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  • Writer's pictureMarie McDonagh

Sexual Abuse; Healing is possible


If you have been sexually abused you are not alone. One out of three girls and one out of seven boys are abused by the time they reach 18 years old. Sexually abused children come from every race, religion and culture. They come from rich families and poor families. Abusers can be men or women, family members, friends, neighbours, teachers, priests, babysitters and strangers.

If you were abused, you are probably still dealing with the effects in your life today. You may be having trouble at school, in your job, with relationships and sex or in your family. You may feel bad about yourself or think something is wrong with you.

These problems and many others, can be connected to the abuse you experienced while you were growing up.

The most important thing for you to know if that I believe it is possible to heal from child sexual abuse. If you are willing to work hard and find good support, you can not only heal but thrive.

‘’Does my experience really count?’’:

As you think about your past, you may clearly remember what happened to you. But sometimes memories are fuzzy or unclear. Memories can also be blocked out completely as a way of coping with the pain.

Sometimes survivors think that what happened to them isn’t bad enough to qualify as abuse. They say things like; ‘’It wasn’t incest, he was just a friend or the family’’ or ‘’It only happened once’’ or ‘’It was only my brother and he was only a year old than me’’; but your pain still counts.

The important thing in defining the abuse is not the physical act that took place. It’s how you felt as a result as a child. An abuser used power to manipulate and control you. Your trust was shattered and the world stopped being safe. I witness this in my practice continuously as clients check out my therapy room weekly.

The survivor feels terrified, hurt, ashamed or confused.

Even abuse that isn’t physical can leave deep scars; Your father treated you like you were his wife instead of his daughter. Your uncle walked naked around the house making comments about your body. A mother can stick her hand in her daughter's underwear in 30 seconds. After that the world is not the same.

The Healing Process:

Healing begins when you recognise that you were abused.

The decision to heal from child abuse is a powerful, positive choice. It is commitment every survivor desire to make. Survivors decide to heal for many different reasons. Some say they were ‘’falling apart at the seams’’ or ‘’hitting rock bottom’’. Others are motivated by changes in their lives – a young woman finds herself unable to stay close to her boyfriend once they get married – a mother starts having terrible nightmares when her daughter reaches the age she was when the abuse began.

What is it like to change?: Once you decide to face your abuse, you probably want to get it over with as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, healing doesn’t work that way. Lasting change takes time. It’s always worth it to heal. But it is rarely easy. Deciding to heal can lead to serious conflicts with people you care about. You may find it hard to study, work, take care of your children or even make dinner. You may be unable to sleep, eat or simply stop crying. There will probably be times when you wonder if healing is worth the risk. Some clients say to me ‘’if I'd known anything could hurt this much or be this sad, I never would have decided to heal.’’ And at the same time, I tell them they can’t go back. You can’t un-remember. Other clients say ‘’taking that risk was the most promising choice I had’’. It is scary to face the unknown. But it is also a tremendous relief to stop running away from the pain.

The emergency stage: Many survivors go through a period when sexual abuse is all they think about. You talk about it to anyone who will listen. You think about it all day and all night. You can’t stop crying, and it is hard to function.

Surviving the emergency stage: The most important thing to remember about the emergency stage is that it will end. There will be a time when you will not be thinking about sexual abuse 24/7. Until then, your job is to take care of yourself and to keep yourself safe.

  • Don’t try to hurt or kill yourself; The abuser wins if you do. We can’t afford to lose you. You deserve to live.

  • Remind yourself you're not going crazy you're just going through a process of healing.

  • Find people you can talk too; Meet other survivors.

  • Allow yourself to think about the abuse as much as you need to.

  • Drop any responsibilities that aren’t essential.

  • Don’t use alcohol or drugs to numb the pain.

  • Get out of abusive situations; Call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1800 422 4453.

  • Sit tight and ride out the storm; This is not a good time to make big decisions.

  • Do something nice for yourself each day.

  • Talk to people who are farther along in their healing.

  • Develop if you can a spiritual belief that you are minded.

Panic: Panic is what you feel when your feelings seem out of control. You’re scared. Your heart is pounding. You can’t catch your breath. You want to run away. Panic attacks can be caused by triggers – things in the present that remind you of times you were terrified in the past. Trying to push a memory away can also cause a panic. Calm yourself down, do whatever works for you. When you feel scared, its often the hardest time to reach out, but do it anyway. Often saying out load ‘’I’m safe, they can’t hurt me anymore’’.

Remembering the abuse: Remembering the abuse out of the blue can make you feel crazy. Forgetting the abuse and then remembering it later is a survival tool that makes sense. You forget until its safe enough to remember. Your mind protects you. The fact that you’re remembering now means you’re ready to learn about history. Some people who are abused can rattle off the facts of their abuse like a grocery list, but remembering the fear and terror and pain was another matter entirely. The process of remembering is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Memories come back in bits and pieces. You may have flashbacks in which you relive experiences you had a child. You feel the terror you felt as a 6-year-old. Most of us expect memories to be visual. But they’re not always that way. In the beginning you won’t have control over when and how you remember. If you try and push the memories away, you may end up exhausted, plagued by headaches, panic attacks, or nightmares. It is best to just let the memories come through.

  • Find a place where you’ll be safe.

  • Call a friend for support.

  • Don’t fight it.

  • Remember it’s a memory; Your abuser is not really hurting you now, even if it feels that way. Reliving a memory is part of your healing. It is not more abuse.

  • Expect to have a response; It’s painful draining to remember. It may take you a while to recover.

  • Nurture yourself.

  • Tell at least one other person; You suffered alone as a child. You don’t have to do that again.

To heal you have to face the truth.

Written by:

Marie McDonagh,

Owner of Marie's Counselling & Supervision

Marie’s Counselling & Supervision


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