A Parent’s Experience
Rev Sally Brown, MS, MDiv, BCC
When our middle daughter, Sarah, was six years old, our family was living in Honolulu for a year while my husband was engaged in an important military study for the Commander in Chief, Pacific Command (CINC/PAC). Our son, a responsible kid about twelve years old, was the oldest of his three sisters (aged 4-9). My husband and I occasionally left him in charge while we went out for an hour or two for a quiet dinner at a local Hawaiian restaurant.
Decades later, Dave and I learned that one night while we were away at dinner, several neighbor teenage boys secretly sexually assaulted our six-year old daughter. Our son, and his other two sisters, didn’t even know it was happening. The neighbor boys ensured Sarah’s terrified silence by threatening to kill my husband and me if she ever told.
In Honolulu, I myself became a fully-addicted alcoholic, not to become sober for nearly twenty more years. After I did find sobriety, we all realized that Sarah, too, was seriously in trouble with alcohol, and also had some issues of mental illness. She was intermittently volatile and suicidal, then outwardly normal-depressed, then amazingly cheerful and productive. I finally understood that she had two concurrent illnesses. At the same time, I would periodically be consumed with fear that she would die from a suicide attempt induced by a depressive episode or a bout of drug abuse and/or alcohol.
Finally, Sarah sought inpatient care at Stanford Hospital’s then-existent 30-day addiction-treatment program.
The medical director of the unit, a psychiatrist, discovered Sarah’s buried history of sexual trauma when he picked up clues in one of her drawings. Before long the rest of our family also knew her tragically-buried secret. I was shocked and grieved to my very core. How could I have missed so terrible an event in the life of a beloved child? Couldn’t I have prevented it?
Many more years were to pass before I ended up as an ordained chaplain at a major VA hospital. Serving a women’s PTSD unit, I learned about the connection between sexual trauma and addiction, and suddenly Sarah’s life came more clearly into focus.
Around that time, Sarah moved back home because she was out of a job and concurrently going through the surfacing of some severely debilitating memories of the sexual trauma. Her emotional and physical states were so fragile that she could not live alone. She was virtually incapacitated by an inability to concentrate coupled with inner shakes and a kind of frozen numbness, and finally severe nightmares and frequent sensitivity to light, sound, and touch.
I came to know firsthand how horrifying PTSD could be. I will never forget the many, many nights when Sarah fought sleep as long as she could, for fear of the nightmares. Often I would be wakened by Sarah’s screams and the awful trembling that wouldn’t stop. All I could do was hold her in my arms and rock her like a little child. For the first time I had real compassion for her drinking relapses and binges. I could understand how a person might go to any lengths to avoid such pain and terror.
We have a family history of alcoholism, so it’s not surprising that Sarah’s genetic inheritance responded to the PTSD from sexual trauma, with addiction to drugs and alcohol as she became a teenager. However, the mental illness could almost certainly have been triggered by the early sexual trauma.
Beginning with the VA, I learned that many women recovering from alcohol and drugs as well as mental health issues, have a history of sexual abuse. I also learned that for many, if not most, persons with a history of sexual trauma, there may never be a complete recovery. Sarah’s mental illness is probably permanent, although ameliorated with proper medications.
There is a blessedly hopeful future, however. For a person like her, afflicted with addiction to both alcohol and drugs, and a history of mental illness probably dating from the childhood sexual trauma, abstinence from addictive substances greatly improves recovery from sexual trauma.
I am enormously grateful that an astute physician recognized that the root of our daughter’s addiction and mental illness lay in her terrible early-childhood experience and had the knowledge and skill to treat her successfully so that she can live a productive, happy life on a fairly even keel. She is a precious member of our family, and I would give anything to have spared her the experience of sexual trauma. I also applaud and admire her refusal to give up when the depressions hit.
Sally Brown is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She is now retired after 20 years as a Board-Certified Clinical Chaplain at the Palo Alto VA Medical Center, CA.