He was a nice-looking young man, married, with warm brown eyes that always looked down, as if afraid meeting someone’s gaze would let them in to a place where he didn’t want to go.
His needs were simple – to explore grief-related issues regarding the recent death of his father-in-law. But in therapy, as in most things in life, those simple things can become complex fairly quickly, whether we want them to or not.
Almost 2 months into our sessions together, J had a major disagreement with his wife, during which he revealed to her that someone had sexually abused him as a child for almost 8 years.
Though this rape by his stepbrother occurred nightly, no one in the house was aware of it. If they were, it was neither acknowledged nor stopped.
While J described his rape at the hands of his abuser, I was bereft of words. The details were horrific. The most heart-wrenching part for me was to see the little boy J in the adult J’s eyes; to see the anguish, pain, bewilderment and betrayal that cried out from those many years ago. In my presence, for the first time in his life, J shared the details of that loss of innocence. He bared his soul. The little boy’s eyes beseeched me to understand, and to not betray or judge him. The hurt in his eyes mirrored what I felt he must see in my own.
Suddenly, I felt a single tear trace its way slowly down my cheek as I listened to J’s story. With that, my soul embraced his and wept. J told me later that my single tear meant more to him than anything I could have said at that moment. It validated him as worthwhile, and it told him, without words, that I walked with him in his pain.
Inside the grown man who had to sleep with the lights on and the bedroom door open, who could barely touch his wife without remembering another kind of touch from his stepbrother, who felt safer in downtown Baltimore than inside his own home, was the little boy who wanted desperately to love and trust and be loved, but felt compelled to withhold himself to be safe.
As a wife and mother, I saw J as a little boy who was ashamed and embarrassed by what had happened to him, who felt responsible for allowing the abuse, and who still struggled with the fact that no one had protected him.
In listening to J’s story, I heard about the desecration of one person’s dignity; yet, I was also witness to the strength, resilience and courage of a little boy. J’s spirit could not be broken. His soul, the very essence of who he was, thrived. I was determined to fan the flickering flame of J’s spirit until it was a bonfire.
As a psychotherapist, I saw that the abuse and its secrecy brought with it shame, low self-esteem, sexual dysfunction, depression, guilt, and PTSD. Where to begin with a man who was stuck developmentally at about 8 years old?
After working with several behavioral modification techniques and guided imagery, I asked J if he had any neighbors or relatives who were about 8 years old. With a picture of a nephew in J’s mind, I asked him to compare the little boy to J’s abuser in size (the perpetrator had been large for his age). I quietly asked if a boy the size of his nephew could have overpowered J’s abuser. Awareness dawned in J’s eyes; it had not been a fair fight,, and there was nothing that any little boy could have done to overpower his attacker. In that moment, J began to forgive himself for not stopping the abuse.
Further into J’s therapy, I suggested that he write a letter to his mother, who had never acknowledged the abuse. J continually struggled with their relationship, and whether or not to have his mother as an influence in his daughter’s life. The relationship was adversarial at best, with only limited communication. The letter writing was for healing, rather than toward the eventual mailing of the letter.
It took several weeks, but at the end of a session, as he made to leave, J put a few handwritten pages face down on the desk. When I read it privately, I cried. J told his mother exactly what happened for all those years; how all he ever wanted was her love and protection. He explained how he realized that he wasn’t responsible for the abuse, and that he was not a bad person. Instead, he was a human being with value who deserved to be loved. J pledged that he would spend the rest of his life protecting his daughter from harm, and becoming a better man. What happened to him would never, ever happen to her.
J’s story does not end here; his recovery would be a complex process. He never mailed the letter, but eventually told his mother all about the abuse during a heated phone call. She responded by denying such a thing happened, and called him a liar. While J hoped that his revelation would finally give him a loving, compassionate mother, he was not surprised by her reaction.
The breakthrough, however, was in J.
The little boy’s voice had finally been heard, and in the release of his secret, his heart was opened to healing. J’s journey was long, with more work and more struggles as he integrated this new J into his marriage. Yet it now included hope for the future. The man could finally forgive, love, and accept the little boy.
The shadows in dark rooms no longer held a threat; J’s eyes saw them flooded with brightness.
My heart saw a little boy at last grown into a man.
Seeing with the eyes of the heart…