I’ve neglected to post about something very important that I’ve been considering this summer—namely the possibility of telling my younger son, Sandro, about my abuse history.
When we were close to finishing up the therapy group I was in (women survivors of childhood sexual abuse), Lisa asked us if we had any topics we’d like to talk about that hadn’t already been covered. I said I’d like to talk about breaking the cycle and looking forward to the next generation, and even the one after that. How we could ensure they were better protected? But as I think I mentioned, the other three participants were quite young and childless, and none of them seemed very interested in topic. Our group ended very soon after that.
But a few weeks later, Lisa reached out to me personally via email and asked if I’d like to have an individual session with her to discuss this topic, since we never took it up in group. It must have been May or June when I went to her office and met her in person for the first time. The first thing I thought was, oh my goodness, how short she is! I mean, it’s irrelevant how tall or short she is, but when you only know someone from the shoulders up via Zoom, you can be quite surprised to see their whole selves.
It was a helpful session. Lisa wanted to know why I brought this topic up, whether my sons already knew anything about my history, and why I might want to disclose.
“My older son, Andres, he sort of knows,” I told her. I explained that a few years ago, he discovered my blog by accident and read most or all of it. I ended up changing the name of my blog and importing them into this site, so that I could keep writing honestly and not have to fear that he’d keep reading it. He said a couple of things to me a the time about not having realized how difficult some of my life had been. But mostly what he focused on were a few things I wrote about him. I honestly don’t know how much of my story he has retained. But back when he did read it, three years ago now, I told him that it was my story, and I was the only one who could decide when and with whom to share it. He agreed, and I think he’s stuck to that.
But when it comes to my younger son, we’ve never talked about this at all. Of course he knows his dad was a difficult person. What he knows about my childhood, however, is mostly happy stuff, the good times with my sisters, how much I adored my grandparents.
I realized, I told Lisa, that in some ways I have reproduced with him the same kind of environment that I was raised in. Inadvertently, I may have taught him that “we don’t talk about negative things,” and “we keep these painful or shameful things secret.”
“That’s not what I would want for him,” I said. “It’s too bad, really sad, that I wasn’t thoughtful and aware of all this when he was small. I could have done so much better teaching him that we can talk about hard things. We are allowed to feel and express all feelings, not just pleasant ones. But I was just barely holding it together back then, and I didn’t know.”
“Now he’s a young adult, and I know he also has some habits of avoidance and putting a good face on things. But still, if I can helps him do things differently, I want to do that.”
I continued, “He has a lovely girlfriend, and she’s studying to be a therapist, so fortunately she is much more attuned to these things. I hope that will be helpful to him. But I expect they are going to get married and have children, and I don’t know, I just want to make sure that this family culture of secrecy and shame and silence doesn’t get passed along.”
Lisa is a quiet person, calm, not effusive. So while E might have told me, emphatically, oh, yes, you should do that, blah blah blah, Lisa was a lot more low-key. But she did think it was useful and meaningful to have honest conversations and open things up that hadn’t been discussed.
Lisa also felt that, contrary to my fears, it wasn’t too late to interrupt any messages I’d passed on, unintentionally, about shame and secrets. She said she had worked with a woman in her 70s who had disclosed to her mother, then in her 90s, and they had found it tremendously helpful and healing. She also told me that we could talk about a structure for a conversation I could have on my own with Sandro, or if I wanted, I could bring him to a session with Lisa, and she could facilitate it.
That was something that had not occurred to me at all, so I told her I’d think about it.
Then she said, “What would you tell him? Would you say that your father sexually abused you? Would you want him to know more details than that?”
That question stopped me dead in my tracks. No, no, I cannot say that to him. He knew my dad (who died last October). I can’t say that. No, what if I’m wrong?
Lisa was surprised, “I thought you had overcome your doubt about that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Sometimes. I am not sure. I can’t say that…” Suddenly I felt raw, exposed, like my skin had been turned inside out. “I was just thinking I could say more broadly that bad stuff had happened and it affected me in multiple ways and I’ve had to work on it for a long time…” I kind of trailed off, feeling foolish.
“Well,” Lisa said, “You get to decide what you do or don’t tell him. But it can be a bit awkward to have a session because you want to reveal the truth, and then not reveal all the truth.”
Ugh, too much! Too overwhelming. We agreed that I would think about this for a couple of weeks. I’d also have time to think about whether I wanted Lisa to facilitate a session. Then we’d have another session and talk about more concrete plans.
So two weeks later, we had another session, this one on Zoom. By then, I had calmed down a bit. I had decided that yes, I wanted to do a session with Lisa. My son is quiet and thoughtful and finds it hard to talk about deeply emotional things. If I told him by myself, he might say, “oh, okay, thanks for telling me,” and that would be it. If we meet up with Lisa, she’ll help make it a conversation.
And I decided we would not include his girlfriend. I trust her and don’t mind if he shares the information with her, later. But if we are all three together, she will do all the responding. This is partly her personality and partly her training as a therapist. And he will be quiet and let her respond. No, sorry Sandro my dear, I really want us to have to talk about hard stuff.
I further decided that I am not going it to it with the idea of definitely naming my father. I might say, it was several different people, and though maybe I’ll decide to tell you, the main thing I want to focus on is the sense of harm and shame and our right to speak up about that. Then depending on how it all feels, I can decide what to do. Sometimes I think, yes, I can say the whole truth, which is that I think my father abused me but my memories don’t feel like normal memories and sometimes I doubt myself. Other times I think, no, no, I can’t go there. So I told Lisa, I’m not going to make myself say it. And she accepted that.
We talked about what I wanted from my son. Mostly, I just wanted him to hear me out. I wanted him to know I was sorry that I hadn’t done my healing work earlier, and that as a mother I had not modeled healthy ways of coping with emotions. I loved him very much, and that was something I wish I could have given him, so I was trying to give it to him now, late as it was. I was trying to show him that it’s possible to talk about hard things and to feel better, not worse, from it.
If he has hard things of his own to talk about, I want to encourage him to do it. I invite him to come and talk to me, if he likes, but he doesn’t have to. Perhaps it is easier to talk to his girlfriend, or to a therapist of his own. I just want to give him permission not to tuck the painful shit away.
This isn’t to say that I think he’s been sexually assaulted himself. I’d be very shocked, and of course deeply saddened, if that’s the case. It could be anything. I just want to tell him that I am opening up the doors of my own emotional house, and I encourage him to do the same, if not with me, then with someone.
I will invite him to ask questions, though I won’t promise to answer everything. I will tell him that it’s hard for me to change my patterns, and I might not be able to open every door all at once.
That’s what I’m thinking I will do, anyway. We’ll see what actually happens. When Lisa and I talked, in late July I think it was, I said that mid-September might be a good time to broach the topic, after Sandro returns from a trip.
Now we’ve arrived at mid-September, and although I haven’t consciously thought about this too much in the past few weeks, my subconscious has apparently taken it on. This morning I had a dream, in which I was in a large, round building with many of my work colleagues from my former job. In truth, I have not seen most of them in four or five years now, but in the dream, it felt natural to be attending a meeting with them.
The meeting was partly a professional learning session, to help everyone learn more about the impact of trauma on children’s ability to learn in school. Then for some reason, the conversation shifted to an argument about how seriously we should take of trauma. Maybe it was being overblown, someone suggested. Maybe it was just the fad topic of the day. Everyone had difficulties sometimes, and we needn’t give them too much weight by labeling everything as “trauma” and imagining that everyone needed a social worker or therapist to help them through it.
In the dream, I felt I couldn’t let these statement slide by, not when I knew, personally, how long-lasting the impact of trauma can be. I stood up and said to all these people–certainly more than a hundred of them, in a formal, professional setting—that I was sexually assaulted multiple times, as a child and as a teen. I said that I had believed at the time that I could not tell anyone what had happened to me. I carried the pain and shame of it by myself. After a while, I repressed it, and it stayed underground for years. Then, in a very stressful period of my life, it all came roaring back, hitting me in the face, knocking me over, debilitating me.
In many ways, I told them, my whole personal and professional life had been shaped by those traumatic experiences. They weren’t just a passing difficulty. They were central to directing my life.
My colleagues, in the dream, reacted in a variety of ways. A few remained skeptical, and I could read their faces, their raised eyebrows, their sideways glances. Or perhaps they were just shocked that I would be so gauche as to speak of these experiences in public. Others were kind and thanked me for sharing. A few people followed up by standing up and telling the story of their own traumas.
The scene shifted, and I was in a group with the others who had been brave enough to speak publicly of their own experiences. We were listening to one another, intently, about what it felt like to make a disclosure like that. It was liberating. It was terrifying. It was…
And then I woke up. My body was on high alert. My skin tingled, as it does when I am very triggered. My heart seemed to be pumping hard, but how could that be? I was lying in bed, breathing slowly. My mind seemed overstimulated, bouncing from thought to thought, half back in the dream, half awake and noticing the reaction I was having.
In that moment, I longed for E. I want to tell her about this dream, how vivid and how painful it felt. How I had said in my dream that it was freeing to disclose, but it had put my body into a panic. I wanted to tell her how it felt–my stomach in a knot, my nerves standing on end. I noticed that I was clenching my pelvic muscles, as if to keep my vagina as tightly closed as possible.
But I don’t see E anymore.
It’s okay, I told myself. I’m in bed, in my own house. I am safe. I turned my attention to my breath, counted how slow it still was. See? I could be calm, like my breath. I touched my face, to say to myself, I am here, now, not in the past and not in any dream.
I am an adult. I have choices. I can pay attention to my breath. Look, I can release the clenching. And then tighten the muscles again. I’m in control.
I don’t have to be afraid, I told myself. They are just feelings: the agitation, the doubt, the the fear of judgment, the residual shame, the longing for E. I can tolerate these feelings.
Even though the dream was about work colleagues, I immediately connect it to the idea of disclosing to my son. I feel very afraid when I make the connection. I decide I can’t tell Sandro after all. I don’t want to be so vulnerable. What if… I don’t know what, but what if something bad happens?
Then I shifted back again to my calmer, reassuring tone. I told myself that I can tell Sandro, or I can decide not to tell Sandro. I don’t need to decide right now. He’s coming over for dinner tonight, and I had planned to ask him, but I can wait. Lisa is not going anywhere. It doesn’t have to happen this month. If I need more time, that’s okay.
I have learned that telling myself I have choices and don’t have to decide immediately is helpful when I’m feeling frightened. It worked again today as well. But even though my fear subsided, I felt a bit depressed all day, the first time in a long time that I have felt so down. It was also the first time in a while that a dark part of my mind has spit out its cruel thoughts, “You are so dumb,” and “No one cares about you,” and “You are so ugly; everyone hates you.” I know, I know, these thoughts aren’t the truth. But they bother me anyway.
So, to those colleagues in my dream who were skeptical about the long-term effect of trauma, I say, “Look! Look at me! All these years later, after all this therapy and all this improvement, simply dreaming of telling people makes me sick! Don’t you ever, ever doubt that the sexual violation of a young person is an enormous crime. Don’t you ever, ever tell me that we need to toughen up and get over it. Comments like that only show your ignorance.”