I recently saw the play Ruined at the Geffen Theatre here in Los Angeles. It was an extremely moving and poignant story of the sexual and emotional abuse of women in the war-torn Congo. In this fictional story, some of the female Congolese refugees were “lucky” enough to find work and shelter in a brothel, rather than being further abused and battered in refugee camps or worse outside the camps. Many women had no one to turn to as their family members were brutally beaten, recruited for battle and even murdered. One of the women spoke of how she felt she would have to live with the memory of the abuse the rest of her life.
Unfortunately, sexual abuse is rampant in our world. Harvard medical school statistics found that 20% of girls and 10% of boys are molested before puberty (Harvard Mental health letter, Vol.20 #7, Jan 2004). When our bodies are exploited by others without our consent, we are left with a sense of powerlessness and unworthiness. We lose our childhood innocence and our sexual development goes off-track. We feel rage and because we are not allowed to express it, we often turn it inward into depression and hopelessness.
Many female overeaters I work with, both women and girls, have been the victims of various forms of sexual abuse. Generally, the abuse occurred by someone close to them whom they trusted, although, for some, it was by a complete stranger. While we are all different and process trauma in our own unique way, all survivors of abuse share one thing in common: the trauma has changed them. It has affected their self-esteem and ability to trust. It has also affected their sense of safety and security in the world.
If you have experienced sexual trauma in your past, stop and ask yourself the following questions:
1) Do I have difficulty trusting others because of the trauma? If so, how does this lack of trust manifest in my life?
2) Has the trauma affected my self-esteem? If yes, how so?
3) Do I eat to comfort and soothe myself over these issues?
4) Is my weight a form of protection from more sexual attention and possible abuse?
If you’ve answered yes to even one of the above questions, you owe it to yourself to begin some recovery work on this issue. The best place to do this is in either individual or group psychotherapy. It’s very difficult to process through painful traumatic memories on your own and get to the deeper layers of grieving. A psychotherapist trained in recovery work can gently guide you through the grief work and help you release behaviors, like overeating, that once served you but which no longer facilitate your growth.
Even though this work can be painful, the freedom you will feel will motivate you to continue. As you feel more whole and secure within yourself, the excess weight you have needed for protection will begin to drop away effortlessly. You will regain a sense of trust with others and your relationships will improve.
Even though you may never forget the abuse you suffered so unfairly, there is truly no reason for you to carry it around, in the form of protection, on your body, for life. You’ve sufferred enough; give yourself the gift of recovery. You deserve it!