The effects of childhood physical abuse are often overlooked by both therapists and medical providers. I think this is partly due to lack of knowledge and also that society as a whole can easily minimize physical abuse as an issue. Most people agree that really severe physical abuse of a child is wrong. We have all seen and heard tragic stories of children who suffered horrific physical abuse at the hands of biological parents, foster parents, etc. However, many other people’s stories of childhood physical abuse are buried below excuses and rationalizations that society or the victims or their perpetrators may make about why physical abuse is justified, how it’s normal, and it isn’t really worth complaining about. These kinds of messages keep victims of physical abuse from talking about it, and prevent providers from being able to address the problem. This post is written to share support for all those who have suffered childhood physical abuse in silence. You are not alone and your story is worth sharing.
As a young child, I was often hit by my older brothers. When I sought help and protection from my biological mother, she took my brothers’ side, blamed me and encouraged my brothers to continue hitting me. I learned from an early age that I could not count on anyone to keep me safe and violence was the norm, rather than the exception. When I was adopted out of foster care, I lived in constant fear and vigilance of an adoptive sibling who would threaten to beat me and my siblings if we did not comply with his demands. My adoptive mom would also threaten that she would have this same boy beat us up if we did not do what she wanted. In other words, I had a pattern of two moms who used their sons as a henchman to abuse others. Much of the abuse happened in a group setting, with other bystanders around. It was a way to control the others and sent a clear message that if they dared to do anything, they too would have to endure physical assault as well. I was hit repeatedly by one mom in a fit of rage and had another mom dig her nails into my face, leaving scars. This was the story of my life until I ran away from home into the safety of college and true independence.
Only now, decades later, have I come to realize the effects of physical abuse in my adult life. I share my story in the hopes that others might also benefit from hearing it and find healing in their own lives. The following are a few of the symptoms of childhood physical abuse in adults.
Symptoms of Childhood Physical Abuse in Adults:
- Eating Disorders
- Sleep problems, including sleep apnea, excessive drowsiness, and insomnia
- Weight issues
- Difficulty forming and maintaining friendships
- Social withdrawal
- Poor impulse control
- Difficulty focusing
- Substance abuse
- Post-traumatic stress
- Possibility of revictimization
- Chronic pain
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Risky sexual behavior
- Higher likelihood of being in special ed classes or having to repeat a grade.
- High incidence of divorce
- Greater likelihood of becoming homeless or incarcerated
- Over-compliance with authority figures
- Heart disease
I realize in looking at the symptoms of childhood physical abuse in adulthood, that I am fortunate in so many ways. I don’t have all of the symptoms, especially the more extreme ones, which I attribute to a lot of grace, the presence of other caring mentors in my life, and my Christian faith. While I was in foster care, I saw so many abused kids that suffered with many difficult symptoms of abuse, ranging from risky sexual behavior at a young age, aggression, school delinquency, and withdrawal. I will never know what happened to them, but I know the statistics for foster children are not good for a reason. Most of us don’t make it out of the system without becoming homeless, victims of human trafficking, or dying at a young age. I did become a victim of human trafficking, but that is another story for another time. I have definitely beat the odds in so many ways and feel very blessed to be able to help others with their own challenges, however big or small they may be.
What I have noticed in myself lately is that childhood physical abuse left me feeling disconnected from my body. At a young age, I took pride in being tough and not caring about being hurt. I would feel smug around other kids my age who came from much healthier families and would cry when hurt. I knew I couldn’t rely on anyone except myself, so that’s exactly how I lived my life. It also meant that I didn’t talk to people when I did need help. I avoided connecting with others. I didn’t ask questions or go out of my way to talk with others. I avoided vulnerability at all costs, because vulnerability would result in being hurt again, and that was a price I couldn’t afford to pay.
Research has shown that victims of physical abuse tend to have a lower social status among their peers. This is due to a variety of factors, including social withdrawal, victims constantly scanning social situations for threats (perceived or real), victims not being able to form healthy social skills at home due to violent relationships, victims shutting down during social interactions and not able to name emotions or access the language and thinking part of the brain, victims acting out in a hostile manner to replay what they have learned to be normal social interactions at home, poor academic performance, teachers labeling victims as troublemakers or uncooperative, and peers seeing victims as weird or aggressive.
As an adult, the place where I have really begun to see the effects of childhood physical abuse has been at the gym. I noticed myself having a hard time paying attention to the class instructions, in spite of my best efforts. I would say that overall I have a pretty good attention span, so I was a bit baffled at how hard it was for me to follow even very simple instructions. I also noticed my heart rate going up and feeling a lot more fear and anxiety around following the instructions. My mind would sometimes blank out in the middle of an instruction, and I would have to watch others to figure out what to do. When I couldn’t remember what to do, I would feel embarrassed and hesitant to ask what to do. I noticed a lot of unusually negative thoughts that would flood my mind during exercise. I have also noticed that as I do my exercises, negative memories would resurface. I paid attention to the fact that I had a hard time with visceral memory, the ability to remember in the body a specific sequence of events without having to think about it. Doing the exercises felt kind of clunky and unnatural as I had to think over each step.
Being the therapist that I am, I took some time to ponder why all of this was happening. I realized that being told instructions in the past was a source of terror for me, because it would result in physical violence for me. The group setting in the gym was also a visceral reminder of how physical abuse had occurred in the past. This explained why my mind was shutting down, even though I logically knew that I was safe, in the present, and this would never happen to me now as an adult. That’s just the way the brain works when it is triggered.
After one particularly difficult workout session, where I went into a fight-or-flight mode, I decided to talk to my coach I explained what was really going on behind the scenes for me, and I think that helped her understand where I was coming from. We came up with a plan for words that I could use that would help explain what was going on so she could better help me in the moment.
Because physical violence by its very nature is interpersonal, healing comes from developing positive connections with others. This can be tricky, as we survivors make a lot of mistakes in learning to form friendships. It’s important to practice self-compassion and also be open with others about your difficulties, as they might not understand what is going on in the inside.
It is also important to find ways to connect with your body in healthy ways. Find ways to nurture your body through food, rest, exercise, prayer, and meditation. As you try new and healthier ways of connecting with others and your body, don’t be surprised if difficult memories and emotions come up. This is part of the healing process and a sign of progress, as alarming as it might seem.
I am confident that as I keep moving siempre adelante, that things will improve and I will feel more comfortable with following instructions and have a better ability to pay attention and increase visceral memory capacity. As a narrative therapist, I teach my clients that there is a power in telling your story. I notice that as I begin to talk to others such as my coach, that I am better able to process and acknowledge what happened in the past, I feel more connected to others, which in turn will help me to better able to be connected to my body, my mind and my emotions. I am learning to be able to be more proactive in talking about difficult things, rather than resorting to my old negative coping skills that were unhealthy but helped me to survive a much more difficult time.
There is a lot of research out there on the effects of abuse, but very few stories of people who were able to overcome the effects. I hope that by sharing my own story you too might be able to find inspiration and hope that change is possible.