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Addiction and Sexual Abuse

“We walked into that police station holding the jagged shards of our story, of our childhood, and said, LOOK. THIS HAPPENED. And Officer Paul Smith bore witness. He wrote it down.”

So writes childhood sexual abuse survivor, blogger, speaker, and advocate Laura Parrott Perry in her viral blog post He Wrote it Down.

In the post, Perry shares the story of how she and her cousin Mary made the courageous choice to report their grandfather’s sexual abuse to the police … 35 years after it happened.

Perry emphasizes the power of telling one’s story, having it heard and witnessed, and connecting with others who were harmed in the same way. Those are important steps to healing from the trauma of sexual abuse, and recovering from addiction as well.

What is Sexual Abuse?

According to the American Psychological Association, sexual abuse is defined as any “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.”

Sexual abuse is horribly prevalent. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), every 98 seconds, another person experiences sexual assault.

While it’s true that sexual abuse falls under the broader category of physical abuse, it’s also true that sexual abuse is uniquely harmful. Individuals who have suffered sexual abuse often struggle with depression, trauma, self-harming behaviors, and substance abuse.

Addiction and Sexual Abuse

The connection between sexual abuse and substance addiction is significant.

In the NIDA Notes article Exploring the Role of Child Abuse in Later Drug Abuse, Neil Swan notes that childhood physical and sexual abuse is highly correlated with drug abuse in adulthood:

“The reviewed studies show that from 55 percent to 99 percent of [women in drug abuse treatment] reported a history of physical or sexual trauma. Most of the trauma occurred before age 18 and was commonly related to repetitive childhood physical or sexual assault. When the women are victims of both types of abuse, they are twice as likely to abuse drugs as are those who experienced only one type of abuse.”

Why do those of us with a history of sexual abuse struggle with addiction? It has to do with how we hold the event in our consciousness, whether or not we’ve healed from the trauma on all levels.

Parrott-Perry summed it up this way in her interview at A Wish Come Clear: “If you’re unwilling to deal with that original wound [from your past abuse], you will seek out voluntary pains left, right, and center.”

Common Self-Judgments and Limiting Beliefs Surrounding Sexual Abuse

If we’re unable to address the pain that arose from sexual assault, then we’re trapped by our past. Years pass, but part of us stays stuck in the same horrible story.

People who have endured physical and sexual abuse in childhood often internalize painful self-judgments and limiting beliefs that they carry with them into adulthood. These ideas include, but are not limited to:

  • I deserved it; it’s my fault
  • I should have seen it coming
  • I’m not worth anything
  • I’m not worth protecting
  • I can never tell anyone the whole truth
  • I can’t leave; I’m trapped
  • I have to stay and “fix” this relationship

Note that people may not consciously acknowledge these problematic beliefs; however, our subconscious programming has a great deal of influence over how we behave.

How do we uncover our subconscious stories? It’s extremely difficult to uncover one’s own; by definition, they operate beneath our usual consciousness. This is where a well-trained therapist can prove invaluable.

That said, one great place to start is with something that’s causing pain in your life now. Take something that’s stressing you out, and ask, “When do I first remember feeling this way?”

Follow the energy back to the very first instance that you can recall. That’s the painful memory you want to work with; that’s the point of origin for a painful story.

For more on this, check out our blog post The Link Between Trauma and Addiction: Part 1.

Healing Emotional Wounds

Again, the first step to healing your emotional wounds is figuring out what hurt you. In one sense, that’s the easy part; you just follow the painful energy back to the first time you can remember feeling that particular shade of awful.

But what do you do after that? How do you clean and seal the emotional wound?

You seek help from the best “surgeon” available: someone who will treat your emotional injuries with care and compassion.

Harvard-trained sociologist and author Dr. Martha Beck extends the metaphor in her book Finding Your Own North Star:

“You wouldn’t open up a literal, physical bullet wound just anywhere, or get just anyone to help. You’d want a sanitary operating room with all the amenities, and the best-trained surgeon available. Most people don’t seem to realize that emotional wounds need to be given the same kind of respect.”

Beck goes on to detail the qualities of an effective emotional surgeon, including genuine care, personal health, a willingness to work, and empathy without needing to “fix.”

Just as you wouldn’t want to have physical surgery in a grimy, non-sterile operating room, you don’t want to open up emotional wounds in unsafe places.

Do yourself the favor of finding a well-trained therapist or dual diagnosis addiction treatment center, and let the healing begin.

Addiction and Sexual Abuse

Joe Koelzer

Joe Koelzer is a co-founder and CEO of The Clearing. He has years of counseling experience and a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica.

After observing how depression and substance abuse impacted his wife Betsy’s life, Joe realized how broken our current system is for addiction and related mental health treatment.

He witnessed firsthand how an evidence-based approach coupled with Spiritual Psychology saved Betsy and enabled her to gain control of her life.

In co-founding The Clearing, Joe realized his dream of creating and sharing this innovative approach with others in a structured clinical setting.

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APA Reference
, . (2017). Addiction and Sexual Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 25 Oct 2017
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