Sexual Abuse and Addiction

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Rebekah Demirel asks, “So why do we continue to turn away from the ugliness of stolen innocence?” (photo: Sinan Demirel)

Trying to soothe the pain

An excerpt from her new book: “Nothing’s for Nothing” (Rose Hip Books)

by Rebekah Demirel

In his bestselling book on addiction, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Maté tells of his work serving addicts living on Vancouver’s mean streets: “I don’t have a single female patient in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver who wasn’t sexually abused, for example, as were many of the men, or abused, neglected and abandoned serially, over and over again. That’s what sets up the brain biology of addiction. In other words, the addiction is related both psychologically, in terms of emotional pain relief, and neurobiological development to early adversity.”

On some level, we know this stark truth already, even if our awareness of it is buried deep in our unconscious. We see the hollow faces of people on the streets. We can imagine that something terrible must have happened to someone who has slid so far into despair that they exist, feeding their addictions, just to keep breathing each day.

Not everyone who experiences sexual abuse becomes an addict, but as Dr. Maté points out, those with whom he worked, struggling with addiction, were almost without exception people who had been sexually abused. Brain chemistry is altered, creating vulnerability to seek a substance or behavior that soothes pain.

Addictive behavior can be subtle, but no less painful, whether it is about drugs, food or behavior. Anything we do obsessively, despite negative consequences on our life, can become an addiction.

The wounds of invasion dehumanize most when we are sensitive young children. Children don’t know what sex is, but they do know when someone is hurting them.

So why do we continue to turn away from the ugliness of stolen innocence? We may not want to see it, but we can recognize the sorrow of sexual abuse in someone’s eyes if we pay attention. Especially when it happens in early childhood, sexual abuse wounds are so deep that many people never recover and instead turn to drugs, alcohol, or compulsive, addictive behaviors, in attempts to ease the pain.…

I didn’t understand what was going on in the house where I grew up. I could feel danger and something dark and dense that was like a choking smoke in the air. I felt I’d done something wrong, though I could never figure out what it was. I just felt bad all the time, waiting for punishment, with no idea why.

I remember clearly the twisting of my psyche as I learned to ignore what hurt, and I didn’t feel good, while clueless adults seemed to be just fine with it all. They smiled at me, told me I was a “good girl” and was “taking care of my dad.” I thought he was supposed to take care of me…It was very confusing.

My brother must have been even more confused, because he was the one being sexually abused by our dad. But he couldn’t talk about it, because a kid doesn’t even know how to describe what is happening. He and I couldn’t talk about it either, but he knew that I knew and I knew that he knew I knew…

We both pushed the pain down where no one else would see it, so that we could function semi-normally. The price we paid was losing the connection with our sense of knowing what is true and what is a lie.

I was just seven or so when I began washing the blood from his underwear, as if that could rinse away the awful truth of what was happening. Without being told to do so, I pulled the soiled ones from the pile at the bottom of our basement stairs, where everyone threw their dirty clothes. And all I knew for sure was that if I didn’t put his clothes in the ringer washer and hang them on the line to dry, no one else would. I also knew not to ask any questions.

As a teen, after I left home at age thirteen, I experienced sexual abuse on the street. My first sexual experience was three days of rape in an abandoned house. I didn’t know what intimacy was supposed to be like, though my well-honed ability to shut off my emotions came in handy then.

I thought I had to let people use my body to get what I wanted. I traded myself for food, for a place to sleep and, mostly, in the hope of seeing in another’s eyes that I was worthy and good. I’d look, but I rarely saw anything like that…

As Maté says, “All addiction is an adaptation to pain.” Whatever substance or behavior boosts the production of the neurotransmitters we’ve been lacking, then that is what we reach for to soothe ourselves.

Gabor also wisely observes, “It almost works,” so we keep doing it over and over again…until something breaks the cycle. And if the cycle can break, for even a short time, the light can get in to where we are broken.

Like the Leonard Cohen song says, “There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Nothing and no one is beyond redemption.

On Fri. Sept. 22, 7 pm, Rebekah Demirel will read from Nothing’s for Nothing at Elliott Bay Books, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122. Admission is free. 

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(Photo: Rex Hohlbein)

“In her haunting memoir, ‘Nothing’s for Nothing,’ Rebekah Demirel reveals a childhood of adversity and neglect, beginning at age three when her mother fled the violence of their home, through her years growing up in a chaotic and abusive household with her Pentecostal father and violent older brother, until leaving home at age thirteen for an uncertain life on the streets. Rebekah takes us on a soulful journey of heartbreak, loss and grief, her own difficult homeless teen years, and the resiliency gained from those experiences, with inspiring messages of hope, healing, forgiveness and personal transformation. 

  • Rebekah Demirel is an acupuncturist and East Asian medicine practitioner with a private and practice in the Seattle area. She also draws on her fifteen years of experience as a clinical counselor and former paramedic (and paramedic trainer) in presenting workshops to social service agencies and the general public on a variety of topics, including first aid, meditation, qi gong, stress management and trauma integration. 


About George Howland Jr

Since 1977, George Howland Jr. has lived in Seattle and written reportage, opinion pieces, memoirs, fiction and book and music reviews. He has worked at Real Change, Seattle Weekly and The Stranger. Email: georgehowlandjr(at)gmail(dot)com
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