Is it too late to heal the child within?
Examining the Long Term Effects of Sexual Trauma on My Life
I come from a middle class white family. We appeared normal to the outside world. My father was gay and never told my mother. We kids figured it out, but she refused to believe us until she read his diaries after he died a few years ago, in his 80's. Both of my parents were molested as children. My mother by her grandfather and I suspect possibly also an older brother. My father by his uncle.
I believe I was molested by an uncle at a very young age, maybe around three. Something happened — I just don’t know what. All I remember is being face down and smelling the rug. Then later I was afraid of him. I spoke to his daughter about the possibility once, and her comment was, “That would not surprise me ONE BIT!”
I was definitely molested by a next door neighbor over a period of about a year when I was around seven. I remember only a few little scenes of what went on inside his house, where I visited regularly.
I was raped at 18, had a fabulous orgasm that I tried my hardest to conceal. After I talked the guy out of killing me I dusted myself off and walked away with the thought, “Rape is nothing. What’s everybody so upset about?” and went on from there. It didn’t seem like a big deal. The other day when I was trying to explain this to my therapist I said, “That was not the traumatizing experience. It was an echo.”
I had no idea that it was an echo, or what it was an echo of, until at age 36 I entered therapy because of marital problems. Within a few weeks the therapist suggested that maybe I had been sexually abused in childhood, because my list of complaints matched the profile. Immediately I was flooded with memories, SMELL memories and feeling memories, but no pictures. That first therapist was an intern, and left after 6 weeks.
I became suicidal and went on a downward slide that affected my children and resulted in a horrible messy divorce. I spent 5 years in therapy at a community clinic, with no benefit to me, as I’ve documented elsewhere. During the divorce proceedings, I was court ordered to choose a therapist from their list of those qualified to deal with domestic abuse. (My husband never hit me — it was emotional and verbal abuse — he was acting out the ways he had been traumatized by his childhood, as I was.)
That’s how I found my current therapist. She’s a good one. She saved my life and helped me raise my kids. Once they were grown I stopped therapy and tried to date and have a life. Now, 16 years later, I’m seeing her again, because I did not ever manage to have a life. So, I’m giving it one more try.
I don’t think my experience has been particularly difficult. There are many worse cases of sexual abuse, and many worse situations to be in in general. How many people get to have a happy, carefree life? I don’t know, I’m guessing probably not that many. I mean can you trust facebook reports? I still want to come up with a good ending to my own story if I can.
I’m marching very deliberately backwards towards the trauma. Bob (see note) advised me to begin with the rape at eighteen. So, last week I went through that episode again. I’d told my therapist about it years ago, and she still remembered, but I have found that it’s best to just do what Bob says. After I had described the experience in detail and then told her how insignificant it felt, she asked me, “Is that the first time you ever had an orgasm with a man?”
Uh, yes. I’d never thought of that before.
I told her orgasm never happened spontaneously with a man after that either. I mostly just avoided sex, but when it did happen it was disappointing. I was no good at it. She said once it gets linked up with a life or death situation, it is hard to unlink it. I said I hadn’t cared that much whether I lived or died back then, and I don’t care that much now. I insisted that the idea of death wasn’t a big threat to me. “I’m so spiritual,” I quipped. She gave me one of her dark looks. Then she asked me if maybe there was another part of me who went through the rape and had a different experience. I don’t know. That seems pretty likely. And it seems likely that if I can get in touch with that part, I may get access to other feelings about it.
Today I spent an hour online looking for a good article about the effects of childhood sex trauma on adult life. I did not find anything satisfactory, so I decided to make my own list.
Effects of Sex Trauma on My Life
1) Important people in my life began responding to me differently — my Dad, the Dad I adored, who used to take me everywhere with him, withdrew from me once I told him about the neighbor. He did what any good Dad would do, he went over there and told the guy to stay the hell away from his daughter. But for some reason my Dad started to stay away from me too. Even my younger sister, my main playmate, started complaining I was stinky.
2) My parents also consulted a psychiatrist and were told they should just let it be, not talk to me about it. It was 1962 — what did they know? So that’s what my parents did. I felt cut off from everyone by this experience that I couldn’t talk about, so I began to feel unloved, malnourished, imprisoned in ways I felt very acutely but didn’t understand or have any way to express.
3) The gap grew wider and wider as time went on. I forgot about what happened. I did not know why I felt so different, so outside of everything, so unhappy. My life had begun happily enough. I remembered being happy — I just couldn’t get back to it and I didn’t know why.
4) I had to start pretending to feel what I did not feel, like love for others, interest in school, enthusiasm about things I used to enjoy. I used to love ice cream, for instance. Now only one part of me did, my mouth. The other part, my emotional self, felt sick and guilty and deprived and lonely and confused and afraid and desperate, even with a bowl of chocolate ice cream in front of me. That’s just one example. It was like that all the time, with everything. Except maybe books. I could still get lost in a story and forget myself. But then too soon the book would end and I’d be back to the nightmare of my own life.
5) I also had to start pretending not to feel things that I did feel. Anger, sadness, despair, shame. I was already lonely, and I knew that expressing those feelings would just push everyone further away and make them behave in unpredictable ways towards me.
6) Puberty was one big extended visit to a torture chamber. I was interested in boys, but cut off from them by invisible barbed wire that I attributed to a fault or failing on my part. I lost girlfriends because I couldn’t share their new excitement. I got left behind socially. I felt like an outcast. I was mean to other girls who were struggling like me. I didn’t want to become even more of an outcast by association, so I tried to distance myself from them.
7) I was an intelligent child, but I couldn’t do my schoolwork. I just limped along. Hardly anything interested me. I liked art and drama, but I was too afraid to express myself, so I avoided them.
8) I had no idea how to pick a college. I didn’t know who I was or what I should be doing. My family had money. I could go anywhere I wanted. I had good SAT scores. But it was all empty, just pretense. I went to the wrong school for one miserable semester and then dropped out.
9) When I began to have sexual experiences after I left home, they did not go well or feel good. I was terrified and clueless. As soon as anything physical began, I felt estranged from a guy whom I otherwise liked. I had to pretend to enjoy it, trying to hold onto the affection part, unable to talk about it at all. I pretended for the short term, and then either got dumped or ran away.
10) The first time I had an orgasm with a partner was during a rape. I just realized that this week.
11) I married an emotionally abusive man and avoided him sexually.
12) Up until now, age 61, I have never had a comfortable intimate relationship with a man. But I love men! I’ve loved every man I was ever with. Including my husband, who was just as wounded as I was, but in a different way. He is an engaging, interesting person, not a loser. I’ve been lucky to find so many good men. Not many I could have lived with forever, but a few. And yet, the fear always won out.
13) I was (until recently) always more concerned with relationships than with developing my talents or making a career for myself. I kept trying to find the right man, instead of focusing on myself. I experienced financial distress and job frustration on the side, but didn’t have the energy or drive to do anything about that aspect of my life.
14) I had three children and I wanted very much to be a good mother, but I was working under so much pressure and at such an emotional deficit, that I had very little to give. It was a constant struggle to do what was required despite feeling empty and sad. I had no way to recharge my own batteries, received no love from family or partner or friends. Not that people weren’t kind. What love there was simply couldn’t reach me because I was a phony. The real me was buried.
15) In my effort to experience love I did a lot of things I had no feeling for, just pretending, feeling angry underneath, but with no way to see why. I tried to be a family person, but the whole setup exhausted and enraged me. I thought I was a monster. And sometimes I was, when the anger burst out unexpectedly over seemingly insignificant things. I was as cruel to my husband as he was to me. I alienated quite a few friends. I hurt my kids.
16) Now I’m living alone. I’ve become a recluse. I still have some lovely “tried and true” friends, but not what you would call a social life. I often experience invitations and expressions of the desire for my company as threats to my well-being.
17) It is difficult for me to take care of very basic things, hard to leave the house.
18) I feel a sense of betrayal when I think about trying to get it together and go on from here. How can I “go on” and leave that stranded little girl way back there all alone with her trauma? I don’t know how to move forward with her in tow, and I don’t know how to help her heal from something I can’t even remember, something that happened so very long ago. I don’t even know how to recover from the whole life of disappointment that ensued.
19) I’ve already lived 54 years like this. Is it really possible to change, or do I resign myself to a very limited, very private existence of reading and a little writing? If I run out of money, then what? I’ve had my last ditch plan in place for 20 years.
Despite all of this, I truly believe I’m going to succeed. And it’s largely because of Bob.* He’s a new development in my life, rather recent. My therapist lady is very good, but we worked a lot on sexual trauma before, and didn’t get very far. I had too much on my plate at the time, probably. I had to stay functional for my kids, couldn’t risk going all the way down into the pit of despair. And I don’t think we realized the extent of the dissociation.
So this time I am leaving Bob in charge of it. He’s the leader. He says he has the memories I need and he knows when to present them and in what order. He knows how much I can take, what I should do, and which aspects of my healing process to leave up to my earthly therapist. It took her a while but she’s finally realized that Bob is necessary for me. She’s allowed him into the room. It’s rather surreal, but my little abandoned girl is starting to feel loved. I can tell. She’s still alive. She waited all this time for me to turn towards her. She waited for me to stop overlooking her distress, dismissing her needs, and avoiding her, the way other grown-ups did.
I’m on it now, babycakes. I’m coming back for you.
In my search for information I did find a nice article by Thich Nhat Hanh about how to work with hurt inner children. I’m not into walking meditation, or any of his specific practices really. But I think my relationship with Bob* provides me with the “energy of mindfulness” that Thich Nhat Hanh is talking about. Something like that really gives us the strength to feel what we have to feel in order to heal, but not get overwhelmed by those feelings.
- Bob is the name I’ve given to my inner teacher. I’ve written many stories about him, which you can find by clicking on the My Bob tag below. Here are a few good ones to begin with if you are interested: Bob is a Zero, How to Acquire a Bob
- Because I spent 5 years with a therapist who didn’t know what she was doing, and I didn’t realize there was something wrong because I had nothing to compare it to, I’ve written a blog called How to find a therapist and how to recognize when you haven’t found one.