This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts concerning the narratives we impose on survivors of childhood sexual abuse, prompted by the fact it is sexual abuse awareness month. Please exercise self care.
The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has been a time of fear and uncertainty for the relatives left behind wondering what has happened to their loved ones. This has not been helped by the immense amounts of speculation the media has indulged in. When the flight first disappeared conclusions were leapt to based on the nationality of two passengers with false passports. The papers cried terrorism and hijacking, which has no doubt contributed to the belief of many that the passengers are still alive, being held hostage in some secret location.
When we do not have full facts the desire to speculate and create stories can cause such harm, though this never seems to stop the radio, tv and newspapers trotting out various experts to do exactly that. It is easy for us to tut and dismiss it is as just another failure of journalism however it is not confined to the denizens of Media City or fleet street, and when other professions do it, it can cause even more damage.
I am talking here of therapists, and specifically the harm they can do when they believe they have a narrative that they then convince their clients to believe.
I first went into therapy in my late teens. I was lucky, in one sense that my university had an excellent health service which included mental health provision. There were two psychotherapists and counsellors available, and almost no waiting list. I was less lucky in the fact that my therapist believed in recovered memory syndrome.
Now I know I was sexually abused by a close family member as a child. I have distinct memories, combined with a whole host of other things from body memories to uncontrollable responses to certain triggers. However I also have huge blank spots for most of my childhood under the age of 10. To those who pushed the idea of recovered memories these bank spots were evidence that some huge trauma is being repressed. From the Orkneys to California they told adults and children that not remembering being abused was evidence they had been abused.
The therapist as guru seems to be seductively attractive to far too many who enter the profession. Wanting to be the expert who knows what is wrong and how to fix it blinding them to any harm this attitude may have. I was desperate for approval, something my therapist was aware of since I distinctly remember them telling me that they would not give me a hug as I would misinterpret it. He was right, I would have, despite being insecure about my looks to an extreme degree (a post to follow on that) I did assume any male wanted to have sex with me. This didn’t mean I thought I was desirable, it’s simply how I believed men behaved.
However I digress, so there I am, impressionable, vulnerable and desperate to please, being told that yes, he believed me when I said I thought I might have been abused, but that he believed there was more to the story. He convinced me my father was involved, that there were parties involving pedophile rings. He told me he was afraid of me going home, and if I insisted on doing so I must sleep with a rape alarm under my pillow.
So my mind became a swirling mess, my original “confession” of abuse lost in his belief in recovered memories and his ability to uncover them. 100 years earlier Freud had caused so much damage to the lives of victims of abuse by recanting his belief that nerosis were the result of childhood sexual abuse, and inventing the Oedipal complex to cover his tracks his descendents created their own morass of not listening through repressed memory syndrome.
His desire to create a narrative and structure combined with my desire to win approval created a toxic atmosphere which followed me for many years. I cut off all contact with my family, and struggled with what had happened to me. Instead of disclosure helping me, as it should of, it simply left me confused and more depressed. There were some things I thought I was sure of, but then others “recovered” with the aid of my therapist, that I knew in some sense were not real. However if I could imagine some abuse, perhaps I had imagined it all? I questioned myself, my life, my memories and almost every childhood event I could remember became tainted with the stain of untruth.
I actually have another life event that I can compare this too. In my 20s I was raped, it is true that some parts of that night are hazy, I can understand why the mind might close down when events are too traumatic to deal with. Its a function of grief, PTSD and other well understood emotional reactions. It does not mean that memory gaps mean that we have repressed something though, it is perfectly natural to not remember parts of childhood, or even remember events differently to others who were present.
The Sunday Sermon is usually where I explore faith, psychology and beliefs about the world. This week it is a little different. It is a plea to those with power, the therapists and counsellors who work with the survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It is a plea that they do not be seduced by the human desire for a simple narrative, or by their training and theories. At heart therapy is the creation of a safe space, and it is the client not the therapist who should fill that space.