Cable News Network, May 17, 1998

Woman Pays for Abuse with Her Health
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON, May 14 (Reuters) - Helen M. doesn't look any different from anyone else. Young in appearance for her 75 years, she is well-spoken, neatly groomed and outgoing.

But that is her point. Helen, who does not want to give her last name, says she is one of millions of Americans who were abused as children and who are paying for it in adulthood with poor health.

``A shattered spirit is invisible to the naked eye,'' she told a news conference.

Although she looks healthy, Helen and her doctors trace her obesity, past alcohol abuse and promiscuity to her childhood, when she was sexually and psychologically abused by her father.

She suffers from joint and back pain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and depression.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees. It co-authored a report released on Thursday that found people who were abused as children are much more likely to have certain health problems as adults, including addiction, obesity and depression.

Abuse included sexual abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse and ``household dysfunction'' such as growing up with a parent who was an addict or alcoholic, criminal or wife-beater.

``Persons who had experienced four or more categories of childhood exposure, compared to those who had experienced none, had four to 12-fold increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and suicide attempt,'' the report reads.

Such people were two to four times more likely to smoke, to have had many sex partners and to have sexually transmitted disease, and up to 1.6 times more likely to be obese.

The study, led by Dr. Vincent Felitti, chief of preventive medicine at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, suggests that traumatic experiences in childhood get hard-wired into the brain. Destructive health behaviors such as smoking and drinking may simply be a person's way of trying to cope.

Helen sees it that way. She said her father's abuse destroyed her personality.

``I felt I was wicked, I must have done something terrible to invite this kind of behavior,'' she said. ``I was afraid my mother would find out. It would have destroyed her.'

After she confronted her father when she was 14, he turned to psychological abuse. ``Nothing I did was good enough. He did everything he could to belittle me,'' Helen said.

The results seem clear to her, looking back. ``By the time I was in the seventh grade, I weighed over 200 pounds. I have been struggling with this my whole life.''

She grew up to be promiscuous, and abused alcohol. It got worse. After her first husband abandoned her with two young children, her daughter became sick and Helen was forced to send her to stay with her parents. ``It never occurred to me that I was sending her into the lion's den,'' she said. ``And my father also abused her.''

Her daughter, who is now in her 50s, also has troubled health. ``She is extremely overweight,'' Helen said. She has multiple sclerosis and diabetes, and was recently in the hospital for acute pancreatitis.

Felitti said abused children probably made mistakes with their own children -- apart from the documented studies that have shown abused children often grow up to be abusers. ``Who will these people learn to parent from?'' he asked.

Felitti's report, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, suggests that doctors and health care workers be retrained to ask patients about possible past abuse. Helen, one of Felitti's patients, thinks being asked about her past has helped her deal with it.

``People say get over it, but how can you get over it if you don't know what 'it' is?'' she asked.

``The older I become, the more experienced I am ... I realize that kind of information is important,'' she said. ``I'm not a bit reluctant to provide it.'

Helen said she was speaking out to educate other victims. ``It's my hope that I can reach people who have suffered this same kind of childhood abuse,'' she said.

She has one message: ``Find someone you can trust and talk to them about it. That's my goal, is to help people heal.''

And she has advice for parents seeking to protect their children. ``What they need to do is be aware of what is going on inside your own home.''

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited.All rights reserved.

Return to Newsroom Index or to Table of Contents.