Talking Out Military Sexual Trauma

Sexual abuse led one vet to a VA career counseling other MSA victims.

            Jennifer Sluga,  six-year veteran of the Wisconsin National Guard, originally participated in the VA’s new oral history program to help her caregivers understand her military sexual trauma, but her ordeal made her a strong advocate for others who had been assaulted.

“In the beginning, telling about my story helped me heal,” she told me recently. “But now I want everyone else who has ever experienced sexual trauma to know that they are not alone. By talking about it, we can get back the power that was taken from us.”

Now a psychotherapist at the Vet Center in Madison, Sluga estimates that 90 percent of her patient caseload also suffers from MST.

Sluga spent 17 months with the National Guard in Kosovo, but she told Thor Ringler, the “poet-in-residence” who runs the VA’s pilot “My Life, My Story” program in Madison, that her PTSD probably started well before her deployment from her military sexual trauma during her military training. (For more about the oral history program, see my previous blog, “An Oral History Program to Tell Veterans’ Stories.”)

“When he started that program, I told him it was the most amazing program ever,” she said. “Talking this trauma out of my system and using it to help others is just an amazing and powerful experience. It’s important for medical personnel to know that when I’m in those situations, I’m gonna be a little uptight, that I wonder whether I can trust that person, and that I’d prefer work with female doctor.”

Her ordeal started in boot camp when she and her “battle buddy” both reported to sick call. Her buddy was sent to the hospital, and that left her alone with the doctor.

“He had lot of rank on his chest and expected me do anything he said,” Sluga said. “He wanted me get undressed, then he began touching me and it became pretty obvious that this was nothing in the realm of anything medical.”

Sluga finally managed to push him away and ran to her barracks, only partially dressed.

“I ran to our barracks because I wanted to shower and cry, but another woman saw the marks on my body, asked about them, and then called the drill sergeant,” she said. “He ran over to sick call, and I thought he was going to kill the medic. It was really cool to be validated like that.”

But it didn’t stop there.

Several members of Sluga’s unit reported also sexual abuse during their deployment, and she began advocating for them.

Finally, the medic was charged with sexually assaulting his patients, and Sluga, her battle buddy and her drill sergeant were all required to testify at his court martial. “He finally admitted to sexually assaulting more than 70 soldiers and excused it by saying he had been raped as a child,” she said.

No wonder Sluga was severely traumatized. But she didn’t realize it until after she had left the National Guard and returned to college.

“I didn’t recognize that I wasn’t doing well until I went from an A student and I was failing all my classes, not attending classes, sleeping 20 hours a day,” she said. “I just wanted to go hide.”

Her breaking point came after she and her classmates got an exam back, and one of the girls was complaining about a bad grade.

“She said, ‘It really raped me,’” Sluga remembered.  “And I just wanted to jump over the chairs and scream at her: ‘Did it really rape you? Did it make you feel completely out of control?  Did it actually hurt you?’”

That led to counseling and therapy. It led to Ringler and the “My Life, My Story” program, which has now spread to six other VA facilities across the country. And it led Sluga to a career helping others as a psychotherapist.

More men than women are sexually assaulted in the military, she said.

“One of four women reports she has been sexually assaulted,” said Sluga. “The rate for men is one in ten, but since there are so many more men than women, the number of male victims is greater. Females are assaulted by men and other females, and males are assaulted by males and females as well.”

Rape and sexual assault are not about sexual gratification, she added. It’s all about power and control.

“In the military, you have no control over much of anything, so if you can find an area you can control, you take it,” Sluga explained. “A lot of people bully up and take advantage of other people—it’s almost like a sport.”

Now look at Sluga’s ordeal in light of our previous discussions on moral injury. She was betrayed by virtually everyone in her chain of command: the medical officer who sexually assaulted her, the officers who let such conduct go unchecked.  Those fellow soldiers who are supposed to save your life if necessary and have your back should be the last individuals anyone should need to protect themselves against.

VA psychologist Jonathan Shay argues that moral injury is present when there has been a betrayal of what is right by a person in a position of legitimate authority in a high-stakes situation. “Moral injury impairs the capacity for trust and elevates despair, suicidality and interpersonal violence,” he wrote in an article, “Moral Injury,” published last year in the journal of Psychoanalytic Psychology.

Sluga would agree that military sexual trauma can lead to PTSD.

When you lose your sense of self, especially from someone who’s supposed to be helping you, and they take your power and use it against you, to me that’s combat,” she said. And we all know that combat trauma leads to PTSD.

-Eric Newhouse

Sexual Effects of Sexual Abuse

It is now known that sexual abuse is a primary risk factor in sexual health, dysfunction, and intimacy problems. Some of the more common sexual problems linked to sexual abuse are:

* low sexual desire

* chronic sexual pain

* sexually transmitted infections

* unwanted pregnancy

* compulsive sexual behavior

* hi-risk sexual activity

* erection and orgasm problems

-Talkspace

Sexual Fetish with a Partner

What arouses people sexually can be along a very wide spectrum. The fact that there is something to turn you on is not a bad thing. Best of all situations can be when couples learn to turn each other on and use these activators as a way to stimulate, enhance, and evolve the relationship. This may not be something you feel you can share with your partner, if there is ever an opportunity or a possibility that you could—that would be the best. Then it moves the fetish from something that feels like it has to be kept a secret into something that can be used for reciprocal pleasure.

On the other side of the coin is knowing how to use this activation with your partner in a more subtle way. The point is don’t turn this into something bad if there is a way it can be used to enhance the relationship sexually.

-Talkspace

Margaret Cho Wants You to Embrace Your Darkness

Using creativity to cope and connect

Margaret Cho has been finding ways to entertain us for decades. From her stand-up routines, such as The Notorious C.H.O.; to her books, such as I’m The One That I Want; to her roles in films such as Face/Off, Cho continues to come up with new ways to explore and share her artistry.

A major reason why Cho continues to be so prolific is the same reason why she is so beloved by her fans — she is willing to tackle and speak out on difficult issues. Cho has been an advocate for LGBT rights, has opened up about her having experienced sexual abuse, and about her sexuality, as well as her consequent struggles with an eating disorder, addiction, depression and suicide. In doing so, Cho has given voice to people who feel alone and invisible in their struggles with social and emotional issues.

And with her new album, American Myth, Cho is continuing her message: Don’t run away from your darkness — embrace it.

Cho explains how this is a central approach to her life and art. She told me, “People should be conscious that pain and suffering are essential to living. We need it as much as we need happiness and joy and pleasure. There would be no contrast in your existence if the bad and dark parts didn’t exist.”

For Cho, this stance is personal. One of the painful issues with which she has struggled over the years is depression. People who struggle with depression — even only sub-clinical depressive symptoms — may experience significant loss of physical, social and role functioning. And the loss of functioning associated with depression appears to be comparable to or worse than that of other chronic medical issues.

“I think I’ve always had it. It’s something that sounds familiar when people talk about their experience of depression,” Cho explained. “But I’ve never been diagnosed or medicated or anything. It’s not weeks; it’s more just like it’s parts of days.”

Cho describes her depression as feeling like existential dread, also referred to as existential angst. “There’s always been this existential dread that I’ve had, not knowing what the future is going to bring,” Cho explained. “And not knowing how you may have done something in the past that’s upsetting, or regret something that you’ve done.”

Like many others who experience depression, Cho also experiences rumination, which is to compulsively and repeatedly think about something. Rumination can be useful if one is attempting to deliberate over possible solutions to a problem. But it can also take the form of obsessing and amplifying a problem without arriving at a solution.

“It becomes something amplified in your mind to obsess over. The tiny slights that build up – like someone doesn’t email or text you back,” she explained. “Something that you obsess on, and then you realize that the other person has no idea that you’re going through this crazy thing. And it’s just strange how certain facts or details about your life become amplified.”

Managing one’s negative experience can be difficult enough, but Cho felt that while she was growing up there were many social signals that she and her feelings didn’t matter. This first came with observing the underrepresentation of Asian-Americans in popular culture. Research suggests that even subtle forms of racism can result in negative psychological consequences.

In Cho’s case, she described the feeling of invisibility — like she was not there and she didn’t matter — that can arise from these forms of racism.  “I think you feel betrayed and shocked when you realize that you’re not what’s being represented or you don’t feel included. It’s just this strong feeling of invisibility. And it can be very hard to explain to other people.”

-Michael Friedman, PhD, Brick By Brick