I Made It Through Sexual Abuse, But Could I Survive The World Of Sexual Abuse Recovery?

Inner children, sock puppets, angel cards, and the pitfalls of the one-size-fits-all approach to trauma recovery.
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Publish date:
October 6, 2015
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recovery, therapy, sexual abuse, mental healh

The dream-catchers should have been a clue. They hung from windows and shelves; they were framed and nailed to the wall; they were even dangling in miniature from the therapist’s ears.

After my dream-catcher tally hit the double digits, I should have left, but I couldn’t get up from the couch. Almost two decades earlier, when I was six, I’d been sexually abused. After years of depression, anxiety, and living a half-life, I was ready to admit that I couldn’t handle it alone.

The therapist gazed at me beatifically. She had all the answers and in time, she’d reveal them. She’d save me. She’d be my Yoda. Then she picked up a pillow, an overstuffed paisley thing, and handed it to me. “Pretend it’s your mother.”

“What? Like how?” I said.

Although I understood very clearly that this was not what she wanted me to do, I immediately envisioned my alternate life as a young accent pillow. I laughed and she warned me not to laugh again.

“If you could say anything to your mother, what would you say?”

“I’d say that my wanting her to apologize doesn’t mean that I—“

“To the pillow,” she said.

I refocused on the pillow. All the edges were faded and frayed. Mom was getting old. “Mom,” I said. But I just couldn’t talk to the pillow and meaningfully pretend it was my mother. I set it down and gave it an apologetic pat. “It doesn’t mean that I blamed her for what happened.”

The therapist pressed her lips together. She cocked her head and sighed. “I’m not sure you’re really invested in your recovery, Sarah.”

She held up another pillow, as if that one might work better. Even though I knew that my mental health and happiness didn’t hinge on my having a heart-to-heart with a pillow, by the end of the session I felt like a failure.

Over the next couple weeks I tried to come up with a plan B. I could have gone to another therapist, but the dream-catcher therapist had actually been my third attempt in two weeks. The first one ended when she told me my lack of emotionality offended her and the second one ended when he fell asleep. Twice.

A week later and a couple nights after hosting a bachelorette party, I sat alone on the kitchen floor drinking leftover wine-coolers and eating penis-shaped cupcakes. I drank quickly, stopping only to bite the penis cupcakes without irony. I thought it could stop the drain-circling feeling in my head. I drank eight wine-coolers in record time, crawled to the living room and threw up.

So, I went to my first support group. We sat around a conference table. There was a dry-erase board shining under harsh fluorescent lights. It was a place to really get down to business about our abuse. I looked at all the faces and felt an immediate kinship; these were my people, they would accept me and all of my secrets because we were all the same. The moderator’s white sweater had a hole in the cuff, which made her seem down-to-earth. It was all very promising.

After introductions, the moderator wrote the word “survivor” on the board. “You are here because you’re survivors,” she said. Many women nodded and that was their right, just as it was my right to abstain from nodding.

I didn’t believe there was anything in my abuse to survive. The Things That Happened were never life-threatening. I personally viewed that word as something only a select group had claim to. It wasn’t realistic to call myself a survivor; definition-wise, it just wasn’t accurate. I preferred to just call the whole bad time The Things That Happened rather than admit that what happened identified me in some irrevocable way.

The moderator wrote some statistics on the board and handed out a quiz on child sexual abuse myths. The first hour was really encouraging; we were exchanging ideas and information, my kind of currency.

Then the moderator’s gesticulating arms fell to her sides, like two levers being pulled at once, and the shift happened: “Now, we’re going to talk to our inner children.”

Apparently, the way you talk to your inner child is this: You need a pen, some paper and two working hands. The hand you normally write with is your adult-self and the hand you don’t use as much is your inner-child. Everyone set to work, moving their pen from left hand to right.

I had two simultaneous thoughts: 1. Short of talking to a pillow, this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. 2. If you don’t do this you’ll become an alcoholic and you will never know happiness, you’ll never even know OKness. So I tried:

ADULT SELF: Inner-child, is that you? Well, hello!

INNER-CHILD: You suck.

ADULT SELF: Hey now.

INNER-CHILD: Let’s stop talking.

I put my pen down and watched the other women write feverishly. Even Kristie, a girl with greasy hair and black rubber band bracelets who received side-eyes when she told the group that taking apart cars was her therapy.

After time was called, many women shared what they wrote. While listening to all their amusing and/or emotional exchanges I started to think maybe they were lying about how awesome their inner children were to please the moderator. But no, a couple of the women were very genuinely catharsis-crying.

I thought to myself: Am I the only one with a shit-heel inner child?

As they continued to talk about their plans to make sock puppets with their “kids,” I tried to rethink the “shit-heel” label, to delete it, but couldn’t. I blamed myself for everything, blamed myself on repeat.

I was sure that The Things That Happened wouldn’t have happened if I’d just been someone else. There must have been something so specifically wrong with me and he saw it. And every time I looked at photos of myself as a kid, I saw it too. That’s why I don’t share childhood photos, why I’ve thrown so many of them away.

Just as I began to capitulate to the exercise, the moderator told us to make Valentines for our inner children. As I watched them set to work, I realized how wrong I was; we weren’t the same at all.

While I wanted to ask the other women if they needed to feel revulsion to get aroused, they were busy cutting construction paper hearts. I was sucking at survivorship; I was healing wrong.

Over the next few years, I received this message many, many times. If I didn’t want to take bubble-baths by candlelight or create a “safe place” in my bedroom where I could go hug a teddy bear when times were tough, I was opting out of the healing process.

When I laughed about my own abuser, I wasn’t taking my recovery seriously. When I spoke bluntly about what happened to me I was revealing too much. Even after I found a therapist who worked for me, the message that I was healing badly continued to come from other counselors and survivors.

The last straw came in the form of a particularly unsupportive support group. I brought up something that’s always so hard to talk about: the pleasure I’d experienced in the midst of abuse. Nothing shamed me or warped my view of sex and desire so much as that.

Just as I got the first words out, the leader held up her hand and said it wasn’t safe to talk about that. She handed me a card with an angel on it and promised that the angel would protect me. I looked down at the glorious red-winged angel and pictured ultra-religious kids on the playground trading them like baseball cards. I suppressed a laugh and nodded out of politeness. I knew what this really was: my “shut up” card.

One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused. That’s a lot of survivors. And healing looks different to all of us. We shouldn’t be made to feel like unhealable freaks if the official prescription for recovery doesn’t work for us.

To say that there’s only one acceptable way to heal threatens our individuality. The illusion of homogeny may make it easier to sell self-help books and structure support groups but our uniqueness is a vital thing and deserves to be respected, especially as we heal.

Ultimately, stories were what saved me. There were the ones told by survivors brave enough to tell them. There were memoirs by sexual abuse and rape survivors like Alice Sebold’s Lucky. If any book has changed my lifem it’s Lucky.

I read it neck-deep into my flailing recovery (i.e., just the right time). She wrote about enduring and overcoming a horrific experience and she was direct and graphic and funny -- all the things I was told I shouldn’t be. She said things I had thought but never heard voiced.

It ultimately inspired me to write my novel, The Winter Machine, which centers on a girl trying to navigate a romantic relationship after sexual abuse. Through addressing some of the most difficult and rarely talked about aspects of abuse, I hope I’ve written a book that will eventually be as validating for someone else as Lucky was for me.

There is one thing from my “recovery” days I catch myself thinking about every now and then. I’d gone to a Take Back the Night rally, a night dedicated to empowering survivors of sexual violence.

Survivors wore green bandanas around their wrists, and supporters wore white. I stood there feeling odd in my green bandana listening to women and a couple men tell their stories.

Across the aisle there was a family, a mother and father both wearing white bandanas and a little girl, she couldn’t have been more than five, wearing green. She’d be about 15 now.

Sometimes I picture her in therapy talking to a pillow, but sometimes she’s taking apart a carburetor, sometimes she’s meditating, sometimes she’s boxing and other times I even see her writing her own novels. My hope for her is always the same: pure unadulterated joy. However she gets there is up to her.