are concerned about their own children and whether they are safe with their careers. For many it is their ‘number one fear’. Some have become very protective and vigilant over their children and get anxious for their safety. Some have found they obsess over thoughts of safety for their children, even having difficulty letting them go to school.

The impact on health that many survivors live with are varied physical and mental health problems related to the misuse of alcohol, drugs, sex, living with stress, violence and abuse, and the long-term damage caused by the past CSA and addictions. Many suffer with depression, because they were stuck in situations that they did not know how to manage. Some hold a lot of anger, grief and sadness about the past and have nowhere to channel their rage except inside themselves. They all want relief. So, some seriously consider suicide as an option to end their suffering. Some develop eating problems; over-eating, under-eating, or bingeing and vomiting food and drink. Quite a few have disturbed and disrupted sleep patterns because the tension present in the body makes it impossible to relax.

The Impact on Mind and coping patterns

The most common way to cope with the harsh memories is the psychological defense mechanism of repression which involves the exclusion of distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings from the conscious mind. However, these memories don’t just disappear; these unwanted mental contents are pushed into the unconscious mind and hence they continue to influence our behavior- unexplained feelings of anxiety, helplessness, paranoia, anger and frustration. Some survivors also use imagination to escape within the mind by fantasizing themselves out of their bad experiences. While recalling her past, Shubhi tells how she used to daydream about overcoming her problems, imagining that she behaved in a different way than she actually did. She asserts that it gives her happiness and momentary peace.

These are some of the many, many effects a survivor of Child Sexual Abuse may manifest. She/He as a functioning adult survivor becomes the fighter, the accommodator, the escape artist, the victim, the denier, the over-achiever, or the pleaser. What is the most important part in the healing process is acceptance. Accepting the past, making it a part of yourself, accepting your irrational behavior is imperative. On a concluding note, Shubhi bravely tells me with a vibrant smile on her face –

“I’m good. I am making my own decisions. I’m quite able and willing to make my own mistakes. I mean, there are mistakes that I would rather not have made, but I can make them all by myself and own them now. I like it. I love my life. This is the most favorite time in my life and it’s good. I’m the happiest I’ve been, not because things are going perfect at all, but because I’m living daily with my own issues and sorting them out instead of them controlling me. I am working it out. I’m dealing with all the usual life things that come up for everyone… I’ve got control at last!”

If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at dial1098@childlineindia.org.in. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.

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  1. justnehajha

    I absolutely understand all of this because I myself went through this, so did my mom. It was more horrible for her because in her case too, it was her cousin. Its kinda hard to get over the stuff. But, I must thank the writer for putting it forward in such an amazing way! I also think that parents need to listen to their kids and not dismiss everything as irrational. Kids are not taken seriously in India and very often we see parents not believing their kids or hushing up the matter. I want that to change.

    1. Ankita Nawalakha

      Hey.
      First of all, thank you for talking about this on a public portal, it takes a lot of guts. 🙂
      Also, I couldn’t agree more with you. The whole issue of CSA has been silenced in our society despite being so common. I think what is need is open conversations about it. We must talk about this with all the kids we know- our siblings, cousins, neighbors.
      More people need to talk openly about it on public forums.

  2. Ammar Ahmad

    Ankita, I think this article is a great insight into what delves inside the head of CSA victim or a survivor. This survivor in question perhaps helped by you or on her own was able to relate her behavioral patterns to the abuse. Not everybody is able to do so and henceforth spend their rest of the lives blaming themselves for their short comings and socially unacceptable acts (many of which you have mentioned in the article) which they develop as a consequence of CSA.
    It’s a very crisp and well formulated argument, which if given the right platform is bound to help a lot more victims and survivors. Keep up the good work!!

    1. Ankita Nawalakha

      Ammar, glad you made this point. Its very important for survivors to understand that their behavior, their shortcomings are just natural because they have gone through the trauma. I think the most important thing for the healing process is to be able to talk about it and seek guidance, if necessary. While talking to Shubhi, she told me that it was only when she read a book on the impact of CSA (Its called Stolen Tomorrows), was she able to get over her anxiety and
      accept herself for who she was.

      I am glad you liked the article. Thank you. 🙂

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