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The Subtle Signs of Abuse
Ever notice that when you throw a rock into the water it ripples out into circles until it reaches the shore? That is the child of abuse. The actual sexual abuse is a bomb, but the signs and symptoms can be mere ripples; casting no huge rolling waves of obvious danger for a parent to see. These ripples, taken independently seem mostly age-appropriate, but taken collectively, they scream WARNING! I detailed my son's abuse in my book, but as a professional therapist, I do not often talk about my own family and the affect my son's abuse had on him, but it feels right to do it here.
In the sexual abuse recovery world we focus a lot on the dramatic affects of sexual abuse, and we should. But for today, I want to pull it back a little and concentrate on the subtle aspects of abuse. I want to highlight how a once healthy child's world changes and the troublesome signs of possible abuse. I want to expose how those little changes play a significant role in the whole picture of an abused child.
The stone was cast into the water when my son was ten. He had agreed to help out watching my young nephew while my brother-in-law worked out of the house. My son, up until then, was just a typical boy. He played little league, rode his bike and helped look after his four younger siblings. Everything was so normal, so easy. Little did I know that my son was being victimized every time he went over there; my brother-in-law took a healthy boy and made certain that he would not continue to grow in the fashion he should.
Everything started to change for my son after that. He became sullen and irritable. He was a smart kid who loved school and his teachers; his report cards and conferences were always favorable. At first, I just chalked his change in behavior to hormones and puberty, but it just kept getting worse. He became afraid to go to school. He retreated inward and lost his smile. I started to worry. I began to question my parenting. Was I doing something to make him feel this bad? I spent hours upon hours trying to figure out what could possibly be making my child feel so bad. There were no significant changes in our family that could have caused him to change how he felt about school, his relationship with his parents/siblings, and his lack of enthusiasm about everything. I was at a loss.
In junior high, little changed and my husband had even less ability to cope with his distant son. Our son had become snotty, angry and reclusive. Again, this behavior is somewhat age appropriate, but it felt "bigger". My husband was becoming frightened. I wanted to protect my son, but didn't know how; my husband wanted to "fix it", but had even less knowledge as to how. Was his parenting messed up? Was he being too lenient? Did he need to be more strict? How could he make his son function as a "typical" pre-teen? Our son had stopped doing homework; he was constantly pacing the floor, and seemed out of touch. He became so fearful of our son’s behavior that my husband actually threatened to send our son to military school. Maybe that would get him back on track.
My other children noticed a change in their brother as well. They tried to remain attached, but couldn't help but feel hurt by their brother’s drive to push everyone away. Their relationships suffered as my son buried himself deeper and deeper into himself. He was rejecting the very people who could keep him emotionally safe and healthy. He no longer hung out with his year younger brother who was once his best friend. He mostly ignored his sisters unless he was arguing with them.
School began calling, expressing their own concerns. How did one of their best students become one of their worst? My son was no longer able to stay focused in class. His eyes were either spaced out or darting back and forth to the door. Naturally, the school recommended a host of testing. Our son must have ADHD they said. Strange, I remember thinking, because up until 5th grade he had no difficulty in the classroom. Can ADHD have such a pronounced onset, I wondered?
My son’s after school activities were changing as well. He lost all confidence in his sports. He no longer wanted to participate. He started spending more and more time alone in his room. He wasn't showering and he wore filthy clothes. He wasn't hanging out with his usual crowd. I caught him drinking alcohol. His life was spiraling out of control.
The only place that my son continued to go was to his uncle's house, where a new rock was thrown into the water every time he went there. As a mother, I will never fully understand why he didn't tell me what was going on in that house, but as a professional I understand that he was brainwashed and numb. He felt like he was trapped. He had "allowed" this to happen and now he had to see it through. He was drawn to the punishment he experienced for being a "dirty boy". My son felt compelled to reject anything healthy and anyone who treated him well. He was full of guilt and shame.
I cringe when I think of how it must have felt to be him all of those years. My son didn't disclose his abuse until he was 19 years old. The secret nearly killed him. I still play the "what if I could have known sooner" game. In hindsight, I knew full well that my son didn't just wake up with learning disabilities. I knew that he wasn't just "hormonal". What if I had listened to my instincts that something was terribly wrong and that my brother-in-law had something to do with the changes in my son? What if I confronted my sister and brother-in-law sooner? How many conversations did I have with my husband about concerns I had about the environment at my sister's house, yet did nothing? Why did I, like so many other parents do, talk myself into thinking the pieces of evidence were all coincidental?
What I have learned is that parents cannot turn away from the ripples. Each ring is a piece of the puzzle. Do not be afraid or deterred; the pieces will fit together. Trust me, not knowing is worse than addressing the painful reality that your child has been hurt. I didn't "find out" about my son's abuse until he was an adult, although I had known in my gut that something bad had happened to him. While, at times, I still struggle with my own guilt, I have mostly learned how to let it go.....but if I could do it over again.........
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About Stacey Lannert
Stacey is free. In January 2009, Missouri Governor Matt Blunt commuted her sentence of life without parole. She is currently speaking out about sexual abuse and sharing her message of love, healing and forgiveness.