The Damage I Am, Part 3
By Robert Maunder and Jonathan Hunter
The Damage I Am is a series of related stories. If you would rather start with Part 1, click here.
Content Note: This is a true story that starts with child abuse.
1999. When Isaac first came to see me, I thought it was to get help coping with Crohn’s disease. It is a disease which causes the gut to become inflamed, which means swollen, painful and dysfunctional, sometimes for long periods, often unpredictably. It is not unusual for people with Crohn’s disease to have periods of anxiety or depression. The psychiatrists at my hospital who specialize in treating people with physical illness had divided up the diseases between us and Crohn’s disease belonged to me. That’s how Isaac and I first met.
He told me that he had been through surgery to remove sections of intestine five times so far, each a few years apart. Usually, people with Crohn’s disease take powerful anti-inflammatory drugs to control the disease. Surgery is sometimes required, but drugs are the mainstay. Isaac, on the other hand, wasn’t taking any medication when he came to see me. He hadn’t found it very helpful. Instead, Isaac told me that he was prepared to manage his disease with repeated operations.
I’ve done the math. Each time they operate, they take out 8 or 10 inches of intestine. The operations have been 5 to 7 years apart. My small intestine is 20 feet long. I’m 45. I have more intestine than I have years. Why take the drugs?
The arithmetic was undeniable, but I had never heard anyone speak of repeated major operations with such cold-blooded calculation. There was no hint of anxiety in Isaac’s description of his plan. He seemed to have a version of Crohn’s disease that was resistant to the usual drugs, which is hard to live with, but it wasn’t making him anxious, and as far as I could see he wasn’t depressed either. So why did he seek out a psychiatrist?
From the start I saw Isaac’s strength before he let me see anything else. And his strength was impressive. It wasn’t just the surgery calculation, although that would have been enough to capture my attention. He was articulate, intelligent, very successful in his career, a bit intimidating in conversation.
His appearance reinforced the impression. He was skinny, well dressed, and his grey hair was a little longer and more unkempt than you would expect. He reminded me of pictures of Wild Bill Hickok, the gunfighter who always sat with his back to the wall — a better metaphor than I would have been aware of at the time.
So, at our first meeting, Isaac held his ground and took his measure of me. But then very quickly he caught me by surprise and told me why he was really in my office.
I’m living in an empty apartment with a cot and a radio. I moved away from my wife three months ago. I haven’t bothered to buy anything for the apartment. I don’t know if I’m going to go back.
Why did you move out?
Isaac hesitated. Then he told me the story. After many years of keeping the secret to himself, he had told his wife, Sammie, that he had been sexually abused as a boy. He was angry and hurt by her response and had left to give himself some space to regain his equilibrium. He greatly regretted having told her, but having opened the subject, now he needed to talk to someone.
I didn’t know what to say. Sammie had hurt him and I didn’t want to add injury. I didn’t ask about the abuse, but I asked what Sammie had said.
Three things. First, she felt betrayed that he had kept his secret for so long. That is not a surprising response to learning that your partner has kept a life-defining experience from you through twenty-five years of marriage, but Isaac wasn’t up to thinking about what it was like for her at that point.
Second, she said “that explains a lot,” which made him feel diminished and angrier.
And third, the part that Isaac could not forgive, she talked to a girlfriend about it. I imagined Sammie needed some support. Isaac just saw a circle of expanding humiliation — gossip, and silent looks that say “that explains a lot”.
So, from the very first time that we met, I saw Isaac’s impressive strength and I was invited into his most painful secret. He let me know that the condition that allowed him to feel safe was to be alone — by himself with a cot and a radio — and also that he could not survive without talking to someone about what had happened to him. That he could be both a cold-blooded calculator of risks and harms, and a man so bound by pain and shame that he was a sitting duck for unforgivable injury.
You could string a tightrope between those poles, so dramatic was the tension between opposites. In a sense, our conversations ever since have walked that tightrope, sometimes with grace, sometimes clinging clumsily in fear just to stay aloft. It might be the wrong metaphor. I would be terrible on a tightrope; I’m afraid of heights. But somehow Isaac decided that I would be the one that he would trust. I got a free pass into the inner world that no one else was allowed to know.
The Damage I Am is a book-in-progress. You can find Part 4 here.
Isaac is a real person who has consented to his story being told. Details have been omitted, changed and obscured to maintain anonymity.
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