Soon after I sit down in the big comfy chair in E.’s office on Monday, she tells me, “I read your story. I tried to print it out, but my printer wasn’t working. But I did read it.”
Suddenly I feel I have no words on this topic, so I just nod at her.
“It was well written. I imagine it was hard to tell?”
Well written? That seems like such a strange thing to say. But certainly it was hard to tell. I say only, “Yes.”
“I think it was a good idea to write it in the third person like that.” and blah blah blah, some related stuff I wasn’t really hearing.
She went on, “I liked that it included some of the context of how the woman was living at the time, as a single mom with two little children. It helped to situate what happened. I could see she was overwhelmed and lonely. But I thought something might be missing.”
I just looked at her, silent, and waited for her to continue.
“It didn’t include that she came from a background that had trained her to be compliant. She had learned to be agreeable to men, to go along with things, without even asking herself what she wanted. I think that background is a crucial piece of understanding what happened. She had learned to do what she was told and be quiet about it.”
“Hm. Well, I just wanted to tell what happened, keep it pretty simple.”
She gave me time to say more about that, but I didn’t. After a while she continued, “I just want to tell you that I am sorry, so sorry that happened to you! It sounds absolutely brutal. Just woman-to-woman, I want you to know I’m very sorry.”
I nod a little and say, “Thank you.”
Again she waited, and when I didn’t say more, she said, “In the story, the woman experienced arousal. That is natural, but I know it can be hard to understand. But even in terrible situations, our bodies respond,” and blah blah blah some more on this topic that at one level I know and at another level is not even registering.
I don’t say anything.
“You seemed glad though to say that you didn’t have an orgasm, that he couldn’t take that from you.”
I shrug. She waits.
“And after everything happened, she pulled it together to go to her work meeting, hiding the pain, showing only her professional face. That must have been such a hard day,” E. says
‘Yeah,” I answer. “The main thing I remember is how much it hurt to sit there.”
I feel like E. is expecting me to respond to some of these pieces she is mentioning, but I don’t know what to say. It’s not that I am horrified or humiliated. I just can’t think of anything to say. Maybe I’ve closed up. I do notice that she really read the story, that she remembers different parts. She pulls out different threads of the story and says a few sentence about them, as though she is trying to find which part it is that I need to talk about. I can’t help her, because in this moment, I don’t know.
After a while, she asks, “How did you feel when you hit ‘send’?”
Ah, that is the right question. I tell her how much time I spent on this last Saturday, how I wrote about the question she had posed: what does the frightened part of me need in order to feel safe to share? I had written “a guarantee that E. won’t think less of me.” And when I saw it written like that, I realized how ridiculous and impossible that was. And how that led me to understand that I didn’t really need to worry about her reaction, because the entire purpose of our relationship was to make it easier for me to deal with my past. And that anything less that the whole gruesome story would mean she couldn’t really help me. “So by the time I hit ‘send’,” I tell her, “I didn’t feel all that scared anymore. I felt I was choosing to do something that would ultimately help me.”
E. really likes that response (so do I – it feels like an important insight to me). We talk a bit about how powerful it is to accept that we can only control our own thoughts and feelings and to just let other people think what they will. She also seems a little relieved that I am finally talking.
“The next step,” she tells me, “is for you to make a connection to the woman in the story, this younger version of yourself.”
“I need help with that,” I reply. “I look at her with a lot of judgment and shame.”
E. says, “So how can we find a way to put some of that judgment aside?” She lets the question hang in the air, until I say, “Are you asking me? If I knew that…”
“No, no,” she replies. “I am really thinking it through with you. For people who are Christian, they can give the judgment and shame over to Jesus; they can relinquish that burden. But for people who are not Christian, what can they do with that burden of criticism and hostility? Sometimes in therapy, I talk to people about the value of the critical voice within, that underneath the harsh voice there is the desire to teach ourselves a lesson so we won’t let it happen again. We can work to value and also soften that voice. But I don’t think that is enough for the harsh judgment you bring to this. Perhaps you need to bring compassion to the judgment? Or perhaps you need to set it aside because it is an obstacle to compassion?”
I really don’t understand why she is posing all these questions. I thought she was going to offer me strategies. I feel a little agitated. “How can I put aside the judgement? If I even try, I feel I am making excuses for a grown woman who should have known better. She was an adult! She had children. She was well educated.”
“Perhaps that is the way in,” E. suggests. “The woman who let this happen, as you say, maybe she is smart and capable and knows a lot, but she doesn’t know a lot about herself, about intimacy, about relationships. She doesn’t know how to keep herself safe. That was a hole in her education. In fact, it was not just a hole, but she was actively educated to not protect herself, to be compliant. She experienced harmful training early on in skills that ran counter to healthy living, skills that made her amenable to predatory men, that taught her to silence her own voice. Maybe that training taught her to meet her very natural desire for attention and connection by permitting dangerous men to define the situation.”
That’s when we run out of time. E. proposes that I write more on this topic, about whether looking at the woman’s prior education and experience helps settle down some of the judgmental voice. I leave feeling calm or maybe not feeling all that much at all.
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Now it’s Tuesday, a day later, and it’s been a little more challenging that I expected. I had a dream about being in Stephen’s apartment, not then, but now, and I was noticing what had changed and what was still the same. It was a little bigger and cleaner than I remembered. Nothing happened in the dream; I simply walked through the apartment and thought, oh, that’s what it was like, I had forgotten what the kitchen was like…
No anxiety attacks, no flooding, so that’s good. But the voices are talking again: Slut, bitch, whore. And: I am a bad person. These voices are like broken records (for you younger readers: records, that old musical technology, used to get scratched and they would keep jumping back and playing the same short section again and again, as in: Let it go, let it go, the perfect girl is gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone…). I take a deep breath and tell those voices, that’s how we used to respond to this story. We berated ourselves loudly, perhaps in order not to hear the pain underneath. We don’t have to do that anymore. It hasn’t fully worked yet, but I hope it will. Trust the process, E. always tells me.
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Art by Richard Emil Miller