“Unresolved emotional pain is the great contagion of our time — of all time.” ~ Marc Ian Barasch
Imagine you are seeing a therapist and have an abuse history. It’s safe to assume that you’ve already talked to the therapist about the abuse. Right? It would make sense, and yet, again and again I hear other abuse survivors say they’ve postponed talking to their therapist about the abuse.
The phrase “child abuse” becomes easily stuck in a victim’s throat. The abuser may distort the events that occurred so we aren’t sure of what happened. Sometimes, we’re so young when the abuse occurred we barely understand what was going on. Memory also plays tricks. In an attempt to insulate us from terrifying experiences, memory can become a block of Swiss cheese with holes in it everywhere.
“I’m not sure what really happened,” is a common sentiment. “I just have feelings.” Others blame themselves or fail to trust their own memory, “maybe I was just a strange kid.”
I lived in denial that I was sexually abused for most of my life. At that point I had seen two therapists and had been treated for anxiety and depression. I spoke about the physical abuse, about being beaten as a child and not knowing why. I talked endlessly about the emotional abuse, which at some point led to me to hate therapy and discontinue treatment for a time.
The tricky thing about trauma is that I always viewed the abuse as a grey area and everything else in the world was black and white. It’s this kind of arrangement that kept me stuck. I couldn’t pin down whether the victimizer was really in the wrong. Without the help of a therapist (when I did finally go back into therapy), I may never have been able to do so.
A therapist isn’t expecting us to diagnose ourselves. They expect us to share. What they don’t have knowledge of, they can’t help us with. We come in with evidence, feelings, and facts. Doubt, confusion, and foggy memories are all normal. We honor our feelings by exploring them in treatment.
Perhaps it’s disgust that keeps many of us from mentioning abuse. I squirmed when the thought entered my mind. I was afraid that my therapist would reject my feelings and tell me that I shouldn’t have felt the way I did. That’s what my abuser was always telling me. If by some off chance my therapist did agree that the behavior was abusive, then I’d have to live with the idea that he or she would think I was disgusting, perverse, or defective. My shame and fear of judgment kept me from opening my mouth. When I finally spoke up, I was shocked. There was no judgment at all.
There is liberation in finally seeing something the way it truly is, whether it’s good or bad. Even if we learn that things were quite bad, there is relief in finally labeling it. The goal doesn’t have to be assigning blame, reimagining the past, or recovering memories. The goal is to honor ourselves — to honor the child inside. From that point we can move forward with life. As long as past abuse is allowed to remain in a grey area, we can’t heal the wound.
I can sympathize with anyone who just can’t decipher whether what they experienced was in fact abuse. Maybe it wasn’t. But anything that looms large in your memory, anything that still disturbs you after all these years is worth talking about in therapy.
Abuse victim photo available from Shutterstock