Family Secrets: Childhood Sexual Abuse

30f6cf470f2d828e104d054e6a86f77bSpeaking with a young woman today, I heard a story I have heard far too many times.

This woman had been sexually abused as a child by a relative, but didn’t say anything out of fear and embarrassment. This relative went on to molest other children in the family until someone finally spoke out.

I’ve spoken to many individuals in the past who were molested by a family member and didn’t say anything not only out of fear and shame, but also because they thought that as long as the molester was perpetrating on them, he would leave their younger brothers, sisters or cousins alone.

In essence, they figured they would suffer through the abuse so that others wouldn’t have to.

The sad part is, in all of these cases, the molester went on to molest other children in the family anyway. In one case, there were three sisters all getting molested by the same uncle and neither knew about the other. All three reported that they didn’t say anything because they thought they were protecting the other sister from the abuse, not knowing that the other sisters were doing the exact same thing.

It was only when this uncle, after years of abusing these sisters, abused another member of the family that he got caught and is now serving time in prison.  By then at least four family members had been abused over the period of several years.

The Threat From Within

We teach our children to be cautious of strangers. We believe that the greatest threat to our child comes from outside of our homes and inner-circles.

1 in 4 women, and 1 in 6 men report being sexually abused as a child. Over 90% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows, loves and trusts. Family members, family friends, teachers, religious leaders and coaches are some of the biggest offenders.

There are many families who have this type of  secret, and some will even tell their children, “Stay away from uncle Bob” because they know they have a perpetrator in their family who for one reason or another is still around.

I even worked with one family who hid their family member’s pedophilic activity, partially out of embarrassment and partially out of  a family’s natural response to try to protect each other. This family member went on to molest at least three children before being sent to prison.

Why Do Children Keep Abuse A Secret

As adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse will tell you, there are many reasons why children will endure sexual abuse for years, some for a lifetime, without telling soul.

For one, children aim to please. They want to make someone they love and trust happy and are often willing to do whatever the person tells them to do.

Abusers also often coach their victims not to tell anyone. Sometimes this is done with threats of violence towards them or other members in their family. Other times it is done with the threat that the child themselves will get in trouble if they tell.

Shame, embarrassment and confusion along with countless other feelings and thoughts can keep a child from telling anyone about the abuse.

Most survivors of childhood abuse I’ve spoken to waited until they were were in their late teens or adulthood before they felt ready to share what they experienced as a child. Many reported that they were afraid that no one would believe them.

How To Help Your Child Break The Silence

We have to teach children the difference between a secret and a surprise. That may sound too simple, but as a start, it is very powerful.

  • Teach them that a surprise is supposed to be about something fun, such as a birthday gift or special party for a friend.
  • Teach them that secrets are something kids shouldn’t keep to themselves, especially secrets that involve touches of private body parts or anything that makes the child feel uncomfortable.
  • Encourage your child not to keep secrets from you.
  • Tell them that touches to private body parts should never be a secret.
  • Let them know that if someone tells them to keep a secret, especially someone older than them (including older/bigger kids), they should tell you or another trusted adult immediately.
  • If a friend tells them a secret, let your child know they should share it with you (the other child could be asking for help).
  • Let them know that it’s never their fault if someone touches a private body part and they will never get in trouble if they tell.

Abuse of all kind (i.e.,  physical, sexual, emotional and neglect) flourishes under the veil of silence. It’s beyond time that we break that silence.

 

 

To The Bone: A Film Review From A Mental Health Professional

Content warning: This post deals with eating disorders and may be triggering for some readers.


To The Bone is a new Netflix original movie about a 20-year-old woman, Ellen, who suffers from anorexia nervosa and ends up in a group recovery home for individuals with eating disorders. The official  trailer is included at the very end of this post.

Just like with 13 Reasons Why, there is a ton of controversy surrounding the appropriateness of this film. Many individuals, including many mental health professionals believe that this movie is very dangerous because they believe it will glamorize eating disorders. Some are even calling for Netflix to take the movie down.

Once again, just like with 13 Reasons Why, the majority of these individuals have not even seen the movie yet. Their fears however have some legitimacy.

Research suggests that it’s triggering for those who already have an eating disorder or who are  struggling with unhealthy thoughts surrounding eating, body image and weight issues to watch other people displaying eating disorder behaviors, even if it’s a story of hope and recovery.

With that said, I do not think that those individuals should watch this movie.

If you are someone or you are the parent of a child or friend of someone who is suffering from an eating disorder, I do not think this is a movie you should watch with them. Watch it yourself for sure, as I believe the movie gives some great insight into what it’s like to suffer from an eating disorder, but do not watch it with them  in hopes this will be a great conversation starter between the two of you. It could possibly do more harm than good.

There are definitely some images and events in the movie that can be triggering to certain individuals, such as the main character herself who is scary thin, to the calorie counting and food avoiding behaviors displayed throughout the movie.

Banning this movie however I do not agree with because it is just that, a conversation starter. It’s a movie that needed to be made.

My Issue With The Movie

My only issue with the movie is that Ellen, played by British actress Lily Collins is scary thin. This in itself can trigger individuals who already have issues with their body weight or have an eating disorder.

The real issue is that Lily Collins herself struggled with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa at some point in her 27 years of life and writes a chapter about it in her book, “Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me.”

For the movie she had to lose a lot of weight to look the part of a very unwell young woman. Although she reports that they did it in a healthy way with the help of a dietician, I still found it alarming that anyone would subject someone who already has a history of struggling with eating disorders, to losing so much weight and then this almost skeletal person is the main character that millions of viewers, some of who will be susceptible to triggers, have to watch on-screen for two hours.

As I watched the movie, before I did my research, I couldn’t tell if she was really that thin or if it was some tricks of the camera or make-up, but upon learning that she actually had to lose such a large amount of weight to play her character, it was just a bit unsettling.

I’m not sure if this film could have been done any other way.

Anorexia Nervosa Versus Bulimia Nervosa

Unless I missed it, the one thing I don’t think the movie did a good job on was differentiating between anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. People tend to think that the only difference is that those with anorexia nervosa severely restrict their calories while those with bulimia nervosa eat and then purge (vomit) in order to control their food intake.

However, there are two types of anorexia nervosa.

One is the restrictive subtype that is more of what people are familiar with. They rarely eat, count calories religiously and may use laxatives, but usually do not purge. The second subtype is the bingeing and purging subtype. These individuals are more like those with bulimia nervosa as they will binge (over eat) and then purge their food.

The main difference between the two is that individuals with anorexia nervosa have a difficult time maintaining the minimal amount of weight considered healthy and individuals with bulimia nervosa are usually at a healthy weight or even overweight.

While anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the two eating disorders people are most familiar with, other common eating disorders include pica, binge eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.

Most eating disorders last 6 to 8 years which is a large part of someones life.

While body image, food and weight loss are generally the focus of an eating disorder, they usually aren’t the underlying causes.

Issues that may trigger eating disorders include a history of abuse or trauma, bullying, parent relational problems, low self-esteem, personality disorders, substance abuse, difficulty dealing with conflict, genetics and feeling as if they have no control over their lives.

Millions of Americans suffer from disordered eating and they’re not all thin, young white girls. People who suffer from eating disorders come in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities from the rail thin to the morbidly obese.

I worked with a 10th grade Haitain-American girl, along with another therapist who specialized in eating disorders as well as a dietician for two years. She struggled with anorexia and it was some of the most difficult work I have ever done.

Eating disorders, just like most mental health disorders, are always hard and uncomfortable topics to discuss and many people would prefer to act like they simply do not exist or are something they never will have to deal with. That is why 13 Reasons Why faced such backlash and why To The Bone is as well. Avoiding these issues will not make them go away.

If people want to be angry with Netflix for making movies such as To The Bone then we also need to be angry with our media in general because it glamorizes weight-loss and thinness. Girls as young as elementary school have started engaging in unhealthy diets and calorie counting due to the images they see on a daily basis through our media.

Marti Noxon, the writer and director of To the Bone says that the movie is based on her experience of struggling with an eating disorder and that the film is intended as “a conversation starter about an issue that is too often clouded by secrecy and misconception”.

So with some warning I recommend this film to anyone interested in learning more about what it is like to struggle with an eating disorder, but not to anyone who is already struggling with body image issues or unhealthy issues about food and weight.

The hope is that this film increases the conversation without increasing the risk of triggering others, but honestly I don’t know if it’s possible to have these type of conversations without anyone ever being triggered. It’s the nature of the beast.

If you or anyone you know are struggling with an eating disorder, please contact The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA)at http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

 

 

Learning From Someone Who Tried To Commit Suicide

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The other day I was speaking with a man in his early twenties who had nearly died from a suicide attempt. I mean, he was on the brink of death, unconscious and had to be resuscitated.  I had spoken with him a couple of hours before the incident and what I saw was a young man going through a rough patch in his life, not someone who would hours later decide to end it all.

After he was saved from death, I spoke with him again because I wanted to understand what had driven him to that point. I wanted to know if there was anything I had missed earlier and I wanted to learn from what could have easily turned out to be a tragedy.

Several factors played a role in why this man felt his life was a failure and no longer worth living. I’m sure there are more, but this is what I gathered our conversation.

Egoic Mindset

Talking to this man what I learned was, that besides his pending and ongoing legal issues, he was trapped in his “egoic mind”. In our egoic mind, our thoughts are in control, not us. As many of use know, our thoughts, when left unchecked can cause us to suffer in many ways.

Our minds are extremely powerful. They can catapult us into greatness or they can hold us hostage in a hell we create.

If we do not control our thoughts and believe our thoughts that tell us we aren’t good enough, that this person must do this for us or that this must happen in order for us to be happy, then we will live a live full of anguish.

This young man’s thoughts had not only created his depressive state, but also had driven him to attempt to take his own life. They had convinced him that he was such a screw up that his life was not worth living.

Society

Society tries to force us down similar paths, even when most of us are meant to go down very different paths. When we resist that push by society or simply don’t fit in, many of us start to feel abnormal, different or even broken. The harder we try to fit in, the more insecure, uncomfortable and unbalanced we feel. The more we resist society’s pull, the more we may feel ostracized, rejected or even unsafe.

We start to compare ourselves with other people. Our peers, our siblings and even people we don’t know. We start thinking that we are not as happy as our friends appear on social media, not as successful as our brother who went to law school. In comparison, we start to feel like failures.

As people we always seem to look up, meaning we always compare ourselves to those who are in higher positions.  The person with the masters degree compares himself to the person with the doctorates.  The person making $75,000 compares himself to the one making $100,000. The person living in an apartment compares himself to someone living in a small house and the person in the small house compares himself to someone living in a larger house.

There’s nothing wrong with striving to improve yourself, but when we get locked into this type of thinking we tend to not appreciate where we are right now which keeps us from being genuinely happy. We start to think that we will not be happy until we reach the next level, and then the next level and so on. What this does is keeps us from enjoying life right now for what it is, as it is.

This is the kind of thinking that caused this young man to suffer. His internal thoughts told him that despite what I saw as his successes and strengths, he saw himself as a failure. He wasn’t even close to 30 and had already given up on life, assuming that he was so off track in comparison to other people his age that he could never get back on.

If we compared down sometimes, then maybe he wouldn’t feel so bad about himself. Maybe he didn’t have a house, but he had a place to stay, he wasn’t homeless. Maybe he had dropped out of college, again, but at lease he had some college under his belt. And yes, maybe he was in jail, but it was for a misdemeanor and not a felony and he was facing months, not years.

Not Taking Responsibility

Another thing that helped create the situation was that he didn’t take total responsibility for his life. As an adult, he had created nearly all the obstacles in his life, yet he wanted someone else to magically make them go away.

He was hoping that his girlfriend would do certain things, that his parents rescue him. This caused him to live in a state of helplessness because he allowed other people to control the way his life was going and it wasn’t going in the direction he wanted it.

Once you realize that you are 100% responsible for your life, including your mistakes, your happiness, your future and your present, you’ll realize how much power and freedom you really have. You realize that once you learn how to control your thoughts, that yes life will happen, certain events will happen, but it’s our thoughts that determine how we feel about them and our actions or inaction that will determine how we experience life.

This young man is in jail. He can blame his girlfriend for his current situation, his parents, his up bringing or whatever. He can stay in jail depressed because his girlfriend isn’t answering his phone calls or waiting for his parents to stop showing tough love and come bail him out. He can be waiting forever on all of that, but the moment he starts taking responsibility and control of his thoughts and feelings, his life can change in an instant.

He can say, yes I am in jail and it’s my fault. I did something stupid, how can I avoid doing that again? How can I use this time to improve myself? What lesson am I meant to learn from this?

Or he can continue to blame his girlfriend and his parents, be miserable in jail and come out the same person or worse than he was before going to jail.

Not taking responsibility for creating the life you want will leave you in a perpetual state of uneasiness which will keep you from ever reaching your full potential.

Attachment To Rigid Expectations

This man, like a lot of us, has high and rigid expectations. What I mean is that he expected by his age (although he is still very young) that he would have to accomplish several things in order to be happy or successful and when that didn’t happen, he deemed himself a total failure and didn’t know how to cope with that.

Suppose for example that you expected to be married by 25, have 2 kids and be living joyfully in a house on the beach. Yet, here you are at 35, divorced with no kids and living in a small apartment.

You can reflect on life and feel like you’ve failed and of course you’ll become unhappy and maybe even depressed. You can blame life and the things that happened in your life for keeping you from meeting those expectations and again, you’ll be miserable. Or you can take control of your thoughts, take responsibility and learn to flow with life and say “I would have preferred not to be divorced, have 2 kids by now and living on the beach, but that didn’t happen, what do I do now? What can I do with what I have to create the life I want?”

If however you are attached to rigid expectations, you’ll create misery for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with having expectations, but don’t be so attached to them that when life happens and things don’t go as planned, you fall apart. There are no guarantees in life.

Tony Robbins says that it’s our expectations that make us unhappy and to trade your expectations for appreciation. This is something I have been working on hard over the last several months.

Trying to control or change things that are out of our control will always cause us pain. That’s part of the egoic mind. Instead, we need to learn to accept what is, embrace reality and adjust to life as it happens.

When we can’t do that, we may find ourselves in some degree, like this young man and millions of others who suffer needlessly in life. For most of us, life really isn’t all that bad, but we create our own suffering. By taking control of our thoughts we can end that.

If you are anyone you know are struggling with suicide please call The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

 

 

Use This Metacognitive Technique To Change Your Life

ws_Woman_Sunny_Flowers_Happiness_1920x1200Every day there are things we have to do that we don’t feel like doing. For some of us it’s going to work or going to school. We do those things because we know we have to if we want to get paid or graduate. However, when it comes to some other things such as going to the gym or making a tough decision, we will often put those off until we feel like doing it.

The problem is that most of us give too much power and control to our emotions; to how we feel at any given point in time. This is a huge mistake because often our emotions are often irrational and can lead to us doing (or not doing) and saying (or not saying) things we will regret later.

Research says that 95% of our decisions are based on how we feel and not on logic and rational thinking.

Mel Robbins, a successful entrepreneur, television commentator and speaker sums it up very well when she talks about her five second rule.

Robbins at one point was struggling financially and emotionally. Life had dealt her, like it has dealt many of us, a hard hand. She was finding it hard to do even the little things such as getting out of bed in the morning simply because she didn’t feel like it. She had no motivation.

She did what many of us do. She was waiting until she felt like doing something and the truth is, most of the time we will never feel like doing what we know needs to be done such as ending a bad relationship or looking for a new job.

She realized that she needed a strategy to propel herself towards change because motivation wasn’t enough.  She knew sitting around waiting to feel motivated was a big mistake. It wasn’t going to happen.

What she did instead was come up with a five second rule that came to her after watching a commercial of a rocket launching.

What she decided to do the very next day was launch herself out of bed like a rocket. She would count backwards, “five, four, three, two, one” and with all her effort she would force herself out of bed.

It worked! So she did it the next day and the next day and soon she was using this five second rule to launch her into doing all the things she didn’t feel like doing, but knew she needed to do. It changed her life, personally and professionally.

“Life, and business in particular, is about pushing yourself to do the things that are uncomfortable so that you can achieve the results that you want,” Robbins said. “The secret is all about not waiting until you feel like it.”

Most of us make about 35,000 decisions a day and the vast majority of those decisions are made unconsciously. Many are based on how we feel at the moment or how we feel about the action.

What’s even worse is that many of the thoughts that flow through our heads are negative thoughts that bring on emotions like fear, anger and anxiety. Many of our decisions are based on those negative emotions.

There is actual science to back up this five second rule that Robbins discovered.

Research suggests that there’s basically a five second window between when you have a thought and when your brain will either support it or kill.

For us guys, think about when you see an attractive lady and think about asking her for her number. In general, if you don’t move on it within five seconds we tend to not move on it at all. After those five seconds all kinds of thoughts and feelings come into our heads such as self-doubt and fear of rejection.

Your brain is meant to protect you from anything harmful and sometimes that includes simple things like embarrassment. The trick is to force yourself to act within those five seconds before your brain decides to sabotage you. You’re not going to die from rejection or embarrassment.

“It turns out that inside that five-second window, your entire life and business, everything changes if you wake up and take control of that moment right before you’re about to make a decision,” Robbins said.

By counting backwards from five, you force your brain to stop and actually focus instead of just going through the usual unconscious and often self-defeating defense mechanisms it normally would. In a sense you are taking control of your brain before it is sabotaged by your emotions.

It’s a metacognitive technique that stimulates the higher functioning part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex and takes control away from the more primitive parts of our brain that stimulate fear, anger and anxiety.

It’s a technique that can be used to launch yourself into doing anything you don’t want to do, but know you need to do or to prevent you from doing something irrational and illogical based on how you feel at the moment.

I’ve used it to force myself to the gym many times. In the past I would skip a workout because I didn’t feel like going or didn’t have the motivation. Now I know that I may never feel motivated to go to the gym, especially after working a 12 hour day, so I just count backwards from five and go! Once I get to the gym, I usually find the motivation and have a great workout.

I’ve used the same technique to get myself into a writing ritual and to have hard, uncomfortable, but necessary discussions with people.

I’ve also used it to keep myself from saying something I may regret later out of anger or fear. It’s simple and it works!

You can use this for practically anything and I am excited for you to try it and to hear how it works for you.

13 Reasons Why: A Brief Review By A Mental Health Professional

13-reasons-whyI recently finished watching the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why. I have to say that it is definitely worth watching, especially for those of us who are parents, work with teenagers or are in any helping profession.

Last night I was talking with one of my interns who said she recommended that her class watch 13 Reasons Why, but that her professor felt like the show idolizes and romanticizes suicide, so her request was rejected.  I think most people who believe this haven’t watched all 13 episodes of the show.

13 Reasons Why isn’t just about a teenage girl committing suicide, it’s about her life. It deals more with the way she lived and what she experienced than it does with her death. It’s  also about the lives that teenagers today live in with the age of social media, sexting and where embarrassing pictures and videos can be shared with a single tap of the share button.

The show deals with drinking, drugs, bullying and other uncomfortable issues such as rape and yes, suicide.

Some critics believe that 13 Reasons Why is a dangerous show that may actually encourage teenage suicide. They fear what is called a suicide contagious effect where publicized suicides have a tendency to increase suicides and suicide attempts among the general population.

While there has been shown a correlation in publicized celebrity suicides on an increase in suicides and suicide attempts in the general population, there isn’t any evidence of fictional portrayals of suicide in television or literature having an impact on actual suicides.

13 Reasons Why explores the lives of modern teenagers in a sort of reverse murder mystery where we already know who killed Hannah, the character who’s life the show is mostly focused on, but through the eyes of Clay, the other main character. We get to reconstruct the pieces to why this happened.

In the show, the parents appear mostly clueless about what’s going on in their kids lives. The bullying, the drugs, the alcohol, the suicidal tendencies. It highlights how so many parents today are so focused on their own careers, relationships and even images of the family being perfect that they can’t see the self destruction going on right under their noses.

I spent five years working in a high school as a mental health counselor, and many of the issues those kids were facing and the things they were doing, their parents had no clue about. Not just including the drugs, alcohol and sex, but also the anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Most felt like they couldn’t talk to their parents, that their parents didn’t care or that their parents were already too overworked and over stressed to be “bothered” with their problems.

In 13 Reasons Why, there were many opportunities and people in Hannah’s life who could have possibly intervened before she got to the point of taking her life, but none of them did.

Her parents were too busy trying to keep their business afloat, her friends were busy being teenagers and not necessarily friends and the teachers and counselor all seemed rather clueless or even uncomfortable when it came to dealing with topics such as sexual assault and suicide.

Much like in real life, there wasn’t one single reason Hannah decided to kill herself. There were at least 13 as the title hints.

Many times when someone commits suicide, even with a suicide note left behind, loved ones are at a loss trying to figure out why the person did it. They may focus on one single event or reason such as depression or a break up, but usually it is more complicated than that.

In the show, much like in real life, Hannah talks about the many reasons that have led her to the point of taking her life. It doesn’t appear as if Hannah had been struggling with depression until the end, but that she lived a rather melodramatic life that was complicated by many different issues.

The show never really talks about mental illness or depression. Realistically, most teenagers who become depressed and suicidal don’t necessarily realize that they are suffering from a mental illness so it’s realistic for the show to never really talk about it using those clinical words.

The suicidal mind doesn’t think that way. It doesn’t think that “I feel really horrible about my life, but I know it’s just the depression talking”.  Instead it makes the person feel hopeless, that things will never get better and that no one cares for them; even if they say it or show it, the suicidal mind will tell the person that they are just lying to spare their feelings.

Most people think that suicidal people are weak or just aren’t trying to cope. The suicidal mind is exhausted from trying to cope, of caring, of being hurt and in pain. It’s a dangerous place to be and it’s where suicidal people spend most of their time, in their mind.

In the end, Hannah felt as if she had no other choice, but to kill herself. She was never offered an alternative to the despair, agony and loneliness she felt other than to turn to drugs and alcohol like many of the other students in the series.

“We all let her down… She took her own life. That was her choice. You, me, everyone on these tapes, we all let her down. We didn’t let her know that she had another choice. Maybe we could’ve saved her life, maybe not.”, says Tony, one of the characters on the show and Clay’s friend.

The suicidal mind believes that it has a choice; to live or to die. Only the suicidal mind doesn’t fight fair because it is overly emotional, irrational, unrealistic and incredibly persuasive.

For those, who are afraid that the show will increase the likelihood of suicide or suicide attempts in teenagers, I suggest watching the entire season before coming to a conclusion.

The show deals with the uncomfortable issues facing teenagers in our society and in the least it’s gotten more people talking about those issues which in itself makes it a show worth watching and I’m glad it got renewed for a second season because I hope it can further this much needed discussion.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text “help me” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.