Dissociation Beneath the Suds and Psychiatric Labels

Warning: Graphic Content

“I have heard real stories,” said my female therapist, “of men doing graphic and horrible things to women. I don’t think based on what you just told me, there is any justification for any accusation whatsoever. I think you have been saying a lot of hurtful things.”

I figured my mother who was paying for these forced sessions put the shrink up to this confrontation. I never did bring the issue of sexual abuse up.

It is true I have had an ongoing suspicion that I was sexually abused. Particularly when locked up for extended periods of time for an eating disorder, and most recently for schizophrenia, my suspicion that my suffering had sexual abuse behind it escalated.

It was also true that in the state hospital I had just gotten out of, I had made rash accusations.

I can only recall making the accusation against my mother to my best college friend who had a nefarious past of drug dealing and a grandiose mafioso mentality while manic. When I confided in him that I had alerted the press in a section eight housing authority complex, he threatened me. With this feeling I had been led into this role I was playing as a whistle-blower all along, I’d fled towards Canada until the police intercepted me.

From the phone in the State Hospital, without knowing his level of responsibility for the fact that I was there, I told him what had transpired between myself and my mother in a provocative manner.  I told him he was lucky to have a family who cared about him when he had faced going to a state hospital for bipolar disorder. I’d also said, “Friends don’t threaten each other!”

“I think it is time for me to visit your mother,” my friend said.

Scared for my mother, I called to warn her.

“You shouldn’t make such accusations about Joe being in the mafia,” my mother said, “He really does care about you!”

When I later asked my Mom where she had heard about my provocative accusation, she told me she forgot.

At the time the female therapist confronted me, I could not remember the real incidents of sexual abuse that I experienced. I just stopped confiding in her.

Initially, shit just happened when I was a teen, built up and I just distracted from the pain through starvation. The incident with my Mom was just one of many. People like me who don’t realize that their suffering is due to trauma are often unable to discern abuse from re-traumatization. They may attract a long list of psychiatric diagnoses. They may feel abused a gazillion times and it becomes hard to see how any community might come to the rescue.

What I have come to believe is that if a person has experiences of disassociation, there is the possibility of incidents of forgotten events.

An example of a disassociation I experienced was when I was alone scouting a trail. I stepped within six inches of a rattlesnake, a childhood obsession of mine. The rattle made me run even though I knew better. Then I became aware that I lost track of time. Finally, one of my peers on the Outward-Bound course came and found me staring off into space and I grounded myself.

Also, after being teargassed at the WTO Protest in 1999, and pepper sprayed directly in the eye, I took a walk and lost track of where I was and what I was doing. Suddenly, I realized I walked past my destination and had been out.

Much later, after the state hospital incident, I disassociated in front of my nephew when he was a bathing cherub in a tub in front of me, I was going outside my body but didn’t leave all the way. This had been happening to me on a few occasions when I was working seven days a week trying to get back on my feet financially.

In fact, when I did write about this occasion, during an editing session I suddenly I got a vague flash of being molested in a bathtub. The girl, my best friend’s sister, was only one year older. I would later remember that she ordered me to take my clothes of and get in the tub with her while our parents were out walking.

I didn’t remember my disassociated response, I only remembered the hands disappearing beneath the suds. There is a story that I ate a moth ball thinking it was a marshmallow necessitating poison control to be contacted. I was a little old to make such a silly mistake. It’s true I could be wrong, but I connect that action to my response to the tub incident. I do believe that around that time I started bathing in my trunks.

I do recall becoming very angry at my best friends’ sister for not choosing the kind of ice cream I wanted when it came to selecting ice cream for her birthday celebration. I recall experiencing a lot of disapproval for that strange show of selfishness.

When I took this story to my mother, I got an additional answer. “No, you are thinking of the time we caught the babysitter touching you,” she said.

While I continue to have no memory of this incident I remember several occasions when I was around this babysitter later in life. Before I hadn’t been able to understand my piercing feelings, behavior and memory of those occasions.

“Thank you for telling me,” I stated to my Mom.

“I probably shouldn’t have told you,” she said, “Now you are going to think you have been abused a gazillion times!”

It’s true that the bath with my step-sister might not have been distressing to many untraumatized young boys. Now, however, I have some explanation for my suffering.

Before I broke through the wall disassociation I could never understand why I got such strong intuition and suspicions. I didn’t realize that I was doing this for a good reason. I often presumed there was something wrong with me.

Perhaps now I can better understand and accept why I get uncomfortable in bars and socially withdraw. Maybe now I can understand why I withdraw in trauma trainings with other therapists. When we are all learning emotional freedom techniques, for example, I am unable to benefit from them. Now, I know I am on my way to disassociating in these contexts.

Now I understand why I always have a hard time defending myself when I get attacked. I am numbing out! Now I know why when I do defend myself, I come off too strong and the results never go well. It is ongoing hypervigilance!

People who prey on others can see these signs and chose people they can hurt without getting in trouble. This can open a body up to bullying that can become institutional when labels get attached. People who appear to be victimized end up being soft targets.

And, so, I understand better how I got in some other hard-to-deal with situations and other disassociated memories. And, so, one day, while hiking with my father on a visit back east, I finally got up the courage to ask what had happened to our family friend who was a few years older than me and had dissociative identity disorder.

When I found out that her brother had sexually abused her, I suddenly I had a flash and an image. I saw him over top of her, became paralyzed with fear and fled. Had I really behaved like that? It seemed like more of an intuitive dream, that a solid reality.

Typical, I thought, for a schizophrenic to hear about sex abuse and think it is all about him. Perhaps some of the readers may think so as well.

However, I do remember visiting the two of them alone in a vacation cabin along the Chatooga River in the Adirondacks. They were skinny-dipping, she with just a shirt on, he in the nude, and me, very attached to my bathing suit. My last memory of the evening involves him standing behind her wrestling her around.

The distinctive flash of what I saw and an overwhelming feeling of cowardice and helplessness that overtook me is unconnected to any other part of the evening.

The brother has only admitted to inappropriate touching. So, I acknowledge that even suggesting the word rape may be inappropriate and unfair. I have taken myself closer to this flash and tried to remember visual details. I realize in doing this there were sleeping bags on the floor and that I saw no direct flesh. And yet I felt a sense of penetration internally. But the sense that I could only flee in cowardice connects to other times I acted in similar manners and the shame is enormous.

If I considered these flashes of disassociated memories to be true, there are several other incidents I had with adult men who were significant in my life that were suspicious.

These events help explain why all those years later when I was working in the section eight housing project, I used to walk in the evenings around a lake having rescue fantasies in which I physically psyched myself up to respond to rape scenes. I took these walks to relieve stress while I was using community activists and the press to fight the management company, the police and the black-market dealers against all odds. This is action that caused the police to attempt to institutionalize me in Montana.

I have come to understand that if I am to heal from my psychiatric labels of depression, anorexia, bulimia, schizotypal personality disorder, dyslexia, ADD, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder (now that I am in “recovery”) and perhaps dissaociative disorder I am going to have to accept that I will not know if all my conglomerate sex abuse incidents are true but accept that they may be part of my journey and are possible in the world. I, personally, cannot vilify people who are hurt and use it to perpetrate. To move past these types of incidents, I must forgive so many deeds that seem so strikingly wrong to me. I see them in a variety of things on a regular basis.