‘It is a really big deal’: Expert discusses the positive impact after Steve Smith Sr.’s admission to being sexually assaulted as a child

On his Podcast, “Cut to it,” Smith told his listeners he had been sexually abused in elementary school.
Juliet Kuehnle, a mental health counselor, listened to Steve Smith’s story, and discussed it with On Your Side Tonight’s Jamie Boll.
Published: Oct. 19, 2021 at 5:33 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - We all know Steve Smith Sr.

We cheered his amazing feats on the football field with our Carolina Panthers.

We applaud his charitable giving off it. And we laugh at his no-nonsense takes on TV.

We feel like we know him because he seldom holds back.

But, we found out the former Panthers wide receiver had not been holding back something but instead holding it in.

On his podcast, “Cut to it,” Smith told his listeners he had been sexually abused in elementary school.

Years of counseling as an adult brought the suppressed memory out.

He was 8 or 9 when he says a family friend told him and a girl to undress. Smith says he was instructed to get on top of the girl.

He says he didn’t want to, and that he didn’t know what he was doing -- and he was afraid.

“Here’s where the trauma started,” Smith said in his podcast. “The trauma started because every single moment after that, I was in fear. I was in fear that I was gonna get told on because I felt like I did something wrong.”

Smith didn’t name the abuser. He said any repercussions aren’t up to him.

Smith said he’s talking about it in order to let go.

It’s estimated 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse. Juliet Kuehnle, a mental health counselor, listened to Steve Smith’s story and discussed it with On Your Side Tonight’s Jamie Boll.

Jamie Boll: Just how brave is it for someone like Steve Smith to go public with this and how much of an impact can it have?

Juliet Kuehnle: So it’s a huge deal, especially for a male. So there’s already such a stigma around sexual assault victims, and even more so for males, even more so for celebrities and people who are prominent public figures.

So it is a really big deal, and for those of us who struggle with mental health issues, we know that putting words to our shame and our stories can be really hard and also a really integral part of the healing.

Boll: It came out after therapy, as an adult, that sort of these repressed memories came back. How common is that? Why does it happen that way?

Kuehnle: So there are a lot of different reasons, particularly if someone was a childhood victim of sexual abuse because developmentally, it really impacts the brain and the body, and so developmentally it’s really hard for someone to “make sense of what has happened,” and so there can become a lot of self-blame.

The shame can really just cloud everything, and so, people want to want to hide it, want to keep it to themselves, want to try to turn it into something different and so you learn in that healing and recovery process, ideally through therapy and talking with others that it’s not yours to carry, that it’s not yourself to blame, that allowing light to be shined on the story is actually part of that healing.

Then you start to be able to shed what you’ve been holding onto.

Boll: Let’s unravel that a little bit, sort of 1-by-1 because he talked a lot about fear or especially early on that he had done something wrong was what the fear was or that the phone would ring and he was going to be told on. How common is that?

Kuehnle: Very common. Sounds like a clinical post-traumatic stress disorder where many things can be triggering - things that you may not have even been aware of. It could be people, places, sounds, objects, sights that serve as kind of reminders of what has happened, what could happen.

Again, and so that PTSD is very real or that trauma response is very real, it can be very debilitating because again, it’s affecting both the brain and the body so it can manifest through things like panic attacks, flashbacks, feeling on edge, just that hypervigilance or withdrawal, difficulty sleeping, isolating from others. It can manifest in so many different ways for someone.

Boll: He talked a lot about trust issues, certainly to this day, even says he deals with them because of this. So what kind of an effect does this kind of event have on a child particularly and, how do you go about trying to rebuild it?

Kuehnle: For particularly, we know that in most sexual assaults that take place, the perpetrator is someone that the victim knows, and so that significantly impairs one’s ability to trust themselves in a relationship with someone else.

How do I judge if this person is trustworthy?

Their attachment styles become very anxious. So, of course, it makes sense psychologically, that would be really hard for someone to find their footing again, but it can be done again when you learn to unravel that it’s not your fault, that sexual assault is about power and control that someone else was trying to exert over you and that not everybody is out to get you in that way.

So, you can learn healthy boundaries. You can learn healthy communication. You can learn appropriate and healthy vulnerability to reestablish that safety in relationships, but it does take hard work because the brain has been wired to kind of shut down in that way because and that’s an adaptive survival response. But it can be unlearned.

Boll: You know someone might be watching this and hearing this story. Maybe it triggers a memory or a feeling into them. What would you tell them?

Kuehnle: You’re right, because even just hearing about this can be, it can elicit such a response, so I hope, and I think this, you know, he said this as well, that he hopes even if it just helps another person realize that you’re not alone, that there are so many of us out there who’ve experienced something like this.

But finding someone to walk through it with you, whether it’s just a trusted peer, a mental health professional it’s really important to know you’re not alone and to invite somebody into that and know that they’ll meet you where you are and walk with you at your own pace towards healing.

There are resources out there. RAINN has a national sexual assault hotline and an online chat.

It is free and confidential and it’s staffed by trained crisis experts.

They provide support, information, advice and referrals.

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