On June 20th, 2014 Pete was asked to speak at the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of New Jersey. He shared his experience of childhood sexual abuse with over 80 therapists including world-renowned addiction and mental health expert Dr. David Mee-Lee. Every month Dr. Mee-Lee features a news article and advice column based on his work. The month of July was dedicated to Pete’s experience and the Foundation he created.
The news article below is taken from Dr. Mee-Lee’s monthly news letter which can be found at:
Trauma-informed assessment, treatment and systems of care are being talked about, and advocated for everywhere these days. And with good reason. It is a neglected area of healthcare and has attracted increasing attention as veterans return home; as well, priests, sports coaches and other prominent people are exposed. For the children and teens who trusted these people, the betrayal and abuse of their boundaries and lives is traumatic and tragic.
This month, as I listened to Peter Pelullo tell his life story, the profound life-long effects of early trauma and abuse hit home with such impact. At age seven, Peter suffered multiple sexual abuse attacks by two older neighborhood teens. Recently Peter shared his journey from sexual abuse, sexual addiction and recovery. He documented this with candid honesty in his book “Betrayal and the Beast”.
About the Author:
“Peter S. Pelullo was the founder and owner of a premiere recording studio in the ’70s and ’80s,where he worked with the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Foreigner, and Patti Labelle. At present, he is an entrepreneur and a financier focusing on technology startups. Following his journey in recovery, he created the LetGo..Let Peace Come In Foundation, which supports adult victims of childhood sexual abuse throughout the world.”
I want to share some nuggets of information from Peter and the two friends in recovery who accompanied him, Paul and John.
Consider the following observations, awarenesses and coping mechanisms to raise your consciousness about trauma and childhood abuse
Here are some of the “pearls” I wrote down as Peter spoke:
1. “Hurt people, hurt people”
This is a nasty phrase. More than that, it captures the truth of how people who have been abused and violated early in life (or even later) struggle with many compensating defenses and coping attempts that can hurt others as well.
“No-one will ever do that to me again.”
“It’s dangerous to let people get close to me.”
“You can’t trust people. Look what happened with my father, mother, friend, uncle…”
Peter chronicled his pattern of sexual relationships that lacked full intimacy; and the affairs which ultimately cost him his marriage. “I can’t deal with this pain, anxiety and hurt without alcohol or some other drug or addictive behavior.” Then the ravages of addiction compound and hurt themselves and loved ones.
2. “You can’t make a conscious decision unless you are conscious”
When a child’s boundaries are violated with sexual and physical abuse (often perpetrated by a family member or who they thought was a trusted friend of the family) a confused, frightened and self-blaming child shuts down. Unresolved, conflicting thoughts and feelings overwhelm and make rational, conscious decisions difficult, if not impossible.
Have you ever lashed out in a reactive fit of anger? Or had an overwhelming anxiety attack over something that wouldn’t faze another person? Why didn’t you make a conscious decision to choose a better path? It is hard for a wounded client to deal with years of pain and confusion that started in childhood. When all that pain is pushed underground, people can’t make conscious rational decisions.
3. “You need to have a relationship with yourself, if you are to have a relationship with God or others.”
How does a child who has just been sexually and/or physically and emotionally abused understand that? What did I do that made them do that to me? What did I do wrong? A child is just learning what the world and relationships are all about. How can they know what is right and wrong, especially when the perpetrator tells them that this is their secret and it is all right, yet it feels not so good? Add to that: if by some chance they tell a parent or trusted family member, and are greeted with blame or outrage, they become more confused and shut down.
Who am I? Do I respect who I am? Do I even know who I am or how to find out? Is it safe to trust, love, talk, feel? The Biblical version of this is: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself”.
4. “Be a human being, not a human doing.”
Paul and Peter both shared experiences of how effective they were in “doing” lots of things, accomplishing much that looks great and is “successful” by standards of wealth, position, influence and philanthropy. What allows Peter to pursue his mission “to help, heal, support and bring awareness to the hundreds of millions of childhood sexual abuse survivors worldwide” is partly his entrepreneurial and business success at making money. To all outside eyes he had it all. He still does, but in recovery, the process of becoming a human being brings new satisfaction and meaning which money can’t buy. Wounded people struggle to move away from just being a human doing.
Recognize the Symptoms
“Victims with a history of sexual abuse will often present secondary symptoms before the abuse is uncovered. It is important that these symptoms be recognized as a possible reaction to something greater than the symptomatic condition itself.”
“Some of the behaviors and symptoms exhibited by victims of child sexual abuse are:
Trouble sleeping/ or excessive sleeping
Discomfort around children who are the same age as when the child was themselves abused
Panic and/or anxiety attacks
Sexual acting out
Sexual problems or disinterest in sex
Discomfort with people who are the same gender as their abuser
Lack of memory of being a child or missing large blocks of their childhood
A hunch or intuition that sexual abuse occurred
A pervasive feeling of powerlessness
Suicide attempts or strong suicidal wishes
Repeated victimization such as rape or domestic violence
Unexplained physical or emotional numbness
Lack of trust
People pleasing/rescuing at an early age
Excessive need to control
Obsessive/compulsive behavior patterns
Unhealthy choices in members of the opposite sex
Manic-depressive behavior (extreme emotions)”
That is a long list of possible clinical presentations. Not everyone with elements of these presentations has been a victim of childhood sexual abuse. However, this list is another way of emphasizing that we have to start screening for trauma; because many clients and patients won’t volunteer this information, and will not even know the connection with their presenting concerns.
The society and world around us has perpetuated a conspiracy of silence around this issue. Think about the years of hidden maneuvers of the church dealing with priests and pastors who struggled with their own demons and hurt so many young people. As well there’s the cover-ups of schools, colleges and organizations dealing with sports coaches or teachers who violated young people who trusted them.
How does sexual abuse go on for years without the child speaking up?
(a) There must be something wrong with me.
Think about your own sense of self as an adult. Are you ever unsure if and when you should speak up and assert your opinion, feelings and needs? How can a wounded child speak up? You wonder:
“Am I being too sensitive and reactive?”
“Maybe I’m being too demanding..”
“What do I really want anyway?”
“What if my boss or partner yells at me?”
“Do I really have the right to complain about this?”
“What if I get punished for speaking up and lose a promotion or raise?”
These are inhibitors to speaking up even for people who have not suffered childhood sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse. Imagine what it’s like for a child, or even an adult with arrested developmental issues due to unresolved trauma?
(b) I am alone and must be the only one this has happened to.
Of course, as clinicians, we know millions are affected. But let’s focus on that one single child. They have been told this isa secret to be kept just between you and me or else bad things could happen. They don’t know what they don’t know. They have not formed any sense of identity or healthy boundaries to know they have a right to speak up. Even if they attempt to tell others, they can so easily be blamed or scolded for telling stories or for bringing it on themselves. This only makes them feel more isolated and alone.
(c) Guilt, shame and remorse
“If there’s something wrong with me…..”- shame
“I must have done something to bring this on myself, or something wrong to deserve this” – guilt and remorse
“I am all alone anyway, I must keep this to myself. No one should hear this, see this or know this about me.”- guilt and shame
“I cannot speak up.”
What can be done to change the stigma of sexual abuse and increasing access to care and recovery for the millions who need it?
Peter Pellulo has his ideas about what the next steps are.
(a) Take the stigma away
Children will come forward and speak up when they see adults talking about it. Hearing adults talk about it is much more than just the titillating details or the public outrage on the news and talk shows about the Catholic Church or Jerry Sandusky and his coaching career at Penn State University.
It means adults coming forward, sharing their pain and journey in recovery much as we have seen with substance-related and gambling addiction. This makes it OK to talk about for survivors and families of sex abuse.
It means families talking about the power and manipulation adults have over children. That is another reason children can’t speak up about their abuse.
It means creating a safe environment in the family and society for support and validation of the child when and if they come forward. It gives the message to siblings or friends who have been abused that it is safe to disclose.
It means facing the reality of the perpetrator who may be a family member or family friend and doing something…now! If it’s too late and in the past, you can still open up the conversation.
“Let’s see if he will just grow out of it” – no he won’t. It needs to be raised and resolved.
“Maybe she will forget it and move on. No need to stir something up from the past.” – no she won’t forget it. It is likely a controlling event everyday in his or her life.
(b) Create a sweeping shift in social consciousness
Replace the stigma surrounding childhood sexual abuse with an understanding that it is a serious mental and public health issue. It is intertwined with addiction treatment and many other healthcare and public health concerns. We are changing social consciousness on attitudes about alcohol, nicotine and other substance-related and addictive disorders. Society is rapidly changing its consciousness on same sex relationships and marriage. This arena is still frontier-land.
(c) Increase access to care and self/mutual help meetings
Peter Pellulo and his Foundation is doing this by:
Identifying qualified trauma therapists across the USA (and eventually the world) to whom adult survivors can be linked.
Pairing each survivor with a therapist for an allotted 15-20 hours of therapy, which is funded by the Foundation through donations received by Foundation supporters.
Aligning with John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to amass the data that will raise social consciousness around this pandemic issue.
Aiming to establish 1,000 Support and Recovery Rooms across the USA for survivors to attend. Compare that with Alcoholics Anonymous meetings which has more than 114,000 groups in approximately 170 countries.
Whether this is your mission or not, we all have a part to play in raising awareness; improving assessment, treatment and systems of care; and in empowering and supporting survivors of sexual abuse.
At the end of the day, I asked Peter Peulullo for the top three messages he would want clinicians to know about childhood sexual abuse.
One, he said, was to be gentle with clients and yourself. That’s good advice to counter the guilt, shame and remorse.
Two, remember to convey to survivors that “You are not alone” – there are millions out there who know what you have been through.
Thirdly, he reminded us of the statistics: You are very likely to know someone in your extended family, network of friends and certainly in your client caseload, who has suffered the trauma of childhood sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse. Don’t continue the conspiracy of silence. Link them with some help. “Send them to the Foundation”, he said.
One of his closing slides summed it up well: “While childhood sexual abuse is life- altering….it doesn’t have to be life-ending…Provided we get the help we need!
Be gentle with clients and yourself; remember you are not alone; and get the help we need. Not bad advice for many wounds we all face.