Sexual Abuse, Drug and Alcohol Abuse, and Homelessness

In my last post I described ways that sexual abuse in childhood affects girls during adolescence. Depression, cutting, eating disorders, and suicidal behavior are all common. And so is the use of drugs and alcohol. These girls often take amphetamines and cocaine to lift their spirits, counteract their chronic boredom, and treat their depression. They take heroin to calm themselves down and temporarily forget their current worries and their painful pasts.

Many of the homeless women I interviewed on the street with histories of childhood sexual abuse became dependent on drugs. Almost all began drinking or taking drugs as teenagers and had severe habits by the time they were adults. Their attempts to self medicate came at a steep price. Drugs destroyed their will to live, added to their shame and guilt, crippled their cognitive functions, and made them unemployable. With no means of economic support, and no support from their families, they ended up on the streets before they were twenty-five. Homelessness, in turn, led them to increase their drug use because altering their mental state with drugs was one of the only ways they could tolerate their grim lives on the streets. Many of them, after having been abused as children, became victims repeatedly in their adulthood since homelessness inevitably put them in dangerous situations.

The lives of many of the women I interviewed reveals a pattern: sexual abuse in childhood, drug abuse in adolescence, and homelessness in adulthood. While this is a gross oversimplification that leaves out many other factors, the theme is unmistakable.

Barbara told me that “there was suspicion that she had been molested” by her father. She began taking drugs in adolescence. To support her heroin and crack habit, she turned to prostitution and serious crime and became homeless at the age of eighteen. Sabrina was abused by her stepfather, began drinking seriously as an adolescent, and became homeless after her boyfriend began using drugs. Rose, who had been sexually abused by at least one of her mother’s boyfriends, developed a severe heroin habit in her teen years and began living on the streets when she couldn’t keep a job. Heidi was molested by her stepfather, ran away from home, developed a severe crack habit as an adolescent, and was living under a bridge when I met her as an adult.

Bridgett’s life began and ended in tragedy. She was abused by her father and began drinking seriously in late adolescence. Against all odds, she managed to get a good job, get married, and have children. But then her daughter was raped, and the ghosts from her childhood surfaced. She was undone. In her words,  “I fell from the Empire State Building to the curb. I kept thinking about my childhood and how confusing and lonely parts of it had been. I got depressed and was crying a lot. I began to drink more and more. I couldn’t fit a wine bottle into my purse, so I started drinking hard liquor, and I could drink all day. I lost my job and my house. I left my daughter with my husband, but I never went back to get her because I was living in my car. How could I take care of her if I didn’t have a place? And then I drank even more. I was like counting on the alcohol. I wanted to forget what had happened to my daughter and everything else.”

Over the following years Bridgett’s alcoholism became worse, she entered and failed several rehab programs, but at some point she was rescued by a social worker from a mental health program. She received a great deal of support from this person, who also helped her obtain a comfortable apartment. Despite this, at the age of forty-five, soon after I met her, she was found dead in a stranger’s apartment. She had drunk herself to death.

I hesitate to end this post on such a sad note, but along with my optimism about the possibility that people can be helped with the right kinds of support, I am also realistic about the limits of this.

I would appreciate your reflections on this.