From “They” to “We”
by Anna Dixon
April 6, 1991
In the spring of 1990, I was having something like a nervous breakdown. I was still going to work and keeping up with an array of other activities. But, years before, I’d fallen out of love with my husband and I never told him. In the interim, I’d had an affair that ended in emotional catastrophe, and was still obsessing over the man after six months. I wanted to run away and be by myself. I wanted to explain these things to my husband, to tell him these secrets. Every time I thought about telling him, my throat would tighten, I’d choke, and something inside me would
Finally, after a couple of drinks one night, I told him I wanted a separation. He was badly hurt yet became incredibly supportive. My employer could not give me the temporary transfer I craved, but offered two weeks of paid leave. After thinking it over, I took the two weeks, and went to my grandmother’s house for solitude. It seemed for the best. The separation was very stressful to my family, particularly for my daughter. She was relieved to know I might only be gone two weeks maximum instead of six months minimum. For her sake, so was I.
My mother was from a small town in rural New England, a few hours away from where I lived. My grandparents owned an old house there, and it was still in the family, but vacant much of the time. My grandfather was a successful businessman with a terrible temper, and we were all a little afraid of him. He’d died of throat cancer when I was nine, and I had been devastated by his lingering illness and death. My grandmother was still alive, but was ailing and in a nursing home.
So I went up to the house, just me, some books, and my PC. I decided to see if I could accomplish some fiction writing while I was there, and set the PC up in the back sitting room, a very sunny room with a huge picture window. Trouble was, the sun flooded the room in the afternoon, making the PC screen hard to read. I thought about moving the PC, but noticed the window had a shade. I pulled the shade down, muting the glare into orange shadows. I turned around, saw the Oriental rug on the floor…
and felt tiny, violated, and terrorized.
The image vanished, leaving me cold. The Oriental rug had been sold years before. A green braided rug now covered the floor. `I must have been spanked in here once. I hate to be spanked. No, no it was just a spanking.’ I thought, and the coldness went away.
I spent most of the next two weeks not writing or even contemplating my marriage, but playing a computer game called hack. It’s a simple-minded game where the point is to travel through mazes, kill all the monsters you find, and, eventually, find a treasure. I pressed the keyboard keys to bash the monsters so hard that my fingers stung. But I never did find the treasure.
I wrote one short story. A woman’s father is butchered by devil worshippers on a city street. The cultists live on fear and blood. She realizes only she can “exorcise” them, and she has to face the cultists herself. Her young daughter insists on going with her. They face down the cultists by refusing to be afraid and render the cultists powerless.
I went back to my family, which felt right. My husband took me to Florida to celebrate, and we had a wonderful time, like a honeymoon thirteen years late. I still didn’t feel in love with him, but I loved him as a friend, like family. However, apart from our trip, I spent much of my free time being depressed, playing too much hack, and either drinking beer or eating chocolate.
The depression got worse this spring, compounded by my asthma. I developed asthma as an adult, and hated the painful breathing and choking sensation that often accompanied it. Memories of the affair, over for a year and a half, continued to plague me.
I took a mental health day, and settled down on my bed one afternoon to watch Phil & Oprah. Phil had a “Cassanova” on, a man who boasted about sleeping with hundreds of women and tape recording some of the encounters. Some of the women were also on the show and they said he had drugged and raped them. The man called them all liars. It was spooky watching one man believing his own story against stories of rapes.
Oprah had a show on about the repression of traumatic events. Her first guest was a lawyer who’d physically attacked an accused child rapist while she was cross examining him. In jail a few days later, she remembered that she’d been raped as a child, but had blocked it out for many years. I applauded her rage. `I’d be angry too if that had happened to me,’ I thought.
The show continued and someone said that survivors of child sexual abuse had a hard time dealing with authority figures.
I almost yelled out, `Well of course! How can we trust them when they’ve hurt us so much?’
And then I realized what I’d thought, choked, and burst into tears. I was one of them. I was one of those incest victims I’d always felt sorry for, but never, ever identified with. My grandfather hadn’t just spanked me, someone had raped me in that room, and either he did it or he permitted it to happen. I wanted to kill him, even though he’d been dead for twenty-five years.
Absolute fury hit me. I thought I had a constant memory that went back thirty years. For years, my first memory was of tripping over my coat, falling down a flight of stairs, and breaking my collar bone when I was four. I remember this vividly. Yet, at about the same time in my life, I was being raped. I never thought I was the sort of person to keep a secret from myself like this. That made me almost as angry as the realization that I’d been abused.
Connections hit me.
When I was six, I first heard about past lives and reincarnation. Protestant girls don’t normally believe in reincarnation, but I had a vivid image of being kicked to death by a horse on a field. I was being crushed. This vision never felt like imagination, it always felt like something that happened to me. Now I see it must have been the only memory I had of an early rape and it happened outdoors. Even in the memory, I could never see what was crushing me, I could only feel the life being squeezed out of me.
I’ve always been angry and I have a terrible temper. I’ve worked to control my temper, but haven’t always succeeded. I recognized very young that I was both hyperactive and manic-depressive, so I often rationalized my moodiness as being a chemical imbalance that I’d just have to live with. Despite this rationalization, I never understood why my life appeared so good on the outside, while I felt so terrible on the inside.
When I first saw the man I went on to have an affair with, I was instantly attracted to him. He was very tall and had blue eyes. When I shook his hand as some mutual friends introduced us, lust combined with terror absolutely took over my body, and I had a very strong sense that he was special. Since we were at a conference (and our families were not there), we joined a group of friends for dinner and walked around the city together. I was giddy and felt incredibly romantic, emotions I was not familiar with. He went to his room to take a nap, but I paced around my room like a caged animal. Then I realized I had a book he was interested in. I brought the book to his room, we started talking, holding hands…and, eventually, buying condoms. (The responsible feminist in me wishes to say this was my idea, but it was his. Any sense of responsibility was gone that night—I wanted to be swept off my feet.) The sex was intoxicating, and I felt more alive than I had in several years.
The next day when I saw him, I realized he was balding, and, in the light of day, balding men turn me off enormously.
My grandfather was tall, had blue eyes, and was balding. So the reason I was so attracted to this man, and the reason I could not get over him was because this affair was a way for my subconscious to control my grandfather. I’d spent 2 1/2 years trying to understand why I felt so strongly about this man, and suddenly it made awful sense. The catharsis over this man was immediate. I now know without a doubt that I will neither punch this man out nor drag him off to bed if I run into him at another conference.
The catharsis over my grandfather is taking longer.
Another connection—I developed a severe kidney infection when I was five. I was in and out of the hospital over the next eighteen months. I hated hospitals, and I threw tantrums whenever anyone tried to catheterize me or take my temperature rectally. They put me in a private room and I pounded and screamed at the door for hours. When they finally consented to taking my temperature by mouth, I calmed down and was moved back to the ward.
They thought I had a brain tumor, did an EEG, and scheduled me for a spinal tap. I’m sure they were very concerned about the spinal tap as it required me to lie very still for a long time while they withdrew liquid from around my spine. I think there was some talk about having me physically restrained during the procedure, but I begged them to let me try to be very still and not move. I promised I’d be so good. I lay very still for a very long time and everyone congratulated me for restraining myself.
I’ve always been paranoid over my daughter being abused. When she was four, my husband and I had an incredible fight about the wisdom of leaving her with an uncle so we could go away together for a weekend. I said I thought she would be in danger, and my husband was incredulous. We did leave her with him, and, as far as we know, nothing bad happened to her. But I was struck by the age issue—I was about four when the bulk of my abuse happened, but I hadn’t remembered yet when my daughter was four.
As I continued watching the show, experiencing flashbacks, and hyperventilating, my daughter came in my bedroom. “What’s wrong, Mom?”
How can I tell my own daughter that my grandfather had raped me? We had talks about “good touch/bad touch” when she started day care, because that was the era when the we were very aware of incidents of child molestation in day care centers. She seemed to understand. How could I tell her this awful thing happened to me when I was a child…but I was only now realizing it?
“Oh, it’s just a sad show.” Fortunately for me, the guest on at that minute was talking about Auschwitz and not about child abuse, so I lied about what was making me so upset and I rattled on about the horrors of Nazi death camps.
My husband was in and out of the house that evening. When he was in, our daughter was around, so I couldn’t tell him what I’d discovered. He had made plans to help some friends out that night, so he left right after dinner. Later, after my daughter was in bed, I was doing the dishes and thought, `It’s going to be so hard to tell him…’
`YOU CAN’T TELL!! YOU MUST NEVER TELL!!‘ A hysterical woman’s voice rang through my head, and I felt incredibly choked. I could literally feel hands clamp around my throat, cutting off my breath.
I nearly fell into the sink during this flashback, and finally shook it off.
I don’t want to believe this voice belongs to my mother. I hope it belongs to a neighbor of my grandparents. My mother put her father on an absolute pedestal. She told me that, since she was also prone to tantrums a child, he would tie her in her room. I think about that with dread, because maybe she, too, was sexually abused, but has continued to block it out.
The next morning, I told my husband. He was surprised and supportive. I felt incredibly safe and blessed by his response. I went to work, but I couldn’t work. I broke into tears in my office. I snapped out at a co-worker. I spoke to a friend at work and told her what I’d discovered, and she was a good sounding board. I went to the library and found a book about incest called Reclaiming Our Lives: Hope for Adult Survivors of Incest (Carol Poston and Karen Lison). I read it in one sitting, getting up only to find more tissues.
I didn’t sleep much at all the next night, and awoke to the sounds of birds and a child screaming for her mother. The voice sounded like it was coming from a neighboring house, yet no young child lives nearby. I think the voice was my own four-year-old voice.
And then the whole thing started feeling very unreal again. It’s so hard to remold a long-held self-image (No one has ever raped me and I never repress anything.) and accept the fact that I was raped and I repressed it too well.
At work the previous day, I’d sought out a Human Resources counselor, and she said she’d look into helping me get professional counseling. But that morning, unable to face the idea of going to work, I called a psychologist I knew, and he referred me to a counselor. Fortunately, she was able to see me that morning. After a five minute choking and sobbing session, I told her my story. She told me a little of hers, which was she, too was raped as a child and repressed it for many years. What I was going through was a common response to repressed trauma. It’s similar to post-traumatic stress syndrome that so many Viet Nam vets experience.
As I start to come to terms with this issue, I realize that this is very much an “in the closet/out of the closet” issue. Until the other day, I’d never talked to a person who said they’d been sexually abused by a relative as a child. This is not a topic that comes up often. Because we feel so powerless when we are raped, we feel powerless to effect needed changes. We must come out about this issue. We survivors need to be able to say “I survived being sexually abused as a child and I’m going to be OK.” We survivors need to network, to talk, to face our abusers (either in person or emotionally) and to celebrate our lives despite the early trauma that clouded them. The more out we are, the more we can force society to recognize what a pervasive problem child sexual abuse is.
As I regain my strength, I want to come out of the closet of incest, but I cannot do that completely until after I talk to my parents. I do not feel ready to discuss it with them yet, but I hope I will soon. My grandmother is dying and has become senile over the last year. If I felt she could give me a straight answer, I would talk to her about my memories before I would my mother. Maybe my mother had nothing to do with it at all, or maybe she was my rescuer. But I have the feeling that I threatened to tell, someone ordered me to be quiet, and I repressed everything related to the attacks.
I feel the attacks started when I was pretty young (eighteen months) and happened sporadically over the next three years. For a six month period, during which I broke my collar bone, we lived next to my grandparents. I suspect I may have been attacked more often during that time and became more unmanageable. I feel he alternately terrorized me and rewarded me with chocolate for my “good behavior.” I think my mother, seeing me being so upset, would say things like “In a few months, your Daddy will have found a new home for us and we will move back to Massachusetts.”
I was an occasional runaway as a child. As an adult, I kept searching for “home.” We’ve moved a lot, and the need to move to a new place re-emerged in me a few months ago. I think my need to “get away” comes springs from this period in my life. That strong feeling about running away also vanished as I acknowledged where this need came from.
In some ways, for a person sexually abused, I’ve been lucky. While I feel very traumatized about sex right now, I had a pretty good sex life for fifteen years. It’s true I’ve had an occasional affair (and two of the three men were short and dark haired, like my husband), but I’ve been part of a pretty strong relationship, that’s survived a lot of hardship. I never did anything too outwardly crazy. While I drank, I didn’t drink to oblivion, become abusive, drive drunk, or touch drugs. One of my major failings is that I’m not nurturing, but I realized that years ago and am a conscientious parent in spite of it.
Responses to abuse as a child emerged in the strangest ways. I don’t know if the responses were more bizarre because the memories were repressed for much of my life, but I had some very strange quirks. I hated to be kissed or hugged, and this distaste only abated late in high school. I still rarely kiss relatives. I was very phobic about people forcing my mouth open, to the point that I once ran away from home rather than go to the dentist. I’ve since had odd flashes of being made to undo a man’s belt and zipper with my teeth, and having the buckle grind into my gums, grating against my teeth. When I was six, I chewed apart my beaded Indian belt. Sometimes, when I’d feel sick and crawl into bed with my parents, and my mother remarked how I always ground my teeth.
This has been the hardest few days of my entire life. It’s like getting into a psychological car accident, but having to do 80% of your own doctoring and nursing. My husband has been amazingly patient, coming home one night with roses and taking me out to dinner and a movie. Some friends came over for a cookout the next night, and were understanding. I’ve been very nervous and upset, almost having a panic attack in a grocery store. I suddenly understood agoraphobia, something I’ve never had. I started thinking of the old Madonna song, “Live to Tell:”
A man can live a thousand lies
I’ve kept it hidden well
Hope I live to tell the secret I have learned
Till then, it will burn inside of me.
And understand now why that song has always been so meaningful to me. I lied about something to myself for thirty years. This is a terrible hurt, but it’s also a miraculous realization.
After my grandfather’s death, I became a compulsive eater/drinker, eating myself up to a recent high of 223 pounds. While I never hated myself for being a fat adult, I see that I was using food and drink as anesthetic for the pain of remembering. Now, if I want a drink or sweets, a calming, reassuring part of me says, “No, you don’t need to do that now. You don’t need to indulge yourself. You understand what has happened.” I understand why I had terrorizing dreams of being chased by monsters as a child. I better understand the difficulties I have with relationships, particularly that with my husband. Once I’m over the shock, I know I will be a much stronger person. Maybe my writer’s block will even go away.
But at least I’ll understand myself a hell of a lot better.
Well, I can’t say things are “perfect.” Things are OK. There have been lots of stresses over the last few years. And this is a challenging year in many ways. I continue to adapt, and I haven’t given up.