Scott Weiland, the lead singer of the Stone Temple Pilots, was found dead at 48 years old, on his tour bus from a mix of drugs and alcohol. The vocalist appeared to be self-medicating for numerous problems that he was facing. The question has to be asked: Why would someone with so much talent, fame, and wealth go through life self-medicating or trying to cover up or deal with his pain? The answer may surprise you. Many people suffer in silence. Weiland said, “When I was 12 years old and living in Ohio, a big muscular guy, a high school senior… (who) rode the bus with me every day to school…invited me to his house. The dude raped me. It was quick, not pleasant. I was too scared to tell anyone. (The abuser said), ‘Tell anyone, and you’ll never have another friend in this school. I’ll ruin your reputation.’”[i] Weiland added, “This is a memory I suppressed until only a few years ago when, in rehab, it came flooding back. Therapy will do that to you.”[ii]
Many victims of childhood sexual abuse have so much pain and anger that they have difficulty functioning in everyday life. Because the trauma is so deep and painful, many victims lash out in hate and rage as a result of those deep unhealed wounds. Trauma and traumatic experiences like this that happen in early childhood can affect all aspects of life and alter life forever. Many victims of sexual abuse suffer in silence for decades. Many experience shameful thoughts for the things that occurred, suicidal tendencies, and a feeling of blame or hopelessness that they may have been responsible or had something to do with what took place. Afterward, they attempt to come to grips with this emotional, mental and psychological trauma on their own, usually with poor results.
Children who have experienced sexual abuse throughout their lifetimes — much like Scott Weiland — try to avoid thinking about those traumatic memories in order to attempt to function in a normal way. Unfortunately, in all likelihood this will do more harm than good. Victims of sexual abuse have difficulties understanding that they are actually victims of sexual abuse, and that they have residual effects from that abuse. Scott Weiland, like many others, said that he was “scared” and he did not want to “tell anybody”, and tried to “suppress the memories until those memories came flooding back”. When that happens, it usually opens up a Pandora’s Box of psychological trauma for the victims of sexual abuse that they are unable to process. Many times victims are unsuccessful in trying to reconcile why the abuse happened to them, as well as how it is continuing to affect them. The traumatic event has tremendous effects on not only on one’s normal behavior, but also on one’s ability to function and interact with others in daily life. Many times the children of sexual abuse experience numerous emotions inclusive of fear, unbelief, fear of the abuser, rejection, no self-worth, or that their reputation would be ruined if it was disclosed that they were raped or sexually abused. People they fear, out of ignorance, may think they are gay or dysfunctional if abused by a member of the same sex. Many victims of sexual abuse go through all these stages in life without anyone knowing, understanding, caring or even helping. They suffer in silence.
Data supports these statements that many victims of rape and sexual abuse are hesitant to come forward for reasons of shame, embarrassment, and feeling as though they might not be believed by the police or even family members; therefore, they often wait years after the abuse has ended to come forward and tell their story.[iii] In many instances, they never come forward at all.
Unfortunately for victims of abuse, when they wait so long, sometimes for years or decades, it is very difficult for them to pursue any type of criminal prosecution or civil litigation against their abusers. Most states carry a very harsh statute of limitations rule that only allows claims two years or less from the date of the incident, assault or injury or be barred forever from making their claim. In very limited circumstances it can be expanded. This is unfortunate because the standard in the law for when a person knows or fully understands they were victims of sexual abuse begins to run when that person is abused, not when they become fully aware that they were abused.
For the courts to determine a victim knew and understood they were sexually abused along with its impact on them at such an early stage is harsh and wrong. In many instances victims do not understand what happened to them and are therefore less able to assert their legal rights for claims and injuries. It is hard to believe that the victims, in such a short time period, are able to process the traumatic events along with the traumatic effects that it has on their lives physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, until there is a significant amount of competent psychological or pastoral care and healing. Not only do victims go through the thoughts of not being believed or stereotyped, but many times– according to data on this issue — children that have been abused go through additional harmful phases. They go through a time of secrecy, where shortly after the assault or abuse happens, they are so traumatized by it, embarrassed by it that they choose to live in secrecy keeping this traumatic injury only to themselves not telling their parents, friends, teachers and the people closest to them.[iv]
Data on sexual abuse victims tells us that the trauma involved in sexual abuse is difficult to not only understand but also to process.[v] Children who have experienced sexual abuse throughout their life often fall into the trap of trying to repress their memories, deny their memories, and forget their memories in order to function in a normal way. Attempts to function in a normal way, as it relates to the trauma that they experienced, runs counter to normal healthy living. Many victims of sexual abuse are ill-equipped on their own to deal with these issues. They are afraid to come forward for fear of unbelief; that they are lying, and that they are manipulating and fearful of being rejected or abused again. In their minds they process that it is better to live and suffer in silence than to talk about it or face the realities and ramifications of the abuse.
Victims may never totally forget about the traumatic event or, as stated, they try to repress it; this may go on for years or decades. At the same time, they cannot understand why they are having functional problems with living a normal life.
Unfortunately, the law has done little to help victims of sexual abuse. In fact, the law is becoming more difficult for victims to not only obtain the proper relief, but also to pursue their abusers in court. There is no legal basis in the law or in the statutes for people to pursue the abusers for damages under what I believe is the proper conduit for victims of child sexual abuse. That proper diagnosis is post-traumatic stress syndrome, not mental insanity.
The term mental insanity has so many negative connotations, not only in the legal system but also to many victims that have suffered psychological trauma from being sexually abused. The term mental insanity suggests that the person or victim that is suffering a mental condition is somehow different then so-called normal people because they have a condition deemed socially unacceptable. They are stereotyped and this label can be very detrimental to the healing of victims of sexual abuse. Unlike many that have mental insanity, “which is a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis”[vi], in many cases these conditions are congenital passed down through generations; or because of a medical condition or imbalance not stemming from a traumatic event brought about through no fault of their own.
I actually believe that the law, as it stands now, perpetuates the traumatic injuries resulting from sexual abuse that are experienced by children and adults. Victims are thrown into the vague category of mental insanity. Trying to explain this to victims is very troubling. A more proper category that the law should embrace is post-traumatic stress syndrome. Under the law, we as counselors have to argue that victims of sexual abuse are mentally insane legally as the basis to toll the statute of limitations. We have to explain to the court, based upon medical evidence, documentation, treatment records, and through testimony that the mental condition is so significant that it renders the victim powerless and useless to come forward to assert their rights under the law. The reasoning is that they are so numbed mentally by the experience that they are rendered into an almost catatonic state much like mental insanity. As a result, they are not able to come forward and assert their rights within the two-year statute of limitation for victims of sexual assault. The difficulty is that in a way we have to manipulate the true diagnosis of the individual in order to fill a legal standard that in many instances affects the victim’s well-being.
When victims go through the elements of post-traumatic stress syndrome, often an even more complex diagnosis develops, being called post-traumatic stress syndrome delayed. The event and memory is delayed until it comes “flooding back.” In many cases, it involves a continual reoccurring of the event. The victims then experience this over and over, usually on a reoccurring basis. They try to avoid thoughts or stimuli and many times self-medicate in order to do so. Because of this we as lawyers are forced legally to codify these very significant and specific damaging effects into a broad category of mental insanity. It is unfortunate that the law is still so archaic in its approach to understanding the victims of sexual abuse. I, and others, are working to change the status of the law to repeal the statute of limitations as it relates to many of these victims so they can come forward and pursue their remedies in a court of law and also prosecute their wrong-doers, and perhaps even more importantly, educate the court system as to the true effects of abuse.
“The capacity of the mind to disassociate this may reduce the immediate pain and horror of the event, but it does so at a high cost. Studies now demonstrate that ‘people who enter a dissociative state at the time of the traumatic event are most likely to develop long-lasting PTSD.’”[vii] This is a very important aspect for many victims to deal with. When victims disassociate this may initially reduce the immediate pain of the event they went through, but I believe it is akin to a snowball coming down a very large hill collecting more snow. The snowball, although starting out small, grows in size and in devastation. When victims disassociate they do so initially in order to try to reduce the pain, but it begins a process of a harmful mental snowballing down a hill collecting more and more snow (mental conditions and effects of the trauma) before it ultimately leads to the absolute devastation of many of the victims we encounter.
In research about Vietnam War victims, they found similar residual effects; what is referred to as the Archetype dream. The Archetype dream is a very typical example of a certain person or thing, a recent symbol or motif or the original pattern or model of which all things of the same kind are based.[viii]
Both Vietnam veterans and victims of sexual abuse have suffered through a horrific act that this type of dream embodies. Both have flashbacks and mental pictures of the traumas that they experienced. The traumatic event is replayed numerous times and each time it is horrifying and painful to relive these events even long after they are done but still, appear real. This disrupts sleep patterns and forces the victims, whether resting or awake, to experience trauma over and over.
Many victims of sexual abuse undergo these same responses. They have flashbacks, and are continuously brought back in time to the event of the abuse. This can happen at any time, for any reason. I’m reminded of one young man that I was representing. He had been sexually abused as a young boy by the local parish priest. This occurred when he was 10 to 12 years old. Fast forward 30 years later, without thinking about possible mental consequences, he went to a wedding at that same church where he was abused. The priest had long ago died but when he went into the church he started to experience tremendous anxiety, cold sweats, and fear. He experienced a flashback for the first time in his life. He had been abused in the balcony of this church. He remembered this and saw the mental picture and said to me, “it felt like I was abused again.” We must be able to bring support in the form of healing and representation for victims of sexual abuse, but without becoming so enveloped by it that we become personally involved.
This raises a significant issue for anyone involved in pastoral care, counseling or legal representation that we need to consider when dealing with victims of sexual abuse or trauma. And that is to what extent to we become emotionally involved. What is the line between being helpful or hurtful – to the victim and yourself? This, at times, is a very fine line and difficult to do. We learned from the interactions in the book, A Shining Affliction, that healing can take place in both parties, victim and counselor. We all experience injury, hurt, and rejection in our lives but we must be able to not become so personally invested that we are rendered ineffective in bringing healing. This has happened to me in my years of practice, but now I am more cognitive of this issue.
There are several areas of law that intersect with victims of sexual abuse in being able to find healing and closure. The general areas that need to be addressed are:
Does the law fairly and accurately understand the significant effects victims of sexual abuse have been through?
These conditions and effects that victims of sexual abuse go through are potentially devastating when left untreated. The Courts must take seriously their obligation to care and treat those victims of any trauma or abuse with love, care and understanding.
Without a doubt, sexual abuse has significant effects on its victims. Many victims live in silence and keep the abuse secret all their lives. Not only do practitioners in pastoral care, counseling and the legal system need to understand its significant effects; but more importantly, bring healing when possible. They may keep it silent, but it still has tremendous physical and psychological effects on the well-being of the victim. The court system and the legislature must expand the protection afforded to victims of sexual abuse not only to allow healing and closure, but to seek justice for their harm.
Let us remember so that the multitudes of victims will no longer have and continue to “suffer in silence”.
[i] Goodman, William. “Scott Weiland on Rape, Heroin, and Courtney Love | SPIN.” Spin. SpinMediaGroup, 17 May 2011. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.
[iii] “Raising Awareness About Sexual Abuse.” NSOPW. The United States Department of Justice, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2016. <http://www.nsopw.gov/en-US/Education/FactsStatistics?AspxAutoDectedCookieSupport=1>
[iv] Summit, Roland, C. M.D., “The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome.”, Child Abuse & Neglect, Vol. 7, p 5
[v] Summit, Roland, C. M.D., “The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome.”, Child Abuse & Neglect, Vol. 7
[vi] “Mental Health Conditions.” NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. <https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions>.
[vii] Hunsinger, D. V. D. “Bearing the Unbearable: Trauma, Gospel and Pastoral Care.” Theology Today 68.1 (2011): 8-25. Print. pg. 13 (internal citations omitted)