I think a lot of us keep secrets about things that we did, seemingly of our own volition—things that cause us to wonder, later, whether the abuse was our fault, even though we know better. When we think of what we did we feel guilty and ashamed. We don’t dare say anything to anyone, lest they tell us we really were to blame for our own abuse. Instead, we keep our secrets to ourselves, zipped up inside. At some point, perhaps, we find someone we trust (or at least someone who can’t hurt us) and confess our secrets to them, hoping that we’ll be reassured that the abuse would have happened anyway, that it wasn’t our fault.
Maybe you think my whole story is here on these pages. It’s not. There are a few things I’ve held back from public exposure. But more and more I’m realizing that in order to heal, the more I need to reveal. I’m still carrying a load of shame, and believe me, that shit weighs a ton.
So here is one of the secrets I’ve been keeping:
Of my own volition, I took off my shirt during an appointment with Dr. T.
I removed the rest of my clothes not long after.
Oh yeah, and then we had sex for the first time.
My getting naked didn’t exactly come out of the blue. The seed had been planted a few weeks prior when Dr. T had asked me: “Would you rather let me read your journal or see you naked?”
I’d taken to bringing my journal with me to my sessions. Sometimes I’d read from it, other times I’d just have it next to me, knowing that I was in there—my words, my thoughts, my feelings. I found a kind of reassurance in that. And I knew that if there was something I wanted to communicate to Dr. T and I couldn’t find it in my mind, I could find it in my journal.
On this particular day I was reading from it. (Something wise or clever or profound, I’m sure!) And then he reached out his hand and asked to see it. I balked. There was no way he was getting his hands on my journal. The thought was terrifying. Horrifying. There was so much in there about . . . him. I couldn’t bear the idea of him finding out just how much I was thinking about him. Or about the effect that his words, his touches, his very presence were having on me. Or how much I wanted his love. We were having physical contact every session at that point, and I could not afford to reveal to him the truth of what was happening to me on a psychological and emotional level. What if he decided that all that physical contact, all that “love and affection” were having a bad effect on me, on my therapy?? (!!) What if he decided we shouldn’t have that intimacy anymore and took it away from me?? I had become totally dependent on the contact and was terrified of losing it, losing him. I needed him to think that I was handling everything just fine. I couldn’t let him know what was really going on inside of me, that I’d become practically obsessed with him. All my secrets were there in my journal and I could not risk that kind of exposure.
So I refused to give it to him.
He acted surprised, jokingly offended. “Don’t you want me to really know you?” he asked.
I stammered, “Well, yeah, but—it’s my journal. It’s . . . private.”
“Even from me?”
Was he serious? I felt confused. I was entitled to some privacy, right? Was I really supposed to tell my therapist everything? I had felt so sure about withholding my journal, but doubt was starting to creep in and cloud my sense of conviction. I prayed he wouldn’t press the issue, that he would just drop it. I didn’t know what to say to get him to back down.
Then he began a little game. Playfully, he’d offer me a choice: “Would you rather let me read your journal or . . . ?” In other words, what would I be willing to do, what aspects of myself would I rather reveal, than allow him access to my journal? The choices, which started off as relatively banal, quickly turned provocative.
“Would you rather let me read your journal or . . . dance?”
Dance, of course! No problem.
“Would you rather let me read your journal or . . . see you dance half-naked?”
My reply: “Which half?” His answer: “Whichever half you want.” My choice: “Dance.” Exposing my body felt safer than exposing my secrets. He’d already had his hands on my clothed breasts, so maybe letting him see them wouldn’t be such a big deal. Besides, I’d be dancing. My movement would function as a distraction, right?
Then he asked me whether I’d be willing to be half-naked without the dancing. That I wasn’t so sure about. Could I handle just sitting there and letting him see me? Maybe. There was no way he was getting my journal.
But when he offered his final choice and asked me whether I’d rather let him read my journal or allow him to see me completely naked, I was stumped. I had no answer for that. I could not conceive of showing my entire naked body to my therapist.
Thankfully, we left it there. Perhaps our time had run out, or perhaps he was satisfied with the results of his button-pushing.
After that, I stopped bringing my journal to sessions. For a while.
But Dr. T’s question continued to simmer inside of me. If I had to make a choice, which would I choose? Didn’t I want him to see me? To know me? Why wouldn’t I let him read my journal? Would I really rather show him my body??
As I wrote in my journal in response to his question (which perhaps I should call a dare):
What would happen if someone saw the real me? All of me? Unmasked, unaffected. Has anyone ever? Or, more pointedly, has anyone ever and still accepted me, unconditionally? Have they seen me bare and not somehow taken it personally, as if my nakedness somehow affected them more than it did me? Is that what [he’s] after? A metaphorical nakedness with someone who won’t judge me, who will instead accept me unconditionally? . . . Full exposure, eh?
In the weeks that followed, our contact grew even more intimate. His caresses became more open, more deliberate. Our kisses, which had been constrained by his set of rules (on the cheek—okay; on the lips—only if our mouths were closed; short duration only), became less “chaste” (if you can call a therapist kissing a patient “chaste”) and had me longing for something deeper.
Then one day, as we sat together on the couch, he asked me what I wanted and I dared to respond: “To really kiss you.”
He’d been trying to get me to ask for what I wanted for ages, and I’d always refrained, afraid of doing something wrong and evoking his disapproval. But our contact had become so easy, so second-nature, that I finally felt comfortable enough to take the risk and put my desire out there.
Even at that point I wasn’t thinking about sex. I still couldn’t go there. I wouldn’t let myself go there. I did not want to imagine having sex with my therapist. That territory felt far too dangerous. Kissing was another matter entirely. Having his hands all over me, turning me on, and not being able to kiss him was driving me crazy. I could no longer handle taking a passive role in the contact; I needed to give something back. So I made my request. He happily obliged.
We spent the rest of the session making out.
The next day he left on vacation.
That weekend, I went not-so-quietly insane. Can you imagine?? I’d just made out with my therapist, and now he was out of the state, completely unavailable! I needed to talk to someone and I couldn’t. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone what was going on between us. I’d promised. And he was . . . gone. I spent the weekend freaking out, wondering what was going to happen—to me, to us—and trying desperately, impossibly, to contain my anxiety.
It felt like years until our next session, which was scheduled for a Tuesday evening. Although I normally saw him Monday afternoons, we’d rescheduled to accommodate his travel plans. The wait was agonizing.
Tuesday finally arrived. As I got ready to go to the session, I knew I was preparing myself for something. I didn’t want to have any expectations because I was very much afraid of disappointment. But I knew something would happen. We’d just kissed—we couldn’t have a normal session after that! I hoped we’d do some more kissing. It had meant so much to me to finally be able to kiss him. I just wanted to feel that connection again, that closeness. I wanted to be able to express all that love for him I’d been bottling up inside. Hoping to increase the odds in my favor, I made sure I looked good and smelled good, and I took care in choosing my top (a pale lavender sweater).
I needn’t have worried. There was no “therapy” that session. When I got there, we pretty much picked up where we’d left off the week before, kissing and rolling around on the floor.
After maybe ten minutes, we came to a rest with him lying on the floor and me sitting on top of him. He asked me: “What are you going to do?” And then, without really thinking about what I was doing, and with that question of his still ringing somewhere in my mind, I took off that lavender sweater. I told him: “I want you to see me naked.”
Apparently, I did, in fact, feel safer exposing my body than my innermost thoughts and feelings. And so that’s what I revealed to him, during that last appointment of his day on Tuesday, May 22, 2001. Yes, he planted the seed. And he watered it and put lots and lots of fertilizer into the soil. But I’m the one who took off my clothes.
His shirt came off shortly after mine did. The bottom half of my clothes stayed on for a while—until he suggested that if I wanted him to see me naked, shouldn’t he be able to see all of me?
All of me. He wanted to see all of me.
I wanted desperately to be seen and for him to love me and appreciate me. More than anything, I wanted to please him. So I very shyly took off the rest of my clothes.
I wasn’t comfortable being naked. I felt very self-conscious and kept trying to cover myself with him. We continued kissing and rolling around on the now quite uncomfortable rug. At some point his pants came off (though I believe he left his underwear on).
And then he asked if he could be inside of me.
I panicked. Okay, he’d brought up sex before, but I’d never really taken it seriously. How could I? He was my therapist. He was married. Were we really going to go there? Now? Did I even want to have sex with him? This was a big deal. Didn’t he realize this was a big deal?? Kissing was one thing, but sex?
I started to have trouble thinking. My comfort level was pretty maxed out by that point. I was naked and a little cold, and the rug felt rough and unpleasant. I really wasn’t ready for this. Kissing him was enough for me—I didn’t need more than that. What was I going to do? I didn’t want to have to say no to him. But I was the one who took off my clothes, and here I was naked, kissing him, so didn’t that mean . . .
Instead of saying no, I shied away and just kept kissing him, trying to convey in body language what I could not speak in words. Maybe he’d get the hint. He seemed to pick up on my reluctance and we continued the kissing and rolling around for a while longer.
Then he asked me again. He said he really wanted to be inside me. It could be for just a little while—he’d pull out if I didn’t like it. If I didn’t want to keep going, he’d stop. He’d do whatever I wanted if he could please be inside me, just once.
Oh my god.
I felt horrible. What was I going to do? He’d never really asked me for anything—not for himself. How could I refuse him something he wanted, now that he was actually asking me? I felt such love and gratitude toward him. I just wanted him to be happy. But why did it have to be this?
I felt paralyzed, split between his needs and mine. A voice in my head was saying, over and over again, It can’t be him! It can’t be him! Sure, I’d been wanting to manifest a relationship partner. I’d made a nice long list of qualities I wanted in a man and had worked on setting an intention to bring the right person into my life. My mind started running down the list, noticing just how well Dr. T matched up to it. But my partner couldn’t be him . . .
We could never be together as a couple. The man was married. So what if he and his wife had some kind of “arrangement” (as he’d told me)—where would that leave me? Would this be one more time that I wouldn’t get what I truly wanted? Was this what God/karma/fate had in mind for me?
I knew that if we had sex it would change everything. I knew that I would fall in love with him (as if I hadn’t already). And I knew that I could not afford to be in love with my married therapist. But I didn’t know how to say no to him. What would happen if I did? What would he do? I was terrified of losing the connection we had, losing his love. For me, everything had changed. I couldn’t go back to the way things were, doing “normal” therapy with no physical contact. If I said no, would I lose him?
He was waiting for me to answer. I had to give him a response. I wanted to say no, but I simply did not know how not to comply with what someone else wanted. I did not know how to choose myself.
So I did what I’d always done before: I ignored the sense of dread, prayed it would all be okay, and submitted.
I don’t remember what I said. Maybe I whispered okay or nodded, or maybe I just went straight into denial and said yes with a smile on my face, happy to be able to give him this gift. I don’t remember.
I do remember hoping he’d pull out a condom. He didn’t. That confused me. He seemed so careful—wouldn’t he want to take precautions? I managed to mumble something inarticulate about “being safe.” He joked that he’d been in a monogamous relationship not having sex, and I’d been celibate for six months after having been in a monogamous relationship, and that sounded safe enough to him. All right, I guess that was settled . . .
We didn’t do it for very long. Maybe he could tell I was freaking out and decided not to push it. I don’t remember much about it except that it didn’t feel like I thought it would feel. I’d really believed that having sex with him would have some transcendent spiritual quality to it. (Really!) It didn’t. Other than that, the experience is pretty foggy. I’m pretty sure some part of my being took off for parts unknown and didn’t come back for a long, long time.
We ended our “session” not long after. (And yes, I’d put a check on his desk when I entered the room.)
I left his office feeling completely spaced out. At the time, I thought I was “high.” (Now I know better.) I went home and wrote something blissful in my journal. I’d made my choice—I’d chosen him. And now I needed to tell myself I’d done the right thing. I had to make it all be, not just okay, but the greatest thing that had ever happened to me. The alternative was to sit with the fact that I’d just had sex with my married therapist, even though I hadn’t really wanted to, and felt confused and terrified and completely, utterly lost. Since I couldn’t deal with that reality, which might have caused a complete emotional breakdown, some part of my brain took over and made up a new one, turning an act of violation into an amazing gift of grace.
I did not write in my journal that we’d had sex. That evening, Dr. T had slipped from his god-like pedestal and exposed himself to me as something much more compelling: a naked human man with wants and needs, a man who happened to want me. His vulnerability sealed the deal. Now I felt duty-bound to take care of him. The role reversal gave me a sense of value and purpose that I hadn’t felt in a very, very long time. My whole being rallied around this new purpose, dedicating myself to Dr. T’s happiness—and to his protection. While before I’d felt primarily concerned with protecting my own thoughts and feelings from exposure, now I needed to protect him as well. I could not let him get in trouble for giving me this incredible gift. No one could know. I became doubly careful what I wrote in my journal.
And so began my four-and-a-half year sexual relationship with Dr. T.
* * *
Long after that, when it was over and I was “telling” and trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I was suing Dr. T for sexual misconduct, I was terrified to tell anyone that I’d taken off my clothes that evening. Though it hadn’t bothered me for four and a half years, now I felt ashamed. It wasn’t like me to do something like that. I’d never been comfortable with nudity—how could I have taken off my clothes? What if people blamed me for the sex? What if people thought I’d wanted it? Had I wanted it?
I wasn’t sure about anything anymore. Everything I thought I knew about the past five years of my life had been turned on its head. People were using the word “abuse” to describe my relationship with Dr. T, but I felt sure I’d been making my own choices. Hadn’t I consented? Didn’t I share responsibility? Aside from having “agreed” to have sex with my therapist, the fact that I ‘d been the first to take off my clothes didn’t exactly scream “victim” to me. Instead of feeling relieved every time some new therapist would tell me, “Even if you danced naked on his desk, it’s still his responsibility to uphold the boundaries and not do anything,” I’d feel mortified. It was just so close to the truth. No, I hadn’t danced (though that had been one of the options), but I had been naked.
I was sure that I’d done something wrong and was at least partly to blame. Even though I was spilling secrets left and right, I decided to keep that one to myself. Here I was saying I’d been abused and suing the man for sexual misconduct. I needed to know that people would believe me, that they would be on my side. I couldn’t take any chances that I would be blamed for the sex.
But my taking off my clothes wasn’t really about sex. It was me saying:
Okay. You want to see me? Here I am. I’m taking the leap and exposing myself to you, just as you wanted. I’m choosing to believe that you really do love me unconditionally, as you’ve said, and that I am safe in doing this. I want to experience being completely loved and accepted as I am—not for what I do or give and not feeling that something about me has to change in order for me to be okay. So I am giving you this gift of me. I am trusting you to hold this gift with honor and respect.
To be fully seen, fully accepted, is to be loved. That’s what I wanted to experience that evening.
What I wanted was to be naked and have it not be about sex. I needed him to see me, love me and appreciate me—without having to stick his penis inside of me.
But that’s not what happened.
In the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time punishing myself for the choices I made over the course of my involvement with Dr. T. I wish I could have said no to so many things. Even with everything I know about therapist abuse, it has been hard for me to forgive myself for choosing him, for abandoning myself over and over again. But I also recognize that I simply did not have the internal resources, the strong sense of self, value, and “okay-ness” I needed to be able to walk away from him. Taking off my clothes—and having sex—was a way for me to try to get from him that sense of approval and value that I couldn’t give to myself. I wanted love, so I gave him my body.
I also believe that so much had transpired by that point that our having sex was probably a done deal. If it hadn’t happened that night, it would have happened some other way, some other time. The man was a brilliant manipulator and he knew me. He knew that I was afraid of loss and that I had a history of going along with what other people wanted. I suspect he also sensed my loyalty and devotion to him. In his mind, I was probably a sure thing.
We need to understand that we do not “cause” our abuse. The things we do that we feel ashamed of are, more than likely, responses to the grooming process. (If Dr. T had not already been touching me, would I ever have kissed him? If he had not spent six months wearing down my boundaries, encouraging my dependency, would I ever have had sex with him?) We are not responsible for the actions of our therapists—or anyone else for that matter. Though many of us may be used to holding ourselves accountable for what others do and feel, we need to learn to let people take responsibility for themselves. This is part of developing good boundaries.
In writing about my story, I am, once again, getting naked. Through my writing, I peel off layers of denial and shame and expose myself, saying, I want you to see me. I want you to understand how this sort of thing happens, what it’s like to go through it. For those of you who’ve been through it yourselves, I want you to know that you’re not alone, and that you can heal.
Writing is also an act of defiance against my fear of exposure, my fear of what people will think and say about me if I am honest about my feelings and my experience. I push through my fear of judgment, blame, rejection and abandonment and write anyway. I reveal myself and try to let go of my attachment to any particular outcome. Here I am, I say. Do what you will. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve published a post, fearing the reaction, wondering if I’d be vilified. Yet here I am, still writing. And I’m realizing that whatever happens, whatever the reaction, I will be okay.
* * *
For more about the grooming process, check out my post “Don’t Call it Consent: Being Groomed for Sex”