The 3+ Ways Sexual Trauma Shows Up in The Daily Lives of Survivors
by Julie Meyers, EGCMethod Practitioner, Certified Gestalt Coach
Depression. Anxiety. Anger.
These are all ways that we expect sexual trauma to show up in our lives as survivors. They are obvious and commonly reported. The individual ways these manifest, however, are what might be surprising — even to those of us who have experienced — or are experiencing them. I’d like to shed light on some very uncomfortable manifestations of childhood sexual trauma. Uncomfortable for readers who can’t relate — who were not sexually traumatized as children or adolescents — who might think the following are uncommon. And uncomfortable for those of us who live life as survivors of childhood and adolescent sexual trauma, who live these behaviors without thinking, like breathing, yet die inside to admit, look at, or fully stand in as our own truth.
Substance addiction, unhealthy relationships with food, promiscuous sexuality, sexual avoidance, cutting, burning and other self-destructive and self mutilating behaviors are all ways trauma works itself out through our bodies, spirits and minds.
For me, compulsive overeating was one of the many ways childhood sexual trauma manifested in my life. Until I embraced recovery from my food addiction, food was my number one go-to solution when my emotions were too big and painful to deal with. The bullying after my rape drove me to uncontrollable binging — alone, on the couch with the TV in front of me every day after the school bus brought me home from 7th grade.
In my Gestalt practice, I have seen sexual trauma express itself via self-destructive behaviors like alcoholism, drug abuse, compulsive overeating, anorexia, bulimia, social/sexual avoidance, social/sexual promiscuity, agoraphobia, and cutting. The intensity of the self-defeating behavior may be mild to completely life altering.
The reality is, the trauma that occurred at a young age is like a pressure cooker. In order to keep from exploding out onto someone else or imploding back into ourselves, there must be a release. For most of us who are “going it on our own” or are in a therapy modality that only treats the symptoms versus the underlying cause, the release valve is often turning the pain inward on ourselves. The way we direct that pain is as individual as we are.
Confusion of Sex and Love
For a great deal of my life, I had no idea that I was confused about the difference between love and sex. I spent most of my life feeling “less than” other girls or women and “rejected” by men. Looking back, I realize that most of my relationships were based on sex, when I was desperately searching for love. In reality, I didn’t know where sex ended and love began. Since that time, I have come to understand that I am far from alone in this confusion.
The truth is, sexual trauma messes with our internal emotional compass, setting it off kilter and causing all types of love, sex and intimacy behaviors that don’t make sense to anyone — including the person in the middle of the behavior. That is until they are able to unravel the threads of their personal relationship to their own sexual trauma. Promiscuity is just one sexually manifested outward sign of an inwardly carried trauma. Sexual anorexia or avoidance can also be an expression of the same type of trauma. What’s more is there can be shades of gray across the spectrum for each individual as to what would be “normal” or “abnormal.” This further adds to the confusion.
Outwardly, sexual assault survivors may not even be able to connect their parenting conflicts with their own past trauma. I did not make these connections until my son and daughter were in their teens, unfortunately. I was unconscious of the connection between what happened when I was 12 and the way I was behaving 25 years later. The year my daughter was 11 was one of the hardest years of my life. I was overbearing and controlling, verging on hysterical at times, trying to keep her close. After completely losing my cool one day, yelling at my mom and my daughter, I ended up a pile on the floor crying. It was in that moment that I realized why I was behaving like a lunatic. I was consumed by fear that the same thing would happen to her when she was 12, and I would not be able to protect her. It was irrational, yet somehow made sense. A saying I heard recently comes to mind:
“If we don’t heal our wounds, we will bleed on people who didn’t cut us.”
My relationship with my daughter became strained, and that time with her was wasted in anger, frustration and worry. It was a precious time of her life that I can never get back.
This trickle down effect means a parent’s sexual trauma can impact their children in a very complicated and profound way. We live the patterns that we learn during childhood, whether we mean to or not, and then we “teach” them to our children, and on down the line. I was teaching my daughter to fear me and to want to be distant from me. There is a part of me that would do anything to go back and do my personal work of cleaning up my unfinished business surrounding my rape and any other negative patterns I gained in childhood while my kids were much younger. I would do anything for a second chance at parenting my young children, so that I could parent them from a place of love and wholeness versus fear.
But both Gestalt and the horses have taught me to be in the present moment, accepting what is. I truly believe that it’s never too late to make a change for the better, and any point is a good place to start. Today my children and I love each other “to the moon and back,” and they admire and respect me today, which I attribute to the personal work I have done.
For some, the anxiety can be completely debilitating, even manifesting in life altering agoraphobia, extreme social avoidance, or separation anxiety so intense they cannot be alone even for a few moments. Often, this anxiety is also apparent in behaviors I’ve already mentioned such as self-destructive actions, addiction, promiscuity, or isolation. The root cause, however, is deeply embedded in the need to reconcile the original transgression.
Unconditional support for those who experience anxiety comes on four legs with a huge heart and a muzzle to nuzzle. For a very long time now, the effects animals have on people with anxiety has been studied, and shown clinically, to offer truly positive benefits. Horses, for me, are one of the key ways I learned to reconcile my anxiety. As a species, horses are keenly aware of their surroundings, yet they hold a great capacity for love, acceptance, and an innate ability to be at peace. Their most natural state is the opposite of anxiety; serenity. It is one of the reasons I partner with horses in my coaching business. With a horse by their side, my clients can feel calm and are autonomically less prone to anxiety — and I, as a coach, also benefit from their presence and wisdom in keeping my own energy centered, focused and beneficial to my client.
Often times, these very physical issues can only be resolved via trauma release. I know of women who have suffered immense pelvic pain for decades, and after years of unsuccessful medical intervention, finally got relief only after Equine Gestalt Coaching sessions. I know a woman who suffers with Fibromyalgia, and after doing Equine Gestalt Coaching around the incest that was perpetrated against her as a little girl, it has abated a great deal, flaring up less frequently and with less intensity. This may seem surprising to some, but to me, I believe that with sexual trauma, pain is inflicted on the soul as well as the body. I suffered a wound to my soul when I was raped. The pain that I endured from the rape itself was only part of it — there was being demeaned horrendously, not believed and not supported that deepened the wound. My soul was flayed open, just as my physical body was during the act, and while the physical pain resolved relatively quickly, the emotional pain was held down and trapped inside of me with no way out.
Research shows that the more support a woman who has been raped receives from family and society, the more quickly she can recover from the emotional pain of the event. Women who receive no support, or worse, are demeaned, blamed and not believed, struggle immensely with recovering from the emotional scars that such added trauma brings. Especially if the perpetrator is a trusted adult or family member, which was not part of my experience. You can’t fix spiritual and emotional wounds with medication — you can only cover up the resulting symptoms in order to numb out, shoving the feelings down and covering them up. Healing these types of wounds is another business altogether and the only remedy I found was release through the power of Gestalt. The night after my first ever Gestalt anger release toward my perpetrator, I shook for hours as the trauma I’d been holding for 33 years was set free from the cells of my body. I will never forget it. And the result is that I am set free from that man, whose name I could not say for decades. He no longer “owns” my emotions, thoughts or actions.
A Path to Wholeness
Whether it was words that were spoken, behaviors acted upon you, or even generational influences passed down through the people in your life, old wounds fester and ooze until they are cleared and healed. Today, it is my passion to support women like myself — women who have had their sexual boundaries crossed against their will, especially in childhood or adolescence, to heal, grow and evolve on their own journey from trauma to freedom.