Friday, October 19, 2012

Dissertation on shame. Chapter 15.8 Losing oneself

15.8 Losing oneself

Being sexually abused often causes that one becomes something else after the abuse, a victim. What one was before the abuse is lost, one looses oneself. Everything becomes different after the abuse. Ones self image is distorted, ones self esteem is injured, trust in others is wrecked. Nothing is the same. Being a victim is all of the sudden a new identify one must learn to live with. Ruth, Gunhild, Helga and Nina all talk about being different; of having lost themselves so that they have to learn the new role of being a victim and being different.

Ruth_1:           I believe that it builds up over time. That’s at least my opinion. But of course one episode of abuse can be enough to create shame or be an act where shame arises (.) But usually it takes time, as the child travels out into the world and understands that others don’t have the same experience as they have, umm that there must be something wrong with them. What is it? Am I so ugly and awful that I deserve this? Umm shame evolves in a way over time to become profound and at the same time it is related to the offensive acts which make the child feel so different…Different from others. Yeah umm there has to be something wrong with me since I’m experiencing this… It’s in the meeting with others, a meeting of some sort that makes us see things differently, or experience things the way we do. That’s when shame appears.

Gunhild:         I’ve often experienced that umm (.) I’ve felt that I’m different because umm I’ve experienced (.) the things I have, a lot of anger and a lot of hate. And I’ve thought in a way why I am like this? I’ve less contact with my family, but everything’s the same with my friends ((Looks down at the floor)). That’s been something that hurts, when friends have their own children and families. The contact changes a little. And I’m left standing there as the one who is different ((Laughs))
Helga:             ((Looks down)) It’s me there’s something wrong with. I’m not normal.
Nina:                           It’s about stigmatization, that you all of a sudden have a different role to play.

In one moment one feels like everyone else, and after the abuse reality has changed; one is different from everyone else. Feeling stigmatized and suddenly in a new role. Helga looks down when she says that it’s her there’s something wrong with and that she’s not normal, which might indicate a non-verbal marker of shame (appendix 20). Gunhild also looks down when she says that it hurts to be different.

Shame has in my opinion to do with consciousness, being aware of being different, of having been abused, and of being a victim. As long as this consciousness is absent, shame has not yet disclosed itself. Some children can live in an abusive relationship for several years, not knowing that the relationship is abusive, thinking that this is normal and might even receive recognition from a trusting adult. First when the child realizes that something is wrong, that other friends do not experience the same things, that someone defines the relationship as wrong and abusive, does shame seem to arise and reality is changed. Linda speaks of an eight year-old girl who could meet her abusive grandfather’s gaze when they met and seeming to have no problem having an abusive relationship with him. But when the abuse was disclosed, everything changed.  When the abuse was make known, the consciousness of shame took over. 

Linda:             There is especially one girl that has taught me a whole lot about shame. She was only eight years old. It was a couple of years ago, (.) maybe three or four years ago, she taught me a lot about shame. (  ) She had told a friend what had happened to her, and this friend had told her teacher. This teacher had been to some meeting about abuse and knew what to do (  ). The first time the girl was here I asked if she had been abused. She answered that she didn’t know. “Well neither do I,” I answered, “so can you tell me why you’re here”. The teacher had told me that it had to do with her grandfather. So she told me a little bit about what he had done. I told her that since this was umm something that was happening now that it was important to have a talk with her grandfather so that he would stop doing it. But no, she wouldn’t allow us to speak to him because then she wouldn’t be able to see him anymore. So I asked her what her weekend would be like. What would it be like to meet him the following weekend? Umm she said that would not be a problem. “Why’s that not a problem?” I asked. “Well because he doesn’t know, or he doesn’t know that I realize what’s going on. (.) When he does something, I pretend that I don’t know what’s going on.” That’s how she survived. And if I had talked to him about the abuse, then he would’ve understood that she knew and then she wouldn’t have been able to look him in the eyes again. Then she would have felt ashamed. And this was a little eight year-old girl…Shame has to do with consciousness.
Kaare:             Shame has to do with consciousness?
Linda:             Yeah. When her abuser understood that the girl also understood what he was doing to her, then everything was exposed, and that meant that she couldn’t behave the same way as she had done when she was with him…She functioned quite well as long as nobody knew about it. She had to have full control of everything (.). She was only eight years old!

This eight year-old girl functioned seemingly normal and had full control until the sexual abuse was exposed. Everything changes and she loses herself and control over everything. This story makes one wonder if it is possible to disclose sexual abuse in such a manner that the child involved is able to feel in control, and not losing oneself but rather taking oneself back again? Is shame always unavoidable in the disclosure of sexual abuse? Can the feeling of shame (as losing oneself) be exchanged with the feeling of pride (as taking oneself back) when sexual abuse is disclosed?  These are important questions to reflect upon for all those who are in a position of disclosing and defining sexual abuse, child care workers, and police investigators in sexual abuse cases, psychologists, teachers, and so forth. In my opinion, being concerned with these questions when disclosing sexual abuse might prevent many of the damaging consequences of losing oneself and being victimized. How this can be done in practice by the authorities mentioned above is not the subject of this dissertation, but the manner in which the Incest Center in Vestfold works face-to-face with sexual abuse could in my opinion be seen as an exemplary model for others to follow.

The feeling of shame seems to often result in resignation, giving up the struggle for recognition. One has lost oneself, become something else, and one confirms ones new identity. Helga and Nina are not only conscious of their shame but they show an underlying lack of will to change by concluding that “that’s who I am”.

Helga:             I’m ashamed of receiving disability benefits. All kinds of benefits are shameful…I feel ashamed of being disabled and not being able to contribute to the community. I think a lot about that. That’s who I am.

Nina:               I remember feeling ashamed of my mother because she was so stupid. ((Laughs)) I just thought God ((Laughs)) but at the same time it’s just ((Lifts her right hand and pinches her thumb and index finger together)) on the surface. It’s not worth bothering about. My teenage years were horrible; they destroyed my self-image completely. I was mainly ashamed of myself. That I was so (.) ugly and could not speak to anyone, and was completely ((Shakes her head)) useless in every way. (.) But I didn’t feel any guilt. I don’t know. Maybe, but I felt in a way that it wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t do anything about it. That’s just the way I was. ((Laughs))

Both Helga and Nina give examples here of a feeling of losing oneself which is not related to sexual abuse. Helga is not certain if she has been sexually abused. She is in a rehabilitation program, receiving disability benefits. Receiving such benefits can be experienced as stigmatizing, being excluded and not being able to contribute to the community. This is also a way of losing oneself and having to create a new identity as disabled. Nina is the only participant who is certain that she has no personal experience which sexual abuse, neither towards herself nor towards her family. Still she says that her teenage years destroyed her self-image. First because of the shame she felt towards her mother but mainly because she felt herself so ugly that she couldn’t speak to anyone. Her positive self-image from childhood years becomes lost and is replaced by a destroyed self, characterized by being hideous, evasive, and worthless. This is a reminder that all those feeling stigmatized, excluded, hideous, evasive or worthless are not necessary victims of sexual abuse. Many circumstances in life may be experienced as offensive, insulting, horrible, or victimizing without having anything to do with sexual abuse. Still, the result of losing oneself, feeling shameful, excluded, disrespected, may be the same.

Linda, who remembers being raped by her father for the first time as a five year old, connects her shame to the whole body. Her shame is completely devastating.

Linda_1:         You’re ashamed of yourself for umm (.) things that have happened. You’re ashamed over yourself, and the things that have been done to your body. That’s when your body is shameful (.) that means that your whole body is shameful.

This is a different kind of shame than Nina above feels towards her mother who she describes as stupid. Being ashamed of something or someone else is not as destructive as being ashamed of oneself, a shame which has become embodied. Linda explains further how her shame created a feeling of guilt in her when she disclosed the fact that she had been sexually abused as a child to her husband. She felt that she had not been honest to him throughout their marriage and that everything she was doing just made things worse.

Linda:             What I can say about shame has to do with the time when I was a psychiatric patient. My husband came to visit me. He was told then for the first time that I had been sexually abused as a child. I didn’t dare look him in the eyes after that. He had to bring along the kids. It was in the springtime (  ) It took months before I could sit in the car. I just stared at the tips of my shoes all the time. I was really ashamed. Or I was ashamed of ruining his life. That he had been married with me without knowing that I was so filthy. I was really ashamed because I felt guilty about having spoiled his life. My shame came when the abuse wasn’t a secret anymore. Before I told anyone about what had happened, I had had a kind of life. I could have sex with my husband; I had a good time, played handball, and was enthusiastic about sports. Everyone thought I was all right. But as soon as I revealed this, I suddenly became a completely different person. I couldn’t have sex with my husband anymore for a whole year because of my feelings of guilt. Everything I did simply made things worse and worse.

Linda was victimized as a child by her father, several of his friends and her brother. Instead of developing massive physical and psychological symptoms of sexual abuse, she continued live a relatively ordinary life, although with intoxication problems. She married, had children and continued to live a life in accordance with who she believed she was. This functioned until she started to understand that all the things her father, his friends, and her brother had done to her, was sexual abuse. This resulted in her opinion in a serious psychosis and treatment in a hospital was necessary. Having kept all this hidden from her husband gave her a feeling of guilt and this is the first time she is aware of her shame. Feeling guilt makes her realize who she really is; one who has lied to her husband and ruining his life. Her real self became suddenly revealed for her and she became a completely different person; a victim of sexual abuse.

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