"When You See Her, You Will Be Amazed."
Those two words present some difficulties for me. For a lot of years now I've been sifting through what childhood sexual abuse did to my relationship with my body, and it's not an easy topic for me to talk about or decipher. Lists on the effects of CSA can be found all over the Internet -- there's been a pretty massive amount of research conducted on this topic and I've always found it helpful to know that I'm not alone in my struggles; that for a victim of CSA I'm "normal," much as I hate using that word to describe the effects of something no person should ever experience.
What I've not found as easily accessible as the articles presenting research-based statistics are real life, candid accounts of what it's like to be a survivor of sexual abuse. They do exist and I've been grateful to stumble across the occasional account of, for instance, what it's like to try having a healthy relationship after sexual abuse, but they're hard to find.
In the spirit of healing through vulnerability and connection, I hope to help remedy that.
That being said, please raise your hand if you've ever heard of Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Yeah, I didn't think so. Not many people have, and yet it's something that myriads of abuse survivors deal with on a daily basis. It's something I've battled since I was a teenager. It's weird and embarrassing and nobody really wants to talk about, which is why I'm about to. Honestly, BDD (that's what I'll refer to it as from here on out) is something I've wanted to talk about for years but have never found the courage to do so. Even talking to my husband about it always felt so exposing, but I've learned that we are never truly alone in any of our suffering and in order to find connection, someone has to be the first to speak up.
Technically speaking, BDD, "also known as Body Dysmorphia, is a mental illness that involves belief that one's own appearance is unusually defective, while one's thoughts about it are pervasive and intrusive, although the perceived flaw might be nonexistent."
In simpler terms, it means you look in the mirror and see something really hideous and undesirable looking back at you, and that perception can be so real and so intense that you obsess over it to the point that your quality of life may be effected in very prevalent ways.
Perhaps you can see why this would be difficult to discuss? I understand that by societal standards I am an attractive woman. How could I possibly explain my years-long struggle with BDD in a way that wouldn't make people scoff at me and walk away thinking I'm the most vain creature in existence? Well, it's important to understand that BDD has little to do with actual physical appearance and nearly everything to do with our perception of ourselves, and perception, of course, is a learned thing.
My perception of my body stems directly from the sexual abuse I suffered as a young girl. Let's unravel it a little bit:
When a child is told again and again "You are unworthy of love," that becomes part of her identity. Additionally, when a child's body is used for the sexual gratification of another person, she learns that she has no say over what happens to her body. That loss of control forces the child to disconnect from her body, especially during traumatic experiences. (In my case, my defense mechanism was to have out-of-body experiences. I'd mentally disconnect from my body and watch what was happening from across the room, usually from a corner of the ceiling.) I spent years disconnecting from my body. Rather than my mind and body being essentially one, they were at odds. I hated what was being done to me and I hated that my body responded to the sexual acts, whether or not I wanted it to. Through sexual abuse I learned to despise myself and my body.
Once the abuse had ended, my perception of myself was a tangled mess. I became extremely critical of my physical appearance and found every possible thing to hate about myself. I picked at my skin until I'd scab and scar, I incessantly shaved my entire body (except for my head), I spent hours each day worrying about how I looked. Eventually this turned into a constant obsession with my physical appearance and my weight. I developed anorexia which, over the next several years, would grow to consume my life. Pregnancy is a huge struggle for me and after my first two children were born I became more obsessed than ever with my appearance and weight. I'd frequently cancel activities and avoid leaving the house because I was so disgusted with the way I looked. I religiously restricted calories and punished myself with long, grueling workouts. Finding an outfit to wear often ended in me sobbing on the bedroom floor because of perceived imperfections on my body. BDD and anorexia were dark shadows over my daily life.
My husband's kind words of comfort meant little to me because they couldn't change what I saw every time I looked in the mirror. His love for me couldn't mute those words that replayed in my head every day.
Anorexia and BDD, combined with the other permeating effects of sexual abuse, nearly drove me to suicide on many occasions. Hope was not something I felt much of during the worst years.
So what does BDD look like for me now? I'm twenty eight years old; my sexual abuse ended nearly twelve years ago and I'm seven months pregnant with our fourth child. I still have BDD, but I'm learning how to live with it. I'm learning how to inject my own loving voice over the voices that tell me I'm disgusting and unloved. This is particularly hard and personal for me to share, but here's one of the practical ways I deal with BDD:
When I step out of the shower, before I look at myself in the mirror, I take a deep breath and I say to myself, "You are about to look at a strong and beautiful woman. Her body works wonderfully. She is full of life. She has strong legs and strong arms, and she is worthy of so much love. When you see her, you will be amazed. Are you ready?"
And then I look at myself in the mirror and on the good days, I see myself through eyes untainted by abuse and I believe those words. And I love that strong woman in the mirror.
Abuse literally changes the way we think. I can't know what my daily struggles would look like if I had never been abused and I certainly can't chalk every personal struggle up to the abuse I suffered, but understanding the effects of childhood sexual abuse is a vital step toward healing from our own wounds and also empathizing with others who are suffering.
Part of the reason I've been fearful of opening up about my battle with anorexia and BDD is that I don't want people to read my words and be left with the impression that I'm a sad, miserable, shell of a woman who hates herself and cries all day long. That couldn't be further from the truth. I was badly hurt, yes, and sometimes I am very sad and burdened with pain, but I am a vibrantly hopeful woman. I laugh and smile, I am positive and cheerful.
By the grace of Divine Love I am blessed to wake up each day, roll up my sleeves, and walk forward into more healing and light and love than I knew the day before. Without the deep connection and support I find through openly sharing my story, I know that would not be possible.
Thank you for seeing me in my most vulnerable place and for accepting me. Thank you for opening up in return and helping create a space where we can share our joys and our suffering with one another and be stronger because of it.
Thank for you being a warrior with me.