This morning I had my first session with a new therapy group, finally.
Back in August I wrote about being very triggered in my women’s therapy group and then deciding it wasn’t the right place for me, as lovely as the other women all were (are). I wanted to deal with things related to old trauma, and the women in my group mostly talked about job stress and family relationships. Those things matter, of course they do, and sometimes they are what I have talked about as well. But in the end I felt I didn’t feel comfortable talking about trauma stuff with others who didn’t make themselves as deeply vulnerable.
I quit with the idea of joining a new art therapy group specifically for women survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I liked the precise title; it meant none of us had to take the frightening step of being the first in a group to say, “I experienced this…” Just by joining the group, we already knew that everyone else in the group had that common experience.
The group was supposed to start in mid-September, but for various reasons, the start was delayed repeatedly, until at last, today was the first session. And of course, after all that waiting, was I excited to start? Yes, generally, until this morning, when I suddenly felt sick to my stomach and very afraid. But I reminded myself that I had a really good impression of Lisa (not her real name), the therapist. “It will be safe,” I reassured my scared parts. “Lisa seems very competent.”
I think so even more after the first session. I thought Lisa did a really good job, and in the course of two hours, she moved me from skeptical and uncertain to hopeful–and exhausted.
The skepticism bubbled up almost immediately when I met the three other women in the group. Nothing wrong with them, of course. But right away I felt like the odd person. I’m much older than them, first of all. Two are probably in their early twenties, and the third is at most in her early thirties. I’m in my fifties now. Seriously, I could be their mother! Also, as we did introductions, it was clear that I’m the only one married or even in a long-term relationship, and the only one with kids. I started to feel weird, different.
Of course, that’s one of the stories I often tell myself: I’m different. I don’t really belong here. I don’t fit in. The others don’t want me here. In the moment I didn’t realize it, but later on, thinking back, I could see how quickly I pulled that story up as a way to say that this group isn’t going to work for me either.
Oh, and the introductions! Lisa asked us to tell a variety of things about ourselves: our names, our preferred pronouns, where we live now (what part of our city), with whom we live now, if anyone, what our occupation is, where we grew up, who are perpetrator was, and what we especially like about the fall.
Ha! As if, mixed in there with all those fairly innocuous things, we wouldn’t even notice that we were starting right off by naming our perpetrator to a group of strangers. I felt dizzy as soon as she said it (especially since that’s such a complicated question for me!). I can see why Lisa put it in there. She probably figures, “let’s get this tough thing out of the way immediately so we can move forward.”
The others were clear on their stories. “My father,” said one. “My brother,” said another. “It was my mom’s long-term boyfriend,” said the third. Then there is me, “Well, I usually think it’s my father, but sometimes I doubt and feel confused about that. And there were a couple of neighbors or parents’ friends. But it’s kind of complicated…”
And that set might right up for another one of my stories: Other people remember their abuse. They are able to name their abuser without drowning in doubt. There must be something weird or wrong about me that I don’t feel I can do that. Maybe nothing even happened. Maybe I am making it up?
Again, in the moment, I just heard the story in my head. I didn’t recognize if for what it is: something that gets between me and healing. Something that tells me I don’t deserve to be in a therapy group for survivors of sexual abuse. During the group, I could feel myself cringing and shrinking into myself. It’s only later that I realized it’s that mean old story whispering in my ear again, and I can choose not to listen to it.
One more note about introductions: all four of us are unemployed due to COVID. It’s another reminder that we live in unusual times.
After that, we talked about the norms for the group, which are actually looser than for my previous group. We can talk about the stories we hear, but in a general way, without names or any identifying information. Actually, I appreciate that, because it means that when I feel up to processing with, say, my husband or a good friend, I can use another story to compare and contrast my own story. I’ll be very careful about identities though, and we agreed that we could also ask that nothing about particular stories be shared, if we don’t want them to be.
We decided that if we ever ran into each other in public (not that anyone goes out much in the midst of this pandemic), we could explain that we know each other from an art workshop we were in together. And a few other agreements about norms, the usual things you might expect about listening to one another, coming to the group sober (or “as sober as possible”) and respecting differences.
Then we had two drawing assignments, which we each did at our tables at home, then shared and talked about them. I’ll probably write a post about them later on, because I found them interesting and useful, especially the second one.
The last activity we did was collaboratively create a spectrum of coping mechanisms. Lisa set up the white board on Zoom, and we each wrote, in different colors, coping mechanisms we use or have used at different times. Strategies that are healthier for us we listed near the top of the screen, with less healthy ones low on the screen.
We listed the kinds of things you would expect. At the top we had things like meditation, yoga, dancing, music, talking to trusted friends, opening up to a partner, journaling, walking outdoors, talking to our inner child. In the middle came things like “distract myself with a movie,” “watch womxn comedians,” “obsessive scrolling on social media,” and “sleep.”
And further down, the behaviors you would imagine: drug and alcohol abuse, eating too much or too little or unhealthy food choices, isolating ourselves, spending time with dangerous people, staying in bed all day, lying about how we are doing, blaming others for our problems, harming ourselves.
It was this exercise, more than any of the others, that started to make me feel like maybe I do fit into this group after all. Because while I don’t use all of those coping mechanisms, I do use, or have used, most of them myself. It felt good, validating really, to see that things I have done that felt like my own personal weirdness or irresponsibility or stupidity were things that these other women have experienced as well. I made a comment to that effect, and the other participants agreed. It was a moment of connection, one I really needed to reassure myself.
So then we talked just a little about grounding objects before saying goodbye for this week. Because we had the shared coping strategies exercise near the end, I felt pretty good as I signed off. But almost immediately afterwards, I felt a heaviness descend on me. My bones weighed me down. I wanted to crawl in bed and pull up the covers.
“Don’t do that,” I told myself. “You are fine. You aren’t depressed anymore. You don’t have to collapse into bed.” But whatever part of me needed to shut down was stronger and more determined than any parts that wanted to stay up and get a few things done. Soon I gave up, crawled into bed, and slept the entire afternoon.
It doesn’t seem like the introductory session was so difficult or intense that I should end up emotionally exhausted. But sometimes my body realizes something is hard even when my mind doesn’t. And it seems as though, when in conflict, the body overrides the brain, doesn’t it?
Maybe I don’t have any choice about that. But I do have a choice about those unhelpful stories. I don’t have to keep listening to them. And even if they speak up repeatedly, I can choose to not let them guide my behavior.
CREDIT: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash