x47 (what it feels like to think you’ve repressed a memory of childhood sexual abuse)

Editor’s Note (25 February 2013): The names, identities, and in some cases genders and relationships to me have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

I’m not quite sure how to start this story off, so here goes:

I’m scared.

I’m scared of ruining someone’s life or reputation.

I’m scared of being labeled as “delusional” or otherwise crazy.

I’m scared when I sleep at night because as much as I want to know the truth, I don’t want those dreams to haunt me.

I’m scared of getting in trouble because I chose to talk about this.

I’m scared of people laughing at me or not taking me seriously.

I’m scared of people not believing me when I say this.

I’m scared of December happening again.

Because in December, the fear wouldn’t go away. I was scared of going to the bathroom; of being in bathrooms in general. I was scared of taking a shower. I was scared of people touching me. I was scared of bright lights and loud noises. I was scared of people I was supposed to be able to trust. I was scared of the dark. I was scared of the stairs. I was scared of being in my home. I was scared of talking about what was happening. I was scared of the pit of terror looming inside of me, that seemed like it would burst forth at any second, triggered by something others perceived as minute but that seemed huge to me.

Let me explain.

In December of 2011, I started to suspect that I had been sexually abused as a child and that I repressed the memory. Things started happening. Terrifying things. And I never got any answers. I may never get any answers. As difficult as this is for me, I’m writing about this to give other survivors hope and solidarity. I don’t want other survivors to feel as alone as I do, and I don’t want other survivors to have as difficult a time as I did trying to navigate these poisonous waters. I’ve been told I have an eloquent way of spinning a yarn, a way of reaching people, helping people, with my words. As much as I don’t want to put this out there, for fear of being labeled as crazy, I feel I owe it to every other woman who has been through what I’ve been through to share my story.

My story starts in my OB/GYN’s office on December 5th. It was the late afternoon, and it was already dark. I sat on the chair with my feet dangling between the stirrups. My doctor asked me if there were any health concerns he should be aware of. I told him that I had been molested, and I told him what happened. I don’t like to detail what happened because it’s not something that everyone sees as sexual abuse. The closest, vaguest thing I can compare it to is a grooming technique. Sometimes, when an adult, an offender, selects a child to molest, they start off with small touches in non-private areas. And even though it’s in a non-private area, like the head, chest, or arm, because there is sexual intent, and because it makes the child uncomfortable, it is sexual abuse. I talked to another survivor once who told me that after her mother molested her, the little things hurt the most. Little things, like when her mother would rub Vick’s on her bare chest when she was sick, smiling a sweet yet sinister smile.

My doctor nodded. “I agree what happened was inappropriate,” he said slowly, mulling over his words. “But I think something else may have happened.”

I nodded. “I think you may be right,” I said.

“Now,” he started, “I’m not saying something definitely did happen. It could be nothing. But it’s something you may want to look into.”
“I understand,” I said. “While I’m not positive something else did happen, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. I have an intake with my new therapist on the 21st. I’ll bring it up with her.”

We talked. We talked about how I’ve never worn underwear because from a sensory perspective, I find it uncomfortable. We talked about how the church I was baptized in was odd, different, and how I suspected that if something did happen it was when I was an infant or toddler, and so I’d never really be able to remember. We talked about how much older my siblings are, and how they might remember strange things that could help my therapist and I piece together this sticky puzzle. We talked about someone I knew, a friend of the family who had stopped talking to my parents, someone I missed having in my life desperately. Someone my doctor knew from a professional standpoint. Someone my doctor said he admired. I wasn’t sure if he admired him from the standpoint of a coworker or the standpoint of a fellow human being. He gave me my exam and I left.

I know what happened on the 5th, and I know what happened on the 21st. But everything else in between is fuzzy. The terror and the anxiety taint the memories, blur them, sweep them together in a foggy muddle. I think the first thing that happened, the first time I got scared, was when I was at home, writing things down using my laptop. I wanted a concrete presentation of things I remembered from my childhood, things that seemed off, things I could present to my new therapist in the hopes that she could read between the lines and tell me what happened. I started writing about a memory, a memory that I had disassociated myself from. As I described the disassociative state, the way it seemed like a camera was following me around, watching me, documenting me, the fear became palpable. I saved the Word document and turned my computer off. I haven’t looked at it since. I haven’t looked at it since because something deep in my core told me to stop. I felt this overwhelming sense of foreboding, and I knew that if I kept writing, something would be triggered. Something bad. And so that Word document remains idle on my computer, waiting for the day when I am brave enough to return to it.

The next thing that happened was a dream. A nightmare. I was tired, but I couldn’t sleep, so I took some Nyquil. It didn’t really seem to do much, and five hours later, I took another dose. You’re supposed to wait six hours in between doses, but I was so exhausted from lack of sleep that I didn’t care. Around the time I should have been waking up, I started to trip. Great, I thought. The one time I don’t follow the directions on medication and this happens. Why do people do this for fun? This is awful! It started off… not pleasant, because I wasn’t enjoying myself, but colorful. Busy. Flashy. But then it turned ugly. A woman – she looked a bit like me, but with longer hair; I think she was supposed to represent what I looked like in the future – was performing oral sex on an infant girl. I was horrified. Frightened, I initially assumed that I was consciously making the decision to place these images in my head. Once I snapped out of the trip, however, it remained in my memory as a nightmarish vision, something I didn’t have control over. The woman quickly turned into one of Ridley Scott’s aliens and devoured the baby. I snapped out of the trip, out of the dream, and sat up in my bed.

“What if he…” I thought, trembling. Then another thought struck me like lightening. “What if his brother…?”

“He” was an old friend of the family. His brother was his twin. They were good friends of my parents, and I felt sick to my stomach. I cared about these two men – they were like uncles to me. And yet here I was, suspecting them of something awful. Something unspeakable. I had nothing to go on but a drug induced nightmare and a gut feeling. I was scared, but I tried so hard to keep it to myself.

Tried. And failed.

The fear developed, progressed, pushed up against me, and was unbearable. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to wait until the 21st to talk to someone about it. So I called him. The man my OB/GYN worked with. The one who hadn’t talked to my parents in over ten years. The man named Dale. I Googled his name and managed to find his work contact number. I was in tears.

“I need to know why you don’t talk to them anymore,” I stammered.

The conversation is fuzzy in my memory. I wish it never happened. I wish I was able to remain strong and only talk to therapists about this. I wish I had the resources to cope with what was going on. But I didn’t. At first, he thought I was accusing him of molesting me. I wasn’t. He said that I was an adult now, so I could go look at my medical records and see if my pediatrician had ever noticed anything. He said I needed to be selfish, to ask questions, to not worry about people’s responses. I would later hate him for that advice. He compared my situation to one that he sometimes sees in his patients. He’s a cardiologist, and sometimes a patient will come in with a list of symptoms that are bothering them. He’ll run a gamut of tests, and assures the patient that nothing serious is wrong with their heart. And sometimes, instead of comforting the patient, this makes them angry. “If there’s nothing wrong with my heart, then why do I have all these symptoms?” they ask. He told me that I shouldn’t feel guilty for feeling so bad. And then he asked.

“Did he…?”

“I don’t know,” I murmured. “Maybe his brother…?”

“What have Chris and Jessie told you? What do you know?”

Chris and Jessie were his brother and sister. Also family friends from years ago, they still kept in touch. All three of them knew this man and his twin brother, the ones who were like uncles to me, the ones I had fond memories of.

I murmured that Chris had mentioned that this man used to be an alcoholic, and used to be violent. He never hurt anyone, but he would slam doors so hard that he broke them, and he would kick and punch holes in the walls. That was all I knew.

“I need to talk to Chris and Jessie.”

“Why?” I pressed. “What happened?”

He sighed. “Something happened. Chris and Jessie were able to forgive him. I was not. I need to talk to Chris.”

He hung up.

I tried to remain calm. I tried to ignore the fact that going to the bathroom had become difficult for me. I trembled every time I had to pull my pants down, every time my hand wandered near what was between my legs. I wanted to pretend that my vulva didn’t exist. I never wanted to see it again, because I suspected that it had betrayed me. And it wasn’t just going to the bathroom that scared me, it was being in bathrooms. I would hover outside the door, taking a deep breath, reminding myself that there was no one inside who could hurt me. And yet, I brushed back shower curtains and looked in mirrors suspiciously. My mind knew that I was safe, but my body did not. I stopped showering. People kept telling me to take a shower, that it would make me feel better. It wasn’t until I called the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center at the end of the month that someone understood my fear. I simply didn’t feel safe – I didn’t feel safe in bathrooms, I didn’t feel safe in the dark, I didn’t feel safe around my stairs, I didn’t feel safe naked, I didn’t feel safe while being touched. So I avoided showers because they were terrifying to me. I frequently developed migraines. When the migraines weren’t making me vomit, the sheer stress of the situation was. I avoided food, because I began to equate my body with food. Every time I ate something that didn’t taste up to par, I retched in a fit of tears because I blamed myself for the food’s shortcomings. Every time someone touched my food, it felt like I was being violated in the most personal way imaginable. I avoided things. Things that gave me that overwhelming sense of foreboding, that sense of feeling close to being triggered, that feeling I had felt while trying to write down my memories. I didn’t know what to do, so I tried to reach out to a few close friends for support. I was told not to worry about it. That these were very serious accusations, that I shouldn’t discuss it. That it was in the past, so just put it behind me and forget about it. None of these statements helped. They just made me feel more alone and invalidated. It felt so real, so palpable, and surely my body wouldn’t be betraying me if it was just nothing. So I dug in deeper.

I had a conversation with a man named David. He knew this man and his twin brother. He was their cousin, in fact. It was late at night, on Facebook, and I was hopeful. I thought that, maybe, if I took Dale’s advice – if I asked the right questions, if I made it clear that I was suffering, that this was killing me inside, if I just asked the right person the right thing, if I was selfish, if I didn’t worry about people’s responses, that I would find my answers. Someone would tell me, yes, his twin brother molested you, and then I could go to therapy and work through what had happened and maybe not even have to deal with any painful memories. So I talked to David. I told him everything. My fears, and what was happening to my body. All the suspicious things that were going on, that were bothering me. After hearing my story, David told me that he, too, had been molested as a child. So had his daughter. He shared with me that people had been angry with him when his daughter was molested, because they thought he should have known, should have been able to stop it. He told me he thought I was right – that my experiences were similar to his, that he knew what I was going through, that he had this gut feeling that my suspicions were correct. He said he didn’t know for sure whether anything had happened to me or not, but he did tell me that the man’s twin, when he was a teenager, “got a little too familiar with some of his cousins, but we kept it close to the chest like any good Christian family would.”

“So, you know that when he was a teenager, he was accused of touching some of his cousins inappropriately, but that’s all you know?”

“Right. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help. Good luck.”

That comment David made – the one about how he thought I was right, because he’d been through the same thing – that would be a common response from people I knew who were survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It was similar to a comment I received from the twin’s daughter. I texted her, thinking maybe she had been molested by him as well, thinking she might know something. I took Dale’s advice to heart, hoping that if I asked the right questions I would get an answer. Not sure how to open the conversation, I told her what I was experiencing physically. After detailing my symptoms, the first thing she asked was, “Were you sexually abused as a child?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “And that’s why it’s so difficult to talk to you about this… because I think your father may have been involved.”

This woman was gracious and patiently answered my questions, wishing me luck in my quest and trying to comfort me when the tears came, when I felt terribly for possibly having accused someone I cared about of sexually abusing me. She was one of the few. She never uttered those terrible words – “You could ruin someone’s life” – and she understood that this, what I was going through, my fears, my body’s reactions, she understood that it was ruining my life. But nobody else seemed to grasp that. Feeling defeated, feeling empty, feeling like a fraud, I sent a Facebook message to Dale, telling him to disregard our phone conversation. I sunk into a deep pit of depression. On the car ride up to New Hampshire to visit a family member, I tried desperately to disassociate myself from the situation. I repeated over and over to myself, “You’re sensitive, you’re over-reacting, and nothing happened.” But the entire ride, I couldn’t help wondering in the back of my mind if maybe those were the same words I repeated to myself when I tried to forget if something happened the first time. And when we got up to New Hampshire, going to the bathroom was more difficult than it ever had been. I saw a small child while in a public restroom, and the fear mounted. The biggest reason I wanted to know – the biggest reason I needed to know – was because some part of me was afraid that I might turn out like the person who did this to me. I was worried that because this happened, it changed me somehow, made me into a monster, someone who would hurt children like I had been hurt. I looked at that little girl and I wondered if I would ever be able to change a baby’s diaper again. I wondered if I would ever be able to spend time with children. This was never a fear that bothered me until this saga unfolded that wintry month – I had always been secure around children, always felt that I was a good caretaker, and was excited to venture into motherhood once I was ready. But if I had repressed a memory of childhood sexual abuse, what else had I repressed, I wondered? Could I have hurt a child and repressed that memory as well? What else had my body and mind done to betray me? I left the bathroom shaking.

* * *

Despite the doubt, despite feeling like a failure, despite feeling guilty, when I woke up the next day all the fears and suspicions came back full force. I began to feel suffocated in my own home, the place where I suspected the sexual abuse to have taken place. The terror was mounting and it quickly became unbearable. I feverishly sent Dale a Facebook message, asking if that man or his twin had ever molested Dale, Chris, or Jessie. I needed to know if there was a concrete history of this behavior – more concrete than what David had told me – before I confronted him. I waited for a response for what felt like hours, even though it was probably only one at the most. Finally, in a feverish panic, I called Dale. All he said was, “We need to talk in person, just stop.” I said “OK” and hung up. At that moment, I knew I needed to get out. The fear was palpable and I felt as though I were a war veteran with PTSD being asked to step foot back on the front lines. So I left. I left my home, and spent the day at Dunkin’ Donuts fervently begging for rides to the nearest T station so I could stay with a “friend” in Boston. I put “friend” in quotation marks because after I left her apartment, this woman never spoke to me again. She was a psychology student who had an internship with the Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project, and she gave me the number to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. They were the first breath of fresh air in this toxic situation, and they kept me sane during a time when no one knew what to do or what to say.

Terrified of going back to my house, I prepared to stay in a homeless shelter before finding a friend who was willing to house me when my “friend” in Boston needed me to leave. As I was walking back from the shelter toward South Station, everything was terrifying. Every bright light flashing, every loud noise, everything that came close to touching me, even if it was only a shadow jumping out of the dark, felt like it was a personal attack. I felt as though something could be massively triggering at any moment, but I didn’t know precisely what it would trigger and I couldn’t talk about it, because verbalizing my fears was triggering as well. Any time I spoke about what was happening, the conversations I’d had, the fears I’d manifested, it felt as though the silence in the room surrounding me was louder than the words I was speaking. Things started to buzz, my words sounded hollow, and I felt a pressure in my gut that told me to stop. So stop I did. I was lost in the fear; it swallowed me. It enveloped me. It persisted, heavily, and because I was terrified of being in my home, I chose instead to check myself into a respite center when my friend could no longer house me. And then the 21st arrived. I met with my psychiatric medication prescriber, and I met with my new therapist. And my prescriber told me something that still haunts me to this day:

“There are three options. You could be exactly right, you could be partially right, or you could be delusional.”

Delusional?

Even as I am writing this, I am scanning through Wikipedia’s entry on what a delusion is, desperately trying to prove him wrong or to validate my own experience. This is by far the most painful part of my experience, and I can’t quite pinpoint why. My doctor explained to me that sometimes people with bipolar disorder (I was diagnosed with it when I was fourteen) become delusional while manic. Despite the fact that I told him about the suspicious conversations I had – conversations I did not invent – he felt that me suffering from delusions was a plausible option here. He never discussed how my fears might relate to my anxiety disorder, and he never told me that I could simply be wrong, through no fault of mine or my psyche. No, he went straight to “delusional”. And as much as I am afraid of recovering memories, I am more afraid of sharing this story publicly for fear that I will be labeled as a nutcase. Gone were the comforting words of Dale, assuring me that I should not feel guilty for feeling bad or for having suspicions. Instead, I am swallowed by a feeling of emptiness and reminders that I could ruin someone’s life. The guilt is dark and the idea that I’m delusional doesn’t seem to bother anyone except me. My eyes brim with tears and the anger swells. I am not crazy, I think to myself. And I hold on to that thought, desperately, because it keeps me going.

As I briefly mentioned before, BARCC was the one thing that saved me from the fear. I called them as I holed myself up in the room I had been given at the respite center. I was told that fears about safety around children are common among survivors, and that most survivors do not become offenders. That was a huge weight off my shoulders. I was told that if I didn’t feel safe taking a shower, I didn’t have to take one. I was told that I didn’t sound crazy. I was told that right now, in this moment, I was surviving, and I didn’t have to do anything more or different – simply surviving was good enough. I was told that, regardless of the answers, I had the right to ask questions. I was also told one of the most healing statements I have ever encountered: that eventually, it will matter less – others’ reactions won’t hurt me anymore, or as much, or in the same way. That I would be able to get past this.

I spent that Christmas in the respite center, away from my family and their friends. Chris and Jessie, while still on speaking terms with me, refused to discuss anything that happened. Dale has not spoken to me since. After being put on medication to manage my anxiety, I was finally able to go back home and not feel triggered anymore. There were two major triggers that occurred after that December. The first was when I was at church. In the Catholic church, after everyone recites the “Our Father”, there is the giving of the sign of peace. I sang in the choir, and everyone jovially hugged one another instead of a simple handshake. I had not allowed anyone to touch me since December, and I could not avoid the hug while still keeping the peace. I left the mass in tears, and called a friend to talk me through my resulting panic attack. The second was the first time I engaged in masturbation since everything that had happened. After I was finished, I felt empty and guilty. I then began to cry, and my legs started to kick. It was as though I was at the doctor’s office, my knees being tapped with the hammer to test my reflexes. I couldn’t control it, I just needed to kick. I later read in a book written for survivors that this kicking reflex sometimes happens because you feel the need to lash out against your offender in a way you could not when you were small and vulnerable. I eventually discussed my fears with my parents. I told them that I suspected the twin had touched me inappropriately, that I had blocked the memory, and that was why I left the house in December. My father immediately started with, “No, no, his brother’s the bad guy here – ”, at which point my mother cut him off. She explained to me that this family friend – not the twin that I had originally suspected, but his brother – had been accused of raping his next door neighbor in the mid 80’s and his lawyer advised him to take a plea bargain. He spent six months in jail as a result. Initially, my mother tried to be comforting and supportive. Later on, however, she warmed up to the idea that I was delusional much more than I would have liked her to. I guess it’s easier to think that your daughter was crazy than it is to suspect she was molested by someone you thought you trusted. Since then, I have had nightmares that could be flashbacks, or could be simply nightmares – I’m not really sure which they are. They always begin with the sensation that I am diving into a pit of inky blackness, being sucked in to another world. The last time I had the nightmares, I kept trying to wake myself, telling myself that it was 2013 and I had nothing to be afraid of. Despite the fact that I pray daily for closure, I can’t bring myself to let the flashback happen organically. I don’t want to have memories, I just want to have answers. The last time I discussed this with my mother, I mentioned the nightmares. She assumed that I was going to blackmail someone or go to the police. Many people assumed I would go to the police – that my intent was to get someone in trouble. But it never was. I only ever wanted to know if something happened, for my own peace of mind. I never intended to press charges or to openly discuss who the offender was. I simply wanted to know so that I could move on.

Even as I am typing this, I still struggle with what happened. The emotional turmoil of it all still moves me to tears. I still struggle with whether or not I am crazy, and I still struggle when I spend time around the two men, the twins, because I don’t know if I can trust them or not. One of the counselors at BARCC told me that I may never know, and I’m not sure if I can survive that limbo much longer. But unfortunately, I have to, because I have no other options. I survived everything my body and mind has thrown at me thus far, so I have to survive this.

This is what it is like to suspect you have repressed a memory of childhood sexual abuse. This is what it is like to feel the fear, the fog, the uncertainty. This is what it is like to be undermined and invalidated by the people you try to seek help from. And this is what it is like to tentatively put your story out there for the world to judge you on. To my other survivors: You can do this. Regardless of what did or did not happen, you have the right to move forward with your life. You have the right to ask questions, to feel fear, to feel bad. Don’t feel guilty for owning your emotions. You have the right to own your truth. Whether or not you choose to share your story, you are strong and you are beautiful and you can do this.

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