How Do Childhood Abuse Survivors Cope?
We have discussed how child abuse often leads adult survivors to suffer in silence. Many have created Dissociative Identity Disorder which is an act of splitting the brain so that an alter (alternative) personality carries the abuse. This allows the original child freedom from the memory of pain and horror. As adults, however, memories and flashbacks surface bringing confused and jumbled thoughts and feelings.
So, then just how do childhood abuse survivors cope with this sudden world of fear and chaos?
Surviving child abuse takes strength, courage and creativity. Survivors have adopted many different coping mechanisms to fight challenges that arise in adulthood. In some cases, our ways of surviving as children unravel our lives as adults. For example, with DID, our inside people need new jobs as adults. We are often left paralyzed in other areas of life such as holding down a job or parenting our own children.
When survivors’ memories resurface or become known for the first time, it is an overwhelming experience. Adults report anxiety, terror and flashbacks. As children we were never taught how to cope with emotions, so we often try to suppress these with alcohol or drugs.
Alcohol and Drug Dependency
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a quarter of women and a third of men studied reported a history of physical abuse. A further 49% of women and 12% of men had been sexually abused.
Many survivors begin drinking at an early age. I had my first drink when I was 10 years old. I raided my parent’s alcohol stash daily until I was 26. It was my way of looking for the attention that went unseen. More so, I sought the warm, calming feeling alcohol and drugs initially afforded me. Unfortunately, like all alcoholics, I rationalized this feeling until I bottomed out. Fortunately, I had support and was able to stop.
Other Coping Mechanisms
Studies have shown a correlation between sex work in street youth and childhood abuse. According to the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) conducted in Vancouver, Canada , the rates are astounding. Seventy-three percent of sex worker youths were physically abused, 32.4 percent were sexually abused, and 86.8 percent were emotionally abused. Often unable to cope with the abuse by family members, kids find themselves on the street. Often, they earn their way with the only way they know, through sex.
Childhood abuse survivors cope by self-harming. Often pain is all we know so—we cut, burn and slash ourselves—relief often coming after the first cut. The feeling of euphoria can only be compared to a drink by an alcoholic. However, like the alcoholic looking for the high, it soon becomes addictive.
Many survivors have eating disorders. Often their intake of food is the only factor in their lives they can control. Unfortunately, survivors will take this to the extreme and help arrives long after their health deteriorates—sometimes fatally.
We isolate finding it easier to cope alone than having to explain our moods or our sudden need to leave. As a survivor with DID, I have come to accept my place in the world away from people and society. All my life I’ve struggled with outbursts to people from my inside people. I don’t blame them as they are acting with age appropriate behavior. The following day when I receive the flashbacks of conversation I cringe and prepare to make amends. Rather than further abusing ourselves for isolating, I embrace the time alone with my parts.
Thirty years ago, against the advice of my therapist I did the geographical cure and moved to the West Coast. Though it failed to stop emerging memories, it provided me with the distance I desperately needed from my ‘family’. I have never regretted my move. I believe if I stayed back east, I surely would have died either by my hand or others.
Childhood abuse survivors cope with the tools they have. Even though some are harmful to us, they get us through tough times. We are faced with the impossible—reliving memories of horrendous abuse, often without any support. DID, denial and stuffing emotions are no longer useful in the same way as they once were as children. Change needs to happen.
It’s important for all of us to remember first and foremost that we are survivors. Regardless of how we cope its okay because its keeping us alive and moving forward.
And sometimes that is all we can hope for in a day.