As an adult, I still had no idea what healthy sexual intimacy was. I had been told before I married, that it was something good, beautiful, even holy, but these were just words that I couldn't believe, or relate to.
I was aware that my view was warped by my past experiences.
In group therapy for incest survivors, we were asked to make a list of words to describe how we felt about sexual intimacy.
The same negative words appeared on all of our lists: Disgusting...abusive...dangerous...shameful....trapped...scary...powerless...yucky...
The results were so validating.
And so sad.
The damage we had all experienced, as survivors of child sexual abuse, hung heavy in the room...
Soon after, I discovered exactly what I needed to do to heal myself, and I was terrified.
A little boy in my Gan (pre-school) a few years ago, taught me what I needed to do then.
Dov* (Not his real name) was a beautiful little boy with thick black hair and big sparkling
green eyes. Dov knew how to smile and have fun. But, he also knew
how to scream.
Dov came to my Gan traumatized, angry, and very, very hurt. His mother had died when he was a baby, and he had since been shuffled back and forth between various relatives.
When Dov screamed, you had better respond quickly, or run for cover. Clearly, he was insecurely attached. He would throw himself at anyone who showed him any sort of affection and caring, and cling to them for dear life. He threw himself at me, and wanted me to hold him day in and day out. He cried, and clung to me when it was time to go home.
Who could blame him? Dov had no inner security and needed an adult near him in order to feel safe. He was, emotionally, a six month old baby in a four year old body. He did not posses the self-regulation skills that other children
his age internalize by being held, comforted, and nurtured, as babies and
toddlers. Dov told me, quite articulately, that he would be my baby and I would be his mother and always hold him.
His solution made sense. Dov lost his mother at six months. His development stalled at that age. He was desperately trying to get his developmental needs met. His instinct was healthy. His idea just didn't work well in a group of four-year-olds.
Dov screamed and cried whenever I had to put him down to help another child, or simply to teach. I wondered if it was fair to the other children to keep him in my Gan. I learned to set very clear firm limits on when I could hold him in Gan. I held him as much as I could. I reassured him every time I put him down, or left his side, that I would be back. He would be safe. Eventually, after a few weeks of screaming, Dov calmed down enough to play. He began to understand that I was there even if I wasn't holding him. He learned to wait for me.
He learned to trust that I would be back.
I could feel a traumatized part of me, deep inside, shocked at Dov's shame-free insistence to be held and nurtured. I could feel this part of me pulling back from Dov when he demanded to be held. A vague sense of shame, rage, and revulsion stirred somewhere deep inside.
I kept the feeling well away from Dov and my interactions with him.
I knew how to keep children safe.
On the outside.
The traumatized part of me, like Dov, was touch starved. But where Dov had no doubts about what he wanted and needed, this part of me put me in constant conflict with myself. As a member of the human race, I desperately wanted and needed physical contact. Yet, thoughts of anyone touching me triggered a part of me to feelings of shame, panic, and revulsion, or just as likely, (and sometimes at the very same time) to a desire for sexual contact. I had to numb part of my mind in order to let anyone close.
It was hard to let my husband anywhere near me.
Touch meant sexual abuse, to part of me, which also meant terror and shame and hurt...
AND real needs being met at the same time.
The confusion was overwhelming.
It hurt to be touched and it hurt NOT to be touched.
Just thinking about it triggered feelings of real physical pain in the parts of my body that were hurt.
If this was a young child in my external world I knew I would do anything to help them heal.
I realized that what I needed was to experience safe touch, without numbing out and separating from parts of myself, even if it scared me. I needed to let all of me, even, and especially, the part that was hurt, experience touch that did not lead to sexual abuse, or any sexual contact.
When I imagined approaching this young part of me to try to hold her and touch her in a safe way, my mind went numb and feelings were triggered of needing to hurt my body. The experience was completely overwhelming.
Real children learn through real experiences.
I had taught children for years, and I knew this.
A part of me had never learned to be held, and not hurt. I had separated this part of me from my adult self, in order to hold the abuse experience and keep it away from my conscious mind.
From my father I received much needed touch, along with sexual abuse. From my mother I received physical rejection. She pushed me away. Part of me learned that wanting to be touched is shameful. I learned that my body is shameful. I learned that touch and hurt inevitably go together.
I had to re-teach myself that touch and hurt don't have to go together, and shouldn't go together.
I had to hold this inner child part, even if she fought me, just as I would hold any other hurt, scared, child who is pushing everyone away. I knew I needed to help myself endure the terror and confusion and eventually learn that touch can be safe. That is what they I should have experienced as a child, and didn't.
The thought of doing this work terrified me. I had never been able to get that close to that part of me without dissociating. My instinct, my need to survive, instructed me to keep a distance from the part that was hurt, and the accompanying overwhelming feelings.
Until this point, separating myself from the part of me that was so hurt is what enabled me to survive, grow up, and live a normal life in spite of the severe trauma that I endured as a child.
But all these years, the traumatized inner child had always been there, hiding inside me, waiting for me to grow old enough and strong enough to come inside and help her.
I needed a child like Dov to come into my life and teach me how to do it.
When I played out the scenario in my head, I saw myself grabbing my arms and holding myself in a firm hug, while talking to my younger child part, reassuring her, and letting her feel held.
What happened next in my imagined scenario is that my body split in half.
A little child body zoomed out and away from me, and from the terror and confusion of physical touch.
I was left alone.
Holding a lifeless adult body that looked like empty clothing strewn on a bed.
Why was I pushing myself to do this work?
Because I wanted things to change.
Part of me had been stuck in trauma, for over 30 years.
I was tired of parts of me being scared of touch and of feeling ashamed of wanting it.
I was tired of a part of me always feeling anxious around my husband, and of unexpected shame and fear popping up when they shouldn't, interfering in our relationship.
I didn't want a traumatized child dictating how I lived my life. It wasn't fair to my husband, or to me.
It was time for an adult to take charge.
It was time to heal.