Abused Without Being "Abused"

I have a long history that I will try to sum up briefly. I have a somewhat neglectful childhood, but nothing that seems bad enough to have really contributed to my problems. Mostly my dad used to just get mad and give me and my brother's the silent treatment for months. He wouldn't even respond to direct questions from us. He would mumble insults about us when he walked (or stumbled) by, but otherwise he wouldn't interact with us at all. Since my dad was an alcoholic my mom used to go out 4-6 nights a week just to get away. They didn't set or enforce any rules. If I came home drunk or high they pretended not to notice. If I skipped school, got suspended, ran away or whatever they just refused to acknowledge it. My older brother took care of us, but he was cruel and mean. He would sometimes hurt us, sometimes encourage sort of sexual activity between me and my younger brother, and sometimes get us high on drugs just to laugh at us. The sexual thing was weird... like he would tell my younger brother to stick something in me. I am not sure he meant it to be sexual or if it was just a way to humiliate me and amuse himself. Not to even mention reading our diaries, invading our privacy, and generally just trying to humiliate us as much as possible. I know he was young (only 5 years older than me), and he didn't ask for the responsibility he was given for taking care of us. But I viewed him as an authority figure and somehow the humiliation and insults seemed to hurt as much as if they were from a parent. This was when I was like for 3 years when I was 7-10 and my brother was 4-7. I am so embarrassed to to talk about it in therapy. I am a severe drug addict. So many people that I hang out with were beaten or sexually abused as children. I wasn't. My parents provided necessities like food and clothing. When I was an adolescent my dad would comment on my breasts and body, but he never sexually or physically abused me. I don't have any excuse to be as "screwed up" as I am. I know my childhood was okay even if it wasn't great, but I can't stop being angry at my parents. Especially since they didn't help me when I started having behavioral problems. By the time I was 10 I had told them I was suicidal, I was cutting, using drugs, and being seriously violent with other children and aggressive towards adults. I am still very angry that they didn't seek help or therapy for me or try to help me or even acknowledge my problems. If I didn't deny what was going they just told me that "decent people don't say such things." I am 30 years old now. I have been in therapy for a couple of years and I still can't tell my therapist about what happened. I don't know if I have the right to be angry or if I am just focusing on the negatives. I don't know if I am just overreacting. I am not sure if I am more afraid that he will validate my anger or afraid that he won't validate it. I am very close and protective of my parents. If he validates the way I feel then I would have to defend my parents. If he doesn't validate it then I will feel ashamed and like it is my fault. Maybe my parents were good enough and I just needed too much. Maybe I just perceived things in some way that way that was completely screwed up. My inability to address these issues is starting to create a problem with therapy. We both agree that I need to address these feelings and issues to move forward and continue to heal. But I am so afraid. Afraid that it is not "bad enough." I guess even when I was little I always wished that my dad would hit me. At least then I would have a reason to feel the way I do about him. But he never did. How do I address "abuse" issues, when there wasn't any abuse?

Ben's Answer:

You say that nothing happened in your childhood that was bad enough to contribute to your problems? What I see here is a massive distortion in your thinking about the abuse in your childhood.

There are many types of abuse: Physical, Emotional, Sexual and Neglect. You get 3 out of 4.
I often hear survivors of emotional abuse and neglect say that they always wished they would have been physically abused because that would have been less hurtful. I believe them.

The total disregard, abandonment, cruelty and rejection that is felt by a neglected child is often far more damaging than an occassional beating (not that that isn't damaging too).

Your alcoholic father failed you miserably. And your mother escaped to save herself - but at your expense. You were only 7-10 when your older brother was 12-15. Although he was just as much a victim of child abuse, what he did to you was a form of sexual abuse. All of these things cause a child to feel deep shame and worthlessness.

No therapist would ever hear this story and not say that you are a survivor of child abuse. Your parents might have grown up and become decent people, and you can love them and keep them in your life, but you wont hurt them or betray them by accepting the fact that you were treated abusively as a child. Once you've really dealt with the anger, grief and shame... all the negative feelings about your parents, you will be much more able to forgive them and have a real relationship with them (if they are capable of that).

What you deal with behind the closed door of your therapist's office is for you and you alone. If you want to heal your emotional pain - tell your therapist about this (or just have him read this webpage). You can't work it out if you keep it in the dark.

Blessings to you - and I wish you much healing and joy -

Ben Schwarcz, MFT
Santa Rosa Psychotherapist

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