“And she lived happily and contentedly to a great age…” In spite of my history, in the year 2001 I still believe that life is fair. After so many years of misery and struggling, I feel I am owed a portion of happiness — and I think that this is coming now. I worked so very hard to get a life, I deserve that my life will be good, easy and long now.
In 2001 I am healthy and I feel really, really happy. Nevertheless, many things are not that easy. It starts with medical problems during pregnancy and a difficult delivery. And it goes on with a cute and lovely baby — but one that keeps us awake every night for several years. David and I are really tired. In 2002 a pregnancy ends when the baby in my womb stops growing. A lost child that I loved already. I am thirty-nine years old — will I be able to become pregnant again? Then Thomas becomes seriously ill, and we are afraid to lose him. Two times he is urgently taken to the hospital, but he survives. We get a second boy, Jonathan, and we are intensely happy with him, too. But he also has medical problems that exhaust us the first years. I had not expected it would go this way, but it does.
I want so strongly to protect my children from evil. But what Thomas goes through as a toddler in the hospital is very traumatic for him, and I am not able to prevent it. “Ah,” the pediatrician says as David is holding a sick, terrified, and heartbreakingly sobbing child in his arms, “a child easily forgets these things.” The pediatrician is wrong. Thomas struggles with his experiences for years — nightmares, fears, panic attacks, crying fits. In his sleep he is still crying: “Out! Out!”, like he did during the CT-scan. He clings to us, doesn’t want to be more than one step away from us. It hurts to see him this scared and desperate. He is struggling with his traumatic experiences for years. Problems at school also give him a lot of pain. And me, too.
I am tired of fighting and of problems. Nevertheless, it is different from the way it always has been. There is also joy and pleasure, and I can solve the present problems, now that I am free from the fog and the fears. I feel clear and real, nightmares have become rare, I fall asleep easily and sleep two or three hours at a stretch, I have more energy, I am healthy and I am even able to do quite a bit of physical exercise without getting weird symptoms. In spite of the difficulties, I feel good. It is great to be together with David, to feel each other’s warmth, to talk, to be near and to be sure that we always find each other when things between us are difficult for a moment. I am glad to see Thomas and Jonathan playing, laughing, crying, learning, growing. I enjoy taking care of them, to help them, to play music together, to love them. I am really happy to see that Thomas and Jonathan become children who can speak up honestly when I do something wrong to them — and that I can apologize then. Working gives me pleasure, the orchestra I play in, passing on my love for music by giving flute lessons. I do not have much time left for my Psychology studies, but studying gives me an intellectual challenge that keeps a balance in my life. I enjoy my health, there is a lot of joy in my life.
The past, my childhood, my years in psychiatry, all these experiences more and more seem weird to me, something bizarre from a past life. On the rare occasions when look back, I even doubt whether the history that I discovered is really true. Did this really happen? It seems implausible to me now. But most of the time I don’t even think about it. I just enjoy life. I enjoy living a normal, ordinary life with a family and a job, to just be like the people around me.
Still, my life is not totally normal, I do not completely manage to have a life like other people have, people who had normal studies, and a full-time job after that. As a result of my past, I am limited in what jobs I can do, and I don’t see how to change this, and certainly not now, having small children that I want to raise myself. But this will come later, I promise myself, this ordinary life with an ordinary paid job, I will see to this when my children are somewhat older.
Sometimes I still have troubles with childhood feelings. I still avoid watching television, since I react too strongly to that — watching toddler’s programs with my children is OK, but it shouldn’t be much more than that. Some nights I still can’t sleep, especially in periods with problems, like at Thomas’ school, that make me feel powerless. The insomnia lasts until I can start solving the problems — being able to change Thomas’ situation helps me to sleep again. Also I still feel guilty easily, thinking I should be able to prevent misery, and blaming myself when I couldn’t. After the birth of Thomas I feel very guilty that this delivery was so difficult. And nobody can talk me out of this. Then the delivery of Jonathan comes, a delivery that takes less than an hour — I can hardly hold him in until the midwife arrives at our home, and he is born easily on the couch in our living room. It’s only then that I realize that the difficult delivery of Thomas hasn’t been my fault. Thomas was laying with his head crooked and was therefore stuck. Just bad luck, nobody’s fault.
Some other situations also keep bringing up childhood feelings. But all these childhood feelings are only a small part of my life, I can avoid them most of the time, and they seem not very important. Not important enough to start doing therapy again. Having a family keeps me very busy and there are many things that require my attention, so I don’t have time and energy for therapy. Also, there are so many things that are much nicer than doing therapy. And there is so much in my life that just goes right. And when the medical problems of the children and the problems at school are finally solved, there is peace in our family. In September 2009 everything is going fine. I look forward to some relatively easy years to enjoy. They seem to be coming now.
Then fate strikes. I almost haven’t been ill for more than ten years. But in December 2009 I suddenly become ill. It turns out to be cancer, colona cancer, in an advanced stage and with a bad prognosis. “If you want to arrange things before you die, you have to arrange them now”, the doctor says. How could this happen? I never smoked, I was a vegetarian from the time I was 18 years old, ever since I recovered from the abuse I got enough physical exercise, and I am only 46 years old. That does not match with colon cancer. And I was going to live happily and contentedly to a great age, wasn’t I? That would have been fair. But life is not fair. Certainly not. On the contrary, I find out that people with a history like mine have a much bigger risk of illnesses like cancer.
I had wanted to shield my children from traumatic experiences. This already failed. But now it is very likely that they will lose their mother, and they’re only 6 and 9 years old. This hurts horribly, and it is my biggest worry.
Also, I would have wanted to enjoy life myself for many more years. All those years that I struggled through the fog and the fears and the endless illnesses, the despair and the suicidal feelings, all those years I had always felt I wanted to live. The hope that some time in the future I would be able to “really” live, is what kept me going all those years. Somewhere, somewhere deep inside I have always thought this was possible for me, too. And when I succeeded, I enjoyed my life intensely. I enjoyed so much the years that I was mentally and physically healthy. I can’t accept that this should be only for a short period. It is so horribly unfair that something I fought for so hard, now escapes me so quickly. I want to live. For a long time. But it seems this will not happen.
The surgeries and the chemotherapy are hard and bring up a lot — medical procedures look a lot like being abused. Memories come back in full force. A gynaecological examination, a rectal examination. Or just having to lay down in a CT-scan with my arms above my head — that makes me panic, I feel the terror of a four-year-old being tied up in that position when her father is about to hurt her. And in that CT-scan, concentrating on the present is no escape from the fear, since this CT-scan most probably means there will be bad news soon. I have lots of examinations in CT-scans, and I fear them. But also the simple, harmless, frequent request by a nurse to lay down — memories come up, and in my memory being asked to lay down isn’t harmless at all. One time, getting chemotherapy, I come to the bed where I have to lay down (again: having to lay down, I hate those beds), and I see two syringe needles being ready. I know from experience that this is medication to prevent nausea — so it is something good that helps me. But what I think is: “Everything is ready to hurt me.” And I feel the cold childhood fear in my body.
Being dependent and powerless, people touching me, people hurting me — I have a hard time trying to keep my head above water in the hospital.
Although I am aware that I mix up past and present, although I am very experienced with self-help therapy, in these circumstances I can’t do therapy on my own. Fortunately, psychotherapy has improved in The Netherlands since Jean Jenson’s book has been published. Ingeborg Bosch started working with Jenson’s therapy and developed this therapy further. She trained other therapists. I find a psychologist who can help me, and with her help I work on the parts of my past that I couldn’t handle before.
Doing therapy again, and now with a therapist, I find that some things are easier to handle with a therapist than when I was processing them on my own. Telling my history to a therapist makes it easier to make it clear that I don’t accept my father’s prohibition to talk about it. It is necessary to speak, to undo the prohibition to speak. Speaking to a cassette recorder wasn’t enough for that, although it was very useful at the time. And when the therapist tells me that my father didn’t have the right to do what he did, it is easier for me to believe this than when I have to struggle with all my excuses for him alone.
Also, my present situation is more complex, and therefore I now need a therapist more. When I was scared in therapy fifteen years ago, I could look around me and help myself with Jenson’s example: am I in a crashing airplane? No? Then I consider my fear to be old, and will process it in the therapy. But now I really am in a crashing airplane. When I feel mortal fear, I can’t tell whether my feelings are old or belong to the present. Now I need a therapist to help me find out.
I still think it was not wrong to do the therapy on my own at the time, fifteen years ago. It gave me a lot of self-confidence and independence. It forced me to realize that I was safe, to see the difference between the past and the present. And it got me far. Besides, at that time there simply wasn’t a therapist who could help me with Stettbacher’s therapy. But it is good to have a therapist now. It brings relief to tell my story with all my feelings, to someone who believes me. I believe myself again, too.
The therapy helps me to keep past and present apart, it makes it easier for me to endure the treatment in the hospital. I feel less stress, have less problems with memories coming up during medical procedures. And at moments when memories do come up, I manage to recognize what happens and help myself.
For a long time, the chances to survive are very thin. I am told that most probably I will die. I do what I can to keep on my feet, physically and emotionally. Gradually, the situation improves. The surgery and the chemotherapy work out well. In September 2010 there is a better chance that I will survive. But in December 2010 and in March 2011 new tumors are found, and I am told I will die soon. Then there is, unexpectedly, a year without a new tumor. But I know I most probably will not survive.
In the meantime, memories are bothering me more and more. My nights are awful, with physical memories that keep me awake and nightmares when I do fall asleep, and during the day I am mixing up past and present. I am scared, scared, scared, and continuously haunted by a phrase in my head: “I am going to kill you now.” Finally I can’t escape the conclusion anymore: my father has told me he was going to kill me, made preparations for that, tied me up and pretended he was doing that. For the first time I dare to acknowledge that his happened. Then the present becomes present again, the nightmares disappear, and for the first time in my life I sleep four, five, six hours straight, every night.
I feel an urgent need: “Start telling. Tell what happened to you.” But I don’t dare. Who will believe me? Who will believe such a bizarre story? I don’t have any proof. My father has never acknowledged anything. He hasn’t told anything, not to me, not to the reverend, not to others, he didn’t leave a letter for me — nothing. No one will believe me, and I will lose everyone if I would tell my story. Would I start talking about the memories that haunt me, I wouldn’t have any friends nor family left — and I need the people around me, my friends and my relatives, especially now, now that I am ill. I can’t afford to talk. I can’t afford losing friends and relatives.
But especially now, now that I am ill, I feel an urgent need to be honest. Especially now, I feel the need to share my feelings. Especially now, I need real support from the people who are close to me. How can I talk about what bothers me but be silent about the memories that are haunting me? How can I tell about my feelings but be silent about my history? How can I talk about my pain of losing a life that just began, without telling how it came about that my life had only just begun? How can I talk about my fear of the hospital and at the same time be silent about the memories that get triggered in the hospital? How can I talk about my fear of dying, but be silent about the mortal fear that I have already carried with me my whole life? How can I ask for support without being honest? How can I feel supported without being honest? Dying is very intimate. Dying requires honesty. I can’t die with a secret. I don’t want to die with a secret. I must tell. Then I’d rather lose people — better than to die with a secret. And maybe I don’t have to be scared. Maybe it is old, that nagging phrase: “Nobody will believe you.” Maybe there are people who do believe me. Maybe I don’t lose everybody. Maybe I will have enough people left.
It is a relief to tell. My friends believe me, and react very supportive. All of them. It turns out people can listen far better than I thought. I can be honest with them.
My mother is glad I come to talk about the things my father did — she had wanted to ask me but didn’t dare. And she believes me. Although at first, she isn’t in any way supportive or sympathizing, although at first she only asks attention to her own story and says she has had a harder life than me — she believes me. And finally she does show empathy for what I went through as a child. That’s something special in our contact, and I feel touched. That’s something special in our contact, and I feel touched.
Talking with my mother brings me something else, too: a confirmation of a part of my story. There were ropes at my father’s bed. To my mother, too, he did things that still haunt her. “He was sadistic.”
Talking with my mother, I hear how desperately my mother tried to maintain something like a normal family life, in spite of my father’s bizarre behavior. How hard she tried to give her children a more or less normal life in spite of the problems he caused. And how she wasn’t equipped for that in any way. How her own childhood history of neglect had left her with an overwhelming need for attention that couldn’t be fulfilled anyhow, with an inability to understand children’s needs, with a feeling of helplessness against my father, and with an urge to change him instead of leaving him as soon as possible. She often hurt me, and she let me down when she should have protected me, but it was she who provided the little bit of normal life and security that our family gave me, and she struggled hard for that. It was she who took care of food, clothes and shelter, of a place to play, books to read, a lap to sit in. That has been important for me to maintain my lust for life.
Matthew and Karen, my brother and sister, also believe my story. They have their own bad experiences with their father, and they know his predilection for sadistic sex (it turns out the whole family knew that already, except me). They can easily imagine him doing this with a preschooler. “He could do this, and he was alone with you often enough to have the chance to do it”, my brother says. And my sister says: “He was an electro-technician, he had the skills to do this.”
It is good not to have secrets anymore. It is good I started talking. People do believe me. Even, even more, those who knew my father.
I wish I had started talking about this much earlier. Maybe, maybe, maybe, if I hadn’t kept my “other world” a secret for so long, then maybe my immune system wouldn’t have been down for such a long time. Maybe, if I had known earlier of the family secrets, then maybe I’d have understood more about myself. Maybe, if I had been able to acknowledge my history earlier, then maybe there would have been less stress in my life, and then maybe I wouldn’t have got cancer.
I wish I had been in time to talk with my father. Maybe, I would have got acknowledgment even from him — that would have saved me a long search and years of illness, and maybe that tumor wouldn’t have developed. Maybe my father could have told me whatever possessed him to do this — then I would have known it hadn’t been my fault, then I could have stopped feeling guilty, then I could have stopped being so scared. Maybe without all that guilt and fear, I wouldn’t have become ill.
But no one can tell me whether I would have got cancer or not, would I have spoken out earlier. And I couldn’t talk earlier. I did the best I could to help myself, and more.
Anyhow, it is good I started talking now. This is what I still can do for myself. It is good to stop being silent about things that are that much important for me. It is good to stop feeling ashamed of my history. To stop being alone with my memories. To stop feeling guilty about all the things that went differently in my life because of the history of my childhood. My father will not admit the truth anymore — the only thing left that I can do, is to believe myself and to stop keeping secrets.
Now I have words to tell my story.