I’ve written about this before: I am very confused about the accuracy of my early memories. Sometimes I feel pretty clearly that my father sexually abused me when I was eight or nine, maybe even younger. Other times, I am convinced that never happened, and that what I often call “fuzzy memories” are something my brain has constructed for some reason. To put it bluntly: maybe I made it up.
Over this past month, this enduring uncertainty has come up and started screaming in my face again. E and I have talked about it some in recent therapy sessions. It’s clear to me that she believes something happened with my father, even if I am not able to say exactly when or how often. I find it both reassuring and frightening that she believes me. I’m afraid: What if I’ve convinced her with a lie?
Last week she suggested we think about retelling some of my stories of trauma or shame, telling them in a way that is more respectful of me and gentler than the stories I have told in the past. So I bring that up today. I say I worry I have been telling the wrong story.
What do you mean? she asks. What part of the story is wrong?
I hesitate a bit, and she teasingly pretends to hurry me along. But it’s hard for me to get going. This is the dilemma I cannot resolve.
Okay, I say. Maybe this is my story. My mom is a reserved person anyway. I was her first child, and she followed a lot of beliefs at the time about only feeding a baby every four hours and don’t respond if they cry sooner. Keep them to a regular bedtime; don’t let babies set the schedule. Then she had three more children within five years. My father didn’t help at all, and she felt overwhelmed. I was the oldest and supposed to manage on my own as much as possible. I do remember being told explicitly to be a big girl and not bother mama. I knew I wasn’t supposed to ask for too much attention. I remember feeling afraid, worried that something was about to go wrong and there wouldn’t be anyone there.
But there were exceptions. I used to get sick. I had asthma attacks. We didn’t have treatments like inhalers back then. Instead, if my medicine didn’t help, I would get bundled up in a jacket and a blanket over my pajamas. And–it seems so quaint now but this was how it was even in a big California suburb back then–the pediatrician would drive to his office in the middle of the night, and my parents would drive me, and one of them would carry me, all wrapped up, into the office for whatever treatment I used to get.
Wow, E says. I can imagine that made you feel you mattered, that everyone cared for you. Was the doctor a kind person? Did you like him?
Yes, I did. He was nice to me. And my mom took care of me. So I learned that if I was really sick, I was the center of attention and could receive concern and attention. If something was a big deal, it was okay to let someone take care of me.
E is listening. She wonders aloud if this means that when the attention from my dad feels wrong, the little girl got confused about wanting help and care…
No. This next part of the story paints me in an unflattering light, but I feel it’s important. No. Maybe it goes like this. The girl grows up, craving attention, but not knowing about boundaries, and not knowing what rights she has. Or maybe she is so desperate for attention and touch and the illusion of care that she just makes herself open to anyone and everyone. She has various encounters with creepy neighbor, etc. She marries a man who is charming but turns out to be controlling and abusive. In the marriage and in early motherhood, she is increasingly isolated and overwhelmed. She goes to therapy. She tries to use the skills she is learning to change her relationship. She tries taking medication. But she doesn’t get better. The only place she feels safe is in Hannah’s office [Hannah being the first therapist I ever worked with]. She needs to keep Hannah interested in her, willing to help. The creepy neighbor et al story doesn’t seem to justify her desperation, so she makes up the dad story. Incest, now that’s really bad. That’s explains why it’s hard to get better. And that’s a big deal a therapist would pay attention to. Hannah seems inclined to believe it, and maybe it’s true, and the woman can’t distinguish between half memories and dreams and the for-sure truth that her father was sexually inappropriate in multiple ways. She’s not intentionally lying. But she’s deceiving herself.
E doesn’t find the story convincing. How was this story getting you attention? Hannah would have continued seeing you anyway.
Probably, I agree, but maybe I wasn’t that confident of it. I was new to therapy.
Hmm. What does your body feel like when you tell the story this way?
I have to take a minute to answer that. I’m not sure. I feel anxious, kind of agitated. There is a tightness in my chest and a blockage in my throat. But I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if my body wants the story to go one way or another.
This is not so unusual for me. I can have very powerful feelings in my body but not know what they are telling me. E grabs her Feelings List a full page in 10-point font of feelings words, organized by categories like “happy” (amused, contented, ecstactic…) “sad” (broken-hearted, despairing, melancholic…) or “worried” (anxious, frantic, frightened…). I scan the list but can’t come up with much beyond “anxious.”
What about dubious? Doubtful? she suggests. Does that capture it?
No, I tell her. I mean, I am doubtful, but I’m doubtful about the meaning of what I’m feeling in my body. It’s not doubt I’m feeling in my body, though.
She grabs another list, her Needs List. What about here? Is there something here?
I scan the list, aware that we only have a couple of minutes left. A word leaps out at me. Authenticity. I can’t let go of this question of whether I made it up because I’m looking for authenticity. I want to ground myself in my own experience, know where I stand, know who I am. But because of my upbringing, I already have difficulty identifying my own opinions about some things–you know, not professional things, but personal things–and I have molded and remolded myself to be acceptable to people close to me. If I do that, become what other people want instead of who I am, maybe I am (temporarily) safe in a connection that I long for…
I pause to point to “connection” and “relationship” on the Needs List, and then continue,
…but I lose authenticity. Then I feel like I am empty inside. I am nothing; I have no substance. I am a shell filling myself up with whatever gets me what I need. And if that’s drama or an exaggeration of what happened to me, well, that’s a strategy I may have used.
It’s all a bit confusing when I write it down like this, but in the telling of it, it makes sense to me. E objects a bit, saying there is plenty in my history to be upset about without having to exaggerate anything to deserve care. But we are out of time and have to table this conversation.
It’s only when I get home that I remember yet another reason to believe my “I made it up to get attention” version. Younger American readers may not know this, but it used to be common for insurance coverage limited people to a maximum of 20 therapy sessions to per year. (I know, talk about crazy, right?!) It is easy to burn through 20 sessions when you’re in complete meltdown mode. When I was seeing Hannah, I had no money, literally, My abusive husband had emptied our joint account and taken me off the joint credit card. I was in school and tending to our kids and working very part time, earning almost nothing. So once my insurance coverage was used up, there was no way to pay for therapy. And maybe this was a good therapeutic decision, and maybe it wasn’t, but Hannah decided she’d see me for free.
You see? It was in my interest to have a compelling, distressing story for Hannah. I need to look at this honestly and reflect on how that may have shaped my ideas and memory when I was in a very desperate and vulnerable place.