I’m still coughing when I come into therapy, a week after my first and only online therapy session (it went okay but I wouldn’t choose this form of communication on a regular basis). But I’m feeling better and glad to be getting out of the house.
I’m not sure what to talk about in therapy, however. I want to keep working with my four-year-old self. I know she needs attention.
“Did you show her the book on touching?” E asks. She lent me a book for children on healthy and unhealthy touching, after I said the girl never learned anything about that.
“I tried,” I say, “But she wasn’t having it. And I asked her if she wanted to talk about why she was so desperately sad, but she didn’t want to go there either.”
E smiles, “It’s good if she’s expressing an opinion.”
“But so what am I supposed to do then?” I ask.
E thinks for a bit. “Maybe we can just learn a little more about this girl. What was she like? What did she like to do? How did she feel about her body? Did she feel strong in her body?”
“I don’t think…”
Tell me about it in third person, so you are talking about her,” she reminds me. “This gives you a little more distance.” E is paying a lot of attention these days to helping me do this work without becoming triggered.
“She didn’t really feel strong” I say. “She used to get sick a lot, respiratory things. Asthma attacks in the middle of the night. She had pneumonia multiple times. She didn’t trust that she would feel well.”
We talk a little about memories of going to the doctor in the middle of the night. This was back before the days of urgent care. My mom called the pediatrician, and he drove to his office and met us there at one in the morning to give me a breathing treatment.
“But that doesn’t mean there weren’t good things about her body,” I say. “She loved dancing. She had ballet lessons and loved everything about it, the movement and music and the leotards and ballet slippers. She liked to dress up and make up plays and stories with her sisters.”
“She loved Alice in Wonderland,” I go on, “you know, the Disney version, with Alice in her blue dress and white apron. She had the book and the little record you played that read the story. Whenever the bell sounded, you were supposed to turn the page. She loved that story. She went through a period when she told her mom to call her ‘Alice’ instead of her real name.”
Somehow we get to the topic of getting in trouble.
“So what used to happen when she got in trouble?”
“She got spanked,” I say.
“Oh yeah? Was this something that happened a lot? A few times?”
“Like was this something that happened every week? Or five times ever?”
“Hm, definitely not just five times. Probably not weekly, but I’m not sure. It wasn’t uncommon though,” I can’t remember exactly.
“Who spanked you, your mom usually? With her hand?”
“Yes, my mom, with her hand. Or with a hairbrush.”
I never really thought about this much. It just seemed so normal at the time. Since then, of course, I have rejected spanking. I mean, I knew even before I my sons were born that I would never spank them, and I never did. (Not to say I was some kind of amazing mom that never lost my temper with them.)
“What would happen when she got spanked?” E asks.
“Well, she would cry. And usually she’d be sent to her room. She had to stay there until she calmed down and was ready to mind.”
“To be compliant,” E says.
“Right, I guess.”
“So maybe it’s worth rethinking some of the judgment you’ve had of the girl for complying with her abusers. She was literally hit–hit and then banished to her room–to teach her to do what adults told her to do,” E observes.
I literally have never thought about it this way.
“She didn’t do it out of malice,” I say. “She was doing what her parents did.”
“I’m sure,” E agrees. “She was parenting the way she thought was best. People used to do that more than they do now. But that doesn’t mean it was good for her. Think about that little girl, how hurt and frightened she was. How do you think that impacted her? Was she afraid of her mom?”
“She was afraid of her anger,” I say. “She became good at watching signs that her mom, her mom or other adults, might be getting upset with her. She tried to anticipate what they wanted from her and give it to them, so she wouldn’t get it in trouble.”
I say this, and I wonder, who the fuck thinks this is a good way to teach children how to behave? Who thinks adults should hit children?
As if she’s read my mind, E says, “Parents spank because it’s effective in the short run. Children modify their behavior quickly in response to being hit. But in the long run, it doesn’t achieve what it’s intended to.”
Times up in therapy, before I’ve really processed this. I get up and leave, still shaking my head. It’s strange I never thought about this before, about the impact it had to have had on my young self. But it’s suddenly quite clear to me that those spankings helped set me up to accommodate the actions of men who sexually abused me. My mother would be horrified to know this.
CREDIT: Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash