I have clear memories of abuse I experienced starting in my teen years. Sometimes I feel sure that I am also aware of experiences that occurred even earlier. Other times, I think the earlier experiences are a figment of my imagination, scary stories I somehow made up to “explain” to myself how I could be so confused, so depressed, and such a sucker for repeated abuse even after I entered adulthood.
If there is one aspect of my years of work in therapy that has tortured me, it has been the way I doubt myself on this topic. It’s torturous because Doubt doesn’t visit me by herself. No, she always comes with Self-Loathing. Only a really disgusting person would think members of her own family would sexually abuse her as a child. What is wrong with me?!?
I first entered therapy in 1995. Yes, that’s right, more than 20 years ago. And in the course of that first therapy, the abuse I’d experienced as a teen rose up and hit me smack in the face. I’d tucked them away and forgotten them almost immediately after they happened, and so when they came up in therapy, I felt all the shock and shame and fear and whatever else I didn’t allow myself to feel at the time.
In the course of working with Hannah, my first therapist all those years ago, she asked whether I had also experienced abuse at the hands of my father. I answered her, no, yes, I think yes, no, I don’t know. Or something to that effect. I felt like the answer was yes. I had foggy images in my brain. But I didn’t have concrete memories. The doubt nearly ate me alive.
I didn’t get to process those memories and mixed emotions very much, however. I was in the process of getting out of an emotionally abusive marriage at the time, so that escape and the care of my very small children had to be my priority. And while I’ve been in and out of therapy at various times over the past two decades, it’s only really over the past three years, with my sons out of the house, that I’ve had time to focus on myself and my healing again.
I think I opened this whole can of worms in my therapy with E starting around the fall of 2014. It’s been a rocky road, to say the least, but I think I’ve made tremendous gains in my ability to love and care for myself, my ability to reject the old shame around what happened to me as a teen or young adult. Those of you who have read along for any length of time know that I have found mindfulness, body work, quitting my job and slowing down my frenetic schedule to all be enormous contributions toward greater emotional stability.
But when it comes to the earliest stuff, I am struggling to make much progress.
You might think that after all these years, if I still can’t believe my own story, I would just give up that story. I’d tell myself, well, you were in a terrible state when you told Hannah no, yes, maybe, I don’t know. You couldn’t think clearly. You were in the midst of a terrible marital crisis. That story seemed like an explanation that made sense at the time, but now it doesn’t feel right. Good thing you never told anyone in your family, right? You don’t have to retract it in front of the world. You can just retract it in therapy, and E will accept that and forgive you.
Some days I go into therapy thinking that is what I am going to do. And yet I never quite do that, either. Some part of me hangs on to the story. Why? Am I too ashamed to say it was a big mistake?
Recently I spent quite a bit of time in therapy trying to focus on emotions. I worry that my inability to cry is an indicator that my heart has solidified into a frozen rock. I worry that I am numb too much of the time. That’s why E and I worked this month to cautiously provoke some emotions related to things that happened to me when I was a teen or a young adult. I have found that very helpful. I still don’t cry, but I think I’m reducing my fear of strong emotions.
This past Monday, when E asked me in session what I wanted to work on, I said that I wanted to continue the emotional work, but with a focus on a different story, something from my younger years. She thought that could be a good idea, but she also recognized immediately that going back to earlier years could well trigger a visit from Doubt.
“You are right,” I said, “so let’s allow her to come, but make some rules for her.”
And we did. We made them from the point of view of my wise woman self, my grounded true self who works to protect me from the worst criticisms of Doubt or Cynicism or Nagging Self-Criticism. My wise woman self is learning that all these parts may exist inside of me–it’s only natural–but that they don’t get to take over and run wild.
So, the rules for Doubt:
- You are allowed to come around. You get to be part of the conversation about what happened in my early life. However, you do not get to dominate the conversation.
- When you come around, you don’t get to bring Self-Loathing with you. You need to express yourself in a more neutral tone.
- You may raise questions, but you may not derail the healing work.
- You will accept that my focus needs to be on my own underlying emotional experience, not on whether there are enough “facts” to make my case in a court of law. I’m not interested in making a case in a court anyway.
- I will acknowledge that you probably served a useful self-protective function for me in the past. I want you to acknowledge that I now have a lot of other skills and no longer need you to deny everything for me.
I left Monday’s session with this list of rules and with an assignment. I was to write up a different story that we’d take up later in the week to work on. And in fact, I did my assignment. The only thing is, Doubt didn’t follow the rules. So here I am again, doubting that I have a real story at all.
Here I am, at the same place I was 20-plus years ago. I can’t remember now any more than I could then. There’s nothing there. I am an idiot, banging my head against a concrete wall, as if it’s going to open up and reveal some secrets behind it.
I’ve definitely spent some time this week berating myself for even trying to tiptoe into this minefield again. Tonight, however, I’m trying to soften that scolding voice a little. Instead of What an idiot I am, how can I even think about this? I can tell myself, How humbling it is to realize that I can make a lot of progress in therapy, and yet a particular topic can trigger all my old negative thinking patterns again. It is incredibly difficult to do this differently. I can tell myself, There are probably kinder ways to work on this painful question. If I can’t do it right now, I can work some more with E to find those kinder ways. I’ve tortured myself enough.
It’s also a good reminder, I think, to be gentle and non-judgmental of others who have a hard time getting past their own “stuck” places. We can work a long time and learn a lot of new skills, but our most tender spots stay sore and reactive and irrational and fearful for a long, long time.
For me, that tender sore spot is called Doubt. She makes me crazy. But the thing is, she may be right.