Conditions of Worth

Care was always conditional. It was a matter of consequences and rewards. Refusing to comply with the things he wanted from me always led to the same series of potential outcomes. I would be ignored. He would stop coaching, helping, and speaking to me. He would threaten to fire my brother whom he craftily hired as his assistant coach. He would no longer help me try to earn the college scholarship I was working hard to achieve. I would be alone with no one to turn to – no one to care for me – as his efforts to keep me isolated drove a wedge between me and everyone else in my life. By contrast, complying with the things he asked of me meant I would be given gifts. The gifts arrived in the form of extra attention – extra coaching – extra care. These types of rewards always made me feel so special. The gifts were also sometimes more tangible – a new sweatshirt, a new pair of running shoes, a bracelet, a special handwritten note from him, among many other things. 

After abusing me in his car he would often stop at the drive through of a nearby McDonalds before taking me home. Growing up in a large family without much discretionary income it was rare for us to eat out for dinner. A fast food meal was an infrequent and very special treat. The first time my abuser bought me a meal at McDonalds after violating me I was excited. I got to pick whatever I wanted, and I ate every bite of that meal. The next time he drove me home I wondered if I’d get this treat again. I hoped for it. I waited for it. Whether my body was treated violently and physically injured or it was exposed to the kind of touch that produced feelings of pleasure, I always hoped for a treat afterwards. And I wondered what it meant on the days that he took me straight home without a fast food stop. It was confusing. Did I do something wrong? Was I not enough of whatever he wanted that day? What was I supposed to do differently? This added a layer of confusion to the overwhelm that I was already facing in these experiences of abuse. Since his treatment of me was always determined by my level of obedience to his demands, the meaning my adolescent brain assigned to these moments was that I was not worthy that day.

As I work now to heal the wounds that still ache from this young girl inside of me, I have taken notice of some confusing reactions that I feel at times. I recently wrote about the somatic work that I am pursuing with my therapist and how calm and comforted I have felt from receiving her safe and caring contact in response to releasing a flood of emotions in front of her. While it has been confusing for my system I have felt held, safe, and cared for in these therapy sessions. Since then I have experienced a session in which memories and feelings from this adolescent part of me were once again expressed through words and art. This session did not lead to the same type of emotional release nor did it result in the close comforting contact that was a part of my previous session, and yet it still felt meaningful, productive, and necessary. I reached the end of this session without feeling anything particularly off or left unaddressed in the moment. But this strange feeling came over me later that day. It was a disturbing and questionable feeling inside of me. After spending some time with this feeling and seeking help from a trusted friend I was able to begin to untangle it.

The strange feeling I experienced after that therapy session was one of longing and regret. It was this deep inner feeling of, “I would do anything to be held in there again. Why didn’t I fall apart and let myself be cared for the way I need?” It was this feeling of coming up short – not doing enough or being enough to deserve to be held and cared for. This feeling of regret for not doing something right and longing for something that was missing made me also begin to doubt my own feelings, experiences, and needs. It forced me to question the authenticity of what I express in therapy. Am I somehow subconsciously trying to perform in some way to receive the care that parts of me desperately need? Is my desire to crumble merely a manipulative effort to get what I want? Is this the same as that familiar feeling of wanting to be good enough to earn a trip to McDonalds? My adult brain is fairly certain this is not the case, but this young part is convinced that her actions determine whether or not she is worthy of care. This young part of me still wanted to feel physically seen and held and nurtured even though no tears emerged that day, but the meaning my brain assigned to not receiving this type of contact was that I must have done something wrong. I must not be deserving enough for it, and I must do better next time.

After careful introspection I began to understand why that feeling would arise here. Of course I felt a reaction like this. Of course I felt like I did something wrong. Of course I was left feeling desperate to be held and simultaneously inadequate and unworthy. After all, the lasting message for this young part inside of me still remains. Care is conditional. It is always a matter of consequences and rewards.

When the Body Speaks

She shifts her body back into her seat, puts her seatbelt on, and tries to make sense of what has just happened. She is unsure of what to feel as her system is overwhelmed with emotions around the details that replay in her mind. She needs a guide to help her navigate the confusion that swirls from within. But he is all that she has. So she turns her uncertain glance in his direction. Upon noticing a slight smile on his face she thinks she must have done something right. But she wonders why she doesn’t feel right inside.

Moments ago she was scared. Moments ago she was lost in overwhelm. Moments ago she felt sick inside and wanted to get far away from here. She was touched by a man that she calls her coach, and yet moments ago her body responded with pleasure to his sickening touch.

Her first orgasm was experienced in his car in response to what he does to her. Each time his touch results in this response from her body layer upon layer of evidence that she asked for it – that she wanted it – that she is to blame for it piles upon her. How is a child supposed to process this tangled mess of pleasure and pain of sexual abuse?

I have been told that my young body did exactly what it was biologically designed to do in those moments. I have been told that I should carry no burden of responsibility or blame or shame for how my body reacted to what was done to me. This response from my adolescent body was not an indication that I asked for it, was defective in some way, or was complicit in what was repeatedly done to me. The only thing it indicates is that my body did exactly what it was physically designed to do.

This has been an incredibly difficult concept for my adult brain alone to accept. For the young parts of me that remember what it feels like to sit in his car on the drive home after he touched me it is still so confusing. If he was hurting me, why did it feel good sometimes? If I was so scared and wanted to go home, why did I relax and let his hands access everywhere he wished to touch? And why did I let it feel good? Doesn’t that say something about me? Doesn’t that mean there is something inherently wrong with me?

I sit curled up on the floor in my therapist’s office. Our work together is aimed at releasing the stored physical sensations I experience today as a result of childhood trauma. As she guides me through this session I notice that the calming effect I can achieve from the slow deep breaths I am focusing on only goes as far as my tensed and coiled up body position will allow. She gently invites me to uncoil in front of her, reassuring me that I am safe – that she will not hurt me. Immediately I begin to feel my hands, arms, and shoulders begin to tremble. The mere suggestion of letting my guard down in front of her begins to overwhelm my system. I keep trying to breathe, relax my body, and stop the shaking. But she then asks if I can try to stop resisting it – instead allow the shaking to come if it wishes to come. She gently reassures that it is safe to tremble there. And with that comes a wave of trembling, shaking, and eventually a flood of tears as my body releases the enormous wave of energy around this fear of vulnerably relaxing from my protective curled up position.

I do not have a sense how long I was shaking and crying in there, but after some time it slowly began to fade. First the tears stopped. Then the shaking slowly softened. Afterwards I felt a calm and relaxed state restore throughout my body. My therapist gently encouraged me to notice both the physical calm I felt in my body along with the safe and nurturing care I received from her. It was safe to relax there. It was safe to lower my guard and release the stored pain my body carries.

I noticed every bit of this. I felt my shoulders relax. I felt my breathing slow down. I felt my hands unclench. I felt comforted by her words that I let enter my ears and embrace me from within. It felt freeing and calming. It felt incredible. But I felt something else too. In that moment I chalked it up to being freaked out by what had just occurred. After all, it was an incredibly frightening experience to welcome an overwhelm of uncontrollable shaking and crying that took over my body. But there was another feeling – a feeling that has continued to linger unidentified until right now. As I sat on the floor in front of her after my body trembled violently and tears poured from my eyes, I felt exposed. What just happened? That was terrifying. Did I do something wrong? Did I do something right? What does she think of me? Am I ever going to be able to look her in the eye again? I felt an urge to apologize. I couldn’t understand why I felt that way, and I got the sense I wasn’t supposed to feel that way. But I was far too confused and disoriented to say any of it out loud. So I just tried to focus on the calm I physically felt while the other feelings waited in the background for me to acknowledge later.

Away from her office I realized that this experience connected directly to something for a young part inside of me – the young part that remembers putting her seatbelt on after something felt both horribly painful and terrifying and also somehow good. This part whose body betrayed her by responding with pleasure to his touch sat frozen on the floor in my therapist’s office scared that she did it again. Did she just let her body feel good when something bad was happening? Was this feeling of calm the same as what she knows from long ago?

Adult me understands the difference. Adult me understands what we accomplished in the therapy room that day. Adult me understands the importance of this approach to healing the wounds that linger and impact me today. But this young part is left rattled and wondering, “Did I do something bad again?”