In the Beginning

In order to understand the nature and flowing references throughout my blog, I recommend reading my initial post The End of the Beginning first.


The Theatre

Memory repression is a condition in which details of an event are consciously blocked due to high levels of stress or trauma. Survivors of abuse and those who exhibit symptoms of PTSD commonly experience memory problems and sometimes even have damage in the hippocampus, the area in the brain responsible for memory storage and converting short- to long-term memory. Physical manifestations of repressed memories can show up as irritability, trouble sleeping, emotional numbness, and exaggerated response to surprises or trigger events that conjure trauma remembrance.

Even when memory is repressed by the conscious brain, experts believe that body memory can help recover hidden psychological memories and details. Through therapy, these details can be collected and reprocessed, thereby freeing the rememberer from seemingly inexplicable physical and emotional suffering triggered by reliving subconscious trauma. There is often a memory sliver - a breadcrumb so to speak - that can help elicit and open the door to full remembrance of traumatic events. For me, that sliver was The Theatre.

I always knew something bad happened in The Theatre. Nary a moment did I suspect invalidity of this occurrence though I did not have conscious details of how far it went. I had vivid contextual memory - who I was with, my relative age, transportation to and from, seating arrangement, body position, the fact that we visited the toy store afterward so he could buy my silence, but most importantly the moment when the touching became "not ok." I had no detail beyond that. What I have learned through the course of therapy is that the reason I had no detailed conscious memory is because this is the moment I left my body.

I remember making myself sit perfectly still, thinking that if I were compliant then it would be over faster. I convinced myself that if I could somehow turn into a stone statue then it would be better because stone statues don't feel. And if I didn't feel it, then it wasn't really happened. I was playing a lot of Super Mario Bros. 3 at the time and used the visual of Tanooki's stone statue which Raccoon Mario can turn into at will after he grabs a feather. I remembered this, but what I didn't know was all of the definable steps leading up to the stone statue nor how they related to my dissociation stages.

In the face of trauma, the human mind-body has three possible responses: fight, flight, or freeze. I chose the latter. In fact that is what most children who are being sexually abused do, because there is seemingly no other choice. We are small with little or no strength to fight; he was a 40+ year old man, how could I possibly ward him off? We are reliant upon the care of others; if I fled, where would I go? We are taught to respect authority and obey adults, which too often results in the inability to say no even when we know something is wrong. We are also taught shame from a very early age, which I would soon discover was a significant contributor to my frozen state.

It took me a long time to tell Dee about The Theatre. Seven therapists in 13 years and I had never breathed a word of this to any of them. I never felt comfortable and, quite ironically, I never thought it was relevant. Or perhaps I hoped it wasn't. In some ways the knowledge of this sliver was like a fly buzzing around my therapy sessions. I knew it was there, its appearance and persistence annoyed me at times, but I was able to shoo it away enough to focus on what I considered the real reason I was in the office. (I elaborate on the irony and subconscious functionality of using the masking event of my sick mother to hide the true root cause of my trauma in a later post called Goodbye Panda.)

It wasn't until after the appearance of the Black Oil that it became glaringly apparent something was lurking beneath, a dark demon of shame that was bigger than the problems with my schizophrenic-abandoning mother. Dee and I spent many EMDR sessions focusing on the Black Oil; sometimes I was able to look at it but most of the time it simply forced me out of my body. Those sessions exhausted and depleted me. I lived a hazy existence for weeks, barely functioning at work and in a near zombie-like state around my family during Christmas 2012.

The ASCA Survivor to Thriver Manual lists a series of general steps in the healing journey from child abuse; step two is Acknowledgement. On January 2, 2013 I finally acknowledged that I was sexually abused. During many months of therapy with Dee, she inquired no less than three times about the possibility of abuse during my childhood. Each of her inquiries would produce a dreamlike state wherein I could not form a coherent response. It was as if my lips were buttoned and no words would come out. All I could say is that I had gaps in my memory, that I had an inkling that something happened in a movie theatre, but I wasn't sure if it was real and it made me feel crazy to think about, much less talk about it.

After Dee's third inquiry (which came at the end of a session - ding, ding, time is up!) I went home in an out-of-body state. I trusted her and was ready to talk about it, even if it led to nothing significant. Even if it had no bearing on our work related to schizophrenic-abandoning mother. I had never written about this topic in 25 years, though I have dozens of journals documenting my personal growth. I could not bear to see this story in my own hand writing. And so I typed it out as a draft email with no intended recipient.

The next week on my way to see Dee I had sufficient resolve to share my story. Except I also had an incredible amount of "body stuff"... headaches, nausea, and heavy arms which made it difficult to drive. I even passed her office though I had been there at least 20 times. My mind-body did not want reveal. I had also been doing a lot of fingernail stabbing that week. This is one of my methods of self-injury. I shove my fingernails so far up inside the thumbnail on each hand that they bleed. The pain is satiating in a strange way such that it grounds me and almost feels good, and I have done this for decades in moments of stress. (I write more about my other tendencies for self-injury in a later post called Puzzle Pieces.)

I had been stabbing so much the week leading up to my session with Dee that squeezing a lemon in my Perrier brought me to tears. After talking with Dee, I now know that children are most likely coaxed and/or threatened to keep the abuse secret in ways that get planted in their psyche so deep that they don't even realize it. Likely this stabbing behavior was a way to secretly and subconsciously punish myself for what I was getting ready to do: violate my promise to him that I would never tell.

And so I told her. I think Dee knew for many months that this is where my therapy was headed. She is incredibly insightful and also infinitely gentle; she was patient until I was ready to reveal but in her own way let me know that she also saw the buzzing fly in the room. We later discussed the fact that my symptoms - these dissociative tendencies - are not something that would likely blossom from moments of abandonment, which can be deeply traumatic but not in the freeze variety; nor was this a response to attempts of suicide, which calls for action not a frozen state. It turns out childhood sexual abuse is one of Dee's areas of specialty; I did not know that when I sought her out but the universe did. She had much experience in the arena of dissociation and even shared stories with me (anonymously, of course) about some of her other patients' tendencies and the kinds of modalities they used in therapy sessions to uncover truth and release pain. I was ready to do both.

We began to use The Theatre as our trigger event for EMDR. Progress did not take long. At first I was not able to be "in" the theatre seat for it was much too painful. And so we constructed a visual exercise where I would pull up a comfy brown beanbag in the favorite room of my house and I would surround myself with trusted supporters so that we could watch the "movie" of my trigger event together. It was unsettlingly ironic that we were watching a movie of me watching a movie; it reminded me of the surreal dual reality in Being John Malkovich where people experience life through the eyes and body of another person. Using this technique I could observe and talk about The Theatre as if it were happening to or through someone else.

I had been studying and practicing tonglen, a Buddhist meditation technique, with Em for many weeks. Part of tonglen is gathering the image of people who are loving and supportive to help guide your efforts and energy throughout the practice. Like many meditative exercises, I did not consciously choose the visions and people who came to me; it is inner wisdom that presents exactly what is needed. In my case the figure of Christ is behind my right shoulder, St. Francis is on my left, and standing behind me are my two spiritual teachers Gyandev and Diksha who reside at an ashram in California that I have frequented in my yoga study.

At first when constructing the comfort zone from which to view The Theatre for EMDR, all 4 of my supporters joined me. But when we turned on the movie of my movie, I had to ask Gyandev and Diksha to leave. I was overwhelmed with the shame of what we were getting ready to observe and I could not bear for them to see it. It was ok for Jesus and St. Francis to stay because they weren't "real people" and henceforth it was always just the three of us.

I could write many details about what I know now about The Theatre and the variety of healing techniques Dee and I used to integrate this event. There are three things that are most mentionable here: the connection of The Theatre to the steps of my dissociative process, the arduous work and my body's response to repeated reprocessing of this event, and the ways in which I have been freed from the trauma through EMDR.

Through EMDR I came to understand that the details of this event are specifically and intentionally linked to each step in my dissociative process as witnessed by The Watcher in Israel's Key. It goes like this:

  • At the moment of "touching not ok" my ears are flooded with the sound of my heart beating in sheer terror and panic. The throbbing is so loud that it deafens me to the point where I can no longer hear anything else.
  • I become the stone statue so as not to feel the monster touching me. This survival mechanism allows me to pretend it isn't happening, but it also produces a sensation of extreme heaviness (stone is rather weighty, after all) and so first my arms and then my chest feel like lead.
  • I am so ashamed of what he is doing to me. There are people in The Theatre around us and I am terrified that someone will see. I realize that if I am not careful, I will let loose a whimper or some sound of distress that might call attention to this horrid situation. And so I stop breathing so that I won't cry or make a sound. Please God, don't let anyone hear or see.
The set where I had this last revelation nearly did me in. In the EMDR state of dreamlike knowing and reliving, my body put up a tremendous fight. I gagged to the point that I felt certain I would vomit all over Dee's lovely green couch. This would happen several times over the course of the next few months but I am happy to report that I never actually threw up. (I share more on the subject of my body's keen use of nausea and vomiting as a coping mechanism for trying to "rid" myself of these demons in a post titled On Shame.) I shook, I cried, I held my breath, I curled up in a ball. I regressed to a childlike state of frozen terror. It was one of the most awful things I have ever experienced. I say 'one of' because there would be many more moments like this to come for it is a necessary part of the reprocessing and desensitization process. In all honesty, it is hell on Earth.

Gradually I was able to "sit" in The Theatre instead of watching the movie of it. I was able to relive, re-experience, remember, reprocess and then make peace with this trigger event. Once we peeled back the layers of this trauma onion I was also able to recover a great deal of detail about the scene - peripheral vision, position of people around me, what I was wearing, and the movie(s) that were playing because, as it turns out, this happened more than once. It took a tremendous amount of work and effort but it was both necessary and worth it. 

A wonderfully healing facet of EMDR is that through diligent practice, the survivor is able to change the trauma memory into something more comfortable, palatable, livable. It is through this event molding process that the survivor becomes empowered, protected, and safe. For me this happened when I was finally able to visualize my adult self - Big Me - coming into The Theatre, kicking my abuser out of his seat, sitting down with Little Me and covering her up with a blanket (so as to be safe, warm, protected from harmful touching) while we proceeded to watch the movie together complete with popcorn and Twizzlers. This initial introduction of Big Me and Little Me would become a powerful healing tool that Dee and I would call upon again and again in the months to come.

Similar to my EMDR success with mother's suicide attempts, I am now able to talk about The Theatre without mind-body trauma symptoms. Well, almost. I am still haunted by the truth of this memory and I grieve its occurrence, but I am able to acknowledge and speak about it without being overcome by it. This process took many weeks, some with 2 long EMDR sessions and emergency phone calls in between to help me get a grip. During this time I was still traveling for work and wearing the face of success, which felt a lot more like a heavy shield. Life. Was. Exhausting. But all of this was critical for my healing journey. Though I did not know it at the time, unraveling The Theatre was only the beginning of recovering full memory of the abuse I suffered. A breadcrumb indeed.

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