I never had sex. Barely been kissed. I managed to avoid boys in high school by keeping my nose in a book and leaving school early. No one seemed to notice. Maybe that was because it was Catholic school and dating wasn’t really encouraged. As I entered my 20s, I tried to date. I had a strong desire for men and intimacy and could clearly imagine a night of passion.
But every time a man wanted to hold my hands or pull me into an embrace, I suddenly pushed away, my body tight with fear. I didn’t know why I was so afraid or what had happened. The men were always polite, gentle, fun. I wanted to be with them. I wanted to have sex. But I couldn’t get past the terror that had consumed me.
I didn’t explore this fear too much. I only knew I didn’t feel safe. I felt as if something terrible was going to happen and I was powerless to stop it. So I did what any rational person would do: I avoided touch.
I gave up dating when I was 28, frustrated and discouraged by my inability to be held, to be touched. As long as people didn’t touch me, I was okay. I didn’t have to deal with the feelings of terror and helplessness that confused me.
I wanted that to be the end of the story. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. My thoughts recycled the same question: Why did he do this to me?
I started to have nightmares and wasn’t sleeping at night. I was guarded and on edge at work, jumping every time someone came close. I couldn’t concentrate on my job, always wondering where my boss was and if he’d come to my office. If he did, what would I do? How would I get away?
I finally went to HR and told my story, and asked them to remove my boss from my department. They didn’t.
My thoughts changed: I’m not a little girl anymore; I have rights.
For the first time in years I thought about how I had been molested as a child. I only remembered two events, broken images that seem to be terribly traumatic—nothing violent, nothing against my will.
Finally, I quit my job and fought my company, during which I went through a two-day deposition. The opposing attorneys spent the entire day on how my father had molested me as a child, how it made me feel, did I say no, did I date, what did he do.
I didn’t sleep or eat for those two days.
“They’re pushing you,” my attorney said. “They want you to quit.”
But I wasn’t going to quit; I wasn’t a little girl anymore. I had rights.
The day after the deposition was Saturday morning. I couldn’t stop crying. Something was terribly wrong. I could feel it in my body. I tried to stop crying, tried to stop thinking about what the attorneys had done—how unfair it was that I was being attacked when it was my boss who had assaulted me.
I couldn’t stop my racing thoughts; I couldn’t stop crying. I ended up in the hospital on Saturday afternoon following the deposition. I admitted myself to the psychiatric ward. The psychiatrist on duty practiced a holistic model of therapy, and believed we have everything inside of us we need to heal.
“What happened to me?” I asked him. “Why couldn’t I stop crying?”
“You have PTSD. Flashbacks can be very powerful.”
Flashbacks? Post-traumatic stress?
Why would I have PTSD?
We spoke a little more, but he didn’t offer much. I was broken and tired and worn. He offered me an antipsychotic medication for the flashbacks and I eagerly took it.
I could have taken my meds and gone on about my life. But suddenly I wanted something to change.
That could have been another ending to my story—I could have taken my meds and gone on about my life. But suddenly I wanted something to change. I didn’t want to avoid my life anymore. I wanted to live. I just didn’t know how, and I kept going to therapy every week without understanding why.
One day in therapy I said, “I want something.”
The psychiatrist listened as I told him how I had thought everything was fine in my life, how I hadn’t needed to date or get married or have children. I had been comfortable with what I had chosen. Only now I wasn’t, now for the first time I wanted more— I wanted to be able to have intimacy.
“I can help you with that,” he said confidently. “But it will be a lot of work.”
I had a very clear goal in my mind as I started therapy. I had an end date of less than a year and an image of myself happy and free, with many people surrounding me. I was at ease with them and carefree.
This image was important for me to hold on to as I entered therapy. We worked childhood images that came forward in my mind. My clearest image was of my father making me touch him. This image had surfaced in my mind and I couldn’t seem to let it go. But as we worked on it with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), I became less anxious, and less fearful.
There was important information in the image: hands take, hands hurt, and I am powerless to stop them.
The psychiatrist helped me to realize that was why I didn’t like being touched: it reminded me of being molested as a child.
“But you’re not a child anymore,” the psychiatrist reminded me often. “You can say no. You can defend yourself. You have a choice.”
People often ask me why they have to remember, why they have to go back to something that happened a long time ago. The answer for me was simple: I only needed to remember what I needed to move forward. I had learned important lessons as a child and taken them into adulthood unconsciously. They controlled my life. It wasn’t until I went into therapy that I changed my beliefs and truly began to understand who I was.
It wasn’t until I went into therapy that I changed my beliefs and truly began to understand who I was.
Therapy brought me a high level of self-awareness, which was essential in my healing. I paid attention to my thoughts, to my body, and to how my body was reacting to images, sounds, smells. I stopped having nightmares and anxiety. I began working with a massage therapist to like touch by paying attention to my thoughts as I was touched. Then I brought those thoughts back to therapy.
I completed therapy in one year, working 4-6 hours a week with the psychiatrist. That was a decade ago, and I can’t tell you how my life has changed. It was difficult to remember, but that was temporary pain which the psychiatrist helped me through. He taught me tools to help me manage the flashbacks and get the information out of the images I saw. I used meditation to try to quiet my mind and racing thoughts. And when I wanted to hurt myself, I brought that into therapy, as well. We would talk about it and work on the desire until I could understand where it came from.
I won’t lie—I got worse before I got better. But what I received from that temporary pain was a life of freedom.
Someone once asked me how I can speak about being molested without crying. I said it was just this thing that happened to me, it has no power over me. The energy that had always seized me was gone. That’s what therapy gave me.
Touch no longer triggers me. In fact, nothing triggers me. I am free to move in the world, to date, to touch, to kiss, and yes … to have sex.
But healing gave me so much more. I am a more whole, self-aware, and self-actualizing individual. My relationships are fuller and more meaningful. I do not look outside of myself for fulfillment or safety. I know that all that I need is within me.
All of this because I chose to remember. I chose to heal.
Laureen Peltier is the author of Hungry For Touch: A Journey from Fear to Desire. She focuses on educating others on the possibility of making a full recovery from PTSD, as well as the benefits of healing past trauma. A passionate speaker for RAINN and other organizations, Laureen is sought-after for medical and nursing schools, and has participated in several online and DVD documentaries focusing on PTSD recovery.
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