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 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 doctors 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 these controversial fires 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 “psychological 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 has really been through it, but they have still been able to [insert accomplishments here] despite their setbacks.”
It’s all about perception and presentation, and I think we owe one another a sum of decency as to 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 who and 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.