A Tendency for Dissociation: Sexual Child Abuse, PTSD & Addiction

 “I am doomed. I felt shame. I felt that I am worthless and no one could ever love me – not even God. The only one that could love me is Lucifer.”

 “I feel disgustingly helpless and dirty – it dominates everything.”

“The courageous, carefree, happy, funny part of me was lost that day. I am defiant.”

 “I hate myself – can’t forgive myself for having been so stupid.”

“Please save me, but leave me alone.”

“I was incested and thrown in a closet from the age of 3. I was unforgivable and didn’t forgive anyone. I went to psychotherapy for years. In AA they told me, ’Let us love you until you can love yourself.’ Eventually the ache in my heart went away.”

“I didn’t deserve what happened to me when I was 5, but I took that and punished other people for it – and that’s my part in it.”

“You have to master dissociation.”

It’s almost impossible to talk about it. Nobody wants to hear about it. Collectively, we uphold the taboo. We act as if such things never happen. As far as the victims are concerned, everybody is in cahoots, but they themselves prefer to deny it, too. It is simply too disturbing and depressing.

It’s not necessarily easy to be human. We do some learning and experiencing. We mature, develop convictions and beliefs, and end up taking them for the truth. On the basis of a healthy genetic makeup and a gentle and nurturing childhood, a functional whole develops, where thoughts, moods, feelings, attitudes, characteristics, and behaviors are integrated. Human behavior happens on the foundation created in childhood – by experiencing and watching adults, and then behaving just like these role models.

An estimated 85 percent of addicts are survivors of abuse in childhood. The same percentage (about 85 percent) of prison inmates were abused as children.  One in four (or three) girls is sexually abused before the age of 18. One in six (or five) boys is sexually abused before the age of 18. For the survivor of sexual child abuse, life becomes most painful and confusing. He grew up with betrayal and suffering – severely traumatized and without good enough role models for handling life.

He experiences PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) in the form of flashbacks, anxiety, panic attacks, rage, insomnia, depression and psychosomatic complaints. On a behavioral level there is lack of openness; violent, unprovoked rage attacks; and repetitive self/destructive behaviors, including all addictions and eating disorders. There can be excessively cautious and inhibited behaviors, or the opposite: re-enactment of victimization and deliberate exposure to danger.

Persisting agitation and hyper-vigilance, along with unresolved grief, seemingly require ongoing dissociation from high-intensity emotions and unacceptable experiences. Such factors predispose a person for a life where relief and pleasure must be sought, and pain must be numbed and self-medicated at any price – or memories and impulses would remain intolerable.

A variety of confusing and self-defeating thought patterns persistently present. The survivor may be hopeless, fearful, resentful, jaded and cynical, often with sadistic and vengeful fantasies, as well as an array of self-destructive habits, which tend to complicate matters and cause more problems. He may also sexualize feelings (such as interest, curiosity, admiration, respect, affection or attraction), thereby causing trust issues in all relationships.

Once integration has been compromised in such a way, psychic wholeness and comfortable inter-relatedness of thoughts, memories and feelings is interrupted. Staying present becomes utterly undesirable and difficult, or seemingly impossible. It’s as though the inner melody of the soul has been rendered dissonant and the alcoholic is running from himself, in search of a better music outside of self. Missing comfort, flooded with adrenaline, tempted by impulsivity, filled with negative and conflicting thought contents, it does not appear doable to “just say no” to food, sex, alcohol, drugs, or other thrills and forbidden pleasures. Hedonism is not negotiable when your mind is screeching and tension relief is sorely missing.

He may also compartmentalize reality, keeping events and groups of people separate. He may present a different side of himself to people, lie (directly or by omission), manipulate and deceive others in an effort to direct their reaction and control the outcome. Lacking continuous attention to reality, his life doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t make sense. He gets lost in the process of covering up and his sense of identity remains vague. He has to keep his distance to hide that he feels broken. He doesn’t understand others and it’s next to impossible to speak for himself. Torn by ambivalence, he can never be content about a choice. He may present himself with fierce arrogance and hostility to mute the voice that yells demeaning things inside his head. He wants to be loved and understood – aching for someone to see and hear how he really is, but he must conceal such a vulnerability… a tough exterior protects from further exploitation. Fear of intimacy can also be handled by hypersexual activities. Sexual behaviors can be compulsive, perverse, promiscuous and inhibited. Despair about life and death are camouflaged by life-threatening bravado. Tortured by shame and guilt, seemingly indifferent and defiant, he can’t show up for himself or for others, and abandons everything that’s good in his life.

Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the creation of mental constructs, which crystallize in internal formations. This happens in response to trauma and also through instant chemical relief — often the only relief known to the victim.

In psychoanalysiscathexis is defined as the process of investing mental or emotional energyin a person, object or idea. Victims of sexual abuse tend to take on the responsibility for the traumatic events they were not capable of fighting, remaining stuck in toxic shame, disconnected from their own soul and incapable of accessing self-love. Instead they may remain forever energetically connected to the experience and the perpetrator. Traumatic bonding is a powerful form of cathexis, where the victim becomes energetically connected to the perpetrator, resulting in persisting fear, anger, rage and resentment. This can even produce the odd result of the so-called Stockholm Syndrome where the victim identifies with the aggressor in a loving or compassionate way, while remaining blind to compassion for himself.

Such a process serves to keep the energy firmly connected to pain and suffering, and also to the past. Consequently, the victim remains stuck indefinitely — vague and indifferent to his own identity, lacking interest or hope for himself, his own fate, or the lives of others. Usually there is an ongoing undercurrent of sorrow or anger, and a desperate and inconsolable loneliness.

Recovery must offer hope via a solution for the psyche to become whole (again), a complete transformation where trauma and shame can be healed. Consequently, attachment ceases to be felt like holding on to barbed wire for fear of going under. The process must include release of the ties of cathexis – as though he severs a rubber band that had tied him to the perpetrator through the energy of fear and anger. The solution is of a spiritual nature. Forgiveness is to be found through a liberating act of ”calling his spirit back” from attachment to the perpetrator, where he ultimately lets go of the anger-bond in favor of self-love. It is about (re)establishing a friendly inner world on a daily basis. The process of psychotherapy and the practice of mindfulness reveal the path, one step at a time. Without such mental hygiene, his emotional landscape reverses to a treacherous swamp.

Forgiveness is an overriding principle for recovery from emotional trauma, but when the victim had to endure unforgiveable acts, he might reject that concept altogether. In such cases discernment is important – to differentiate the personal versus the legal aspect – legal action can still be taken, while forgiveness is enabled on an intra-psychic level for healing to occur. It doesn’t mean to minimize or justify what has happened, rather it is about taking one’s spirit back from an ongoing internal dialogue of accusation and sadistic fantasies of punishment and vengeance. Only then can the victim’s life energy be fully employed for achieving wholeness from internal fragmentation. Healing is about becoming whole again from disowning parts of self during dissociation and fragmentation. Such ego defense mechanisms were aids to survival in childhood, but remain shackles for the adult survivor.

Mircea Eliade calls it “rape of the soul”, suggesting “soul retrieval” like in Shamanistic rituals. He states, “Each of us must take the responsibility for healing our own traumatic injuries.” Retrieving souls is about restoring wholeness. Shamanistic rituals employ the community to support the healing process.

In her wonderful book Why People Don’t Heal, Carolyn Myss speaks of “woundology” when people integrate victimization into their self-image, where it becomes part of their identity, thereby interfering with the healing process.

She relates the story of David Paladin, a Navajo Marine, used by the U.S. Army as “Wind-talker” for his native language as an unbreakable radio cypher during WWII. Captured by the Germans at the age of 18, he was taken to the concentration camp of Dachau. He was tortured as a POW where his feet were nailed to the floor for three days. The wounds developed into gangrene.

After his liberation he was emaciated near death and spent two years in a coma. When he returned home to his tribe at the age of 21, his legs in braces, they exclaimed, “What happened to you?”

He proceeded to answer, “The Germans…”

They stopped him, “No, what happened to you?”

Again, he wanted to explain, “The Germans…” and again they replied, “No, what happened toyou?” and he tried to recount his experience, whereupon they told him this: “Your spirit is not with you. A man cannot live without his spirit. You must get your spirit back.” They threw him in the river and instructed him to swim and get his spirit back.

Through forgiveness work in psychotherapy and spiritual practice, a metamorphosis can occur, where liberation from the prison of past experiences becomes possible. The victim’s life energies become transformed and cease to poison the soul. The energetic tie to the perpetrator can be severed. Consequently, emotional energy is released and becomes usable for the good. The practice of mindfulness in meditation helps to undo these knots – survivors can experience transformation and healing, while also downward-regulating emotional intensity.

Of course, a survivor of childhood trauma would much prefer to ease himself into recovery – he can’t bear the prospect of adding more displeasure to his misery. This is why he must immediately be offered hope that happiness is within reach, in spite of everything. He must be shown that he is, in fact, loveable and deserves to be saved. He must be guided on the path of letting go and see that life can be good. He must be given clarification, that it’s been an error all along. That he was an absolutely innocent child who needed love and guidance. That he never deserved to be treated this way. That he doesn’t really want oblivion and intoxication, but rather healing and ultimately relief from suffering. Only then will he embrace recovery.

The road to freedom is through the doorway of forgiveness. We may not know how to forgive, and we may not want to forgive; but if we are willing to forgive, we may begin the healing process. It is imperative for our own healing that we release the past and forgive everyone.” – Louise Hay, author, Hay House Publishing

In the doctor’s judgment he was utterly hopeless … alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions and attitudes, which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begins to dominate them.” –Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 26

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