IT HAPPENED TO ME: xoJane Commenters Sent Me to Therapy

A few internet strangers might be wrong, but when 300 of them all say the same thing, maybe they're onto something.
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Publish date:
April 6, 2016
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therapy, commenters, teachers, internet commenters

Many years ago, I had a pet red-clawed crab named Sandy. One morning I glanced into the aquarium and was stunned to find a second crab sitting at the bottom of the tank. I stared at them in confusion before realizing the extra crab wasn't a crab at all, but a shed exoskeleton. Sandy had molted and had left behind a perfect but empty replica of himself.

A few months ago, I wrote an "It Happened to Me" essay about an inappropriate relationship I'd had with a teacher in high school. The short version: when I was 15, I started to become close with my teacher, Greg. Over the next two years, we talked about everything (including sex), we went to events together, we admitted we had feelings for each other, and eventually we slept together. When I wrote the piece, I was struggling to figure out what that relationship had meant and how much responsibility I held for the affair. For 20 years, I believed that our roles in the situation had been equal and had only recently begun to question whether that was, in fact, the case.

After the piece was published, I was afraid to look at the comments. I've been around the internet long enough to know how brutal comment sections can be and how quickly they can turn bad. But I also needed to face the truth. I thought for sure people would berate me as a harlot and a homewrecker. They would shame me for trying to shirk my responsibility in the matter.

Instead, hundreds of comments were almost unanimous in condemning my teacher and absolving me of both guilt and responsibility. Some comments were harsh, questioning how in the world I could have thought the situation was OK. Others were more sympathetic, but nearly all were clear in their assertion that I had been the victim of a lecherous and manipulative teacher.

As I read comment after comment, it was hard for me to keep making excuses for Greg. A few internet strangers might be wrong, but when 300 of them all say the same thing, maybe they're onto something.

The comments sparked several "aha" moments. The most powerful was a response to some additional information I provided when people wondered why my mother hadn't stepped in. I explained that she had been a single mom who worked extremely long hours and just wasn't there to witness everything. I also said that I was a very responsible teenager who never got into trouble and that other than sleeping with my teacher, I didn't do stupid things. Someone replied that I still didn't get it, that this wasn't something I did, but something that happened to me, and I wasn't stupid, just like a younger child wouldn't be considered stupid for being molested.

Reading that, and recognizing the truth behind it, served as a breakthrough moment.

That's not to say that my perception or feelings changed entirely or instantly, but it's what made me decide I definitely needed professional help to sort through what had happened. I was scared to delve into my past, but I also knew it needed to be done.

By the following day, I had weeded through dozens of therapists' profiles, selected one, and made an appointment. One of the reasons I chose my particular therapist was because she practices EMDR therapy, which sounded interesting. If nothing else, I figured it couldn't hurt.

In the days leading up to my first appointment, I mentally revisited several incidents surrounding my relationship with Greg. I thought about the time I went to Greg's classroom and demanded that he tell me nothing would ever happen between us. This was after we had confessed our feelings for each other, and after he had said our relationship could never progress into anything romantic, but also after he continued to pepper our conversations with innuendos and inappropriate suggestions. I needed to know definitively that we would never have a romantic relationship so I could stop wondering and hoping. I told him to tell me nothing more would ever happen between us. He said things like, "It would be very bad if something more happened," and "I'm trying very hard not to let it happen," and "You live in a world of certainty, but real life isn't like that." I kept repeating that I needed him to put an end to it, but he wouldn't tell me no. He wound up laughing at me and I left in tears.

For the next 20 years, I felt foolish for expecting a clear-cut answer.

I thought about a letter I wrote him after I moved away, after we'd had sex. I was upset that he didn't write more often, so to get a rise out of him, I accused him of taking advantage of me. I didn't really believe it and he knew it, but he did write back, "I seem to recall warning you this would happen." With that one line, he threw the burden back onto me. He had warned me I'd wind up angry, but I had let him sleep with me anyway.

For the next 20 years, I believed that if I was hurt, it was my own fault for ignoring his warning.

The aftermath of my essay and my impending therapy finally allowed me to start recognizing how skewed my perception had been.

During my first EMDR session, I held a small vibrating paddle in each hand, then closed my eyes. My therapist directed me to think of instances when I had been nurturing to someone else, the idea being that I could provide that same nurture to myself when I needed it. As I was recalling times I had comforted my children when they were scared or uncertain, I suddenly saw an image of my body splitting in two down the middle, and another version of myself stepping out and walking away, like a molting crab. That vision was odd and unexpected, but I was filled with optimism at the thought of shedding my old self and emerging free of the burden that had held me back for so long.

Those first few sessions involved a lot of tears and exploring. I was coming to realize that my teacher had indeed acted improperly, but I still held onto the notion that I had allowed it — even encouraged it — to happen.

The bulk of my EMDR therapy involved thinking about and exploring specific negative incidents, so at one point, I decided to focus on that day in Greg's classroom when I kept asking him to put an end to the possibility of our relationship developing into something more.

My therapist suggested that when I envisioned this scene, I should look at it as an outsider watching it on a screen, like a movie. It seemed like such a simple change in perspective, but it created a huge impact. When I stepped out of the situation and viewed it from the outside, I was able to see the power imbalance.

First, I cried. I felt sorry for that girl — for myself. Then I got angry. Here was a 16-year-old who knew she wasn't strong enough to resist on her own, begging an adult to do the right thing, to put an end to a situation that was already out of control. And here was the adult, the teacher, refusing to do it, knowing exactly how to keep her hanging on.

Crabs molt when they need to grow or when they need to shed toxins from their system. For a while after crabs molt, their new exteriors are still pliable and they're prone to illness or infections. They're vulnerable, and some of them won't survive.

I knew I'd survive. My journey of healing wasn't so much traumatic as it was tiring, but it did make me feel vulnerable. Delving so deeply into the past made me scared and emotional. For the first couple weeks, I cried more than usual. I second-guessed everything I did. I felt inadequate as a wife, a mother, and a person. But as my therapy continued, my strength grew. The more I explored my memories, the angrier I got, not at myself, but at Greg. The angrier I got, the more I became protective of and sympathetic to teenage-me. That, in turn, allowed me to be more sympathetic to present-day me.

One day, as I was driving to my therapy appointment, it occurred to me that I hadn't thought about Greg all week. At that moment, I realized that for the past 20 years, I had mentally housed memories of our relationship in a thought bubble over my right shoulder. They were always there, every second of every day, like a devil or an angel from a cartoon constantly reminding me of the past. Yet that day, on my way to my appointment, I found the thought bubble gone. I could still recall the memories, of course, but only if I wanted to. They were no longer weighing me down. I literally felt lighter, as though a physical burden had been lifted. I had shed my emotional toxins and had grown stronger.

It pains me now to read my first essay, not because it makes me relive the past, but because of how blinded I was to reality. I consider myself an intelligent, reasonable, down-to-earth person, but my understanding of this situation was frightfully misguided.

A couple people have asked if I plan on contacting a lawyer or the school board. I've thought about it, but I probably won't. The statute of limitations has passed now, so I'd have no legal recourse. I could go to the school district — I still have letters and emails that would serve as proof — but going public would put me in a position similar to that of other victims. There's a fear of not being believed, a fear of needing to confront the perpetrator, a fear of my past being exposed for others to see and criticize. I know that keeping silent probably isn't the right choice, but it's the choice I've made, at least for now.

I have considered writing a letter to Greg to let him know that he was right after all: a day did come when my past caught up to me and I realized how terribly he had acted. But I'm not sure I'll do that, either. Part of me wants to confront him, and part of me doesn't want to bother.

In many ways, this is an "It Happened to Me" that I did myself. I found the courage to finally write publicly (albeit anonymously) about my circumstance, and I'm the one who mustered the strength to make an appointment with a therapist and confront my demons. But I couldn't have done it alone. I couldn't have done it without the support of people in my life and without the gentle encouragement of some internet strangers who, at least for a while, had more compassion for me than I did for myself.