Adult Children of Sexual Dysfunction (ACSD) is a 12 Step group of women and men attempting to overcome the effects of growing up in a sexually dysfunctional family. Their common goal is to become sexually, spiritually and emotionally healthy. Below, two members of ACSD share their stories in the hope that others will read it and if they can relate, will know that there are other people out there working through similar, but different histories.
Could you describe the sexual dysfunction in your family growing up?
My story is pretty atypical. I suffered extreme sexual abuse from virtually every adult relative, including my parents. I was also abused by our minister, who was sadistic and with whom his church colluded. All of this was happening by the age of two.
How were you affected?
The result was that I developed an especially warped spiritual sense and was fearful of a Higher Power. When I first came into the program, all the steps made sense except for Step 3 (“Turned our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God”). I couldn’t imagine doing that.
How have you been able to recover?
I’ve used many tools in recovery-anything that’ll help. I was physically abused and I’ve used a lot of alternative methods for healing. Therapy has been extremely important.
Adult Children of Sexual Dysfunction in particular has helped. As in any Twelve Step group, you are not alone; others are experiencing similar things. The group can be very centering in helping you to untangle the knots of just holding on for dear life. ACSD gets closer to the bone-you really have to be ready to grapple with things it wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss in other programs.
ACSD has helped me see my abusers as fellow travelers/sufferers dealing with the extreme difficulties life can dish out. Years ago, at an open meeting, I shared my story. It made me understand, in a visceral way, how sex-obsessed my abusers were. It made me appreciate what must’ve happened in their lives to produce that effect in their psyches. I felt much more akin to them. I felt a lot more compassion for them, as well as for myself.
How do you maintain your serenity in the face of those memories?
When my life is most unmanageable (Step One: “Admitted we were powerless over sexual dysfunction and that our lives were unmanageable”), it’s because I’m not feeling powerless over the sexual mistreatment I received as a kid…and that I am responsible, that it was my fault. ACSD helps me realize that, yes, I was powerless and those experiences have continuing effects. I can’t will them away or muscle through them; I must simply accept them. My Higher Power helps me on a continuing basis.
Are there any other Steps that have been especially meaningful to you, or key to your progress?
It was helpful to do an ACSD 5th Step (“Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”) in my primary relationships, and I saw patterns of mine that were harmful to my partners that I wouldn’t have been able to uncover, say in an Al-Anon 5th Step. It helped me to move into the present and away from feeling victimized by my abuse.
Step Two (“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”) has also been important. I think I understood before I was even born that my dad was a sex offender and I was not born whole. I remember the first time I first read that Step and understood that I was born whole and sane.
How do current social attitudes about abuse affect the victims of it?
People are encouraged in our society to think that it’s their fault if sexual abuse-verbal or physical happened to them. And while I give Oprah credit for coming out about the abuse she received from her babysitter, how would she have been received if it had been her father or a number of other people in her life? People still don’t want to hear about these issues and will blame the messenger.
What gives you hope?
There are three reasons I have hope for a healthy sexuality for myself: 1) because of how far I’ve come since the beginning of my recovery; 2) since I started in ACSD, I’ve healed enormously, to the point of wanting and beginning to date; and 3) I’ve witnessed the recovery of others in my group and how they’re able to form healthy, satisfying partnerships.
Do you have any final thoughts?
I’m extremely grateful for ACSD and the courageous, funny and wonderful people in the groups. I hope that if anyone reading this feels interested in addressing issues of sexual dysfunction in their life, they’d feel free to give us a try.
What brought you to Adult Children of Sexual Dysfunction?
Though I joined the group in 2001, I remember my first meeting as if it were yesterday. I was absolutely terrified and yet I knew very quickly, that I belonged.
It was so important to be able to talk about my experience in my family life, and not have people look at me in a judgmental way. So I was able to get in touch with the shame I felt growing up in a sexually dysfunctional family and having a male relative physically and sexually assault me for years and not be able to talk about it.
Because of this secret, I wasn’t able to be present to my own life or make decisions on how to live it. I learned that I don’t matter, I’m a bad person and that I can’t let anybody know who I am. The abuse made me either think I was going to die, or wish that I would.
But worse than the abuse was knowing that my relative loved me. In my recovery, I’ve had to go back and acknowledge that he did love me and feel that again. Realizing that freed me to feel love from other people and also love myself. If you can’t feel love, you’re shutting off the energy of the universe.
An important discovery for me was that-even without the violence-I still would’ve grown up in a sexually dysfunctional family because my parents didn’t talk about sex. I never heard a word. And if you don’t hear it as a child, you think it’s dirty, disgusting and naughty.
How did going to ACSD meetings help you?
The group taught me to feel how I felt as a child. And then I was able to look at what beliefs were created at that time that I am still living with and haven’t examined. I was able to see that my belief that I didn’t matter and nobody cared was a false belief-in fact, I do matter and people do care. Secondly, when I hear others’ stories, I am able to recognize things in my own life that I need to address.
So, the group is like a second family. It affords me the ability to talk about sex and to learn about life-neither of which I had in my family. It’s an opportunity almost to grow up again…but in a healthy way. That’s the most important thing the group has taught me.
How did religious teachings impact your childhood?
A good part of the shame I’ve felt most of my life relates to Catholicism. Basically, I was taught to live by some other ideal, or be somebody else. God was vengeful, angry and spiteful. That package of beliefs-there’s something wrong with me; I’m sinful; I have to improve myself for God to accept me; sexuality is evil; my body is evil; I am evil-gave me an altered view of myself.
My recovery has been about throwing away that image of God and replacing it with something healthy; to identify the God that I was taught about by the Catholic Church and to say, “No, I don’t want that God-and I don’t believe that’s who God is. I’m getting rid of it.”
The Church is selling God, and they’re selling a really bad product. They need a new and improved product to sell.
You brought a lawsuit against the male relative who abused you.
I needed to face the truth of what my experience was. Just going to an attorney and him agreeing to take my case was him saying, “I believe you.” And the day my relative was served the papers, I knew that the secret was being broken. To sit six feet across from him at my deposition and describe everything he did to me in detail was so empowering.
Testifying involved bringing up all the fragments of past memories and finally letting the little boy talk and say what had been done to me. When my relative’s attorney questioned me…at that moment, I finally became a whole person again. I could think and feel at the same time. It was an extremely cathartic moment. I will never forget that.
Any final thoughts?
I want to be there to support other people who go through that process of facing those family situations. Yet I understand, and have a lot of compassion for people who are not yet ready to, or fear, entering recovery. However, no matter what your experience has been, to go through that, to feel all those emotions, is always worth it. One can never imagine how wonderful life is on the other side until you get there.
After 45 years, I’m happy to be alive. It’s been hard, hard work, but God…it’s been worth it.