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August 2nd, 2011
03:06 PM ET

Could I have been sexually abused?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Tuesdays, it's Dr. Charles Raison, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, and an expert in the mind-body connection for health.

Question asked by Sarah from Chicago
I am wondering if I could have been molested as a child. I have this strong feeling that I was, but I can't remember anything. When I was young, 6 or 7, I used to make my dolls have sex. At 9, I began touching myself, even though I didn't know what it meant. I am now 29 and was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last year. I know this condition often comes with a history of childhood sexual abuse. Could it be possible?

Expert answer:
Your question touches upon tricky terrain and an area of mental health that is fiercely debated.

On one side are people who believe that amnesia for childhood abuse is common and needs to be overcome through therapeutic interventions designed to "recover memories."

On the other side are people who insist that such buried memories are far rarer than are false memories induced by well-meaning, but misguided, clinicians.

Ask our expert doctors a question

As with most complex issues there is likely truth on both sides. We know that people can be abused and not remember it as adults.

This fact was disturbingly brought home a few years ago by the case of a man who had videotaped himself having sex with a young child. Do you remember the case? The video was discovered; the man disappeared and headed to the hills armed to the teeth, only to be captured eventually by law enforcement. The girl he'd abused was at the edge of her teen years and had no memory whatsoever of the abuse event.

On the other hand, I have seen many cases of people with psychiatric symptoms who recovered memories of abuse during therapy, only later to become convinced that the memories were created rather than actual.

More than one family with no clear evidence of an abusive atmosphere has been destroyed by this phenomenon.

I don't know, and I don't think anybody knows, the percentage of recovered memories of abuse that are true versus false, so I'm not able to speculate about the odds that your feelings and suggestive behaviors do in fact hide a history of abuse of which you are unaware. I can say in general, however, that the possibility you were abused increases as factors consistent with abuse also increase.

Here are a few questions relevant to potential abuse: Was anybody else in your family physically or sexually abused? Was your family environment chaotic and violent? Was drug or alcohol abuse a prominent feature of your family's life?

To the degree that these types of experiences were part of your childhood, the possibility of abuse increases to the same degree. To the degree that your early family environment was supportive, loving and peaceful, the odds of unremembered abuse go down to that degree.

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soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. Kevin

    I'm a survivor. Some of the abuse I remember, some I don't. The worst thing we do for victims, speaking as one, is allow the victimized to accept that as their lot in life. I had sympathy from people who knew, to the point they would give me a pass on my drug use, being careless to the point of endangering myself, and suicide attempts. Everyone that knew, didn't really help me because they let me blame all the troubles in my life, on my abuse. While they were trying to be kind, they were actually allowing me to stay a victim.

    It wasn't until I decided I was no longer going to be a victim, that my life improved. I accept what happened to me as bad, but not the worst possible thing. I accept that however bad it was for me, it's been, and will be, worse for others. And finally, I accept that I'm a good person who deserves the best life that I can provide for myself, and that I'm NOT a victim. I'm a survivor, and what happened to me, is not a reason for me to consider my life as worthless. It was never an excuse for my behavior, and as soon as I learned that, quit feeling sorry for myself, forgave my abusers and moved on from it, my life improved dramatically. My abusers, no longer have any power over me.

    August 2, 2011 at 16:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ellen

      I agree wholeheartedly with Kevin. I also have a history of abuse. It took until middle age for me to confront what had happened. With the help of a therapist I resisted the impulse to bring the whole ugly truth out into the open, since all the abusers were either dead or nearly dead and no longer a threat to anyone. Innocent people would have been hurt had I done so and that serves no purpose. I have lived many good decades and have children and grandchildren who bring me great joy. Much good has come to me in life and I choose to focus on that while at the same time working to protect the innocent still vulnerable in a world that is filled with evil. I hope more survivors can find a way to do the same.

      August 2, 2011 at 19:25 | Report abuse |
    • Razor

      That's the whole Reason v. Excuse thing. Yeah, you have a reason for acting the way you do, but that does not excuse your actions. I'm extremely happy for your realizations. It is very difficult to come to that point in your life and decide to stop being the victim. I'm still trying to figure out how to stop being my own victim.

      August 8, 2011 at 12:36 | Report abuse |
  2. Bubba

    Not me; I've always been pretty mean. I can vividly remember kicking adults and throwing food in their faces as a child. I'd have probably neutered anyone who got frisky with me.

    August 2, 2011 at 16:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Darren

    Yep, the above sounds familiar. I wasn't abused as far as I know.

    My sister was, and she told me about it some time back when we were in our 30's. All the negative family dynamics above were there. I had no real "conscious" awareness of my sister being molested but all the pieces fit into place when she told be about it. Funny...she seemed to have a very similar "realization moment" as expressed by Mackenzie Phillips. The Father (molester) was "coming on" to the victim in a romantic way that proved to be totally repulsive. This prompted Mackenzie to speak out, as well as my sister. As far as why memories are clouded around these events are probably partly a compartmentalization of the traumatic memory as well as the denial and smoke screen set up by the abuser and other enablers.

    August 2, 2011 at 18:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Anne

    I don't know if you would consider it abuse, but I can remember my grandfather feeling around on me when I was a child. Although he was confined he sat on his bed and had me come sit by him. He would feel in my pants. I never felt right about it, and finally when I got a certain age I wouldn't sit by him. I never told anyone and carried that around with me all my life. I finally told my Dad about it almost 60 yrs. later and also my husband.

    August 2, 2011 at 18:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • riley

      Yes, that is most certainly abuse.

      August 2, 2011 at 21:33 | Report abuse |
    • Razor

      Thats a very long time to keep such a secret. I hope it didn't hurt you your whole life.

      August 8, 2011 at 12:40 | Report abuse |
  5. Wondering

    wondered the same thing my whole life and i am 29 also. but not diagnosed (nor do i think i have) any personality disorders... refreshing to read someone else is questioning this.

    August 2, 2011 at 18:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • riley

      Me too. I think I may have been but don't have any clear memories to know for sure.

      August 2, 2011 at 21:34 | Report abuse |
  6. Jon

    Wow, this is easily one of the most lucid, informed and balanced articles on such a murky and elusive topic I've ever seen. CNN, we need more from people like Dr. Raison.

    August 2, 2011 at 19:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Nan

    I sent my story and I don't see it posted. Was it not approved?

    August 2, 2011 at 20:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Fifi

      Nan, certain words trigger the censor, and the comment goes "to review." sometimes it shows up, but generally not.

      August 3, 2011 at 03:34 | Report abuse |
    • Bubba

      Words with se xual connotations get stopped. Look up CLBUTTIC.

      August 3, 2011 at 08:10 | Report abuse |
  8. Noble9

    I was just abused just now!

    August 2, 2011 at 20:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. selia

    Well, we certainly know Casey Anthony was abused.....her father, her mother, her brother, her neighbour, her teacher, ...etc, etc, etc...

    August 2, 2011 at 21:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Southbelle8

    I can honestly say that I had no conscious recollection of my childhood abuses. They came out during EMDR therapy and they were not "suggested" by the therapist. How could he know in great detail what the back bedroom of my grandparents house looked like, or the color of plaid shirt my cousin was wearing during the episode? As a person with a Master's degree and a scientific background, it was quite surprising to me initially. Now, I am amazed at the true power of our brain to protect us from memories that are too painful to process at such a young age. And also, tremendously grateful to advances in therapy that facilitate resolving the terrors of traumatic events to help us live a more grounded, peaceful life.

    August 2, 2011 at 23:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jim

      Your therapist doesn't have to know the details about what a room looked like or what someone was wearing- your brain had that information in it. The question is, is EVERYTHING about that memory real, or was one key part of it created. It may be that your therapist first had you access true memories, memories of your grandfather's house, then, through their questioning, led you to "create" a small addition. When you run it through your mind, it certainly seems real, because 99% of the memory is. The real question is, how do you know for SURE that EVERYTHING you remember is true? This is the same exact issue that has lead to many, many people being wrongfully convicted of a crime they didn't commit, simply because a witness was SURE that their memory, as they perceived it, was accurate. Time and time again, witnesses have stood by their original testimony, despite things like DNA testing and other forms of objective testing proving their memories to be in error. Human memory is notoriously imperfect. Worse, memory recall is highly subject to outside influence. While this may not be true in your particular situation, as you yourself pointed out, EMDR isn't a form of memory recall therapy and memory recall therapy is the issue at hand here.

      August 7, 2011 at 10:59 | Report abuse |
  11. Slash

    Memory recovery is garbage. No competent psychologist will tell you otherwise. The mind does not eliminate memories just because they're unpleasant.

    Giving the impression that memory recovery therapy is anything other than a scam is intellectually dishonest and does great harm to people.

    August 2, 2011 at 23:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Chartreuxe

      There's no such thing as amnesia, then? Gee, thank you, Doctor, for solving that problem for me. I have always wondered about that. [/sarcasm]

      August 3, 2011 at 00:03 | Report abuse |
    • Southbelle8

      My personal experience aside, research results do not support your comments. How can healing trauma cause "great harm to people"? And, EMDR is not memory recovery...

      August 3, 2011 at 00:21 | Report abuse |
  12. Fifi

    I don't agree with the doctor's last statement. Many superficially "supportive, loving and peaceful" families hide abuse. My family was considered to be such, but I was verbally, emotionally and physically abused (hit, not molested) by my parents–even as I was spoiled with "advantages" and possessions. I have encountered many people over the years who came from sillier situations.

    August 3, 2011 at 03:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Fifi

    ...that was similar situations...( darned IPad)

    August 3, 2011 at 03:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Meuse

    Anyone that thinks they may have been abused, probably was...

    August 3, 2011 at 04:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Bob S

    Kids begin touching themselves sometimes at age 3 – it is quite natural. And they do know that it feels good. It has nothing to do with abuse.

    August 3, 2011 at 05:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Razor

      Where exactly did you get this information?

      August 8, 2011 at 12:25 | Report abuse |
    • uuummmm

      do u have a kid? It happens u tell them to stop.. Then they do it again. You smack their hand and say no.. So it does happen.

      August 23, 2011 at 20:42 | Report abuse |
  16. Bonita

    Could it be from some inappropriate media/entertainment exposure?

    August 3, 2011 at 05:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. anon

    You don't have memories of the events because... they DIDN'T HAPPEN. /thread

    August 3, 2011 at 06:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Anon

    I was abused. i recovered my memories randomly over time. I was not in therapy, so I know they weren't created. Some of the things I supressed for over 20 years. When my memories were triggered, it was devastating. It also made a lot of little things in my behavior and thoughts over the years make a whole lot of sense. And, when I remembered, I knew it was true. I'd known all along and just couldn't face it or let my mind deal with what had happened.

    August 3, 2011 at 06:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Another_survivor?

    nI was molested when I was 4 or 5 yrs old through 7 or 8 yrs old by some teenage brothers and neighbors. I did the same to others when on my teens. I was also in a relatively abusive home with an overprotective mother and an alcoholic father. I’ve been dealing with depressions, anxiety and self-sabotaging behaviors ever since. I can’t have a relationship with any women and I’m afraid to approach very attractive women. I have social phobia and terrified of public speaking. I blush often in embarrassment. I live in pain for what I did to others now knowing that they might feel how I feel. How can I ask for forgiveness to those I hurt and how can I forgive what was done to me? I believe I deserve this pain for what I did to others even thou it was done to me first.

    August 3, 2011 at 07:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Razor

      Typically I like to seperate things like this out or you get stuck in an infinite loop. You were abused. Then you became the abuser. Now you are an abuser of yourself. There is nothing that can make us feel guilty like the way we act out after a devestating event in our lives. I don't know the details of your life, but I do know this. Guilt leads to one of three avenues. One avenue: people accept their guilt, say that they cannot change, and continue to do what they have always done excusing their actions by calling themselves terrible people and hoping someone will stop them.
      Second avenue: it completely destroys and consumes them and they self destruct until eventually they cause their own deaths or someone else does.
      Third avenue: something happens to trigger them waking up, realizing that there is nothing they can do about the past, and their guilt does not help anyone, especially themselves or their victims. These people end up doing everything they can to make up for their past in the hopes that they can earn the forgivness from themselves or others. They typically end up helping people and, in my book, have earned the chance to be forgiven.
      Nothing good comes from guilt, it either leads to more things to feel guilty for, or to some sort of death. Neither of these things help anyone, nor do they make up for what was done in the past.

      Another thing I like to let people understand, there is a difference between "reason" and "excuse". A reason is 'why' you did something. An excuse is 'why' it was okay to do it. Your past abuse does not excuse what you did after it, but it does provide more reason for your behavior than many others have. I too know the depression, anxiety, and self-destruction that you speak of. However instead of abuse I was surrounded by a loving family in my childhood. In the middle of a civil war in Yugoslavia. We couldn't leave our house without taking sniper fire from both sides. They used to shoot for a limb, and then hit the kids as they came out to help their parents. You are definately not the worst of the worst, and forgivness is not outside your reach.

      August 8, 2011 at 12:19 | Report abuse |
  20. JC

    I can see both sides of this debate. As clinicians, we are merely there to guide patients, to basically help them reveal what memories their brain might be protecting them from when the time is appropriate. There are techniques that are appropriate for this, such as using play therapy, art therapy and using significantly tested and researched approaches that will not further harm or damage a traumatized patient.

    On the other hand, one must be careful that a very manipulative patient is not making things up to seek attention. Being a victim for some patients with personality disorders is the sole goal in life, because it is part of their illness. Not because they were necessarily abused, but because they thrive on manipulating others time, money and attention.

    Helping a patient who had been abused is a very long process and not something to take lightly. he or she may need to confront the person who abused them once they have a clearer picture and a stronger sense of self. Working through the guilt many of them feel is hard, because they often feel they did something to "deserve" the abuse. Some people will never remember what actually happened to them, or will choose not to go down that path. That is their right. It's important for the medical community to respect the path the patient chooses to heal.

    August 3, 2011 at 17:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Lee N.

    While the potential benefits of recovering these memories seem VERY useful and important, the potential harm done by the "recovery" of false memories can be truly devastating. Imagine parents or grandparents accused of molestation when truly innocent. That horror is almost incomprehensible. The fine line between these extremes is very disconcerting.

    August 3, 2011 at 18:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jim

      Meant to post the below as a reply, but made a mistake- hopefully this will notify you that you have a response waiting.

      August 7, 2011 at 11:25 | Report abuse |
  22. Jim

    Forgiveness starts with oneself. Forgive yourself for having made a terrible mistake. Accept that you can't change the past, but can change your future, and put your energies into undoing the effects your past mistakes have created. Start by asking yourself one simple question: Did I intend to hurt anyone? I believe morality is primarily a matter of intent. If I intend to kill an innocent person, but accidentally shoot someone else who it later turned out was a serial killer, am I hero for having stopped a serial killer, or am I a killer for having intended to kill someone without proper cause? If you see morality as a matter of intent, then to forgive yourself, you should start by assessing your intent in the actions you took. When you were a teenager, if you were only repeating what had been done to you, and if you at the time did not take the actions you did with the intent of harming someone else, then how terrible of a person are you? Your actions may have had negative consequences, sure, consequences that may have had severe repercussions for someone else, and that would be a terrible thing. But there is a very big difference between having done something terrible and being a terrible person: a terrible person does terrible things knowing and accepting that what they do is terrible. Are you a terrible person, who intends to cause harm to others, or, are you like every last human being on the planet- an imperfect being who makes mistakes. I hope you look inside of yourself and find that the worst thing you did was to make a terrible mistake, not knowing ahead of time how harmful your actions could/would be. If that is the case, then I hope you can accept yourself as imperfect, forgive yourself for screwing up, and move forward with your life, resolving to try harder in the future to avoid making mistakes (but accepting that you will make some anyway, because that's what we imperfect creatures do). Please stop believing you deserve to live in pain for what you've done. Does your pain fix anything? Does living in pain undo your actions or make those you may have wronged feel better? No, most likely not. It simply makes your life worse. Rather then punish yourself endlessly for a past mistake, I would suggest your try seeking atonement instead. Perhaps you may find that volunteering your time to help others is a great way to start working off any "Karmic debt", if you will, that you may feel you owe. Either way, I sincerely hope you find someway to overcome your past and to have a more enjoyable and rewarding future.

    August 7, 2011 at 11:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Razor

    Something that people need to try to remember when dealing with life after abuse: forgiveness is not for the other person, it is for yourself. It is the act of deciding that that person's actions will no longer continue to consume and destroy your life. It is the understanding that whatever you feel you could have done does not change what happened. The only thing that can change now is what you do about it in the present and the future. In the end, what you do with your life affects two people: you, and the people that care about you. Your abuser (typically) is not hurt by your self destruction.

    August 8, 2011 at 12:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. slickyjones

    I was molested by my cousin. He use to get behind me while I was "sleeping" and rub up and down on me. Our clothes were on but it always felt bad and I still have not told anyone.......I cannot stand him I think he knows what he did and thats why his life is miserable,

    August 9, 2011 at 00:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. woodie

    In general, being male, and a parent, I avoided touching my children because of this real or imagined abuse that has been discussed like this. No one knows if it happens or not. Now I wonder if this kind of alienation of males is such a good thing. I look back on this and think men in general suffer the actions of a small number of individual abusers. If you don't know something, you should not makes the men in your life suffer needless indignity. If you do so something you need to identify them.

    August 23, 2011 at 17:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. uuummmm

    or could be tryin to aim ur problems at other ppl. other than yourself.. Hell i touched myself when i was a kid. I am not going to sit and say someone touched me when i was little.. Yea i know it happens i feel bad fo rppl it happen to but i dont feel bad for u making crap up. You have some other issue you need to fix. Comments are what happened to them and i feel for them.. It does not mean it happened to you.. Stop sleepin with random ppl becuase i am sure u do.. You most likely feel like Nobody cares about you and you feel lonely half the time. You might have daddy issues due to ur dad left when u were little.. Ummm guess what time to grow up alittle and start living your life.. Sound harsh i am not speaking to the people that it did happen to becuase that is messed up. I am only directing this to the ppl that want to make up stuff that never happened to them or wnat to put the blame of their personnel actions on someone else.

    August 23, 2011 at 20:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Paul

    There are some forms of therapy, like TRE therapy, that do not require you to answer that question in order to treat you for it. Think of it this way - if you were abused before you had words for what was happening to you, you are not going to be able to find those words in your memory. A lot of recent trauma therapy gets past this whole idea and simply addresses the underlying brain conditions that you are suffering with now and without needing to definitively say whether or not abuse - as you imagine it as an adult - occurred.

    March 8, 2012 at 09:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Jayna

    My husband and i are separated due to infidelity on his part...he is a loving, sweet, kind person but is unable to stay faithful. He is living with someone now who he also cheats on. He has told me he doesn't feel he can ever be faithful to anyone..he feels that he wants women to love him and cannot deal with rejection. I feel that he was possibly sexually abused by his mother as a child..certainly he was emotionally abused. She has always been very innapropriate regarding sexual matters and touching or rubbing him. Always likes talking about sexual things around him which has always made him uncomfortable. He told me his step father was very angry once when he found him in the bathroom with her while she was taking a bath...he was around 10 at the time and she asked him to come in. I mentioned to him I thought this may be one reason why he is unable to stay faithful...you would think he would jump on this in order to use it as an excuse...but he was very angry and walked out. He came in later sobbing and saying he did not know if this was real or not but she was a single mother for quite awhile (his father was very harsh and not loving at all) and he took care of her from an early age (6) while she was depressed from many relationship breakups. He says he just cannot deal with thinking this may have happened. Is this a sign of abuse as a child in males? Sexual infidelity? He is a wonderful person and father to our son. Very loving but he always was a flirt with women, old,young,ugly, pretty, fat, skinny just women he has always adored. He cannot bear that anyone dislikes him. He is obssesive about not being liked.

    March 27, 2012 at 10:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Leigh

    I also am not sure if I was abused, but I remember several occasions of something going on that made me extremely uncomfortable. My older cousins used to make me be the "patient" while they were the "doctors." They would make me undress, and then they would then do "surgery" on me down there. I always hated it. Recently, as an adult, I remembered these incidences and wondered if this was in fact abuse.

    October 21, 2012 at 09:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. MsF

    I have often wondered the same thing, for about a year now I've had a strong feeling that I am blocking out memories from my childhood. I was also touching myself at a young age unsure of what I was feeling, I have noticed in my relationships with men I go beyond my comfort zone by leaps and bounds just to please them. I still have not talked to a professional about these feelings because I feel they will either tell me I'm crazy or they will play into my fears. How do you deal with the feelings you get? I'm having a hard time explaining them to myself and I've noticed I'm distancing myself from healthy sexual relationships and all I want is to feel comfortable in my skin whether the experience I imagine is true or not.

    December 10, 2012 at 04:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Brittani

    I'm also wondering the same thing..and I hate opening up to people about how I question this a lot, simply because I don't remember any abuse. I do know that my sister was sexually abused at the age of 5 by a 10 yea old boy. I would have been 2 then. I just recently started questioning this after I participated in a very uncomfortable sexual act. Ever since then I've been going astray, endulging in feelings of rage, depression, emptiness, guilt, and disgust when any guy shows interest. I definitely feel like some repressed feelings about the opposite sex have popped back up. I always remembered hating, hating, and I mean, hating, the opposite sex when I was really young. I felt threatened, disgusted, and sexualized by them at such a young age. And the most strange of it all is that I was often afraid that older men, my dad, even, would sexually abuse me. I don't know where these feelings came from.

    May 9, 2013 at 00:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. marie G

    i don't know if you can consider it abuse but i remember my dad asking me to get into baths with him when i was 8 and younger.He would always talk innapropriatly about sex and his sexual life, idealising women and the 'perfect body',making me feel inferior and insecure.When i was 10 he even asked me to flash my boobs for him. For some reason i felt threatened by elder men and yet as a teen i only looked to attract them. I felt disgusted and sexualized by men but mostly my dad.I had real hate for him ,the way he talked , lived. I always felt uncomfortable and disgusted when he touched me.At a really young age I had sexual fantasies involving me and his male friends, i have no idea why; i also remember,so vividly,having nightmares of one of his friends pinning me down to a bed and touching me,raping me.The thing is, i was so young,too young to fully understand what thoses nightmares implied.I don't understand where they came from?I was touching myself at a young age,always feeling really insecure around the opposite sex,fear of being touched by them but at the same time a fear of being rejected. I grew up in an abusive and neglectful household with a mentally unbalanced mother. On and off depression,feelings of shame ,emptiness and anger. I feel like i'm living a lie , turning around in circles because i'm scared of getting to the point,like i'm living someone elses life, if that makes any sense at all. Is it possible that something might have happenned to me as a child but i just can't remember????If so, what should i do? PLEASE help me.

    November 13, 2013 at 17:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. ldiegna

    Over the last few months I wondered if I had been abused as a child. I do not remember my childhood. I went to therapy last week and told my therapist that I had been thinking that I had been sexually abused. She told me that I was. She said that I have every sign and symptoms of it. She said that she didn't want to tell me to put the idea in my head. Its hard because I don't remember it and trying to narrow it down is difficult. I don't want to be making it up. How can you know if you had been abused?

    January 7, 2014 at 15:06 | Report abuse | Reply

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