(Good morning, good morning! While I’m away, I wanted to share with you some pieces from my book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, which is coming out next month! I’ll post one of these a week, on Friday mornings. Be easy with you, ok? And please keep writing…)
“What happened to you? What was your childhood like? Want to tell me what brings you in today? How are you doing? Why don’t you like me to touch you there? Why are you so quiet/loud/scared/angry/sad all the time? How come you have so much sex? Why don’t you like surprises? How come you won’t have sex with me? What happened that night? Why don’t you want to talk about it? Do you want to tell me what happened to you?”
To be asked to “tell your story,” one of your core-being stories, is to be asked for a piece of your heart, a chunk of your Real Self. When someone says to me, I want to hear your story, my belly tightens with hope and anxiety. Sharing my history of sexual abuse and how I’ve lived since is a wildly vulnerable act. What if they can’t take it? I worry. What if they can’t really hear me? And, maybe even scarier to consider: What if they can?
Who asks to hear traumas stories—I mean, really hear them? And how long does it take to believe that someone really wants to hear us?
Cops ask some of us. Parents ask. Sometimes a friend will ask. Sometimes lovers ask. Therapists, of course. That’s not very many people. Most of the people we spend our lives around don’t ask and don’t want to know. They want a pop song, a poster, a bumper sticker. They don’t want the sticky sweet rot of our true details. That messes up the cool ocean breeze and gently swaying grasses of their triumphant sunset cinematic fantasies of Everything Is All Better Now.
This sounds cynical. I understand the triumphant sunset cinematic fantasy, of course I do. I carry it, too. It’s a great place to visit, but a hard place to be expected to live.
Of course, a powerful draw of therapy is that someone to listen to our whole story with compassion and empathy and non-judgment (at least, ideally). The bounds of the therapeutic relationship mean that our telling is contained and confined, which we often need.
Consider what it takes for us to unravel our full story for those who share the rest of our lives. What a risk, to allow ourselves to be more fully beheld.
We believe no one will love us if they know who we really are, what we carry, what we’ve done, what’s been done to us—and the more we don’t expose ourselves to those we love, the more certain we are of the old story of our unlovablity.
And then what if they can’t hold it? We are afraid that our stories, that we ourselves, are “too much”—and given that our story has probably frightened or overwhelmed friends, that we’ve had family ignore or discount what we told them, this fear doesn’t arise out of nowhere.
The page asks for your story. In writing, we can be free to say just what we want to say, to tell the story however we want to tell it, without editing ourselves based on how our listener reacts. A workshop participant once described to me a difference she appreciated between a traditional support group and the survivors writing group: in the support group, she spent a lot of the session rehearsing what it was she wanted to say, or editing it based on the group’s energy, so she couldn’t focus well on the folks who shared before her. In our writing group, though, we all wrote together, and when it was time to share, because her story was already crafted, she could give more attention to the other stories being shared in the circle—and trusted that she had the full attention of others in the room as well.
Just because someone has asked for our story doesn’t mean we should tell them, doesn’t mean they can hold us, doesn’t mean they’re safe. We listen to our instincts. We know when someone is interested, really interested, in hearing more, when someone has shut down or slipped into overwhelm. We expand or pull back in, accordingly. We don’t want to slip the sticky heartbeat of our stories into hands that cannot hold them, into ears that have turned to stone—or worse, to negative judgment or disbelief. We employ the skill (likely developed during our abuse) to redirect attention away from ourselves. Sometimes we tell those wrong folks anyway, because we are hopeful and lonely, because we want to believe they’re good for us (no matter what our intuition says), and sometimes because we believe or feel like we have no other choice.
I have had ridiculous responses to my stories. Someone once asked, “Did you like what you did with your sister?” Someone else asked, “Do you think about doing it again when you see her now?” Others have believed that now they understood, after having heard some part of my history, why I was queer, or why I was feminist. Some listeners have cut me off with the sincere appellation “brave,” when what I wanted was to be understood as so much more complicated than that.
What I want to tell is the truth, to burst the bubble of that sunset fantasy. What I want is to download it all so that I don’t have to tell it again, even though I will never stop telling it. What I want is to get it right so that you can see the land I live in and what I look like inside, so that I don’t have to be alone there anymore.
(Thank you for reading, and for your words today…)