IBS and Sexual Abuse: Ask the Man Shrink

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Dear Man Shrink,


Several years ago my OB/GYN asked me if I had ever been molested and I told him no. He insisted that I take a book that he had in his office, but I never took it because I was so sure that he was wrong. I believe that he was basing his opinion on the fact that I have IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and depression. He said that these are “signs” of molestation. This upset me so much that I wouldn’t go back to him. Is it possible for a person to suppress a memory such as this? I feel that I may have a personality disorder and know that while I enjoy sex and have no problem expressing myself, I also find myself not allowing my sexual partner close to me. In other words, I run if someone wants an intimate relationship with me instead of just a sexual one.—BF


Dear BF,


Your question raises two issues: repressed memories and the connection between Irritable Bowl Syndrome (IBS) and sexual abuse. Let’s talk about those for our viewers at home before discussing the best way for you to proceed.


Repressed memories of sexual abuse is a controversial topic. A repressed memory is something that your brain cuts off from conscious awareness. The theory states that remembering horrifying experiences, such as sexual abuse, would be so traumatic that our brain defends us from them. We don’t remember something because it would be too painful and overwhelming. However, the experience still affects us. It can show up through personality traits, relationships, phobias, body image, etc.


Scientific research of repressed memories is a slippery slope. There are few sound empirical studies because it’s a difficult thing to observe in a controlled fashion (for an excellent review of the research, see this article). There have been documented cases of both true and false incidents of repressed memory syndrome. Without good research, the best we can say is that some people experience sexual abuse as children and don’t remember it as adults. However, we aren’t sure how often this happens or what the signs are.


The power of suggestion is something we know a lot more about. Some of us are more “suggestible” than others. A highly suggestible person is more likely to let someone else influence his or her mood and behavior. These are the folks that get pulled on stage at hypnotism shows. If a person in a position of authority—such as physician or a psychologist—tells a suggestible person that she was sexually abused, there is a chance she will start to believe it. Then she may start to have memories that match the suggestion.


In my experience, true repressed memories surface only after long-term therapy. When a client starts delving into painful experiences, defenses peel away and new information comes into consciousness. In other words, clients tell me that they are having memories of sexual abuse, not the other way around. Telling someone that she was sexually abused when she has no recollection of it whatsoever is, in my opinion, unethical.


Irritable bowel syndrome, also known as spastic colon, is a bowel disorder indicated by frequent diarrhea, constipation, and or altered in bowel habits. We know more about the relationship between IBS and sexual abuse than we do repressed memories (this is a great IBS article). The data suggests that about half of women with IBS were sexually abused. However, don’t mistake that for meaning that sexual abuse causes IBS. One theory is that women with IBS are more aware of their bodies and emotions and, thus, more likely to remember sexual abuse. Another theory is that IBS is a stress reaction, and victims of sexual abuse lead more stressful lives and/or have more sensitivity to stress. Though there may be some causal relationship between IBS and sexual abuse, having IBS does not necessarily indicate sexual abuse.


Which brings us back to you, BF. IBS and depression can be signs of lots of things. Is it possible that you were sexually molested? Yes. Is it likely if you have no memory of it whatsoever? Probably not. Plenty of folks have IBS, depression, and/or personality issues with no history of molestation. In fact, IBS alone may be causing many of your symptoms. A bad headache makes me irritable and surly. If I suffered from IBS, you better believe I’d have mood swings and develop a few quirks.


I suggest that you consult a psychologist who has experience with IBS and/or personality disorders. Many childhood experiences affect us for a long time. Since you have difficulty getting close to someone, my hunch is that, at some point in your life, intimacy became associated with pain. I can imagine dozens of situations other than sexual abuse that might make it hard for you to share your life with someone. Whether you were sexually abused or not, it sounds like you have some difficult feelings to work through. That’s hard to do alone, so I hope you seek help.


Read the February Ask the Man Shrink column.


Ask the Man Shrink is published monthly. Each column features a real question from a reader, and we invite other readers to respond with their thoughts and insights by posting comments. If you have a question for Stephen, please send it to him in care of the editor at cwilbert@realgirlsmedia.com. Your question will be kept in the strictest of confidence.


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