By Lynn Starlight
Used with permission
Child abuse is not a regular life “test” in the same way as something like cancer, pneumonia, an amputated limb as a complication of Diabetes, Diabetes, debilitating diseases like Multiple Sclerosis, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or Parkinson’s Disease. As horrific as some of these diseases are, they are in a different category of experience than those of a person who has been sexually abused or traumatized.
In my own case, I have “achalasia” (a disease of the esophagus where the nerves of the muscles that regulate swallowing, degenerate over time). In my case, I believe I had achalasia all my life, so it is not surprising when I was diagnosed with it at the age of 29 years. I had reported stomach problems to a doctor, and medical tests were taken. It turns out that my peristalsis (the muscles that move the food down from the esophagus to the stomach) was irregular, with some muscles working in a stronger way than others. An upper gastrointestinal tract (upper GI) picture of my esophagus revealed that it was shaped like a funnel (wide at the top and extremely narrow at the bottom), indicating that many of the muscles that control swallowing were already paralyzed. At the same time the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), at the bottom of the esophagus spasms, works overtime to the point where it contracts to the point where food gets stuck and is unable to move down the esophagus.
According to “Lifescript”:
“Symptoms tend to be mild at first, and then grow worse over months or years. The main symptom is difficulty swallowing solids and, as the disorder progresses, liquids. As many as 70% to 97% of patients with achalasia have difficulty swallowing both solids and liquids.
Other symptoms may include:
- Discomfort or pain in the chest (under the breastbone, especially after meals)
- Coughing, especially when lying down
- Weight loss (as the disorder progresses)
- Vomiting or regurgitating food or liquids—In some people, this occurs during sleep. This can result in inhalation of food particles or liquid, which can lead to aspiration pneumonia and other respiratory infections.”
At the age of 36, my symptoms were so advanced that food got stuck all the time, and I regurgitated food when sleeping. Surgical intervention was required. At that time, the technology was not as advanced as it is today. My first treatment failed causing a tear in the esophagus which almost killed me. After I was stabilized, doctors performed a Heller Myotomy (and I can tell you it was definitely a hell of a surgery)! In this operation, the surgeon makes a large incision that goes from just below the scapula on the back, around to the front of the body, near where the breast begins. Then the rib cage is cranked open and the left 8th rib is removed, and the tear is fixed.
When I woke up from the surgery, I had a chest tube the size of a garden hose draining a lung that had collapsed and fluid had built up, and a chest tube from the esophagus to my mouth. These tubes were so horrible that if I moved an inch, I was in agony. During that hospitalization I learned the difference between agony and nasty pain, the latter being far preferable! I have had a “high” pain threshold ever since! I also ended up with muscle spasms on my left side, constant pain where my rib was taken from me, and spasms above the muscles of the scapula on the back.
Furthermore, I had difficulty sitting in most chairs and could not stand for long periods of time due to a back injury from the surgery. It took 20 years to straighten out most of the problem, and I still have occasional back problems, and varying degrees of left-sided chest pain at all times. Needless to say, it was quite a process to learn how to adjust to living with chronic pain and still maintain a high quality of life. Activities of daily living were impaired. For example since that surgery, I have never been able to clean house for long periods of time!
I also ended up with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) which meant that controlling the acid produced by my stomach was a constant concern. I have taken anti-heartburn medications son a daily basis and will do so for the rest of my life. I consider that a small price for having a life and the new medications have been a Godsend.
My recovery was a life-changing and interesting growth experience. I developed more self-confidence, gratitude, ingenuity, spirituality, compassion, a stronger marriage, an ability to improve my attitudes regarding management of pain, a desire to help others with chronic pain and a host of other wonderful things which I consider to be a very positive outcome in a situation that could have ruined my life! I consider this to have been a “good” test!
Even with work disabilities and all the ups and downs that involved, the ups and downs in dealing with a chronic pain situation, severe depression, and continuing difficulty swallowing, I still believe this was a “good” test. The severe depression has been the hardest disability to deal with, but it was not entirely caused by the chronic pain. Other stress factors contributed to the condition. If I had to go through the surgery again, I don’t know if I would want to. However, when I was in the depths of post-surgical agony in the hospital, I remember telling one doctor that I would go through this again if it could help another person who had intense pain and pain management issues due to being a recovering alcoholic/addict!
I have just described what I consider to be a “good” test, a valuable learning experience, or a problem that could be considered an opportunity to grow. Next, I will describe what I consider to be a “bad” test, something that nobody should ever have to experience.
I am a survivor of severe incest which dates back to the age of three or four. It took years of recovery to heal from this trauma and in fact, I am still healing from it. Eventually, the pain of “remembering” some horrific experiences, dealing with a tragic and at times cruel family situation, and dealing with insensitive people took a huge toll on me. I still have to deal with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and severe depression and at this point managing these issues is an ongoing learning process.
The incest also affected me in other ways. My low self-esteem contributed to my not being in a profession that would be of benefit to the world (i.e., being a researcher, physician, or lawyer, all of which I have the native ability to do). I have difficulty managing stress and anxiety, and my social skills have been severely challenged. For example:
- How do you chit chat at a party about your family when your family has disowned or ostracized you?
- How do you build close enough friendships to create a “surrogate family” to help deal with the pain, loneliness, feelings of abandonment and betrayal, and grief over the loss of close relationships with people who you devotedly loved for the majority of your childhood and early adult years?
- How do you deal with the fact that people you loved all of your life may or may not be perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse?
- How do you make sense out of the fact that on one hand your parent(s), grandparents, aunts or uncles, taught you wonderful things and made great contributions to society, and on the other hand may have sexually abused you as a child or numerous other children?
- How do you deal with a family that is torn apart from the fallout caused by revealing that you and probably other children in the family were sexually abused?
- How do you deal with a host of fears and phobias that you struggle with as a result of being sexually abused as a child?
It can take years to heal from these wounds. It can even take a lifetime! This doesn’t mean healing is impossible, but it does mean that healing can be a long, arduous, painful journey.
Does anybody deserve those kinds of tests? Is it God’s will that this child experienced horrific abuse? I would think not. I believe that the following quote from Baha’u’llah makes this quite clear:
Every time My name “the All-Merciful” was told that one of My lovers had breathed a word that runneth counter to My wish, it repaired, grief-stricken and disconsolate to its abode; and whenever My name “the Concealer” discovered that one of My followers had inflicted any shame or humiliation on his neighbor, it, likewise, turned back chagrined and sorrowful to its retreats of glory, and there wept and mourned with a sore lamentation. And whenever My name “the Ever-Forgiving” perceived that any one of My friends had committed any transgression, it cried out in its great distress, and, overcome with anguish, fell upon the dust, and was borne away by a company of the invisible angels to its habitation in the realms above. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 308)
Additionally, I don’t think God would want a child to be reared in an abusive home, a point which is elucidated by ‘Abdu’l-Baha in the following quote:
Let the mothers consider that whatever concerneth the education of children is of the first importance. Let them put forth every effort in this regard, for when the bough is green and tender it will grow in whatever way ye train it. Therefore is it incumbent upon the mothers to rear their little ones even as a gardener tendeth his young plants. Let them strive by day and by night to establish within their children faith and certitude, the fear of God, the love of the Beloved of the worlds, and all good qualities and traits. Whensoever a mother seeth that her child hath done well, let her praise and applaud him and cheer his heart; and if the slightest undesirable trait should manifest itself, let her counsel the child and punish him, and use means based on reason, even a slight verbal chastisement should this be necessary. It is not, however, permissible to strike a child, or vilify him, for the child’s character will be totally perverted if he be subjected to blows or verbal abuse.” (Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 125)
A child that is abused grows up like a green and tender bough that has grown the wrong way, and a lot of work will need to be done to straighten that bough out. If you have ever incorrectly cut into a tree or plant, when the wound scars over and new growth appears, it can be weakened, and need extra care in order to thrive. Sometimes it can come back strong, but the scar does remain.
I have a little tree like that in my front yard. When it was a little sapling, someone came and sawed off the top half of the tree. We did not take the tree out and guess what happened? All kinds of branches grew up around the area that had been cut. However, the cut area had been permanently altered. It took a few years for the tree to recover. Healing can take time. How can you quantify how long healing should take for an adult who, as a child, has been sexually abused from the age of 3 on, or abused at any age for that matter?
Consider the tests a child undergoes when learning to walk, climb a tree, take a test in school. To the child, these may be very hard challenges to overcome. For example, it might be best to let a child learn to walk on his/her own. To interfere with this process could make it more difficult for the child to walk. This task of learning to walk may be one of the first God given tests that a child may have to overcome.
However, there is a difference in what interventions may be beneficial to a regular child as opposed to a traumatized child. An adult who was traumatized as a child and was never believed or helped to deal with the abuse was being oppressed, and that oppressive behaviour may have been continued by abusers well into late adulthood! On November 23, 1993, The American Baha’i newspaper published a compilation by the Universal House of Justice on “Sexual Abuse: Baha’i Writings call for higher standards of conduct.”
Furthermore, in this compilation, Abdu’l-Baha is quoted as having stated:
The integrity of the family bond must be constantly considered and the rights of the individual members must not be transgressed…
The Compilation goes on to say
The use of force by the physically strong against the weak, as a means of imposing one’s will and fulfilling one’s desires is a flagrant transgression of the Bahá’í Teachings. There can be no justification for anyone compelling another, through the use of force or through the threat of violence, to do that which the other person is not inclined. “Abdul-Bahá has written: ‘O ye lovers of God! In this, the cycle of Almighty God, violence and force, constraint and oppression are one and all condemned.
And Baha’u’llah has stated concerning the subject of the treatment of women:
The friends of God must be adorned with the ornament of justice, equity, kindness and love. As they do not allow themselves to be the object of cruelty and transgression, in like manner they should not allow such tyranny to visit the handmaidens of God. He, verily, speaketh the truth and (Compilations, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 379)
About rape, the above mentioned compilation states:
One of the most heinous of sexual offences is the crime of rape. When a believer is a victim, she is entitled to the loving aid and support of the members of her community…”(The Universal House of Justice, 1992, Violence and Sexual Abuse of Women and Children)
The House of Justice goes on to state:
It is difficult to imagine a more reprehensible perversion of human conduct than the sexual abuse of children, which finds its most debased form in incest. . . . (Compilations, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities; Universal House of Justice, “Sexual Abuse: Baha’i Writings call for higher standards of conduct,” American Baha’i, November 23, 1993.
Apparently, the House is ranking the crime of sexual abuse of children and incest up there with murder when one comes to assessing the severity of the criminal activity involved.
Another point to consider concerns the nature of the responsibility of the Baha’I friends if it is known that someone has been oppressed:
So long as thy power and ascendancy endure, strive to alleviate the suffering of the oppressed. (Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 168)
Abdu’l-Bahá enjoins Baha’is:
…To the poor be a treasure of wealth, and to the sick a remedy and healing. Be a helper of every oppressed one, the protector of every destitute one, be ye ever mindful to serve any soul of mankind. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i World Faith, p. 216-217)
The American Bahá’í Community has for many years been in the forefront of defending the weak and oppressed. Its distinction in this respect won the repeated praise of the beloved Guardian. . . (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 607)
It can be gleaned from these quotes, that if a child or adult has been traumatized, there are certain needs that have to be met in order for healing and justice to occur:
- No person or family member should ever oppress another person.
- Baha’is condemn violence and force, constraint and oppression.
- Tyranny against women should not be allowed or tolerated.
- A victim is entitled to the loving aid and support of the members of her community…
- The crimes of incest and childhood abuse are considered about as serious as murder.
- Help end the suffering of every oppressed person.
- Oppressed people need assistance. Help them out.
- Defend the weak and the oppressed.
I don’t think it takes special expertise to befriend and help a victim of oppression or childhood trauma. Although these people can be needy and depressed, they will respond positively to kindness and concern. Like our Teachings state, the best experts in the field of assisting survivors of trauma state emphasize that the survivor needs to be supported in every possible way.
Furthermore, they will then be less needy if they feel like they are believed and treated like a valued friend. Many have been rejected by society even though they have done nothing wrong. Many are awkward in social situations, especially if they have been ostracized or belittled by their family members. Anyone can support a trauma survivor. All they have to do is genuinely love and befriend them.
Following is a list of ways you can help a survivor of trauma or incest
- Visit them at home
- Listen without making judgments or minimizing the problem (most survivors won’t describe the most gruesome details of their experience unless invited to do so).
- Help the person catch up with work or other tasks that they are behind on.
- Take them out to coffee.
- Invite them to a movie, family event, or just to hang out and have fun
- Bake them a cake or make them a casserole or food that can be reheated.
- Give them flowers or a lovely present, just because…
- Give them a beautiful card with an uplifting and supportive verse.
- Take a class with them.
- Teach them a hobby they might be interested in.
- Be patient with them if they are depressed or do not feel up to visiting anyone. Don’t give up on them; just visit them another time.
- Be consistent in supporting the survivor (telephone or visit on a regular basis).
- Come up with a schedule of things you can do with them on a regular basis. Note: Visiting or talking to them on a very occasional basis is not giving them the support they need.
- Offer to pay their way to a conference , concert , to hear an inspirational speaker or some other activity they can’t afford.
- Give them a book you think they would like.
When I was going through a difficult time with being ostracized by a family who did not want to believe my disclosure about a serious problem of incest, two of my friends walked with me every week and periodically gave me little presents or cards to remind me that they loved me. When my husband was in the hospital, they visited and fed my cat, bought me dinners I could heat in the microwave, invited me to social events. They even listened to me share experiences or feelings that I needed to process. If we haven’t seen each other in a long time and one of them tells me they missed me, it warms my heart. I have appreciated this so much that I will be friends with them for the rest of my life. It brings me great joy to give them presents, gift cards, talk on the phone with them, etc. I also have made a commitment to “pay it forward.”
In closing, I think we need to ask ourselves if our Bahá’í communities are giving survivors of trauma or oppression the support they need.