The Lower Brain: Abuse Doesn’t Have To Break You
When I was younger I used to get punished if I couldn’t please my babysitter sexually. I think it qualifies as abuse, but also I learned some things from it that helped me later in life. So maybe it was okay? I don’t know. It still messes me up and affects every single romantic and sexual encounter I’ve ever had. I disassociate just to get through it, so people think I’m distant or cold, but I’m not. Why does it hurt so much still? Am I just broken? – Anon.
Thank you so much for being brave enough to share this. I am so sorry this happened to you, but I also know there are lots of other people reading this who can relate to you. Too often, we treat sexual abuse of boys by women in a very different way than we do sexual abuse of girls by men or sexual abuse of boys by men. We minimize it or act like it’s “hot” or you should be grateful that happened to you. I submit to you that anything done to you as a kid that leads to trouble for you in your adult life is not hot. It’s also not okay. Ever.
No, you’re not broken. Not in the least. In fact, it sounds to me like your brain is really smart and effective at protecting you. Think about it this way: when you were a little kid, if you had been fully present emotionally and mentally for all of that, it might’ve wrecked your ability to function. So your brain protected you by taking you to another place. It’s a common response to trauma, because ultimately our bodies are concerned with keeping us alive above all else.
But here you are, all grown up, a man trying to connect with others, to date women, to just hook up sometimes and feel carefree about it, to fall in love eventually, and your brain is still running that same program. When we get hurt as little kids, something happens where a part of us gets stuck. It’s not your fault. I’ll say it again, this time in bold: it’s not your fault. Okay now let’s do bold and underline: it’s not your fault.
But you do have a responsibility as an adult to take care of yourself – in effect to become your own parent. If you don’t put your own oxygen mask on first, you can’t help anybody else. And forget helping anyone else – it’s hard to even be with anyone else when you haven’t given yourself the chance to process some old stuff in a safe environment.
It’s time to go to therapy, if you feel ready for that.
I always say finding a therapist is like car shopping: you test-drive some options, and you do get a lemon sometimes. That’s alright; there are others out there. It makes me sad when somebody goes to therapy once (often because they’re forced to as a kid) and the provider sucks so they decide all therapy is terrible. The truth is there are many good therapists out there, and many bad ones too. It helps to ask for personal recommendations, but believe it or not, Yelp can be a decent resource. You can look for a social worker or a psychologist – these days psychiatrists usually just do medication management, but some of them do talk therapy as well.
Look for somebody who lists on their website (or in an initial free phone consultation) that they specialize in working with trauma survivors, especially sexual trauma survivors, especially men who are sexual trauma survivors. Why? Well, because of what I said above – in society we tend to treat men who are survivors of sexual assault differently than we do women. And the therapist who works with you should understand that and should know how to use the right language.
You’ll note I haven’t used the term “rape.” Why? Because I’m not putting a more specific label on what she did to you. You disclosed to me you regard it as abuse, and that it was sexual, so I’m going with “sexual assault” or “sexual abuse” as my terms here. But that encompasses a range of actions. And it is nobody’s job but yours, if you so choose, to decide what that was and what it means to you today. I will tell you that rape does not have to involve a penetrative act. And that if you never said “no”, and even if you, a little kid, said “yes”, and even if it felt bad sometimes and good other times, and even if she was under 18 herself, it was still wrong. She was wrong. She was old enough to know it was wrong. You deserved better as a child, and you deserve better now.
You get to choose to take care of that scared little kid who is still inside you. It’s nobody’s business but your own, but you can give him a better life now. This doesn’t mean that he exists as a separate personality from your own; he doesn’t. But I believe we are all an amalgamation of ourselves at previous ages, and we have to protect ourselves where possible. As a kid, it wasn’t possible for you to do that. But you may find it very healing to do so today.
I wish you the best. You can’t erase what was done to you, but you can work with it in therapy, through art, and in other good methods. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) may have some helpful strategies. An Internet and phone buddy of mine, the late great comic and writer Barry Crimmins, found some healing by becoming an advocate for survivors of sexual assault. There’s a documentary about his life, “Call Me Lucky,” directed by the amazing Bobcat Goldthwait – only watch it if you feel safe, because it is pretty raw stuff for survivors (and, hell, for anyone.) Barry’s was a public path; yours needn’t be. You will find your own way. You don’t need to be anybody’s hero but your own. And please tell your adult self and your kid self and your whole beautiful grown self this, from a stranger: I am very, very proud of you.
If you have a question and need some advice, email Sara at [email protected]