Long ago, I walked into the apartment of a cruel man and allowed him to spend the night using and abusing me. The memory of that night has literally haunted me for years. I interpreted the fact that I was an adult and that I could have prevented the experience as proof that I was dirty, disgusting and deserving of everything painful and humiliating that was heaped on me that night. I felt it revealed who I am at the core.
Because of the shame attached to this memory, it took me a long time to share the full story with E., my therapist. It’s not that I don’t trust her, because I most emphatically do. But in November, I finally shared it. Then other things came up, and then I went on vacation, and its only today, six weeks later, that I returned back to this topic in therapy.
*** * *** * ***
I bring two printouts of the story with me to therapy today, so we both have a copy to refer to. This is a six-page, single-spaced detailed account of the before, during and after of the event. I was scrupulously honest about ugly details; I didn’t want to leave anything out. After all, whatever I left out would be my greatest shame. How can I heal that shame if I keep it hidden?
I hand her a copy. “Can we go back to this?” I ask.
“Of course,” E agrees. “What would be helpful?”
It all comes back to the shame and judgment. “We left off talking about how to bring more compassion to the woman in the story, and that remains hard for me. Impossible, maybe.”
We talked about how I read other people’s stories on their blogs, and I can feel compassion for them. It’s easy to see their pain and want to comfort them. But my own story still feels different. The shame of it blocks the way for compassion and tenderness.
“Is there a small piece of this woman’s story we can take and maybe bring compassion just to that piece?” E asks me. We talk about the woman in the story (me) in the third person, in order to reduce flooding and to see her more as a person I might want to help.
I think about this for a while. “Can we start with the last part of the story, the days after the assault? She goes to the hospital. She talks once to her therapist. But she doesn’t have time to take care of herself. She is in the process of moving to another state. She is a single mom with little kids. She has to pack and clean the apartment and enroll the kids in a new school. There’s no one to comfort her, and no time, and no resources, so she just moves on. And she tells herself that it’s not a big deal, that other people have it worse. But it must really be a big deal, or why has it tormented me for so long?”
E. tells me to imagine I go to the woman now and say, “I want to help you. I think what happened to you was brutal and immensely painful, and I want to help you feel better. What would the woman say?”
I frowned. “She’s says it’s kind of late for that.”
E. nodded. “You can tell her it is late, of course it is. You wish you could have given this to her then, but you weren’t able to. She is entitled to feel angry that she didn’t get the help she needed at the time. But you hope–we both hope–that she won’t let that anger prevent her from accepting the help now.”
E. asks me, if I had been there then, how I might have helped her. That wasn’t hard to answer. “Childcare. She needed help taking care of the children.”
“Ah, an excellent nanny.”
“Yes, excellent, the best. One that would make the children feel safe and play with them in a way that brings them joy. Because the woman who was assaulted, she used every bit of energy and strength she could muster to try to care for those little guys. She wanted them to be okay. But that meant there wasn’t anything left for her.”
“You have the power to help her now. It doesn’t matter if it’s fantasy. It can still help her. You can give her that excellent nanny and then take her and give her what she needs and let her take all the time required to heal.”
So that’s my assignment: to design the healing, comfort response that this woman needed back when she was first reeling from that horrible night.