Vol. 10, No. 2 • May 2006

How I Am Not Only Surviving After Sexual Abuse, but Thriving!

by Angelina Giampocaro Spencer

My story is not unlike the stories of many of the children with whom you work. It may even be something you experienced yourself. I share it to help you understand a bit more about working with sexually abused children. It is my desire that it will give you hope. I have broken the cycle of abuse by not abusing my own children or any other children with whom I’ve worked over the years. I have become not just an incest “survivor,” but a “thriver.”

I believe the children with whom you work can do the same!

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Once upon a time, a little girl is having her birthday party at home. She has fun childhood party games, though she can’t quite recollect what those games were. She does remember climbing the stairs after her party. She had on her pretty party dress. Her daddy held her hand as they climbed the stairs, and he would once again molest her.

She doesn’t remember the details. She has learned to dissociate when this happens. Dissociating means that she is, so to speak, “hovering” somewhere else in the room, watching this scene. To actually be going through something like this is just too much to bear.

This is not the first time this has happened. It won’t be the last. She has learned how to cope. It will be over soon…until the next time.

She waits at night in her bed. She imagines a huge human-like fox dressed in a fancy suit. He’s wearing a golden brocade vest and ruffled shirt and he looks quite important and self-assured. He comes into her room at night and wants to get into her bed and do bad things to her.

She thinks if she is absolutely still, if she holds her breath, perhaps the fox will pass on through her room and leave her alone tonight. She lays terrified in her bed trying not to breathe or make any noise.

This little girl is me. Now, at 50 years old, I am still barely able to write these words. My pulse is racing and my tears are just at the brink. I find it much easier to write as if I were someone else.

I still ask how and why this could have happened to me. The children you know who have been sexually abused probably wonder the same things. They may also struggle with the following difficulties.

Feeling Unclean. Feeling “dirty” is something I have dealt with over the years. As a child my hair was often dirty and stringy. I kept it hanging over my face in an effort to “hide.” Due to baths taken with my dad, I did not want to take a bath. To this day I still feel dirty if I take a bath. I want to shower off the “dirt.”

Please, if you care for a child who has been sexually abused, tell this child he is not dirty. Let him know over and over that the sexual abuse was not his fault and he does not have to feel dirty.

Feeling Unattractive. I believe that when a person has been sexually abused, one way of combating the abuse is to make sure you are not attractive. You want your appearance to say, “Leave me alone!”

I never felt good enough or thin enough or pretty enough. I walked with a definite slump. However, with healing and time and the wisdom that accompanies age, today I mostly feel kind of cute!

Difficulty with Love and Trust. Because of the sexual abuse, for most of my life I felt that if someone did love me or pretended to love me it was in order to get something from me. I felt a great deal of mistrust. As a result, I learned to either push people away or to choose unhealthy relationships. I still have a difficult time believing that I deserve to be loved. However, now I know without a doubt that I am loveable!

Children who have been sexually abused need to know they are loved for who they are. They should not be made to “perform” to get the love they need. They need to know that they deserve to be loved and to be in healthy relationships.

Trouble with Emotions. For years I could not allow myself to feel. I had great compassion and warmth for others, but I could not allow those feelings to touch me. Later I went to therapy so I could allow myself to feel the anger, fear, sadness, and other feelings associated with the loss of my childhood. I needed therapy to help me understand that I would not fall apart if I allowed myself to feel my feelings. This was one of the most difficult, depressing times of my life. However, because I had a good therapist, a loving husband, and because I knew I was in God’s hands, I am once again free to feel.

Please know that when your sexually abused children come out of therapy each week, they need to feel. They need to know that with you they are safe to feel. They may manifest their feelings in anger or depression or other emotions. Stand by them, love them through this. They had their childhood robbed from them. They have a right to be angry about that. Please know this will be healing to them.

Low Self-Esteem. There is a tremendous amount of guilt and shame associated with sexual abuse. You tend to believe you deserved the abuse, that you brought it upon yourself. Because of low self-esteem, often I have been reluctant to share my opinion about anything.

To help build your children’s self-esteem, praise them for what they do well. When your child offers to do the smallest thing for you, such as cooking a meal, hitting a baseball, or singing a song, realize that it is not a small thing. Seize the moment. Allow them to share whatever they offer and praise them for a job well done.

Self-Soothing Behaviors. People who have been sexually abused sometimes feel the need to engage in self-soothing behaviors. In my case, when I was a child I would get up on my hands and knees in bed and rock myself to sleep. I know now those self-soothing behaviors came in anticipation of my dad’s nighttime visits.

Some self-soothing behaviors may be alarming to you. However, if the behavior does not hurt the child and the child’s therapist agrees it is necessary and not detrimental, then the children should be allowed to engage in the behavior.

Guilt and Shame. One of the strongest sources of the guilt and shame for me and for other survivors of sexual abuse is the fact that our bodies responded reflexively to the abusive sexual stimulation. We ask ourselves, “How could my body have betrayed me like this?” The fact that our bodies reacted naturally to the abuse is one of the most difficult things for us to face.

Know that this is true of the sexually abused children for whom you care. They may not be able to face this fact for years. Yet there is anger attached to the fact that one’s body betrayed one’s mind. You can help by continually reminding children that the abuse is not their fault. Reassure them that guilt and shame are unnecessary.

Other Suggestions
Be calm. Sexually abused children need to know you won’t “freak out” if they need to talk about their sexual abuse.

Be aware that children who have been sexually abused may have a distorted sense of what is “normal.” Children sometimes come into foster care not knowing there was anything “wrong” in their home. This has been the only life and family they have known.

Appreciate Small Successes. One tiny turn in a healthy direction may make a huge impact on a child’s life. Sometimes we look at children expecting, hoping, and longing to see healthy change. I feel we sometimes may miss the bigger picture. That tiny turn, that small change in that child’s life just may be staring us in the face! It may not feel profound to us. But it is. It is part of the bigger picture of change. There is hope in the smallest of packages!

Take Heart. Know there is help and there is hope. Much of that is in you!

How Did I Survive? How Do I Thrive?
Here are some of the things that helped me most during my long and difficult journey to my current perspective as a sexual abuse thriver:

My Spiritual Life. My faith in God sustains me. I believe that in everyone there is a “soul-hole” that must be filled. We must be cautious about what we decide fills that hole. We must be cautious about our guidance and nurturance of these precious souls that have been entrusted to our care.

Other Strong, Positive Adults. As I was growing up there were other adults in my life with whom I could be safe. There were adults that I knew loved me. Their love was strong and warm and safe. Nothing was expected of me in return. I could trust their touch. If I didn’t want to be touched, I could tell them and they would honor that request and still love me. You must be this kind of adult for the children in your lives.

Building on Strengths. I am a firm believer that everyone has a gift or talent in which they can excel. When you allow that child to cook as he offered or to dance for you as she offered, you are giving this child the opportunity to succeed. You are encouraging self-esteem. The gifts I’ve worked on over the years are singing and acting. I think sexually abused thrivers are good at acting because they are used to being someone else. Hovering somewhere in the room is a useful skill on stage.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for allowing me to share my story. And thank you for sharing yourselves with our children.

Angelina Spencer (angelina.spencer@ncmail.net) is a foster care licensing consultant with the NC Division of Social Services. Write to her at DHHS/DSS, Regulatory and Licensing, 952 Old US 70W Hwy, Black Mountain, NC 28711.

Resources for Learning More
Fostering the Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused, by Donna Foster
<http://ssw.unc.edu/fcrp/fp/fp_vol5no1/fostering_sexually_abused.htm>

Child Sexual Abuse: Intervention and Treatment Issues, by K.C. Faller, published by the USDHHS (1993). <http://nccanch.acf.hhs.gov/pubs/usermanuals/sexabuse/sexabusef.cfm>

Children’s Services Practice Notes, vol. 5, no. 2 (June 2004) and vol. 7, no. 2 (May 2002) by the UNC-CH School of Social Work <www.practicenotes.org>

The Future of Children, vol. 4, no. 2 (Fall 1994).
<http://www.futureofchildren.org/pubs-info2825/pubs-info_show.htm?doc_id=74215>

Parenting the Sexually Abused Child, from the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse (1990). <http://naic.acf.hhs.gov/pubs/f_abused>

Copyright 2006 Jordan Institute for Families