Jen raised her head and stared absently out the window. Another news account about a sex-abuse scandal, this one at a church, had aggravated the deep, decades-old scars hidden in the walls of her soul. She grieved for the victims—young and so innocent—now left to deal with a lifetime of confusion, mistrust, rage, and misplaced guilt.
Would they grow up to feel hopeless and all alone? she wondered. All alone, just like me? Will they ever find hope? Will I?
Sexual abuse is one of the few crimes that brings more shame to the victim than to the offender. It steals innocence and self-respect and often silences victims so that they don’t seek help. The wounds and struggles that follow can be as painful as the original abuse. Many victims feel alone, detached, anxious, and depressed, and may even question their own sanity.
Victims of sexual abuse often wonder how events that took place years ago can still be so damaging today. Time does not erase the damage of the past violations. This is similar to a broken arm that is not properly treated—it will mend, but not correctly. Time may diminish the pain of the memories, but it will not heal the wounds to the body and soul.
Sexual abuse causes victims to feel utterly powerless. Such overwhelming feelings are devastating to a psyche and nervous system.
Under threatening or overwhelming stress, God equipped the human brain and body to react decisively with fight or flight responses. Human beings don’t have to think about taking action. The instinct to ward off danger involuntarily rises up in our nervous system. But when someone older or in a position of power sexually exploits a child or teenager, there is nothing she can do. They feel helpless to fight off their abuser or to get away. Silenced by the abusers threats to herself or someone she loves. Powerless to minimize or dull the physical sensations experienced and emotional pain suffered.
The trauma of powerlessness leaves a victim’s nervous system stuck in a stressful state of high alert, ever sensing (albeit unconsciously) that something dangerous is about to happen again. This can result in extreme efforts to control one’s own life. Some victims vow never to be powerless again, so they become self-sufficient, domineering, and intimidating. Others live under a constant pressure to be perfect and to avoid disappointing others. Failure to live up to such impossible expectations leads to exhaustion and greater feelings of helplessness.
A nagging sense of powerlessness causes many victims to struggle with feelings and thoughts of chronic doubt. “What’s wrong with me? Why could I not stop the abuse? Why couldn’t I see what was really going on? Why can’t I make the pain go away?” “Why do I keep letting people down?” These self-incriminating questions burrow deep inside the heart and linger like festering sores.
One victim said, “If I had only been smarter, stronger, or braver, maybe the abuse would not have occurred.” Nothing could be further from the truth! But simply being told that it is not your fault, though completely true, does not usually help victim’s heal. Attending to a victim’s traumatized and fragile nervous system helps many find the emotional and mental clarity to accept that the abuse was not her fault.
Healing from the wounds of sexual abuse require careful, tender attention. If you have been sexually abused, or if you know someone struggling with the aftermath of abuse, you may find it helpful to read the Discovery Series booklet When Trust Is Lost. Author Dan Allender outlines a process of restoration filled with hope and help.