Learning to Feel Again
by Beth Swain
Relieved, I watched the counselor gather his papers without asking me that dreaded question. Then, as if an afterthought, he asked, “Oh, was there any sexual abuse?”
There it was.
“You mean with me?” I asked, attempting a casual facade. Still, my quivering voice betrayed me.
“Yes, with you.” His kind but steady concentration gave me no place to hide.
Working hard to appear confident, I assured him, “Well, there was a little in junior high, but it doesn’t matter anymore.”
“It matters,” he determined, without knowing any details.
He was so sure of himself, it made me angry. Cautiously, I replied, “I’m sure that’s true with other clients, but I have no ill feelings about the experience. I feel nothing at all about it.”
A relevant past
“It still matters,” he persisted.
How dare you pretend to know what matters to me! I wanted to scream. The past is irrelevant. I’m paying you for help with depression and relief from a growing urge to kill myself. Deal with what’s important or I’ll find someone who will!
Instead of jumping into a tirade, I waited — stubbornly silent — for him to move on to neutral territory. I couldn’t out-argue such a tenacious person. Though he did move on, a few weeks later the counselor brought up the subject again.
“You know we need to talk about the abuse,” he began. “There’s a reason that you don’t want to live, that you have battled depression all these years. It’s time to see what role this abuse might play in your pain.”
My entire body ached from tension. I sat with my arms pressed tight against my stomach. I was afraid I’d throw up if I started to talk. Staring at the floor, I began the speech I’d rehearsed for weeks, with words carefully chosen to avoid any emotion. He’ll criticize feelings as either too touchy or too angry, I reasoned.
Telling the secret
I talked in a matter-of-fact monotone: “He was the most important person in my life then — my church youth leader. He took interest in me, listened to me, and told me about his problems. When he talked about his marriage problems and pretended I was his girlfriend, I felt so grown-up. I felt a bit embarrassed by the idea but loved having his attention. My friends were jealous.
“He did little things at first. His hand slipped touching my . . . well, in front. I thought it must be an accident. Then he got pushier, touching me more and more. I kept telling myself that he wouldn’t do this to me. When it got worse, I became too confused to think clearly and pretended it wasn’t real, just a dream. After awhile, I could forget what he did as soon as it was over. It was like I switched off something in my brain. Later nightmares and flashbacks began, but I’m used to them now.”
Quietly and compassionately, the counselor listened. When I finished, he observed, “You have given a clear, detailed account of the two-year relationship with this youth pastor.”
I nodded in agreement while he spoke; I’d anticipated his reaction. He would respond as other people had and tell me that these nonviolent molesting incidents were trivial. There were no brutal attacks; it was my fault for getting myself into the situations. I braced myself for his rebuttal.
His reply came, not as a critic rejecting the validity of my abuse, but as a concerned friend. “There is one thing missing: emotion. You sound clinical, like you’re reading a newspaper account of someone way out there, not of someone we’re discussing here in this room.”
His unexpected comment confused me. I sat stone still. Of course I showed no emotion! Emotion would make me look foolish. He would have said I overreacted and seemed childish. Then after chiding me for such an outburst, this arrogant counselor would have discarded me as another whiny person who selfishly thought I had suffered a ruined life.
How could my calm, unemotional description be a problem? The ability to not feel emotion helped me manage. Isn’t that what adults are supposed to do? Did he want to see me cry like a baby?
Sensing my struggle, he explained. “You coped with the abuse by pushing away the distressing emotions. Those emotions did not disappear but are stored away out of sight. This has allowed you to go on as if it never happened – almost.”
He paused. I stared at his blue-gray carpet, determined to stay composed.
“It’s called emotional numbing. That numbness separates you from feeling the emotional trauma. Unfortunately it also keeps you from many wonderful emotions too. Besides, numbing no longer works for you. Too much pain has piled up and something inside you won’t let you stay numb. Your emotional effort to keep the trauma buried has left you severely depressed and suicidal. It’s time to deal with the trauma and pain it has produced.”
Scared of what emotions would gush by remembering, I wanted to run out of his office and never return. “Any more pain and I’ll kill myself!” I wanted to shout in his face. Instead I stared motionless at the floor, fearing that any move I made would confirm that I was mentally unstable.
Anger toward God
In the months to come I did face the embarrassment and shame caused by abuse. I quit blaming myself and excusing my abuser. Both attitudes had kept me from feeling the full emotional weight of the abuse; now it hit full force. Numbness gave way to grief. It hurt to realize how many of my relationships and emotional struggles resulted from this abuse. It was so unfair!
“If I were you, I’d be angry with God,” my counselor said. “It’s okay to be angry with God. He’s big enough take it.”
How could I tell God I was angry with Him? Sometimes He seemed distant when I tried to pray. Other times He moved in close to me. I knew God was big but it seemed wrong to tell Him I was angry with Him. Still, I found the words to spew at the counselor: “I tried so hard to be good. I went to church and look what happened! God should have protected me.”
The wall comes down
When I admitted my anger, something started to change inside me. An emotional wall I had erected between God and me began to crumble. My secret resentment was out in the open and I felt that God understood it. More than this, I could identify times when God had protected me from what could have been much worse abuse. I also realized that part of God’s giving us a choice to do right or wrong includes letting people choose to abuse others.
After years of my feeling guilty and misunderstood, the emotional heaviness began to lift. As I talked to my counselor, the shame and ugliness began to wash away. The more I recognized the truth regarding the abuse, the freer I felt. Gradually, through months of hard, painful work, optimism began to creep in like spring blossoms after winter’s numbness.
Facing the unknown
Recently, a friend handed me a short story by Paul J. Meyer called “The Black Door.” As I read it, I saw myself in the story’s prisoner: fearful of the unknown behind a door.
In the story a spy is captured during a desert war. The wise old warlord who sentences him to death gives him the choice to either face a quick death by the firing squad or take his chances by passing through a mysterious black door. Minutes before the execution, the warlord asks the frightened spy, “What have you chosen: the firing squad or the black door?”
Imagining terrible torture behind the massive black door, the spy tells the warlord that he chooses the firing squad. Moments later, rifle shots signal his death.
The old warlord turns to his aide and says, “You see how it is with people? They will always prefer the known to the unknown. That man went quietly to his death though I gave him a choice.”
“What lies beyond the black door?” asks the aide.
“Freedom,” replies the warlord, “and I’ve known very few men brave enough to take it.”
For me, facing the emotions linked to my abuse waited behind the door. So did the freedom to feel again. I thank God He gave me strength to face the unknown.
Through facing and understanding my sexual abuse, I am no longer emotionally held hostage by my past.
Whether I’m chasing my children with water balloons, laughing on the phone with a friend, crying at movie, or cuddling a baby, my life is richer. The more I face about myself, even while cringing and squirming, the freer I am to enjoy who I am.