When You Didn't Grow Up With The Brady Bunch: How Childhood Abuse Affects Your Life and What to Do About It
While that title is a mouthful, there is so much more to say about childhood abuse. It's like the silent disease millions have but no one ever talks about. Many of us don't think we were "abused." When that word comes to mind, people think of being beaten with a belt or not given food or shelter. But abuse comes in many forms. In my work as a therapist, the most common form I see is neglect. Neglect means not caring for a person's needs. In the case of a child, it references not showing adequate love, withholding physical touch, or even simply often not being physically around. If you have memories of being alone often or not ever feeling like your mom or dad was a 'safe' person to talk to because you knew you weren't going to get the support you needed, you possibly were neglected.
Besides neglect, the broad categories of abuse are physical, emotional, and sexual. Examples include hitting (physical), name-calling/criticism (emotional), and molesting or inappropriate sexual behavior (sexual). Any and all childhood abuse is awful and can leave deep scars, both mentally and on the skin.
So why even bring childhood abuse up? It's in the past, we should all just move on, right? Well that's easier said than done. The lasting effects of being neglected, hit, molested or yelled at as an infant, toddler, adolescent or teen are incredibly immense. Human beings as a species tend to stay with what feels comfortable to them. So if you grow up in an environment that was filled with chaos and uncertainty, that is what you will seek as an adult. That feels 'normal' to you. And that is what you will be drawn to as far as your relationships go; both romantically and friendship-wise. That is why it is crucial to lift the secrecy off of childhood abuse and TALK about it. If you don't free yourself of those negative patterns by examining what needs you didn't get met as child, then every relationship you have as an adult will be you recreating that trauma and abuse. You will unconsciously seek to 'fix' that hole inside you by entering into very similar relationships as the ones you grew up with.
People often repeat this pattern over and over again, until they resolve that inner conflict and address their underlying pain. Or they turn the turmoil on themselves and their self-esteem is minuscule because their abuse taught them they are worthless, dirty, or of no value. Self-medication and numbing behaviors often follow, such as obsessive TV-watching, overeating, sexual compulsivity, workaholism, and alcohol or drug abuse.
So how does childhood abuse get "solved?" Well for one thing, it doesn't. No one can ever take away that pain completely. And given the chance, while abuse often does create strengths in survivors, I can bet money on the fact that no one would wish their abuse to happen to them (or anyone else, for that matter). But there is a process that you can go through (hopefully with the help of an experienced therapist), that will help you heal and finally end whatever self-destructive cycle you have created to cope with childhood abuse.
1. Acknowledging the abuse: This is simply admitting it happened and talking about it. You are not crazy or a liar. You have a right to speak your truth to whomever you feel is safe to share it with. A therapist, friend, partner, priest. Whomever you feel you can trust to bear witness to your story.
2. Look at the effects of the abuse and how you coped: This is examining what behaviors you have developed as reaction to being abused. For example, staying busy all the time or care taking to others are common reactions to not desiring to focus on yourself and your own pain. These qualities can be strengths because everyone needs to take a break from life every once and awhile, but once they take over your life and become ingrained into your personality, there's a problem. Usually these behaviors are what you would like to change and are what led you to seek therapy.
3. Address your feelings about the abuse: Much like the 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance), healing from childhood abuse is a process that will elicit many feelings. We often deny the abuse happened and push it far down to 'forget,' then get angry when we realize it really did happen to us, try to reason our way out of admitting that it affected our lives, feel crushing sadness when we make the connection that the ones who were supposed to take care of us (adults, parents, caregivers) were the ones who hurt us the most, and finally accept that what happened to us was really shitty but we no longer have to re-create that trauma because we have placed it where it belongs: in the past.
4. Understand it wasn't your fault and begin the long-term healing process: This last step is lengthy because it involves changing those internalized messages that you have taught yourself to believe your entire life. Maybe it's "My only value is in my appearance," or "I don't deserve to ask for what I want." That re-parenting is crucial because you cannot continue to live your life as a wounded child. Why? Because that pain does not go away. You can stuff it down, numb it with alcohol, or stay so busy that you do not have time to think let alone cry, but the unmet need will come out in one way or another.
The positive of all this work is that after you face the trauma(s) and accept them, you can begin to see your value since you no longer are living as a victim of someone else's rage. Realizing you are beautiful, strong, capable and worthy of love is the gift of recovery. As is becoming the person you were meant to be before your persecutor robbed you of the gifts you were meant to share with the world. That lingering depression and anxiety can lift. The constant need to drink can go away. And that uncomfortable feeling around the opposite sex can disappear. It all revolves around truly facing that dark, hidden truth of childhood abuse. If you have a weird feeling or even strong memories of being abused, then it happened to you too. You are not alone. You do not need to continue to "just get by" or re-create the trauma with each abusive relationship you find yourself sucked into.
No one grew up with "The Brady Bunch" family. It just doesn't exist because it's a TV fantasy. But there are very healthy families. I truly hope you found yourself in one of them. But if you did not, you are not ruined. You simply were faced with challenges that those lucky healthy people did not have to endure. You cannot ever change the past, but you can change how you continue to react to it.
Take the power back from those who hurt you. Face the past, work through the pain, and move on with you life. Recognize that pain can create greatness and learn to love the survivor that you are. Love yourself first and give yourself the care, attention and kindness that you did not receive as a child. We may never be able to forget, but we can learn to let go.