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27 November, 2011


There are a number of specific symptoms suffered by female childhood sexual abuse survivors, hereafter referred to as survivors.  Collectively, those symptoms constitute a syndrome unique to survivors which, as Little Abner used to say “… as any fool can plainly see,” can only be post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of those symptoms are horrific, which may be why psychiatry, impressed with the dramatic nature of the symptoms, is inclined to view as indicative of disorders with nastier names ranging from borderline personality disorder to one of the schizophrenic disorders.

This particular post will start with (though I hesitate to characterize them that way) among the least dramatic symptoms.  Once they are described, one might wonder why I’d consider them less dramatic than other symptoms, since they are indeed dramatic.  Why that is will become clear in other posts. It isn’t just that survivors have nightmares; they have very specific nightmares that occur rarely, if at all, among other women.  Like all of the other symptoms in the PTSD syndrome, what’s amazing is that they are universal and independent of culture or nationality.  One survivor I worked with, for instance, was born and suffered abuse in a remote jungle area of South America … about as removed from what one might consider mainstream American culture as can be.  Her symptoms were the same as another survivor from China and the Americans in her therapy group. Believers in Jung’s collective unconscious would have a field day if they immersed themselves in the study of nothing more than this one syndrome.  In fact, as we delve further into other symptoms, we’ll see why such images as the black-clad Dracula hovering over a victim-to-be, or the horror of the character Marion Crane in Psycho as Norman Bates corners her in the shower, are uber-horrific … compelling beyond their more universal portrayal of horror.


Nightmares about dangerous waters are remarkably common among survivors.  Perhaps the single most common nightmares involve tsunamis (tidal waves) approaching and looming over the survivor.  If she has children, likely a child will be at her side as the monster wall of water threatens to crush and carry away both of them.  One survivor close to me, to this day and approaching the age of 60, cannot look at such waves in movies.  I’ll spend more time on the psychodynamics behind all of the symptoms later on, but suffice it to say at this time that the enormous wall of water is symbolic of the equally powerful emotions that threaten the survivor … and perhaps any children as well.  There is a variant of this dangerous water nightmare that involves massive floods, but those fit perhaps better under another category of nightmares; devastating catastrophes.  It is common for survivors to develop phobias about water, particularly tsunamis (“tidal waves”), being unable to look at them when they appear in movies, and other water phobias.


These nightmares involve mass devastation.  In such nightmares a survivor may find herself wandering through a massive battlefield strewn with dead bodies, or a world on fire where everything in sight is burning and enveloped in a shroud of smoke.  The dreamer is usually the sole survivor.  The devastation is representative of the survivor’s rage.  In these nightmares, and many other symptoms, two powerful emotions lurk; horror and rage.  Terrified of their own rage, the survivor tends to disown the rage, experiencing it as some malevolent external force, while attributing the horror to the self.


In these terrifying dreams, the survivor is pursued by a beastly, homicidal creature.  While the creature may be human, it is usually some kind of monster or beast.  The nightmare usually ends in abrupt awakening, just as the survivor is about to be slaughtered.  Again, the horror is kept in the self while the malevolent rage is externalized … recreated in the form of the dangerous beast that threatens to destroy the survivor.  Sometimes the survivor is killed in the dreams, which in some respects are like the nightmares of bloody violence.  On occasion, as treatment progresses, survivors turn on the monsters chasing them and kill them. Is that a great dream or what?


In one recurring nightmare reported by a survivor, she opens a closet and a bloody baby with a hatchet in its head falls out.  These nightmares, similar to catastrophe dreams, involve scenes of bloody violence.  The difference is that the scenes are not of the aftermath of devastation but, rather, the acts themselves.


If survivors had no other symptoms than these nightmares, their lives would be miserable enough.  Parenthetically, if nightmares were their only symptoms, psychiatry might engage in less psychiatric name-calling and perhaps more readily recognize that PTSD is at work.  That would assume, of course, that the etiology of the dreams was at all recognized.

In another post I’ll talk about the hallucinations of sexual abuse survivors.  From a compassionate perspective, they are impressive in their capacity to terrify survivors.  From a clinical perspective, they are nothing short of fascinating and have radical theoretical and diagnostic implications.  Here are people who, carefully and objectively assessed, have not a psychotic bone in their bodies and yet suffer symptoms considered indicative of psychosis; one reason psychiatry tends to wander off from any consideration of PTSD and begin nasty psychiatric name calling.

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    • Gerry Ellenson permalink

      Thanks for the feedback, Georgia. I’m glad you found the posts worth reading.

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