Like every victim of therapist abuse, I have wondered whether I was in some way responsible for what happened. Even after almost four years of recovery work and having at least five therapists tell me that this was not my fault, I still have my occasional doubts. I do now understand that I showed up with a particular kind of history and certain psychological characteristics and tendencies that made me significantly more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Vulnerability is not the same as responsibility. But to me it means there is something about me that makes me an easy target, and that scares me.
I don’t want to feel powerless—and I think I’m in good company in saying that. As adults (and even as kids), we like to see ourselves as strong and powerful, capable of handling whatever life throws at us. We like to think we know what we’re doing and that we’re in control. None of us really wants to be—or be seen as—a victim. Victims are not in control. Things happen to them—bad things—and we’d like to avoid that, thank you very much. “Victim” has also become a popular negative label we like to stick on people. When we see folks who complain a lot and blame those around them for their problems, we say, “Stop acting like a victim and take some responsibility for your life!” It’s no surprise that “victim” is a label many of us do our best to avoid, even when it’s appropriate.
I was, in fact, the victim of a crime. In California, where I live, it is against the law for a therapist to commit any act of sexual contact, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, sexual misconduct or sexual relations with a patient. This means that my ex-therapist (let me just call him “Dr. T”) is a criminal. It took a while for me to really get that.
Throughout the five years that Dr. T was exploiting me I felt very loyal to him. (This is not at all unusual in abusive situations.) I trusted that he had my best interests at heart and cared about my well-being, and I believed him when he told me that I was important to him and that he loved me unconditionally. So it was easy to ignore the things he did that didn’t feel very good because, well, he didn’t mean to hurt me. Obviously he didn’t do it intentionally. Even though he never said he was sorry for things he did, still, it would be wrong for me to hold anything against him. I should forgive him and let it go, right?
So it was a shock when the first person I told about our sexual involvement reacted as if I’d been seriously, traumatically violated. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. What do you mean?? He’s a good person, a loving person, a spiritual person. He cares about his patients. He would never do anything to harm anyone…. If he’d been violating me, that meant that everything I believed about him, about us, had been a lie. I couldn’t accept that. I considered myself to be psychologically aware, able to see the truth of things. Surely there’d been love between us… I was not ready to give up my story.
It was over six months before I really started to get that I’d been violated and that Dr. T was a manipulative SOB. While I could see that he’d broken the rules and done things that were “wrong”—like taking money from me for sessions when we had sex and using me as his massage therapist—I still did not really understand that I’d been exploited and abused. Even my new therapist’s repeated explanations about this could not quite make it through my layers of denial.
Then, several days before my deposition for the civil lawsuit, I remembered something that had happened the second time Dr. T and I had sex at the office. Basically, I’d gone into a deer-in-the-headlights trauma response to his sexual advances, and he’d mocked and humiliated me in a way that pretty much guaranteed that I would give him what he wanted. When that memory resurfaced, it broke through a chunk of my denial. I felt stunned as I realized how cruel and manipulative he had been. Even though the recollection was painful, it sure helped me as I prepared for my deposition.
It can be enormously difficult for a victim to fully acknowledge the wrongdoing of an abusive therapist. It’s difficult because acknowledging what actually happened forces us to face our own powerlessness in relation to our abusers as well as the pain of their betrayal. We trusted them. We believed their lies and deceptions. But then, how else could we have endured what they did to us? When we couldn’t face the truth of what was happening, we had to have some illusion or fantasy to cling to that would make it all be okay and allow us to cope. But now it’s over, and we can only move forward if we can get past the illusion to the reality.
For those of us who were vulnerable to our abusers out of a need to feel loved, wanted, and validated, losing the fantasy can be devastating. It means that our abusers didn’t care for us in the way we believed or hoped, that they did not have our best interests at heart, that we didn’t really mean anything to them at all. Most likely, they were only thinking about themselves and their needs and how they could get them fulfilled. We were the means to an end.
Blaming ourselves is easier. If we assume responsibility for the abuse, then we can avoid the pain of betrayal—they didn’t hurt us, we hurt ourselves. We can stay in denial and avoid the grief and loss that come from acknowledging the painful truth that we were not loved the way we wanted to be loved. We can avoid the shame we feel about our own vulnerability. And yet, it’s our vulnerability that makes us human. We are not all-powerful. We cannot control everything that comes into our lives. There are people out there who do bad things, and sometimes we are their targets.
Sometimes we need to let ourselves be victims. Being a victim isn’t cool or sexy or powerful, but sometimes it’s the truth. We can only move on from trauma and heal when we come out of denial, see the situation for what it was—a violation of our minds, bodies, and spirits—and let the perpetrator be responsible for their actions. When we come out of denial we can stop simply reacting to the trauma and choose how we want to respond. That’s how a victim becomes a survivor. But we can’t become survivors until we accept that we’ve been victims. Only then can we move forward and heal.