This is a story of the human cost of sexual abuse in Alaska.
There was a girl who grew to young adulthood thinking she was not normal. Through the swirling angst of puberty and teen years her peers went through much the same thing. But most of them dealt with it and moved on to functional adulthood. She did not.
Constantly gnawing at her psyche was the feeling she had done something terribly wrong. At 9 years old she developed an eating disorder that gradually escalated. She nibbled at her meals and became very good at hiding her disorder, “Oh, I’ll just grab a bite later. ...” Her family, some friends and teachers were concerned, but few had the skills to understand. “Just eat, how hard is that?” they’d tell her as she grew thinner.
She did go through periods of relatively good health when she ate and was active. But always there were the inner, unexplainable demons. And then, something would happen -- loss of a loved one, breaking up with a boyfriend -- and food again became forbidden.
She began to purge, puking up a meal because -- well -- she didn’t know why.
In her case she did not look emaciated, thin maybe, but not emaciated. Aside from lack of energy, she could probably have gone on for a long time. But poor diet and purging was destroying her body chemistry. Electrolytes were in constant imbalance and, in her 20s, a doctor told her this imbalance could cause immediate cardiac arrest.
Her mind was imbalanced too. She began to rely on increasingly high doses of anti-anxiety medication in order to achieve some semblance of normalcy. Xanax got her through the day. Why was she constantly anxious, and why did she hate eating and feeling full? She had repeated bouts of body image distortion. The mirror reflected beauty, but she only saw ugliness. She hated herself, and the worst part was she didn’t know why.
The medical community treated her food intake problems, not the underlying cause. She sought answers in church where Sunday praise provided momentary relief but also did not treat the cause.
She felt frustrated and immense shame. Her doctor urged her to go to a treatment center Outside. (There are no eating disorder treatment centers in Alaska.) That made her more disappointed.
She turned to indigenous spirituality, trying to understand the fundamental forces that have existed for time immemorial. She gained a measure of understanding from the preternatural, but understanding is not healing.
She was dying.
A turning point came during a visit to a Native sacred site when she literally felt a push that she attributes to spiritual forces. That night she had a nervous breakdown, and in tears of despair called her doctor and asked to be sent to treatment. At that moment the spirits that were following her left.
The Outside treatment center knew how to do the dangerous work of probing for the underlying cause of her eating disorder. After multiple breakdowns she found it. She had been raped by a neighbor when she was 4 years old. She had severe PTSD, causing her maladaptive coping mechanism: her eating disorder.
At four, little girls should be playing with dolls and going to the park. At four a child is just learning to understand normalcy and has no context for perversion. At four little girls cannot understand being sexually abused by a dirty old man.
She learned her brain had put the rape and all its horrible sensations and images in a lobe that was sealed from her consciousness. Her soul knew she had been raped, but she could not access the event to process it. That is why she was so tortured.
She came to realize her feelings of worthlessness were not her fault. They were the fault of a pervert who preyed on defenseless and innocent little girls. Alaska has too many cowards who rape children.
Like her abused sisters and brothers across the state, the girl, now a woman, will never completely recover. She will learn techniques to cope, but her rapist condemned her to cycles of despair and self-loathing, followed by relative functionality. Management will become easier with time, but the effects of child abuse do not go away.
Though not all eating disorders are PTSD or sexual assault related, many are, and affect both women and men. Resultant eating disorders are the most fatal of mental illnesses, according to the National Institutes of Health. Sexual assault in Alaska has got to stop.
Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.
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