Two weeks ago, in my art therapy group, we talked about what it was like when we disclosed our abuse to our families. What did they say that was helpful? What was not helpful?
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that there was a lot that was not helpful. The other women in the group described a lot of denial, a lot of minimizing the impact. While it’s painful to hear that, and to know how the others in the group have suffered, there is always some reassurance in knowing that this is a common experience. That’s what families do, not all the time, but often. They hide from painful truths by pretending not to see what they see, by calling children liars, by admitting “maybe something happened,” but it wasn’t that big a deal, by placing blame with the victim rather than the perpetrator. In fact, part of what placed the child at risk in the first place was the family’s inability to be honest, to be protective, to discuss difficult things. We spent a good amount of time talking about family dynamics.
And then there is me. I am the only one who has not disclosed to my family of origin (my husband does know). I never have told, not to any of them. Why not? I think it’s a combination of shame and, of course, self-doubt. What if I made this up? What if it’s not really true and everyone calls me out and hates me for telling a terrible lie? Fear, no, terror has kept me quiet.
Later in that same group session, instead of the usual art exercise, Lisa had us write a letter. She provided us with a template to get us started, with phrases like, “Dear _____, When I told you about the abuse, you said _________. That made me feel ____________________. I always wondered ________________. Sometimes I wish you had asked me _______________. What I wish you had said was __________________…” It continued in that vein.
Since I had not told my family, Lisa asked me to modify the exercise and write a letter imagining that I was telling someone in my family. What would I want that person to say? What would I be concerned about?
That’s how I came to draft a letter to one of my sisters, a letter I had literally never before even dreamed of writing. I have two sisters, both very dear to me. I envisioned it going to my youngest sister, who had my dad living with her for six years, before he finally moved to assisted living three years ago. I believe she has fewer illusions about my dad and is more realistic about both his selfishness and his endearing traits. It’s a rough letter, thrown together in the ten minutes or so we had to work on it during the session. I haven’t revised it at all, even though I recognize that parts of it are kind of contradictory or confusing.
I’m wanting to tell you about having been sexually abused by Dad—but I’m very afrait to. I fear you won’t believe me and that you’ll judge me for making something up, something so bad about him. I’m afraid you’ll say, “That can’t be right,” or “Dad did a lot of stupid things, but he’d never do that,” or “Really? So if that’s true, why would you wait until he has died to tell me? Why not give him a chance to defend himself?
Statements or questions like these simply add to the weight of the doubt, guilt, alienation and shame that I’ve been piling on my own head for the past 25 years. I really, really don’t need to add to that. Fear of adding to that is a big reason I haven’t spoken of this.
I have often wanted to ask you if, god forbid. he did the same to you, or to [other sister]. Or if he did other things that made you profoundly uncomfortable about who you are or what you deserve. Or if you ever saw things in him that could make you believe me.
Sometimes I wish you would have asked me why I distanced myself from him so much over the past 20-some years. I wish you would have invited me, gently and non-judgmentally, to talk to you about it. But then, honestly, I doubt I could have anyway. And maybe not asking was your way of being loving and non-judgmental. Maybe you trusted that I had my reasons.
Our family doesn’t have an established history of talking about hard things. But I trust you and love you and want greater openness–among the three of us sisters, for our own sakes and for the sake of the generations that follow us.
I read this letter out loud to the group. Lisa asked, “If there is one thing you would want your sister to say back to you, what would it be?”
“I would love for her to say, ‘I believe you,’” I said.
“Can we all say that to you?” she asked? I nodded, and then she and the other group members slowly and seriously told me they believed me.
Of course, they don’t really know. I mean, they weren’t there, and they didn’t know my dad, and they can’t have any factual idea. But I think they meant it. They believed me. And in that moment, it felt like a great relief.
Afterwards, it felt big and overwhelming, and again, I went to bed for the rest of the day. That’s me—I get close to something enormous and scary and sensitive, and I collapse. The improvement, however, is that recent collapses have not lasted more than two days at the most. After I sleep off some of the intensity of it, I find I can start to access some of the skills and self-awareness I’ve developed through years of therapy.
The next day, I didn’t get up until noon, but then I pulled myself together to go to therapy with E. And I took my draft letter with me, which I’ll tell you about in my next post.