At the start of his one-man show, Michael Broussard points to a blown-up photo of himself with his grandmother, whom he adored. “That’s me at 6. I was a happy, outgoing child who loved everything, everyone…. My favorite thing was to dance.”
A year later, that child didn’t exist. “I have no memory of that kid. I can’t remember ever feeling that free.” Broussard had become a victim of sexual abuse.
Sadly, Broussard’s experience is all too common in this country; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in four girls and one in six-to-nine boys suffer some type of sexual abuse before the age of 18. Its impact is long-lasting and far reaching, often leading to depression, anxiety disorders, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), said Steven Berkowitz, MD, director of Penn’s Child and Adolescent Trauma Program, who was part of a panel discussion after the show. This type of abuse can also lead to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and “there’s also a clear correlation between this abuse and the onset of fibromyalgia,” Berkowitz said. Also participating in the panel were Cindy Christian, MD, chair of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention at CHOP, and Renee Betancourt, MD, of Family Medicine and Community Health.
Broussard’s show -- Ask a Sex Abuse Survivor – delves into his early life: what he endured, how he felt , and the horrific impact the abuse had on him. Reliving these painful experiences is not easy for him – decades later memories continue to haunt him – but he hopes to “illuminate the experience of survivors for nonsurvivors,” he said. “I want to help bridge the gap between those who are so damaged, they can’t speak, and the general public.”
Also, “I went after the thing I’d been running from and that was empowering.” Broussard presented the show at the Perelman School of Medicine.
Berkowitz said that many survivors become more aggressive or disruptive but Broussard shrank back into himself. His predator warned him not to tell anyone. “He said if I ever said anything to anyone, they would think there was something wrong with me and lock me up forever,” he said. “So I kept my mouth shut and I kept my head down so no one would see it in my eyes. Week after week, month after month.”
Broussard continued to suffer this abuse for years, even after the predator – his stepfather – was kicked out of the house. He learned later that his sister had also been abused and was also afraid to say anything. He also learned that his own mother had been abused as a child. This is common, said Christian. “In my practice I’ve seen thousands of children who were victims of sexual abuse. Very often, the parent has been a victim as well,” she said. “They’ll tell me, ‘I never told anyone’ or that they told someone when they were younger but nothing happened.”
In the past several years, public awareness of childhood sexual abuse has increased significantly. “When Michael was growing up [in the 1970s], there was no public recognition,” Christian said. But even today, she still encounters families where these issues are recognized but swept under the rug.
Medical schools now educate future physicians. For example, at the PSOM, medical students learn about issues of family violence, child abuse, and sexual abuse throughout their curriculum. And Pennsylvania now requires child abuse awareness training for any licensed health-care professional, in an effort to prevent and detect child abuse.
“It’s important to approach all patients with the understanding that we might not know everything about them,” said Betancourt. It’s about being aware. For example, during routine exams, such as PAP smears, “my suspicions are piqued when, even with a gentle approach, a patient seems fearful or has an emotional reaction. Or the patient will dissociate herself from the exam, a separate mental state – a protective mechanism – that is learned at an early age.”
This awareness is especially important when a patient experiences psychosomatic symptoms – those with no known physical cause to back them up. Betancourt recalled a patient who had been admitted for a neurologic evaluation for sudden losses of consciousness. She had been on increasing doses of anti-seizure medications, but the blackouts continued. Tests showed no seizure activity. “Among patients we can’t explain, we sometimes find a history of real trauma that goes back to when the patient was quite young,” she said. “The connection between brain and body organs is a close and important one.”
Betancourt sat with her patient, gently and patiently questioning her about what might be causing her to lose consciousness. Over 60 minutes, the patient told Betancourt that she had been raped at 16 but, even before that, she had been sexually abused by a family member between the ages of four and eight. “I try to be strong and educate others to prevent it,” the patient told her, “but I never thought it would make me lose consciousness.”
Broussard’s meek demeanor put him at the mercy of bullies when he was young. He was beat up in school, which led to extreme anxiety and panic attacks. He started skipping school, and, in 1979, when he was in ninth grade, he quit altogether. “I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” he said. He stayed in his room, in the dark, listening to sad music.
It was his love of science fiction – and the US Postal System – that ultimately saved him. Without leaving his room, Broussard was able to join a sci fi group and started receiving flyers and newsletters. He got pen pals and started watching – and loving -- the TV show, Dr. Who. The lead character became “a father figure to me, showing me things to admire and emulate,” he said. He discovered that Tom Baker (who played the lead at the time) was going to be a guest star at a Dr. Who conference. “Nothing could get me out of my room … except him.”
Broussard went to the conference and, even with his “head down, mouth shut,” people still talked to him and he started making friends. He then went to more conventions. It was at a convention that he met the first person he entrusted with his story. “She let me share my dark history but didn’t run away. It made all the difference in the world.”
Traumatized people often feel alone and isolated, sure that no one would understand, Berkowitz said.
“What’s crucial about Michael’s story is having social support and people who cared about him…. That’s the key to getting better.”
To learn more about Ask a Sex Abuse Survivor, go to http://sexabusesurvivor.com/.