I have just finished reading your book and felt compelled to write to you, as i'm sure many others have. I am 28 years old, living in Atlanta, Georgia, and am currently in my second year of a psychiatry residency, with plans of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the next few years. As you can appreciate, the subject of sexual abuse amongst my patients is all too prevalent. Because of this, I felt that during medical school, i needed to confront my own experience of incest by my father from the ages of about 8-13.
I had sworn to myself that i would never tell anyone about this secret but as i progressed through medicine, i felt that i couldn't be completely honest if i didn't attempt to deal with this. I had a very dear male friend during this time that i felt completely safe in telling and it made it okay to tell. I then went on to tell my doctor and counsellor and a huge weight began to lift. However, confronting this issue also comes with consequences. I had suffered from a major depressive episode a year previous, and this new stressor precipitated another episode. I was very lucky to have wonderful health professionals and i spent some time in hospital (1 month) to regroup. I was also stubborn as hell not to let this interfere with completing med school and graduating with my class!
After telling my secret to those i trusted, namely my doctors and a few close friends, i wasn't ready to go any further in exploring it. I felt numb and amotional about it. And that was okay at that point. I had been a well adjusted child, i was a 'good teen', didn't get into drinking/drugs, was involved in sports and was good at school, but i was hanging on to secrets.
Since moving to a new city to start residency, i again thought about working on the abuse, tried briefly, and then stopped again. I lacked a support network in the city to lean on if i was going to do that work. I have a psychiatrist with whom i interact well with, does not pressure me and is there for me when i am willing.
What i struggle with the most, however, is that i don't hate my dad, even though intellectually i know i should. And this is one thing that i didn't see in the stories in your book. I should (i know, it's bad to use 'should' statements) hate him with all my guts. My dad and i got along so well when i was a child. I was an only child (my dad had three previous grown children). He was the fun one, the one who took me out on weekends, played sports with me, watched t.v. with me. Every summer, the two of us would go on a father-daughter vacation for 1-2 weeks and this is when the abuse occurred. Although thinking back, i was sexualized before this probably at home because my dad was very open, allowed me in the bathroom as he was getting out of shower, etc. While on these vacations, i remember my dad telling me he could teach me where to touch and it would feel good. He also asked me to touch his penis and rub it. He never attempted to penetrate me. At the age i was, i don't remember being really grossed out by it, rather, intrigued. I used to like to role play, and of course he would go along with it, and say things like i'm an adult woman. I don't even remember him telling me not to tell my mom, but i never would.
My parents were going through their own relationship difficulties and i'm sure my dad framed things like he wasn't getting this attention at home by mom so i was helping.
At around 12 or 13, i remember going away with dad and one night, lying in my own bed hearing him masterbate under the covers and i finally couldn't take it anymore. I remember going to the bathroom to shut out the noise. I was thoroughly disgusted and from that point on, was upset when i had to sleep in the same room with him. I was becoming much more private about my body and he did not attempt anything after this age.
At 13, my parents separated and my mom and I moved in with my grandfather. My mom didn't want to take the anger and money troubles of my dad anymore and i was happy that they were separating. I lived with my mom after that and visited my dad when i wanted, usually weekend - it was an open custody, no lawyers involved. He never tried anything when i was with him, but continued to masterbate and have noisy dreams -we had to share his bed initially.
Those first few years of divorce were rocky, as i was the pig in the middle, and slowly i grew up, he moved away so i didn't see him as much. When i did see him though, we would have a good time. We didn't talk about anything deep, but he was the board game player, or the guy to watch the baseball game with. He was also NOT an alcoholic like my mother was.
So, this is where i come to my struggle. My mom has been an alcoholic for many years, except the two years around the separation where she wisened up. I have been the emotional punching bag for those years, i have been the adult. I know my mother loves me deeply, i am her world (she never worked) but I have recently come to the conclusion that i can't change her and i don't have to accept her behavior. There is still alot of anger right under the surface, as she continues to disrupt my life. How can i hate my mother more than my dad, after what he did to me??? I don't blame my mom for what my dad did, those were his actions, i don't blame her for not knowing, as i never told her. I also came to the conclusion that i would never tell her, as she couldn't handle it emotionally and it would just turn back to me to take care of two of us.
My dad is 86 now, he's 20 years older than my mom. He's always been a young-older person, still lives independently, has all faculties. This last year, he has fought off esophageal cancer, that is not cured but holding, he's finally though starting to look old. I don't know how much longer he'll be around and that troubles me. I've never confronted him about the abuse, and i was relieved to read in your book that this is often not necessary.
I've worked hard during my young life to get where i am today. I also have muscular dystrophy which has presented it's own challenges and honestly don't feel like the abuse 'scared me' growing up. It has however left some confusing emotions and questions about myself as to why it's not bothering me more?
Do you have any words of experience? Should i talk about the abuse more with my doctor — i'm scared i'm going to make it more of an issue than it deserve to be in my life? Do you have other survivors who don't hate their perpetrator? Families are such a complicated web!
Thank you for providing this forum for open discussion on sexual abuse. And for listening. I've said more in this letter than i've ever said out loud.
Dr. Patti responds:
Your letter made me cry.... there is so much there. You are so brave and competent. You are so articulate and "clear" in your assessment. But I still can see layers of your feelings that are coming untangled. Just take your time with it all. As you say families are very complicated and so are feelings in an incest survivor. I am glad you have "said" out loud what happened with your father in this letter. I know that is quite difficult, but necessary in order to expel it.
I can read between the lines that you have always been the good girl and the adultified one in your family. Of course some incest survivors don't hate their abusers, and they do hate their mothers for being incompetent which your mother sounds like. The truth is what he did to you is unconscionable. If my math is correct you were about 10 when he was in his late 60's. Yuck, masturbating in the bed with you there... he is clearly demented. It is clear to me that he was paving the road to the abuse by not having boundaries in the household while you were growing up. I am not sure why you don't feel hatred toward your father, you certainly have reason to, but perhaps you still need the relationship. I can not tell you how many girls feel protective of their fathers because their mothers were so emotionally unavailable and at least their fathers paid some attention to them. I think you will find those emotions surface throughout many of the stories in "Invisible Girls". Your mother could not love you enough to stop drinking and your father could not love you enough not to molest you....
Do not worry about feeling anger for a while. It is not necessary to confront your father or to ever speak to him about the abuse if you do not want to. Confronting him will not help you heal. What will help you heal is to continue to speak about the abuse. Sounds like when you first confronted the abuse you went full force and ended up depressed and in the hospital. Take your time with this. It is really smart of you to deal now so that when you have clients who have abuse issues you can be helpful. Sort out your own feelings, this will be a journey that may take years, but clearly you are a survivor and you know how to use your brain and energies to get through life and succeed. It is quite wonderful that you are becoming a psychiatrist. I know that med school will keep you quite busy. It may be particularly helpful for you to use "Invisible Girls" in your therapy, it will also help to have your therapist read the book.
You are normal not to hate your father. I think if your mother were at all emotionally supportive and accessible you could feel more freedom to lose the "love" of your father. As I say in my book the most painful rejection is when a mother rejects her daughter. Your mother should have known, and you should have felt secure and supported enough to tell her. But clearly you knew you could not, it was not safe to tell her. You sound like you are well on your way to healing and facing some of your deep secrets. Please feel free to write to me again and let me know how you are doing. I am sure you will fight your MS as much as you are fighting your way through med school in light of any and all obstacles.
................................xoxo, Dr. Patti.