Telling Our Deepest Truths: The Link Between Sexual Abuse and Addiction

It was a bleary Tuesday afternoon and I sat awkwardly in a metal folding chair, trying not to squirm. There were six other folding chairs placed in a semi-circle beside me, filled with other women who looked at least as uncomfortable as I was. A woman with strawberry blonde hair, graying at the temples, and wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches entered the room. She welcomed us to what felt like a sad sewing circle: the Tuesday Trauma Group. Kathryn, the group leader—a licensed social worker with an emphasis in trauma therapy—began by asking the group, “How many of you would say that you experienced childhood trauma?” What an odd question, I thought. Isn’t that why we’re here? Every hand rose. “Now,” she said. “How many of you are here in part because that trauma included childhood sexual abuse?” I thought this was an uncomfortable means of inquisition, but I vaguely raised my hand. When I glanced to my left, all but one other woman had raised a hand as well. It seemed a lot. “And how many of you would say you’ve struggled with addiction in your lives?” Again, all but one raised her hand—this time, a different woman. It took a while before I became comfortable sharing my stories with others—I’d been conditioned to hide them for too long, even from myself—but I learned that opening up to the truth wouldn’t be the Pandora’s box experience I’d feared; it would be a liberation. It took years, and truths poured out slowly, but as they came, I healed, and I witnessed others heal the same way. It happened like this: Truth: I was sexually abused as a child, but that’s not the whole story. Truth: My mother accepted drugs and money in exchange for me, but that’s not the whole story. Truth: My mother was one of my sexual abusers. Truth: I was using drugs and alcohol and sex—and was binging and purging—before I was grown. I needed to forget the truth. It took me years to learn another way. To remember what I’d never truly forgotten and find a way to write my truths differently—not to change the past, but to change the present. The future.

Addiction and Childhood Sexual Assault

The fact that I’d experienced childhood trauma marked by sexual abuse and had entered a life, even a functional one, riddled with addiction did not make me unique. It turns out that a staggering number of women experience similar realities. According to the American Journal on Addictions, 75 percent of women who enter treatment programs report having experienced sexual abuse. And according to the Journal of Traumatic Stress, an alarming 90 percent of women who become dependent on alcohol “suffered severe violence at the hands of a parent” or “were sexually abused during childhood.” And there is not only a strong correlation between childhood sexual abuse and addiction, but one exists between later incidences of sexual assault and addiction as well.

The Revolving Door

Sadly, the statistics flow in both directions. Women who have experienced childhood sexual abuse or who experience incidents of sexual assault and rape in adulthood stand a strong likelihood of encountering problems with addiction, suggesting that abuse and assault may lead women toward addictive behaviors in a search to dampen their pain. But it is also true that addicted women—particularly those with substance use disorders—stand a higher likelihood of finding themselves at risk for sexual assault. “For illicit drug use, findings support a vicious cycle relationship in which substance use increases risk of future assault and assault increases risk of subsequent substance use.” And on and on it goes. This is not meant as victim-blaming, and the research should be well considered. Women addicted to drugs and alcohol don’t find themselves more likely to become victims of sexual assault merely because they are “doing bad things” and “get what they asked for/deserve.” A deeper look into the lives of such women should be taken, as well as an understanding of the nature of addiction and the desperate hold it places on individuals who suffer from it. Women and girls have long been vulnerable to crimes of sexual abuse, though men and boys are certainly victims of these crimes, too. Although we do not have the power to change our pasts, we can find the power to alter our futures. What happened to us then does not have to dictate what happens to us now; we can heal ourselves in a way the illusory tincture of alcohol or drugs never could. That healing often begins in finding, and telling, our deepest truths. I was abused. and My name is _______, and I am an addict.

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