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Let’s Talk about Sexual Abuse and “Mental Illness”

There are two words that bother me greatly when I see, hear, or read them. They are: “Mental Illness”. Why does this wildly popular and acceptable term bother me so much? I’ll elaborate.

Quite a few of my friends are “mentally ill” at their own admittance, and those that aren’t, continue to use the phrase easily and without conviction. It’s just what people are known to be that have “mental problems”, right?

But who doesn’t have “mental problems”? Who hasn’t at some point broken down and cried? Who hasn’t felt afflicted spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, financially, health-wise or otherwise?  How did it affect you as person? Did you feel defeated? Did you feel like giving up? Did you fret? Worry? Call people? Overeat? Not leave your house for the day? The week?  Pace your floors? Cuss? Scream? Throw something? Drink? Drink more? (See where this is going?)

How do we differentiate between a person who is exhibiting (fatigue, duress, insomnia, depression and other) physiological manifestations; very natural responses to his or her sexual abuse or other traumas- combined with their chaotic environments, and a person who is exhibiting these signs when everything is hunky-dory?

One would be classified as appropriate behaviors given the circumstances, and the other would be classified as exhibiting psychological disorders. Both examples describe the same behaviors! But the environmental norms surrounding them separate the two.

If a person has been sexually abused and placed in a normal environment with siblings and other happy folks who have a swell life, there is no way the sexually abused person is going to behave in an expected manner. Who would behave at optimal performance in school, church, family gatherings, etc. after being sexually abused and having to “guard it” like Fort Knox gold? A person who tries to keep it together year after year will eventually break down while trying to process massive amounts of: guilt, anxiety, shame, anger, rage, confusion, blame, self-loathing, envy- the list is very long.

Given the circumstances, it’s actually very normal behavior to exhibit signs of distress, anxiety, anger, OCD-like tendencies, insomnia, night terrors, and other maladaptive behaviors that are associated with trauma. People who have not suffered these traumas do not understand and it is extremely unsettling for them that they do not have answers that they can file away, shelve, and dress things up with a tidy bow so that it’s sorted out in their heads.

But there needs to be an understanding in this area that these odd behaviors are very normal for sexual abuse survivors. What wouldn’t be normal is having suffered sexual abuse (especially as a child) and then sailing through life with little or no behavioral quirks. I dislike the word disorder because I challenge anybody to say that surviving sexual abuse is a disorder.

It is a triumph. Sexual abuse is a violation like no other and people give medals to those in wars who have been violated less and call them heroes. Sexual abuse survivors fight in the battlefields of life, and there’s no hero’s welcome. There’s no parade. No medals. We have to be our own heroes and rescue ourselves from the collective trenches of societal stigma and hate bombs that others throw at us and that we throw at ourselves.

Being a sexual abuse survivor is like being locked in a dark, dirty cell and given 5,000 keys: only one will unlock the door, and you have one hour to find the right one, or you could die! Doom. Doom doom doom! And lots of crying, worry, and fears that you will never find the right key in time.

But again, I reiterate that these horrible feelings are absolutely normal “given the circumstances”. We need to carefully select the words and labels we assign to people who have suffered such traumas. What if they believe you?!

God forbid I ever believe any labels that have been placed upon me in life. I would be the biggest mess in the world. But I have assigned healthier labels for myself: loving, compassionate, real, honest, valuable, happy. After all, I am the one who has to live with myself and why would I want to live with a pessimist?

The term “mental illness” came about in the 1800’s after various psychological perspectives disagreed on what actually defined a person to be mentally ill. Some believed that it was evil spirits. Some believed it was “psychogenic”, or psychologically induced, and others believed that it was somatogenic, or “of a biophysiological nature” (that’s a fancy way of saying “relating to your body” rather than your mental processes).

They locked “mentally ill” people up on psych wards and in chains where they were beaten and starved, or placed in a metal contraption that rendered them motionless for hours and days at a time. When the patients in these asylums exhibited paranoia, fear, depression, sleeplessness, excessive anxiety and other abuse-related behaviors (as a direct result of the abuse), their friends and families sadly accepted what the doctor had prescribed them all: mental illness.

Many of these patients were exhibiting very normal responses to being held against their wills and physically and psychologically abused. People were quick to swallow the ideology of “mental illness” because it satisfied their need to classify and understand what was happening to their family member.

In other words, people created the term “mental illness” to be able to better control individuals, societies, groups, and religious wars were often the fuel that kept this controversial fire burning. With the classification of mental illness: the acts of physical and emotional abuse on those who “broke society’s norms” were not only unpunishable, but sanctioned, approved, and rewarded!

Just as toxic as any sexual abuse is the belief by the victim that he or she is mentally ill, because somebody said so. This is such a powerful weapon of self-destruction, and only the act of sexual abuse itself is stronger.

We need to start tossing out terms like “mental illness”: those two words alone are TOXIC.
I will never accept terms like “mental illness” and “disorder”. Those are conceptual words made up by people who do not understand what it is like to live in a world with wild, technicolor vision. How about that?

How about, “I have a family member or friend who is mentally ill has really been through it, but they have still been able to [insert accomplishments here] despite their obstacles.”

It’s all about perception and presentation, and I think we owe one another a sum of decency in how we present each other.

I wrote this post so that other sexual abuse survivors might gather strength and comfort; know that there are others who have suffered the same things in life, but refuse to be labeled! You are what you believe you are. 

You have to believe yourself into something positive, constructive, hopeful, and be fearless in your conquests! Be bold in who you are, and acknowledge that you are a survivor rather than a victim. And when you learn that, teach others that too. Choose positivity rather than negativity.

Those 5,000 keys?

They all open the door.

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30 responses

  1. yvo

    effing A B!!! what an essay of triumph . . a paradigm shift and a brilliant write here. I completely agree and am happy to say I have walked away from a string of mental health experts that tried to stamp me with indelible labels. I distinctly remember the first time it happened ~ that I rejected an expert conclusion to replace with my own conclusion and in retrospect . . i think it was the beginning of my real growing up and healing. Thanks for writing and posting. I have no doubt this will resonate with many! You are going to be a force of change in your chosen field B! love to U! y

    January 24, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    • Hey, you inspire me like this all the time, Y! I see you flourish in a world that is quick to stamp and label- you are so (if I say so myself) ‘quirky’…hehe. I love that about you! You’ve taught me that it’s alright to not only accept your unique blueprint, but to embrace and celebrate it. People like you teach people like me that although we shine the brightest in absolute darkness, it’s even better to bask in the sun. And bask we must. :0) Love to you as well! XO

      January 24, 2014 at 3:28 pm

  2. Wow, that is such a powerful essay. Uncompromising and full of integrity. Congratulations and keep going! The world need your truth and reason 🙂

    January 24, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    • The labels are cumbersome and really nonsensical after a while, yeah?

      Yeah. ;0) Thanks for popping in and leaving your feedback! I appreciate it. x

      January 24, 2014 at 4:25 pm

  3. This is a really powerful read.
    I hadn’t thought of it, but what you say about them(/you?) being labeled mentally ill when their reaction makes sense is very true.

    It pains me to think of people ending up with diagnosises further stigmatizing already vulnerable people into further silence about their experiences. :\

    There was something else about this though that I really wasn’t sure how to take.
    Where does this leave the rest of us ‘mentally ill’ folks? The ones who aren’t abuse survivors of any form.
    I’ve seen a push to humanize those of us who struggle with ‘disorders’, by speaking about people with X/Y/Z, but we need a word for what we’re experiencing to be able to talk about this.
    Maybe we need new words, (words without all this baggage?) but speaking about ourselves as just individuals with struggles does not unite us the way having a shared label does.
    When I talk about mental health disorders and what they do to affect my life, I can connect with people who have schizophrenia, even though I don’t, and people who have OCD, like me, alike.
    If I don’t have some kind of mutual language to discuss the way in which we struggle, which is sometimes surprisingly similar, and the stigma we share, where does that leave the combined voice of those with mental health disorders. The self-advocating activists among those who are ‘not mentally well’?

    It’s perhaps not the same, maybe you are actually only talking about for abuse victims (which I totally respect) Although also at this point seems there is a lot of overlap, it’s hard to tell how much of that is real over-lap and how much of it is diagnosises given out inappropriately (and more importantly not helpfully) to abuse survivors.

    I dunno, as I said, I just wasn’t sure how to take that. It doesn’t always have to be inclusive of the rest of us, so perhaps I’m just trying to see a connection where there isn’t one, and that’s alright. It’s just what crossed my mind.

    January 24, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    • I think it’s important to be in support with and among others who share some of the same struggles- psychologically, pyhsiologically, emotionally, spiritually (the list goes on), such as “overeaters” who suffer from that, but would they go around calling each other fat? Or would they accept that from others? No…never. So why should people who suffer “XYZ” psychologically accept others telling him or her what is “wrong” with them? And then when he or she hears how it’s supposed to make them feel (depressed, suppressed, repressed, obsessed, etc.) the behaviors are sure to follow- I’ve seen it my whole life. Somebody has to blow the whistle at some point and say, “I’m not what you say I am. I’m who I say I CAN be.”

      I think it’s necessary to acknowledge psychological issues- very important, and that one reaches out for help. But I think it’s all too easy for sufferers to cling on to a “label” or “title” of a “disorder” and use it as a crutch also. (I’ve seen that my whole life too.) Sometimes people choose irresponsibility and denial too with claims that “the disorder” is stopping them from being able to do things that others do- but I stopped believing that.

      Anybody can do anything they WANT to do. Fear and unbelief are killers. Faith truly does move mountains, but a person has to have faith in him or herself before even a pebble is moved.

      Without that crucial self-faith that there can be healing, truly, it’s likely the person will continue believing in all of the things that are “wrong” with them. It doesn’t have to be that way, and yes, I speak from experience. That said, I’m a full-supporter of therapy, group therapy, self-help, medication for a host of physiological and neurological disorders, etc.

      We all have to do what works for each of us, as individuals- without blame, self-pity, excuses, or regret.

      January 24, 2014 at 7:50 pm

      • Our life experiences are quite different, I’m sure this influences where we come from.
        I’ve seen far more people cling to the idea that there isn’t anything wrong with them, and therefore never seek help. Confident and crashing.
        (Especially the very close to my heart crash and burn that is my mother. She’s only this year finally admitting that her problems run deeper than just the occasional bought of depression.)

        That speaks to me, not in the agreeing disagreeing sense, but you in the way that I know something is an important sticking point/issue that needs more time and thought.
        I mean there are people who proudly call themselves fat and fathletes, but would they if they hadn’t already been harassed to the point of needing to take back the word?
        Even with them taking it back being a positive thing, is that the best way to approach the issue?
        And more to the point and about the people we’re really discussing, should those who have mental health disorders really be defined by those things?
        Hmm…. Definitely needs more thought.
        I mean as I mentioned, maybe we do need a new word? A word that those of us who fall under the umbrella decide. More thought for sure.

        I try to be understanding for people who feel they can’t do things. I also always try to keep spoon theory in mind and know that just because someone “should” from the outside appear to be able to do something, they may not be as capable as I think they are.
        For those who are mistaking “won’t” for “can’t”, the easier it is for them to try things not already on their can’t list, the easier to at least try the things on their “can’t” list.
        I recognize that I have some genuine limitations, as well as some self imposed ones, and I try my best to acknowledge that most people, myself included, struggle to recognize where the lines are between those two.
        Self awareness is, in my opinion the greater struggle for those won’t people, and that’s something that is a skill that can be learned. So that means if we can point people are resources to learn to think critically and self examine, then we can let those people do the work of figuring out what are their won’t and what are their can’ts.

        Another thing were our experiences are divergent, hm.
        I started to get healthier long before I believed in myself, if I had tried to wait for that bit of confidence I would probably still be waiting. I did end up trusting in something, I trusted in the numbers in the science which showed me that statistically if I followed the advice of my mental-health-care-professionals at the time (and they had to do the proving to me) that I could get better.
        When I’d gotten better to the point of being noticeable to myself, *then* I felt some self confidence, the spurring on of believing I could really do this.
        It’s a little bit of a different path for everyone. Perhaps I’m just a little backwards, but self confidence was just something I couldn’t muster, I had to act before I could begin to be well enough to have any.

        I think that does work with exactly what you said though, and I couldn’t agree more with this statement: “We all have to do what works for each of us, as individuals- without blame, self-pity, excuses, or regret.”
        Yes!

        January 24, 2014 at 9:52 pm

      • I echo what you stated above, “It’s a little bit of a different path for everyone.”

        And sometimes, a lot.

        January 24, 2014 at 10:27 pm

  4. This was a great read, thanks. And so often have I wished for us to do away with the word victim — it does nothing to point to the resilience of the still-standing being. Even “survivor” doesn’t quite capture that triumph of overcoming you mention.

    January 25, 2014 at 3:24 am

    • I feel the same way about the word victim, and have for many years. It really does keep a person in chains. Can you imagine having the belief that you simply went through a bad situation and that was the end of it? No point to it? Just to suffer and that’s it. No growth or learning, really. The most valuable lessons I’ve learned in life were born in adversity.

      And I think you used the perfect word here: resilience. And totally off the subject, I like that you used an actual em dash rather than a hyphen (lazy people use hyphens, like me!). I keep telling myself to stick with the plan and use em dashes, but no. The hyphen is 1/2 inch away from my middle finger. :0) (So wrong!)

      January 25, 2014 at 11:03 am

  5. Resilient beings who made it through some horror, still as good, decent people, are akin to war heroes just like you say.

    I can’t take the credit for the em dash — I do a double-dash and html turns it into an em dash. In fact, in my own posts, I go back and change the html-converted em dashes back to regular hyphens because the em dashes look too long for my taste!

    January 25, 2014 at 2:21 pm

  6. Northernbaygirl

    This has really struck a chord with me, I’ve been sorting through those 5000 keys for a long time, and just as I get down to only a few to go, they all end up jumbled together again and I have to restart the search.

    January 25, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    • What a great comment. :0) You know, it’s funny, the more people I get to know, whether on or offline, I’m shocked at the number of people with similar stories as mine. I’m not unique! There are many of us. Thanks for sharing yours with me too. I feel you big-time! Big hugs. x

      January 25, 2014 at 4:20 pm

      • Northernbaygirl

        I wrote, deleted, rewrote, deleted & reworded that comment so many times before I finally hit the ‘post comment’ button.

        Big Hugs to you too xx

        January 25, 2014 at 4:48 pm

      • Hehe…that’s alright. I do that too. ;0)

        January 25, 2014 at 4:54 pm

  7. Very powerful stuff B. We should never judge a person by what someone else wrote on a piece of paper.

    January 30, 2014 at 12:56 pm

  8. This is beautiful and so true. My therapist and I discuss this regularly. All my emotional/mental ‘issues’ are very normal responses to the experiences of my life. And as such, I need to stop considering myself broken and start considering that I am doing what I need to do to care for myself and keep myself safe.

    February 2, 2014 at 9:54 am

    • Hey, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts and feelings on this. :0) Not an easy subject to tackle, and many people are uncomfortable with such topics. But for the survivors of such tragedies, we have to reckon with this subject every day of our lives. For me, the key has been to stop fearing it. Fear consumed me for many years. So did the anger. How could it not? But once I turned my anger against the very abuse itself, rather than the person- I began to heal. I was mad at the wrong things, you know? Without intervention and rerouting the destructive aftershock- we’re hopeless victims, but once all of that negative energy has been filtered through our hands for the better- it’s an awesome machine of hope and triumph, not only for ourselves, but for others.

      I hope you continue to seek love, forgiveness, and peace for yourself. We have to wage war against the evil that has happened to us! What I mean by that means is, we have to FIGHT for our peace, our love, our laughter, our JOY. Every day.

      What helps me is this: every day that I wake up, I thank God that I’m alive, and able to be in His creation. That conditions my heart to give and receive love. I also make a choice- every single morning to seek peace. And to LIVE. There’s no joy at all in merely existing- putting food in the body to survive another day, to go through the motions of “what people do” simply to make it to another day. Ugh. I don’t want that. I want to be on fire with passion and life! To feel so many beautiful things. And I choose that every day for myself.

      I hope you do that too. You’ve suffered enough. The worst is over, you know?! Only we can choose happiness and joy for ourselves. Choose it- and you’ll have it. xo

      February 2, 2014 at 1:01 pm

  9. I freaking love you for this. You have no idea.

    February 4, 2014 at 12:30 am

  10. hey, babe…long time no speaky! jus read this…only one word for it, babe..WOW!
    ur always an inspiration to read….bless you!

    February 7, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    • Yes, long time no talky. :0) So glad to see you! Hope all has been well with you. Same thing different day here, school is positively kicking my arse!

      I’ll pop over later. ;0)

      February 7, 2014 at 10:35 pm

      • hehe! school..well..what can i say..we’ve all been there..LOl! tnks for dropping in, babe..appreciate it.

        February 8, 2014 at 11:17 am

  11. megs875

    I really enjoyed your post. Amazing the power of words and our choice of which words to use! I have recently felt compelled to run a business as a fitness instructor helping women overcome sexual abuse. I recently noticed a huge disconnect with my mind and body and realized it came from my abuse as a child. When i would go exercise or when i was in P.E. I always felt ashamed of my body and how it moved or didn’t move. I decided to take up a new hobby (aerial silks) and as I learned and practiced i promised myself I wouldn’t shame my body anymore or have any negative self talk. It has significantly increased my self esteem. I am held back by fear though, still fear of moving my body in front of others with all eyes on me, fear of offending someone or not knowing what to say, etc. 🙂 My question is…in your experience what exercise classes would be most beneficial or what approach should i take? This is REALLY going out on a limb for me and I need to gather a support system and a wide variety of ideas

    February 24, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    • Hey Meg, thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts and feedback too. :0) First of all, let me congratulate you on your interest and accomplishments in aerial art- that’s quite a transformation, especially knowing what it’s like to be self-loathing about our bodies from being sexually traumatized. I remember going through my “baggy clothes” stage and I would wear over-sized tees so that my figure would be swallowed up. And then there’s the other side of the pendulum: wearing super tight things and flaunting the skin-tight clothing. It’s interesting seeing and studying the duality. Some people experience just one or the other but I went through many phases. By diving right into something like aerial exercises, you had to make your body the spotlight- that’s not an easy thing to do, especially when battling such an ugly thing “on the inside”- so I applaud you for that courageous act in itself. :0)

      About the exercise classes pertaining to the abuse and what would be most beneficial…I think almost any exercise is beneficial, but remember, the INSIDE of the body- the mind and the spirit- of a sexual abuse survivor has been so crushed, it’s essential to incorporate positive messages throughout the sessions. I would encourage a “briefing session” before each class and remind the students that they are doing more than simply “exercising the body” but “taking back” the control and discipline that has been taken from them, or destroyed. Self-control and self-discipline are two things that are virtually destroyed when somebody has suffered sexual abuse, and so I think it would behoove you and your class greatly, to verbally reinforce that the exercise has more to do with gaining back that self control, than simply “toning up the muscles”, etc. You may want to pair up certain movements with certain positive messages, such as: have them reach out with their right or left hand, clench up their fists, and withdraw their hands TO them, while rehearsing a message of “taking back” their control. Pair up each message with a physical act that will correlate it. You could do the same thing with expelling negativity. Have each person clench their fists up to their chests and then shove their arms forward and quickly release their fingers (as if sprinkling dust, etc.) while rehearsing (or reciting) something such as, “I refuse to be a victim” or “I release this anger”, etc. It seems kitschy at first, but never underestimate the power of words, when paired with faith! If you can simply help these people to “rewire” their thinking- the battle is mostly won. Imagine a train that is full of energy that has gone off the tracks. It’s destined to explode, and no doubt will cause great harm to others. Every sexual abuse survivor IS that train. People simply need help in getting back onto the right track. If you can help the students reroute their thinking (from negativity to positivity) while enabling them to love their bodies simultaneously- that’s a powerful thing.

      You may want to consider two stages of exercise: beginner’s and advanced. The beginner’s stage could introduce the students to get accustomed to moving slowly around other students. Slow motions, perhaps some yoga stances- light training simply to allow everyone to become adjusted to working around each other comfortably. Stage two could be more hands on- allowing the class to interact with one another in “team exercises” two person teams, so they can learn to trust others again where physical interaction is necessary. (Holding down’s somebody’s feet so they can do sit-ups, etc. and then switch places.)

      I think it’s a great idea that you’re wanting to incorporate therapeutic exercise into your classes.

      One more thing, I think it’s very important, right away, to have the class learn each others’ names and address them BY their names. Sexual abuse survivors try to disappear (which is why many choose the baggy clothing, trying to make their bodies formless)- unfortunately, that teaches the mind to follow, and ultimately, the person will want to be virtually invisible. By teaching everybody to learn names and practice saying each others’ names- your’re creating an environment of accountability, and by doing so, the students will be the ones that tell each other that each one is important- simply by stating his or her name.

      I don’t think there’s one “breakthrough method” that will work, but several smaller ones combined surely will. Remember, it’s the small things sometimes that make the biggest difference. xo

      February 24, 2014 at 2:51 pm

      • megs875

        Thank you for your reply! I love everything you mentioned. Some things I had thought of before some things I had not. I like the idea of calling everyone by their names but mostly I like the WHY you gave behind it. Two stages of exercise is something I hadn’t thought of. I’ve realized I’ve had discomfort as we have been paired up to do exercises at my gym so that’s a good problem to tackle but like you said eventually not necessarily right up front. Thank you so much for your response. It reminded me that I am doing an important thing and it is worth the fight and effort.

        February 24, 2014 at 4:33 pm

      • Yes, it’s definitely worth the fight and efforts! Even if you only truly are able to reach one person in this world (although you’ll no doubt reach many more), then everything will have been worth it. Think about how many people that person may effect, and so on and so on. I believe once a cycle of “good” is set in motion, it will continue to multiply, and as a result, many people will have better lives because of your efforts. Always know that you’re making a difference for the better in other peoples lives. :0) x

        February 24, 2014 at 5:04 pm

  12. Thank you for sending me this link. You bring up such an important issue about labels, both the ones we choose for ourselves and the ones we’ve been given. It may have been talked about already in the comment thread but there’s a big difference between a medical diagnosis and a label. Labels are something we assign to ourselves and other people. There are legitimate medical diagnoses that are grouped under the umbrella of mental illness (like schizophrenia) but the phrase mental illness is so misleading because it insinuates that it can be controlled by the power of the mind. If the mind can’t control the problem, it’s deemed ill. I reject the label of mentally ill just like I rejected the label of alcoholic. We have to be really careful about the labels we assign ourselves because they become self-fulfilling. Great post!

    November 13, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    • I love that you mentioned the difference between labels and medical diagnoses. Absolutely, and great point! (And no, it hadn’t been pointed out in the comments by myself or anyone else.) I think it’s such a powerful thing that you reject the traditional collective belief that “once and alcoholic- always an alcoholic”. That’s so flawed in so many ways. We have to believe that we’re given new minds and new lives or we’re totally screwed, eh? heheh. Thanks for stopping by. I’ll be popping in regularly. x

      November 13, 2014 at 12:05 pm

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