Help and hope
September, 1984. I will finally get help. A friend urged me to see my doctor, and I’m grateful for that — me, I wouldn’t dare to make that decision myself. After all, nothing is really wrong with me. Other people have real problems, I don’t. I have no right to get help. But I long for help, and to my relief the doctor referred me to the Riagg, where I am to see a social worker. (The Riagg is a nation-wide institution for mental health care in the Netherlands.) Well, it may have taken me until I was twenty-one, but now, finally, my life will be allright.
In the waiting room I get scared. How should I behave here? How should I walk up to this social worker, what should I say? Then a woman comes and picks me up from the waiting room. She introduces herself as Lucy. When we get to her consulting room she manages to put me a bit more at ease. Then she asks me what’s wrong. What is the reason I am here? I try to say something, but I fail. My mouth seems sealed, I can’t utter a word. But my thoughts are shouting: “This is what’s wrong! I can’t talk. Please understand. Do you hear me? Please understand me, this is exactly what’s wrong with me: I can’t talk!” But she doesn’t understand. She can’t hear my thoughts cry out. She doesn’t know how to handle my silence, doesn’t see my silence for what it is. But I really can’t help it. I really can’t say a word. Being silent is the only way I can explain my problem.
It hurts that she can’t hear my silence. Somehow, I expected she would see my silence for what it is, that she would listen to it, and understand. I looked forward to this appointment so very much, I had set my hopes on it. The hope is gone now.
Still, I manage to say something in this first appointment. I answer some questions — though I don’t always give the right answer. “How were things when you lived with your parents, did your mother talk a lot?” “No”, I answer, truthfully. “And your father, I guess he talked more?” Well, if she says so, I guess she must be right, and I answer “yes”, feeling confused and wondering whether this was right or not. But it wasn’t. My father talked even less than my mother. In reality, the home I grew up in was wrapped in a deadly silence, only interrupted now and then by a hateful remark from my mother, or by some crazy, pointless remark from my father. But Lucy doesn’t get to know this reality.
While I’m still wondering which of my parents talked the most, Lucy asks me about my friends in high school. I think of that day in my first year, when my friend Alison comes home with me. For Alison, it’s only natural that I tell my mother I got an A for a test paper. Alison feels this is something good to tell. I don’t want to, but I can’t explain this to Alison. She keeps saying I should tell my mother. She thinks it is weird not to tell, and I don’t want to be weird. So I tell my mom. And then I get the usual sermon that I shouldn’t get A’s, that it is wrong to do my best, that it makes me a bad girl. Alison is speechless. Never again, in all of my high school years, I dared to bring a friend home with me. I can’t afford to, having such a weird mother.
Suddenly, sitting here with Lucy, I feel relieved and full of insight. Suddenly I understand: my mother behaved really weird, and that’s why I never brought any friends home with me. Suddenly I see: my mother very often behaved weird and unpleasant, and this has given me a lot of trouble. At home, things happened that should not have happened. That’s why I got so many problems. This, this is what I want to talk about with Lucy. It is really wonderful to be with Lucy and to understand myself. This is what I need. I very much long to talk with Lucy again next week, I long to tell her how things were in my childhood.
But Lucy doesn’t hear my silent relief, either. “I get the feeling your case is too difficult for me. Next time I want an appointment with a psychiatrist being present, too.” And that next consultation will be in two-and-a-half weeks. I gasp for breath. I don’t know how to get through such a long period.
Lucy asks me to write down what’s wrong with me, and to take this with me next time. So I try.
What’s wrong with me?
I am staring at a white, empty page. What should I write down? What’s wrong with me? I don’t know. I am not doing fine, but I have no words for what this is, this “not doing fine”. The way I feel — I can’t compare this with other people’s feelings. I have been this way for so long, I don’t know any other way. I don’t know how other people feel, I don’t know how other people see the world, I can’t look through other people’s eyes to see what their world looks like. I feel estranged from myself and estranged from the world around me. Everything seems unreal. Sometimes I manage to feel a little bit of reality, by touching the wall of a house or room. Especially when it is a wall of crude stone this can help. Then, for a moment, I can feel the world does exist. That feels good. But I am not aware that for other people the world just always exists, I think other people need something like a wall for that, too. And the fog that I live in — I struggle with this fog all the time, but I don’t have words for it and I don’t know that other people do not live in such a fog. I think other people feel the same as me, but are better at acting normal. I think they try harder, they are better people. I think there is nothing wrong with me, I am just bad not being able to behave like other people do.
There was a time when I felt better. I was very happy, two years ago, when I passed the entrance exams of the conservatory. At the conservatory, I would finally be happy. Making music the whole day, playing flute the whole day — that’s what I liked the most, that’s what I could do with all my heart and soul. At the conservatory I would feel at home, here I would have friends, here I would belong. It seemed it was the best thing that could happen to me — away from my parents, in a new city, doing a study that I liked, no one who knew me, meeting new people, the chance to behave in a new way without someone noticing that this was new to me, the chance to be who I wanted to be, to be happy, to be part of the group, to do nice things. No one there who knew that I had always been weird, shy, fearful, silent, tired, unhappy and lonely. I could start with a clean slate. For the first time in many years, I felt happy. I felt full of hope for the future. And I succeeded. I felt at home at the conservatory. I liked the lessons. I liked studying. I had nice friends. I slept better. I was doing fine.
Then, almost a year later, the fog, the fear, the fatigue and the insomnia returned. I tried to deny the problems, I tried to act as if I was still doing fine. For one more year I just tried to hold on, and wait until things would get better again. But then, in the summer, my mother became ill. My parents said I had to do the housekeeping, and had to help my father at his office. I did what they asked from me. When I returned to my own home, I collapsed. I couldn’t continue. I felt broken. Finished. I couldn’t go on anymore. I tried to pick up my life and my study. I tried to become happy again. I failed. But what’s wrong with me?
I am scared, scared of people. And I feel lonely, I long for contact. I desperately long for contact but I feel in danger when I am with other people. I don’t dare to tell how I feel — with other people, I can only act and pretend. I hate acting and pretending, I hate not being myself, but I can’t escape from this role — as soon as I am with other people I only can be a false self. This role exhausts me. I need to be alone to find myself again and recover from the fear. But being alone I feel unbearably lonely, scared and desperate. I run to and fro, unable to be with other people and unable to be alone. I hope for a miracle, I hope that someone will see what’s wrong with me although I hide it, I hope that someone will hear what I want to tell although I don’t say anything. But there is only this false self, and the fear and the loneliness.
I have anxiety attacks. Then I become hazy, I can’t see clearly anymore, I start trembling and I am extremely tired. There is a big black hole and I fall and fall into it and am scared to death. I mustn’t fall in this hole because then I will die. I feel torn to pieces, literally torn in two pieces. One piece is the black hole, my inside. The other one is my outside, the acting, the pretending of normal behavior that exhausts me day by day. I am mortally afraid, I see this picture of those two pieces and a very small, fragile bridge between them. The bridge almost breaks down, but it has to stay intact otherwise I will die. I tremble, I am scared and feel horribly tired. Everything is black. I shouldn’t fall into the hole, but I shouldn’t be my outer side either, since that strengthens the hole, pulling me down. Somehow I have to hold the pieces together, somehow I have to make sure the bridge doesn’t break, but I don’t know how. I only consist of overwhelming fear and exhaustion.
I feel constantly exhausted. Everything I do, is done on willpower. For everything I do, whether it is watering the plants or taking a shower, I have to try really hard and concentrate. Every movement I make, every word I say, I have to force myself to do it. I can do this only for a little while. When I have cooked and eaten, I am so exhausted that I can’t even wash the dishes and have to lay down. My body and my mind are exhausted, so heavy, far away, numb. I only function by willpower, fighting every day to do the things I have to do and want to do.
I am always tense, I can’t relax. I have a trick to stop the tension of my body for a little while. Then I just leave my body, leaving it flabby like some discarded clothes, an empty thing that has nothing to do with me. This makes me feel awful and it does not really bring relaxation. I’d rather not do it. But it is the only alternative for the continuous tension, which I can’t endure either.
I feel insecure, worthless. I feel I can’t do anything well, although other people tell me this isn’t true. Often I make mistakes, and I feel panic and shame about that. Then I compulsively say things — things I don’t understand, things I didn’t think of myself. “Mama, when I am dead, may I come home then?”, “you are a little girl and you are dead”, “mama has to come!” or “my mama is dead but my daddy isn’t”. I have no idea what I mean with these sentences, and I can’t help it and can’t stop it. I feel very much ashamed about this.
In spite of feeling scared, tired and wretched, I consistently go to all the lessons and behave pretty much normal there. Partly my normal behavior is something that helps me to go on. Partly it is a disaster, since it exhausts me and my fear, the fog, my feeling of unreality and my loneliness get worse this way. Friends, teachers and family often are mistaken how I am doing. They give a pep-talk, try to cheer me up and try to solve my problems. They sincerely want to help me. “Look at the things that go well, you play the flute well, many other things you do well, you manage.” I try to explain that I feel like a bank account with no money on it, from which I continue taking money. For some time, this may seem no problem, but debts get bigger and bigger and some day it will not work anymore. Indeed, it may seem I still function normally, but I know the price I pay for it, and I notice that every time I turn the switch to “normal functioning”, I feel more broken.
I need help. Help that gives me something else than what I already tried myself. I tried and tried to solve my problems, when I was a child and again now that I am an adult. I tried to belong, to behave like others do. I taught myself to look other people in the eye, although I had to fight for it every time since it makes me so scared. I taught myself to change my quiet, silent behavior, to start talking, say words and sentences, although I was really afraid of every word that came out of my mouth. I tried to make friends, to step up to people and make contact, again and again, in spite of my fear and feelings of alienation, in spite of the impenetrable wall that seemed to be in between me and others. I taught myself to act as if I’m happy, hoping that this would give me friendships and nice experiences that would make it possible to be really happy in the end. I tried to focus on things that I really loved, hoping they would make me feel good. Again and again I tried to build up a pleasant contact with my parents. I tried to fall asleep using all the tricks that could possibly be thought of. I held on trying to act normally, I continued going to school, I continued studying.
I always thought that if I could hold on, all these things would become just normal in the end. Again and again I tried to start anew, to not make the “mistakes” that, as I thought, made things miserable before. When I went to high school, I started “anew”, when I went to the conservatory, I started “anew”, and so many times in between. Every time I started anew. But nothing worked. I am spent. I think of killing myself. Now, something has to happen that works.
What can I write down of all this, for my next appointment at the Riagg? I manage to write down that I am scared. Scared of other people. I take the paper with me. But they don’t ask for it. The paper stays in my bag.
October 1984. Second consult at the Riagg, an appointment with two peole. Lucy I know already. She shakes my hand: “Hello Janet, come in.” The psychiatrist also shakes hands, but doesn’t say anything, she doesn’t introduce herself. In the first consultation, Lucy introduced herself with her first name and her last name. That made it easy for me to know how I could address her. The Dutch language makes a socially important distinction between saying “je”‘ (“you”) to someone, and saying “u” to someone. “U” is a more formal word, which one uses towards strangers, teachers, doctors, etcetera (comparable to the old English word “thy”). Since Lucy introduced herself with her first name, I concluded I could say “je” to her. The psychiatrist does not introduce herself, so I don’t know whether I should call her “je” or “u”. What can I do to find out how to adress her? I try to find a question that helps me to find out what I should say. But I can’t find any question that doesn’t require me to use the word “je” or “u”. So if I’d ask one of those questions, I would have made a mistake already. I start to panic. I see no way to not make a mistake. I am terribly scared and can’t say anything anymore.
And then suddenly, there is a way out. I come into a white light. Very peaceful, white light, wonderful white light. I feel extremely well, it is a lovely, serene and warm place to be. Around me there is only this white light and I feel happy, peaceful and delightful. White warmth and love cover me. I want to stay here.
But then, far away, I hear calling: “Janet, come back. You are far away now, Janet, come back.” I obey, and suddenly I am again in this awful consulting-room with these two people, not knowing how to behave. I regret very much that I obeyed and came back. I would like to return immediately to the white light, but I don’t manage.
They do not ask me where I was or how I felt. I don’t know what they saw, Lucy and the psychiatrist. What did I look like, when I was in this white light? I have no idea and they don’t say anything about it.
“When I see you this way, I start thinking about admitting you to a psychiatric hospital”, the psychiatrist says. This alarms me. That is not what I want. Having to stay in a hospital means losing my study and this study I need so much to hold on. That is where my heart lies, that’s the only good thing in my life. I want to continue my study at the conservatory. And if I could get consultations at the Riagg, I surely would improve. Why don’t I get that chance? What happened right now, with this white light, that really is an exception, that really doesn’t happen every day. I can stay at home, really, if I would get help. What can I do to get help at the Riagg?
I’d better do my best to please these social workers, I guess, I’d better try to behave the way these people want me to behave, to make it easy for them to do what they want to do with me. I can’t afford showing here what’s wrong with me, I can’t afford telling things without words anymore. But where can I find the words for my story? I don’t have words for my story. Being silent is the most truthful I can be, but they think I am crazy when I’m silent. I’d better behave well enough not to risk admission into a hospital, I’d better start talking, although talking feels like lying, I’d better start acting here, too, to make sure they want to treat me. Treatment will be on their conditions, and not on mine, I suddenly realise, and this feels like a painful loss – loss of the hope to have a place where I can be honest, loss of the hope to have a place where I can show how I feel and where I will be understood. They will not understand me, and there is nothing I can do about that.
“Could you please write down your personal history?” the psychiatrist asks. “And send it to us before the next appointment?” I’d like to do that very much. It gives me hope.
I don’t know anything to write about my years at primary school, nor about the years before that. But I can write a lot about my years at high school.
The first year at high school I feel fine. Going to high school for the first time is a good moment to start anew, to become more cheerful, more self-assertive, and more normal. I try to be like other people and that works well. I make friends soon and I belong. I feel relieved and happy. And I really learn something, at this school. I like this school.
Nevertheless, things become hard at high school. Even making one mistake in a test paper makes me scared, thinking that I’ll get an insufficient mark and terrible things will happen. Also, I get into a lot of trouble with my mother, she is angry with every B or A. I shouldn’t try so hard. She tells me, over and over, that good marks mean that I am a nasty and selfish child. I would be more lovable getting a D. She doesn’t tell me that she makes these remarks because she hates my father, who did have a good education. She doesn’t tell me that she thinks I will be as unpleasant as my father if I learn a lot. She doesn’t tell me that she herself very much wanted to get a good education when she was a child, but wasn’t allowed by her parents. I don’t know why she makes all these remarks to me, I don’t know what to do with her hate and anger. I decide not to tell her anything about school anymore. But I also think that I am a nasty, bad, unlovable child, because I can learn easily. At the other hand, my mother tells over and over how great other people are. Cousins, friends, they are so gifted, they perform so well. I am nothing, compared to them. It is confusing. I cannot make it out. I just know I am bad. A bad child.
At home I feel bad, but at school I feel good. Even though I am scared of test papers and bad marks, school is the place where I like to be, where I have friends, where I feel happy, where I feel at home. I almost only get A’s, it is easy for me to learn. I even like gymnastics, this first year at high school.
At the end of the first year of high school there is a phone call from school. It would be possible for me to go to grammar school. My father thinks this would be good for me, so it’s decided I go to grammar school. But this means I have to change schools. I am scared. Scared of the new school. Scared of the big building where I don’t know the way, scared to start in a new group where I don’t know anyone and all other children know each other already. Last year I could act cheerfully and self-assured, last year I could make friends in the first week of school when we had camp. But this year, there will be no camp. I will know no one when I walk into the classroom the first time. I don’t know how to do that, walking into the classroom and sitting down somewhere without knowing anyone. Where should I sit down, next to whom? What should I say? Who will want to be friends with me when they all have friends already? Here I can’t start “anew” like I did last year, here it will be clear that I am different, that I don’t belong. Scared and withdrawn I enter my new school.
The children are nice and try to make me part of the group. But I feel insecure and unhappy. I feel numb and alienated. I feel like living in some sort of fog. There is fog inside myself, and fog between me and the other children. I can’t break through the fog, I can’t make contact with other people. I feel weird and wrong. Also, I feel like I’m still a child, whereas the children around me seem to behave much older. I still like to play with my dolls, but these children don’t do that anymore. I find myself suddenly in a world of youngsters that I don’t understand and that makes me scared. I can’t do the things they do, I can’t talk about the things they talk about. Their world isn’t my world. I feel unhappy. I am silent, apathetic and very tired.
I also lose touch with my friends from my last school and from primary school. I feel lonely.
For a period of five years I am at grammar school. All these five years I am in a class with nice children — but the feelings of fear, loneliness, of being bad and being different, remain. The fog and the alienation stay.
I am thirteen or fourteen years old. I sit on a wall outside school with some other children, during a break. They tell each other funny things and they laugh. I feel bewildered. Laughing, what is that? I feel laughing is something strange to do. But it seems one should do this. I try to laugh, too, I try to be like the others, I pretend laughing. I think everyone who laughs just pretends. I am thinking about laughing — who invented this? It is so hard to do and it makes me feel sick. Who started this? I don’t realize that my classmates are really having fun. I don’t remember that in the past I used to have fun myself, too. I really think everyone is just pretending, and that other people are just better at it than I am, or maybe they try harder. It has to be my fault. I am bad, ain’t I?
I sleep very little. Scared and desperate, I lay awake, hoping for sleep that doesn’t come, worrying about another day of being too tired to function. I count to thousand and two thousand and three thousand, I count the stars behind my squeezed eyes, I take off my blanket, I put on my blanket, I cry, I read, I write in my diary, I give up. Sometimes I go to my brother’s bed. My brother isn’t living at home on weekdays. Laying in his bed, I feel more safe and I manage to sleep one or two hours. Early in the morning, I return to my own bed.
When I sleep I always have nightmares. About someone chasing me, wanting to kill me. Each and every night. Nightmares about being Jewish, about World War II and roundups. I am not Jewish, and I don’t understand what triggers my fear. I also have nightmares about my father. The same nightmare every night. I dream he laughs at me when I am in pain. I dream I tell him I don’t like what he does, I tell him it hurts, I ask him to stop laughing. But he doesn’t stop. He laughs and laughs. I become enraged and try to hit him, I think I will reach him then, finally reach him when he feels my punches. I try to hit him in his face with my fists, this laughing face, this laughing face that I hate so much and that continues to laugh. I strike and strike and strike but I can’t reach him. There is some kind of transparent jelly around him that slows down my punches, again and again. My arms feel paralyzed. I fall to pieces from despair and hate and fear and then I wake up, mortally afraid.
Every night I have this dream. I am totally alone with this dream and with my other nightmares. Alone with the intense hate that I feel for this man. I feel very bad about hating him and dreaming that I try to hit him. Hating your father — one shouldn’t do that. That’s really bad. I should love my parents, but I can’t. “Honor thy father and mother” — but I can’t, I only feel hate, intense hate, every second, night and day.
It is hard to live alone with my parents, now that my sisters and brother have gone. I feel sombre and don’t feel like having a future. In the evening, I always make a bag with my dearest things so that I can pick up that bag immediately — I’m sure there will be a fire that night. I wonder why I still go to school — an atomic bomb will soon destroy the whole world.
At grammar school, I also have learning problems. Sometimes I get insufficient marks. This never happened to me before. Sometimes I just don’t know anything anymore during a test paper. Often I just haven’t been able to study for a test paper. At home I sit exhausted, staring at my books in a kind of trance. I can’t learn. But I try hard, and every year I make it to the next year with good marks.
The vacations and weekends make me pull through. Vacations when I don’t have to be afraid of school, and when I sometimes stay with one of my sisters for some days, undescribably nice days. The weekends when I don’t have to go to school and when often one of my sisters or my brother comes home — when the house is alive, when meals aren’t a battlefield of silence, fear and hateful remarks between my parents, when there is cosiness and warmth, although superficial and without someone really paying attention to me. I like to be together. I like to play games together. I like to have dinner together. I very much enjoy playing music together with my sister Sarah. But Sunday evening is a nightmare. Being alone with my parents again, knowing I have to go to school the next day.
I don’t dare to tell that I feel awful. I don’t know words for what is wrong with me. Besides, I think everything is caused by me being bad, and I don’t want other people to know I am bad. Very, very seldom I find the courage to tell that I feel miserable. “That is caused by puberty”, my father says. My feelings are not real feelings, they are just hormones. He says, he is the one who has had really hard times in life, and he starts speaking about himself. How he walked through the burning city after the bombardment of Rotterdam in 1940, how he had to go into hiding to avoid working for the German Arbeitseinsatz.
One afternoon, I go to bed. I shut the curtains. I feel exhausted and desperate and I think my mother will find me this way. I have to go to confirmation class that afternoon. My mother finds that important and I know she will come to look for me when I am not leaving in time. She will find me in my bed and then she will finally understand that something is terribly wrong, she will see that I can’t stand it anymore, that I can’t go to school anymore, can’t go to confirmation class, can’t do whatever. She will see that I am sick, that I need help. Then she will finally talk with me.
My mother comes, opens the door of my room, sees the curtains are shut, and leaves. My plan didn’t work. Shall I just stay in bed so she will come again and find me later? But I don’t dare to. I am afraid she will be very angry when I am late for confirmation class. I am afraid she will hate me even more then. So, at the last moment, I get out of my bed. My mother is angry that I am that late. She doesn’t ask me anything. I tell that I was laying in bed, I hope she will ask me questions, I hope she will ask me why I was laying in bed. But she doesn’t. I don’t see any other possibility than to just go to confirmation class, exhausted and desperate, even more so now that my plan to get help failed. I see no other possibility than to force myself again, deny myself, just pretend nothing is wrong with me. I feel so horribly lonely with all my despair. I can’t stand it anymore, I really can’t. I need help, I need help urgently, but no one helps me.
Nevertheless, two times, my mother does take me to our family doctor. She tells the doctor I am always tired. She tells him I am ill more often than usual. But my family doctor doesn’t think something is wrong. I should exercise more, he says. But I know very well that that is exactly what I can’t do. Even the slightest physical exercise makes me exhausted and strange, feeling like being torn apart in a thousand pieces and with an impenetrable fog in my head. This continues for some hours, sometimes for the rest of the day. Having had gymnastics early in the morning, it is almost impossible for me to function at school during the rest of the day. I don’t dare to tell my doctor that I can’t do as he told me. Again my conclusion is that it’s all my fault. I am bad.
There are some bright spots in the darkness. I love our cats, I feel warmth from them. It feels good to have them laying on my lap, to caress them. I read all the books I can find in the library. I like speed skating and I can skate well, although it gives the physical problems that I always have with exercising. I watch all the speed skating matches on television and make a scrapbook of all the articles in the newspapers about skating matches. I love music, playing the flute, taking flute lessons, playing in the Youth Orchestra — playing music together can break through the numbness I live in. For a short while I can feel alive, and feel happy when I play music together. I cling to these straws, I hold on and survive. Until I can leave, to go to the conservatory.
I write a long story. I think next time Lucy and the psychiatrist will talk about what I write — next time they will ask questions and help me to tell more about it. Then I will feel better.
“You made a big deal out of your history. So, from the time you went to grammar school you didn’t feel good anymore”, the psychiatrist says. “No, that started in first class, when I felt unhappy because of my mother’s comments on me”, I answer. It seems the psychiatrist doesn’t hear me. It is the only thing that is said about my story.
A confusing period follows. I do have consultations once every two or three weeks, which is far too little for me. Sometimes I talk with both Lucy and the psychiatrist, sometimes with one of them, and often I don’t know beforehand with whom. After some time, I don’t see the psychiatrist anymore, but I am not told why. She just isn’t there anymore.
The consultations don’t help me at all. But I don’t dare to say that, I even don’t dare to admit it to myself, since I can’t manage on my own. I really need help and there is nothing else than this help — or the admission to a psychiatric hospital, which I try to prevent since I don’t want to lose my study. I feel stuck. Lucy and the psychiatrist only talk superficially and don’t offer anything more than what I already tried myself, and what didn’t work: changing behavior, changing thoughts — but now it is called RET (Rational Emotive Therapy). This doesn’t help me any further, but I pretend, to protect myself. Because for them I have to. During the consultations, I just act, to be able to talk, to be able to answer questions. I do what they ask me to do, I give the answers I think they want to hear. For a while, I manage to pretend RET is working. And then I can’t keep up anymore. Lucy gets angry, tells me I don’t try hard enough. Would I try hard enough, I would get better this way. Again I pretend it’s working. But it isn’t. Every time I hope that the next consultation will be different, that then they will talk with me about my childhood. But this never happens. At best, it is mentioned shortly, and then discussion is directed the other way: what behavior am I going to change now, which thoughts am I going to change. It is hopeless.
After two years of trying, it is clear that I can’t go on. I don’t sleep, I don’t function. I get some medication against depression that doesn’t make any difference. Which is not surprising, since I am not depressed. I am very scared, I don’t sleep and I have other problems that I can’t describe, but I am not depressed. I don’t know what is wrong with me, but I do know that I am desperate because I don’t get good help — and antidepressants don’t change that.
Then finally I dare to ask it: “I would like to talk about my childhood.” “For that, this isn’t the right place, I got no education for doing that”, Lucy answers. “There is another part of the organization where it is possible to get consultations every week and where they try to help people dealing with childhood experiences, the Psychotherapy Department. Here, you can’t do this.” I am perplexed. I didn’t know about that. Why didn’t she tell me before? Why didn’t she admit me to this department right away when I came here two years ago? Why all this misery of the past years? Lucy will now apply for me there.
I get a consultation with a male psychiatrist. I tell him something about my childhood, especially about unpleasant experiences with my father. I tell him how my father always ignored what I said, how he acted as if I didn’t exist. How I felt like talking to a concrete wall every time I told him something. How my father corrected grammar errors in every sentence I spoke, but never paid attention to the contents of my words. How he always spoke French to me, although I didn’t want that and protested every day. How he was boasting right and left about my talents, but never saw me. For one hour, I describe how much I hate my father. Then the psychiatrist says: “Actually you loved your father very much. You loved him so much that you wanted sex with him. You are frustrated because this didn’t happen.” I tell him this is absolutely not true, I didn’t want that. But he doesn’t change his mind. He repeats his words. I leave totally upset. What this psychiatrist tells me feels like a wound inside me, unbearably painful.
Fortunately, I just read Alice Miller’s book Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. In this book, Alice Miller makes it clear that this idea of psychoanalysis about daughters wanting sex with their father is not true. Her book now helps me not to go crazy. I cling to Miller’s books for hope. She writes about people with problems like I have, she writes about therapy helping people to deal with the past. So they do exist, therapists who talk with their clients about their childhood. Somewhere I must be able to find such a therapist. Somewhere, some day I will find real help. I have to hold on. Some day I will live. I mustn’t give up now.
It is hard not to give up. Every day is one too many. I can’t hold on anymore. Every day I feel I can’t make it that day anymore, I can’t, can’t, can’t. But I have to hold on, I shouldn’t give up just before I get help. There will be one more consultation with some other psychiatrist of this department, and they tell me they will phone me. I set all my hopes on the appointment with this other psychiatrist. Every day I hope that please, please they will call me cause I can’t hold on. I can’t hold on till tomorrow, they have to call me NOW. I need help. Badly. NOW.
But they don’t call me. Day after day. Week after week. They don’t call.
Finally, ultimately, the phone call comes. I talk two times with a psychiatrist — and I avoid all talking about my father. I want to protect myself from hearing such painful ideas again. I don’t mention my father, I only tell about my problems with my mother. “Soon you will hear about the treatment we advise”, the psychiatrist tells me. I wait. And wait. And wait.
Meanwhile Lucy has become ill. I have consultations with someone else, Paul. A nice young man. Talking with him is just as useless as it was with Lucy. I tell clearly that I am not able to hold on anymore. He knows I am waiting for a consultation at the psychotherapy department. Nothing happens. He just sits there and hears me speak. That is all. Every day is torture to me.
And then, four months later, when I am having again a senseless consultation with Lucy (who has recovered), Lucy says: “You have to agree now with admission to a psychiatric hospital. There is no other possibility anymore since at the psychotherapy department, they have a two-years waiting list.” I am totally desperate. Nobody told me that, neither at the psychotherapy department, nor did Lucy who directed me to this department, nor Paul who talked with me during the six months intake procedure. Waiting for two years — and I am not even able to hold on until the next day. “I feel you’re too ill to be helped at this place anymore. I don’t want to be responsible for your treatment anymore since I think that it will not be long before you will attempt suicide. I don’t see any other solution than an admission to a hospital.”
Isn’t this a strange idea? Isn’t it strange that I should agree to be admitted to the hospital since there is a waiting list for psychotherapy? I feel this is not good for me in the first place, since I then lose everything that’s a hold for me, and it’s idiotic policy in terms of the costs of health service, since this would make my treatment even more expensive. If there is a shortage in the budget of health services, that leads to waiting lists, then this isn’t the way to solve that, isn’t it? But who listens to my reasoning?
It hurts me, hearing that I will not get help at the Riagg. I feel deceived by Lucy. She always pretended to be the expert, but wasn’t honest to me. It was only after two years that she told me she didn’t have an education to help people with their past. It was only when I had read the books of Alice Miller myself and started asking help to cope with my childhood history, she told me there was another division of the organization where clients can get this help. And now it is revealed there is a waiting list so I will not get the help I need. Why didn’t she tell me before about psychotherapy? Why didn’t she admit me to that division herself? Why didn’t she ever discuss with me what would be good treatment for me? Why didn’t she take responsibility two years ago and took care I got the help I needed? Why did she let me drown these years?
Always Lucy said it was my fault when I couldn’t cope anymore. Always she became angry and threatening when I didn’t cope with her treatment. Always I felt guilty and scared. But now I realize that it wasn’t my fault. Lucy has been manipulating me — by making sharp remarks, by making threats, by ridiculing my thoughts and behavior. In many different ways she pointed out again and again that I couldn’t expect making progress when I acted this way, when I thought this way. But she never talked with me about RET as just one of many ways to deal with problems like I had. She never discussed a diagnosis with me and never talked with me about a treatment plan. She never discussed alternatives with me, except admission to the hospital. Never was treatment with RET my choice. It hurts, seeing now how Lucy manipulated me all the time, and I now understand why Alice Miller stands up against manipulation in therapy: becoming more healthy means that I become more aware of my own needs, that I take my thoughts seriously, and that I become less powerless, and that can’t be combined with being manipulated. Besides, it just hurts to be manipulated. But when I try to explain this, Lucy doesn’t understand me.
Also, I now have something to discuss with Paul. I ask him whether he did see that I was in a very bad shape and whether he had seen that I needed help urgently? Yes, he did see that. I ask him whether he possibly would have been able to organize that I would get psychotherapy soon, in spite of the waiting list? Yes, he could have done that. Then why didn’t he do that? Well, I had not really been one of his patients. So it wasn’t something he had to do. He just had to talk with me to replace Lucy, and so he did: He talked with me. He had to talk with me since I had acute problems, but it wasn’t his task to find out what was wrong with me and which treatment I should get. He knew the help of this department of the Riagg was not what I needed, he knew I had big problems and he knew that things couldn’t continue the way they were going. But he didn’t feel he was the one to intervene when I couldn’t cope anymore. He was not responsible for applying me to psychotherapy, so he didn’t have to act when it took too long.
And then he says: “As far as I am concerned, you could have committed suicide. You weren’t my patient, so I wouldn’t be held responsible for it.” Oh. He would not have gotten into trouble because of that. And that is the only thing that counts.
His answer hurts. It hurts horribly.
In the first months of 1987 I am desperately looking for help somewhere else. This is hard, since I don’t have money to pay for a psychotherapist, the Riagg offers no help anymore, and hospitalization I don’t want. All help apart from Riagg and hospital I have to pay for, and I am only a poor student. Finally, it turns out that there is a psychotherapist in my family doctor’s practice, and that the cost may be covered by a special foundation in this practice. I grab this opportunity with both hands. Also, I have no other choice.
Robert, this psychotherapist, says he wants to help me to process my childhood experiences. I feel relieved, this seems to be a good basic assumption for the therapy. Robert is friendly and interested, his consulting room warm and cosy. I manage to tell Robert something about my problems, my childhood and what went wrong in the therapy I got before. He reacts with sympathy. He asks questions. I get hope. I am going to be fine, finally. Having gotten wise through experience, I tell Robert that I want a therapy in which I will not be manipulated. “Therapy without manipulation is impossible”, Robert answers. I feel scared and desperate when he says this — I lose my hope that now finally I found a good therapist and a good therapy, I lose my hope to be cured. But I am not in a position to refuse. There is no one else I can ask for help. And I need help. My symptoms have become worse and worse. I remember all too well that I hardly survived without a therapist before. I am sure I will not survive now without a therapist. I accept the situation of Robert’s therapy, although it doesn’t feel good and although I know he is wrong with some things. I hope that the therapy may still give me enough to recover, in spite of some parts being not so good.
In the first period of the therapy I mostly talk about what happened at the Riagg. It hurts so much what they did to me and I feel so betrayed and deserted. The incompetence and indifference I met cut me to the bone. The loss of two and a half years of my life hurts unbearably. I can’t put up with it. Sometimes Robert says he understands what I say, and he tells me it was wrong what happened at the Riagg. But sometimes he doesn’t say that at all and I feel deserted by him, too. He says I can return to Lucy when I have processed my experiences with her. I feel bewildered. He knows that she doesn’t have the skills to help me, doesn’t he? He knows that she can’t help me to deal with my past and that this is what I need. So how can he say such a thing? If even Robert doesn’t understand me, to whom can I go to help me with my feelings?
The only thing I can do is tell and write as much as possible about my childhood in this therapy. That will help. So that’s what I do.
So tired. I am so very tired. I can’t play. I climb up into my mother’s lap. Every day I am so tired and I go to my mom. I sit silently in my mother’s lap. For hours. How old am I? Four, five years old. My body feels like a strange thing. A strange thing, being something amiss with it. I feel my mother, I feel my mother’s breathing. My mother’s breathing seems to go automatically, being part of her. All this is just totally my mother. With me, it feels different. My body and my breathing don’t feel like being Me, I feel like having to work hard to breathe. I am thinking about that. It makes me afraid that my breathing doesn’t feel the same as my mother’s. My body feels like a broken machine that gives me a lot of trouble to keep it working.
People and things around me are hazy. I feel hazy myself, too. Like I’m not really there. Sometimes I pull hairs out of my head. That feels good, like being alive. My mother wonders why I am having a bold spot on my head and goes to the family doctor with me. But he says it’s nothing, since I do this myself.
I am having stomach ache. I tell my mother I don’t feel well. She thinks I mean I have to vomit. But that’s not what I mean. I can’t make myself clear to her.
I want to be with my mama every minute. I am scared to play at my friend’s house. I am scared when my mother sleeps on Sunday afternoon and she is not there. I cry a lot. “Janet issqueamish about pain”, the mother of one of my friends says.
Daddy sits in his chair, in the corner of our living room. I am two, three, four, five years old. I go to my daddy, hoping for love and attention and warmth, for a loving hug, every day again, despite everything. Daddy clasps me between his legs, holds me, I can’t escape. I don’t want to be forced. I protest, I say “no”, I say “I don’t want to”, I say “let me go”, I try to break loose. But he is stronger and I can’t get loose. He doesn’t let me go, he laughs, he likes this. He enjoys this. He always enjoys it when I am powerless, enjoys when I resist, enjoys me having pain, me being angry, me being scared. He likes that. He just holds me. I feel desperate, paralyzed, I can’t do anything to help myself. It doesn’t help to tell him, it doesn’t help to get angry, it doesn’t help to struggle. I am too small, too weak, there is nothing I can do, he just ignores everything I do. I feel like I’m dead inside. Daddy, why do you do this? I don’t want to be dead. I want to live. Daddy, let me go.
Why doesn’t anyone stand up for me, why doesn’t anyone intervene? Why doesn’t anyone notice that I feel desperate, every day again? He is my father, I am no match for him. I need help. It happens in the living room, everyone is there. No one helps. Why not? I am scared. Why doesn’t anyone help?
I am my daddy’s little princess. His child prodigy. I am his child, his possession. I have to be brilliant, the most brilliant child on earth. Daddy is always showing off with me. But I’m not able to do the things he says I can do. I have to read words that I can’t read, I have to do sums that I can’t do. I have to do math without understanding what he asks — I am only six or seven years old, and I really don’t understand the math problems he gives me. But daddy says I do. I try with all my might. It mustn’t show that I can’t do what he thinks I can, that I am not as brilliant as he thinks. I feel desperate when I see one of his sums, I really am not that brilliant.
No one helps me. No one protects me. Not my mother, not my adult sisters, not my brother. No one notices that my father doesn’t see me, that he doesn’t even realize that I exist. No one notices that he sees me as a thing, that he uses me as a thing. No one sees who my father really is, no one notices what he does. Sometimes they are jealous because of my father’s attention for me. I am daddy’s princess – but he never paid any attention to the others. But it doesn’t feel good to be daddy’s princess. Why doesn’t anyone see that?
My father is ill for a long time and stays in bed. I have to go up to him and say hello. I stand in the doorway of his bedroom at the attic. I don’t want to go inside. Someone says I must go to him, but I don’t want to. I stand there rooted to the earth and see him laying on his bed. I feel terrified and I feel weird, alienated. I don’t want to go to this man, this stranger, this frightening man, my daddy on this bed. Bed. Daddy. Daddy on the bed. Fear. I don’t want. Fear. Here, the memory stops.
I like it when my mother reads to me. She can read stories so that I can see everything in my head. Those are good times. Playing is fun, too. When I am not too tired, I like to play. With friends, with my dolls, with my toy tea-set, with Lego. With my doll’s house with the furniture, the stairs and the lights my brother made in it. I like to roller-skate and to swing — swinging I like the most. I also like hearing children’s songs on the record player. And I like watching television. Sometimes Karen, my eldest sister, plays with me. I feel good when everyone is at home and we are all together. But with the sad things, I am alone. There is no one to go to and cry.
People tell me I must be spent, having three big sisters. That I have four mothers. I believe them, but don’t feel like that. I feel like I don’t have even one mom.
Being a small child, I feel lonely in my family. My older siblings do things together, and I can’t play along with them. They talk, and I can’t take part in their conversations. At best, I can sit mum when they play a game, if and as long they accept me. When they play Monopoly, I can manage the bank, but I can not join in the game. When it is getting cosy in the evening, I have to go to bed. I remember a holiday, laying in the tent at night listening to the others when they are singing songs, my sister Karen playing her guitar. They are having fun. I am alone. I long so intensely to be with them. I feel lonely. I never really belong to them.
I am five or six years old. I remember myself thinking I want to grow up very fast. I want to be as big as my sisters and brother are, so I can join them. I cling to that idea: I will grow up really fast. But then I realize that they will grow as well in the meantime. I will never be able to be as big as they are, I will never get what I long for so much. Suddenly I realize that no matter how fast I will grow, I will never catch up with them. I realize I haven’t the ghost of a chance. The family I long for will never be there. For me, it has never been there, and it will never come. I feel lost and without hope. I long so to be part of a family. I long so to be together and do things together. I long so for safety, security, cosiness, equality, being together. I hate being the little sister.
And always, always they know better. I am sitting on a chair, the music-stand in front of me, seven years old. Recorder in my hands, music book on the music-stand. My sisters, adults already, around me. They are telling me what I do wrong, they want me to learn how to sit upright and how to play the notes. And I refuse. I refuse to do anything they tell me to. I don’t want their comments. I sit there stiff as a stick and won’t do anything anymore. I am fed up with them always telling me what I do wrong, fed up with them always knowing better, fed up with them telling me what to do. My sisters are astonished, they don’t understand, they find me weird and stubborn. They don’t know what it’s like to always be the youngest.
Never ever am I right, never ever can I win a fight. I am no match for anyone. Sometimes I try with my brother, who is closest to me in age, but still seven years older. When Matthew and I fight, I bite him. My mother is angry because of that, this is not allowed. But what can I do? How can I win a fight? How can I defend myself?
When I am about six years old, there is one game that I can win: memory. I am good at it. “But,” says my nineteen-year-old sister Sarah, “that does not count.” It doesn’t count, “since that is because of your age”. All children of this age are good at it, she says, so she doesn’t have a fair chance to win. That I lose all other games because of my age, that does count.
I go to school. I like it. I learn to read and I learn math. I am not that tired anymore. I play with friends. I feel able to have fun, be happy, play. I play at the playground, in the swing, in the sandbox, rollerskating. When I am eight years old, we move to another house. A nice house with a garden. There is a ditch next to the house. I have a boat and I enjoy sailing. I see the nest with the young ducks. the tadpoles we catch. I enjoy my brother’s canoe. Skating at the ice in the winter. It is a lovely place to play. It seems, the sad things I can evade now.
But sometimes I can’t. I am eight years old and working quietly at school. We are doing needlework. I ask a question to my neighbour. She doesn’t answer, so I repeat my question. She still doesn’t answer and doesn’t even look at me. I am amazed. Then I notice that the class is dead silent, and when I look up I see all the children looking at me in astonishment. Something must be terribly wrong. “Now you have to stay inside during break”, the teacher says. Eh? Why? What happened? No one tells me anything. It dawns upon me that the teacher has been very angry and said that anyone who would say a word would have to stay inside. And no one expected that I would say anything — me, the most obedient girl in class. Everyone thinks I know, but I don’t. For me, it has been a quiet lesson, until this bewildering moment. Somehow I missed something. How is that possible? I don’t talk about it with anyone. Too confusing, too scary to talk about.
In my head, there are images that keep coming up again and again. A kind of movie that attracts me. A movie that fascinates me, and scares me at the same time. When it starts I can’t stop it, no matter how much I want it to stop. Images that feel like everything is happening right now, like I am dreaming while I am awake. I call it “my fantasy world” or “my other world”. I don’t tell anyone. It is a secret. A secret that I am ashamed of. I’d rather not think of it, but at the same time, I want to. I play the scenes from my “other world” with my dolls. It is frustrating that my dolls can not spread their legs the right way — then their legs rise, and that’s not the right way. So I can’t tie up the legs, and that has to be done. Sometimes I play the scenes of my “other world” with myself, secretly, alone. Camping in Friesland, I am sitting in my boat behind our tent. I tie up my wrists, the way it has to be in my “other world”. The “movie” starts in my head, my feelings are intense — fear, pain, fascination and some kind of desire. Suddenly, someone is next to me taking pictures. Panic, being caught. In the middle of violent feelings, in the middle of pain, fear and the attractive force of anger and cruelty, I have to pretend that I am playing sweetly. That is hard and sad, and lonely.
Once, I play “my other world” with another child. I am eight years old. I play hospital with a friend. We take turns being nurse or patient. When Mary is nurse, she is nice and tender. I am not. When I am nurse, I am angry and tie her up and tell her I have to hurt her. I want her to do these things to me, but she doesn’t. I am scared because of my violent feelings. But I can’t stop them.
We move to another town. School is fine there, too. I miss my friend Emma, but she often stays with me during vacations. I also stay with her, although I still have trouble being without my mother. I am always scared when I stay with Emma. In my new town, I get a new friend. Hannah and I play together every day. One time, we don’t agree what we are going to do, and Hannah returns home — tomorrow, we will play together again, but not today. Suddenly my mother stays next to me: “If you stay so nasty and selfish, you will have no friends anymore.” I am frightened. No friends anymore, that’s the worst thing that can happen. Also, the anger and hate in my mother’s voice frightens me.
I am going to stay with Hannah. When we are late for dinner, her parents are angry with her. They are really angry. “There will be no punishment now, because Janet is staying here, but that will come later.” Desperate and terrified, I make it through dinner and bedtime. I try to hide how I feel. But late at night, Hannah’s parents find me crying in bed, and I am brought back home. “Homesick”, this is called. I don’t dare to tell that it was Hannah’s punishment that made me so scared.
Despite all of this, I have a seemingly normal life, a very normal children’s life with very normal children’s things. I go to school and learn easily. I have friends, I play — swinging, walking on stilts, skipping the rope, playing with the hoop, playing hide and seek, rollerskating, swimming, sailing, with my boots in the mud so that it almost spills over. I sing in a children’s choir and I play the piper flute in a band. I have goldfish and a rabbit and a turtle. Summers are endless, full of sunshine and warmth. Winters are full of snow and ice. These are good years. Nevertheless, I often feel “different”. I feel I am too silent, too scared, too clumsy, and insecure. This hurts. But some time in the future, this will change, I tell myself. One time, I will manage not to be bad anymore.
It is good to tell and to write in the therapy with Robert. But it doesn’t help. I was sure this would work, but nothing is changing. How should I continue?
My thoughts of suicide become more urgent. Despair, exhaustion, emptiness, every second of the day and the night — unbearable. I feel a continuous urge to kill myself. I have to hold back myself constantly, I have to go against my feelings every minute. I can’t keep it up. In the summer of 1987 I take an overdose of pills and alcohol.
That’s a relief, to take all those pills, to finally be honest. That’s what I have desperately longed for, to be honest, to be genuine, to really tell what is the matter with me, to tell the truth. I don’t know any other way to tell the truth than this. For once, I have escaped from acting, for once I can relax. So now I can live again — now that I have been honest, now that I took all my pills, now things will become better. Feeling relieved, I can call for help.
An ambulance. The emergency unit. The intensive care. A psychiatrist who comes and talks with me. I feel far away, and just let everything happen. I am admitted to a psychiatric ward of the University Hospital.
Although I have resisted hospitalization for a long time, I am relieved to be here now. I feel hope. Here, at this psychiatric ward, I will really make progress. Here I am safe, here I can relax, here I can stop acting, here I am allowed to show how I really feel. Here they will understand, here they will talk with me and ask questions, here there will be enough time to pay attention to my story, enough to recover.
But that’s not the way things work there. Although I am at a treatment unit, no treatment is given. Sandy, the psychiatrist of the ward, is friendly, but I seldom talk with her — once a week I talk with her for three quarters of an hour. Intensively exploring the past doesn’t happen in those conversations. There isn’t time for that. She does ask whether I was sexually abused as a child. “No,” is my answer, “my father was a horrible man, but the only positive thing about him is that he didn’t sexually abuse me. For that, he was too prudish and too Calvinistic.”
At the ward, patients are kept busy with activities that are supposed to be therapy. There is occupational therapy — that’s how I am kept busy in the morning. I can choose between keeping myself busy with art, woodworking, or sewing. I know all this will not help to solve my problems, and more probably will cause me to become exhausted. But I don’t have a choice. I have to comply with their system. I choose to do something that may be useful to me later and I use the occupational therapy as a “free” sewing course. I indeed learn to sew excellently. But it does nothing for my health.
Another activity is creative therapy. I draw a painting of a desperate, abandoned preschooler who cries silently. This drawing tells me what I know already: I am this child, I am desperate and I need to talk. Talk about this child, talk about my childhood. I hope that this drawing will lead to someone trying to talk with me. But that doesn’t happen. Since no one listens to what I draw, creative therapy is a totally useless pastime. (Later, when I go home and want to take these paintings with me, it turns out that is not allowed. The hospital owns them…)
Another activity they use to keep you busy is PMT (psycho-motorical therapy, yes). A kind of elderly gym class for psychiatric patients. Well, I guess it is not bad for people to move a little now and then. Really, nothing wrong with that, although in my case I have my doubts since my body reacts in such a strange way to it. But to call it therapy, is a lie. I try to explain I need something else, I tell them I need to talk about my past. But they call this “resistance against the therapy”… It is maddening.
They give relaxation exercises. But these only reinforce my fear and panic. Apart from all this, there are group discussions which usually are about things like the use of computers or TV, what to do at Group Evening this week, and problems between patients. Not a moment to process the past either. Nevertheless, I am almost relieved that at least people talk then, it is a tiny little bit in the direction of what I need.
I get an extensive psychological examination with lots of tests — from IQ to Rorschach. The psychologist tells me I will have a consultation with him later about the results of the tests, but that doesn’t happen. I never get to know the results. I guess it is unlikely that the result of these tests is meaningful — although the tests consist of a huge amount of questions, none of them ask after the symptoms that tell best what is wrong with me. The fog, the feeling of unreality, the emptiness, feeling dead inside, going “out of my body”, the unintentional sentences where I am crying out for my mother (something I try to hide as much as possible at this ward), the missing pieces of time as happened to me as a child — none of these symptoms come up for discussion in these tests.
What tells more than the tests themselves is the first, failing, attempt to do them. I have to tell something, seeing pictures. “Having to tell” is enough to let me panic. Then, it turns out the psychologist will write down everything I tell. I panic even more. I say: “Don’t write down what I say, I don’t want it!” But he doesn’t stop — he writes down these words. I can’t handle this anymore and I flee. Nobody talks with me why I panicked. The psychologist is irritated because I left the room. He says I have to do it again another time. I turn off all my feelings and work myself through the tests as though I am a robot.
More than anything, I have set my hopes on the family meetings — meetings between me, my parents and sometimes also one of my sisters, led by Sandy, the psychiatrist of the ward. I hope that because of my act of despair and my admission to the hospital, it has finally dawned upon my parents that there are serious problems between them and me. And because of Sandy’s authority as a psychiatrist, they will now, at last, take an honest look at the past and admit what my past did to me. What a difference that would make for me! What I need is the truth, and someone who stands up for this truth in front of my parents — Sandy will do that.
But it doesn’t happen. My parents are far from ready to take a look at themselves. They definitely don’t want to look at the past, and don’t want to know how that past feels for me. Even worse: Sandy makes no attempt whatsoever to push them in that direction. “It’s nobody’s fault that Janet had to be admitted to the psychiatric hospital”, she says. “Everyone in the family carried responsibility for the way things were in our family.” So did I, she says.
Never before have I felt so betrayed. I feel let down so very much. Lonely, abandoned, humiliated, betrayed.
The only result of the “family meetings” is that my mother starts calling me frequently in the hospital (and later at home), to complain how hard it is for her to live with my father, and that my father starts calling me frequently to complain how hard it is for him to live with my mother. And I am here in this hospital and no one asks how I feel. I break off the contact with my parents.
Treatment I don’t get in the hospital. Honest discussions with my parents don’t take place. The ways I have to waste my time with useless “therapies” is frustrating. Then what do these months in this hospital bring me? Some rest. I sleep better, I’m less scared at night. For a while I don’t have to fend for myself, I don’t have to go shopping and cook meals. Therefore, the permanent feeling that “everything is too much” recedes. But the only good thing it really brings me is some new friends.
At first, I’m disappointed with my fellow patients. Before entry into the hospital I thought that all psychiatric patients felt the same desire as me: to try to find the truth about one’s life. But I appear to be the only one at this ward feeling this URGE. This is a disappointment. Nevertheless, at this ward there are some people of my own age who are also having a hard time, who are at odds with themselves and their families. In this group, I can be more honest than in “normal” society with “normal” people. I don’t have to pretend so much toward these patients, than I had towards my fellow students. Talking with them about feelings, I dare to say more than I dared with college friends, and this gives me a feeling of comradeship that helps me. Wry jokes about the hospital treatment and our parents bring relief. I make friends, and these are good and lasting friendships.
Also, for the first time in my life, I fall in love. In love with a nice boy with a great sense of humor and a lot of problems. Immediately, I run into my own limits and problems. In love or not — it turns out I can’t stand any physical contact. That is a disappointment. For me, and also for Anthony of course. I don’t have any sexual feelings, I have hardly ever felt them, except for something in my “other world” that looks a bit like sexual feelings but that I feel ashamed of. This relationship has so many obstacles that it never really becomes a relationship.
Finally I leave the hospital — I did gain some good friends, but I lost the hope that I felt when I entered. I am disillusioned about psychiatry, disappointed by the incompetence I found, hurt by the many painful and ignorant remarks of the staff that I encountered in those months. Desperately, I try to get heard in the last weeks of this hospitalization. But Sandy, who before was of good will (“What is it that you want to tell?” “I don’t know…”), Sandy doesn’t want to talk with me at all anymore. I have no other choice than to return home, although I am not any better. Treatment ward now is closed for me.
Psychiatric Emergency Unit
Subsequent admissions into this hospital, at the psychiatric emergency unit, are even more painful. Only once in this hospital I meet a psychiatrist with whom I can talk well and I think: “If I could have the opportunity to talk with him every day for a year, maybe then I would recover.” But at the crisis unit of this hospital, one has to leave after a week, whether one’s problem has been solved or not. So, I have no more than about five meetings with him.
Often I am bewildered by the incompetent remarks from the staff. “You can express yourself musically, can’t you? That way you can help yourself.” I can understand when friends show such incomprehension, although that hurts, too. But a professional… Is she really that naive, to think that one can get rid of problems like I have by expressing oneself musically? She doesn’t believe me when I explain, she seems to think that I am not motivated. “You are bright, so you can solve your problems,” someone else says. Unfortunately, my intelligence doesn’t help me. I already tried everything I could think of. I need something else — and I thought they would know. But they know even less than I do.
Often, I am jealous of psychotic patients. Their problems are taken seriously, and I long for that, too. Psychotic patients aren’t told that their symptoms are just a way to manipulate the staff — I am. They aren’t blamed for behaving unnecessarily helpless — I am. They aren’t told that if they’d really do their best they wouldn’t have all those problems — I am. I find out that here are some symptoms that nurses and psychiatrists can’t stand, and which often causes them to react in an insulting and hostile way: suicidal behavior, self-injury, and regressive, childish behavior. Unfortunately, these are exactly the three symptoms that are apparent with me.
I know I often behave in a childish way. I know this is weird. But I don’t have much else, this is the only behavior that is more or less sincere. Psychiatrists think I am doing better when I behave like an adult, and they discourage regressive behavior, they react annoyed. But the adult behavior they like so much is only acting. They consider it as healthy, as a step towards recovery, but I notice that it makes me more ill. Somewhere in this childish behavior lies the key to the solution of my problems. That’s what Robert thinks, too, but in the University Hospital I have to do my utmost not to let this child take over my behavior, and that is difficult when I go off-track so much that I end up at the emergency ward.
Suicide thoughts are with me all the time. Am I going to die, am I not going to die, will I stay alive, won’t I stay alive, can I hold on, can’t I hold on, how long do I have to continue holding on, how long do I have to give myself a chance, when am I allowed to give up, do I want to die, do I want to live? It is a daily struggle, that I sometimes lose. “Next crisis, you should choose another solution”, they tell me at the psychiatric ward, after another overdose. They don’t understand that my solution gives me something that their advice doesn’t give. Seeking distraction, doing things that give pleasure, being nice to myself, thinking positively, relaxation exercises, going to friends, talking about my problems, calling a telephonic emergency service that can’t solve my problems, alarming a social worker who thinks admission to the psychiatric ward is not necessary — it doesn’t work at all. So next time, I again take all my pills. It ends up OK every time, but at the ward they get angry. Wasn’t I supposed to act differently?
Hurting myself is my solution for the emptiness. I desperately long to “feel something”. I don’t feel anything, I feel like a walking dead body. My belly is a huge hole, and only the edges leave a somewhat painful feeling. Pain is better than a hole. When I feel pain, then at least I exist. So I hurt myself. As a child, I did this by pulling hairs out of my head. Now I start cutting my wrists with a knife, to relieve the inner pressure, and to feel somewhat alive, to be honest for a moment. I never cut just anywhere, I only cut myself at the blood vessels on my wrists. Only when I run the risk of dying if I go too far, I find the relief I’m looking for. It’s a permanent “game” with death, finding out how far I will go today. A “game” that relieves the pressure so that I can stay alive.
Other times, cutting is a way to punish myself when I make “mistakes”. Making “mistakes”, having said something wrong or maybe having said something wrong, hearing something wrong, forgetting something, making a mistake during a concert or exam or whatever — it causes a panic and feelings of being bad. When I cut myself, I find some relief.
I always carry razor blades with me, in my pocket. This makes me feel safe, I need to know that I can use them whenever I need them. Even the idea that I can’t use them causes panic. I need to be sure that I can do something when the pressure and the tension get too high, when I can’t stand it anymore.
At the crisis unit, you’re not allowed to carry razor blades with you. I take them with me all the same. The nurses ask me to turn them in. I refuse. They become angry. I still refuse. They start to threaten. I refuse once more. Three of them together, they pick me up and hold me on my bed and examine me. I feel awful. But what I remember most is the awareness that something is amiss with my feelings when this happens. It feels like my feelings don’t belong to this situation but to another. It feels like I am imitating something, I am imitating a part of my “other world”. But I don’t understand why I do this. I don’t talk about it with anyone. And nobody talks with me. When they get the razor blades, they leave.
I can understand them taking away my razor blades — it is clear what I am going to do with them. But it would be more helpful if they would talk with me. If they would talk about the symptoms behind my despair, that would help. Ask about my panic, about my nightmares, my fears, the fog, the emptiness, the alienation. That would be a beginning, and asking the right questions, it wouldn’t be difficult to find out why I wanted to hurt myself. Then it would be far more easy for me to stop doing it. But that’s not what they talk about with me — they talk about the ward rules that I break, and threaten to send me home when I break the rules. It would even make a difference if they would just say that they feel sorry when I hurt myself, that would help me not to do it. But they don’t say that. When I ask them: “Why do you feel it is appropriate to send me home in three days while you don’t allow me to have razor blades here at the ward? I will have them at home, won’t I?”, they answer: “If you’re home, you can do to yourself whatsever you want, that’s not our problem.” Silently, unseen, I leave the ward.
Aimlessly I wander about for a couple of hours. I feel lonely and lost. I don’t have any place to go to. I long for a warm and safe place to hide. But I can’t find one. I consider going by train to where ever the train will bring me. Everywhere it will be better than here. But I don’t dare to. I know I can’t explain it to the ticket inspector. There isn’t any other place to go than back to the hospital. I try to come in as unseen as I left. But this doesn’t work. They see me and they are angry with me. They had to inform the police, how the hell could I leave without asking permission? I can’t tell them. I am surprised that they do mind whether I am safe or not — that’s exactly why I left, they made it clear to me that they didn’t mind. But, well, I guess, they are officially responsible for me while I’m here — I remember Paul at the Riagg.
Finally I leave, prematurely. “Against advice” I go home. Crisis or no crisis, at this ward I am breaking down. Better then, to have no “help” at all.
In fact, I am so far gone that I can’t live on my own and need a long-lasting admission to a psychiatric ward. But looking at my experiences at the psychiatric treatment ward of the University Hospital, and knowing about the treatment protocols of other treatment wards, I suspect that such a long-lasting treatment ward will not help me. I suspect that such a treatment will give me neither the therapy, nor the safety that I need. I am even scared that my condition will worsen so much that I will not survive. But how can I cope at home? I am too scared, too tired, too sleepless, too suicidal, too far gone to be able to live on my own. Robert presents a solution by offering consultations twice a week, and when it turns out that’s not enough, even three or four times a week. That way, I manage to stay in my own home, with admissions to the crisis ward when things go wrong, but all the same at home with ambulant therapy.
By offering contact very frequently, Robert does his best for me in a very special way. The disadvantage is that I am very dependent on Robert. Without frequent contact I can’t manage. It’s the therapy sessions and the phone calls in between that keep me alive. Talking with Robert breaks through the emptiness, in the contact with Robert I can stop acting for a moment, then I can cry, I hold out hope, keep my self-hurting behavior in check. As soon as he is away, I can’t hold on anymore. So Robert’s summer holidays are a serious problem for me.
Before the summer of 1989 starts, we get in touch with Birch Manor, a psychiatric hospital near the city where I live, to make sure that I will have someone to talk with during the summer. And that, if things go wrong with me, I will be admitted to Birch Manor instead of the University Hospital. That indeed happens during the summer. Fortunately, in this hospital I don’t have to leave the emergency ward after a week, but I can stay there for five weeks.
This hospitalization is a relief. At the crisis unit of Birch Manor, the nursing staff does not become stressed or malicious in response to my problems. They have a lot of patience and take a lot of time to talk with me, often during a walk, which makes talking more easy. They react calmly and without blaming me for my self-hurting behavior, my suicidal thoughts, or for the mugs that I smash to pieces in despair. They pay attention to what I try to explain about my feelings. Although I can’t explain really well, they show their good will to listen and to understand, which prevents accusations of manipulation or drawing attention. Because of the daily talks with the staff, they know me, and approach me when they see I am in trouble. And I dare to go to them when I feel that things go wrong with me — I am used to talking with them and I trust that they will react in a friendly way. I am happy I can stay here, and I feel thankful for the way they treat me there.
But it doesn’t bring me real change. Robert’s therapy doesn’t bring real change, either. Both Robert and I try as good as we can, but it doesn’t help. Therapy enables me to hold on, but there isn’t any cure in sight, or even any improvement. I still feel scared and empty, living in a fog. I still sleep very badly. I can’t fall asleep, and I can’t sleep on, waking up every hour. The worst moments are when I wake up because of noise, outside or inside my house. Then I am completely shaken, desperate and terrified and can’t sleep anymore. I still have have nightmares, several times each night. Still, I dream about German soldiers or unknown men who chase me. Sometimes I dream about my father. I dream my father is sexually abusing me — that never happened, so where do these dreams come from? Sometimes I dream about my “other world”, about this movie in my head that often forces itself unto me. These are dreams that stay with me during the day, and I have a lot of trouble handling them. I can’t get the scenes out of my head. One such dream I write down in my diary. “At the end I seek refuge in a corner, like a small wounded animal, curled up in a fetal position, hidden in myself.” That is exactly how I always feel, the clearest way to describe what is wrong with me: “a small, wounded animal” that seeks refuge to die alone. Why do I feel this way? Why do I dream this?
Stettbacher’s four steps
It is 1990, six years after I visited a therapist for the first time. And I am not any better than I was before I got help. Actually, I am much worse. I feel desperate, I hurt myself, I am at the crisis ward regularly, and I feel so unstable that I can only manage with the help of four therapy sessions a week. My immune system is failing, and I am ill six months a year with fever, laryngitis or other infections.
It is clear that the Riagg and the psychiatric wards at the University Hospital worsened my situation. But for several years now I have been in therapy with Robert, a psychotherapist who helps me to process my past. I am convinced that I am on the right track by trying to process my childhood experiences. Yet there is no improvement whatsoever. Why don’t I get better? What am I doing wrong, what is Robert doing wrong? How can the therapy be changed so I will improve? I have no idea.
A year ago I have read Alice Miller’s book Banished Knowledge. In this book Miller describes the therapy of the Swiss psychotherapist Konrad Stettbacher. She writes that this therapy helped herself very much to process her childhood experiences. Now I cling to this. I hope that this new therapy will help me, and I wait impatiently for Stettbacher’s book to come out. Finally, August 1990 it’s in the Dutch bookstores. I buy it immediately. And I am terribly disappointed.
Making Sense of Suffering turns out to be a loose collection of notes and instructions for patients in Stettbacher’s clinic, poorly written. I feel it tells me nothing new, I know all this already. Is this what I looked forward to so much? Stettbacher’s method appears too superficial and rational to me. I do not understand how Alice Miller could be so enthusiastic about it. How could this therapy work, even without a therapist, like Alice Miller writes, why does she think that exactly this therapy can help people cure themselves? Besides, Stettbacher’s therapy is very verbal. And talking is precisely what I can’t do. I wonder if Stettbacher, like so many other therapists, would tell me that I must learn to talk before he can help me — whereas I need therapy first to learn to talk.
But Stettbacher also mentions another way to work with his four steps of the therapy process: by writing. And writing I can do, so maybe this could be a way to try the therapy. I don’t believe in this therapy, but I am desperate and I don’t see any other way to proceed. The therapy that I do isn’t working, I trust Alice Miller, and I have nothing to lose — so I take paper and pen, lay the book next to me with the description of Stettbacher’s four steps, and start writing. On the basis of these steps, I write down a memory that comes up at that moment. It’s not a very important memory, not even a memory of my parents. It is a small incident with one of my sisters. I write using the four steps, I write what I perceived (first step), how I felt (second step), what my thoughts were (third step), and what I needed back then (fourth step).
In spite of my disappointment and disbelief when I read Stettbacher’s book, these few pages of writing lead to a big breakthrough. “Why did you do that? For what reason did this happen? Did it happen because I…?” I just ask myself the questions that I read in the book. What are my answers? Yes, I thought this had been my fault, I thought this happened because of me. Then suddenly I notice that this wasn’t true. This wasn’t my fault, I was not responsible for what my sister did, she wasn’t right, I didn’t cause this, I didn’t provoke it. I had always thought that I did. But my sister could have reacted differently. Never before I had realized this. She actually could have reacted differently.
The incident that I wrote about had been really minor, but suddenly I realize that this feeling of guilt is a central pattern in my whole history and in the problems I have. The past years, I always protested when someone said something to me about guilt and my own contribution to what happened — people often start talking about this, they seem to think that realizing one’s own contribution helps to cure. I always thought that I protested so fiercely since I knew very well that I was not guilty. I always thought that I could see clearly that children are not guilty when adults abuse them, emotionally or otherwise. But somewhere in a corner of my mind, I still thought I was guilty, and my problems remained. I had been right in my protests, but since I wasn’t aware of my own feelings of guilt, it hadn’t helped me.
I remember that psychiatrists often called my behavior “victimizing myself”. All too painfully I remember in which hurtful way they talked about this to me. They did this in several ways, varying from merely ignoring me when I tried to make clear how I felt, to making negative, even hostile remarks about my behavior. Or they asked me kindly but urgently to stop “acting like a victim”, to no longer be the victim of my past. But that didn’t work. It took until now for my “victim role” to disappear, now I find out that I really was a victim. This “victimizing myself” disappears only now, now that I can feel and admit that I was a victim, and can continue feeling and admitting it…
Now that I realize my feelings of guilt were unjust, I suddenly feel much better. My most troublesome symptom — that I feel desperate every second of the day, and therefore constantly feel the desire to kill myself or to cut myself — mostly disappears. I no longer feel the need to cut myself or to kill myself.
In the next months I use the four steps now and then. I write down memories, using the four steps. But without any noticeable result.
At the end of 1990 my boy-friend Anthony tells me he is in love with someone else. I immediately feel hazy and small, I withdraw totally, staring into the void. I can’t talk anymore, I feel terrified and desperate and suicidal. It is clear to me that my reaction can’t have anything to do with Anthony. I myself don’t want to continue this relationship and I had already decided to tell him, but hadn’t yet found the courage and strength to do it. I am not able to be in a relationship, with anyone. A man scares me too much. I not only say “no” to all sexual contact, I don’t even want to be touched by Anthony. When I do allow it, this is just because I feel that I should. But I can’t stand it and actually I can’t even stand being in one room together.
I like Anthony a lot, but I don’t want a relationship with him. I already told him I’d rather have a kind of brother-and-sister contact. It’s understandable that he has fallen in love with someone else. I’m losing something I didn’t want to keep — so why I am so upset? All my thoughts are about killing myself, and I have to try hard to hold myself back.
A therapy session with Robert does not bring any change. I am aware that I am a danger to myself. I will not be able to resist the impulse to kill myself. I need protection from self-harm. Robert arranges an intake for Birch Manor.
This time, it isn’t at all easy to be admitted. The psychiatrist who has to decide about my admission to Birch Manor reacts with anger. He is mad at me, and tells me that my regressive behavior is completely stupid. He doesn’t want to admit me to the hospital, since then he would reward this crazy behavior. Do I know how ridiculous I am, sitting there scared and huddled up? I’m not a baby, am I? I just should take all those pills, no big deal, I surely would awaken after some time.
But he doesn’t dare to take this risk. “I am fed up with you, but I will have to admit you to the hospital. Would you really kill yourself, I would get problems since you asked me for help.” He is pissed off that I caused him to do something he doesn’t want to, and he says he is going to call Robert now and he wants me to be there while he is going to tell Robert the truth about me. He calls Robert and does his utmost to use to most insulting words. It is a long and painful phone call. Robert tries to calm him down and explain the situation, but doesn’t get through. Later, Robert reacts upset when he hears from me that I was present at this phone call.
Finally, on Christmas eve, admission to the psychiatric hospital follows. I stay at a ward where I have been before and where I feel safe, with a friendly staff. One of them says he is impressed with the progress I made since the last time I was there, acting much more like an adult. But at first during this hospitalization nothing changes. I stay terrified, desperate and suicidal.
After a week I realize that I should work with the four steps again. Here, at this ward, I feel safe enough to dare to look carefully what lays behind my pain and fear. I find a quiet place and take paper and pencil again. I start writing and after some hours of writing and very carefully observing my feelings, I become aware of feelings of shame and of being bad. I see a vision of people looking at me. I see them pointing scornfully at me and I see that they feel I am inferior and bad since Anthony has fallen in love with someone else. I see an image of people who don’t want me anymore. I am nothing, I am bad, I have no right to exist. Suddenly I realize that it is just bullshit that “these people” do find me bad, and that I don’t have to take that to heart. I am not bad, I don’t have to feel ashamed and I stand up for myself with the help of the four steps of Stettbacher’s therapy. Then I hear my mother: “You are a bad, nasty and selfish child, and if you stay that way, you won’t have friends anymore.” To me, this situation with Anthony was “evidence” that she was right. Her prediction came true — my boyfriend left me. The feeling of being bad, being ashamed about that and the fear that everyone would know how bad I was, had been unbearable. That had made me so upset that I had wanted to die. Now that this is made clear and put straight, it is over. My desire to kill myself immediately vanishes, and the next day I can go home.
These two self-help therapy sessions, this last one about shame and the first one about guilt, have the result that I am much more stable. After this, I never need to go to a psychiatric hospital anymore.
Encouraged by the good results, I start working intensively with Stettbacher’s therapy. But after a month, I can’t go on. I feel stressed and don’t know how to continue the therapy. More and more, working with the therapy feels like a way to achieve. I feel stressed. I am not able to continue this way. Instead of feeling better, I feel worse. I stop working with the therapy of the four steps.
Quitting when I get problems with activities and become stressed — it’s a disastrous way of dealing with problems that I started using the years before. First I stopped with the theoretical parts of my study, then with recitals at the conservatory, then with the whole study, then with teaching, now with Stettbacher’s therapy — a hopeless and disastrous series of withdrawals, more and more confining my life. Robert encourages these decisions, this is the way he works. Let go of everything, and then something better will grow. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way.
A major obstacle for my attempts to write with the help of the four steps, are the memories of my father. The therapy seems to work well when I process memories of my mother, but not at all when I work with memories of my father. Again and again I end up in painful, unbearable feelings of despair, of not being able to reach him, not being seen, not being heard, my words being totally ignored — even now that I say the words in the therapy. I feel like talking into the void, and this is exactly what my memories are about, and what I try to solve. But I don’t make any progress and I get very scared, unbearably scared. All my words ricochet off him, as if I hadn’t spoken them. It is as if I do not exist, as if my life is slipping away from me, and this feels terribly frightening. I feel worse and worse and I don’t know how to continue this therapy. I don’t dare to continue.
Something else that causes problems with the therapy of the four steps, is that Robert tries to do the therapy of the four steps with me in sessions with him — and this fails again and again since I can’t talk. I want to talk, I want to tell, but I can’t say anything. The words are in my head, but I can’t get them out of my mouth, I hardly say anything during a session.
In all sorts of ways, Robert tries to make me speak, to make me say at least one word, at least the one word with which I have to start the four steps: “mama”. Often Robert is nice, understanding and patient when he tries to make me talk, at other times he is irritated and forcing, but nothing makes me talk. Or he puts pressure on me by saying that healing will never be possible for me if I don’t start talking, and that we have to stop the therapy since it is useless this way. I become scared, but remain silent. Sometimes I succumb and say what Robert wants me to say, and what I myself would like to say but can’t. Then I shut off all my feelings, step out of myself and say it: “mama”. But this brings no breakthrough or step forward, I merely become overtired from the stress it gives me. I try so very hard, so terribly hard, to talk, every therapy session again. It’s wearing me out.
I tell Robert I can do Stettbacher’s therapy by writing, that I do write memories at home using the four steps. And that I even can do it aloud a little bit, at home with a cassette recorder. But Robert doesn’t want to hear of it. He says it won’t be any good. I have to do it with him, aloud with him, only then it will bring change. “I feel frustrated, I can’t work with you the way you are now.” Instead of trying self-help, I should put my energy in contact with Robert and solve the problems I encounter in the sessions. And then I hand myself in and let the self-help go. I am too scared of losing him, I do what he wants.
But we don’t manage to let me do Stettbacher’s therapy in Robert’s sessions and soon we stop trying. So Stettbacher’s therapy is shelved.
Instead of the therapy of the four steps, we now start doing “body psychotherapy”. By being touched and getting massages, I am “brought into contact with myself”. And it works: I start having feelings when he does this. Overwhelming, severely painful and frightening feelings — but feelings. Body psychotherapy thus offers me a way out of the emptiness, a way out of the alienation and the feeling of being dead inside. Finally the hole in my stomach is filled — with pain. This gives me feelings of relief and healing — or at least a step towards healing. For a short while I feel I’m alive, I feel that I exist, that I am myself, that I am honest.
It never lasts long, this having feelings. Suddenly it stops and I sink in. I don’t move anymore, don’t cry anymore, I am not there anymore, apathetic, silent, weak, empty, far away. I say that I’m going “to the colors”, and that as a small child, I also went “to the colors” laying in bed. Colors in my head. Robert grumbles, I should continue bodywork, I shouldn’t get into these colors, I shouldn’t stop the bodywork after such a short time, I should continue, only then it will bring me cure. But I can’t help not having feelings anymore.
And after the sessions the feelings never last. I can’t bring home with me the relief of being able to feel. At home, there is still the alienation, the emptiness, the feeling of being dead inside. And actually, this gets worse — the more I feel during a therapy session, the worse the emptiness and feeling dead afterwards. But of course, this just needs doing more sessions and continuing the therapy, then the result will stay in between sessions, too. This therapy works, it even works spectacularly. Body psychotherapy brings relief, and I always return to it to escape from the arid desert of emptiness. Body psychotherapy gives me hope. Body psychotherapy will bring the solution.
But some techniques of body psychotherapy I hate. Like the way Robert sometimes physically pushes me against the floor or a wall. Somehow I realize that this is wrong, that this is actually abuse, and I often refuse this way of working. But all too often I am no match for him and I can’t prevent this abuse. Robert has too much authority, he says that it is good for me, to express my feelings when he is holding me, and I can’t defend myself against this idea.
The biggest problem is “rage work”. I have to let out my anger by screaming, beating and kicking — against pillows that I should talk to as if they are my parents. He says this brings cure. But it doesn’t feel like that, it always makes me feel extremely empty and dead inside. Robert says I should continue for a longer time and become even more angry. But the only result is an even more horrible emptiness. Often I refuse this technique. I myself feel that anger is not a “real” feeling but is a disguise for other feelings, like sadness, pain and fear. I experience acting out anger as useless and false, I feel it leads me away from my real feelings. I think that working with my real feelings is much more useful. Robert says I am resisting the therapy, or he says I lack motivation for the therapy, or he says I don’t have enough courage, or I do not really want to be cured. He likes the “power” of the anger, and often tries to lead me to it. He says I walk away from the confrontation with my parents. I strongly feel he is wrong, but I can’t protest. He is the authority and I am the patient. I am ill, so it is obvious to think that I am wrong.
It is hard to escape from being the patient and Robert being the authority. So I am very relieved when I read a book by Thomas Gordon. Gordon writes that anger is not a primary feeling, but disguises other feelings, he calls anger a secondary feeling. With the help of this book and this authority, I succeed better in staying by my own experiences and refusing to do “rage work”.
Other forms of body psychotherapy, I continue. Body psychotherapy seems the best way to solve my problems, the fastest way to get feelings. I hope so strongly that this therapy will bring me cure. I am so fed up with a life that consists of being ill and doing therapy. I long for a normal life, an active life, a life with a job like other people have, living my life in a sensible way, a life that gives more than being lonely and laying in bed ill all the time. I want to feel well, I want to be better, this therapy has to work. I did every therapy I could think of, this therapy has to work otherwise the situation would be unbearable and I would kill myself. I can’t hold on being ill all the time without having another kind of life in prospect.
At the moment I am in danger of feeling ultimately desperate, I turn the switch and decide that the therapy worked and that I am better now. Then I convince myself that I will finally be able to do all the things I wanted to do so very much but couldn’t do for so long.
So I start working as a volunteer one morning in the week, or I start taking classes, or I start sporting or something like that. Small things, but revolutionary for me. And always with the idea that this is the first step, and planning what will follow next and what will be the result in the end: a normal life. I long so much for that…
But soon, I notice that even this first step is hard for me. That I feel very tired and don’t feel good at all. But I hold on, thinking that I just have to get used to it, and when I keep on, it will go better and better and in the end I will be able to work normally. I remember that I thought so before and then it didn’t work out. But I am convinced that this time things are really different, since now I really changed by this body psychotherapy. Now body psychotherapy has cured me, now I will manage.
After some months, I collapse. I feel exhausted, depressed, desperate and suicidal. Then I put my hopes again on resting and “letting go” and concentrating fully on therapy sessions with Robert and taking time for myself. Then I’m convinced that this will make me better. After some time it turns out that the therapy doesn’t make me better, so then again I don’t want to lose hope and start thinking that I am really better now and start new activities that give meaning and prospect. But despite the hope I set on therapy, despite my determination to build up a meaningful life, it doesn’t help. I get worse and worse. I can do less and less. I am ill more often, I have a fever more often and longer. When will I get better?
In the summer of 1993 I go on a holiday to Sweden. Together with Max, a man I met a few months before. Max is nice. I decide I should stop being scared of men. After all, I have no reason to be so scared, so I should just ignore it and it will be over. And this is only a friendship, so there is nothing to be afraid of. So I do, and apparently it works.
But when in Sweden, within a day I feel awful. I have strong feelings of fear, aversion and hate. I can’t stand seeing or hearing Max or be in his vicinity, which isn’t easy when you sleep in the same tent… It’s clear to me that my feelings don’t have anything to do with Max. He doesn’t do anything that can reasonably cause these feelings. My feelings aren’t consistent with his behavior. I start to think these feelings may tell me something about my childhood.
The first week we camp with a group of people, in a summer camp where activities are organized with Voice Dialogue. I don’t have any experience with Voice Dialogue, but it turns out to be a way to see yourself in different roles, a way to let the different “voices” inside yourself speak. The people in this group are nice, I feel at home and I am touched by the respectful way people discuss their feelings and memories in this group. Scared, confused, amazed but also relieved, I realize that my feelings are telling me about sexual abuse. I feel intensely relieved that I can finally tell the truth about myself. But I also feel insecure since I don’t have clear memories. On the one hand I feel like a liar when I tell the group that I have been sexually abused, on the other hand I feel very clearly that this is not a lie, and I feel tremendously relieved that I now at last tell the truth.
Home again, I forget what I realized in the summer camp. I feel very frightened when I come home and I stay terrified in the weeks after — but I don’t understand why. Not even in the therapy sessions with Robert do I tell what I thought and felt in this group in Sweden about sexual abuse. I don’t think about it anymore. I don’t know it anymore.
But a few months later I am confronted with it again. During a therapy session, I manage not to plunge into my feelings like I do so often (like Robert wants me to), but to explore very carefully the borderline where feeling nothing changes into feeling something. And there, to my astonishment, I find a memory. Not a memory with images, but with only physical feelings. It’s like feeling in my body again what happened when I was a small child. I feel something entering me, in my vagina, I have the impression that it is a finger, it hurts and I feel afraid and staggered, and it is my father who does this.
It is startling to feel this memory, it evokes a lot of anxiety and confusion, but I also feel relieved. The pieces of the puzzle of my life seem to fall in place. It seems to fit so clearly. I never before experienced something so real and so true.
I hope that this is the breakthrough in therapy that I have been waiting for so long, I hope that now my symptoms will really improve. But that doesn’t happen, nothing changes. Instead, a period follows with a lot of fear and confusion, with doubt and feelings of guilt about my memory and at the same time a feeling of being sure that it is true. It feels often like I am out of my depth, it feels like being in an earthquake that won’t stop.
Often I blame myself for lying about being sexually abused, but at the same time I am sure that that it happened. I think that I would feel better if I would get memories in the form of images instead of only feelings in my body, and I try to find them in the therapy. But I don’t succeed. Desperately I try to find evidence of what did happen and what didn’t.
I start doing group therapies, going to Robert only once a week. I long for group therapy, to break through my loneliness, to meet people who also struggle with themselves, to find the confidence that felt so good during the Voice Dialogue camp. And to be able to do therapy for a longer period, like in group therapies that last a weekend or a week. If body psychotherapy makes me feel alive, but sessions of one hour aren’t enough for real changes, then maybe doing body psychotherapy during a weekend or a week will bring recovery. Maybe there I will get clarity about what happened with me. Maybe there I will get memories in images, that will enable me to know what the puzzle looks like.
I go to these group therapies in high hopes. I cherish the moments that I have feelings, the moments that I feel real and alive. I enjoy the nice people that I meet in these groups. And I come home with the intense hope and desire that these days have been a turning point in my life, with the hope that these days brought me real change, that a switch has been turned inside of me. Inspired by my cure, I start a job-application training, or more volunteer work, or classes. And then I discover that nothing has changed. I am still ill and exhausted. Each time I am disappointed.
Sometimes I take up the four steps of Stettbacher again. I write a short story about being sexually abused, using the four steps while I write. This immediately has effect. That night, I sleep for five hours without interruption, and the subsequent nights about four hours. I have never, for at least twenty years, slept more than two hours without a break, and almost always I only slept one hour at a stretch. Sleeping for three, four, five hours is a miracle. But after some nights, this stops. I again wake up every hour.
Still I am scared and confused. I don’t have anything to fall back on, I don’t know what did and didn’t happen to me. I am afraid of my memories, but also long for clarity. I feel unstable, shaken by fear and uncertainty. Maybe if I would get clarity, maybe then the earthquake would stop.
What is left that I could try to do? Hypnosis, we haven’t tried that yet, that could bring clarity. But we both fear hypnosis, Robert and I fear what it might bring up. Robert arranges for an assistant during the sessions, to make the sessions more safe, to be sure we can handle what is going to happen. Then the sessions start. For the hypnosis, I have to relax and concentrate and imagine a nice and safe place. But — all these things I can’t. I can’t relax, relaxation is something I never experienced. I am always on the alert and can’t stop it. I never ever experienced a place where I felt nice and safe, and can’t even imagine it in my fantasy. The Voice Dialogue camp came most close to feeling safe, but not enough to be able to relax when I remember it. I can’t stop my feelings of tension, fear and caution. After some time, it is clear that hypnosis is not a suitable therapy for me. I can’t be hypnotized. This method doesn’t help me either.
How can I find out what happened? Did my mother see or notice anything? I haven’t been in touch with my family for years, and therefore it is not easy for me to start talking. I organize a meeting, and it turns out to be a good meeting, but it doesn’t bring me new facts.
Then I decide to do it: to talk with my father. That is the only thing left that can help. I need information from my father. I want to talk with my father about my memories. Maybe, with Robert, in Robert’s consulting room, I am able to do this. Maybe then I dare to tell, maybe then I dare to ask my questions. Maybe then my father will be willing to answer my questions honestly.
To make an appointment, I have to call him. I don’t dare, but I do it. To make it as safe as possible, I call during a therapy session, from Robert’s room, with Robert next to me, on Monday June 27th, 1994. It is a special telephone call. For the first time in my life I am talking with my father without behaving like a nice, cute, docile, smiling little girl. I talk with my father in a serious, calm and adult way. My father acts lightly, says there is still a bicycle of mine “at home” — he can take it with him when he comes to meet me. “No”, I answer quietly, “that can’t be combined with what I want to talk about.” We’ll see each other next week, Tuesday July 5th.
I feel relieved about this phone call. I am surprised and happy that I could do this, being real in the contact with my father. I feel good, being real, being genuine, all the more because I could do this towards my father. This gives me hope. Hope that I will be able to talk with my father, hope that I dare to ask for the information I need. Hope that I at least will be able to deduct something from my father’s reaction, something about the truth of my story. What shall I tell? What shall I ask? What evidence do I have, would he deny? Shall I talk about my “other world”? I hesitate. I am scared. Is it wise, to talk with my father? What should I do, would he deny? Am I strong enough to still discuss my truth in that situation? But maybe we will just have a good talk. And I am taken with the feeling that I did exist during the phone call. I feel touched. For the first time in my life, I did truly exist in the contact with my father. I will be fine, finally.
Two days later, a heart attack shatters my hopes.
So, that’s how it came to pass, that’s how I came too late. Too late to ask my father my questions, too late to see my father’s reaction to my story, too late to get answers to my questions. I am left with a thousand “I-should-haves”. For ten years I have been in search of the missing pieces of my life, and now, now I am just six days late to find them.
Desperately I try to gather some pieces. My father who had talked with the reverend about “terrible things” he did. My mother, who tells me after the funeral that my father behaved extraordinarily nervous in his last days, without mentioning his appointment with me to her. My brother Matthew and my sister Karen, who tell me they already suspected that my father sexually abused me — but who didn’t actually see this. My cousin, who lived with us when I was three to five years old and who believes my story when I tell him — but who didn’t see anything of it either. My sisters Sarah and Suzanne, who don’t want to hear a single bad word about my father, who don’t want to talk with me, and react with anger and hateful remarks when I write them a letter. There are only a few small pieces, the pieces I can gather.
Without help from my father and without any more clues from my relatives, I still need to get the picture of my life completed. But how? I guess it will be body psychotherapy that should help, Robert’s therapy and group therapies. But they don’t work. I keep being ill, tired, scared, empty, sleepless, lonely and alienated in my fog. Will I ever recover, now that the only witness has died?