A guest post by Matthew Sandusky, CEO of the Peaceful Hearts Foundation.
Childhood sexual abuse, or CSA, is a term used to describe any adult or peer behavior that coerces or forces a child into sexual activity, or frames a child in a sexual context. While some of these behaviors involve direct contact with a child, others involve voyeurism and other non-contact activities. When compared to adults with no history of CSA, adults who experience sexual abuse during childhood have significantly greater chances of developing a serious addiction to drugs or alcohol. While rates of sexual abuse are higher in females than in males, male victims of abuse have a greater chance of developing addictions during adulthood.
The long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse include depression, anxiety, suicidality, revictimization, substance addiction and other addictions, low self-esteem, and difficulties with interpersonal relationships. About half of all men and two-thirds of all women in drug treatment centers report past sexual or physical abuse.
Many victims turn to drugs and alcohol for various reasons that include:
- A mechanism to cope or escape the trauma of sexual abuse
- A way to reduce the feelings of isolation and loneliness
- Self medication
- To improve self-esteem and self confidence
- A form of self-destructive behavior or self-harm
Comorbidity is a major factor in developing a substance addiction problem. An addiction is classified as a mental illness in that it is dynamic mental atrophy resulting from a reliance on a substance. Like all mental illnesses, substance addiction doesn’t discriminate- it affects people from all ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Research shows that a large rate of individuals who have a substance addiction problem also have a mental disorder such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
My personal struggles with drug and alcohol addiction
My adopted father sexually abused me for 9 years as a child. I developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when I made the decision to finally disclose my abuse as a child. Until the onset of PTSD, I had lived a limited lifestyle. From the age of 13 I had self-medicated with alcohol and drugs to avoid confrontation with feelings and memories of the sexual abuse, to keep depressive affect and anxiety under control, and to maintain my ability to function at work. I had visited hospitals and doctors for many physical complaints but didn’t trust mental health experts enough to seek their help.
I was overwhelmed by memories and feelings from my childhood sexual abuse and felt revictimized by them. I felt desperate, ashamed, helpless, and abandoned by everyone. I just wanted to die and was sure that my death was imminent. I tried to gain control over my pain by using extremely high amounts of drugs and alcohol. Nothing worked and at 17 I attempted suicide with over-the-counter pills and alcohol. When the suicide attempt failed I turned back to illegal drugs and alcohol and my dependence became a full-blown addiction. It was not until I came to understand, through therapy at 33 years of age, that the denial, despair, shame, and helplessness that I felt in the context of my substance addiction was the same emotions I felt during the time of my sexual abuse that I was able to start working on myself honestly.
Judith Herman offers a 3-stage recovery model…
- Stage 1– setting goals of personal safety, genuine self-care, and healthy emotion-regulation capacities
- Stage 2– remembrance and mourning with the main work being discussing memories, working through grief, and establishing a solid foundation of understanding, safety, stability and self-regulation skills.
- Stage 3– recovery focuses on reconnecting with people, meaningful activities, and other aspects of life.
Research shows that addiction isn’t a matter of moral failing but rather a chronic condition that requires treatment. Those struggling with drug addiction and addiction issues can find the help they need. No matter how long you have taken drugs or alcohol, recovery is always possible. You can live a healthy and fulfilling life after addiction.
Recovery is a bold step, requiring commitment and determination. However, the strength to end drug and alcohol addiction and embrace health is within everyone.
||Briere J: Long-term clinical correlates of childhood sexual victimization. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 528:327-334, 1998 CrossRef
Brian Cuban-CIA Operative!
Waiting to hear back on my job application with the city of Dallas. Reading the jobs section in the now defunct Dallas Times Herald. My eyes lock. A half page ad. THE CIA IS HIRING. My eyes read the qualifications. So far so good. Then I see Proficiency In Russian preferred. The wheels start turning. Russian? I can speak Russian! Well, I know some Russian. My high school was one of the few in the country that offered a four-year Russian program. I did all four years. Albeit not very well. I also took a course at Penn State. Why? Because Mark had also taken Russian at Mt. Lebanon High School. He had traveled to the Soviet Union with his Russian class. I wanted to be like Mark. Maybe that would be enough.
Why were they interested in Russian background? This was 1987. Just months earlier, Ronald Reagan had given his famous “Tear Down The Wall” speech calling on General Secretary Gorbachev to tear down the wall separating East from West Germany. A few years earlier on television and at the movies, military conflict and nuclear holocaust based on U.S and Soviet tensions were the themes with such movies as 1984’s Red Dawn depicting a joint Soviet and Cuban (the country, not my family) invasion of the United States and the 1983 widely watched wide movie about a Soviet Nuclear strikes on the United States, The Day After.
As one might suspect with the CIA, even the directions to their office were secretive. My interview would be held in a room only marked with a number at the old Federal Building in Dallas. I received a letter with instruction on how to find it. Not being a detail person, I forgot to bring the letter or write down the room number. I spent 20 minutes walking around the building asking where the “CIA Room” was. I finally got to the room.
“Thank you for coming Mr. Cuban. Did you have any trouble finding us?”
“I had a little bit of trouble”
“Please tell me that you weren’t asking around where we are. We like to keep low profile.”
“What do you know about us Mr. Cuban?”
“Only what I read in the ad and what I see on television.”
“Well, let me tell you what we envision for you. You will officially work for the State department based out of Washington, DC. You will, however, be overseas with rotations back to the states. You’ll take immersive Russian language classes, among other training.”
“This job is about meeting people and getting them to trust you. You’ll attend parties and other events as well as travel extensively. You’ll love it.
As you are probably aware we do not have a domestic charter. We have no domestic positions for what you will be doing. You’ll live overseas wherever your assignment is and be attached to the State Department.”
I stopped listening after “no domestic positions” and “meet people.” I didn’t even want to get my hair cut in the Marines, now, I have to go overseas alone? I have to actually interact in social settings? I have to get drunk first just to go out at night.
Every flicker of a career ambition I have has been quickly snuffed. I wasn’t nearly prepared enough for Big Law. I couldn’t admit the truth about my drug use to the Dallas PD. And I’d never hack it in the CIA with my unaddressed mental health issues. What was left for me after strikes A, B, and C?
THE FIRST JOB INTERVIEW
Despite all the questions I had to answer about myself in the early days after graduating law school, I never had to tell the whole truth about my hopes, dreams, or fears. Those were truths I couldn’t even confront myself at that time.
I can close my eyes now and imagine a different sort of interview that might have taken place right after I graduated law school. One where the interviewer had perfect access to the truth. One where the interviewer could get me to reveal my deepest hopes, fears, and anxieties that in most cases I hadn’t even admitted to myself. How? Who knows, maybe this interviewer is a cross between Perry Mason and Sigmund Freud. Maybe he or she has given me an injection of sodium pentathol. Maybe this person can read my mind, and there’s no sense in trying to hide the bullied, depressed thirteen-year-old at my core. Or maybe speaking with this individual is like looking into a flawless mirror, one that shows me who I really am instead of the distorted image I see most days.
This interviewer might ask, “Mr. Cuban, what are your biggest weaknesses?” And I might answer, “Well, I’m an alcoholic, clinically depressed bulimic with little to no interest in practicing law. I’m really not fit for this sort of work at the moment, and I’m not sure it’ll ever be right for me.” And that would just be the beginning . . .
“Brian, just make yourself comfortable. The truth serum should really be kicking in about now, so let’s get continue. It says here in your third year of law school you spent three months interning with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office?”
“Yes. I took the internship in the DA’s Office mostly because I could usually get a better grade through an internship than classwork. I didn’t really have any special interest in becoming a prosecutor. And as soon as I started, I had even less interest. I mostly worked on low-level drug offense cases. I’d sit next to a real assistant DA who would correct me when I asked the wrong question. I’d try not to think too hard about how in many cases we were prosecuting kids who had been caught with nothing more than a joint, something I’d been “guilty” of plenty of times myself as a teen. Of course it was a different culture in 1986 than 1976. We were in the midst of Reagan’s ramped up “war on drugs,” including weed. But just because it was a different era doesn’t mean I didn’t have the hypocrisy of what I was doing in the back of my mind.
“I remember one day in court, questioning a young girl who was charged with marijuana possession while an assistant district attorney (ADA) watched over me. I’d ask the wrong question, the defense would object, and the judge would sustain the objection. I was getting nowhere, frustrated and embarrassed, and the ADA had to whisper in my ear the right way to ask the question to avoid drawing objections. I asked the question again, the right way. I was ashamed at my own incompetence.
“Then I looked into the eyes of the young girl and saw fear and shame on her face as well. She was starting to tear up. She knew she’d done something wrong in the eyes of the law, but had no idea that the young man interrogating her about it had done the same many times over. I was stunned that I was part of a system that was doing this to her, but more than anything, I just wanted to be done for the day so I could go for a run.
“Then while watching this girl start to cry, I remembered a time when I thirteen or fourteen. I was out with my friends with a BB gun. Egged on by friends, I’d shot a robin out of a tree. I didn’t want to hurt the animal, I just didn’t want to disappoint my friends. I wanted to be accepted. I’d shot the bird out of the tree and left it on the ground, slowly dying. I wanted to put it out of its misery, I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t show my feelings in front of the other guys. By the time they’d left and I returned to the bird, it was already dead. I’d bawled in my room for hours. I’d always felt great empathy for animals. I’d see a stray dog, and it felt personal for me. Killing that bird had haunted me all my life. But I didn’t feel more than mild pity for this girl. I could block out those feelings with people. But how alone does this girl feel? Why don’t I feel the same empathy for her? Suddenly, I did. The girl was like the robin I’d shot as a kid. I couldn’t block out the feelings anymore. I can’t do this, I thought. I can’t stand to carry other people’s pain like this. I can’t help ruin people’s lives. I knew then I’d never be a prosecutor. It wasn’t just that I cared too little about being a lawyer; I also felt too much to handle these sort of responsibilities. I could not bear the thought of feeling the pain of both the accused and the victims. And it wasn’t just kids I might be prosecuting: I knew the only way I’d be able to hold the burden of my clients’ traumas was to push the feelings away, preferably with a bottle of tequila.
“I hope that answers your question.”