We are honored to receive this very moving and deeply personal story of recovery. Sexual abuse is so often hidden for all of a victim’s life, impeding trust, engendering shame, and filling life with toxic emotions. We hope that this journey of courage and determination that began after mid-life will serve as a template of hope for others.— Dr. Patricia Allen
“What you see is what you get!” Geraldine Jones used to say. Flip Wilson, a famous comedian in the 1970s, created Geraldine and performed the comic role in drag. The character was over-the-top, and whenever I saw Wilson do the routine I laughed nervously at the aggressive (in those days) and exaggerated lines “she” spoke. But at the same time I understood something else: I fervently wished I felt the way Geraldine apparently felt. That is, I wished I had the confidence to believe I was okay just as I was, and that my outward behavior matched my internal thoughts and feelings.
Nothing could have been further from the truth then, and for many years to come. Childhood sexual abuse had robbed me of the ability to understand my feelings or even feel them. Years later, while in my 50s, I was forced to acknowledge and address the disconnect between my thoughts and emotions, and that’s when everything changed. In a way I never dreamed possible, my life took a radical turn for the better.
But not at first.
I had a lot of work to do. Turning inward and looking at my heart was the only option left in 1994, when I returned to the United States at age 47. My youngest child, then a teenager, had fallen into a serious depression and I was desperate to help her. Yet I knew without a doubt that this would not be possible unless I addressed the unrelenting anxiety, fear and shame I felt about myself.
From puberty until that moment I believed I was essentially rotten—a bad soul. There was no concrete reason to feel this way. My behavior was imperfect, but in no way horrible or even especially bad. Yet like Martin Luther, I had an unrelenting sense of being somehow wrong. I first became conscious of self-hatred during my freshman year in a convent boarding school. The feeling grew steadily, blossoming into obsessive suicidal thoughts in college. Eventually the self-hatred went partially underground with the help of cigarettes and alcohol. Cigarettes repressed the anger, alcohol kept the nightmares and the vague, uneasy memories of childhood away, and the combination, along with a very busy life, allowed me to carry on for a long time.
Although never fully. I was continuously aware of feeling quite dreadful about who and what I was—or thought I was—and this awareness ate away at my confidence and destroyed any youthful dreams I had. It also made me an anxious mother, feeling unsure about my attempts at nurturing. I lived a shadow life in which I chose not to make choices, subconsciously assuming my needs were suspect or not important. I allowed my husband’s career to take over. We moved all over the world as his job required and our children’s lives were continuously disrupted.
Back in New York, I finally found the therapy I needed. With this help, I was able, gradually, to be more present for my daughter. I learned to listen to her in an active way and to respond to her needs carefully. She is now recovered from the depression, married with two children, and living a full life in the country. I am divorced, live in Manhattan, and spend a great deal of time with my daughter and her family, as well as my other grown children and their families.
When I first went to therapy I was diagnosed with “severe depression” and was given anti-depressants. Between the talk therapy and the medication I was able to talk about the sexual abuse I fell victim to when I was four, five, or six years old: abuse committed by some of the older males in my family. I confronted those involved—the ones still alive, who admitted the abuse—and started the healing process.
It has been a very long and at times tedious journey. Though often difficult, I made use of all the recovery tools available. I went to therapy regularly, stopped drinking, went into a Twelve-Step program and “worked” the Twelve Steps repeatedly. I read reams of recovery material on sexual abuse and alcoholism. I wrote about my life, including a thorough review of where I had gone wrong and hurt others, as well as hurting myself. I kept a daily journal and wrote a 500-page autobiography to arrive at a clearer view of my relationships with family and friends. And, finally, I quit smoking—that was really hard. Luckily, I had always been a walker/runner, and I kept that up. I go to the gym most days now, work out vigorously, eat well, and am generally fit.
I have undergone a nearly miraculous change in the way I feel about myself. The more I talked with the therapist and other recovering adults and the more I read and researched the literature, the more astonished I was to discover the myriad and complicated ways I had erased most of my internal life. I was essentially ignoring my feelings, needs and wants. Instead, I relied exclusively on my intellect to make all the moral, ethical, and hopefully supportive decisions for my family. The extreme remove from my emotions caused a nearly continuous state of disassociation. This is a complicated phenomenon, but suffice to say that disassociation made me feel, on some only-slightly-out-of awareness level, that I was observing my own life, almost like a bystander. Disassociation often happens to those utterly removed from their emotions. It is an awful, awful feeling.
Without any true access to my emotions, I was not only lacking in empathy for myself, but was also not empathetic to the feelings, needs and wants of others. I tried to be empathetic, pretended to be empathetic, and acted as if I was (making sure to put the needs of my family before my own, for example, but keenly aware of feeling resentful at the same time). It was all pretense and I judged myself harshly, every day for years. I believed I was a phony.
Today, after years of recovery, I no longer disassociate. I can recognize, label and acknowledge my feelings to myself without judgment and talk about them with trusted others. I can listen to the feelings of others, not judge those feelings harshly, and can, at times, genuinely empathize. Previously I believed that when I made a mistake, it meant I was a mistake. Now I know that I am no more imperfect than the next human being.
I found my “voice,” literally and metaphorically. In the metaphoric sense, I was able to gradually but steadily rid myself of the unconscious, horrible and profoundly misplaced shame attached to sexual abuse. None of it was my fault. I had always known this intellectually, but it was quite another thing to allow my heart, soul and cells to absorb this truth. Less crippled by shame, I was able to see who I really was.
This was done simply (but not easily) by no longer discarding my own feelings and allowing myself to discover how I felt about anything and everything. I did not have to tell everyone how I felt, but I did have to at least tell myself. And if the feelings were upsetting in any way, I learned to talk about them to trusted friends or professionals. Finding my voice in the literal sense meant two things: realizing that I actually enjoyed giving talks in recovery forums; and writing a book. The book is fiction, but would not have been written without the confidence that comes from knowing and accepting who I am.
In the early years of recovery, when attempting to share from my heart, I would often make light of my difficulties and describe my talent in this regard as similar to those of Mr. Spock, the fictional Vulcan character in the television show Star Trek. He relied entirely on his brains for decision-making, as did all Vulcans. I identified closely. Today, at age 66, I am no longer like Mr. Spock (although I will always reserve the right to consult that side of myself when necessary—logic has its rightful place!). I can honestly say—and indeed did say quite recently in an AA meeting—that I now feel I am enough. My “insides” match my “outsides” in a way I never thought would be possible. I am clearly imperfect and will always need to improve, but on the whole, I can now say along with Geraldine: “What you see is what you get!”