Sunday, July 09, 2017

The man my mother lives with

It's hard to remember how I used to feel before the revulsion. Hard to remember when I was 11, 12, 13 and thought he was amazing. He was my mother's boyfriend.

My father died when I was five. My mother had boyfriends after that. All I wanted was for her to get married again so I'd have a father. But one by one they left. Or she left them—it wasn't always made clear to me. My mother is secretive about some of her thoughts—the ones she isn't trying to force you to swallow without questioning.

But this one seemed like he'd stick around. He took me fishing. We spent time with his friends. He brought me to an outdoor fishing and hunting fair, and I shot a shotgun twice, missing the clay pigeons completely. The impact left my shoulder sore.

He spent a lot of time at our house. He brought over his books, jazz cassettes, yellow legal pads filled with clipped articles from The New York Times and New Yorker. He brought a rifle, or a shotgun—I didn't look closely enough to detect which.

And he brought pornography. Penthouse and Forum magazines, mostly. A few novels filled with graphic descriptions of sex and violence.

And I read them.

And he tried to talk to me about sex. One conversation stands out in my memory: he was encouraging me to experiment with lesbianism.

“Girls are nice!” sniggered the degenerate pervert.

“Stop it!” said my mother. She was there. She saw. She heard.

I still vividly remember those Penthouse Forum letters. One of them claimed to be an account of a man seducing his teenage neighbor in her Catholic School uniform. She was curious about cunnilingus, so he offered to perform it on her. A bit later, she reciprocated.

I can't help but wonder if he was hoping I'd approach him and ask the same favor.

Acting out

When I went to camp close to New York City and had time to kill in the airport on the way home, I bought a Playgirl magazine. The other campers waiting with me laughed and compared me to “Darling Nikki” from the Prince song:

Knew a girl named Abby, I guess you could say she was a sex fiend, 
Met her in the airport, readin' a Playgirl magazine....

None of this was normal. But it's typical behavior of a child who had been sexually abused.

In my 20s and 30s, I desperately searched for a husband. But every time I got involved with a man, I rushed into physical intimacy, which of course torpedoed any chance of a lasting relationship. The raunchy images and descriptions echoed in my mind, and almost without realizing it, I copied, I engaged in the same behaviors I'd read about.

This is called “re-enacting,” and it's common, especially among incest victims who experienced sexual arousal (1). I learned to masturbate reading those magazines.

Call it what it is

Showing me pornography and talking to me about sex wasn't just bad judgment on the pervert's part.

It was incest.

All the time we spent together doing nonsexual activities—reading and writing poetry, fishing, listening to music—that was a parental relationship. He was my de facto stepfather, even though they never got married. He still lives in my mother's house.

For decades I knew what he did was wrong, but I didn't have a name for it. Recently I read an article about covert incest and wondered if that was what happened to me (2). I consulted the author, Rob Weiss (3), a national expert in sexual abuse and addiction.

Hi Rob, thanks for agreeing to a consult.

Let's call her Jennifer. Her father died when she was very young. Her mother moved a boyfriend into the home when Jennifer was 10 or 11. He was a former hippie-type who had done tons of drugs and considered himself a poet, although he worked as a custodian. He brought a great deal of pornography into the home — several books and many, many magazines, which Jennifer read. And reread. And masturbated to. Sometimes the boyfriend would try to talk about sex with Jennifer; when her mother was around, her mother would stop him from talking about sex. He also smoked marijuana in front of her during an unsuccessful fishing trip on his friend's boat.

Jennifer has had difficulty establishing healthy relationships with men and has always rushed into having sex early on. Throughout college and her 20s and 30s, she had few long-term relationships but numerous one-night-stands or brief sexual relationships. Part of the hypersexuality might be attributed to bipolar disorder (type 2), which was diagnosed when she was 26. Despite knowing that was a symptom, she hasn't been able to bring her sexual behavior under control. She is now still single at 46 years old.

After I read your article, I wondered if her mother's boyfriend's behavior could be considered covert incest. She has struggled not only with intimate relationships but with work as well, having been fired from several jobs (I think the bipolar is a factor there as well). I can't tell if she's a sex addict, but I do know she's desperately unhappy, having wanted very much to marry and have children, which is unlikely at this point (at least having children). She has stopped speaking to her mother, since the boyfriend still lives in her mother's home and is financially supported by her mother.

Any insight you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

He wrote back in less than a day, suggesting that we speak by phone to discuss the case and adding:

Actually - fyi- this is not covert incest. His showing her those magazines and talking to her about the content -is actual incest. Covert incest is just that -not appearing to be sexual- like using your child like an EMOTIONAL husband or pal. But once the overt sexual piece is added, it becomes plain old incest.

This woman has a profound, early, chronic sexual abuse history by an abusing stepfather and emotionally absent mother. No wonder she is where she is today.

On the phone he told me this: "Incest produces intimacy disorders in adult women," he said. "Your stepfather is a predator. This was reportable, arrestable, and I would report him if he's involved with other children."

Incest doesn't have to involve physical contact to inflict damage. A father figure who creepily plies a teenager with porn and tries to discuss it with her—that distorts healthy development. It's explained well in this article about a psychotherapist seeing increasing numbers of pornography addicts in his practice:

“It’s particularly dangerous in adolescence,” Wishart said. “The brain is going through so much transition and change, it's sort of pruning and growing. So, the things you’re being exposed to in adolescent years are the things that are harder to sort of rework later in life (4).”

That is what the degenerate pervert did to me.

Lasting wounds

Time doesn't heal all wounds. Trauma leaves a lasting imprint on the body. Bessel van der Kolk, an international expert on trauma, wrote about this extensively in his book The Body Keeps the Score.5 His decades of research have shown that trauma causes systemic inflammation in the body, which increases a person's vulnerability to a number of pathologies, physical and psychiatric (6).

For decades I tried to ignore what had happened to my adolescence, even as the effects plagued me in adulthood. A raft of physical ailments. Sinus surgery. Bouts of nausea, gastritis and reflux. Grotesquely overgrown fibroid tumors that required surgery. Chronic back pain. Crippling knee pain. Neck and shoulder and ankle injuries—I've sprained each ankle more than twice. Many trauma survivors are clumsy, physically uncoordinated, not at home in their own bodies. I walk into walls, bang my head on cupboard doors I've just opened, trip over small obstacles and uneven sidewalks.

Even worse were was the psychiatric and emotional fallout. Difficulty managing intimate relationships. Anxiety. Depression and suicide attempts. Binge eating—I'm lucky I never took to alcohol abuse or sampled harder drugs. Many trauma survivors numb their pain with heroin; as a social worker in a methadone program, virtually all of my patients had some history of trauma. I also manifested an “exaggerated startle response”(7)—one of the telltale signs of traumatic injury—that makes me self-conscious when co-workers or clients innocently trigger it by tapping me on the shoulder or calling my name when I'm not looking at them.

These are the sequelae of childhood sexual abuse. The body keeps the score; it doesn't forget. Trauma leaves an impact that manifests in many ways. Years of emotional misery, physical agony. Because he committed incest with me.

I realize that I am an adult and responsible for my own life, but I can't help but wonder how different my life would have been had I not been exposed to so much pornography at such an impressionable age. I have no doubt I would have been messed up somehow, but I don't think I would have been messed up as badly.

And I'm alone while that disgusting pervert has a comfortable retirement in my mother's house.

During a phone conversation almost 20 years ago, my mother once worried out loud about how “sickly” I was,. She was concerned that a 28-year-old was having another colonoscopy because of persistent nausea and gastric pain—which, like many of my other ailments, had no apparent etiology.

She was right. I was and am sickly, more sickly than the average woman my age who grew up middle-class in the suburbs, with access to proper nutrition and excellent medical care. Because of the trauma. My body keeps the score. It hasn't forgotten, though I tried to forget.

Fundamental betrayal: my mother doesn't care

My mother now says she didn't know that this went on throughout my four years of high school. But she saw the degenerate pervert try to have sex discussions with me. She told him to stop, but I don't think he stopped. She knew what was going on and she didn't put a stop to it.

Sexual abuse happens not only because fathers/father figures commit it, but because mothers/mother figures don't stop it, don't see it as wrong, or don't "see" it. They don't consciously ignore it—they're too emotionally distant to acknowledge it. She was working full-time, supporting herself and two children and a freeloader. She “never saw” all the magazines and books he brought into the house. (In her defense, it's quite a small house, a modest three-bedroom.)

Most of what she did for me was good. I was always fed and clothed. Never beaten. Went on decent vacations. Was put through an expensive private college. Braces on my teeth, even oral surgery to correct a snaggletooth.

But none of that protected me from the impact of the incest. I have to live with the consequences: I'm alone and I will probably always be alone.

She's still feeding, clothing, and sheltering him. It nauseates and infuriates me. Even now, she has more compassion for him than for me. When I started trying to explain to her how badly he injured me, she accused me of lashing out at a “sick old man.”

I tried to explain how wrong what he did was, bringing pornography into the home and trying to talk to me about it. I said to her, "I am damaged."

She said, "I'm damaged, too."

I'm not a parent, but I thought you were supposed to want your children to have a better life than you did, and that you wanted to protect them from avoidable harm.

"Do you know that if I had told any of the teachers in school about the porn at home, you and the dirtbag would both have been arrested?" I asked.

"I guess I was foolish," she said. "I'm sorry." Foolish? For allowing me to be molested?

I told her I wanted her to kick him out of her house and stop spending money on him. She said, laughing, "You can't control me." That's when I stopped talking to her.

I don't want to be reminded that my mother doesn't care about my pain. She sends me holiday cards, birthday cards, money. “Love, Mom.” If she loved me, she would be furious that someone injured me so profoundly, so lastingly that I suffer decades later. But she wants me to pretend it never happened.

I tried that. It didn't work. Just led to decades of romantic heartbreak and problems getting along at work.

My mother refuses to hold him accountable for the lasting damage he incurred. I refuse to say it's okay, because it's not. I have to live with the consequences: I'm alone and I will probably always be alone.

Am I blaming him for how I messed up my own life? I was already damaged when I met the degenerate pervert. I wouldn't have had a normal adolescence, I was too wounded by my father's death and years of being bullied in elementary school. So there's no guarantee I would have lived happily ever after even had I not been exposed to pornography.

But I didn't need to be further damaged, and I was, and now my life will never be close to what I wanted. All I ever wanted was to have a baby, and now it's too late. I was innocent, and he destroyed that innocence. I've endured decades of physical and emotional pain, and the physical is bound to get worse as I get even older.

My family laughs at my pain

I don't want to be around people who act like my mother hasn't done anything wrong, when she let the pervert sexually traumatize and warp me. Acceptance is difficult when you're in constant physical and emotionally pain, and the unrepentant source is unharmed.

One of my aunts is just as bad as my mother. We've always had a good relationship; she's always supported me. So I thought I could tell her what the degenerate pervert did, and name it as incest.

She said, "Oh, c'mon!"

That was a punch in the throat. I tried to explain the terrible developmental consequences that kind of pornography exposure has on a teenage girl. She condescendingly said, "Well, it might have felt like abuse, but it doesn't sound like abuse."

Half my family doesn't care that I was traumatized. That I suffer every day. That I will never be whole. I can't be around people who minimize and deny my pain.

A Truly Unacceptable “Apology”

At the behest of my mother, I'm sure, her degenerate pervert boyfriend sent me this facile letter:

I need to apologize for allowing you to read "Penthouse" when you were a teen. Certainly, I had no inkling that the letters to the editor would give you false ideas, but it still was irresponsible. Treating you as one of my gruff peers was wrong. I ought to have been more sensible and maintained a proper adult/youth relationship.

I have sincerely regretted these actions many times in the past two decades. I surely do not merit forgiveness, but allowance could be made for dreadful judgment. Hopefully, then a healing process could begin.

I don't believe a single word in it. For one thing, he minimizes, just like every sex offender. He leaves out the pornographic novels ("Jessica's Wife" was one of them) and nude photo coffee-table books ("I Am My Own Lover," pictures of people masturbating) he scattered around the house. And understates the damage he did by, for example, encouraging me to consider various sex acts, such as lesbianism.

Rob Weiss was appalled that the pervert sent me that letter. “He had no right to do that,” Weiss said. “He didn't know what impact it would have on you—whether it would retraumatize you.” But as with everything the pervert does, he only cares about the impact on himself. And so far, that impact has been negligible.

A painful past, an uncertain future

This is why I do not forgive my mother. This is why I can't be part of my family. I'm lucky that I have good friends. Because being judged and rejected by your family, on top of the aching traumatic wounds, really hurts. It's been more than six years since I stopped talking to my mother. She loves him that much more than she loves me.

You wouldn't tell a rape victim, “Well, it's not like you were in Auschwitz. He didn't break your arm. Why are you complaining?”

So don't minimize my trauma. Just because it's not the worst possible thing that could have happened doesn't mean it's not extremely bad.

Psychologist Mary R. Harvey says, “Trauma survivors have symptoms, not memories.” It's true that trauma fragments the memory encoding process, leaving behind shards and glints of information, pain and pleasure, some of which the brain desperately tries to bury and some of which intrudes into the present via nightmares or flashbacks.

But the body does not forget.

What I'm doing to heal

My first step toward healing was contacting Rob Weiss, and I will be forever grateful that he took the time to consult with me. He recommended books for me to read and suggested I attend a survivors weekend, which I did in October. It was called “Taking Back Ourselves,” and it allowed me to meet other survivors and feel validated. Nobody laughed at my story or dismissed it. They believed me.

Developing friendships with those women and being able to speak openly of my pain was liberating. I'm sick of pretending to be “normal” when I'm damaged. I needed people who would love me despite the damage and understand that it wasn't my fault.

I also started seeing a therapist who uses interventions that engage the body, including mindfulness, EMDR, and other techniques. Successful trauma treatment requires a physical intervention, since trauma impacts not only the cognitive processing areas of the brain but also the areas that react to emotion and even regulate balance and gross motor control.

Mindfulness increases awareness of your presence in your body; you focus on any sensations you're experiencing in the present moment, without judgment. Right now, I can feel the weight of my body pressing into the seat and back of my chair. My knees ache, perhaps because it's a chilly day and I have the window cracked open (New York City apartments are routinely overheated); the pain is sharp over the kneecaps, dull behind the knees. I've just had breakfast and can feel my stomach shifting from hungry to satiated. Through the windows the sun is shining; I can hear cars driving past on my quiet street.

Developing and practicing that kind of awareness reintroduces and reconnects me to my body. Trauma ruptured that connection.

Another somatic therapy is EMDR. Without going into specifics, many of its interventions are bilateral, meaning they engage both sides of the body. It's theorized that this creates new connections and associations in the brain, strengthening a sensation of wholeness instead of fragmentation.

Trauma has lived in my body long enough. I want to get rid of it.

I've also reconnected with a select few relatives. Not my mother or her sister, but paternal cousins and their mother. Feeling like part of a family helps me feel safer; humans evolved in packs and tribes, and I'm grateful that mine is no longer completely self-assembled. Of course I still appreciate my friends, who have supported me for decades as I struggled and suffered without understanding the root of the problem.

Being alone in life is difficult for me. Not only emotionally; physically as well. Like many female incest survivors, I'm a sex addict. I masturbated compulsively to those magazines as a teenager; as I've gotten older, I expected my sex drive to wane, but it has not. I crave sex almost as much as food, and my body is almost perpetually aroused.

In the past I've dealt with this excess arousal by either rushing into sex with a new boyfriend or having sex with strangers I met on chat lines or online. That I never ended up assaulted, pregnant or dead is something of a minor miracle. It used to be easy for me to find sex partners because I was young and pretty. Now I'm a chubby “cougar” and it's even easier to find young, attractive men eager to please me.

Avoiding casual sex is an essential component in any sex addict's recovery. It's a daily struggle for me, with no relief in sight. Unless the trauma body-based therapy eases this symptom as well. Because the arousal seems to be a distraction from actual memories, from sadness and other dysphoric emotions.

What's in store for me

I don't know. I hope the trauma therapy works. It's probably too late for children, which was a dream of mine since the age of 5 or so. Whatever's left of my uterus after the fibroids were removed is probably not capable of pregnancy. But it's not impossible to imagine that I might find love, or at least relief from misery.

Copyright (c) "Ayelet Survivor"

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