This article is Part 4 of an ongoing series of articles under the project, ‘The Silent Survivors: A Voice From The Violated’
Trigger Warning: This article contains elements of sexual abuse which some may find distressing.
One of the things about abuse specifically is that, sometimes, the parts that were the most traumatic to experience don’t seem significant to other people, and parts that seem the most “credible” or understandable to other people as A Traumatic Experience™ isn’t what destroyed the survivors (victims) at the time.
Regardless of the nuances in their significance, the survivors of sexual abuse struggle with not only mental and physical trauma - from the way their mind begins to perceive the world, to how their bodies buckle under the stress - it also tears them down spiritually. The trauma exudes all aspects of their life, and for some, it never ends. It floods into close and valuable relationships in their life, seeping its way into encounters and interactions with their children. This is why it is so important for the survivors, those related to them, parents, care givers and teachers, to be able to read and understand the signs and how the abuse may manifest, which ultimately help in healing.
For those who have been sexually abused in their childhood, the impact on their development is enormous. While their brains are still evolving, learning what is right and wrong, they are innocent and trusting. However, when a child is betrayed, neglected, abused and when bad things are done to them, such that they don’t even know it’s ‘bad’ till later, in that time, certain developmental processes, such as emotional regulation, cognitive growth, and coping mechanisms are being impacted. Once this impact occurs, a child’s developing brain no longer thrives, and whatever their brain has processed from the abuse, whether that’s fear, stress, panic, anger, distrust, and/or pain…it remains and continues into adulthood.
For the adult who is hurting, who doesn’t know how to regulate their feelings, hold a conversation without becoming defensive, and feels constantly sensitive and attacked, the developmental process as a child was disrupted due to trauma. This replay of what their child brain captured and the feelings they felt during the trauma, even in adulthood, becomes a norm for so many victims: known as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Before we look into the signs, it is important to note that not all survivors experience these struggles and disorders. Family support and strong peer relationships are essential in buffering the impact.
The short term impacts:
Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn
If you wonder why many victims of abuse don’t speak out, it is because often the majority of them will have a ‘freeze’ reaction. Fear overtakes them and their brain signals danger, and gives them four options: to either fight the threat, flee from the threat, freeze and do nothing or comply with the attacker.
To help readers understand this better, imagine you were on an island somewhere in the Maldives. You're sitting on the beach with your children, when all of a sudden a lion appears from nowhere. He is charging at you. At that moment, what would you do? You might instinctively feel like running, but with your children close by, your instinct may be to quickly hurl them in your arms and then run. Some might panic, and extreme fear in that moment may cause you to go numb and feel paralyzed. You want to run but you can’t. You want to fight but the lion is too big, inevitably it will win. You want to flee, but where to? The fawn option is also there. The lion is hungry, and he will either eat my children or me. Let me comply with his needs to save my children from the attacker. Fawn response is complying to the attacker's needs to save yourself, or in this particular scenario to save your loved one.
This is how a survivor of abuse feels. They want to flee but they have nowhere to go. If they tell their parents, they might not believe them. If they run to the police, they will be taken to social services, and how would the parents pay for the court hearings? If they fight, they will lose. Especially if the abuser is an adult. If I freeze and do not comply, then I will be threatened. Therefore, I must comply.
If parents, care givers, and the community paid closer attention to the survivors and their suffering, over cultural pressures and instead of silencing them, more survivors would have an option to feel.
The key is providing a safe and trusting environment for our children, at home, school, and wherever they are, so if they happen to be in a situation where they are being abused or neglected, they feel safe enough to speak to someone about it. A parent, teacher, care giver, etc.
Our children are a gift to us. An amanah. That means they are trusted in our care. As parents, whilst we may be oblivious to all that they may be going through, it is important to keep the communication open. Ask, be concerned, lend an ear, and judge less. The right communication harbors understanding and will help them feel safe enough to open up to you about whatever struggles they are facing.
Shock and Numbness
This response takes place right after the abuse. Survivors will experience feelings of disbelief and denial. Some may feel physically and emotionally drained or completely detached. Several other emotional responses may include: uncontrollable crying, withdrawal, claiming that abuse never took place and they feel fine. It is possible that they feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to do.
Distrust/Fear of being in certain places or around certain people
Majority of abusers are people that the survivors know. In most cases, it’s someone who frequents their home and has a personal relationship with the survivor and their family. Childhood sexual abuse is the most harrowing form of abuse because it mingles assault and exploitation with what can be evidence of love and affection. Abusers first groom their victims, when the victim is a child, they get friendly with them and bring them gifts. The child begins trusting the abuser and when the person abuses the child, this trust is broken. The child then begins to generalize and has trust issues with everyone they meet. In Fatima’s case (from article 3 in the series), she was unable to trust her father and brothers. They did not abuse her, but because she was so afraid of men, she developed a fear towards them too. This is all too common. She developed a fear of elevators or enclosed spaces in general. Children may begin to fear school, if the abuse has taken place there. They may refuse to go to certain friends’ houses or a certain shop. They begin to fear the place where they were abused and actively avoid it. The same goes for people, they may start fearing certain teachers, or certain uncles and avoid meeting them as much as possible. This loss of trust can affect survivors much later in life too. They may be unable to trust their peers or have intimate partners.
As parents and care givers, be a little more critical about the kind of relationships people within your home or those from outside have with your children or children in general. Is it healthy? Is it needy? Some of people’s way of dealing with kids simply might be because they are generally inexperienced at knowing how to be with young children. But the biggest thing is to be conscious. Observe. Ask questions. If something doesn’t look or feel right, enquire. If someone has an unhealthy attachment to your child, remind them, respectfully. But don’t stay silent.
Change in Routine
After an assault, the survivor may be preoccupied with the incident. It would be difficult for the survivor to focus on work or studies. They may be constantly surrounded by reminders of the assault. Thus, change of routine in a toddler can appear in the form on tantrums, change in appetite, constant fear and anxiety, biting nails, rage, anger, clinginess and crying. They may isolate themselves and not socialize, start regressing in terms of going to the toilet, not sleep till late and want to be close to you as much as possible. Older children might withdraw, talk less, occupy themselves in games, study less or are unable to concentrate. They may skip meals and become distant.
Keep An Eye Out
Some of these changes might be a natural transition from babyhood to toddlerhood, or childhood to adolescence; but there is no harm and only good that can come out of asking and reassuring, “Is everything okay? I am here.”
Survivors may have different reasons to be angry. They can feel anger towards the assault, towards the abuser, towards their family and guardians and/or toward themselves. They may feel angry at feeling helpless and not being able to fight back. Anger is an appropriate emotion towards sexual abuse. Anger towards their assailant means that the survivor has begun the healing process and has pinned responsibility of the assault on the abuser. Whilst the intensity of anger varies, it is important that it is vented in safe and healthy ways or can result in depression and sadness.
If you know someone who is constantly having rage attacks, it’s easy to get equally angry with them. It’s easy to feel bullied in their moments of anger. It’s okay to set boundaries. However, when things have calmed down, communicate. Ask. Anger is usually a secondary emotion. Try and figure out how they were feeling before. Sadness, anxiety, fear, petrified?
Survivors tend to isolate themselves from their family and friends. They feel that the abuse sets them apart from their peers and may feel that they would be looked at differently. Some of them feel that people can look at them and figure out that they’ve been abused. They don't want to bother anyone with their troubles and often lack the vocabulary to talk about this. They feel like they are a burden and feel ashamed of themselves. They think they are dirty, especially survivors of sexual abuse.
Lift Their Burden
As parents who know their children’s personality best, find a way to reconnect with them. Go for a walk together, treat them to their favorite takeaway. Make them feel loved. Because they are carrying a whole lot of shame.
Loss Of Interest
After the abuse, the survivor may show a loss of interest in things they liked to do earlier. This is one the main telltale signs. This is called Anhedonia and is a very common symptom of depression. Children may be interested in reading or art but after the abuse, parents may notice that the child shows no interest. When the parents try to investigate, they may be met with anger and dissent or the child might just simply not know the reason.
Depression and Anxiety
Depression has been found to be the most common symptom among survivors. Survivors may have difficulty in externalizing the abuse, thus thinking negatively about themselves. After negative self-thoughts, survivors have feelings of worthlessness and avoid others because they believe they have nothing to offer and are “broken” or “not good enough”. The symptoms of child sexual abuse survivors’ depression include feeling down most of the time, having suicidal ideation, having disturbed sleeping and eating patterns.
Nightmares and Bedwetting
Survivors may experience anxiety, shaking, flashbacks, bedwetting and nightmares after an assault. This can begin right after the abuse and can continue for long stretches of time. Nightmares often replay the assault or may include dreams of being attacked, chased, or being assaulted in some way. This results in bedwetting for some children.
The long term impacts
Physical Chronic Pain
One of the major long term effects of childhood abuse is physical chronic pain. Mental stress can manifest itself into physical pain and lead to psycho-somatic pain. Some of the common chronic illnesses include gastrointestinal diseases like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and several gynecological issues like chronic pelvic pain among others. Survivors may also struggle with anxiety, depression, and eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Research has shown that survivors may also have a low pain threshold. As in the case of Fatima, she struggles with low body satisfaction, eating disorders and migraines.
Substance Abuse, Addiction and Obesity
Research shows that adults who were abused as children may resort to abuse illicit drugs or alcohol, and may use this as a coping mechanism. They are also more likely to smoke, and be physically inactive. They may use alcohol and drugs to numb the feelings associated with the trauma. Due to lack of motivation and loss of interest, they may end up being morbidly obese. Obesity depends on several factors and childhood sexual abuse is a major factor.
It is not uncommon among abuse survivors to indulge in self-harm or attempt suicide. This is the most worrying consequence and requires immediate professional attention. If you are struggling with self-harm as a way of venting your emotions, please seek professional help.
In certain situations, self-harm is used as a way to get attention. It is probable that the survivor wishes to gain attention so that someone may notice the marks and enquire about it. This may enable them to open up about their trauma and seek help.
Cut Them Some Slack
Make them feel safe to talk and open up about it, by being understanding, non-judgmental and giving them the right support by offering them professional help. Self-harming stems from shame not violence. It stems from low self-esteem not rebellion. It’s a cry for help not a cool trend.
Lack of Social Skills
Many sexual abuse survivors are unable to lead regular lives and are therefore socially stunted. They may not have the required social skills to make new friends. Sexual abuse may hinder the growth and development of personal relationships. Common difficulties include fear of intimacy, fear of being different or weird, not being able to establish and maintain interpersonal relationships and boundaries, and getting involved in abusive relationships. Sexual abuse often is initiated by someone the child loves and trusts, which breaks trust and may result in the child believing that people they love will hurt them.
Some survivors may dissociate to protect themselves from experiencing the abuse. As adults, they may still use dissociation as a coping mechanism. This may include disorientation, flashbacks and difficulties in experiencing feelings and expressing emotions. Denial and repression are also common. Symptoms of dissociation include amnesia- concerning certain parts of the childhood, negating the effects of the abuse and trying to forget the abuse altogether. Some therapists believe that sexual abuse can cause enough trauma that the survivor forgets or represses the experience as a coping mechanism. Dissociation is a common after effect of abuse.
Negative Self-Talk and Low Self Esteem
When children experience abuse, they often blame themselves. This thought is especially reinforced if the abuser is a family member or someone loved and respected by the child. The child will find it difficult to see the abuser in a negative light because they hold them in such high regard. The child ends up believing that they deserved and allowed the abuse to happen. These feelings are carried well into their adult life.
Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Survivors of sexual abuse often show signs of PTSD. These include, agitated behavior, nightmares, phobias, intrusive or recurring thoughts of the abuse, and flashbacks. It is important to note that not everyone who has these symptoms will develop PTSD. Whether or not someone develops PTSD is based on how an individual processes or integrates the traumatic event. PTSD is a cluster of symptoms that last for more than a month, and the intensity or length of the traumatic event or experience is usually heightened for the individual impacted.
It is often young children who are likely to have sleep problems, but for some, it can last through adulthood. Research shows adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse suffer more sleep problems than their counterparts.
Sleep disorders are miserable for adults, regardless of the cause. When you don’t get the sleep you need, you might struggle with cognitive functions and it can have a detrimental effect on your physical health. Sleep problems can manifest in many different ways including trouble falling asleep, nightmares, insomnia, and sleeping too long (hypersomnia).
The Ripple Effect on Faith:
Any experience of abuse, can cause a person to begin doubting their faith. It begins with questions like, “Why me?” “Why do I have to suffer so much?” They direct their anger, pain and immense suffering to Allah. This leads to begin questioning fate, and questioning if Allah exists. The problem is, if they were to voice these concerns to anybody, they would most probably be judged. And this leads them to become more resentful. It leads to more suppression and the doubts spiral out of control.
The shame they feel makes them constantly feel unworthy and invaluable. They feel unloved by the people and by Allah. Any blunder, mistake or sin, any struggle that is a direct result of abuse - such as addiction or anger, makes them feel even more drowned in sin and they feel hopeless and helpless. It’s a vicious cycle of already having low self-esteem, then doing things that are sinful, but are unable to stop, because they don’t know how, which leads to further low self-esteem, shame, isolation and self-loathing.
Many stop praying, unable to focus on their prayers. Those who suffer from OCD are tortured with flashbacks of the abuse and intrusive thoughts, making them unable to concentrate in simple acts of ibadah, like dhikr.
Some survivors may still cling to faith, because the idea of God and a Hereafter, and the verse in the Quran help them keep afloat the sea of PTSD, OCD and everything they are going through. It is the one thing in life they have left. However, due to loneliness, lack of belonging, and feeling ashamed of who they are, there are cases of how survivors attach themselves to unhealthy cults or groups - both religious and non-religious.
This is why it is so important that we constantly remind our children of the mercy of Allah, and to readily receive their questions without judgment. It’s so easy to refer to Allah’s anger all the time to make our children do things, or stop doing things. It’s so easy to judge. But what if your child is hurting, is a victim? What if they want to tell you about their doubts, but are afraid? What if that is the only hope they have?
If this is the extent of the impact on an individual, what does that mean for the society at large? If abuse is breaking so many hardworking, practicing, friendly adults and ripping the childhood of blooming, innocent children, what impact will that have on our society? How many have underlying mental health issues that are not spoken of but that come out in the form of doubts in faith, anger, addiction? Imagine, if we were able to help these people simply by not being judgmental and trying to understand their journeys.
As Muslims, it is a social responsibility to start lifting the taboo on sexual abuse and discuss and become aware about the elephant in the room. If you are a parent, teacher or a care giver, unlearn the stigma attached to those abused, and take initiative, to prevent those scared children from becoming broken adults, and prevent those broken adults from carrying their trauma into their marriages and onto their children.
Intergenerational trauma is real. It happens when adults don’t address their traumas and continue moving through life, carrying the weight of it all. They may not be aware that their anger towards their children, their unhealthy habits, their addictions, and their inability to communicate may be a result of the shame, pain, suffering, anger, and abandonment they experienced as victims.
It doesn’t justify their actions, but it helps us understand, empathize, and open our hearts to be able to communicate, ask them how they are, be conscious of any changes, of who they are in contact with, and in preventing them from becoming another silent survivor.
- Joint Article by Wafa Jameel (Clinical Psychologist) and Madiyah Rana
Note: This series of articles involves and is written in consultation with clinical psychologists and other industry professionals.
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