(Trigger warning for violence, sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse.)
I am an abuse survivor. When I was a child, I was exposed to a pedophile. Then the pedophile used my body repeatedly, rendering me psychologically injured and scared. He managed to engage me, groom me, and then use me. When he stopped assaulting me the fourth time, he terrified me so much that I never told a soul until I was in college seeing my first counselor. I was 20.
I used to count 4 instances of abuse on one hand, but have since been able to see that abuse is more than just the assault itself. I was assaulted four times, but I was abused far more often as I lived with the constant stressor of social and sexual deviance in my home life. It still makes my mind into a bit of a pretzel when I think of it in this new way, but I’m practicing and it gets easier each time.
So now, instead of saying “I was sexually abused 4 times”, I simply say that I lived with a pedophile who used my body. He used me sexually when he groped me, but he also used me in a myriad of other ways. He manipulated me, he intimidated me, he lied to me, and many other unhealthy, hurtful things.
Abuse is so far-reaching, permeating the air in the room, the times between assaults, all the way to the perimeter of that relationship one has with the deviant. I’m finally getting clarity on what that means.
In my case, abuse took many forms, and I had more than one abuser: emotional abuse as manipulation, spiritual abuse as coercion to stay quiet to ensure my salvation, and physical abuse as hitting, slapping, and physical intimidation.
As I tried to make sense of what was happening to my body, I dismissed the actions of the pedophile as a violent act. I told myself that violence was only when you had “something to show for it”. I didn’t have bruises, cuts, or burns. I didn’t need medical attention or a hospital trip. So I concluded that what happened wasn’t violent.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines violence this way:
the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation. (source)
I found this definition with the help of a trauma and violence therapist I found quite serendipitously last spring. He has helped me understand that violence encompasses neglect, emotional harm, and sexual abuse even when it is “nice”.
I see now that conceptualizing abuse and violence in this way was a coping mechanism that I was using to survive. I spent my childhood in survival mode. It became commonplace, the very definition of a “chronic stressor”. As you know from my writings about the sleep-food-stress connection, stress can make you fat, and sleep is a huge aspect of health that many ignore.
I used to think that even though I was groped and used, that it wasn’t quite as bad as it “could” have been, you know? I have spent my whole life downplaying what actually happened, so that I could cope with it and survive the horror and terror of being stalked and assaulted when I was sleeping, where I was living, not being protected by people who should have been loving and empathetic and safe.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Living with a constant stressor will often result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD generally has features that range from hypervigilance to recurring dreams to amnesia. You can see the DSM-IV criteria here to see if you have any or all symptoms.
In my case, hypervigilance and avoidance are the main features I have dealt with. Hypervigilance is living on high alert, ready for an attack or assault, unable to settle down into a relaxed state. At the time of the abuse, I experienced more acute hypervigilance. I had trouble sleeping, staying asleep, and I developed headaches and muscle tightness in my body from the stress.
Metabolism and Fat Hatred
Metabolism is tied very closely to stress, PTSD, and weight. Living with constant stressors can wreak havoc on your metabolism, whether you are married to an abusive partner who gaslights you, manipulates you, beats you, or you grew up with abuse in your childhood.
Maybe you were overtly assaulted. Maybe you were neglected to the point of feeling abandoned. Maybe you were actually abandoned. Maybe you grew up unloved, unsupported, unheard. Maybe you didn’t have much money, and your parents were gone all the time. Maybe you find yourself in a string of abusive relationships, wondering why you can’t see it until it’s too late.
All these scenarios I listed (and any of those I didn’t) are chronic stressors that can hurt your body and your metabolism.
Cortisol is a major player in the PTSD and weight connection. Cortisol is steroid hormone used by the body to deal with stress. If you are in an acutely stressful situation, you get this dose of cortisol for a short amount of time. If you are in a chronically stressful situation, such as a home life or relationship that is abusive or toxic, then you get many doses of cortisol over a long period of time.
These cumulative doses of cortisol not only build up over time, but can also contribute to failing metabolism, belly fat, and many other ailments. Here is a partial list of contributing factors to cortisol production. I have limited it to the items that I think are of use to our community here (source):
- sleep deprivation
- prolonged or overly intense physical exercise
- severe trauma or stressful events can elevate cortisol levels in the blood for prolonged periods
- subcutaneous adipose tissue regenerates cortisol from cortisone
- anorexia nervosa may be associated with increased cortisol levels
- commuting increases cortisol levels relative to the length of the trip, its predictability and the amount of effort involved
- Severe calorie restriction causes elevated baseline levels of cortisol
Please note that there is a common thread in these bullet points that all seem to encompass the ideas presented in Diet Recovery, Eat For Heat, and Health at Every Size. Eating low carb, joylessly working out to lose weight, and trying to fit into society’s norms for body weight and type all are counterproductive to true health.
In our society we are encouraged to hate our bodies if they are fat or imperfect. We idealize unattainable, airbrushed versions of beautiful people, striving for something that doesn’t even exist in reality.
Using the one-size-fits-all model of “calories in, calories out” + gym = health doesn’t always work. I submit to you that one reason is due to trauma, abuse, and chronic stress. I have always worked out. I have always eaten the best way I could. But the chronic stressors of my childhood have taken their toll.
So what should we do?
Abuse is uncomfortable for us to acknowledge as a society. We want to think that the only pedophile is the creepy-looking guy lurking in the bushes, or some stranger that we don’t know. But abuse is quite common, and something that needs to be dealt with head on. Abusers are found in any demographic, and are not able to be predicted by socio-economic status, race, or other factors. The biggest exception is gender, since the majority of abusers are male.
First, simply try to wrap your head around this idea: you know someone who has been abused. It’s the truth. Be open to it. Acknowledge that this is the reality of the world we live in. Be kind. Be understanding. Don’t tell survivors how to feel, what to do, how their timetable of healing should look. Just listen.
Also, if you know someone who was abused, help them find a trauma or violence counselor or therapist in your area. If you have been abused or traumatized, seek out treatment and support from trusted people to help you. You can search for therapists that specialize in abuse, domestic violence, interpersonal violence, trauma, or sexual abuse specifically.
I cannot stress enough the importance of finding support and help from a professional who can guide you through the injuries you have sustained due to trauma and abuse. It’s like learning a new language, and you need a teacher.
Abuse is painful, and it always will be. I don’t get to remember a childhood of safety, or a home where I was nurtured. But I do get to create a safe and nurturing environment for my children. And I get to be a stand for others to get their support and treatment. But most importantly, I listen. I am available for those who need me to talk.
It also gives me clarity and rest when I understand it as something that wasn’t personal. I was simply unfortunate, unlucky. But I don’t have to survive anymore. Now I get to live my life.
Originally published at Our Nourishing Roots.