I’m Trying Hard to Be Brave in Therapy and Mostly Coloring Mandalas

I feel better today than I have for the past week or so. So as I settle myself on the floor in E’s office and she asks me what we should focus on in today’s session, I think to myself, Be brave. Use this time well. You know that taking risks is what moves you forward.

I take a breath and say, “I want to talk about a couple of difficult things.”

She nods and says, “Okay, before we do that, shall we take a minute to back up and look at what we are doing big picture? How does this fit into where you want to go?”

I’m surprised. “Why?” I ask, a little defensively. “Do you think I’m too scattered?”

“No, not too scattered, not at all. But I think it’s helpful for us to remember what the larger purpose is, where we are trying to go.”

I remember that when we talk about difficult things, E likes to re-orient me to my purpose, that I do these hard things not to torture myself but to release my spirit from the dark cave where it often resides. My defensiveness melts. I actually know what I am doing in therapy these days, so I tell her something sort of like this:

I have learned a lot about self-compassion, and for the most part, I am much kinder to myself than I used to be. I have processed some of my painful experiences in ways that makes it easier for me to live with them. But I still have earlier experiences that I struggle with, and I want to work on them. I fight with myself about whether anything really happened. I’d like to find some peace with the uncertainty about those experiences–because I know I’ll never resolve this. Also, I would like some peace with what happened, for the times when I don’t feel uncertain. I also notice that when I talk about even the experiences we have discussed a lot, I am numb. I’d like to work on identifying feelings and allowing myself to experience rather than numb them. I think that can carry over to enriching my current life. And then, you know, I still have some ups and downs. It’s good that I have more ups now. But the downs are as bad as ever, so I’m also here for help with that.

E has been taking notes while I talk, and then she paraphrases this back to me. She gets all of it except the part about the downs, so I reiterate that. Somehow it feels good to be so clear on what I need from therapy. That’s a recent development, too.

But now we’re back to the question of what difficult things I want to talk about today. If only therapists were mind readers! But no, you actually have to say all the hard stuff out loud. Ugh. I manage to croak out, “One of them has to do with the article I sent you.”

The night before, I had sent her link to the NY Times review of The Incest Diary. She’d already told me when I came in that she had read the review, though not the book. The book, by the way, sounds pretty devastating. I don’t think it would do me good to read the book, at least not at this point in my life. But the review definitely caught my attention.

“What about the article?” she asks.

I become very seriously engrossed in the mandala I am coloring, trying to get the orange just perfectly within the lines. That gives my mind time to run in fifteen directions, trying to figure out what to say next. Should I phrase it this way? That way? Or maybe I shouldn’t say anything? I can still retreat from this entire horrible topic.

The pause is growing long. It occurs to me that she might think I am trying to say I had the same experience as the woman in the book. That’s not what I am doing. I can at least tell her that. “Well, it’s not that I was having sex with my father into my twenties,” I say, thinking as I say this, what a complicated, painful, deeply unfair experience that would be. How utterly monstrous a father like that would be.

E is thinking the same way. “Let’s be thankful it’s not that,” she says.

The pause continues. Internally I encourage myself to keep going; it will be okay. She can hear it without judging you. I’m praying that’s true as I say, “It’s just that, you know, what she writes about kind of eroticizing the whole thing… even if it’s all messed up. I mean that kind of resonated for me…”

Actually I am not sure if that’s exactly what I said; it’s a bit fuzzy. But that was the idea, that something about the experience of being molested, abused, used, something about that is also connected to arousal for me. Yikes, did I actually write that?!? I’m cringing even now. I don’t want it to be true.

Again, E paraphrases. It’s so annoying that I can’t recall what she says! This was a few hours ago, and it’s already slipping away.

I do remember that she starts talking, kind of fast, in a rush. She is telling me about the huge range of sexual fantasies that people have. Have I ever read the books of Nancy Friday, about women’s fantasies? It’s normal. It’s human. Maybe it wouldn’t be normal to act out everything in the fantasies, but having them, having our heads go there, that’s normal. And something about a TED talk on pornography… or maybe that was later? I’m not sure. I am resisting the word “fantasy” every time she says it. I am not fully tracking, I think.

I do know that I stay quiet for a while after she stops talking. I keep on coloring in my mandala. After a time, E asks me, “Where are you now?”

“I’m crawling back to my cave,” I say, half joking. It’s true I want to hide.

“What do you need in order to come out of the cave?” she asks. “Or to stand at the entrance? Not that there is anything bad about being in the cave, if that’s what you need right now.”

“The cave’s full of bat shit,” I remind her.

She laughs, remembering. “So what do you need to come at least part way out?” I know she is telling me things she can think of to try to help, to make it easier. All her talk is aimed at making it easier for me, but it’s not working.

I consider this. I think about wanting to take risks, wanting to trust her, wanting to get to the juicy, difficult, important stuff.

“I don’t think that information, I don’t think that’s what I need. Or maybe I do, but that’s not the main thing, not right now.” I take a breath and look at her. “I think what I really need is to know that we’re okay, you and me, our relationship. You are still okay with me.”

“We are so okay!” she says. “You are completely okay with me…” and she repeats this several times in different words. I breathe a little freer. But not entirely free.

I tell her that it’s hard to talk about, because I can’t accept this about myself. So at some level I don’t expect her to accept it either. And that makes it feel like an enormous risk.

She empathizes. She knows how hard it is to talk about sexuality and all the stuff in our heads about sexuality. She’s giving me room to say more, but I can’t. In fact, in my head, I’ve just decided I’m done for the day. I keep coloring, as if making progress on the mandala will somehow move me forward in therapy.

E grows quiet, too. She is coloring her own mandala in shades of pinks and purples. She tells me, “I am glad to talk about this with you. But I’m being quiet now because I am not sure what is helpful to you.”

“Quiet is good,” I tell her. “I need time with this. I need to see if you are really okay with me, with this ickiness in me. And are you really okay five minutes later? And how about five minutes after that?”

I don’t know if she thinks I’m kidding, but I’m not. I’m not used to people being okay with me. That’s an overstatement, but there’s also a grain of truth within it. For example: I do know about Nancy Friday’s work on women’s sexual fantasies. I bought one of her books, many years ago, when I was married to my first husband. He found the book, got mad, and threw it away. “It’s disgusting! It’s terrible! And women don’t really have fantasies like that! She just made up that stuff to sell as porn and make money. I can’t believe you bought it.”

blue fiestawareOr another example that has nothing to do with sexuality: as I unloaded the dishwasher tonight, I put away the white Finnish plates and then the dark blue Fiestaware plates, and I thought about how much more I like the Finnish plates now. Then I thought, oh, but wait, Leo [stepfather] likes those blue plates, so I have to keep them. Next I thought, wait, why would I need to keep the plates he likes? My mom and stepfather have not visited me for years. I think my mom was here in 2010 without him, and maybe they both came in 2008, so he was last here perhaps nine years ago. It’s not even as though he’s a frequent visitor. Why do I even remember that he liked those plates? And you know why? Because I cannot remember anything else about my life that he has said something nice about. Really. Not my straight As in high school. Not my Ph.D. Not my children. Not the house we bought as a fixer and have improved. Not my career, my publications. Just my damn blue plates.

(Just writing this, I think I should get rid of those plates!)

Pardon the digression. I’ll save my tales of rejection and disapproval for another day, another post. The point is that I need reassurance from E that it’s okay to find something erotic, sometimes, in parts of having experienced sexual abuse. It doesn’t mean I’m warped, corrupted, beyond redemption. Or maybe it does means I’m warped, but that’s okay, and she can care about me anyway.

Though I’m not sure she can, despite what she says. She’s both kind to me, and distant from me.

Ultimately, I understand that I am the person who needs to accept me. But I’m not there yet, not for things like this.



  1. I hate when Bea brings up the big picture talk. I always feel as if I must be doing something wrong or taking too much time to “be fixed” or whatever. I totally understand your initial reaction but I love that you reframed it and made it positive. I’m impressed with your plan and your ability to see the big picture.

    I feel like there is so much I want to say, but just can’t find the words. You aren’t disgusting or twisted or weird. I remember Bea telling me — a long time ago– that sexual abuse is very complicated because bodies respond and things that are scary/damaging/hurtful/what-have-you can become linked with good feelings and all of that is confusing to sort out and can feel very shameful. She always used to just insert things like this into conversations around abuse memories, and while I’m not in a place to talk about this stuff, I am glad that she told me these things.

    She has said to me time and time again– just slipping it into conversations, “I really think the most helpful *secure base* definition about what is *normal* in terms of sex is: anything that the two adults have agreed upon doing and have agreed is safe/acceptable between the two of them, is okay and normal. I think repeating that definition when you’re wondering if something is *normal* is really helpful.” I do think that is a good definition, even though it is hard for me to think about.

    I think you have been very brace, being willing to look at sexual parts of yourself and admit they exist. I believe we all have them, any of us with traumas have this part of ourselves, but it is hard to acknowledge the sexual parts for a lot of us. You are doing really deep, really brave work.

    If nothing else I’ve written resonates then please know, you aren’t disgusting, you aren’t alone and you are very brace. Xx💟


  2. It’s a very hard topic to bring up, but nothing to be ashamed of. I’m glad E is there to talk it through with.

    I haven’t read Nancy Friday’s books, so I’m not sure how that fits in, but I have my own fairly strong ideas about the role of fantasy in the arousal aspects of abuse/assault. I don’t know if it applies to everyone, but I think that the ‘fantasy’ or idea that you are attracted or that you wanted it comes *after*, it is your brain trying to make sense of how your body has reacted. Maybe that changes if the experience is repeated and it all gets more mixed up.

    All I can say is that from my own experience of experiencing arousal during an assault – I was old enough that my memory of it is clear, but the way I interpret it now is different from then – at age 20 I had never previously felt any physical arousal during sexual activity (which says something about my boyfriend I guess) and had also never had any sexual fantasies or explored my own body, so my immediate thought when it happened was that I must be wanting it, complicit. It’s only now that I understand that those sensations were involuntary that I can make sense of it. I can also see that if he had been more manipulative he could have taken advantage of my confusion, especially if I had actually been attracted to him or admired him or had a strong attachment to him (maybe that’s where fantasy comes in??). Harder to do at 20 than with a child though.


  3. I have to write down what happened in therapy as soon as I get home. I need a full keyboard to get it out. I do that with dreams, too which are taken in to therapy.

    If I don’t work on art while talking to Dr. D I’m unable to get grounded, unable to talk to him. Art lets me focus all that anxiety and give it an outlet for it. Having an outlet gives me courage to speak into the big, scary open.

    This is hard work you’re doing. I like how your therapist brought you first to see the big picture then to the details of that picture. Good on her, well done. We need so much reassurance that they won’t see us as dirty and broken, having wanted to be abused. It matters what the therapist thinks.

    I have trouble with the word fantasy, too. I think I would have shut down hearing that word.
    Sessions can be so exhausting but also helpful.

    I wish you peace of mind, even for just a moment
    With kindness,


  4. You are being open and honest with E – even if you can’t share everything with her yet, you’re being open about the fact that you are struggling with sharing certain things. That’s really admirable and a sign of progress.
    I know this wasn’t the point of your post, but about the plates: think of the Kon Mari way. If they don’t bring you joy, get rid of them. If your stepfather likes them, he should buy some for himself.
    I know it doesn’t feel that easy, and I’m not trying to push Kon Mari on you, but it’s been helpful to me and I’m completely serious.
    Sending love ❤


  5. In my experience, it’s deeply painful and confusing to be introduced to feelings of passion and desire while being abused. I don’t know if this applies for you, but part of my experience seems to have involved my belief that I Should be reacting in certain ways. That he wanted for me to. But also feeling that it was wrong and dangerous. It feels like he used myself against me by making me feel things that I should never have felt with him, but that it’s completely normal for my to experience. It’s all such a horrible misuse of a person. Particularly a young person who isn’t even ready for those levels of sexuality yet.

    I hate so much that my father imposed on me a burden, so that when my husband lovingly touches me, I am reminded of my father doing the same things to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I have been thinking more about this post, and about the issue more generally, I was asking myself, could I summarize this as “this is me struggling with the fact that some of the abusive sex I experienced early on was physically arousing”? And that is definitely a piece of it, and something that is probably not uncommon/normal.

      Then there is also the flip side of it, that now in my head, for sexual touch to be arousing, I fear it has to be connected to thoughts/memories/fantasies of abuse. I don’t know that this is as common, and I have trouble accepting it as “normal.” It is for easy for me to judge it as sick and twisted. E is encouraging me to step back and look, non-judgmentally, at when the judgment kicks in.

      Anyway, I’m not sure this is an on-target response to your comment, but it’s what I’m thinking about today. Thank you for commenting, and I’m also so, so sorry that your father put that painful burden on you.

      Liked by 1 person

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