NOTE: This blog post discusses childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, and a coercive relationship. If these are triggering subjects for you, please take care of yourself if you choose to read this.
“Avoiding avoiding is the only way out of hell.”
My therapist wrote the above in an email he sent to me Friday morning. It was one email in a chain of emails that I initiated Thursday morning and continued through the weekend to the following Sunday. That’s the kind of deal we have. We’ve been working together for nearly three years, but out-of-session contact via email didn’t really become a thing for us until maybe a year and a half into our work. Now, when I do a search on his name in my email, it pulls up over 100 email conversation threads, each containing multiple messages. It feels like kind of a lot. It also feels vital, like oxygen, as essential to our work as the weekly sessions where I show up and fight the nausea and dread that inevitably rise to the surface while I contemplate my feet in his waiting room.
The nausea and dread are inextricably linked to a recurring theme that continues to make itself known in my therapy work: avoiding instead of approaching. Avoidance is my preferred flavor of coping with everything–memories, feelings, conflict, the traumas (big T and little t), the whatever (garbage, trash, baggage, shit, etc.) I’d prefer to forget. What would I rather do than acknowledge the whatever? I’d rather do just about anything. There’s a reason why I’ve always related so strongly to Bartleby.
You need to stop avoiding, he tells me. He’s told me this repeatedly. I have to face the whatever I don’t want to face. It’s toxic; it’s eating you alive, he says. I know he’s right. Approaching, and not avoiding, is how I’m going to be liberated. I’ve taken baby steps toward approaching whatever, followed by long jump leaps backward in the direction of avoiding whatever, over and over. It’s exhausting. I resist and resist and resist and get trapped in a bottleneck until something gives and I’m propelled forward, in a great powerful whoooosh. Imagine a blockage in a pipe or an artery. Imagine the Heimlich maneuver and how the hard candy or chicken bone causing the blockage is catapulted from the victim’s windpipe. That choking hazard is me, flying out of hell, giddy from and disoriented by the promise of freedom. The whatever has thus been decontaminated of some of its poison, if not all of it. It’s just a bad memory now, nothing more, having lost its potent sting. It can’t hurt me anymore. Liberation seems ever closer.
I was feeling especially triggered last week–and it really has only been very recently that I’ve permitted myself to even use the word triggered, because doing so means acknowledging, and not avoiding, that there’s anything valid for me to be triggered by. I emailed my therapist, because that’s our deal, and he told me for the millionth time that whatever needs to come out. I replied, for the millionth time, that I didn’t see how it was possibly true that whatever needed to come out. This prompted him to explain to me for the millionth time how trauma works, and how the work we’ve done and continue to do is paving the way for me to be free of whatever. He said, “your avoidance manifests as an unwillingness to face the memories.” And, ultimately, “avoiding avoiding is the only way out of hell.” Later, he’d tell me that these weren’t his words and attributed them to Marsha Linehan. Even so, these words feel tinged with my therapist’s own wisdom. They are consistent with his approach, with everything he’s ever said to me and taught me, as recognizable as the orderly peace of his office with its blue walls and blue couch. I would have attributed these words to his own brain if he hadn’t told me otherwise.
“Avoiding avoiding is the only way out of hell.”
NOTE: content relating to sexual abuse, sexual assault, coercive interpersonal relationships begins here
I’ve never believed that I experienced childhood sexual abuse because no one ever touched me. The whatever I remember doesn’t involve any person putting their hands on my body. Instead, what I remember is being forced to watch a pornographic film when I was around seven or eight years old. What I remember is a man exposing himself to me in the children’s section of the public library when I was around nine years old.
These are things I remember distinctly. But what I also remember–and didn’t remember that I remembered until last year–is the time a kid in my class shoved me, pushed me to the ground, and grabbed me between my legs. I was maybe 10 years old. I started wearing my PE shorts under my uniform skirt after that, and I did so for the duration of my Catholic-school-uniform-skirt years, until I graduated from high school.
So, yeah, I guess someone did touch me after all. Not that the other whatever wasn’t enough to be considered harmful and some kind of abuse. But it was when I acknowledged the abusiveness of these experiences that I was no longer able to avoid the memory of the grabbing incident. “I think you were sexually assaulted,” said my therapist, and my whole body cringed and vanished into oblivion. Well, my body didn’t actually vanish into oblivion, but I very much wanted it to. I am still not able to lay claim to that term. I can say “assaulted” but not “sexually assaulted.” I can say “abuse” but I can’t say “sexual abuse.”
Maybe the terminology doesn’t matter anyway, because there isn’t a Trauma Olympics. I know I can’t compare my experiences to some else’s. And similarly, you can’t examine my experiences against yours or someone else’s and find them wanting. And yet! It is so tempting to do this, isn’t it? I consider my whatever, examining it under a microscope, or holding it up in the light to locate the watermarks that indicate authenticity. In so doing, I find that it pales in contrast to your whatever and therefore my whatever is counterfeit. It isn’t valid or true actual trauma. It is so easy to disqualify myself from the Trauma Olympics on the grounds that my whatever isn’t traumatic enough. However, what I’m trying to do now is disqualify myself because there’s no fucking Trauma Olympics to begin with. What matters is the impact–how I feel as a result of these experiences and how they’ve shaped me.
This whatever I’ve been avoiding, as well as other whatever–growing up Catholic, graduating from high school and college in the cultural climate of the 1990s, my family’s own particular flavors of dysfunction, a probable (undiagnosed and untreated) childhood anxiety disorder, compulsory heterosexuality and its cousin internalized homophobia–formed me in ways that diminished my agency and my capacity to meaningfully consent. I did not see or understand how power differentials operate in interpersonal intimate relationships. In short, I was easy to take advantage of. THIS IS NOT MY FAULT (she says to herself repeatedly). There was a concatenation of conditions that influenced my choices and I ended up in a relationship, that, at the time, I would have described as loving and consensual, but today, I recognize as coercive and harmful. I was 19 when we met; he was 28. He lied about his age when he found out how young I was. This detail only scratches the surface. This was over two decades ago, and I’m only just now beginning to acknowledge that harm instead of avoiding it and denying that it exists.
I’m avoiding avoiding. It’s the only way out of hell. It’s the only way into liberation. I keep sneaking small glimpses of what liberation might look like. My therapist and I spent six months of weekly sessions doing EMDR on one particular traumatic experience (not one of the ones mentioned above). Now, when I recall this particular whatever, it feels like I’m looking at an ugly painting on a distant wall, maybe without my glasses on. How will it feel to have a whole gallery of blurry paintings instead of a clenched fist full of memories that feel like they are on fire? It boggles the mind to imagine. But I maintain that this unimaginable future is my future, and I’m catapulting myself there through bottleneck after bottleneck. The bottleneck feels brutal, but when I’m inevitably propelled out of it, the bottleneck has transformed into a breakthrough.