That Time (14)
It Ain't Over Until It's Over
Writing without an editor can lead to dumb shit like, “deep writing.” That was painful to re-read. Sorry about that. It was a lazy way to say that writing can sometimes be hard, especially when writing about trauma.
Content Warning: This episode contains a description of a sexual assault.
It was an Akido Master who helped me find the missing piece of The Mystery of the Abandoned Chicken Coop. His name is Paul and he shared this joke with me:
“Real men don’t rape babies. They rape lions, and tigers, and bears.”
In addition to holding a sixth-degree black belt in Akido, and a first-degree black belt in Karate, Paul has degrees in Philosophy and Physical Education. He created a mind-body education technique called “Being in Movement,” which is a kind of physical therapy for the mind (my words, not his).
I worked with Paul for a couple days in 2012 and again a few years later in conjunction with my then therapist, Joanna. His movement-and-touch-centered therapeutic process is unique and unconventional, to say the least. It’s also surprising and ironic that my work with him was pivotal because I don’t like being touched and he touched me in manner that a therapist would not have been allowed to..
My dislike of being touched isn’t severe and it doesn’t extend to people with whom I am emotionally intimate. I’m comfortable enough hugging you if you’re a member of my extended family. But outside of those two circumstances I prefer not to touch you or have you touch me. I’m fine shaking hands, including with strangers. I’m not triggered by unsolicited touch. I just prefer not to experience it. This includes hugging. Especially hugging.
Hugging someone without their consent is a form of violence. Is that an extreme position? Nah. My body, my boundaries, my choice.
No, this does not apply to face masks during a pandemic. There’s nothing remotely similar about refusing to put a piece of fabric over your nose and mouth and claiming bodily autonomy or having an abortion. That’s like arguing that requiring shoes to enter a store is equivalent to being strangled to death.
When and why did hugging replace the handshake? I was not asked about this and, had I been, I would not have given my consent. What gives complete fucking strangers, upon meeting me for the first time, the right to wrap their arms around me and place their bosom up against mine? Bosom? Who says that? I do. Get your bleeding bosom off me! You may be married to my best friend but you just met me so please step back and offer me your hand. It’s nothing personal.
I did not hug the majority of my therapists. For me, the very nature of a therapeutic relationship requires a kind of formalism around boundaries. I do not seek friendship from a therapist. In fact, in order for me to feel comfortable sharing intimate knowledge about my experiences and feelings with a therapist, I need to have very clear boundaries. I need to feel in control of those boundaries. So no hugging.
There were exceptions:
Henry was my first male therapist. He and his wife, Jean, were Pam’s and my relationship therapists. When it was discovered that I had dormant childhood issues that were of primary concern I continued to see Henry on my own. Henry was not only my first male therapist, he was also a good bit older than me. I saw Henry for several years and I began to see him as a father figure. Much of what I learned from Henry were things most kids learn from their parents. You know, as children. So yeah, Henry kinda became the ideal father I never had and we hugged towards the end.
When we got to the sexual abuse issues in my childhood Henry referred me to Jim, who specialized in such things. After working with Jim for a few years I brought up my issues around hugging. I don’t remember the conversation exactly but the result was that I began hugging Jim at the end of our sessions. Notice I did not say Jim hugged me. I mean obviously, he did, it was mutual, that being the nature of a hug, but it was my choice to initiate or not. It was my agency that guided this physical interaction. Jim wasn’t hugging me for himself. He was allowing me to hug him. Because for me, it was practicing.
I don’t remember how much I may have hugged my next therapist, Joanne. I’m sure I did, at least a few times, just as I’m sure I would be perfectly comfortable doing so now. Amazing how therapy can result in growth.
Okay, back to Paul…
In 2012, I decided to attend a Weekend of Recovery, which is a healing retreat for male survivors od sexual victimization. Jim, Joanne, and Paul, are three of the people who created these amazing workshops that became the catalyst that allowed me to see, and then cross, the finish line to my recovery. The WOR was in the Fall in the Ohio countryside. In my work with Joanne, I was well into exploring the chicken coop incident but I could never get to the final piece. What really happened that day? I knew it was violent. I knew it was sexual. But was it rape? What was it? Every time I came to the precipice of remembering, I would freeze and lose myself in fear.
It was just like my nightmares. Just like my paranoid episodes. I would be present one moment, talking, remembering, beginning to recall, to remember, to relive. But the closer I got to the moment, that moment, the more my fear would grow until it overwhelmed me. In an instant I would find myself facing an existential threat, a certainty that I was going to die if I faced it— whatever ‘it’ was.
In my nightmares I would suddenly wake up, sometimes with a scream. In my paranoid episodes, I would break down and cry out to whomever had the misfortune to be with me,
“I can’t do it! Stop this right now! I want to go home!”
In therapy I would simply shut off. One minute I was there, remembering, talking, feeling. The next, I was gone. My brain just shut down. Dissociation is what it’s called. Poof. I was gone. For a few seconds I would have no words, no thoughts. No feelings. Safe again. Then,
“Where am I? What was I saying?”
The WOR was in Ohio. Paul is based in Columbus. Joanne suggested I arrange to meet and work with him for two days before the retreat. I did so. The drive from Atlanta was long enough to warrant a stop so I reserved a country cabin in southern Ohio and set off. I enjoy solitude and travel so I set off with nervous excitement.
The cabin was cold, dark, and funky but it was located in a beautiful forest. Upon arrival, the owner met me to let me in and we chatted for a bit. She was retired and from Decatur, which is a suburb of Atlanta. When she asked me what I was traveling to Columbus for, I surprised myself by responding candidly and directly,
"I'm attending a workshop for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse."
From my manner and her response I might have said I was attending a literary seminar or a corporate conference. I had never spoken those words to someone whom I was not already intimate with. In that moment I already felt a lessening of the weight of the silence I had been living with.
Here's a haibun I wrote at the time:
I step out of the cabin letting the screen door slam behind me. Across the meadow a family of deer freeze at the sound and stare at me. I stay still and stare back. There are three of them. A doe and two fawns. And me.
We are surrounded by the colors of fall. Yellow, orange, red, and brown. The pale blue sky is marked by a single wispy cloud low over the tree tops.
I am as surprised by them as they are of me. I am startled by their sudden halting. The turn of their heads toward me. Do they recognize a human smile?
We stand in stillness and near silence for a long moment, studying each other. The cool air is quiet and I hear the huff of the doe exhaling every few seconds, like a sudden escape of compressed air. I imagine I can feel her heart pounding. Mine is calm.
Without turning around I reach my arm behind me for the door. I slowly pull it open and step backwards into the cabin. Before I close the door the three deer bolt in graceful leaps across the meadow, into the woods, and out of sight.
sharing my secret
at the survivor’s retreat—
the comfort of autumn air
Of the work I did with Paul, there are two key moments I want to share. The first day was interesting but not remarkable. My experiences in theater, and as a yoga instructor, were excellent preparation for an afternoon of Akido-based movement exercises. The primary goal of the first session was to establish some principles of "being in movement" as a way to inhabit the body in a mindful manner (I'm way oversimplifying). An equally important goal was for us to get to know each other and for me to begin to trust Paul. It was entirely successful. Paul was not only warm and wise, he was a lot of fun. We laughed a lot. I went back to my hotel feeling energized and light-hearted. It was on day two that things took an unconventional turn.
It would be an extreme understatement to describe Akido as a system of self-defense but that framing can help a novice approach it. Since my story, and my nightmares, involved being threatened with a knife, we worked with a blunt wooden one. We took turns holding the knife and explored some elementary movements of attacking and defending.
Thus far in our work there was minimal physical contact between us. Mostly arms and hands. Nothing much more complicated than, say, an energetic handshake or a blocking. Where things got weird was when Paul asked me to lie down on the floor. He had prepared me the day before for what was to come by describing in detail what we were about to do, and why. He showed me videos of sessions with other people, men and women, doing what I was about to do. He was careful to make sure I felt safe and I did.
After lying down on the floor, Paul lay down on top of me. He taught me some simple and effective escapes. My 'therapy' consisted of physically throwing him off me. We then repeated this many times. Sometimes with voice commands.
"Get off me!"
"You can't hurt me!"
For someone who doesn't like to be touched, it was pretty fucking weird. I was comfortable letting Paul touch me in this way but at the same time I was uncomfortable with the simple contact of his body against mine. But it also felt great when I pushed him away. Each time we repeated the ritual it felt better. Empowering. Liberating. By the time we were done, we were both laughing.
We took a break from the physical exercises and talked about my situation. What I was there for. What I was on my way to. What I was hoping to achieve. I confessed that I was still feeling frustrated that the memory of my assault was incomplete. As frightened as I was of going there, I still wished I could remember what happened. We got back on the mat.
A katana is a samurai sword designed to be held with two hands. It's the weapon of choice for most samurai movies and many martial arts practices use wooden katana. Paul picked his up and held it out towards me in an attack posture. He instructed me to grasp the”sharp” end of the sword with both hands, in the same manner he was holding the handle end. I did so. He told me we were going to do a simple energy exercise. He was going to move the sword and he wanted me to hold on and move my body in whatever way I felt compelled to. It took a single thrust.
Paul took a half step towards me as he gently but firmly pushed the katana towards me. Just like that I was pushed back in time. To the chicken coop. To that moment. It was a complete mind and body shock of remembering. I dropped the katana and fell to my knees. I was too stunned to cry. I felt crushed and angry. Nauseated. It was hard to breathe.
I don't remember exactly what words I used and I am struggling to choose the words to say it now. What to call it? When someone forces their erect cock into your mouth. When an adult-sized person does that to a ten-year-old boy. Was it rape? What a question. Why would I even ask that? Of course it was rape. But it wasn't rape rape. It wasn't prison rape joke material. I was orally sodomized. Mouth raped. What a concept. Maybe it wasn’t technically rape, but I was raped. Language is insufficient.
The day after my work with Paul I arrived at my first Weekend of Recovery. A central purpose of WOR is helping male survivors find their voice and to learn how to tell their story. For the first time since I began this journey of healing, I had a story to tell. I was 53 years old. Breaking my forty-year silence was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was an important and necessary step in reclaiming something I lost. But it was only a step.
My efforts to become whole resembled a classic noir mystery in which I was all the main characters. I was the client seeking to solve the mystery of a missing child. I was also the missing child. I shared the detective role with my therapists, who also acted as Watsons and sidekicks. Together we embarked, none of us knowing exactly what we were in for. Along the way we discovered not everything was what it seemed. The mystery was deeper than we realized. As each suspect was eliminated, another would appear. For every question that we answered another would arise.
Every mystery requires a foil, someone who doesn't want the mystery to be solved. That was me, too. My attacker so successfully frightened me into not telling anyone that I became the saboteur. I was a prisoner of my own past. I was the guard. I was also the only one with the key to solving the mystery. The answer was always inside me. (No pun intended.)
I left that first WOR feeling elated. Friends commented on my new, lightened demeanor. I took a break from therapy for the first time in years. I came out to my yoga community as a survivor. Sharing my story became easier. I stayed in touch with some of my fellow WOR alumni. I felt an overall sense of well-being and contentment. My moods stabilized. Life was good.
Until it wasn't. After a while my depression returned. Only this time it was accompanied by anxiety. My nightmares returned. I began to have insomnia. After having made so much progress, I was devastated.
For most of my life, I believed I suffered from chronic depression. That I had a genetic predisposition for it. Then I discovered— realized —that a major source of my distress was the result of childhood abuse. By focusing on that I had achieved so much. I had made so many breakthroughs. And now I was feeling worse than ever. Not only had my depression returned but I was experiencing intense anxiety.
I returned to therapy. I returned to psychiatry. I felt like I was back at the beginning. Back to not knowing. Back to feeling incomplete.
Because the best mysteries always have a twist at the end. An epilogue.
We’re not there yet…
Here’s another joke from Paul:
"How many abuse survivors does it take to change a lightbulb?"
"None, we just cower in the dark."