Telling was a scary thing.
As someone freshly out of an abusive, highly manipulative situation, I needed an extraordinary amount of validation. Here’s what you have to keep in mind: I didn’t know that I was being abused and exploited until someone told me—afterward. I had basically been in an altered state (I think of it as being “under a spell”) for about five years, not understanding what was happening to me, and now I needed it all reality checked. I needed people to hear what had happened, validate the events as atrocities, and offer empathy and acceptance. If, hearing me say that I’d been sexually involved with my therapist, a person took that at face value, didn’t want to know, couldn’t relate, or couldn’t provide a validating response, then I’d be left wondering what had happened and whether I was blowing everything out of proportion.
I was scared that I wouldn’t be believed or taken seriously—that people would think it wasn’t a big deal. I was also scared that it was a big deal, which would mean that I was royally messed up and could be dealing with this for years to come—a hard reality to face. (See the catch-22 there?) I was scared that people would see it as something shameful and humiliating—which would mean that, by extension, I should feel ashamed and humiliated about what had happened. I was also scared that people would think it was my fault, that I had equal responsibility. So in telling, I was looking for reassurance that a) it was a big deal, b) I was capable of recovery and not irreparably damaged, c) I still had worth and value and was not a shameful creature, and d) it wasn’t my fault.
Now, that’s a lot. Telling is loaded with hopes and expectations. What would it take for someone to provide a response that could deliver on all that?
First, I needed the person to be willing to know the story, acknowledge it and accept it. Not just the general gist of what happened, but all of it, because most of the atrocities were in the details—the way I was manipulated, the things my therapist did and said. That’s where all the nastiness lived.
Second, I needed the person be able to understand my experience, maybe relate to it in some way, and offer empathy. For this they needed to have some understanding of the therapist-patient dynamic. If they had no experience with therapy, therapists, or any kind of counseling, they were very likely not going to “get it.” They were probably going to see my situation as two adults that were having a consensual sexual relationship that was “against the rules.” They might not be able to see that this situation was an abuse of power and authority and that I didn’t somehow consent to it. They might even suggest that I was trying to avoid responsibility for my bad choices by dumping responsibility on my therapist and trying to make it be his fault. That would not be helpful.
I also needed the person to be emotionally available. Personally, I think that a lot of people don’t want to feel anything. Feelings make things real. If we don’t feel something, then we don’t have to accept it as part of our reality. We can talk about it in a detached, intellectual way that doesn’t bother or disturb us. I needed someone who was willing to be disturbed and outraged and pissed off. And maybe even willing to do something about it and not just make some validating, empathetic comments and then leave me to deal with the mess on my own. What I really wanted was someone who would show up for me.
So, that’s a pretty tall order. Did I get what I wanted? No. But I got enough of what I needed to be able to keep going, deal with the PTSD, the lawsuit, and the licensing complaint, and start to heal and recover. The people around me did the best they could with what they knew how to do, and I am grateful for that.
I believe that victims of abuse do need an extraordinary amount of validation. I believe that they need people around them who can provide a corrective, restorative experience so that they can become survivors, and do not remain victims of their abuse. They need people who are willing to know about therapist abuse and willing to understand. That’s where the healing begins.