Since starting Strattera and Zoloft, I haven’t had any anxiety attacks or anything like that in a while now. I mean my mind still goes on overdrive in self-criticism but nothing as bad as it used to be when I was on Ritalin. That said, as I drove to CAPS yesterday, I started experiencing anxiety – not enough to send me into panic mode but enough to make me want to run to the restroom to void my bladder or colon (I hate that my nervous responses are bladder and colon related). I drove slower than I normally do and left home later than I usually would when heading to CAPS.
I was trying to delay seeing S as much as possible – which if you know anything about me by now, you’d know that I would never do that since I cherish my time with S deeply. I would never be late on purpose and yet yesterday, I was in no hurry to see him.
You see, the reason is because a week ago (and as he had reminded me on Wednesday), he and I scheduled a session for me to process my first childhood trauma. He told me a few weeks ago that whenever I was ready, that we should delve into that trauma and process it. I had told him last week that I think I was ready. So he instructed me to write down a narrative (also called a trauma narrative, surprise surprise) and bring it to our next session. We were supposed to talk about it on Wednesday but other things came up for me throughout last week so we had to deal with those first. So thanks to that delay, I had requested a second session with him this week.
And yesterday was the day I was scheduled to process my trauma narrative. Hence the anxiety. So this post will talk about that a little – S told me that I’m free to share whatever we’ve talked about with anyone I choose but that I need to keep some boundaries on it since the trauma narrative could trigger unwanted emotions and make me feel unsafe. I’m choosing to share this here and will probably try to keep is as brief as I can.
TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion about childhood sexual abuse to follow. If this topic makes you uncomfortable, please redirect yourself to another link now. I won’t be held responsible for how you react to my post. Thanks. As usual, this is going to be a huge block of text so it might take some time to read through. My apologies.
After our initial greeting, the short walk from the lobby to S’ office was silent. I was nervous. When we settled in to our respective seats in the office, he asked me how I was and I told him that I was not okay. Then he went straight to the point of our session.
“Well is there anything you’d like to mention before we start?” He asked, sensing my anxiety.
“Well, on the way here I realize that there were two parts of me as I was driving here. A part of me was I guess looking forward to this session. ‘Cuz I want to process this. But the other part of me is terrified. I left later than I usually do and drove slower than I usually do. And I think part of that motivation was just how terrified I was feeling,” I admitted.
“Yeahhh… Definitely get that and I think the fact that the first part is there at all, is encouraging to me…” S said.
“Right right… So yeah, I guess I’m just nervous especially knowing that that’s what we’re gonna talk about. Because usually, we come in and I just kinda let my unconscious just talk…”
“Yeah it’s a lot less structured,” S concurred. “Well I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before but I think it’s important to schedule this sort of thing at least, because I think it’s better just to take control of and provide a bit more structure. Doing so allows you to feel more control, which hopefully will make you feel safer.” S continued, explaining the rationale behind why we had to make this session more structured than usual. He told me the last time that we need to be deliberate when approaching traumas.
“Um, I guess whenever you’re ready. I think you just read it through and take your time. I might just kinda ask you how things are going…” S said, not allowing me to waste any more time.
“Yeah… Yeah… So… Um… So, um a lot of it kinda felt almost like a dream. I equate it to that because it’s very disjointed. And sometimes when you dream, things just suddenly cut out. And you remember something else. And it’s the same thing with this memory. So there are parts that might not make sense…” I said, still stalling.
“That’s pretty common… Just whatever you do remember, and it sounds like that’s what you wrote down,” S said, knowing full well how I operate and so not letting me get off the hook. It was good because I wouldn’t have started otherwise. I pulled out the post-it notes that I wrote my narrative on.
OK, keep it together, I told myself as I started to read.
“My mother wanted me to spend time with kids my own age. She told me that it’d be good to do that,” I started. Within the first two sentences, I had already started crying. Tears were streaming from my eyes freely. So much for keeping it together, Jules!, I told myself as I started crying. I couldn’t help it. It was almost like an automatic response to what I was reading. Despite the tears, I pushed on. “She sent me to play with the neighbor’s boy upstairs. I don’t remember the first time we met. I don’t remember how he looked like, or what his name was. I don’t remember how old we were. I just keep remembering the same scene over and over. We were playing with his toys for a while. Um, I think I must have had social anxiety even as a child because I just wanted to go home and read. Playing with him was boring and awkward…”
“So you’re already feeling anxious?” S asked.
“Yeah… Um, yeah… And I don’t know whether that was just ‘cuz I was uh, an only child then. So maybe, maybe I’d been by myself for a while… I kind of get the impression that I was 4 or 5 when this happened…”
“Okay,” S said calmly.
“Um… I kept having to pretend like playing with him was fun. I remember us playing out in the hallway and it seemed like his toys were just everywhere. It looked like he had a lot of toys. Then the scene changes a little. It’s disjointed. It feels like the way a dream is like. It changes so rapidly and the scenes don’t flow. The next thing I remember was just him suggesting that we play doctor. He told me that he would be the doctor. He had me sit in a kid’s chair. Um… It had arms on it. So it was an armchair. And he had me put my arms on the arms of the chair. And he tied my hands to the chair. I don’t remember if my legs were also tied too but I remember that I couldn’t move…” I said as I continued to read.
At this point, I had to pause for a while as I was feeling overwhelmed and we’d reached a difficult part. Tears were still streaming from my eyes. I had to keep wiping my face every few seconds. My handkerchief was getting soaked. I took a deep breath before continuing, “He then reached between my legs and touched my…” I had to swallow a lump in my throat. Here comes the word that I rarely use. The word that brings up feelings of loathing and shame whenever I use it. “…vagina…” There. I’d said it. For a moment, I felt a little proud of myself for being able to say that awful word.
Then I continued to read, “He pressed on it several times and I told him to stop. It wasn’t comfortable. I didn’t understand it or know why but I didn’t like it. He told me that he’ll let me do it to him and I agreed to let him continue touching me. I don’t think any clothes came off. I don’t remember… Maybe he put his hands down my panties…”
“So you can’t remember…” S said, reiterating and just assuring me that he was there with me.
“I can’t remember that part… Um… I used to wear dresses as a child… That could be why I can’t dress femininely now,” I said, realizing that this was the starting point in my life where I made the switch to being a tomboy. I couldn’t make myself put on feminine clothes and every time I did, I felt naked and exposed.
“Do you remember if you were wearing a dress during this memory?” S asked.
“I tried to remember and um… I think I was… I think I was wearing a dress… I was wearing a dress a lot up to the point um… When my brother was born I think. I quit wearing dresses. Um… I quit wanting to be like a girl.”
“Do you remember feeling anything – I mean you asked him to stop, so you didn’t like it. Do you remember feeling anything in particular? I mean maybe not?” S asked. I have noticed that he will often add “Maybe not” whenever he suggests something because I think he doesn’t want me to be influenced by his own interpretation of events.
“I think I was kinda struggling. I felt really uncomfortable. I think it’s the same feeling I get when people start getting intimate with me. Um… It’s… This feeling like I don’t know what’s happening and it doesn’t feel good. I feel freaked out… Um… The last time I felt this way was Monday. I was at the bar with my coworkers. Someone walked by me and brushed by me and uh, I think they put their hand on my back and uh, it was just the ‘I need to get by’ kind of touch and that sent a jolt through me. So it felt like that. It was like… Um… Like ‘Don’t touch me!’ kinda feeling. And I think its just feels wrong. Um… That I just kept squirming and… Um, I kept asking him for my turn… I think, in my mind I kept thinking ‘It’s going to be over soon, it’s going to be my turn soon’. I think that that was probably what kind of made me let him do it.” I said. I felt guilty. I felt dirty for letting the boy touch me.
“Just telling yourself that it’s going to be over soon,” S said gently. His facial expression and body language showed that he was sad and that he was empathizing with me as I talked. He sat at the edge of his seat the whole time as I read. I remember wishing that he could sit by me. I felt so afraid.
“Yeah… Um… Yeah… And um… I think at this point, I was afraid of people already. I just wanted people to like me I guess… And so I don’t… I didn’t just straight up say no. Rather, I mean, I came up with a compromise and that was it…”
“You had already mention being uncomfortable with him, did you remember wanting him to like you?” S asked.
“Um… I don’t remember that. Um… But I… I know that I didn’t want to make him feel embarrassed. For some reason, losing face feels really painful. Um… And so embarrassing somebody makes them lose face and I can’t do that…” I said, admitting a feeling I’ve always had – that I can never allow someone to lose face because it makes me feel shame.
“So was there a part of you that wanted to say something stronger? That would make him feel embarrassed?” S persisted.
“Yeah… Um… And the part of me that wants it to end. That wants it to stop. Wanted me to say something more. Um… And at the same time I think uh… I think I also thought, um, I think something along the lines of, ‘Well you know, this is a new experience. Whatever it is… Maybe this is how people play some games’ Um… Yeah so I think… That was something I also thought.”
“Okay… Maybe this is just what people do…” S said, rewording what I had just said.
“Yeah… So I kept… Asking him when is it going to be my turn? And I don’t think I really wanted to do it but I felt like, ‘Well he’s doing it to me, I should do it back to him’. He kept saying that I’ll get my turn soon… And… And um, I think… I think I finally got my turn. I kept telling him that he’s taking a very long time and I didn’t like how it felt… I tried to free myself…”
“You were struggling and trying to get out…”
“Yeah, struggling against the rope,” I said, crying even harder as I remember the feeling of the rope against my skin.
“And he was touching your vagina this whole time?” S asked. There was that word again. I shuddered internally as I hear S use it.
“Yeah… Um… And um… I remember that feeling the rope. And it burned. It was a thin kind of rope. I don’t even know why a kid would have ropes in his play box…” I said, forcing myself to push through the discomfort I was feeling.
“He had tied me down pretty tightly. Finally after a while, I think he let me have my turn. I tied him up. He complained that I tied him up too tightly. He sat down and told me to touch him. So I did. I remember feeling grossed out. What I touched felt soft and kinda squishy. I felt that it was weird. It felt really wrong. Like I should stop. I told him that maybe I need to stop. That we should play something else. But I was also afraid of letting him down. Afraid that he wouldn’t like me anymore…”
“You do remember being afraid that he wouldn’t like you…” S said.
“Yeah, it’s a good thing I wrote this down because I didn’t remember it just now… Um… Even at that young age, I felt like I need to please people and gain their favor. So although I wanted to stop, I also felt like I needed to just try and enjoy it. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I would learn to like the game we were playing. It’s just like he said, it’s just a game…”
“So, maybe you felt like it was a problem with you because he was obviously enjoying it…”
“How are you doing right now?” Steve asked. He looked very concerned. His eyebrows were knotted the whole time. He usually has a neutral expression on his face and it only changes whenever he’s empathizing with things I’ve said but this time, he was just looked sad and concerned the whole time.
“I kinda feel… I feel scared. Um…” I said. The memory was painful.
“Yeah… Um… Kinda feeling like what I must’ve felt then… I think I was terrified…”
“Yeah… Do you remember feeling terrified?”
“Yeah,” I said, simply.
“It sounds really scary…” S said in his dad-voice. His kindness as he said it made me cry harder.
“Yeah… Um… I didn’t know what was gonna happen next you know? What else were we gonna do? Like is this it? Or does it involve other things?”
“You were scared that something worse would be next,” S said, voicing the fear that I had as a child.
“Yeah… Um… And I just remember thinking that it’s just a game right? I think I tried to reason it. I think um… I think maybe I was always such a thinker. I tried to logically reason this out, you know?”
“You tried to reframe it in your mind, like ‘Oh it’s just a game. It’s just a game.’ Even though you felt terrified, and it felt like it was wrong, you were scared about what was going to happen next,” S said.
I suppose kids are going to do whatever they can to cope. I tried to cope by telling myself that this was just a game. That it wasn’t wrong to play it.
I continued with the narrative. “Yeah… Um… He didn’t sit for very long. My turn felt so short compared to his. He got up from the chair easily because I didn’t know how to tie him down the way he did to me. And then he ordered me to sit down again because it was his turn again to be the doctor and we did it all over again. He would touch me again. His turn as a doctor was always much longer than mine. I didn’t want to touch him either but doing it made me feel like it was ok for him to touch me because now we didn’t owe each other anything. A favor for a favor I guess… This happened more than once. We always played in the hallway and no one would see us…”
“In the hallway? In his apartment?” S asked.
“Outside his apartment…” I said.
“Outside? Oh!” S said in surprise. He looked shocked at that revelation.
“His mother was always inside… I don’t know what she does inside but… She was never supervising us,” I said.
“She never saw any of this. She was never there.”
“No… We would only stop when his mother called on him. Once I tried to tell his mother what we were playing. I don’t remember her response. She either didn’t believe me or didn’t know what I was talking about,” I said.
“But you tried to tell her”
“Yeah… I… I tried to tell her that I didn’t want to play… With her son. I tried to tell her to make him stop. Um… I think she just kinda waved me off… I think maybe I wasn’t making sense to her… I tried to tell my mother and um… And she didn’t believe me or I don’t think she understood…”
“You did tell your mother,” S said as a statement. It sounded like he was trying to convince me that I did tell my mother. I’ve mentioned this part to him several times before in past sessions. I started to cry even harder at this point. Talking about my mother touched a nerve.
“Yeah, I did tell my mother… That I didn’t want to play with him anymore… And um, she told me that kids need to play with each other. Um… And that I can’t just stay at home all the time. I needed friends. And uh, and… There were no other kids nearby. I hadn’t gone to school yet”
“Just saying that… Talking about that conversation seems really hard,” S noted because I was struggling to even spit out the words.
“Yeah…” I said, as I cried harder. “I think… I think I felt really scared.”
“Scared when you were talking to her?”
“Yeah… When she said that I needed to have friends…”
“So her saying, ‘Oh you need friends’, that was scary,” S said, trying to understand what I was meaning to say.
“Yeah because I knew that means that it’s not gonna stop…” I said, my voice cracking. I was finally able to get to the point of why I was afraid of the fact that I needed friends. The neighbor boy was the only child in the vicinity of the apartment we had lived on. There were no other kids I could play with. So I knew that when I was told I needed friends, that this boy was the only option I had.
“She said that and you thought, ‘That’s not gonna stop’,” S iterated.
“Yeah… I didn’t like playing at… I didn’t like playing with him…”
“You said she might not have understood, do you remember… It sounds like you might have tried to explain to her what was happening?”
“Yeah… Maybe I don’t know… Maybe I didn’t know how to explain it… Um… I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed even trying to say the words… Maybe I didn’t use specific words…” I said, describing my discomfort in using words like ‘vagina’, ‘penis’ and so on.
“Do you remember feeling ashamed as you were trying?”
“Yeah. Um… I mean I have trouble now as an adult to say these words… I feel ashamed every time… Um… So I think I was ashamed to tell her exactly what we did… Maybe I just told her that I didn’t want to play doctor. Maybe I told her that he would just make me sit down and he would be the doctor. I don’t think my mother understood… I think after that I just… I just kept everything to myself. I didn’t think that anyone could help me. So I just took it… I guess I just knew that every time we were gonna play that at some point we were gonna do that…”
At this point, S shook his head and said, “Oh geez…” He looked distressed on my behalf and hearing me say that probably disgusted him. I mean how awful is it to hear that as a child, I had come to the horrific conclusion that my torture was never going to stop and that every time we play together, that that was coming.
“I think that um… I think I was probably wondering when it’s going to be…. Every time… It’s almost always near the end of our play time… I don’t know why…” A lump formed in my throat and it was hard to speak.
There was a short pause before I spoke again, “I remember… I used to play with Barbie dolls and stuff… But I think after this happened, I stopped playing that… I think I started despising being a girl. I think I started doing everything I could not to be a girl… I guess I didn’t feel safe”
“Being a girl didn’t feel safe,” S echoed.
“No. And uh… I feel like girls are weak and… And I didn’t want to be weak… I feel like I can’t be weak… Not anymore… I think it makes me sad that I am still weak…”
“You still feel weak?” S asked.
“Yeah… I do… I also knew that I had to learn to rely on myself. I wrote here this memory goes on repeat in my head sometimes. Just that one scene. That one disjointed scene.”
“Everything that you just read?”
“Yeah… I don’t remember anything before it or anything after it… Yeah… And I wish that I had remembered more…”
“Why do you wish that?”
“Somehow this boy is faceless in my memory. I don’t remember what his mother looked like either. Um… So I would like to know what he looked like. What was his expression while we were playing this? I don’t remember that… I just remember the rope. The chair…”
“So you’d like to give a face to him. And to know what he looked like, what the expression was on his face,” S repeated.
I nodded. Somehow it felt important to me to know that. I have wished over and over throughout my life that I could remember that. I’ve tried hard to remember it. I did remember that when my family finally moved away from the apartment, that the last person I saw was him. He was staring at me from the window of his room and he just looked like he was experiencing a mixture of anger and fear. I remember this instance because I looked up back at him from the car that I was riding in. I remember thinking to myself, ‘It’s finally going to be over’. We locked eyes and though I still felt terror in my heart when I saw him, I was also relieved. It was finally going to be over.
Though I don’t want to remember the face of my abuser, I also wanted to because his anonymity to me right now seems more powerful than his actual real face. In my mind, I think that if I were to be able to remember what he looked like, that I could take some of the power away from him.
S and I continued to talk and as we did so, I revealed to him that my abuser was himself abused. I told him that I didn’t know how I knew that but that was a distinct memory that I had. I speculated that maybe the boy had told me the horrors he had to endure himself but that I can’t be sure. Perhaps my own mind made up that fact just so I could cope better with the incidents that I had gone through.
We later discussed my distrust towards adults and my problem with authority. S interpreted my distrust as being due to my feeling that the adults in my life at the point where the molestation was occurring had not protected me or even attempted to do so. Instead, I had been forced to befriend my abuser and kept being sent to play with him despite my reluctance to do so.
I then continued my narrative to include another memory – a shorter one that took place during the boy’s birthday party. I remember the party being boring and full of adults that I didn’t know. I wanted to go home because I didn’t know anyone. Then the boy invited me to his room where his older brother was lounging watching TV. In this room, he had tied me up again to the same chair, as he had always done when we played.
“Mm… His brother was in the room while it was happening…” S said.
“Yeah…” I said, my voice was barely a whisper.
“And it was in the middle of this party, and he just didn’t display any kind of fear or worry that he’d get caught,” S continued.
“Yeah…” I agreed with him.
“Maybe that’s the piece too, that it was always in the hallway, in a public space. The room with the party with a bunch of adults right outside. The brother right there…”
“Yeah… I think I always just felt alone. Even when there were people there…” I said. Maybe this was why I often feel so lonely despite having people around me to support me.
“You know sometimes it’s called the bystander effect and that’s the idea that is just as traumatic as someone who’s supposed to be protecting you turning on you or doing nothing. And so I think it’s really significant that you include your conversations with your mom and his mom in that memory. And it sounds like it was almost more profound for you wondering not only what exactly was going on but if your parents and his parents were kinda in this together somehow. Just not feeling safe at all.” S said.
He was right. I didn’t feel safe. I never felt safe after that. I always had to look over my shoulder when I walk to and from school. I always instinctively cover my chest whenever boys would walk by me. I was constantly afraid that someone else would do the same that this neighbor boy did to me.
“How do you feel?” S asked. At this point, we had been going at it for an hour. I knew that we were over time because his phone’s alarm had rung at minute 45. I felt bad for going over time but I also knew that if I didn’t finish, I wouldn’t do it again.
“Um… Still scared… Um… I feel like um… Like I can’t… I can’t be safe. Um… It’s like no matter where I go… I’ll never be free…”
“Why do you say that?”
“Um… I don’t know… Just… Feels like uh, feels like my mother’s there all the time. I can’t get away… Um…”
“That sounds like echoes of ‘It’s not gonna stop’” S said. This prompted me to kinda lose control of my crying. I started crying and breathing harder. “Sounds like in your mind, she’s the real threat. She’s the one who didn’t protect you and possibly enabled all of this…”
“She’s the one you said before, whose presence you always feel,” S continued.
I continued to cry. “Yeah” I even got all squeaky. I was starting to panic too. I was heading into hyperventilation mode as my breath continued to hitch. I was losing control. For reasons unknown to me at this moment, the thought of my mother not protecting me as a child felt scarier than the actual molestation.
“Jules, I just want to remind you that you can feel whatever you want to feel, or need to feel right now. ‘Cuz you are safe right now in here,” S said soothingly.
It took me a minute but I finally calmed down after that. S talked me through it as he did the last time I had a panic attack in his office. He was right. I was safe in his office. Nothing was going to hurt me. It was just a memory.
“It’s been a long journey and I think it might continue to be. But I think the end is… I mean it’s clichéd, but accepting that this happened to you but that it doesn’t have to define you, and that your parents are… I mean, I don’t know what the deal is with your dad or what your mom really thought, I mean I don’t know if we’ll ever get answers to those questions, but just accepting that they’re, no matter what they’ve done, in the end they’re still just people. I’m not saying that you can do that right away. But they’re not… That they really cannot hurt you anymore. There’s nothing else that they can do to you,” S said.
It made sense. I guess it had been a long journey. And the fact is, it’s taken me 15 months to even get to the point where I could face my childhood trauma. Of course it’s going to take time. Things like this don’t just change overnight. I get that. I just wish that it wasn’t so painful and difficult to cope.
We talked a little bit more after that about what I would say to someone else who is experiencing the same exact thing (it was an exercise in self-compassion through the third person since I can’t give myself self-compassion in the first person) and what I would’ve done had I been an adult who had happened on the incidents as they were occurring in the hallway. The things I said helped to soothe me as I practiced self-compassion in the third person. It’s still so difficult for me to feel compassionate for myself.
“We should probably finish up now…” S said. I glanced at my watch. We’d been going for an hour and 30 minutes. No wonder I felt so exhausted. “How’s this whole process been?”
“It’s interesting. Um… I think I learned some things that I didn’t think I would before. Made some connections that I never saw before,” I said as my intellectual side took over. I always think of things as interesting and am never open enough to really express how I felt – which was extreme vulnerability through the whole process as well as panic.
“I’d like to offer, this is totally up to you. I can hold on to the narrative if you’d like. Whatever you feel comfortable with. But if that would be a good way to kinda keep it contained. I’m happy to do that,” S said. He was calm and in control. I felt comforted that he was.
“Yeah” I said, handing the narrative over to him. It might be a good idea to keep it in his office for now.
S then asked me what I was going to do for the rest of the day to take care of myself. I told him that I had given up my work shift because I didn’t think I would be able to work after the session. He was very pleased to hear that I was able to think ahead that way and that I had done that.
I left his office feeling like I had been run over by a train – battered, bruised, and pained. I also felt a little proud of myself – that I was able to read through the narrative with S. I didn’t think I could ever face this memory, especially not out loud with an audience.
Like S, I’m hopeful that this will mean a better time coping with the things that this memory triggers. I’m hopeful because if I’m not, then I’ll continue to be harmed by this memory.
If you’ve read this far, bravo. You just read through a 5500 word essay. I tried to keep it brief but it’s so hard to do so when there’s so much to say. Anyway, I feel terrified for posting this because I know that since my blog is public, that my family will find it and read it too. I’m terrified of the aftermath but I think after 25 years, it’s time for it to see the light of day. It’s time to expose this monster to the light and hopefully in doing so, I’ll be able to feel less burdened by it.