Month: May 2011

The Adult Aftermath of Child Abuse

Complain about the present and blame it on the past. I’d like to find your inner child and kick its little ass. Get over it . . . The Eagles, “Get Over It”

Child abuse survivors are everywhere. They are teachers, drug addicts, heads of corporations, blue-collar workers, and artists. They can be shy, boisterous, studious or lively. So why is it that despite seeming normalcy, and even success, that some surviving adults—including those who’ve worked hard to get “over it”—still feel substantially different from their peers?

There are at least four long-term or permanent consequences to child abuse that are rarely discussed :

Brain Damage – Higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol are found in infants and young children who have been neglected or abused. Permanent damage includes death to nerve cells in key areas of the brain and, depending on the extent of abuse and neglect, impaired brain development. There are higher mortality rates throughout the lifespan of a neglected child, as well as marked social and behavioral differences.

Hypervigilance – A child who has an abusive parent or caregiver learns very early on to be on the lookout for possible threats. They become “wired” to be overly sensitive to everything in their environment, including the body language, words, and moods of other people; noise; crowds; and movement. This wiring, which began as circumstantial, is not likely to end with age, or with the end of the threats. It becomes, instead, a “natural” part of a person’s sensory package. To unlearn it would be the equivalent of a non-abused person learning not to see, hear, taste, or smell.

Anxiety & Social Disorders – Abused children may grow up and look like everyone else, but if their differing brains and responses to environmental stimuli aren’t obvious, their high level of anxiety and other social differences might be. Adults who were abused as children are more likely to have difficulty with relationships, eating disorders, chronic depression, insomnia; panic attacks, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, suicidal ideation and more.

Experience ­– Although we live in a culture of convenient ideologies (get over it; pick yourself up by the bootstraps; it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you feel about it), the fact is that the totality of experience matters, mentally, emotionally, and physically. A person does not have to exhibit the obvious dysfunctions of Harlow’s monkeys or the deprived children of Romanian orphanages in order to be changed by childhood abuse and neglect—yet it is a common assumption that if someone looks and acts “normal” then they are, or should be, capable of being unaffected. In practice, this assumption only increases the anxiety that many survivors feel. While in the process of healing what they can heal for their own benefit and mental health, survivors may also feel charged with the task of negating their life experiences, or at least hiding the affects from them, in order to fit in and make other people feel more comfortable.

Unfortunately, the affects of child abuse don’t end when a survivor leaves home or reaches some magical age. There are real and long-term consequences that, contrary to popular belief, have nothing to do with a “victim mentality”, or a desire to wallow in the pain of past events, or even (as I’ve heard it suggested many times by hardnosed critics) a need to feel “special” and gather sympathy.

In fact, most survivors would wish less for sympathy than for understanding. Sympathy tends to be temporary and fleeting—it’s what we express at funerals and when we read horrible news stories—whereas understanding promises a more lasting, more inclusive, level of acceptance for differing life experiences and outcomes.


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People Are the Universe

I think it’s strange when people attribute every human experience to some godly, universal, or cosmic force. With billions of people on the planet, it’s hard to believe that anything would be capable of, or find value in, that kind of intense micromanagement. In other words, if your dog escapes from your backyard and gets hit by a car, or someone spills a hot cup of tea on your foot, I don’t think that God, The Universe, or Karma has caused the event in order to teach you some profound life lesson. Sometimes, things just happen. Good and bad, wonderful and tragic, human and circumstantial.

That’s not to say that I’m not wired to believe in the mystical. When all the pieces fell into place for me to write my book, and other people told me that the Universe wanted to make it happen for me, I readily agreed. It really did feel like there was some higher power shuffling the deck and throwing me just enough winning hands to finish the memoir that I’ve wanted to write for at least a decade.

Yet this week, my MacBook’s hard drive crashed. Twice. The first time, the Apple store repaired the disk and backed up my files on a thumb drive. The second time, the disk was fried. It was then that I learned that the backups were corrupt—two months worth of rewrites and edits were presumably gone, along with everything else I’d written, photographed, and uploaded.

My wonderful new roommate, Jessica, suggested that maybe the Universe wanted me to start over again. I almost cried. I think it would be a rather cruel joke if the Universe had let me get so far only to take away most of what it had given.

I did cry at the Apple store, particularly when one of their geniuses told me that if I wanted to save my book I’d have to go to a data recovery specialist and pay up to $2000 to get the information off of my dead disk. It didn’t help when they told me that I should have bought a back up disk and been doing daily backups if my work was that important to me. Of course I should have. I should have also used an online service like Carbonite to back up my documents. I didn’t do either and it was stupid. Having no disposable income is stupid, too, but it’s not all that uncommon among struggling writers.

When Jessica met me at the Apple store I was an anxious, bleary-eyed mess. “My brother Drew is good at computers,” she said. “Let me give him a call.” A few minutes later, we were heading to his workplace to drop off what felt like the majority of my life—my MacBook, the old hard drive, the thumb drive with corrupt files—everything I have written in the past couple of years, including my book. I felt naked, vulnerable, and hopeful all at the same time.

Two hours later, Drew called Jessica with the news that he had recovered everything. The charge to me would be $100, not $2000.

And the reason I had $100 is because of another human being, who believes in my work and who has been incredibly supportive.

And the reason I’ve been able to work on the book so diligently is because a handful of friends have offered me shelter, seen me through the rough patches, and lent encouragement when most needed.

I don’t know what the mystical Universe has in mind for me or for the future of Elephant Girl, but today I am most grateful to the very real human beings who seem to make even the unlikeliest of things possible.




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