Sexual Shame and Addiction: Emerging From the Shadows to Heal
By: Tyler Dabel [Alta Mira Recovery]
Do you remember moments of being young and carefree as a child? When all you needed was a hug to make everything feel better? When all you knew was love? Do you remember when it changed?
Shame is such a powerful and defining force in our lives because it usually marks the beginning of when we no longer feel comfortable with ourselves; when we no longer feel childlike and innocently open to the world. Because our experience with this painful emotion is usually not limited to one, identifiable moment, it can be very difficult later in life to pinpoint where we began feeling un-huggable; unlovable.
Where does my shame come from? Why can’t I pinpoint it? Why do I feel so inherently flawed? When will I be able to put my shame in the past and leave it there?
Though deep-seated shame is usually always present in those who struggle with alcohol or drugs, the specific genesis of that shame can be difficult to pinpoint—especially when those feelings began in childhood. A type of shame often linked to addictive and dangerous behaviors later in life is sexual shame, one of the most powerful—if not the most powerful—forms of this burdensome emotion.
The Origins of Sexual Shame
As children, we are sexually pure. We have no inherently negative views of our sexuality or of how the world views us—but this can change very quickly when circumstances beyond our control come into play. Sexual abuse, whether overt (direct and inappropriate physical touch) or covert (implied or suggested sexual interest: emotional enmeshment), is still sexual abuse, and one out of every ten children experience it in some form. In nearly twenty percent of those cases, the abuse begins or takes place before the age of eight.
When such a traumatic experience occurs at such a young age, it cannot be processed or comprehended by the child, but instead takes the form of endless, answerless questions:
Did I do something bad to deserve this? How can I explain all of the yucky feelings inside of me? Why me?
Unable to break free of feeling flawed, saddened, confused, and angry, the emotional and psychological development of an abused child or adolescent is usually stunted around the age the abuse took place—and this complex wealth of emotions creates a heavy, inexplicable burden of feeling ashamed.
While childhood sexual abuse often results in incomprehensible feelings of shame, those same painful feelings can even arise from cultural, societal, or familial repressions and expectations of one’s sexuality, causing the child, adolescent, or young adult to feel like he or she is not worthy of a healthy sexual existence. Perhaps a child’s sexual orientation does not align with a parent’s personal belief system, or maybe commercially-advertised ideas of what makes someone “sexy” or “desirable” does not match up with the body, mind, and spirit of a growing adolescent.
Because as young people we want nothing more than to feel love and acceptance, any individual variants—like our sexuality—that differ from what we are told is normal strikes us as something that could possibly put those two things at risk; not being loved fully for who we are, especially as children, is devastating. No matter where the origins of sexual shame take root, it can lead to unhealthy, and dangerous behaviors—including substance abuse.
Sexual Shame and Addiction: A Complex Cycle
Because those who carry such a burden don’t always know how to express their pain or reach out to others for help, they may find that the only reliable way to quiet the constant and overwhelming shame rumbling in their minds, bodies, and spirits is by turning to drugs or alcohol. Several crossover studies indicate that nearly sixty percent of children and adolescents who are sexually abused and suffer from the resulting undeniable shame will end up abusing a harmful substance—enhancing and perpetuating the cycle of pain.
Although sexual experiences are very healthy, human, and meant be pleasurable, they can trigger fear and anxiety in someone who has had their comfort levels with sex stripped from them at a young age. This becomes a complex cycle because a desire for connection through physical touch remains into adulthood, but the emotions surrounding these potential experiences can sometimes be too much to bear. Using substances in order to drown out sexual shame and help the abused participate in physical, intimate acts is common because they can make him or her feel:
“Turned off” and numb to their shame during sexual activities or intimate interactions (often with alcohol or other depressants).
Stimulated immensely in order to “perform” properly sexually (often with cocaine or methamphetamines).
“Normal” enough to engage on a surface level with others, stifling all of the negative emotions that consistently arise (often through prescription pills taken periodically).
While substances of any kind may temporarily alleviate the pain felt by survivors of sexual abuse, they also come with their own feelings of shame when the effect wears off. Any acts involving anger, recklessness, or violence while under the influence of drugs or alcohol can enhance and develop existing shame, thus creating a vortex that can be extremely difficult to escape from. In both males and females, this can manifest itself as promiscuity, thrill-seeking behaviors, and outbursts of uncontrollable rage.
Though sexual abuse among females is more prevalent than in males, with nearly one out of every three of those women abusing drugs or alcohol later in life, it should be understood that sexual abuse is not gender-specific. In fact, it can sometimes be much harder for men to speak about and seek help after surviving abuse, especially due to preconceived notions about men and sexuality. No matter who you are, the need for proper treatment and care when carrying debilitating sexual shame—due to sexual abuse or other shameful beliefs about sex that originated in childhood—is necessary.
Sexual Shame and Addiction Must Be Treated Together
Dual diagnosis treatment is imperative when your struggles with drugs or alcohol are resultant of early sexual exposure or abuse and the consequent shame from such a traumatic experience. Not only will you have substance abuse experts helping you detox and break your addiction with compassion, but you’ll also have empathetic and well-trained therapists helping you get to the heart of your shame in order to heal wholly.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when seeking treatment for your addiction is that you are not alone. When deciding on the best treatment center for your healing, know that there are individuals you will be able to connect with over shared pain—even if your addictions stem from different experiences—and that getting to the root of your substance abuse by being honest, open, and loving towards yourself will ultimately help you break through the prison you were so innocently placed in.