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PTSD in Adult Female Sexual Abuse Survivors

27 November, 2011

Train wrecks, car crashes and earthquakes; one can tell how serious any of these is by the amount of damage done.  The same holds true for child abuse, particularly the sexual abuse of girls, the sequelae of which are dramatic and predictable. If you Google the words “Ellenson hallucinations” you’ll find links to three papers I wrote on the subject along with a plethora of citations and references to those papers and the findings they reported.  I’m not horn tooting but pointing out that the findings have been confirmed in any number of publications and that those findings were such that there’s hardly a book or clinical paper on the topic of childhood abuse sequelae that does not refer to that original research. The psychological destruction of childhood sexual abuse is so terrible, and so universal in its specifics, that both the destruction and the specifics alone have any number of implications for diagnosis and treatment.

When I was in graduate school, one of the prevailing theories about the genesis of schizophrenia contended that children could be set up to become schizophrenic simply by how one talked to them (the “double bind” hypothesis).  It didn’t take long, after actually working in a mental health setting, to come to the conclusion that the ideas about schizophrenia themselves bordered on the psychotic.  How could it be that a child could be serially beaten and raped and yet, though having perhaps serious problems as adults (some of which included symptoms previously thought only to apply to psychoses) not in fact be psychotic while simply talking to someone in a whacky way could plunge them into a lifelong, incurable, devastating psychiatric illness?

It’s politically incorrect to say (and I’m sure I’ll be taken to task for doing so), but, to be sure, families in which schizophrenia arises do in fact both behave and communicate in odd ways.  The research of Dr. Murray Bowen, among others, certainly confirmed that.  Instead of throwing around psychobabble and accepting prevailing views of schizophrenia and “schizophrenigenic” families, he took the novel approach of having entire nuclear family units studied in an inpatient setting. Researchers were specifically directed to avoid any psychobabble and simply follow people around with clipboards, recording their behaviors.  It perhaps wasn’t a surprise that the behaviors frequently observed in such families became suspect, though Bowen, to his credit, did not blame the oddities for the schizophrenia. Of course, over time, ideas about the genesis of schizophrenia came under scrutiny from an angle entirely different from the train wreck perspective and it became clear that the illness was basically genetic in its origins, though environmental and other factors have been suspected as adding to the probability of its development as well.

I should note that the families and loved ones of persons with schizophrenia had reason to be outraged at the vituperation, and its related guilt, heaped upon them. Great things came of the birth of such organizations as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI).  I recall seeing in the social work library at U.S.C. a book with the ridiculously accusative title of “Schizophrenia: Soul Murder in the Family“. Even so, I’ll stick by my guns that there are indeed factors in the behavior of persons with schizophrenia that are as much linked to their family’s oddities as they are to the illness itself.  That’s not to diminish those families at all.  It actually humanizes them in acknowledging how the personalities of persons with schizoprenia are as much forged in the crucible of the family as are anyone else’s.

I’m digressing here because the indictment of psychiatry and its dogmatic clinging to whatever its practitioners were (and are) taught as being gospel is no less condemning for sexual abuse survivors than it was for schizophrenia. If one comes across derailed train cars which appear remarkably mangled there really are only two conclusions to be drawn: Either they were designed by Salvador Dali (genetic) or they suffered some devastating collision.

In these posts I have more to say about the damage to sexual abuse survivors.  As a whistle-wetter, let me ask this:  If male soldiers who have hallucinations, unstable affect and myriad psychological and social problems are readily identified as having PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), why is it that women sexually abused as children are instead tagged with nasty psychiatric labels such as borderline personality disorder? It’s rampant, sexist, inexcusable, ignorant, dogma-driven nonsense that I call “the psychiatrizing”* of female sexual abuse survivors.”


* Please forgive me my neologism and for engaging in one of the most pernicious practices destroying our language, the turning of nouns into verbs, but I couldn’t think of a better way to express the sexist process of labeling female sexual abuse survivors as nuts while cutting slack for males who, however horrible their experiences, at least were not brutalized as children with few coping mechanisms and nothing in the way of support groups.

More recent nonsense from medical psychiatry includes “diagnosing” children as having bipolar disorders and “diagnosing” elderly people struggling with the loss of independence as having an “oppositional defiant disorder”.

  1. redhester permalink

    Dear sir,
    I found your page and just wanted to leave you with a blessing. I am a csa survivor and have found great healing through shamatha meditation. This form of meditation aligned my mind and body to enable recovery of memories. Because my mind was stabilized and clarified by shamatha meditation I was able to finally sever ties with my abusers and create a powerful wonderful life for myself. I am happiest beyond even my wildest dreams. So I found your page at the perfect time; relatively early in my healing journey, when i am safe but still processing the reality of what was done to me. It’s a rich place and having your words helps me to understand the knowing already inside me.

    So this is a blessing for your long and happy life. May you know good food, uplifted companionship, and safety. Bless you dear sir. Bless you for each second of each day you have remaining.

    Bless you.

    • Thank you very much for your comment, and for taking the time to leave it. One thing I do not think I have touched on is spirituality. What we noticed in group therapy was that those who did the best eventually came to a point where spirituality was adopted. Others who did not do so seemed to hit a plateau in recovery. Though that’s not to say they did not experience significant healing, those who adopted spirituality rose a step above. The dominant type of spirituality being Christianity, it was the most common. However, there were those who found other spiritual paths that were equally helpful.

      Godspeed on your journey. It takes courage as strong as that in combat soldiers to face the past, and you clearly possess such courage.


  2. lindsey permalink

    This was really good for me to read. I’ve known that i guess my issues as from my past but it didn’t occur to think of it as ptsd. Thank you for all the posts, trying to figure things out still probably for the rest of my life i guess.

    • I am glad you found this blog, Lindsey. Hopefully you now know that you’re not having ‘issues’ but, rather, a normal response to trauma. PTSD doesn’t have to be completely overcome. In fact, some aspects of it can be somewhat helpful in life. For instance: People get up every morning and drive to work with, likely, little or no thought that they could die or be terribly maimed in the process. They ‘delude’ themselves into thinking that won’t happen — that it’s a safe world. You, and other survivors, know it’s not a safe world. In that sense, you’ve lost a common craziness that others have. A little bit of progress on the more troublesome symptoms of PTSD can make a world of difference in everyday life.

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