The article appeared in a magazine TervisPluss, October 2019.
After completing therapy, the therapist rarely hears how the client’s life is going. This is all the more valuable when the person contacts the therapist to give feedback and agrees to share the healing process with others. Here is a conversation with a 44-year-old woman who, as a child, experienced sexual abuse by a close relative.
What problem did you come to therapy with?
It was a story that had happened to me as a child, which my brain had blocked, but it interfered with my life and made relationships with men difficult. In the moments when everything came to mind, I wasn’t able to handle the anxiety, pain and shame that had risen. The shame was so great even then that I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. Maybe that’s why the brain blocked access to information. It was a huge humiliation; I was struggling with myself so much that I soaked in guilt and shame. I had a question: WHY did he do that to me?
I couldn’t handle it myself; it was so absurd and unreasonable, there was no explanation. But this information came out from deep inside when there was another difficult situation in my life; the pain also lifted the old case. I remembered that a person who should have provided me with a sense of security, warmth and protection as a child, who should have helped and supported me, actually turned out to be an abuser.
Then I came to therapy, and we talked a lot about these things. The book ‘Breaking Free’ (Carolyn Ainscough, Kay Toon, Breaking Free: Help For Survivors Of Child Sexual Abuse) was a great help for me. I devoured this book!
I had tried to find help elsewhere before, told the psychologist the same story, but they couldn’t help me. My partner and I went to a psychologist on the topic of a relationship and there I remembered what had happened to me as a child. I was in shock and then I talked about everything I remembered. But I didn’t get any attention from the psychologist at the time. But today’s holistic journeys into the inner world were the most correct and effective for me.
How old were you at the time?
The first time I was 11 years old and the last time I was 17, what was between these… I only remember the first and last time.
How did your partner react?
My partner thought I was exaggerating and it was painful to hear it. But I understand that if this situation is already awful for me, then it is also difficult for other people and they may want to ignore such information.
When you go with the story of abuse, it seems so absurd and unbelievable, especially if outside the abuser’s inner circle, he is known as a completely different person. Then the victim is considered a liar and they are despised. I realised that the subject is so complicated that people don’t know how to handle such things. They try to make fun of the story or avoid it. It is better to talk to those who can help you and listen to you.
Was there another case of abuse in your life?
Yes, I was 17 then. This time he was an acquaintance who was a devious womaniser. We had an age difference of several decades, and I could not fear any attack from him. Even then, I didn’t know how to act after what had happened; I was so terrified and scared. There was no one to ask for help either. I was afraid to tell my parents, it would probably have been a big shock to them and they wouldn’t have known how to help me.
Now I would know what I would do if my child came up with a story like this. That’s why parents need to build a trusting relationship with their children so that children wouldn’t be afraid to tell them everything. Parents often destroy this relationship of trust themselves.
How did you feel in those moments of remembrance?
I felt sharp pain and anxiety in my chest. For example, if there was some kind of harassment or injustice somewhere in the film, I reacted very strongly. It was as if I felt the same feelings that the person in the movie, but I couldn’t relate it to my own trauma. I thought I was just empathetic and didn’t want to watch movies like that. Later, I realised that it was actually my own trauma behind the reaction. Now it doesn’t bother me anymore; it unpleasant, but I don’t react with such feelings anymore. I don’t enter this situation anymore; I’d rather be an observer and I don’t identify with the actor in the film. In that sense, life is many times easier now and I respect myself much more.
One thing I started doing after the therapy was setting boundaries. We had to start pushing the boundaries because those boundaries were very narrow before. It was like I had walled myself in, tending to over-protect myself where it was not necessary.
Do you mean setting boundaries in romantic relationships?
Yes, in any relationships. Another thing was that the relationship with the abuser taught me to accept everything. But now it’s time to break the boundaries I’m testing how far I can go and what I can still do. I just have to try it. Assertiveness does not come automatically to me yet; I have to think first. I am also better at noticing situations. When I feel that I am being hurt and I start feeling bad, then the mind says that something needs to be done. I’m not going to fuss right away, but I am reacting in any case.
What other changes did you experience after the therapy?
What happened to me as a child now no longer evokes any bad feelings or emotions in me, I can stay neutral. When I remember what happened and look back at it, then it is like I am flipping a stranger’s photo album. Yes, there was this ugly story, but I don’t react with emotions anymore. In the same way, I can recall how I went to the store to buy bread yesterday. The problem seems to have been wiped out. The experience is still in memory but remembering it does not cause pain. And I’ve been able to forgive. It is not easy for me to forgive; there must be a reason for it. This time, it helped to understand that the abuser’s own past was very complicated and that was the result of his behaviour toward me.
Were forgiveness and understanding the abuser important to you in the healing process?
They were, although I learned in therapy that it is not absolutely necessary. I have understood that forgiveness is different for everyone. I need to understand why this happened, what my own role was. Was it my fault at all? No, it was not my fault! It was all his thing. Realising that what happened was not my fault allowed me to distance myself from that person and the event. Now I know that the abuser himself had a lot of problems and what happened was his reaction to pain, not a definite goal to harm me. He expressed his unresolved issue. Forgiveness was the result of dealing with my feelings.
Was is traumatic to go to the root causes of the trauma?
No, it was very liberating. The moment of remembering what had happened before was the worst, but the therapy process was not scary. It was like… walking along a sugar hill. There is nothing to fear, it is rather an interesting process and I was a bystander. When you are part of this event, you can be as an actor, but you can also be a screenwriter. You stand next to you, as an observer, telling a story you experience on the journey; all the more so because I was not alone in this process. In fact, the moment when you are inside the event, it’s the scariest. From there on, it can only get better. There was a lot of energy stuck under heavy feelings. The energy was released during the therapy and I no longer feel any mental distress or physical fatigue. This pain was pretty hard to bear.
Do you recommend that a victim of sexual abuse seek help from therapy?
Yes, in any case, I recommend. It is not a painful or complicated process but a safe process. The pain that occurs is momentary, but because everything happens in a safe environment and safe hands, the whole process is very supportive. It is not so that you feel the same pain again; the scariest was still when it all happened in real life. You have to go to a specialist, because such a big burden is released from your shoulders… It’s like going through a purgatory, like coming from a sauna. Healing takes a while, but I can’t imagine anymore carrying this pile of worries with me all the time. In any case, it is wise to go to therapy. To analyse everything, travel in your inner world, review and eliminate all such feelings like guilt, humiliation, anger, shame, anxiety, sadness. I got rid of them and I am very grateful for that. I feel much better and freer after going through the sessions.