I wrote earlier about becoming very triggered after a therapy group session in early August where I talked about (or at least hinted about) something shameful in my past. I realized afterwards that I’m always the one in group to make myself the most vulnerable, and it didn’t feel good.
So I became very activated and, let’s face it, crazy, for a few days. Then I gradually talked myself down and came to the decision that as much as I like all the women in my group, it’s not the place for me. At least, it’s not the place for me right now. At this point in my healing work, it’s clear I want to be able to talk with others who are willing to make themselves vulnerable and open up, even if just a bit, about painful experiences in their past.
I’ve come to see that the reason I want to do this is that I find sharing and validating one another’s experiences provides a way to reduce or even release shame. In a way, that’s what five years of writing this blog has shown me. Now I’m wanting to see if I can take the next step: tell people face to face, people who know who I am, know my name, might even have a bit of relationship with me.
It’s not that I want to stand up in a crowded room and announce, “Hi everyone, look at me. I experienced some sexual abuse as a child, and I’ve carried the trauma and shame of it for a long time. It’s also contributed to some messed-up experiences I’ve had as an adult and some really bad decisions I’ve made. Want to hear all about it?”
First of all, in these COVID days, there ARE no crowded rooms to stand up in. Second of all, I have not lost my mind to the degree that I think *everyone* needs to know this about me. However, I do feel that sharing with a few people in a safe setting can help me believe more deeply that I am acceptable as I am. I am not so scarred or dirty or disgusting that no one can care about me if they know the truth. That’s something I believed for a long time and sometimes still believe.
I reached out to a therapist I found online who is starting a new art therapy group in September. It’s specifically designed for women survivors of childhood sexual abuse. To me, that says that anyone who chooses to participate already knows that everyone in the group has that common experience. It spares all of us having to be the first one to take the risk of revealing that background. I’m hopeful about this group, and also excited about art therapy. I just hope the group will really happen; the therapist says she needs to get at least one more woman to commit before she will run it.
Once I knew there was something like this group–whether or not this exact group goes forward–it became clearer to me that I wasn’t going to be satisfied with the group I was already in. I decided for sure that I would quit my current group, regardless of what happens with the alternative. I waffled over whether I should quit right away or wait a while, but finally decided that if I waited, I would keep revisiting my decision and it would just make everything harder.
So last week I went into group with a very nervous stomach, knowing I was going to announce my departure. I had already told E as well as one woman in group who has also become a friend outside of group. I was mostly nervous because I was afraid the others in the group might take my departure as a criticism: “you all aren’t doing group the right way.” It’s not what I believe, but I know a lot of the group members have a tendency to think that way; there’s no shortage of self-doubt among us!
At the same time, I wanted to be honest.
So I just launched in and told it pretty much the way you all have heard about it. I told them I’d been really triggered after the previous session. It wasn’t the first time I had talked about things that were more, I don’t know, private or embarrassing or shameful, than they had, but it was the first time I had felt as alone and frightened and upset by the risk-taking. And I explained all the processing I had to do to get from “misfit” to “there’s a lack of fit between what I want and what others want in the group.” I told them several times that it was fine for all of us to be working at whatever level we wanted to be working, and that I knew they would give me permission and be supportive if I talked about my stuff differently than they talked about theirs. But I had come to see that it would be too hard for me to do that and feel okay about it without being in a group where others did the same.
I said, “I found an art therapy group for women survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and I’m going to try that for a while.” It was the first time I actually said the words “childhood sexual abuse” in the group. I went on, “It might be that after that group, which runs 12 weeks, I’ll feel like I want to come back. Maybe I’ll feel freer of what’s been gripping me, and I’ll want this group again as a place to talk about self-doubt and parenting and COVID and self-care and all our life challenges. I do value this group for that. But I don’t know yet what I’ll need down the line, so for now, I’m leaving.”
And I told them directly that I didn’t want any of them to think they weren’t doing group right just because I wanted to do something different.
E asked me then what I needed from the group. I said I wanted to know what they heard me say and how it felt to them.
One woman said she had, in fact, started with the thought that she should have done something different so I would have stayed. But as she listened to me, she agreed that we all should have the right to talk about whatever we are struggling with at the moment, so she could let go of that worry. She wished I were staying, but she was very clear and understanding about why I wasn’t.
Another said she knew she hadn’t been putting much effort into group at all recently. She had just been coming because it felt like a calm, welcoming place. It was a respite in the midst of all the COVID stress her family was going through. So she could see why maybe her needs and my weren’t a good fit.
I don’t actually remember what all the others said. It kind of blurs together now. But I do remember what I felt. I felt accepted and cared for. I felt the others were sad to see me go, but at the same time, they really wanted me to find something that would satisfy what I was needing at this stage.
By the end of group, I was feeling good, happy, hopeful. No, more than that: I was feeling empowered. Something had felt wrong, I had figured out what it was, I had managed (with effort) to understand and name it without blaming anyone, and I had taken action to try to remedy the situation. Furthermore, I’d been able to communicate the truth about it to women I care for, in a way that they understood and that protected my connection to them.
This is such a change for me! I’m the one who hasn’t spoken up. The one who placated a mean stepfather. The one who acquiesced to sexual predators because she couldn’t stand up for herself. The one who gave in to an emotionally abusive husband. (The one who at some level knew she should’t be marrying him but did it anyway.) The one who never knew what she wanted herself because she spent all her energy trying to figure out the needs of others, especially of narcissistic or dangerous men.
Days later, I still smile when I think about it.
CREDIT: Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash