Someone who was supposed to love me abused me instead. Putdowns. Belittling. Gaslighting. Crazymaking. Intimidation. Isolation. Limiting who I could have as friends. Destroying my possessions. Occasionally even punching me in the face.
It’s been over for a long, long time. Thank God.
I’ve worked hard to sort out what happened and make a healthy, happy life. You see it all through this blog. But then one evening almost a year ago, an unexpected encounter with my abuser left me curled into a fetal ball on my family room floor, rocking back and forth, afraid for my life.
Near dawn my emotions finally settled enough for rational thought to return, for me to see that I was in no danger at all, for me to remember that there was nothing my abuser could do to harm me anymore. Things I had figured out through the work I’d done, but things that didn’t help me through that night.
Back into therapy I went. My recovery road is littered with all sorts of psychological diagnoses and associated treatments: major depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder. The first three were right; the last two flat wrong. Psychological diagnosis is such a judgment call. But after my full-on freak out, I thought it had to be post-traumatic stress disorder. So I found a therapist who specialized in it.
I’m not writing this to gather sympathy, or open a conversation about abuse, or shame my abuser (who I won’t name). I never planned to tell this part of my story here. But since I wrapped therapy in August, every post has been more a strain to write. This happens every time I need to tell a story from my life. And I have to tell it here or the block won’t lift. That’s why I told my divorce story last year (here, here, here, and here).
I’m fully blocked now; words won’t come. I usually have three weeks of posts scheduled in advance, but if I don’t tell this today, the blog will go silent. No posts are queued.
And it’s not the abuse that I need to tell about. It’s just that if you don’t know about the abuse, the story I need to tell won’t make sense.
So here goes.
The therapist used a technique called EMDR to help me process what she called the “flashbulb” moments — key abuse incidents that seared deeply, leaving deep feelings of shame and powerlessness, risking me being helplessly, inappropriately triggered into fight-or-flight mode in moments that recall what happened. EMDR was astonishingly effective. When we finished processing a flashbulb moment, I was fully freed from it. It had become an event I felt sorry I had to endure, but that no longer controlled me. After we had processed several of those moments, I began weave together a story of what happened, and assign meaning to it. I could feel the abuse’s power draining away.
When I was a kid, we used to tie knots in used-up socks as toys for our Labrador retriever. One game was to wave a sock in front of her face and laugh as she shook her head back and forth trying to clomp down. But old Missy was unusually smart. She figured out that the arm just behind my wrist was still. So she moved past the sock and closed her soft, bird-retrieving mouth on my wrist, all the while looking me right in the eye. The sock stopped instantly, and she took it right into her mouth and pulled. She wanted to play tug!
Go right to the source. But you have to recognize what the source is. Missy did. And thankfully, this therapist did, too.
One week, with several more flashbulb moments left to process, she said, “Next time I’d like to do something a little different with you, if you are willing and comfortable.” I was up for anything. “Then next week, tell me the story of the day you were born. Tell me as complete a story as you can put together.”
I knew where and about when I was born. I remembered that Mom Grey was thrilled to have a boy great-grandchild; she openly favored boys. I remembered that my mom’s parents flew in from Seattle to meet me, and that my uncle who was a photographer for the Chicago Tribune visited with his press camera and got a great photo of me with my grandfather, which I still have. I wove it all into a narrative and told it in my next session. It was oddly fulfilling.
“Do you see how anticipated you were? How much everyone in your family wanted you and enjoyed you when you were born?” I hadn’t seen it, actually. And I felt something shift slightly inside me, but I couldn’t describe it, couldn’t feel its value yet.
Then she asked me to close my eyes and imagine it was the day I was born. “Pretend you’ve traveled through time and arrived standing in front of the hospital. Now imagine with me. Feel the warm summer sunshine on your shoulders. Walk in. It’s cool in the hospital and it smells antiseptic clean. A nurse is leading you through the corridors to the maternity ward. And there you are, standing in front of the window, a room full of new babies before you. The nurse points out which baby is you. Do you see yourself there?”
“Now walk in. Walk up to yourself. Reach down and pick yourself up. Bring yourself up to your chest. Feel your warmth, maybe even your heartbeat. Lower your nose to take in the scent of newborn you.”
My mind flooded with memories of the first times I held my sons that way after they were born: their warmth, their scents. I remembered my feelings of love toward them, of excitement over their very lives. I recalled how I’d tried to love them and nurture them, to protect them, and to share life with them and prepare them for their futures.
I knew instantly that I had not given myself the same. Felt it deeply. A long thread had run through my whole life of accepting treatment from others that I would not accept for my sons, treatment that would cause me to fiercely intervene to protect them. I had not loved myself enough, not given myself full care and protection. But I felt that level of love for myself now, the same as I felt for my sons. And with that, I knew that I would be okay. My abuse story instantly lost all its power.
It was not an overly emotional moment. My eyes did fill with tears, but none fell onto my cheeks. It was a pain reaction, as if I had been walking around with a dislocated joint for 20 years and someone finally popped it back into place. It hurt for a minute, but then I felt great relief, and finally I was able to use that joint as it was intended.
I get to be me as I was intended.
I didn’t need to work through the rest of my flashbulb moments. Not only did I know I was safe and loved, but I could feel it; the emotional connection had been made. I felt compassion for the fellow I was, who suffered through abuse, who felt trapped in it. And now those days are properly sorted and I’ve finally fully moved on. But even better, I feel no fear for my future. I know I can take care of myself, protect myself, through whatever comes. Because I love myself enough.