I have practically no memory of life prior to a pervasive sense of shame and secrecy around sex. It was a dark cloud that settled into every nook and cranny of my being. From the moment I awoke to the moment I fell asleep, intrusive thoughts and images occupied my mind.
I clarify my statement with “practically” because I have a few snapshot memories around age 2. They are from the first of two houses I called home in Stow, Ohio. I remember a swing set and sand box in the back yard and listening to records on the big console stereo in the living room. I remember getting a “bed night snack” in the kitchen, my mom reading to me in the recliner, and my sister explaining to me what “weekend” meant. That’s about the sum total of my memories in that house. They are my only memories before the dark cloud appeared.
I have no concrete memory of what created the dark cloud. And the absence of that memory has been the single biggest frustration of my life. Years of trying to make myself remember have been fruitless. As a counselor who specializes in sexual trauma, I know attempting to force a repressed memory into the stream of conscious thought is counterproductive, even potentially harmful. But as a survivor of an early sexual encounter, that knowledge has not squelched my desire to remember.
While the memory of what happened was locked in the vault of repression, the effects were not. Having the door to sexuality opened early in my childhood put me on a path that nearly destroyed my life. I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t want it and I sure didn’t understand it, but I had to live with the aftermath. And I had no clue how to do that.
I have learned a lot since beginning recovery in 2002, about myself and the dynamics of sexual addiction. Add to that pool of knowledge a master’s degree in counseling and multiple post-graduate courses in sexual trauma. I’ve put a lot of pieces of the puzzle together over the past 15 years. I know a 4-year-old doesn’t simulate sex out of nowhere. Fantasy is often the mind’s attempt to correct a trauma. Compulsive behavior has a root. The body stores emotional memory in a powerful way, and when it gets triggered it can be overwhelming. Forty-five years later I still don’t remember what created the dark cloud, but I know something did. And I know what house I lived in when it happened.
My second childhood home in Stow was on a quiet neighborhood street, Mohican Road. Several families with children my age lived nearby. I lived there for about three years, but I’ve never had many memories of life at that house. (When the mind blocks out a memory, it often blocks out large chunks of them.) And the few I do have, they have always felt dingy. It’s as though someone took my childhood memories and coated them with shame, sadness and fear. Even memories that should evoke joy like learning to tie my shoes, pushing the lawnmower with my dad, riding my Big Wheel – these memories have always been accompanied by flat affect. The balloon of my childhood joy was deflated early on.
Since beginning recovery, I’ve done a good bit of work around my early sexual experience. In the absence of a concrete memory it’s been difficult, but I’ve worked with the pieces of the puzzle that I’ve had. I’ve worked through a mountain of shame. And like trying to escape quicksand, I’ve struggled with feeling powerless. I’m grateful for the progress I’ve made, and I watch for opportunities to continue healing.
Last month I presented a weekend workshop on sexuality at the Stop Nine Church in Byesville, Ohio, less than two hours from Stow. I thought that visiting my childhood home could be a healing experience, so I made plans to take a detour through Stow before my return flight home on Monday. Friday morning as I was leaving for Ohio, I typed the address for the house on Mohican Road into Google Maps. I wanted to verify how long the drive from Byesville would take.
When the address popped up, I clicked on the street view. There it was, just as I remembered – a two-story house with a grassy front lawn. My childhood home of forty-two years ago appeared to be in much better shape than I expected! I swiped right, then left, checking out the houses next door. They looked like I had pictured in my mind. But I certainly did not anticipate what happened next.
On a whim I started to turn the view to the house across the street. From the core of my being instantly came the thought, “Don’t do that!” Too late, my finger had already swiped the screen revealing the house. The emotion flooded over me in an instant! Anger, disgust – I don’t recall a time when I have felt more raw anger. The tears erupted. There was no visual memory, but the emotional memory was unmistakable.
That experience Friday morning sealed my resolve to return to my childhood home Monday morning. Fortunately I had a most enjoyable and encouraging experience speaking at the Stop Nine Church. The connections made with the leaders and several members over the weekend filled my emotional reserves. It left me in a good place for the emotional roller coaster ride that was coming.
(to be continued)