Tuesday, January 3. I have therapy today instead of Monday because E just got back from New York last night. It’s a relief to see her again.
We talk about the holidays, how confusing it was to see my father. At first, E thinks I mean that it’s hard to see a person who abused me. But finally it becomes clear that the problem is that when I am around my family, and especially when I see my father, I no longer believe my own story.
For the past month or so, E and I have been sitting on the floor coloring during session. For some reason, this has made it easier for me to talk. I’ve felt close to her. We are sitting physically closer, so that could be some of it, but it’s also cozy and companionable to be coloring together.
So I color in the leaves with different greens and tell her, “This is how I start to think when I am around my father: look at him. He is getting old and frail. He is sad and kind of lonely. He is happy to see his daughters here together. He’s not a bad person. He couldn’t really have done those things I said he did to me. I must have made it up, not on purpose to cause problems for him, but because my head was searching for a reason to explain why I’ve been depressed so much of my life. And I guess I heard about sexual abuse and that idea just got stuck in my head, and I concocted a whole story about it and tried to convince myself it was true. But the story doesn’t hold up when I am around my father. It’s not that I’m ‘afraid’ it isn’t true. I’m sure it isn’t true, and then I am ashamed that I would make up a story like that. There must be something wrong with me to create such a terrible story in my mind.”
E looked at me for a while. She said something to the effect of, “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem right anymore for me to say ‘whether or not something happened…’ like I used to. I don’t feel like that is something I can do any longer.”
When I first started talking to her more deeply about my father and sexual abuse I essentially backed into it by explaining my dilemma to her, that I didn’t know what to believe. I used to feel frightened if she believed me, because what if I was lying and she was reinforcing the lie in my head? But I also felt hurt if she didn’t believe me, because this is a hard thing, and I need her to be on my side, on the little girl’s side. I told her long ago that I knew that set her up in a bad position (believe my story and believe my doubt about the story). Overall, she has balanced it well and generally taken the position that “no matter what happened, there’s a wounded girl inside you; whether her story is perfectly factual has no bearing on her need to be cared for and healed.”
But suddenly she’s telling me that she doesn’t want to take that position. “Really,” she asks me, “what do you want? Do you want me to believe the girl’s story? Or to think she made it up?”
Then I am stuck, because I’m afraid to choose one or the other.
E suggests she might have an alternative narrative for me. Do I want to hear it? Yes, certainly I do.
“Your father has a strong sex drive and is emotionally very immature. His focus is on his own pleasure. It is also the 1970s, and the cultural message is that sex is positive, and everybody should have more of it. You’re his favorite daughter, and when he’s been drinking, he [let’s not get specific here on the blog today] to you. He kind of likes it, maybe kind of feels bad but tells himself it’s okay, which lets him keep going, not all the time, but sometimes.”
“This, combined with an emotionally distant mother, leaves you confused about what is okay and what is not. You love your dad, but don’t feel good about what happened. Still, he’s your dad, he wouldn’t do anything wrong, would he? So you suppress your own feelings, which anyway were not validated and celebrated in your household. And you start to learn that girls are for the sexual entertainment of men.”
“There are no protections in place for you. Your neighbor, his son, the dad you babysit for, a family friend… at various times they behave inappropriately. And you don’t know what to do except to take it. You try to tell yourself it’s all okay and you ignore any signals from your body that say otherwise. You learn to go numb.”
“Your parents divorce, which sucks your mother’s attention still further away from you. She gets remarried to a man who is not kind to children, and you move far away from where you’d been growing up. You are continually disapproved of. Your stepfather creates an atmosphere of disapproval and dislike at home. Later you marry a man who is just like that, always disapproving of you, and you try very hard to be what he wants you to be, even when it’s impossible.”
“You go to college and to graduate school; you get a good education. You are successful with that and put your energy into your intellect and your work, where you feel more confident. You nearly collapse from the pain of your marriage but have two small children who need you, so you keep going.”
“You get a divorce and a job and start to build a separate life, but you haven’t healed any of your early wounds. You don’t know how to set or maintain boundaries or keep yourself safe, and you allow yourself to move in dangerous spaces and have some terrible experiences.”
“You are lucky enough to meet [second husband], who truly loves you. This is a big help but it doesn’t erase the other issues. You have to keep going, though. You have a son with disabilities, and you are the financial support for the family, and your ex-husband harasses you and upsets the boys. You work hard and move up in your job, which you like, but over time, the demands of the job take all your energy.”
“The boys get older and move out. You have a little more time to think about yourself, and you go deeper in your therapy. All this stuff comes up, and your depression worsens. Also, you realize that your job has become one more thing in your life that knows no boundaries, one more place to be exploited. You quit the job. You spend time on healing. You learn to listen to your body in a way you haven’t before…”
By this point, we are both lying down on the floor as she tells me my story the way she sees it. In one way, it’s heavy to hear the story like that. In another way, it’s validating to hear that she remembers and puts together all the pieces. It’s also frightening and satisfying to have her say that she believes the girl’s story. The way she tells it, it is believable. My father was hyper-focused on sex. He was (is, always has been) immature. He did buy into the 1970s narrative that sex was good, all sex, for any age. And he drank a lot. He could have told himself stories that it wasn’t actually harmful.
Or, I could have told these things to E in ways that over time made her believe the story, even though it’s made up.
When E finishes telling me my story, she looks at the clock and sits up, “Oh! We have to finish.” We are already 10 minutes over our ending time. I sit up quickly and hurry to put on my boots and scarf and coat and hat. It’s sad to go from her warm, safe office out into the cold outside. I wish we had time to talk about that story a bit more.
I drive home, feeling that my heart has been cut open and exposed through E’s version of my life story. Open hurts, but it’s good too; I know open is the only way healing happens. And open is not numb. But I also feel that one 45-minute therapy session (even when it runs overtime) is short and often opens my heart enough to hurt without time for the comfort and attention it needs. Usually I go home feeling vulnerable and open, and then I gradually close up, just for self-protection, over the next four days or so. Then a week after the first session, we repeat the pattern. I wonder if it would be helpful to have a Monday session and then a Wednesday session to tend to all the emotion that comes up. I wonder if my insurance would pay for that, even for a short while. I wonder if E would think that’s a good idea.
Of course I’m a little afraid to ask, because if she said no, it would be so easy to interpret that as “she can’t bear the idea of having to see me more often.”
I’m in a vulnerable space these days. I haven’t been able to get out of bed in the mornings, and I can hardly get anything done, maybe a phone call and a shower. Blogging has seemed a bit too challenging until tonight. I try to meditate but can’t quiet the mental chatter. I know I’m supposed to practice self-care but can’t quite remember what that looks like. I’m spacey. I burn myself, just a little bit sometimes, to wake myself up. It works for a little while.
I think I’ll probably feel better again in a while. I usually do. And then I’ll slip down again. I always do. And I will never resolve this question about whether I made up the whole story about my father abusing me. Knowing this is discouraging. I think sometimes I should just die now so I don’t have to keep doing this over and over and over for many more years. It’s been such a long time already.
I don’t want to be negative. I would like to be hopeful, I really would. But realistically, I can’t see what is going to change.
E called me yesterday and left me a voicemail. She wants me to revisit the medications I’m taking, “I can’t help feeling that it’s partly chemical. You’ve been working so hard. It pains me to see you still feeling so low.”
Medication feels like another place where I’ve been there and done that so often that there’s not much hope of a different outcome, but I’ll try. For now, at least, I don’t know what else to do but keep on trying, hopeful or not.