Monday, January 08, 2007

Dismaying Story #100: Getting Past a Rape

Dear Andrew,

My first boyfriend raped me when I was fourteen, and then broke up with me three days later because he couldn't handle the guilt. None of my friends seemed to believe me, and at least some of the ones who acted like they did laughed at me behind my back. This was my first sexual experience.

I wasn't ready for it to go as far as it did, and I worry that I may have been molested by my uncle as a small child. He has been diagnosed as a sociopath, and was sent to a boys' home as a teenager because he attacked my grandmother. My father told his mother-in-law (my maternal grandmother) that no one was ever to leave me alone with my uncle, or they would never see me again. When I was in counseling as a teenager (around the same time as the rape), my mother sent me out of the room to answer a question the counselor asked. She had asked, "Did your brother ever do anything like that to your daughter?" My mom doesn't remember this incident at the counselor's office. I instantly think of bathrooms when someone mentions molestation, and I used to have frequent nightmares that I was hiding in my grandparents' bathroom and my uncle was coming to find me. I was always either naked or in just a bathrobe in these nightmares.

My second counselor didn't seem to believe me when I told her, just as my friends had disbelieved me. I told her about it, and she changed the subject and never brought it up again. I have not had very many good counseling experiences.

I did not have sex again for five years. Often during sex I will start to shake and cry. It took me a long time after having sex again to actually enjoy it - before that I was just glad to be like normal girls. Now I am in a long-term relationship, and we have sex about once a week. I know my boyfriend would like it to be more frequent, and he has asked me before to seek counseling to deal with this rape. I don't feel as though I would get anything out of counseling that I haven't already done to heal myself, and it would be a financial burden on us. But I know I have a libido - I often have sexual dreams about doing things with him that I have never considered in daylight. And even when I get aroused, I blush and feel ashamed thinking of how much I let go when we have sex - all the silly things I say and do that are embarrassing to think about when one is in one's "right mind". Obviously, I believe this embarrassment probably goes hand in hand with my past sexual experiences. What can I do to connect my inner mindset with my outer self?

Signed, Still Traumatized

I had some questions for Still Traumatized, which she answered as follows:

- Do you berate yourself for "letting" the rape happen?

Not really. I was visiting my dad the summer before, and "cheated" on my boyfriend with another guy. We were "going out", but since we were thirteen nothing much was going on. My best friend told my boyfriend, and from then until the rape I was constantly letting him walk all over me because of the guilt. So then I would take his verbal abuse because I figured I "deserved" it for dating another guy at the same time. We had also been messing around (the rapist boyfriend and I) and things were progressing further and further. But I didn't feel like I let the rape happen - it was a situation where I didn't have any control over the actual rape, and it also happened so quickly.

- At any point since then (including now) have you ever found yourself pulling back when you get close to someone, either emotionally or intimately?

I have never pulled back emotionally, but I have a loooooooonnnngg history of pulling back during intimacy - I will get so far with someone and then start to cry or shake or get scared. It doesn't happen as much with my current boyfriend, but from the time of the rape until I was nineteen (five years), I didn't actually have any type of penetration with anyone.

- Have you ever been afraid to show people the real you, for fear they will discover you are not good enough? Have you compensated for this feeling by over-achieving at school or work?

Oh yeah. Ever since I was a child! I have always felt like if I can be good enough and smart enough and pretty enough and nice enough, I can make everyone happy all the time.

- If you could write a letter to your rapist, what would you want to say to him?

I don't really want to tell him anything. Since we went to school together for the next three-plus years, and since we had all the same friends, I saw plenty of him. When we were seniors, he said that he was sorry for what happened, but that it was a bad relationship "all the way around". He asked if we could be friends. I felt like I had been slapped - I told him I didn't think that would work for me. I don't want to say anything to him. I just want him to die and go to hell. Or live the rest of his life thinking every minute of every day about what he did.

- And if you could wish for an ideal letter back from him, what would he say?

That he was going to commit hara kiri over his guilt. No amount of I'm sorry can give back what he took from me.

Dear Still Traumatized,

I want to be clear that I could never pretend to know completely what your experience is like, dealing with the aftermath of being a rape victim -- I haven't lived through it like you have. I have worked closely with other people who have been in just about your exact situation, though, (teen rape with longstanding consequences during adulthood, eventually gaining peace after many years) so I believe I have some degree of insight.

"None of my friends seemed to believe me..."

That is a defense mechanism on their part, and an unfortunate consequence for you. You needed support that they were not equipped to provide. If they had responded with, "Oh you poor thing, that's terrible," then that is followed obviously with, "What can I do to help?" Then (from their still-not-quite-mature point of view) they are dragged into the middle of a situation that is too horrible for them to contemplate. It's much more comfortable for them to ward off the situation and ignore it. In other words, they were reacting with their own interests in mind, not yours. That's pretty typical for adolescent teens, who tend to me-oriented. Like I said, though, this was unfortunate for you and undoubtedly added to your pain.

"My second counselor didn't seem to believe me when I told her... I told her about it, and she changed the subject and never brought it up again."

That is unconscionable. I view someone in the helping professions as the last line of defense for issues like this. If she didn't help you, where could you go from there? Exactly where you did -- home to struggle with it on your own. That is completely unacceptable. If she thought this was a legitimate issue then she should have helped, or at least referred you to someone who had the expertise to deal with this type of issue. If she thought you were telling a false story, then that should have also sent alarm bells ringing in her head. Nobody would tell a story like that unless they were hurting in some way, and a caring counselor should want to uncover that pain and help.

Not every counselor or therapist is going to be a star, or even minimally competent, so I guess it's "buyer beware" as in most other areas of life. Unfortunately people seeking therapy are, by definition, not always on top of their game at the time and may see their options as limited. Several parts of your story make me sad and this is one of them. You needed a results-oriented professional who would make it their business to guide you toward a healing path and not settle for any less.

"I worry that I may have been molested by my uncle as a small child..."

Small children (or anyone for that matter) sometimes block out difficult memories as a defense mechanism against being overwhelmed by the pain. It is also possible to dream repeatedly about something we fear (even if it never happened), and then wonder if there is any substance to it. I have no way of knowing how real this vague memory is for you. Clearly, though, the anguish you feel over it now is yet another indication you are a wounded spirit and sexual abuse (the rape, and potentially your uncle) is a huge part of the cause.

"What can I do to connect my inner mindset with my outer self?"

I'll tell you where I believe you need to get to, and offer a few suggestions as to how you might accomplish that.

Your feelings of self-worth are close to rock bottom. One of the terrible consequences of rape and other forms of sexual abuse is that they objectify the victim. "I must not be worth much," your inner mind comes to believe, "since all I was to him was something he could use to satisfy his urges. My feelings, my needs, my worth -- all of this meant less than his fleeting sexual want, which means I am way down there on the worthless scale." You fear it could happen again, that plenty of other men have the predilection and power to do this to you. You feel powerless to protect yourself. Powerless translates to weak, and weakness to low self-worth.

So you try to compensate in other ways in an effort to feel better about yourself. You work hard in school, you get a good job and become an over-achiever. Inside, though, the same feelings persist.

Now along comes a romantic interest. Things progress and you start to open up to each other. "DANGER!" your inner mind yells. "I can't let him see the real me, because I know it won't be good enough for him. I'm not worthy, not really. If I let myself go during sex, if I throw caution to the wind and lower my inhibitions, then I will be out of control, and I never ever let myself get out of control. That would mean opening myself to the potential for more hurt, and I just can't take any more of that." So the result is: "I will get so far with someone and then start to cry or shake or get scared."

You need to regain your sense of self. You need to re-discover what you knew intuitively as a small girl -- that you are already worthy of love and closeness and respect, just the way you are. Before life's big and little knocks took their toll on you, back when you were a complete innocent, you floated happily through your days with faith that life was a good place to be and that you deserved your place in it as much as anyone on the planet.

The rape stole a huge chunk of that away from you. Other events and life circumstances took even more, such as your uncle or your friends' reaction when you reached out for help.

Some way, somehow, you need to regain that faith.

Secondly, you have to take the power over yourself back from your rapist. Here is a huge clue:

"No amount of I'm sorry can give back what he took from me."

You're absolutely right. He can't give you back anything. You have to claim it for yourself.

I suspect right now you believe you have no choice. "The rape happened and as a consequence I feel terrible. I can't change the past, so I can't change the consequences."

That belief is completely understandable ... and completely wrong.

At some point you need to make a decision for yourself. You need to decide that you are sick and tired of continuing to give that guy power over your life. Since you were fourteen you have defined yourself as a victim. You need to say, "I don't want to be a victim anymore. I choose to begin the process of changing that."

This is not about getting anything from him, because he hasn't got anything you want. Like you said, his apologies are not enough. What you need must come from yourself. You need to give yourself permission.

Permission to stop defining yourself by how much you hate him, by how much you want him to hurt, by your wish that you could hurt him as much as he hurt you ...

Permission to stop defining yourself based on him.

He needs to be gone from your life and he won't be until you let go of him. He's like a bloodsucker who has been attached to your side since you were fourteen. You need to grab hold of him, yank him off and throw him away.

You need to start defining yourself based on YOU, not on him.

But you can't because you're still angry at him, you still hate him, you still resent like hell what he did to you, so he still has this power over you, he defines who you have become, because...

...because you have never forgiven him.

Are you still there? I know that's a tough one to hear, but stick with me now, we're almost there.

I have seen it happen and I have seen it work. I have seen rape victims regain there happiness and libido by doing exactly that. You don't forgive someone else as a gift to them; you do it as a gift to yourself. It is the only way you will ever be able to let go of all that hurt and rage, the only way you will be able to look at yourself and say, "You know what? I'm a good person."

Those are two tough goals for someone in your position: (1) work to regain your self-worth and (2) cast off your victim role by forgiving your rapist.

I wouldn't be surprised if your immediate reaction to these suggestions is negative. Forgiving him is probably the last thing you feel like doing and I don't blame you. But that would be about, "Why should I do that for him?" Hopefully at some point you will be ready to ask the more pertinent question: "Why should I do that for myself?"

Identifying an effective path to accomplishing these goals is also tough. Despite your past experiences with ineffective counseling, I believe most people in your position would benefit from the help of a results-oriented professional. The chances of you being able to work through this alone are much less than they would be with help. While it may be a financial burden, ask yourself: What if it worked? What would that be worth?

You might try the letter writing exercise I mentioned in my earlier questions to you. Write a letter to your rapist, which you need never show to anyone -- this is an exercise for yourself. Tell him about your pain, what he has done to you. Get it all off your chest. Put it away for a few days, then get it out and write another letter. Write the response you would most like to hear from him, keeping in mind my suggestion of forgiveness as the only way you will ever regain your power and peace. Put that away for a couple of days, then write a final letter to him, closing the conversation with him forever. This can be an effective way to gain closure with someone you don't want to contact.

You can also contact the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE. They may be able to direct you to free, confidential counseling with someone who is trained in helping with exactly the issues facing you.

You are worthy of being loved, just the way you are. Have patience with yourself and hopefully you can find a path to regaining some of that lost faith.

All the best,


  1. Oh Andrew,
    What a beautiful, thoughful, wise and healing response.
    You always seem to know exactly what to say that will offer insight and healing.
    Taking everything so specifically like you do, answering each issue brought up with compassion and intelligence, is also so vital. Not many people do that, and because you do, it feels like each thing brought up is no a window opened to hope...
    You do so much good here on your blog.
    Thank you for the gifts you give with your words.
    I haven't been through what the girl/woman above has -- and yet so much of what you said is useful to my life as well...

  2. thanks doc - great words

    and as a woman who has been in this situation -- i can tell your reader that she should not give-up just because of one or two bad experiences with a therapist. it took me 5 years to finally find one who worked for me...and i stayed with her for another 10...we worked thru so many of the issues you brought up to her including the forgiving part -- but she must understand -- when she finally gets to that point of forgiving him -- life just gets so much better -- it's like a weight has been taken off my shoulders!

  3. Thomas Matthews1:49 PM

    My heart goes out to this woman and my professional enthusiasm is roused. In my coaching I work with many women who are rape, molestation and incest survivors. How often they tend to be competent, drive, focused women who will allow nothing to stand in their way. High achievers are generally overcompensating for some experience that needs to be conquered. So often the need to quiet the inner voice that belittles the heart is done so with achievement and the material. Unfortunately, this only works for a while and life finally demands resolution. By doing exactly what Andrew suggested the hardest part of the process is complete. She must forgive her rapist. In no way am I intending to diminish her experience, but date rape, especially at that age, is often a crime of awkward youth and the perpetrators rarely grow up to be sexual predators. In fact, most men I coach who were guilty of this often suffer with profound guilt and the experience limits their life as well. Forgiveness must be the priority and the elimination of poor self-worth through self-definition imperative. Examining the experience and recognizing the positive growth that developed as a result can turn victimization the profound strength. We must embrace our positive emotional core and stop defining ourselves by our negative past. I too am a survivor of many forms of abuse and I was unable to find spiritual enlightenment and happiness until I abandoned the self-limiting belief and embraced how I could positively affect the world.
    Thomas Matthews

  4. Andrew,
    You are truly gifted. You provided a wonderful response to this person. Thank-you for all the lessons which you share.

  5. Andrew, I believe it would be very helpful to the rape survivor if you would define the word 'forgive' in very specific terms. The word has been carelessly bandied about to the point where its meaning has become extremely ambiguous. Depending on the frame of reference of the survivor, the advice to forgive (without definition) might be meaningless or even unhealthy, depending on the survivor's own definition. As a rape survivor myself, I can tell you that it is easy for things, even such things as 'universally (mis)understood' words, to lose their definitions in the aftermath of such an annihilistic attack on the cohesion of the self. Some people think forgiveness means to pardon the person who has done wrong. With this definition, the survivor would have to say, "It's okay. I won't hold it against you. Let's just let bygones be bygones. I forgive you." Then, next time the survivor starts crying in the middle of sex, she will wonder what is wrong with her. After all, she has forgiven and should be healed. This would only make her feel more guilty and worthless.

  6. Wow! This was a very hard one. You answered wisely.

  7. Anonymous1:07 PM

    I agree with Lynn. The concept of forgiveness is often misconstrued. To forgive is not to condone, or accept or validate. To forgive is to release yourself from bondage. I grew up in a very abusive home and it was not until I forgave my parents for who they inherently were, was I able to stop defining myself as an “abuse survivor.” Instead I was able to finally declare that I am a writer, and artist, a teacher, a husband, a father and a good man…I also happen to be an abuse survivor and I use that label only as a way to help others who had the same experience. What I came to realize is the physical, sexual and emotional abuse I lived through was not about me, but my abusers. When I realized this I was able to heal. I pray this woman has the same realization. Beside, the boy apologized, was remorseful and wanted her to know he was sorry for what happened. For her to want him to die and go to hell after all this time shows me she needs to realize that was then and this is now. Now can be wonderful, I know because now my life is blessed. I still feel the sting of the past every once n a while, when I do, I call someone less fortunate and share my compassion. It frees me.

  8. Hello, Andrew. I read the comment left by Anonymous, which was very courgeous. He said, "To forgive is to release yourself from bondage." I rejoice for the well-deserved peace that anonymous has found. To be released from the bondage is ultimately what rape and abuse survivors want. Anonymous then said that it was not until he FORGAVE his parents that he was able to stop defining himself as an abuse survivor. By the definition he previously supplied(to release ONE'S SELF from bondage), it would not have been possible to "forgive" another person. This is what I mean when I say that this word is so ambiguous as to have lost its definite meaning entirely and has instead become an abstract concept open to interpretation not merely by each individual, but even with each usage of the word! If you like you can read the comments of this post
    to see the what the various commenters had to say on the topic of forgiveness and you will see what I mean. I hate to even use the word, but if I may say, sometimes people rush to "forgiveness" to spare themselves the grief of having to truly confront what was done to them. For me, this premature, fake "forgiveness" did not work. I grabbed onto it anyway, because forgiveness is supposed to make it all just go away. Who wouldn't want that?

    I don't have the answers. I can't give advice, I'm currently working on my recovery and sometimes I'm a trainwreck and I'm well aware of it. For me, I have realized very recently that I can no longer minimize what has happened, and no apology from any perpetrator would end the suffering. That's just magical thinking. I was beaten, neglected, tormented AND raped and I'm angry about it. I'm not in a 'forgiving' mood. I'm furious and I make no apologies for it. Funny, when I allow myself to be angry, I feel some things starting to move.

    Perhaps, forgiveness, as defined by Anonymous, "to release yourself from bondage", is not the method of healing, but the result.

    It's very kind and compassionate of you, Andrew, to take on the topics that cause human suffering.