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Psychological Effects of Abuse
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Effects of sexual abuse long-lasting, say experts

By MEREDITH GOAD, Staff Writer
© 2000 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc

Saturday, March 18, 2000

Leo Clark vividly describes how the sexual abuse he says happened to him as a child tormented him well into adulthood.

At the time of the abuse - and for a while afterward - Clark took three showers a day because he could not make himself feel clean.

For years after the abuse stopped, Clark said he was depressed and had trouble sleeping. He struggled to make decisions and had difficulty maintaining relationships. There were flashbacks. Once, at the mention of his abuser's name, he went into a rage and tipped over a table.

But he never told anyone at the time about the horrible things that he now claims happened during his adolescence.

Clark's descriptions of his efforts to conceal the problem at first, and then to report it as an adult, are not uncommon, experts say, especially for boys. His problems with anxiety and having relationships with other people also are typical for sexual abuse victims.

"I kept this inside me for almost 30 years," said Clark, one of several men who recently came forward to accuse Charles Malia, a former Cheverus High School coach, of molesting him. "I was so ashamed. I didn't even dare tell my parents."

Malia admitted on March 3 that he had sexual contact with some of his students years ago. Malia was responding to allegations that Clark and other men made to police, lawmakers and the media in recent weeks that their former teacher and coach abused them in the 1960s and 1970s.

Boys and girls who are sexually abused during adolescence can experience long-lasting psychological damage that leads to a variety of problems in adulthood. Although sexual abuse is painful no matter who it happens to, adolescent boys who are abused by other males carry a special burden, experts say. They are much less likely than girls to report the abuse.

Sexual abuse is "a horribly sensitive issue for boys, particularly because boys are taught not to talk about their feelings and to feel vulnerable," says Jody Brinser, assistant director of the Spurwink Child Abuse Program.

Adolescence is a time when boys are beginning to explore their own sexuality. They may feel insecure or perhaps even confused about what's happening to their bodies. Abuse, particularly if the molester is male, can ignite those struggles into a sexual identity crisis.

"If a boy is sexually abused by another male, it brings up the whole issue of 'Does that mean I'm gay? What does that mean about me that I was not able to fend that person off? Am I weak?' " says Brinser. "I think our societal homophobia brings up that issue. There's no evidence to suggest that a boy being sexually abused by another male makes them gay."

This issue is particularly difficult for victims, experts say, because their bodies may have physiologically responded to the abuse. Sometimes the abuser uses that against them, implying that they wanted or enjoyed the contact. That only adds to the victim's guilt and shame.

"What kids need to understand is that bodies respond naturally," said Barbara Rich, associate professor of social work at the University of Southern Maine. "That does not mean that they were willing participants, and it doesn't mean that they enjoyed it."

Worries about complicity in the abuse, or questions about their own sexuality, may cause some men to withdraw emotionally or even develop a fear of sex. But many others go in the opposite direction.

To counter their uncomfortable feelings, they start acting out. They engage in dangerous, daredevil behavior, or date a lot of women to try to "prove their manhood."

Rough-and-tumble behavior can be a way to fend off the possibility of another abuser seeing them as a target.

"It can also be part of a suicidal, high-risk lifestyle that some victims will maintain because they feel so bad about what happened," said Ken Singer, president of the National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization.

"They're depressed; they don't really care whether they live or die."

Victims also worry as they grow older that they, too, will become sexual offenders. That can happen, but experts say the vast majority of boys who are abused do not grow up to become pedophiles.

"There's a myth and a misperception that if you're abused you're going to abuse somebody else," Singer said. "It's sometimes called the vampire syndrome: If you're bit, you're going to go out and bite others."

More common among adult victims are problems such as depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, substance abuse problems and failed relationships.

The problems people experience vary, and depend on factors such as family dynamics and the amount of support offered the victim after he exposes the secret.

"There is a general rule that the longer these issues go before they are uncovered, the harder it is for the person to deal with," says Rich. "But also it depends on how it is uncovered, and whether or not the (abuser) takes responsibility.

" Psychological damage from abuse may be offset by support the victim gets afterward and his natural level of resiliency.

It is possible for men who have been sexually abused to heal on their own and go on to live productive lives, experts say. The process can be hastened, however, with professional help, especially if the whole family gets counseling.

But if the abuse is kept secret, or the victim does not get the support he needs, the abuse becomes "this festering kind of seed," says Connie Ostis, supervisor of the sexual abuse treatment program at the Community Counseling Center in Portland.

And that can mean trouble as the victims grow into adulthood.

"I've seen kids who cut themselves, who tempt fate in a way, whether that's driving fast cars or doing foolish things that could bring harm to themselves or other people," Rich said. "There's a certain recklessness because they feel so bad and they feel like they're not worthy."

Many men carry these feelings around for years, suffering in silence. They may not even consciously connect their behavior to the abuse.

Clark, 45, says that he started to unravel when he was a sophomore in college. He said he began behaving oddly, doing things such as hitchhiking home at 3 a.m.

"As I got older, I would just be in rages," Clark recalled. "I would lash out at people for no apparent reason."

The thought of telling on the abuser is formidable under any circumstances, but it can be particularly difficult when the offender is someone who was revered in the community. Victims are likely to believe that no one will take their charges seriously.

"Most of the time when you see a situation where somebody outside of the home has gained access, it has been through the position of caring or power," Ostis said. ". . .When you have a position that's even enhanced by heroism and iconism, it makes it really hard. Who would say something against someone who was obviously so well thought of?"

It's not unusual for men to come forward years later, when they are in their 30s or 40s, as did the men who claim they were abused by Malia.

One reason they finally decide to reveal the abuse is that by that age they often have kids themselves, and watching their own children can trigger memories of the abuse, Singer said.

Men of that age are also in a greater position of power and control in their lives, and they may be feeling more mature and secure - strong enough to talk.

Still, blowing the whistle on the abuser is a courageous step because it brings new worries, experts say.
"There's a part of them that will be worried about 'what will people think of me now?' " Rich said. " 'Will they think their children are safe with me? Will they think that they themselves are safe with me? Will this change how they feel about my worth as a human being?'

"That's where the community really needs to put their arms around these folks and let them know that they did a brave thing, and that they really have taken a stand against what happened to them as children."

Singer says research has shown that men who report the abuse early and are given plenty of support are much less likely to become sexual offenders.

"In other words, they found someone who said, 'Yeah, I believe you, and it was a terrible thing that happened' and that sort of thing," he said.

"Whereas the offenders who had the abuse histories either didn't tell anybody or told and they were disbelieved or they were blamed for the abuse. So talking about it and being supported is real important."

Whether the abuser admits to the acts is also important in the victims' healing. An admission of guilt - as Malia has done - takes the pressure off the victims to "prove" anything, and it validates their pain and lifelong struggles with the aftermath of the abuse.

It also helps the victims and the victims' loved ones to focus on the needs of the victims and not the abuser.

"If an abuser acknowledges it, I've heard people say, 'It's their apology to me,' " Brinser said. "Even though they're not saying sorry, they're saying 'this is what I did.' "

Clark says he is happy that Malia admitted abusing some of his former students. He said that he also was relieved to discover that he was not the only person to claim abuse. Clark got some counseling about 10 years ago, and has recently started seeing a psychologist again. He also attends a support group that includes other men who say they were abused by Malia.

"I just want to get on with my life now," he said. "I don't want to live in the past any more. I just want to try to live each day as I can, and hopefully plan for a future."

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]

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