How abuse affects our mental health

Hi, all! I posted this article in our November issue of the Church Protect Quarterly Newsletter, but I also wanted to add it to our Members Only blog in case any of you missed it.

I was 18 when I experienced my first flashback. With only a few short seconds of this memory, I couldn’t comprehend what it was. I convinced myself that it was an accident or misunderstanding, not intentional abuse. At age 20, I finally knew what it meant.

When I was 20 years old, I saw my abuser interacting with a group of young children in a way that caused rage and panic to boil up inside me. That’s when I made the connection: he was abusing these girls now, just like he abused me when I was a little girl. I didn’t witness any actual abuse at that time, but my gut instinct told me it was happening. I spoke up, and I was right.

A few months later, the man who abused me was sentenced to prison due to evidence of abuse against many young victims.

Now that he was locked away, I could finally start healing, right? Not so much. Things got increasingly worse before they got better. I started having more and more flashbacks along with nightmares about being abused. There were so many triggers throughout what used to be a normal day that now made me feel like I was being abused all over again.

I couldn’t stand to be touched, because it would cause flashbacks, bring on anxiety or make me feel lost, like I was not in the present room. I learned that what I experienced is called dissociation.

Dissociation causes many sexually abused children to forget about the abuse at the time that it happens. It’s the brain’s own survival mechanism. It’s too difficult for a traumatized child to process the split thoughts of loving the abuser, if he or she is a family member or caregiver, and hating the abuser. That “split” can be buried as a repressed memory that resurfaces many years later. Sometimes, the dissociative parts of consciousness control the child’s behavior, causing him or her to form alternate selves, which is known as dissociative identity disorder.

When my memories of abuse resurfaced, I developed post traumatic stress disorder, which is when certain sensory experiences connect the mind to the original trauma. The PTSD made me relive the abuse over and over, have nightmares, insomnia, severe depression and suicidal thoughts. I could no longer enjoy the things I enjoyed in the past, and I was holding onto a lot of anger. Every day was a struggle, and so many times I wanted to give up. I didn’t want people to know I was experiencing all of this, so I tried to hide it by staying busy.

These symptoms lasted for about three years of my adult life. During those years, there would be periods of maybe two to three weeks when I didn’t experience a flashback, so I thought I was healed, but then they’d suddenly start again.

About a year ago, I finally started to feel a little bit better. The flashbacks began to stay away for much longer periods of time, and I got better at staying present. The nightmares are rare now, and I no longer get angry over little things.

But the emotional pain hasn’t completely gone away, and I don’t think it ever will. There are still some days that I’m severely depressed and don’t want to go anywhere or see anyone, but I feel so much stronger than I felt four years ago.

I share these thoughts to help people understand that dissociation and flashbacks are real and that the psychological effects of childhood sexual abuse are very serious. My hope is that you’ll join Church Protect in our fight to protect children from abuse and help those who have already been abused to get the treatment they need.

I also share these thoughts to encourage any fellow survivors who might be reading this to know that you are not alone. Please feel free to connect with me through our survivors’ support group if you need a safe, confidential place to talk about your experiences.