I have talked very little about the sexual abuse I experienced as a girl. I didn’t even remember it for years, until it came up when I was in therapy because my first marriage was falling apart. That was such a terrible time. To keep me going, my therapist at the time focused on helping me manage my emotions enough to get out of the marriage, to find a job and take care of my young children. I moved to another state and started a new job.
It was another two and a half years before I even brought up the sexual abuse again. Naturally, I had thought about it many times, but I didn’t even mention it to Francie, the first therapist I met in the new town. She didn’t seem interested in talking about serious things with me, so I also kept it superficial. The next year, I went to Marlena. She was serious and a little stern, but clearly smart. With her, I tiptoed around the topic, focusing on my feelings of depression and anxiety first, trying to decide if I could really trust her. Then I ran out of insurance coverage in August and couldn’t see her for months, until January of the next year.
When I started therapy with Marlena again that winter, I decided I would take on the painful topic I had avoided. It took me a few sessions, but I finally did it. I started by telling her how nervous I became before our sessions, how I would go home and sleep afterwards, all because I was afraid to discuss the question of whether I was sexually abused by my father. That news seemed to genuinely surprise her. She flipped through some of her notes, reminding both of us of what she and I had worked on the previous summer. She began to talk about an inappropriately sexualized atmosphere as abusive. No, I said. I sometimes thought it was more than that.
So what else did he do?” she asked me. Long, long pause. I looked at the table. I looked at her. She raised her eyebrows and waited. I struggled for words, told myself to just say it, who cares, just say something.
I said, “Sometimes I think… well, I know that at night sometimes my dad would come home from work or drinking or wherever and come in my room and sit on my bed and talk to me. And maybe he did other things, too.”
“What else did he do?” she asked, relentless.
Another long silence. I couldn’t say. Panic, shame, fear. I tried, but another part of me evidently tried harder. I finally answered, “I can’t talk about it.”
“Can you write about it?” She handed me a yellow pad and a pen.
I wrote, just one sentence. But I couldn’t give her the paper, and she didn’t insist. Instead, we talked about my confusion, my shame, how long had I felt this shame. We touched on my fear that I had somehow just made it up, as a way to explain all my symptoms. After all, the memories are so foggy, not like other memories. (The mean voice in me head said: you are suggestible, you have a weak character, you can’t even tell the truth from a flimsily constructed lie.)
Marlena talked about the “benefits” of deciding I had made it up: It simplifies my relationship to my father and other family members. In my mind, it makes me a little less disgusting than if it were true. I suppose this was her way of suggesting that my self-doubts might be a denial designed to protect myself from family complications. I worried that I would either have to tell my family something that would horrify and disgust them (if they even believed it). Or if I didn’t tell them, my relationship to them would be built on lies. And it if weren’t really true, well then it would mean I wouldn’t have to think of myself as someone who had been abused.
She suggested I consider a couple of possibilities. First, that I don’t need to define what I say to my family as all lies or all truth. I can choose to keep some things confidential as I work on them for myself. Second, that rather than being twisted by experience, I might just be a person that something bad happened to. This was supposed to give me permission to believe myself without panic or utter self-disgust. I wasn’t nearly there, not nearly ready to use that permission, but I recognized that she gave it to me.
At the end of the hour, Marlena asked if I would leave the sheet of yellow paper folded in my file. She wouldn’t read it, she said. Could I leave it? It would mean trusting her, she smiled. I wanted to be able to trust her, so I said ok, and I stuck the folded paper in my file.
As I left her office that day, Marlena predicted that I would feel relieved to have brought this up in therapy. I wanted to believe her. I searched myself for feelings of relief, but no luck. Within a few hours, I felt fear, regret, and self-loathing. Why did I say anything to her? Why did I leave that paper with her? What an idiot! That night I had vivid dreams of barricading myself inside a building to prevent twin little girls from entering. There was a good twin and an evil one. I couldn’t tell them apart, and I was desperate to make sure the evil one didn’t find a way in. It was terribly hard to keep her out, however, because the openings in that building, large and small, just kept multiplying.
The next day, the angry voices were busy in my head. You are sick. You are disgusting. Bitch. You deserve to be punished. I surprised myself by hitting myself, hard, without realizing I’d been thinking about doing it. The intensity built and unable to find another route out of it, I chose the route which always hurt but always worked: the iron. The sharp, stabbing pain in my arm seemed to open a hole in me through which some of the internal panic and pain can escape. There is a short and sudden gasp, and then a release, a partial calm. Ah, thank god. I leaned my head against the kitchen cabinets in and took a deep breath of relief. When I was assured by the throbbing of my arm that I had hurt myself enough, I unplugged the iron, feeling a great affection and gratitude for that helpful appliance.
This was years ago, but I wrote it down at the time. I worked with Marlena a few months more and arrived at the point where I could say that I didn’t know the exact truth of what happened but that didn’t matter as much as taking care of myself. Then I moved again and walked straight into some deeply harmful situations, as if I hadn’t learned a thing. I let myself be assaulted. Yes, someone assaulted me, but I truly could have avoided it and didn’t. I was a mess.
Then by pure good fortune, I ran into the man who became my second husband. He is gentle and loving and without even knowing the details of my past, he has been a crucial reason I’ve become a stronger person.
And yet. The wound still hadn’t been healed. I had a good therapist, E., that I had seen off and on for years. I had talked to her about the challenges of raising my son with developmental disabilities, the difficulties I had managing stress at work, the complications of step-parenting. I even told her about the assault. But I didn’t talk about this, so it sat, unattended.
Until last fall. I finally decided that I couldn’t go my whole life without tending to my deepest pain. I approached it gradually. Even with a therapist I do trust, I think it took me three sessions to get to the crux of it: “Sometimes I think I was sexually abused by my father, but I don’t know if my memories are right.”
“They probably are,” she said, in a very sad voice.
I couldn’t breathe when she said that, when she believed me. I panicked. I grew quiet on the outside, while noisy voices screamed inside my head. E. promised me we could work on this together, slowly, at the pace that made sense for me. That should have been the start of getting better. But instead, this session back in November, was the beginning of a long, downward emotional spiral that I am still working to recover from.
I still tend to believe that I need to talk about the abuse so that it won’t carry so much weight in my psyche. But when I consider that I have paid for telling with almost six months of severe depression, I have to wonder if telling is really the right choice. Maybe I do better when I let it quiet down? Maybe I am sacrificing the present to a past I could just leave in the past? It’s hard to know if this is really the right path. It’s hard to believe that this wound can be healed, so a part of me just wants to leave it alone. Maybe I should respect the warning signs and not travel this road.
And yet, I keep hoping that at some point I can diminish the power of this secret. How can I do that if it stays unspoken?