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Pursuit To An Enriching Life: Healing Survivors Of Childhood Sexual Abuse Through Counselling And Therapy

Nov 1 2023 / Posted in Gender Violence

- Mahima Trivedi, Anu Balasubramanyam, Nikhat Shaikh

William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” We are often reminded of this as counselors and therapists. The intricacies of our childhood and its connection to the person we are today, the choices we make and the patterns we establish in our lives are influenced by it. Sarya was no different when she met the therapist at SNEHA. As we look back today on World Mental Health Day, Sarya particularly stands out to us as a person who resiliently defied her patterns and broke free. She deepened our purpose and belief in the power of counseling and therapy in healing from trauma and moving towards leading a fulfilling life.

We met Sarya on a humid summer afternoon at SNEHA’s counseling center in Mumbai. She was 46 years old when she approached the counselling centre. Marred by a life of violence for as long as she could remember, she began to talk about her life. She was 6 years old when her father sexually violated her for the first time. Filled with intense shame and confusion, she was unable to comprehend what was happening with her. Having no channels of help or support, Sarya quickly internalised these emotions. Her sexual abuse continued until she was 15. There were often times when her father’s friends were also allowed to violate her. Sarya’s trauma further compounded when her mother learnt of the abuse, breaking her last thread of a trustful relationship. Sarya’s mother threatened her from speaking to anybody else about it. She taught her to suppress her emotions and endure. At the age of 16, Sarya was forced to be married. Her trauma now continued in the form of extreme physical abuse whenever she was unable or unwilling to fill his husband’s sexual desires. In cases of child sexual abuse, the amalgamation of shame, the notion around ‘Izzat’ (honor) and fear makes it easy to understand that why it is under reported!

Through counselling and therapy session’s experiences of Sarya’s and many more such survivors of childhood sexual abuse, we started to learn the impact that childhood violence has during adulthood.

Some Patterns That Could Be Unhealthy And Harmful Include–

Trust Issues:

In most of the child sexual abuse situations that are reported to our counselling centres, it is often perpetrated by someone the child or child’s family knows and trusts. Therefore experience of childhood sexual abuse could inhibit a survivor from trusting others, especially in intimate relationships. The violation of trust by the abuser could make it difficult for survivors to open up and trust their spouses fully. Suspicion, insecurity, and fear can erode the foundation of relationships too over time.

Intimacy Problems:

Struggling with intimacy, both physical and emotional could be another long-term impact. They may find it challenging to engage in sexual activities or express their emotions to their partners, leading to feelings of detachment and dissatisfaction in relationships.

Flashbacks And Triggers:

Traumatic memories of the abuse could resurface unexpectedly, causing survivors to experience flashbacks and emotional triggers. These intense emotional responses can disrupt harmony and lead to misunderstandings and conflicts.

Low Self-Esteem:

Childhood sexual abuse could severely impact a survivor’s self-esteem and self-worth. This can manifest in self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, and an inability to believe that they deserve a loving, healthy relationship.

Communication Breakdown:

Survivors may struggle to communicate their feelings and needs to their partners. Fear of judgment or rejection can lead to communication breakdowns, making it difficult to resolve conflicts and maintain healthy relationships.

Through intensive therapy, psychosocial support, counselling and constant follow-ups, we saw Sarya grow into a more resilient and self-aware individual, equipped with coping skills to face life's challenges. Therapy offers hope for healing and rebuilding relationships. Group therapy can provide a supportive community, while one-on-one sessions can offer personalized support. Couples therapy can help partners navigate the challenges and rebuild trust. SNEHA’s counseling centre uses these approaches to support a survivor.

We deploy group therapy intervention to provide a safe and supportive environment for survivors to share their experiences and connect with others who have faced similar trauma. Through group therapy, survivors of violence can often realize that they are not alone in their struggles; learn coping strategies from others who have overcome similar challenges and develop a sense of belonging and support that can help rebuild trust.

Through individual therapy, survivors can explore their unique experiences and emotions in a private and confidential setting. It can help identify and process traumatic memories; develop strategies to manage triggers and flashbacks by regular CBT and relaxation therapy sessions; improve self-esteem and self-worth by activities like problem-solving, decision-making skill and address any underlying mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.

Couples therapy allows survivors to work on their intimacy and trust issues with their partner. A therapist or counselor can help both partners improve communication skills; rebuild trust and intimacy and navigate the challenges that arise from the effects of childhood sexual abuse with their partner.

Our experience at the counseling centre is evident that adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often try to repress memories as they do not want to remind themselves of the traumatic past. Encouraging them to share their experience, acknowledging what happened to them, allowing oneself to have empathy and compassion and knowing that they are not alone in this journey is a crucial part of the healing process. Breaking the silence around it can help gain the strength and ability to move towards a better life.

Often, child sexual abuse is spoken about from a very gendered-lens. An immediate impression is that women survivors need healing and support in their adulthood. What is often more stigmatised is men, young boys or people of various other genders who have experienced sexual violence in their childhood. In our experience, we see higher help-seeking behavior among girls and women when compared to other genders. It is important to provide a safe, trusting space for survivors which is inclusive to all genders. With the right therapeutic and counseling support, survivors can work toward healing, finding happiness, and creating healthier, more fulfilling lives.

We urge you to seek support, if you are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse dealing with unresolved conflict and emotions, reach out to our counselors on +91 91675 35765.