I’ve been dating a beautiful, intelligent girl for a week, and yesterday after talking about our families it came up that I was sexually abused by my mother. I don’t remember too many details, but just being asked the question “did your mother abuse you?” send me into unexpected tears. After this came up I wanted to talk about it, but I felt so blocked and tense that no words came out – but she noticed how tense my whole body was. I ended up leaving awkwardly, and this morning woke up in shivers. I’ve seen psychologists before but am generally very defensive – most likely because my mother had a M.A. in counseling psychology and tried to counsel me throughout my teenage years when I was chronically depressed, never admitting she might have a part in what was happening to me. I’ve tried some alternative therapies such as groups and rebirthing, but am frustrated as I still don’t remember enough to know why I recoil when I’m getting close to a potential partner. I want to have some intimacy in my life. Do you have any suggestions?
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The difficulties you describe – in forming intimate relationships, in remembering details of your abuse, in managing your anxiety and shivers – are fairly common problems that abuse survivors contend with. You have learned that intimacy equals danger and are acting in accordance with your basic and normal need to preserve your safety. The problem here may be that the dangerousness of the environment has changed with your growth to adulthood, and your ability to accurately understand what is and is not dangerous has not kept pace. While the equation “intimacy equals danger” helped protect you as a child – it is now leaving you hungry for love as an adult. You may now have some new learning to do. You may now need to learn how to discriminate between healthy and unhealthy forms of intimacy; between what is safe and what is not safe. This is both a cognitive (thinking) and an affective (feeling) learning process. Progress on one channel may or may not be matched by progress on the other. In other words – you may find that your mind understands that you are more or less safe with your new friend – but that your heart may not know this. I’m recommending that you return to therapy to discuss your abuse. However, this time – find yourself a therapist with whom you can form a trusting relationship at your own speed. The therapist you choose should have experience in working with survivors of sexual abuse and hopefully will take a longer term perspective on the process of healing. The big words here are Trust, Time and Titration (balance); Most traumatized persons need to be able to tell their stories – to discuss what enters their minds when they shiver – but they need to do so at a pace that they can stand and in a manner that they can tolerate. Broadly, there are two kinds of dangers that can occur as a result of doing this sort of therapy work. First – you and/or your therapist might talk around the issues and never really get into them enough to provide you with the new learning experiences you might want to have (you can’t learn that something isn’t scary if you aren’t willing to feel a little scared first). Second – you or your therapist might push the issues too far, too fast, resulting in your becoming overwhelmed and wanting to run away. Instead of these extremes – you want to shoot for the middle path where you are able to talk about your issues in a heartfelt manner, experiencing them in the process, but not in an overwhelming way. An experienced therapist is most helpful in facilitating this sort of balance. You and your therapist will together need to walk the shifting line between hand-holding (not confronting the issues enough) and retraumatization (moving forward too quickly). Your dedication and perseverance in working slowly forward on your issues will hopefully, over time, reward you with an expanded ability to be intimate with others.