A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in the office of my most recent therapist. (Oh, yes. Due to circumstances mostly beyond my control—and believe me, I have tried my darnedest to control my circumstances—I am once again between therapists, in a somewhat desperate search for yet another. I do rather feel like I’m leaving a trail of therapists in my wake as I go through this healing process!)
I have been ENORMOUSLY stressed out lately and in need of a therapeutic intervention. Happily, I found someone who would help me do some resourcing immediately, for a reduced fee. (Necessary, given my current financial situation.) After hearing my story, she suggested we do some EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), which involves tapping on acupuncture points to relieve emotional stressors. I’ve only done EFT on myself, so I didn’t realize she meant that she would be doing the tapping on me. I was briefly surprised when she scooted her chair right up in front of mine, so close that our knees were practically touching.
I could feel myself react to her nearness. I was in a very vulnerable state and having her so close felt very intimate and a little unnerving. As she started tapping on my head, my face, my torso, my hands, having me repeat certain phrases after her, I felt a huge swell of emotion. I felt my longing to be touched and then a sense of relief and release from her contact—immediately followed by a wave of fear. Fear that it wasn’t okay for me to be touched. That for her to have physical contact with me was somehow . . . forbidden.
Gee, thanks a lot, Dr. T.
I’ve become very up front with new therapists about my history with Dr. T. It’s bound to have a huge impact on the therapeutic relationship, and I want them to understand what they’re going to be dealing with. But when I first tell them that I feel like it’s not okay for me to be touched, they don’t always understand right away. They assume I mean that I am fearful of people touching me. While there are plenty of abuse victims who DO NOT WANT TO BE TOUCHED, that’s not my problem. It isn’t that I’m not okay with being touched. Quite the opposite, actually. I want to be touched. I long to be touched. But I’m terrified that someone touching me—a therapist, a married man, an older man, maybe any man, maybe anyone at all—is WRONG. Thanks to Dr. T, I’ve developed a deep-seated fear that it is simply not okay for me to be touched.
Let me try to explain.
First, of all, understand that I crave physical contact. I’m a touch junkie who yearns to give and receive physical comfort and affection. In the words of Peter Gabriel, “I need contact.” Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, says that there are five basic ways that different people express love: quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Each of us uses one or two of these as our primary language. My love language, I know, is physical contact. Since I was largely deprived of physical nuturing after losing my mother to cancer when I was 12, that kind of loving contact is now what I long for more than anything.
So given my history and the transference that occurred within the “therapeutic” relationship with Dr. T, there was little chance I would have refused his advances. He seemed to be offering me exactly what I wanted—“loving” physical contact from an adored authority figure. I bought his sales pitch hook, line and sinker.
While I looked up to Dr. T as the beloved parent/teacher/older brother/guru figure, his attitude toward me was a little bit more . . . base. He frequently told me that I was irresistible, that he couldn’t keep his hands off me. I’m sure I was supposed to take this as a compliment, but I found it rather disturbing. Shouldn’t my therapist be able to exercise some restraint? The underlying message was that it was somehow my fault—due to my “irresistibility”—that he just had to put his hands on me and therefore my responsibility to ward him off if I wasn’t feeling inclined to receive his attentions. (Because, apparently, he just couldn’t help himself.)
Plus, there was the little fact that if anyone found out what he was doing, he could get into BIG TROUBLE. Since, as he liked to remind me, he was doing this for my benefit, I felt like ultimately I was responsible for whatever happened.
Like the kid who wants to take care of the parent, I believed that his fate—and the fate of everyone else who might be impacted by the situation—was in my hands. It was up to me to manage the situation.
So that was my world for about five years. Longing to be loved and touched, and worrying that if anything bad happened because of his touching me, it would be on my head. I did everything I could to protect him—and everyone else. I didn’t want others to come to harm because of me and my needs. I had to keep everyone safe. I even prayed to God that no harm come to anyone because of my “relationship” with Dr. T and that if anyone were to take the hit, it should be me.
Isn’t it amazing how noble and self-sacrificing we become for our abusers—as we swing back and forth between feeling all-powerful and completely helpless . . .
Eventually, the fantasy bubble burst. I opened my mouth, told the truth, and woke up to a harsh reality. Suddenly people were telling me that what he’d done was tantamount to incest and that he should be strung up by his balls. Whoa, uh, wait a minute . . .
This did not exactly make me feel better. Instead, what I was left with was a sense that what I had longed for should not have been given to me. His touching me was BAD. I should never have been touched. So what did that mean about me? The adult part of me understood that what he’d done was wrong, but for the child who was confusing abusive contact with love, this was devastating. To her it meant: “I didn’t deserve to have love.”
To make matters worse, after I got out and was suffering through PTSD, the civil lawsuit, and the licensing complaint, there was no one around to nurture me and give me the kind of restorative, reparative physical contact I needed. Though a few people were available for conversation (mostly by phone, with the exception of my therapist and a few friends), I had no one to hold me, tell me everything would be fine, and reassure me that I was okay and not a shameful creature, damaged beyond repair. What I needed was someone to demonstrate to me—in my own language of physical contact—that I was still utterly deserving of love, no matter what had happened, no matter what I or the evil doctor had done. Unfortunately, this need went largely unmet, and the lack of contact pretty much cemented my belief that, for whatever reason, it was not okay for me to touch or be touched.
I felt like I was radiating shame and that everyone could see it and was carefully avoiding me—as if they risked contamination by touching me. The rest of the world now seemed to be upholding the boundaries that Dr. T should have kept with me but didn’t.
Whenever anyone did touch me, I felt an initial rush of relief (Ah! Maybe I do deserve love!)—immediately followed by mild panic. I worried about whether or not the person’s touching me was “okay,” appropriate, and whether or not I needed to do anything about it. I feared that, in touching me, people were forgetting themselves, violating some ethical code or unwritten rule, and I worried there might be unfortunate consequences. Once again, it was up to me to be the keeper of the boundaries and to take responsibility for whatever occurred.
I went through my days afraid to touch people and generally keeping my hands to myself. Although I still had one massage client who came to see me once a month, I started feeling like it was wrong for me to put my hands on her. The day that she noticed my hands were shaking was the last day I gave her a massage. I stopped completely. Between the shame and the PTSD, I couldn’t handle it. I decided it wasn’t right for me to have my hands on other people.
That was over four years ago. It’s taken time for me to start trusting contact again. I’m growing boundaries, learning to say yes when I want something and no when I don’t, and beginning to believe that I actually can take care of myself around other people. One of the lessons for me has been to let other people take responsibility for themselves. It’s not my job to police them or take care of their boundaries. It is my job to take care of mine.
I’m also learning that, as someone who thrives on contact, I need to actually allow myself to be open to it. When I am afraid that having contact with someone is not okay or I worry about the appropriateness of it, I hold myself back, close myself off. That may offer a sense of protection, but if all the doors are shut, nothing can get in or out. And how likely am I to get what I want then?
Rebuilding trust is an ongoing process. But I find that when I reach out, others reach back to me. The more I can be open to giving love, the more love I receive. A hesitant hug can turn into a warm, loving connection when both people are open to it. I’ve even started doing some massage again, just so I can enjoy the pleasure of having my hands on other people and offering that caring contact.
Happily, I am finding that the loving touch I receive now is restorative and reparative, even these years later. I am learning that I am deserving of love and care, that it is okay for me to touch and be touched. And I am choosing to bring that into my life as much as I can.