The Impact of Childhood Experiences

Human Rights

Eirliani Abdul Rahman is a diplomat turned activist. To raise awareness for survivors of sexual child abuse, she will be setting out for an expedition to the North Pole in April 2019 and to the South Pole. Here, Eirliani is documenting her inner and outer struggles as she is preparing for these trips.

This is Part 10 of Eirliani’s personal leadership journey.

On Tuesday, September 25, in the evening, as I got into the bath, a memory came back to me, unbidden, from my childhood.

I had been working on a piece on human trafficking in a province of Indonesia and, earlier that afternoon, had been explaining to someone close to me how I often did not feel safe as a child.

Eirliani Abdul RahmanNGO Yakin

Eirliani Abdul Rahman

Eirliani Abdul Rahman is preparing for a last-degree trip to the North Pole in April 2019 and a 700-mile ski trip to the South Pole in December 2019 to raise awareness for child sexual abuse survivors. She is the co-founder of YAKIN (Youth, Adult Survivors & Kin In Need), an NGO working on children’s rights and child protection, and a member of Twitter’s Safety & Trust Council. She serves as director at the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation and is a member of the Global Diplomacy Lab.

In 2015, she led a successful campaign of the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (“Save the Childhood Movement”) founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi called #FullStop to #childsexualabuse in India, which reached 16 million people over 6 weeks. Eirliani is co-author of the book “Survivors: Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse.” She won the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Award in 2015.

What I suddenly remembered was that I was a flower girl at my aunt’s wedding, and that when I lay down to sleep that night, I was aware that I had been sexually abused for some time.

It suddenly became urgent to me to find out from my mother how old I was when the wedding took place, because, like most survivors of child sexual abuse, I did not remember how old I was when it first began, or when it ended. She was puzzled, confused even, but eventually relented. My fingers trembled and I was crying as I texted her on my laptop, communicating with her via WhatsApp.

It turns out that I was ten years old when I was a flower girl at that wedding.

So my abuse must have begun at a much younger age than I had initially thought.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was fifteen years old when the alleged sexual assault by Judge Brett Kavanaugh took place: he had pushed her onto a bed at a high-school party, covered her mouth and tried to remove her clothes, intending to rape her.

She claimed that Mark Judge was also in the room and may have helped push her onto the bed.

During the hearing, she said, “I am terrified” and “I don’t have all the answers and I don’t remember as much as I would like to.”

Her behavior is typical of survivors of child sexual abuse.

A professor of psychology at Stanford University and Palo Alto University, Ford used scientific terminology to explain the effects of trauma on a person.

When asked by Senator Dianne Feinstein how she (Ford) could be sure it was Kavanaugh, Ford replied, “In the same way I’m sure I’m talking to you right now,” and then explained how the level of norepinephrine and the epinephrine in the brain – neurotransmitters released under stress – encodes memories into the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in storing memory, so the “trauma-related experience is locked there, whereas other details kind of drift.”

Ford is unable to recollect the address of the house, or details of how she got home afterwards.

"Child sexual abuse is insidious because as research has shown, the impact of the abuse may continue long into adulthood."
Eirliani Abdul Rahman

When asked by Senator Patrick Leahy about her strongest memory from that night, Ford replied, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two [men], and their having fun at my expense.”

Child sexual abuse is insidious because, as research has shown, the impact of the abuse may continue long into adulthood.

The short-terms effects may include anxiety symptoms such as fearfulness, panic attacks and/or sleep disturbances including night terrors; depressive symptoms including poor appetite and/or concentration, suicidal ideations and/or attempts; PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) characterized by heightened vigilance, avoidance of situations which remind the survivor of the trauma, and re-experiencing of the event; precocious or increased sexualized behavior; and self-blame, shame, and guilt.

Long-term sequelae may include emotional disturbances such as depression, anxiety and/or anger; sexual difficulties including revulsion for sex, promiscuity or sexual dysfunction; parenting difficulties; and/or addiction to drugs, alcohol, etc.

Ford herself explained, “The etiology of anxiety and PTSD is multifactorial. [The incident] was certainly a critical risk factor. That would be a predictor of the [conditions] that I now have.”

Ford’s desire to have two front doors to afford her a means of escape during a crisis is typical of the need of survivors to assert some form of control in the aftermath of trauma.

"The brains of children with PTSD have structural differences not seen in the brains of children who have not been through trauma."
Eirliani Abdul Rahman

For me, perhaps the most damaging impact of child sexual abuse is the understanding that the brains of children with PTSD have structural differences not seen in the brains of children who have not been through trauma.

A 2016 study published in the journal Radiology concluded this after using MRI to compare the brain structure in two groups of children, one with PTSD and the other without the disorder. All had experienced the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China, which killed nearly 70,000 people and injured 370,000 more. The two groups of children had significant differences in the network of neural connections in the brain, with the group with PTSD having brain disruptions in the neural networks.

In the hearing, Ford said that traumatic experiences that occur early in life could be more damaging psychologically than those that occur later in life, since the brain is still developing. 

I believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

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