Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Andrea again calls me from home.

“I’m sorry,” she says, her voice hardly above a whisper. “I know I said I’d try to come today but I can’t. I can hardly get myself out of bed. I can’t leave the house. I keep calling in sick to work. I hope I don’t get fired. I just can’t function. I’m so scared,” she adds crying. 

Those of you who follow my blog will have met Andrea a few weeks ago, the woman who had been sexually abused by her father and felt herself more endangered after the Boston Marathon bombings. And now there’s the case in Cleveland, the shocking imprisonment for over ten years of three young women who were finally able to escape. 

“It’s all right, Andrea,” I say gently. “I understand. You know I always say that you can only do what you can do. We’ll do whatever we need to do to help you through this.”

“I don’t think I will get through this. I’m back there. I’m back in that horrible house. I keep seeing those disgusting green walls. And the closet. I’m locked in that closet. I feel like huddling in a corner, folded over on  myself, just like I was as a child, hoping that he’d leave me alone, but not wanting to be left in that closet for hours or days at a time. So did I wish he’d come back? That’s disgusting. I’m disgusting.”

“I bet you don’t think those three women are disgusting, Andrea.”

“No, of course not, they’re heroes. I don’t know how they endured for all those years. And that child! That child has never seen the outside world. That seems impossible to take in!”

“Notice how caring and compassionate you are towards those women and the child,” I say. “I wish you were able to have even a tiny bit of that compassion for yourself.” 

“It’s not the same.”

“In what way isn’t it the same, Andrea?” 

“They were imprisoned. They had no choice. I could have told. Why didn’t I tell?’ she asks plaintively, crying. “Why didn’t I run away?”

Although Andrea and I have covered this ground many times, her self-loathing and need to blame herself remains very difficult to change. To emotionally accept that she was an abused, helpless, dependent child without any options, is to accept her total vulnerability. And as awful as the guilt and self-hatred is, it is preferable to feeling completely powerless.

“You were a child, Andrea. And he was your father. There was no place for you to go. These women are adults now and they all went back to the embrace of their families. I’m not minimizing the horror of their story in any way. But I don’t want you to minimize the horror of yours either. You were as helpless and powerless as they were.”

“But that doesn’t make me feel better!” Andrea wails. 

“I understand that Andrea. I understand that hating yourself, thinking you could have done something, anything, in many ways feels better than experiencing your total helpless. But, and this is an important but, you’re no longer that helpless child. You’re a competent, capable adult. It doesn’t mean bad things can’t happen, but today you have many more options than you had as a child.”

“But why didn’t I tell?”

“Because you were afraid, because you were ashamed, because you didn’t know what would happen if you told.” Suddenly I have a thought. “I wonder Andrea, if in addition to these women’s story making you more frightened, whether it also made you even madder at yourself for not figuring out a way to tell. Here you see how supportive and welcoming and thrilled complete strangers are of these women and I wonder if that made you almost envious, like you’re still in hiding and no one ever got to applaud you.”

Andrea mumbles something on the other end of the phone.

“I’m sorry, Andrea, I didn’t hear you.”

“I said you’re right. I found myself almost wishing I were those women. And then I got furious at myself for that thought. Disgusting! How could I want to be them? What’s wrong with me? I must be sick, sick, sick.”   

“I think it makes complete sense, Andrea. So maybe you should try to stop beating up on you. And maybe, just maybe that might help you to feel less scared, like the person you’re really scared of these days is you.”


Unknown said...

It's so sad to think about the abuse that people like Andrea have faced. It's helpful to consider how current events can affect our patients, and of course us.

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

Good point, John, about it also affecting us.