Friday, December 8, 2023

Unexpected Fear

 “I’m so terribly nervous I can’t stand myself,” Kaleigh begins wringing her hands, jiggling her right foot. “I thought I was going to be so excited about going back to Chicago after my first semester at school. But I’m not! I’m suddenly terrified of flying. I was never afraid of flying before. Maybe it’s because of the Israeli-Palestinian war and I’m afraid of terrorism, like of my plane being shot down. I don’t know.”

“Are you afraid of your plane being shot down?” I ask.

“I don’t know. It sounds ridiculous. But there was 9/11. Of course I wasn’t even born then, but still… It feels like anything can happen.”

“Anything can happen, but it is interesting to wonder why you suddenly developed a fear you never had before. Do you feel especially frightened because you’re Jewish?”

“I asked myself that. I guess someone could bomb the plane because they thought there’d be lots of Jews on it, but it’s not like I think someone’s specifically coming to get me because I’m Jewish.”

“Any other thoughts come to mind?”

“I just had a flash of my older sister. She’s not supposed to be there this holiday… But what if she is? That would be pretty scary.” Pause. “Oh God! It would be so terrible if she’s there. She ruins everything. She ruined my whole childhood! She ruined my family,” Kaleigh says crying. Pause. “I’m pretty sure my father told her not to come. But that doesn’t mean she won’t. And then everything would be ruined! All there would be is screaming and more screaming and tantrums and threats!! I can’t stand it.” Pause. “Do you think that’s why I developed a fear of flying? Like maybe I really don’t want to go home. Like maybe I’m afraid of what’s waiting for me.”

“Have you asked your parents if she’ll be there.”

“No, I haven’t. I feel scared about that too. Scared there will be this big scene about my even asking.”


“My mother will immediately get mad at me for being so afraid of my sister. And she’ll be mad that I might bring up the abuse again. She’s never believed me about the sexual abuse. She knows my sister used to beat the shit out of me, but she always dismissed the sexual abuse as two kids just playing around,” Kaleigh says crying. “I don’t know what’s more painful, the abuse or my mother just dismissing it. No, that’s not true. The sexual abuse was way more painful. I haven’t even told you all of it.” 

“Maybe it would be helpful if you did,” I say gently.

“She used to take things, mostly sticks, sometimes a vase or whatever else she found around and put it inside me. A few times she even threatened to use a knife, but she never did.” Pause. “Usually she put it in… in my vagina, but sometimes she’d put it in the other place. That really hurt,” she says crying.

“That’s so awful Kaleigh. I’m so sorry you had to endure that, it sounds like torture. No wonder you’re scared to go home. And I’m so sorry your mother doesn’t believe you. What your sister did is certainly not just ‘playing doctor.’ What about your Dad?”

“I’m so glad you believe me! I was afraid you wouldn’t. Afraid you’d think I was just making it up.”

“Of course I believe you Kaleigh. I can’t imagine why you’d want to make up something like that.”

“I’m so ashamed of it. I even lied to my boyfriend and said I’d had sex with one guy before him. It was better than telling him about what my sister did to me!”

“Shame is a very common in sexual abuse victims, but that doesn’t mean you have anything to be ashamed of. You were the victim. She was bigger and stronger and abused you.”

“I know. But that’s not how I feel.”

“I understand. And we’ll have lots of time to deal with those feelings. I notice you didn’t say anything about your Dad.”

“I’m pretty sure he believes me, but he’s not about to argue with my mother. It was hard enough for him to tell my sister that she wasn’t welcome in their house anymore after she hit him and trashed the entire living room.”

“I am so sorry, Kaleigh. Are you sure you do want to go home? Or maybe there’s someplace you can go where you can feel safe if your sister is there?”

“I can’t imagine announcing that I’m leaving to stay with Brad or even with one of my girlfriends. That would create an uproar in itself.”

“I know we don’t have time to discuss this further today, but we do need to work on you’re not being so afraid of your fear that you’re willing to sacrifice yourself. Obviously you have good reason to be afraid, but you do need to first and foremost take care of yourself.”


Sylvia Flescher said...

Linda, this is a compelling vignette, illustrating the long-term effect of sexual abuse, the shame carried by the victim and the need for the therapist not to remain “neutral” in the face of trauma. Well done.

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

Thanks, Sylvia, I appreciate your comment.