Childhood sexual abuse is a widespread and surprisingly common problem, reports the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition, or DVSAC, and the residual effects are likely to haunt victims into adulthood.
“A huge portion of the population is carrying secrets of childhood abuse around,” said DVSAC group facilitator Pat Poggi, a marriage and family therapist. “People don’t realize how prevalent sexual assault is.”
Sexual abuse stories involving churches, college sports teams, the Boy Scouts and countless others continue to make headlines, said Poggi, and the problem is finally being recognized as one of the country’s top public health issues.
“One out of three women and one out of every seven men have been sexually molested,” she said. “This can lead to all kinds of destructive behaviors in one’s personal life.”
These startling statistics are why Poggi has been facilitating a support group for adults molested as children for the past seven years at DVSAC’s office in Grass Valley. The need for such a group in Nevada County is evident, she said, as new members — both men and women — continue to come through the door.
“Talking about your experience is an important part of healing,” she said. “Many in my group have never talked about it to any one. They’ve spent many years blaming themselves — telling themselves they’ve done something awful — then they move into adulthood with self-esteem issues. Often this can lead to drug and alcohol abuse, unhealthy relationships or even thoughts of suicide.”
When group members begin to realize the imbalance of power that exists between adults and children, they start to move away from self-blame and feelings of shame, she said.
In his book, “Incognito,” David Eagleman concludes that holding in secrets — due to shame or guilt — can be unhealthy for the brain, and in studies, “when subjects confessed or wrote about their deeply held secrets, their health improved, their number of doctor visits went down, and there were measurable decreases in their stress hormone levels.”
But you don’t have to tell that to “Angela,” who has been a member of Poggi’s support group for the past year.
“I was molested and abused as a child and I always thought it was my fault,” she said. “In the group, I started to see that the adults had all the power when I was young — there was no reason for me to feel bad or guilty. One of my parents even denied it happened, and it impacted my relationships, as well as me physically, emotionally and mentally. Others in the group have similar stories so I don’t feel alone. I had a total breakthrough. I go to the group every Wednesday. It’s my anchor.”
Among other things, the support group is about reclaiming your body, which has been used by other people, said Poggi, so members learn boundaries and not to blame themselves. If a person suspects they were sexually abused as a child, they probably were.
“Some people don’t remember the abuse, but they have triggers, such as sounds, smells or when a woman cries when she’s touched — or has nightmares,” she said. “We see a higher percentage of children abused by step-fathers than biological fathers. Shockingly, a pedophile will seek out a woman with the right-aged children. About 35 percent of pedophiles began abusing children at age 14 — often it was a younger sister or cousin. Abuse can affect a child’s brain development. They become fearful and anxious and can act out what they’ve seen.”’
The support group, known as Adults Molested as Children, or AMAC, is the only group of its kind in Nevada County. It is not a drop-in group, emphasized Poggi, as members must commit to attending regularly in order for members to feel safe and build trust.
“Our group has long-lasting, healing effects — I’ve seen it,” she said. “It’s extremely rewarding to see people begin to heal. They come in not trusting, then I see them opening up like a flower and becoming more relaxed. I like to think I inspire them, but I know they inspire me.”
To contact staff writer Cory Fisher email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4203.