I Was Sexually Abused by My Stepfather. Do I Have PTSD?

I was sexually abused by my stepfather when I was 7 or 8 years old. I was afraid and never said anything, and he was never punished for it. (My mom left him two years after the abuse ended, and I never told her about it before she died in 2012.) I am approaching 30 now. Although I don't actively think about the abuse, I sometimes wonder if its effects are part of the unconscious fabric of my daily experience. I have a hard time trusting people, especially romantic partners. I get angry for seemingly no reason. I feel depressed at times. I don't want kids, despite liking kids. I have nightmares (but then again, so does everybody). There are other things, but they are too personal to feel comfortable sharing here. I brought this all up to a doctor once, and he told me it might be worth talking to a psychotherapist about the possibility of PTSD. So, basically, my question is this: Does what I describe fit with a PTSD diagnosis? What warning signs should I be alert to? And if I have PTSD, is there anything I can do about it? Thank you for your time. —Haunted
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Dear Haunted,

I imagine it took a lot of courage to share this deeply painful experience with a doctor and to write in and share it here, too. It seems like you are ready to begin to address the past trauma and take a look at how it might be impacting your life in the present.

While I cannot make a diagnosis with the information you provided here, it does sound possible that you are dealing with posttraumatic stress (PTSD) related to the sexual abuse you experienced as a child. Whether or not you actually meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, there is probably a connection between your past abuse and the problems you are dealing with today. These problems—difficulty trusting, unexplained anger, periods of depression, conflicted feelings about children, and nightmares—are warning signs that an underlying issue needs to be addressed.

Whether or not you actually meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, there is probably a connection between your past abuse and the problems you are dealing with today.

We are very adaptive beings. We figure out what we need to do to survive a situation. As a child, you probably developed coping mechanisms that allowed you to get through the trauma of sexual abuse and survive. Unfortunately, the coping mechanisms that facilitate survival in a traumatic environment can create problems when they are applied in a healthier environment. For example, you say you have difficulty trusting people; as a child who was sexually abused by your stepfather, learning not to trust people was an adaptive way to prevent abuse at the hand of others. Using mistrust as a way to prevent further abuse probably also allowed you to feel a sense of control over your life. As an adult, however, this mistrust may prevent you making yourself vulnerable to others, which is a key ingredient to happy, healthy relationships.

The good news: there absolutely is hope for healing from this. I have worked, successfully, with many people over the years who have similar stories. We have worked together to help them heal from the pain of the past traumas and to gain insight into how the traumas impact their lives in the present. This insight creates the opportunity to find new ways of being in the present—ways that don’t create obstacles for living full, healthy lives.

I encourage you to find a therapist near you who can partner with you on this journey. You deserve to live a full and healthy life, too!

Best wishes,

Sarah

Sarah Noel
Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in working with people who are struggling through depression, anxiety, trauma, and major life transitions. She approaches her work from a person-centered perspective, always acknowledging the people she works with as experts on themselves. She is honored and humbled on a daily basis to be able to partner with people at such critical points in their unique journeys.
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  • hannah

    hannah

    March 18th, 2016 at 11:02 AM

    I will never for the life of me understand how someone could so blatantly take away the innocence and trust of a child in this way. I am so sorry for the pain that you have gone through in life and do hope that eventually you can find someone to talk to who can help you sort this all out. Best of luck to you!

  • Raleigh

    Raleigh

    March 19th, 2016 at 7:22 AM

    You may or you may not have PTSD, but it is clear that you have faced abuse and that this has traumatized you. You can’t ignore the fact that this has been very harmful to you in your life in many ways. You need to seek out some help to help you work through that pain so that you can look to your future as being something bright and hopeful.

  • don

    don

    March 21st, 2016 at 7:46 AM

    People will take advantage of any situation when it is presented to them. You did nothing wrong as a child and you have to know that but the time is definitely now to take care of yourself. You will never be able to get through the pain that this person has caused you if you do not have a safe environment in which you can confront and process this.

  • casalily

    casalily

    March 21st, 2016 at 8:29 PM

    I am so sorry for your pain. I actually had the same thing happen to me. My step father abused me from 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 & 12. I never said a word, kept this horrible thing to myself. My mother died in 2008, I never said a word. I too am going through what you are & I do believe I have PTSD, but I have never seen a Dr for it. Too afraid hi guess

  • Kristin

    Kristin

    March 21st, 2016 at 8:43 PM

    Find someone trained in Cognitive Processing Therapy. It is very effective and can help you recover from the effects of the abuse.

  • Trace

    Trace

    March 22nd, 2016 at 10:28 AM

    Look at the multiple ways that your life has been harmed by the criminal acts of another. I don’t think that this should go unpunished.

  • Cyndee

    Cyndee

    March 22nd, 2016 at 11:10 AM

    I highly recommend Equine Assisted services. EAGALA does some phenomenal therapy using horses (no riding). More is accomplished in a fee sessions than is accomplished in years of talk therapy. Blessings to you.

  • Gus

    Gus

    April 11th, 2016 at 4:01 PM

    something like this happening to you could certainly keep you from wanting to get emotionally attached to another person and I am assuming that it could also cause you to actually fear that

  • Friend

    Friend

    April 28th, 2016 at 5:38 PM

    Currently dating someone who had this happen to. I’m trying to help, I suggested that she tells her therapist. She thinks it might be something the therapist has to tell the police. Again it happened years ago and nobody was told.

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