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Denial is recognizable by a survivor saying, "it didn't happen; I must be making it up; after all how can I be sure anything actually happened; and what if Iím wrong; it probably didn't happen; it couldnít have happened."
In my experience, some denial even as an adult can be helpful. Denial can help slow process down. We know denial helps a child to survive. We cannot expect someone to simply abandon their hard earned coping strategies even if they are safe now. Safety is not only an external reality it is an internal one as well. Many survivors do not feel safe and may need some denial to cope with how they feel.
Too much denial leads to all sorts of problems as abuse is not addressed. This kind of denial is harmful and is fuelled in part by denial of "False Memory Syndrome" Foundation and other parts of society who would rather deny than face reality of child sexual abuse.
Dissociation, DID, MPD, and Multiplicity
We all dissociate to some extent or another. Babies do it quite regularly. It is a natural physiological response to being overwhelmed. Children who are sexually abused are extraordinarily overwhelmed. Dissociation allows child to literally take a break from abuse, to distance her/himself from what is going on, and ultimately to survive.
Some survivors describe dissociation as feeling as though they were not really there during abuse, but were far away perhaps watching from a distance. Some survivors describe it as they split off from abuse, and floated up to ceiling or into a crack in wall. Some survivors go really far away, deep inside themselves, and create different personalities to deal with abuse. Multiple personalities are usually formed in context of more extreme, frequent, or sadistic abuse.
Dissociation occurs on a continuum from far left where someone is not present in moment and is off somewhere else, they may or may not feel spacey--everyone does this at one time or another. Further along continuum people feel split, or like they are not one person inside, usually there is an adult and a really vulnerable or hurt kid. Further along, survivors have a few dissociated personalities. Even further toward right of continuum, people have many different personalities, identities, parts, fragments, and/or different groups of parts inside. These personalities may or may not have names. Survivors near right end may not have fully formed personalities, but lots of highly fragmented parts. At far right end, survivors lose time which they may or may not be aware of. They may find themselves places, and not remember how they got there and have experience of living different "lives".
In addition to a continuum of dissociation and multiplicity, there is a continuum of co-consciousness--the degree to which parts inside are aware of each other, and communicate and cooperate with one another. Achieving co-consciousness is an important step in healing process. For help responding to different parts inside and developing internal cooperation see my article DID, MPD, or Multiplicity: Responding to Parts Inside With a Focus on Kids
Problems with Boundaries
Because a survivor's boundaries were not respected--they were utterly violated--s/he may have a lot of difficulty knowing where her/his boundaries are, how to maintain them, and how to protect her/himself from those who do not respect or try to violate her/his boundaries. This leaves many survivors vulnerable to further abuse.
It can be very difficult for a survivor to trust anyone. It can be even harder when that person is close to them, and cares for them. Often abuser was that--someone who had a close and trusting relationship with them. Adult relationships, particularly sexual ones, can be quite challenging and triggering for survivors. At same time, they can be a source of great love, safety, and healing too.
Relationship With One's Body
Since abuse took place on and in body, body can become enemy. After all many survivors' carry a great deal of pain and memories in their bodies. Desperately needing ways to cope with this pain can lead to a variety of coping strategies including eating disorders, self-injurious behaviors, numbing, inability to enjoy sex, having lots of sex, poor body image, a generalized separation from and disregard for one's body, dissociation, and gender-identity issues.
There are a whole range of behaviors that survivors may engage in that come from having been sexually abused. They include: addictions, prostitution, isolation, frequent sexual activity, avoidance of sex, over-working, inability to work, high-functioning, low-functioning, argumentativeness, avoiding conflict, perfectionist, and wanting to please others.
All of these behaviors were learned in response to abuse and served an important purpose--staying sane and alive. It is important to not judge your or anyone else's ways of coping--you're here because of them.
These may include nightmares, insomnia, panic attacks, flashbacks, anxiety attacks, terror, inability to go outside, afraid being alone, afraid being with other people, numerous trigger-responses, headaches, and physical problems (yeast infections, bladder infections, anal bleeding, etc.)
A Final Thought
While it may be tempting to focus on how awful it is to be abused, it's important to not lose sight of reality that survivors are full human beings with many gifts and talents to offer world. Some of most sensitive, intuitive, deep, profound, creative, and hopeful people I've known are incest/child sexual abuse survivors. They were able to be that way by not losing touch with their humanity--their soulfulness--in face of others' inhumanity. We can all learn a great deal from survivors.
© Kali Munro, 2000. http://www.KaliMunro.com
Kali Munro, M.Ed., is a psychotherapist in private practice with twenty years experience. She offers free healing resources at her site, http://www.KaliMunro.com