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Expert Q&A

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Could I have been sexually abused?

Asked by Sarah, Chicago

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I am wondering if I could have been molested as a child. I have this strong feeling that I was, but I can't remember anything. When I was young, 6 or 7, I used to make my dolls have sex. At 9, I began touching myself, even though I didn't know what it meant. I am now 29 and was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last year. I know this condition often comes with a history of childhood sexual abuse. Could it be possible?

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Mental Health Expert Dr. Charles Raison Psychiatrist,
Emory University Medical School

Expert answer

Your question touches upon tricky terrain and an area of mental health that is fiercely debated.

On one side are people who believe that amnesia for childhood abuse is common and needs to be overcome through therapeutic interventions designed to "recover memories."

On the other side are people who insist that such buried memories are far rarer than are false memories induced by well-meaning, but misguided, clinicians.

Ask our expert doctors a question

As with most complex issues there is likely truth on both sides. We know that people can be abused and not remember it as adults.

This fact was disturbingly brought home a few years ago by the case of a man who had videotaped himself having sex with a young child. Do you remember the case? The video was discovered; the man disappeared and headed to the hills armed to the teeth, only to be captured eventually by law enforcement. The girl he'd abused was at the edge of her teen years and had no memory whatsoever of the abuse event.

On the other hand, I have seen many cases of people with psychiatric symptoms who recovered memories of abuse during therapy, only later to become convinced that the memories were created rather than actual.

More than one family with no clear evidence of an abusive atmosphere has been destroyed by this phenomenon.

I don't know, and I don't think anybody knows, the percentage of recovered memories of abuse that are true versus false, so I'm not able to speculate about the odds that your feelings and suggestive behaviors do in fact hide a history of abuse of which you are unaware. I can say in general, however, that the possibility you were abused increases as factors consistent with abuse also increase.

Here are a few questions relevant to potential abuse: Was anybody else in your family physically or sexually abused? Was your family environment chaotic and violent? Was drug or alcohol abuse a prominent feature of your family's life?

To the degree that these types of experiences were part of your childhood, the possibility of abuse increases to the same degree. To the degree that your early family environment was supportive, loving and peaceful, the odds of unremembered abuse go down to that degree.

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