Childhood Abuse Causing Adult Distress?

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

I live in the UK. I constantly feel low and i have very little self-esteem. I suffered from sexual abuse as a child (3-5 ish) and i went to play therapy as a child but have not been to any type of counselling as an adult. my mum had a nervous breakdown when she found out about it and as a result her parenting to my older brothers was bad and resulted in them mixing with the wrong people and are both now heroin addicts and alcoholics. they blame my mum and i blame myself….if i had just kept it a secret they wouldn’t be that way now!
now that i am older i don’t really remember much from that time in my life except when i sometimes dream and then i dont know if what i am dreaming is real or just my imagination. i cant talk to my parents about that time in my life.
i used to be a really happy person, always up for having a laugh, going out with friends but now i feel like even when i smile its fake. i feel unhappy and like i have no friends any more. i feel lonely. i don’t even like the thought of being around people even when i am invited to do things i constantly come up with excuses not to go. i have pushed away people who i once considered good friends but the thought of doing anything about it frightens me.
if i hear about child abuse cases on the news i get really emotional and irritable with people and spend days/weeks thinking about what happened to me and getting frustrated because i cant remember all the details. i have trouble sleeping as well and usually get about 4-5 hours unsettled sleep a night. i sometimes have the urge to cut but always stop myself doing it. i think about what my family would say and realize how hard it would be to hide it, especially with my job.
i recently told a work friend about some of my childhood and she asked me why i work with children if that happened to me and now i feel like i would be judged for working with children if something is wrong. it made me question if i would ever be a danger to children or if that’s what people will think. i love kids and the thought of anything happening to the children i look after makes my stomach turn. i like my job but i don’t love it like i used too.
also someone who i work with who is a counsellor said she watched me have an anxiety attack when i was asked to do something i haven’t done before. i got really flushed and sweaty and my breathing went irregular. this does happen if im in a new or unfamiliar situation.
There is so much more i could talk about but im not sure how to put it into words. i dont know how to talk to a doctor about all this without feeling really silly and like im wasting their time.

A: First, and very important, the path your brothers have chosen is not, not, not your fault. Like many people who are troubled, your brothers cast about for someone to blame rather than take responsibility for their own choices. No one is “making” them be addicts. If they want to get sober, there are programs that can help them. Blaming doesn’t do a thing.

At least some of your distress may be because you aren’t getting enough regular, restorative sleep. Sleeplessness contributes to anxiety which contributes to not being able to sleep. You need help breaking that cycle. Please see about getting some coaching or do some reading about how to establish better sleep.

As for your concerns about working with children: I can’t think of anyone better. You know personally what it feels like to be abused, blamed, and upset as a child. My guess is that you are acutely sensitive to when one of the children in your charge is distressed. Once you get a better handle on how to deal with the echoes of your own experience, you will be in a unique position to be helpful to them.

That being said: Therapy often happens in “chapters.” You had some play therapy as a child that may have helped you deal with the immediate situation. Now that you are older, you are rethinking those events from the perspective of an adult. I suggest it’s time for another chapter of therapeutic work. You are spinning with self-blame and anxiety. A therapist can help you find a way to come to terms with what happened and move on. Do make an appointment soon. You deserve to have a happy adult life.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Mar 2013

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2013). Childhood Abuse Causing Adult Distress?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 21, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2013/03/01/childhood-abuse-causing-adult-distress/