science of us

After Being Sexually Abused, I Let Myself Deteriorate

Photo: Christine Jerian / EyeEm/Getty Images

For a long time, I thought I was just a weird kid. So did my family. As a child, I made a habit of taking the fresh, clean laundry my mother had neatly folded and put away into my dresser and throwing it onto the floor of my bedroom. I would leave it there for days – weeks – until my bedroom floor became invisible underneath piles of clothing. Schoolwork, dishes, and garbage would inevitably join the disarray, too.

Part of me was ashamed of the mess. If I had a friend over, I’d shove the piles under my bed, into my desk, or into my closet, for the sake of creating the impression that I was a normal, put-together kid. And yet at the same time, I relished the chaos I’d created. If I wanted to throw perfectly clean laundry onto my floor, then that’s exactly what I’d do. If I wanted to leave dirty dishes lying around, even long after the stench of the mold began to fill the room, then that’s exactly what I’d do.

As time progressed, I began to neglect not only my bedroom but also my personal hygiene. I would wear the same clothes for days without washing them; I wouldn’t brush my teeth for weeks on end. I ate junk food until I felt sick, and I bit my nails obsessively.

A decade and a half would pass before I understood my “weird” behavior. I wasn’t weird. I was depressed, and my behavior was my way of coping with early childhood trauma. By seizing control over my surroundings and my body, I was trying to regain the agency that had been robbed from me when I was sexually assaulted at age 4.

My earliest memory is of a courtroom. My mother places me into the witness stand and a huge microphone looms above my tiny body. I don’t understand what’s happening, but I know I feel scared. Here, as a 4-year-old child, I would stand witness in my own sexual-assault case.

Some time earlier, as my mother bathed me, she noticed a rash on my genitals. I remember her inspecting me, and even though I didn’t understand what she was doing, I could feel her pain, and in turn, I knew something was wrong. Later, a doctor confirmed my hymen was broken. The perpetrator was my 13-year-old babysitter, a girl from my local community. The experience was devastating for my parents, and for my mother with her first child. My father was investigated as a potential perpetrator, and unable to see me for a period of time, a deeply unsettling  experience for him.

Later, I would stop taking care of myself and my surroundings, something I’ve asked my parents about as an adult. Why didn’t they do more to intervene? Looking back now, my father says that he was raised by a different generation, and thus his approach to parenting was to put the onus on me to work hard and overcome my own obstacles. My mother says she did try to intervene, to no avail, though I have little recollection of any explicit conversations we had about my behavior. I do remember that sometimes she would clean my bedroom herself, shortly after which I’d rip it apart again. I think my parents coped by mentally blocking out a lot of what happened, and choosing to forget as a way to move forward and heal. But I can’t forget.

By my teenage years, my lackadaisical approach to oral hygiene had led to two root canals on each of my bottom back molars. I remember the cavities being so bad that I could stick the tip of my tongue into the crevasses. When I smiled or laughed, I’d cover my mouth with the palm of my hand out of embarrassment. Even today, I never smile with my teeth. I thought all of my shameful personal habits — biting my nails, eating poorly, lacking the desire to shower or brush my teeth, change my clothing, or clean my bedroom — were something innate. It’s just the way I was: odd. I started to self-identify that way, and as a result, I didn’t investigate my habits other than to feel ashamed when a friend or family member would comment, only to get angry and become more stubborn about retaining them. With time, self-neglect became self-harm and substance abuse.

On the surface, it seems like self-neglect might have something to do with a loss of self-control. For me, it was the opposite; it gave me my control back. Frankly, if all my teeth rotted, it was my decision. People are likely more familiar with this negative coping mechanism when it comes to behavioral problems like eating disorders, or cutting, and the way some trauma survivors say these things help them regain a sense of agency over themselves. Self-neglect, in comparison, isn’t as well known. But for me, the feeling it gave me was similar to what people who turn to self-harm or disordered eating have said: There was something deeply fulfilling in being the one who got to decide to quit taking care of myself. If I was on a journey to hell, at least I was in the driver’s seat.

I now know my behavior wasn’t that unusual for a survivor of childhood sexual trauma (which happened more than once as I was growing up). Jennifer Foster, an assistant professor of counselor education and counseling psychology at Western Michigan University, has researched the impact of sexual abuse on children and teenagers. Of children that experience sexual assault, she says about half of them develop severe symptoms, and meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. These symptoms can hinder children’s growth and development and put them at risk for a host of problems, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, self-harm, and suicidal behavior.

Or some children might do what I did, and stop tending to themselves and their surroundings. “For some survivors, self-neglect may be a conscious or unconscious attempt to keep others away,” Foster tells me. Her explanation adds nuance to the way I’ve understood my own behavior. In addition to regaining control, maybe I was also trying to keep others away from me, in a misguided attempt to protect myself.

It’s a theme Roxane Gay explores in her new memoir, Hunger, and though our experiences were very different, I can recognize my younger self in the way she describes her own way of coping with sexual trauma. Gay writes about how, when she was only 12, she was lured to an abandoned cabin by a boy she adored named Christopher, only to suffer a gang-rape by him and his friends. Like myself, Gay developed symptoms following the traumatic rape, and she sought refuge in food as she tried to forget the horrific experience. “I began eating to change my body,” she writes. “I was willful in this.” The bigger she grew, the safer she felt. Her ever-growing body became “a place where no one can get you,” one that “needed to feel like a fortress, impermeable.” I saw myself in these lines, in the way I drew further into myself in order to shut everyone else out.

And yet there are other ways to interpret self-neglect. Instead of being a way of seizing control, or a form of protection, perhaps it functions more like a distraction, said Stevan Hobfoll, a behavioral scientist at Rush University. It could be a way for survivors to shift their focus away from their pain. “In battlefield surgery, before the days of anesthesia, they’d put a nail in your hand, and you’d grip down on it, piercing the nail into your hand to take your mind off where you’re hurting,” he said. Maybe self-neglect and other negative coping mechanisms work something like that brutal analogy, giving survivors a brief, if still painful, respite from the emotional aftermath of the trauma.

I wish I could say I have everything together now. I don’t. But I’m getting there. Years ago, when I first moved out of my parents’ house, I moved in with my long-term girlfriend. For her sake, and for my own, I learned to care for our shared space; I even started to enjoy it. The act of washing our bedsheets, along with the fresh smell and soft touch of a newly made bed, began to bring me solace. I know it probably sounds weird that something so simple could bring me joy. But I also know now that it isn’t that simple, and it isn’t that weird.

After Being Sexually Abused, I Let Myself Deteriorate