Was I Sexually Abused?

Model poses as woman wondering whether she was sexually abused.
Memories of sexual abuse can sometime emerge years after the event. Stockbyte / Getty Images

Question: Was I Sexually Abused?

A typical question that I might get from a user is: "For as long as I can remember, I've tried to disconnect from everything around me. I was always in trouble at school for daydreaming and not paying attention, and I would just try to blank everything out. My parents didn't even seem to notice me. By age 13, I was using marijuana, and I've tried every drug since then.

By the time I was 18, I was addicted to heroin. I'm now 28, and a lot of the addicts I know who've been through rehab realized they had been sexually abused as kids. Some of them didn't even remember it until they had therapy. I don't remember much about my childhood, so was I molested as a kid?" This, and related questions about childhood sexual abuse, are answered below.

Answer:

First, there's nothing wrong with asking this question. Childhood sexual abuse is one of the most stigmatized experiences in our society. The prevalence of childhood sexual abuse can be difficult to accurately measure—and although unfortunately all too common, we rarely talk about it openly. Facing up to having been sexually abused as a child takes enormous courage, but can be a very healing experience.

It's also true that childhood sexual abuse is disproportionately higher in people who develop addictions to drugs such as meth and heroin, and it's also much higher in people who develop sex addiction and sexual anorexia, as well as those who develop food addiction and other eating disorders.

The pattern of trying to disconnect from the world around you, known as dissociation, is common among people who experienced sexual abuse in childhood. Some who've been abused actually forget about the abuse for years—or even decades—only to remember it later in adulthood, sometimes during therapy.

The fact that you don't recall much of your childhood is also an indicator that you may have been exposed to a traumatic event—that is, something that was too overwhelming for you to cope with at the time—during childhood. Childhood sexual abuse is one kind of trauma, but there are many others that can have the same effect, including witnessing violence or death, being physically or emotionally abused, or experiencing an accident, injury or serious illness.

But despite the fact that parts of your story seem to line up with the experiences that are often related to sexual abuse, that doesn't mean that you actually were sexually abused. Although it's frustrating when you can't remember things from your childhood, it may do you more harm than good to try and "figure out" whether you were abused without some kind of concrete evidence. Concrete evidence could include remembering being touched inappropriately as a child, someone telling you that you actually were sexually abused, or someone else coming forward and talking about abuse who was a child in a similar situation.

This person could be a sibling, or an adult who had a position of authority over you—such as a teacher or coach—who admits to, or has been found guilty of, sexual abuse of children in his or her care. And even then, if you don't remember it, it may not have actually happened.

Several other psychological conditions can lead to memory loss, so try not to jump to conclusions. If you feel ready to face whatever the reason is for the problems you've been experiencing, now might be a good time to seek help for getting off drugs once and for all, and to also receive therapy for your underlying psychological problems. If you feel you are able, talk to your doctor about the best treatment plan. And if you don't feel ready, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline on 1.800.656.HOPE, which can give you a place to talk through the situation until you do feel ready.

Good luck with your journey towards healing. Many men and women have recovered from addictions and from childhood sexual abuse, and gone on to live happy, fulfilled lives.

Sources

Cohen, J., Dickow, A., Zweben, J., Balabis, J., Vandersloot, D., Reiber, C. "Abuse and Violence History of Men and Women in Treatment for Methamphetamine Dependence." The American Journal on Addictions, 12:377-385. 2003.

Dunkley, D., Masheb, R. & Grilo, C. "Childhood Maltreatment, Depressive Symptoms, and Body Dissatisfaction in Patients with Binge Eating Disorder: The Mediating Role of Self-Criticism." Int J Eat Disord 43:274–281. 2010.

Oviedo-Joekes, E., Marchand, K., Guh, D. & Marsh, D., Brissette, S., Krausz, M., Anis, A. & Schechter, M. "History of reported sexual or physical abuse among long-term heroin users and their response to substitution treatment." Addictive Behaviors 36:55-60. 2011.

Somer, E. & Avni, R. "Dissociative Phenomena Among Recovering Heroin Users and Their Relationship to Duration of Abstinence." Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions 3:25-38. 2003.

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