This is Part 2 of a three-part guest post series about therapy after sexual abuse. Erin’s first post is here, and the final installment will be on December 31, 2016. – Kel, Blog Co-Editor
Now this is not the point in the story where suddenly everything gets better. This first therapist, while a good person, was not the right fit for me. However, this initial therapy experience got me on the right path.
After I committed to getting help, my first therapist misheard me when I mentioned I wanted help dealing with abuse. She missed the root of my problem, so instead focused on my two main symptoms: my belief that I was ugly and my fear of men. She taught me cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques which helped me address these two weaknesses and I did make progress. I began to see beauty in myself and to see men as less threatening. My life got happier.
But when I brought the abuse up again she wanted to use a therapy technique where you watch the abusive event in your mind as if you were an innocent bystander, then to say no to my attacker. The idea made me very uncomfortable. I felt grateful that my memories were only spotty. I did not want to remember the missing pieces, nor did I want to create fictitious “memories” to fill in the gaps. And I certainly did not want to witness such an event.
I stopped going to my therapist at this time and went back to trying to cope on my own. It was easier because I had these new cognitive behavioral therapy tools to help me reason through my fears. But ultimately the trauma lay untouched, still lurking in the dark corners of my mind.
I continued on my own for a few months, when the sudden disappointment of a relationship coming to an abrupt end threw everything into upheaval. Looking back now, I can see this experience as providential. But in the moment it hurt and it seemed very unkind. Rather than feel anger toward my perceived offender though, my self-esteem plummeted terribly and irrationally. I had never felt so badly about myself before. My logical mind could see my innocence and my worth, but I felt like I was suffocating under my fears of inadequacy. I felt despicable. I wanted to be crushed, destroyed, I wanted to disappear. I wanted relief from the unrelenting feeling of wretchedness. At the same time, I could see these huge emotions were not me. They were not true to my beliefs, they did not follow my way of reasoning. While the emotions were almost overpowering, I knew I was separate from them and I sought help again.
I confided in a few friends. Three separate people recommended the same therapist – a person who specialized in trauma. I’d have to pay out of pocket; it would cost me hundreds of dollars. I didn’t care. I was done with the incongruity in my thoughts. I was done being afraid. I was done with these spasms of perceived worthlessness. I didn’t care what the curtain revealed when I drew it back. I didn’t care that in opening myself up I may find embarrassment or criticism. I was finally ready to open up about everything and face anything.
I walked into my new therapist’s office on a mission. I told her everything that I remembered, I told her every shameful negative thought that plagued me. I told her I was ready to move on.
My therapist started by educating me about trauma. I learned that trauma occurs when an experience is so overwhelming that the brain cannot process it. When the brain experiences trauma, parts of it freeze up and get stuck in that moment. These parts remain in a perpetual state of fight or flight while the rest of the brain moves on. When a situation occurs that triggers the traumatic memory, the traumatized part of the brain takes over. I learned that sexual assault is always traumatic to a child’s brain.
I also learned that trauma manifests itself physically. When the brain feels threatened, even by a memory, the body responds by preparing to fight or flee. This constant physical stimulus takes a toll, and manifests in the posture and body language of the traumatized victim. My therapist told me that when she walked into a room she could pick out every single abuse victim just by watching them. It was validating to hear that she could see my pain that was largely invisible to outside eyes.
My therapist told me I did not have to go back and process the terrible memory to find healing. Instead I could process the physical impact of the memory. We were going to use a technique called somatic experiencing where I would “drop in” to how my body felt when triggered, and then process those feelings. I did not fully understand what that meant but I was ready to try.
My first homework assignment was to figure out my triggers and pay attention to how being triggered felt. She made a good guess that dating triggered me, and I was assigned to go on several dates. It seemed the universe was ready to help me because out of the blue everyone started asking me out. Men that I liked asked me out, men that made me uncomfortable asked me out, men I knew nothing about asked me out, and on top of that, the usual street harassment picked up a notch.
Within about two weeks I experienced a wide spectrum of male attention and intention, and I was shocked to discover two things. First, I discovered that I went numb and mentally froze up on every single date and in every street encounter. I had to fight through a thick fog to be conscious of how I physically felt. Second, I discovered that I felt exactly the same way when a bum on the street told me what he’d like to stick where as I did on an uncomfortable date, as I did on a fantastic date with a man I respected and wanted to go out with again.
In every single case, the feeling was the same. I felt a heaviness in my chest as if sandbags were weighing down my lungs. My limbs felt drained, lifeless, and askew, like four little windsocks just after the wind has suddenly died. I felt a piercing pain in my heart, as if a dagger were stuck there, and I felt a constriction in my chest, as if I were wearing a corset meant for a child. These feelings and images were there in pretty much every one-on-one encounter I had with a man.
I had never noticed the pattern before because of the intense mental numbness that came over me. But now I had the tools to examine myself, I could see clearly – for the first time – why I struggled in certain areas of my life. It was no wonder I had been sickly most of my life; I was in fight-or-flight mode almost daily. My frequently triggered brain was causing the rest of my body physical pain. It was no wonder dating had never been that enjoyable for me – every dating experience was riddled with fear.
Once I had established what was happening to my body and mind, my therapist was able to guide me through processing that physical reaction. She helped the little 4-year-old version of me that was stuck in my brain to finally come out from hiding. That version of me was finally able to express just how scared I was, just how much the experience had hurt, and how long it had been hurting. I was able to tell that version of me what I was going to do to protect her and take care of her. It was during this processing experience that I realized I had always expected to be assaulted again. For the first time in my life I looked at my future and did not assume rape was part of it. I had never acknowledged this assumption, but suddenly it was gone. I looked forward and thought, “I might actually be safe.”
My next assignment after this processing was to go on several more dates to see what changed. Once again the universe was all too happy to comply. Dates and street harassers came out of the woodwork again and I got to experience the whole spectrum once more. And an amazing thing happened.
I didn’t get triggered.
Join us on December 31 for the final part of Erin’s guest post series.