Was I Sexually Abused?

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Reader’s Question

For years I have suspected that I may have been sexually abused as a young child. I am 20 years old now. I am my mother’s only child. My father left when I was two and a half years old. Six months after my Dad left, my Mum met a man who was working with her. They got together and he moved in.

This man became very abusive towards my mother. He would yell at her and throw things at her. He had an alcohol and cocaine habit. He sexually abused and raped my mother, resulting in her having two abortions. He tried to get money out of us as well.

Here are the puzzle pieces I’m trying to put together about the suspected sexual abuse. I remember feeling very nervous and frightened around this man and my mum also recalls my anxiety around him. One of my strongest memories from childhood was being very frightened about trying to go to sleep. I remember I would refuse to sleep with my arms under the covers. I would have to keep them on top of the covers because that was the only way I felt safe enough to go to sleep. If someone tried to make me put my arms under the covers, I would feel very frightened and vulnerable. I had a strange recurring nightmare at this time which caused me great anxiety.

At age 3, my mum saw me walk out to the lounge room naked after a bath, and lie down in front of her partner and spread my legs. When he walked away, I followed him and did the same thing again. Also, at this time, I had a urinary tract infection that wouldn’t go away. Going to the toilet caused a great burning sensation. My doctor ended up doing an ultrasound of my lower abdominal area to see if anything was wrong with my bladder, kidneys or reproductive system. All was normal. He examined my genitalia and my hymen was intact, so any penetration can be ruled out. However, he did ask my mum whether she was sure I wasn’t being sexually abused. When my mother and I went to live with my mother’s parents for a year, away from her partner, soon after we moved in there the infection and burning sensation went away on its own.

I have no direct memory of being abused but I feel strongly that it may have occurred. What do you make of this?

Psychologist’s Reply

Childhood sexual abuse can be very difficult to identify, especially if the person who may have been abused doesn’t remember what happened. It also is complicated by the fact that actual penetration doesn’t have to occur. While the signs of sexual abuse vary, you provided several major indicators including negative and fearful feelings toward your mom’s partner, trouble sleeping, an ongoing urinary tract infection and inappropriate sexual behavior. Given your description of this man as a violent addict, the suggestion of abuse from a healthcare professional, and your own strong feelings that the abuse occurred, the probability that he abused you in some way is pretty high.

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However, there is really no way to know the truth. Some people are relieved to have an explanation for their behavior while others are appalled to think they could have experienced such abuse. If you want the explanation, then I think you should believe it occurred and move forward. If you do not want to believe it happened, then don’t. The fact is that whether or not he sexually abused you, you witnessed him being incredibly abusive to your mother. That behavior alone would be enough to instill a great amount of fear. Kids often experience their stress physically, so it could even be responsible for the urinary tract infections.

Perhaps the larger question at this point is what you are going to do to move forward. Many people who suffered from abuse have difficulty with romantic relationships. They have a hard time knowing what’s healthy and how to trust appropriately. Some have trouble with sex as it can feel yucky or brings up bad memories. A lot of people struggle with being vulnerable to another person even though vulnerability is what brings true intimacy. If any of this applies to you, I strongly recommend working with a mental health professional who has experience dealing with abuse. She or he can help you develop good relationship skills, maintain appropriate boundaries and figure out how to have a pleasurable and healthy sex life. While what happened in the past does impact our future selves, it doesn’t have to do so forever. You can move beyond it and hopefully you will.

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