When I dropped the bomb and began telling people what had happened with my ex-therapist, it seemed like a lot of them didn’t really want to know too much about it. At least, that was my perception. At the time, I was in the midst of full-blown PTSD; I was traumatized, anxious, worried about whether people were going to believe me and terrified of how they were going to react. I really didn’t know what to say, so my general approach was to tell them, very cautiously, that I’d had “a sexual relationship with my therapist.” Not the most accurate description of five years of abuse and exploitation, but that was the best I could do at the time. (I realize now that this probably made it sound a bit too much like two consenting adults getting together, which is NOT what it was, by any stretch of the imagination. It took the better part of three years before I felt remotely comfortable saying, “I was exploited and sexually abused by my therapist.”)
Anyway, I’d say the “sexual relationship” thing, and whomever I was talking to would say “Oh” or “Oh my God” (or, in the words of one healing arts practitioner who shall remain nameless, “It’s too bad it didn’t work out”)—something like that. They’d ask me if I was okay, and once they were satisfied that I was more or less “fine,” that would be about it. As if my saying that I’d had “a sexual relationship with my therapist” told them all they needed to know. Or at least enough for them to create a picture in their mind about what had happened, so that they could then close the door and not have to look at it any longer. There were generally no questions, no “What the heck happened??,” no digging for further details. My disclosure was often followed by a tense silence—the kind where you know that the other person is racking their brain, searching for an adequate response and finding nothing. To spare both of us this discomfort, I usually ended up spewing a few general details at them to fill in the picture (whether or not they wanted to see it), then changed the subject. God forbid I should put them on the spot and leave them there. My own shame and embarrassment was bad enough—I didn’t want to somehow be responsible for theirs as well.
The lack of curiosity about what I sometimes refer to as “my situation” was extremely dissatisfying. I mean, I keep this secret for, like, five years, I’m finally ready to talk, to spill the beans, and no one wants to know anything?? What’s up with that? I puzzled over this constantly. Maybe they thought that I didn’t want to talk about it—that asking me questions would be intrusive or embarrassing. Maybe they thought they were sparing me further shame. Maybe they were sparing themselves the shame of being associated with me or the discomfort of knowing something they’d rather not know, or…. Or maybe they didn’t understand—maybe I’d undersold it, maybe they thought it wasn’t a big deal, maybe I should explain to them that what he’d done was a form of abuse…. Maybe they were thinking: Oh, if we just don’t talk about it we can pretend that nothing bad has happened and everything will be normal again! You get the picture.
Occasionally, I had the horrible feeling that, having been silent for five years, perhaps I should just keep my mouth shut and not…say…anything. One thing was for sure—more silence was definitely not what I needed. I needed noise and upset and outrage and lots and lots of validation. My life had been turned upside down and my inner world was in chaos. I needed my outer world to reflect that in some way. Silence felt like people were trying to make everything “fine” when it absolutely, unquestionably was not.
I don’t think anyone realized that their silence or lack of interest was contributing to my sense of shame, the feeling that I was bad/toxic/an embarrassment/an anathema, or my fear that what had happened to me didn’t matter. I’m sure no one wanted me to feel bad. They cared about me and probably just didn’t know what to say. In all likelihood, this was just one of those unfortunate situations where no one was asking me what I needed and I was too traumatized to tell them. I mean, when your sense of self is in the toilet, it’s hard to believe you deserve anything—so how can you possibly ask for it?
Some of my friends and family were happy to provide an ear or two. They’d listen as I ranted, or whispered, about what had happened. And a few people did ask me questions. When that happened I’d feel this huge wave of gratitude rise up inside me. It was so validating to have someone say something and actually want to know about what had happened. What a relief! But for the most part, once they’d asked their initial questions, that was it. They were done. Happy to listen, but not much to say.
So I went about my business, albeit in a highly defensive, easily triggered sort of way. Time passed. My waking up continued. The more I understood about what had happened to me, the more I wanted to talk about it. I thought, People need to know about this issue! Patients are suffering! I have an opportunity to make a difference, and I’m going to speak out, goshdarnit! Well, that’s what I thought, anyway. I was also extremely aggravated that my ex-therapist had not been publicly exposed and that, even though he was under investigation by the Board, he was still allowed to practice. The thought that he could be abusing other patients angered and terrified me.
My lawyer, Joe George, suggested we do a press release. The lawsuit had settled, I’d filed the licensing complaint, and the perp was under investigation—an appropriate time to shoot something out to the local media. So, my lawyer and I and the wonderful, God-sent David Clohessy (National Director of SNAP, The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and the closest thing to a knight in shining armor I’ve ever known), worked together to prepare the first press release. I figured that it was a given that someone in the media would pick it up. After all, how many abuse survivors are actually willing to go public? To speak out? The media would want to talk to me, right? Well…. The press release went out and…nothing happened. No calls, no inquiries, nada. Desperate, I even emailed it around, asked people I knew for help (outing myself further in the process), called a couple of reporters, and…still nothing. After keeping the abuse secret for five years, locking it up in my body, stopping my mouth from saying anything, now my voice was freed up but it seemed like no one wanted to hear it.
Eventually I got over the soul-crushing disappointment and embarrassment of not having the press release picked up. (Yes, you could say I took it rather personally.) But that wasn’t the end. Really, the disappointment just made me more determined to be heard. I wrote a couple of letters to my local newspaper, a letter to Oprah (yes, really! I even provided a list of therapist abuse resources), but still no one bit. (Okay, I didn’t really expect Oprah to come calling, but you never know….) So I set my sights on the next target date for a news release: the resolution of the licensing complaint. This time, I thought, this time…
What started out as a press release became a SNAP-sponsored news event. The plan was this: we’d pass out flyers that exposed my ex-therapist as a predator and reached out to other victims to come forward; someone from SNAP would read a personal statement that I’d prepared; local media would be there to cover the event. (While I was completely willing to provide an interview, I decided that it would be in my best interest to stay off camera.) Was I freaked out? Absolutely. Was I ready? You betcha.
Two media alerts went out regarding the event. At our scheduled time, I met the SNAP volunteers at our chosen location and we waited for the media to arrive. I’ll give you one guess what happened. Yup. Nobody showed. So, the gracious people from SNAP passed out flyers in the neighborhood while I shuffled around in a daze. They were used to the media not showing up. I wasn’t.
The good news is that a few things about my ex-therapist did find their way onto the internet. Maybe that’s enough for me. Maybe not. A bunch more people know the truth about him. Not the whole community, but, well…. So it goes.
In the weeks since the media-less news event, I’ve found myself becoming more at peace with the situation and less frustrated. I do still want to increase awareness and understanding about the issue of therapist abuse and exploitation and speak out about my experience. Hence, this blog.
As for the question of whether anyone really wants to hear about therapist abuse, the answer is: I don’t know, but I have a few ideas. I’ll be writing about them soon. And just so it doesn’t go to waste, the statement I prepared for the news event can be found on my blog page appropriately named Press Statement.