Escape from the Fog: How Therapy Changed My Life

standing in a field of flowers with mistIt took a long time before I finally decided to see a psychotherapist—and for reasons that are probably very common:

  • I wasn’t sure I had “issues” that warranted help. With nothing to measure against, how was I to know if my angst wasn’t exactly what everyone else felt?
  • I grew up hearing family members say people should be strong enough to handle problems on their own. Seeing a therapist or asking for help was a sign of weakness.
  • I had no idea what psychotherapy actually entailed. My biggest frame of reference was the film Ordinary People. I loved the therapy sessions depicted in the film, but surely the problems of the boy were far greater than my own.

It took a long time before I was able to acknowledge that my childhood had an effect upon my adult life. Again, with nothing to measure against, how was I to know? I took for granted that my self-doubt, low self-esteem, anxiety, irritability, and desire to be on my own were simply who I was. I didn’t even realize I kept people at a distance and shared nothing of myself because I had been that way all my life. It was simply my personality. I was an introvert. So what?

But thankfully, I began to piece together that negative patterns in my life were emerging and repeating. I recognized the depression I felt had begun in high school, continued and got stronger in college, and then became a recurrent theme in adulthood. After several failed relationships, the depression continued and grew intolerable. I had no idea my own self-imposed barriers against people were actually making things worse.

At 34, I knew something was wrong because I was drinking more, not less. I could see I had always pursued relationships that were destined to fail from the outset, and if they weren’t, I would sabotage them so they did. Through either cheating or losing interest in sex, we would simply drift apart and become friends. For me, the concept of intimacy was repellent.

I give myself credit for recognizing I was stuck, unhappy, and highly unlikely to improve on my own. I was concerned about costs, so I searched and managed to find a therapy organization with a sliding scale fee. I forced myself to the initial consultation meeting, and was caught off-guard when the therapist fairly quickly asked me about my childhood. What would that have to do with anything? I managed to tell her it wasn’t happy. I had snippets of foggy, bad memories.

Over the next two months, I dared to open up to her. I told her about my mother, who had beaten me over the course of six years. It wasn’t my mother’s fault, I explained, because she’d experienced much worse: her father had committed suicide. After a particularly difficult session, I broke down for the first time. I told the therapist about a horrible beating and the announcement from my mother that she hated me.

But I was very fearful, and that would be my last session. I returned the next week and told the therapist I couldn’t afford to come anymore. My finances were too tight. She said I was always welcome to come back, and she was proud of the progress I had made.

While my first attempt at therapy ended prematurely because I was still unable to face painful, buried memories, it proved to me that something mattered about my childhood. I’d hidden it away for a reason. There was something inside me, because I’d never cried like that before.

It took about another 10 years before I dared to try therapy again. By then I’d become a poster child for dysfunction: anonymous hook-ups, juggling sex with multiple partners, heavy binge drinking on weekends, and depression. Thankfully—again—I recognized my patterns were not going to stop without outside help. I had proven myself powerless to make changes on my own.

Searching the internet, I found GoodTherapy.org. I liked I could explore psychological topics, and could find a large, supportive community.

Searching the internet, I found GoodTherapy.org. I liked I could explore psychological topics, and could find a large, supportive community. I located a doctor near my home with a specialty in childhood trauma. Though I had no idea what trauma meant, I thought back to my first experimentation with therapy, and surmised a childhood focus would probably be what I needed.

I was very nervous on the first meeting, but the therapist put me at ease. I felt an immediate rapport with him. When prompted, I told him about the “childhood” part. I showed him a scar just below my right eyebrow. My mother had thrown me and I’d caught my face on the corner of a wooden bookshelf. I wanted to be worthy of his time and was afraid he might find my case frivolous and refuse to see me. At the end of the session, I asked him if he thought we would be a good fit, and he said, “Very much so.”

About two years later I began a book, Grandson of a Ghost, as a therapeutic exercise. I still had difficulty comprehending that my childhood impacted my life, and the book helped me see—literally, in black and white—the ramifications. Here is an excerpt, taken from the moment when I was able to articulate how the abuse poisoned my sense of self:

For Scott, it was now clear that with no one to talk to, and with no frame of reference—in isolation—he grew up fearful of people and had a low self-image. The low self-esteem as a child made the world a scary place. It was terrifying before and after a beating. He was helpless and lacked any shred of control. Everything was potentially dangerous and threatening, laced with a fear of getting in trouble. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of others discovering he was actually something awful. The secret had to be hidden so that no one would find out. It would interfere with learning, because of the amount of mental energy required to keep the secret. He daydreamed constantly, lost in a fog. It made sense. He was ashamed, because he misbehaved and always made his mother cry. He didn’t deserve love, because he was the horrible dark seed somehow planted within the family and disrupting it.

Generational abuse—abuse passed down from parents to children—is a widespread problem, and it impacted my family after the suicide of my grandfather. It’s a difficult topic, and I hope my book can help people.

Three and a half years later, I am still with my therapist. My life has been transformed. The fog has lifted. I’ve learned not to overreact to threats, both real and imagined. I’ve learned to question and quickly parse an alarm. I’ve learned my abuse did have lasting repercussions. I’ve also learned that love means something. It matters. And before working with my therapist, I was closed to it. Now I see connection to others as the key that sets me free.

Scott Depalma is the author of the forthcoming book, Grandson of a Ghost. He grew up in Vermont and fled to New York City when he turned 21, unsure of anything except the need to run and disappear. Scott hopes his story helps others recognize that abuse has a lasting impact, but also that a new perspective (a rebirth) filled with joy and connection is possible at any age.

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  • 12 comments
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  • Mildred

    Mildred

    September 12th, 2016 at 10:17 AM

    great analogy with the fog lifting
    that explains it almost perfectly

  • Ted

    Ted

    September 12th, 2016 at 2:28 PM

    The most unexpected things can at times be the things that totally tear you open and let the floodgates finally open up. You might not know it until much later but then you realize that aha, this was exactly what I needed to be able to break free from all of that hurt!

  • soul

    soul

    September 12th, 2016 at 4:52 PM

    If you are a child abuse victim, you get to have mixed feelings for your parents as an adult because you know that they fundamentally love you as unconditional care givers, but you still have the vivid memories no matter how old you become. The usual pattern is the culprits forget (or deny) but the victims remember having a life-long impact unconsciously. But as a grown up adult, you become reluctant to bring this uncomfortable issue up “unnecessarily” to your old frail parents. Once I did that on the phone her (we live in different countries now) her initial reaction was an absolute denial. But the next day it was a heartfelt crying asking for forgiveness. We both cried on the phone and it was one of the most painful moments of my life feeling that I made my old mom feel like a failed parent. So I still don’t know if i did the right thing, but it felt so good to have the acknowledgement and apology.
    I’m so looking forward to this book.

  • Scott

    Scott

    September 13th, 2016 at 4:54 AM

    It was very courageous of you to talk to your mother. I am happy it felt good. I’ve decided not to talk to my mother about the abuse because I feel it will undo any of the positive redirection I am attempting with our relationship. I am not asking for an apology, and she is not seeking forgiveness. But I want to offer her love to the best of my ability, because it is healing for both of us.

  • Hunter

    Hunter

    September 13th, 2016 at 10:15 AM

    It can be life altering in an amazingly uplifting way when you find yourself coming out of that fog that you feel like you have been living through for so many years.

  • Debbie

    Debbie

    September 13th, 2016 at 6:14 PM

    I was sexually abused. Fortunately I do not have a direct memory of the actual act. Suffice to say I have other memories that add up to that. I was quite young. I hope I never remember. I continue to work on feelings of helplessness. You give me hope. Thank you.

  • Amber

    Amber

    September 13th, 2016 at 9:31 PM

    I really hope you apologised to all the women who you hurt in previous relationships. I’ve just been dumped by someone just like you, and it hurts. I loved him so much. I stayed through the toughest times and copped his emotional and verbal abuse. It tore me down. Then almost 4 years into the relationship, and he breaks it off because he ‘fell out of love’ with me.
    Sorry to be a damper, but as the victim of that abuse, it hurts to no end, and it’s not fair that I had to cop it.

  • Scott

    Scott

    September 14th, 2016 at 3:20 PM

    I am very sorry you had to be on the receiving end of such a hurtful relationship. I’ve sent two people a PDF of my book as a means of offering a context and apology for my past behavior. It may not be enough, but perhaps shows I respect them enough to try.

  • Gracie

    Gracie

    September 14th, 2016 at 8:39 AM

    I am glad that you started piecing things together and finally realized that this is something that you would always need help putting back into their right places. Sadly there are so many people who never realize that they have been harmed and that they do need some help putting things back in all the right places, and so since they don’t see that there is something obviously missing in their lives they don’t take any kind of steps to remedy that.

  • Jules

    Jules

    September 15th, 2016 at 12:48 PM

    it’s a very grown up moment when you can openly admit that you need help and that you are committing to the therapeutic process to do just that.

  • Heather

    Heather

    September 18th, 2016 at 5:18 AM

    I tried for a year to find a supportive, caring, affordable , nonjudgemental therapist. Affordable was always an issue, therapists did’t like my insurance. Then we got differnt insurance, and they still didn’t like it. I no longer find it beleivable that so many people found good affordable therapy. Maybe some people have lower standards.

  • Nicole U.

    Nicole U.

    September 18th, 2016 at 5:56 AM

    Hello Scott,
    That was a very brave journey you recounted.
    You might also resonate with a recent piece I wrote: Why Do Most therapists Care So Much About Your Childhood? (www.holisticdivorce.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/why-do-most-therapists-care-so-much-about-your-childhood/)

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