People with eating problems often suffer from symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder without realizing that its origins lie in sexual abuse. Post traumatic stress may be characterized by depression, feeling chronically “dead” inside, having recurrent anxiety or nightmares, or feeling constantly and painfully vigilant to one’s surroundings. Victims of post traumatic stress disorder may begin to engage in self-destructive behavior such as entering into repetitive abusive relationships, losing themselves to drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, and even self-mutilation. Self-mutilation refers to inflicting bodily harm on themselves, such as cutting, burning or even excess body piercing.
Of course, none of these symptoms is absolute confirmation of abuse, but they are strong indicators of past sexual trauma. Connecting these symptoms to an actual event of sexual abuse can be a validating experience because the symptoms of inner turmoil begin to make sense.
What can you do to heal from sexual abuse? The first step is to recount your experience to someone you trust, someone who can witness the full brunt of your pain and rage. Since the experience of sexual abuse is about being out of control, you need to be in a protected setting where your feelings can re-emerge and let loose. Releasing pain and guilt is not an intellectual experience, but something that comes from deep within the heart. This can be a difficult step because exposing your emotions can feel like a repetition of the original trauma.
Although there is more media coverage than ever before about the prevalence of sexual abuse, this does not relieve the shame that many people feel about it. If you have been a victim of incest, facing the abuse means facing not only the shame that you come from the kind of family where abuse is perpetrated, but also that no one in your family protected you. Additionally, men who have been sexually abused as children, either by a male or by their mother, have distinct shame issues related to feelings of passivity and weakness.
Sometimes eating disorder patients feel enormous guilt for having enjoyed the sexual contact with their abuser. Binge eating, purging or starving then becomes their ongoing self-induced punishment. When we scratch the surface of the lives of these children, though, we discover that sexual abuse may have been the only real affection or caring they received. A child who is lonely or starved for affection may revel in the attention, even if it is abuse. But the truth is that children are never the seducers-they are always the victims. The only thing a child is guilty of is the innocent wish to be loved.
Confronting your shame, releasing your pain, and experiencing rage and guilt are part of the process of reclaiming your inner self as well as your sexual self. The need to detour your feelings through destructive eating will subside when you are able to grieve for the little child who was betrayed.
Lately much has been written about “false memory syndrome” in which a person “remembers” sexual abuse that never occurred. This, indeed, can happen in certain vulnerable people. Therefore, it is crucial that you not work with a therapist who “leads” you to a false memory of the experience. Memories of the abuse, if present, should evolve over the course of therapy rather than being planted in your head for you to “try on for size.” If you suspect that something may have happened to you, trust your perception and let your inner “knowing” be your guide.
Mary Anne Cohen is director of The New York Center for Eating Disorders.
This article is adapted from her book, French Toast for Breakfast: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating.