Fighting sexual abuse with a dose of self-hate

Dr Michael Corry looks at how sexual abuse leads to self-loathing
The emerging self, with its inherent potential, needs to be protected and, like a seedling, nurtured in fertile ground.

Sexual abuse, like no other trauma, eclipses this natural unfolding with an impact of such magnitude that is rarely appreciated. Upwards of 150,000 adult women and men in Ireland have experienced statutory rape in childhood. Five times that figure experienced other forms of sexual abuse, ranging from inappropriate touching to the forced witnessing of exposure.

Picture an infant, whose window on the world is the rim of their cot, whose cry or smile elicits the unqualified, unconditional attention of her mother and father, their watchful eyes holding her gaze completely, making her feel, for those moments, the absolute centre of the world. In the infant’s tiny mind an inner knowing is forming – “I have made this happen.”

Now put yourself in her tiny shoes and fast forward to a time when the same apparently loving father is gradually beginning to express his ‘love’ in a sexual manner involving you in sex games, which evolve over time into full sexual intimacy such as that shared by consenting adults. Your protestations are mollified, your co-operation validated and your secrecy rewarded. Variations of this premature sexualisation occur. Not for some fathers the process of seduction, but rather sadistic brutal intercourse instilling terror and pain, where every orifice is violated. You have no escape.

Drunk or sober, day or night, he has access to you. Your reason for living has been reduced to being a sexual object, a sex slave. Once again, and in both examples of fathers, the belief holds – “I have made this happen.” The same interpretation will be formed if the attentions are those of a grandfather, uncle, sibling, neighbour or babysitter.

Fast forward again. You are now a teenager, perhaps at this stage no longer being actively abused, you now live a secret life besieged by guilt, shame, depression and self-loathing. School life becomes meaningless. Recreational drugs and alcohol bring anaesthesia. Suicide – the ultimate escape – is always on the agenda.

Frequently, early sexual abuse can be of such overwhelming intensity that the immature mind buries it beyond awareness in the deepest recesses of the unconscious. However, this powerful energy cannot be fully sealed off. The mental turmoil within may see you engaging in complex obsessive-compulsive thoughts and rituals – hours scrubbing your body in the shower, frequently washing and changing your clothes, engaging in checking routines and endless mental scrabble, without knowing why. The imposition of order and self-discipline quells your anxiety. You may withhold food through calorie counting and starvation rituals, and engage in self-mutilation practices for release of tension.

In adult life, abuse may express itself primarily as depression. It is depressing to have intimacy problems, to fear touch, to feel confused about your sexual identity, to repress and feel shame of the self as a sexual being. It is depressing to be haunted by images and sensations that you can’t explain; such as feelings of stubble against your face, the pressure of body parts against yours, and the pervasive smell of alcohol and sweat.

Over the years you come to loathe and despise yourself for these peculiarities, holding your personality responsible. Why wouldn’t you? There doesn’t seem to be any other explanation. “It must be me, I must have a sick mind.”

Boys do not escape. Those who were incarcerated in industrial schools have borne witness to this. Many were exposed to regimes of unbridled rape and violence which lasted for years, at the hands of sadistic sexual perverts answerable to no one. Their threats of unspeakable violence ensured availability and silence.

The majority of survivors – their chance of a normal life diminished from the beginning, with their lives totally derailed, and their humanity denied – learned to place no value on themselves. They drifted from one crisis to another, their past littered with criminal behaviour, prison records, substance misuse, dysfunctional relationships, mistrust of authority and family breakdown.

Powerless to bring stability to their lives, many suffered from depression and other serious psychiatric orders, beginning a life-long relationship with mental hospitals.

The greatest tragedy of all is that this population feel robbed not just of their innocence, but of their inner light, as if their very soul has been taken away. I have worked not just with survivors of abuse in the industrial schools but also with those who fell victim to the predatory behaviour of priests in certain boarding schools who lured them in, on the basis that they were intelligent, ‘special’ boys with spiritual potential, needing guidance with their sexuality.

The ‘guidance’ offered was in fact a gradual seduction process, which commenced with the exploration of things sexual, stimulating their curiosity, providing skewed answers and finally grooming them towards the acceptance of mutual touching, masturbation and penetrative sex. To this day, married or single, many are haunted by flashbacks of their abuser’s body odour, the taste of their sperm, the very touch of their fingers, the sound of their voice and the image of their presence. The experience was encoded not just in consciousness but in cellular memory where it can be triggered into life and relived in an instant, such as, paradoxically, during sexual intimacy with their partner, when the image of the first seductions by their abuser intrudes, causing avoidance and sexual dysfunction.

The sexually abused are truly the walking wounded, living out private hells, their lives irreparably shaped by the experience. Behind the mask of many a so-called ‘biological’ or ‘clinical’ depression lies a history of sexual trauma which cannot be dissipated by a pill or a course of electric shock treatment. This is the domain of psychotherapy. The painful process of peeling back the layers of trauma within a psychotherapeutic relationship, so that they can be truly seen, verbalised and integrated, is a lengthy one, sometimes without any satisfactory resolution, so all-pervasive is the damage.

To compound matters, there are numerous and formidable barriers put in the path of the abused in their quest for recognition, the result of which is to protect the perpetrators, minimise the extent of the abuse, and its life-long and far-reaching effects. This denial and disbelief not only re-traumatises victims, blocks restorative justice, but also impedes their healing process. Another more subtle obstruction to this healing is the failure on the part of doctors in so many cases to link depression with trauma of this kind, diagnosing it as a ‘new’ illness, the treatment of which bears no witness to its root cause.

•Dr Michael Corry is a consultant psychiatrist and co-author of Going Mad? (Gill and Macmillan) with Dr Aine Tubridy.

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6 thoughts on “Fighting sexual abuse with a dose of self-hate

  1. Lucy I think the trick is to find a way back to your creativity that was impeded/stunted in the first place- this can be a painful, and slow journey but it sounds as if you are making the right connections all the best gerry

  2. I’m writing about the power of reflecting rationally on one’s relationship with oneself and the world to create a feedback loop which, gradually, allows one to emerge from this living nightmare. I use yoga and exercise myself (but also other, less healthy routes) to deal with the vacuum that self-hatred creates. I sometimes think that I will live until I work out how to live with it, and that the realisation will so shake my foundations that I won’t be able to survive it! Perhaps that’s a common experience. I don’t know. But thanks for this. It rings very true.

  3. A professional with a compassionate heart and indepth insight into the never-ending trauma of the abusive experience.
    Tks gerry

  4. Hello, I was introduced into “this” world in 1940. My first experience, that I remember was
    being brought to School by my Mother shortly after my Fourth birthday. To be “educated”.
    Those people, I was introduced to, were in my
    blank mind supposed to point me in the right
    direction of what a Christian should be.
    Imagine ?? HOw I feel ?? 70 years later, looking around me in this land of “Saints and Scholars”. Imagine Imagine Imagine.
    There are no other Persons better than
    You in this ” World” Enjoy LIfe. Take Care xxxx

  5. Dear Michael,

    I’ve just come across your long article entitled “Fighting Sexual Abuse with a Dose of Self Hate” dated 26th June 2009, and I would like to respond to it as follows.

    You wrote:-

    “Sexual abuse, like no other trauma, eclipses this natural unfolding with an impact of such magnitude that is rarely appreciated….”

    Maternal rejection is the WORST trauma a child can experience. After that, the exploitation of the abandoned child (however it is manifested) is INEVITABLE!

    You wrote:-

    “In the infant’s tiny mind an inner knowing is forming – “I have made this happen.” ”

    Why do you assume that ALL children think/believe this? I was born to a woman who did not love me, yet I didn’t think like this as a child. On the contrary, I looked around my given environment as a small child and I wondered what was going on; I certainly didn’t blame myself for all the sadistic madness that was so normalised in the 1950’s environment/culture I found myself in! NB: I spent the next 50 years trying to understand it. Now I do.

    You wrote:-

    “Now put yourself in her tiny shoes and fast forward to a time when the same apparently loving father is gradually beginning to express his ‘love’ in a sexual manner involving you in sex games… You have no escape…”

    Are you, perhaps, reflecting on your own mother here?

    You wrote:-

    “Drunk or sober, day or night, he has access to you. Your reason for living has been reduced to being a sexual object, a sex slave. Once again, and in both examples of fathers, the belief holds – “I have made this happen.” The same interpretation will be formed if the attentions are those of a grandfather, uncle, sibling, neighbour or babysitter.”

    The only people who believe they are the ones who believe they were somehow responsible for the physical, sexual or emotional violation of themselves as children are those who were raised by very abnormal parents, i.e., people whose mentality was shaped by religiious dogma, e.g., Roman Catholicism. Ireland is full of such people to this day!

    You wrote:-

    “You are now a teenager, perhaps at this stage no longer being actively abused, you now live a secret life besieged by guilt, shame, depression and self-loathing. School life becomes meaningless. Recreational drugs and alcohol bring anaesthesia.”

    What about all those so-called normal Irish peoplr who don’t indulge in drugs and alcohol, but instead, continue in the abnormal footsteps of their parents, i.e, those who shaped their mentality; who lust after power, who want to be “someone important”, to be “successful” (read, MATERIALLY successful)? In other words, a so-called adult who is still looking for approval (Love) from their fucked-up parents?!

    You wrote:-

    “Frequently, early sexual abuse can be of such overwhelming intensity that the immature mind buries it beyond awareness in the deepest recesses of the unconscious. However, this powerful energy cannot be fully sealed off. The mental turmoil within may see you engaging in complex obsessive-compulsive thoughts and rituals – hours scrubbing your body in the shower, frequently washing and changing your clothes, engaging in checking routines and endless mental scrabble, without knowing why. The imposition of order and self-discipline quells your anxiety. You may withhold food through calorie counting and starvation rituals, and engage in self-mutilation practices for release of tension.”

    I was horribly abused, both physically and psychologically as a child myself, and yet I don’t know how to count calories – nor am I interested in “counting calories”. Nor do I engage in self-mutilation – though I have to admit I tried to kill myself several times; not because I hated myself, but because I could not stand the pain of living, or rather, merely existing – as so many others do in our so-called (White Man) civilised world!

    And on you go…

    PS. Is your colleague, Aine Tubridy, a sibling of Ryan Tubridy = the “talking RC/Corporate Amerika clone” on RTE 1 radio, by any chance?

  6. Dr Corry.

    You write admirably of the inner turmoil suffered by victims of sex abuse; you know very precisely what the victims all know and have often been telling us over the last many decades. And everyone should know about this, public, professionals and politicians. So what is being done to stop this carnage? Why is it still going on? Can you perhaps even point out signs that things are changing? Even 6 weeks after the Ryan Report? Even on the eve of our Government leaving their offices for 9 weeks for their holidays, amidst laughter, smiles and banter in their last exchanges? How does it feel to “know” all this, and admit that nothing is changing? How about UNCONDITIONAL CONDEMNATION?

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