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When Abuse Becomes Denial

“The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.” — James Baldwin

I used to think that abuse victims who lived in denial of their situations had to know they were in denial. Who could possibly ignore what’s happening to them? Who could just pretend that nothing’s wrong year after year? From the battered wife who claims “he’s a changed man” to the alcoholic who doesn’t “have a problem,” I thought they had made a concerted effort to ignore reality. And then my own reality hit me.

I lived in denial of the child abuse I suffered for most of my lift, until I decided to seek help. Now I have a new respect for denial. Now I know that reality can be so distorted that we can never get to the truth. Reality can be walled in on all sides with every kind of defense and faulty thought pattern imaginable.

“The lengths to which children go to distort their perceptions are striking,” wrote Ellen Bass and Laura Davis in their book The Courage to Heal.

When you suffer at the hands of people who are supposed to care for you the most, it’s impossible to face the truth. You aren’t capable of standing up one day and saying, “Right, you’ve molested me for the last time,” then walk out. You are a child. You have little knowledge and even less power. Logically you decide to re-frame the situation so that it is “livable.”

For me this translated to hating myself as much as my abuser seemed to hate me. I hated myself for being abused. For that reason I kept it a secret. I didn’t tell other kids what it was like. I never talked about inappropriate or forceful touching.

When I became an adult, I still lived in denial about what happened to me. When I thought about my childhood, I didn’t pay too much attention to my feelings. I didn’t wonder why so much of it was full of disgust, anger, helplessness, and depression. I didn’t wonder how I could feel so certain that I was worthless when I was just 10 years old, or why I first attempted suicide at age 12.

I remember telling my husband I was afraid to have children. After thinking about it for a long time, I decided it was because I couldn’t imagine they could ever be happy. It was as if childhood itself was just an inherently dark and difficult time, and I didn’t want to subject a child to that. I couldn’t conjure up a single moment in my childhood in which the shadow of menace wasn’t looming over me. It wasn’t until I began asking “Why?” that my healing work began.

Working with a therapist, I started poring over memories I never shared with anyone before and labeling them accurately as wholly inappropriate. I finally asked myself if I could ever imagine doing those things to another person. The answer was an easy no. There I met the truth. It was unwieldy and unpleasant, but it was real and it honored the feelings I had as a child.

I was just a helpless little girl then, but learning to face the truth has made that girl powerful. Now there is no grey area when it comes to my trauma history. Abuse and not abuse are as absolute as day and night. There is no excuse for any of the things that happened to me. They are simply wrong.

On the path to healing, I learned to place the blame squarely on my abuser. I’ve learned that there is nothing I did or could have done to deserve that abuse. I did what I had to do to make it through those abusive years and in some ways that’s impressive. But now the time for denial is over.

Sad child photo available from Shutterstock

When Abuse Becomes Denial

Sarah Newman, MA, MFA

Sarah Newman is the managing editor and associate publisher of PsychCentral and the founding editor-in-chief of the Poydras Review. She is also the cohost of the podcast Excuse Me, I Have Concerns where she discusses personal boundaries, personality and other psychology topics.


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APA Reference
Newman, S. (2018). When Abuse Becomes Denial. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 19, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/when-abuse-becomes-denial/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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