Confusing AF: Abuse That I Have Trouble Not Remembering Fondly

The always brilliant Rollie Anderson sparked a memory in me that I haven’t thought about for a while, with a comment he made yesterday on my post about thrills in addiction. This was a story I axed from my first book, but wish I would have left in because as I reflect backward now and again, I think this played a big part in my maladaptive sexual attitudes.

I don’t think I’ve shared this story here before, at least I couldn’t find it in the archives.

Regular readers know that I was the subject of sexual inappropriateness-bordering on abuse and both certain mental and emotional abuse at the hands of a babysitter I had when I was young. It was the basis for my poor coping skills and primitive survival instincts. But this really isn’t about her.

This is about her daughter.

I’m going to call her Jan because I like short fake names. Alessandra, while also not her name and pretty sounding, is too damn long to type again and again.

I’m going to guess this story happens when I was between 4 and 6. I wasn’t in school yet, or I wasn’t in school full-time, but may have been in kindergarten. She was out of high school, didn’t go to college and was still living at home. I’d guess she was 19 or 20.

Jan was a good-looking woman and I liked hanging out with her at the babysitter’s house. She wasn’t home very much, and she didn’t pay a ton of attention to me, but it was a break from being parked on the floor in front of the TV, paying for imaginary sins in a dark room, or exiled to the backyard for half the day.

One late morning, I was hanging out with Jan in her bedroom before she had to get ready to go to her job at a department store. She made the announcement she needed to change and told me to turn around.

I turned around and sat on the edge of her bed. I noticed if I looked in her dresser mirror, I could almost see her standing at her closet taking her shirt off. I inched my way down the bed as stealthily as 5-year-old boy can, which is to say not very well.

“Are you trying to watch me change?” Jan asked.

“No,” I said.

“You’re not supposed to watch girls change,” she said.

I recall not having a response because I didn’t understand at that point why I wasn’t supposed to watch. My mother had said similar things to me in the past, and with no other females in my house, it wasn’t like I could try to defy the order.

Jan could tell I didn’t have a response to her statement, but that I looked like a deer in headlights for getting caught red-handed.

“Have you ever seen a naked girl?” she asked.

“On HBO,” I responded. She should have known the answer. HBO was on all the time at the babysitter’s house and the new pay cable station was very liberal with the sex at all hours back in the early 80s. I saw Porky’s way too many times, way too young.

“Come over here,” she said.

I quickly crossed around the bed to the other side of the room where this pretty woman was standing in front of me with a black bra on. She reached to the back and unlatched it, letting it fall to her elbows. I was looking at my first set of breasts. I didn’t know what to say or do. It was without question, the most incredible moment of my life up to that point.

“Do you want to touch them?” Jan asked.

Without saying a word, I reached up with both hands and gently placed them on her breasts. I felt a charge – a thrill – some kind of energy and electricity that I had never felt to that point, nor have ever felt again.

After about three seconds, she pulled back, re-hooked the bra and swore me to secrecy that I’d never tell her mother or my mother what happened. I may have been around five, but I wasn’t stupid. Her warning went without saying.

I mentioned this story several times to therapists and in groups during early recovery. It took a long time for me to accept this was a form of abuse because I actually looked back upon it fondly. I have no bad memories about the incident, but I can now recognize it helped sexualize me very young and simply because it didn’t feel like a form of abuse doesn’t mean it wasn’t. But I still don’t look back with scorn. I don’t think if I ever will.

I believe for a lot of my years of ongoing addiction, before I hit the critical point and it turned into something else entirely, the rush of adrenaline, dopamine or whatever happened in that moment when I first touched a woman’s breasts was seared into me. Sure I saw a lot of porn, but I also had a fairly active sex life before settling down and I can’t say I was a saint when I visited places like Tokyo and Amsterdam in my early 20s. None of those experiences, though, ever came close to replicating that surge of brain pleasure in Jan’s bedroom that morning.

Did this feed into my porn addiction? Probably. I’d almost say definitely, because there was a muted version of that surge the first time I saw hardcore pornography years later.

I don’t hold ill will toward Jan. She moved out of her mother’s around the time I started going to school full-time and I left that babysitter around second or third grade. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw Jan or where she is these days. It doesn’t matter. I’m sure she carries some deep battle scars growing up in that house.

I’m sure Jan thought what she was doing was harmless – maybe even a nice gesture. I certainly saw it as such at the time, but with it still floating around in my mind, never to be truly forgotten, it clearly played a much bigger part in my development than I gave it credit for until many years later.

Discovering the concept of Imposter Syndrome

I don’t often share links to other blogs here, but I somehow found a blog a couple of weeks back called Coaching Skills International that has been a breath of fresh air. From what I can tell it’s produced by an online counseling college out of Canada. If I’m wrong, I hope they’ll correct me. I urge you to check it out and see the kind of advice and knowledge they offer.

This past weekend, they posted an article about imposter syndrome. They define it as:

“Impostor syndrome is a psychological condition where people are unable to believe in their successes. Thus, despite the evidence that points to the fact that they are skilled, capable and competent they write this off as temporary – or timing and good luck. Thus, they constantly struggle with feeling like a fraud.”

This absolutely describes the first 37 years of my life, especially the last few years before I lost almost everything and entered recovery. I always had this voice in the back of my head going back to my days as a child that said, “You can’t let them know who you really are. Nobody will approve of, nor like who you really are, so be somebody else.”

I have suspicions that this developed first from somehow getting the message from my environment that I wasn’t enough. I think there’s a fine line between correcting and teaching a small child the right way to do things and making them feel inferior and as if they don’t have the instinct to do things correctly the first time, leading them to constantly doubt themselves.

Most of those negative messages came from a babysitter I had while my parents worked prior to me entering school. I’ve already written about the abuse while I was there, so I’ll skip it, but I also think my imposter syndrome was borne out of a fear of my safety. I internally learned at an early age how to say and do what I needed to avoid her wrath (most of the time) and that involved putting on a show, not being my genuine self. It’s the survival skill I leaned upon too heavily as I grew up.

Finally, I think my imperfect mental health likely played a role in exacerbating my imposter syndrome. Anxiety pushes you to avoid negative things like conflict with others. Depression forces you to put on a happy face for the world. Mania attempts to convince you that you’re something special and the life of the party, despite knowing you’re faking it.

Example #1

I remember in late 2012 when, as the co-founder of a large film festival in Maine, we held a press conference to announce our plans. It was in the space adjacent to our office we also rented and turned into an art gallery.

We had purchased a couple of those large backdrops (called step-and-repeats) you see celebrities pose in front of on the red carpet that usually has small logos for the event and a sponsor. A friend from a local college brought over a very cool looking podium and sound system so there was one of those small microphones you see on awards show to speak into.

As a surprise, I arranged to have Les Stroud of the Survivorman television show come to the festival that year and teased the announcement. I also arranged to have him speak to us via Skype at the press conference. The whole visual set-up was very professional.

As a city councilor (a whole other imposter story), I was good friends with the mayor and he agreed to attend the press conference to speak about the economic impact to the city.

So, we sent invitations to a few VIPs, our sponsors and the media to come to the press conference to hear what we had to say – and they all did. When the emcee (the magazine’s managing editor) introduced me to make the surprise announcement of Survivorman, I came up to the podium and looked out. There were probably 40 invited guests, including four TV stations with cameras and two newspaper reporters there.

I was standing on a stage and they were all waiting to hear me. In that moment, a wave of thoughts sprouted: “How did I pull this all together? How is every media source within 50 miles here? How can none of them recognize that I’m a hustler, a liar and a fraud? I am putting on a totally fake press conference – except it’s not fake. Or is it? It’s for a real event. I shouldn’t be in this position. It should be reserved for talented people who know what they’re doing. This song and dance is going to result in sponsors giving me tens of thousands of dollars I don’t deserve. How do I make sure these people don’t see the REAL me?”

Example #2

In my high school senior yearbook, I won the “Most Opinionated” superlative. I knew what that meant. It was the “Biggest loudmouth asshole who we still somehow like award.”

Even then I felt like I was an imposter. I excelled at things I found simple, like history and creative writing, and figured out how to cheat my way through math and science. I don’t think I was part of any specific clique, finding it easy to bounce around because as a chameleon, I could adapt to whomever I was hanging out with. If I was with the jocks, I’d turn my brain off. If I was with the brains, I’d hide the fact I loved sports.

Fast-forward 19 years and I’m nearing my demise. About six months after Example #1 took place, I was asked if I would give the commencement address for the latest graduating class. It took less than two decades for the loudmouth asshole who had to sit silently at his graduation in 1994 to get the headlining spot for the Class of 2013. This was a new high-water mark in fooling the world.

By this point, I was well into the deepest part of my addictions. I knew I’d need to have a few drinks in me to give the speech, but knew in that condition I couldn’t work from notecards behind a podium on a stage. So, I started the speech with a lame comment and walked off the stage and gave the speech from the auditorium floor, pacing the entire time. I didn’t use notecards and just made some bullet points and wrote a few jokes. I’ve always had the ability to just wing it when public speaking.

After the speech, one person complimented me, saying: “I liked how you came down to talk to the kids and walked around. And the fact you memorized that speech! Very impressive!”

Was it impressive or was it a con? My mind at the time told me I was conning the world and the only way I got away with it was with the numbing effects of alcohol and porn. Otherwise, I might have slipped up and screamed, “I’m completely full of shit everybody! Stop enabling me!”

I tracked down that speech online when writing this. Ironically, in the first five or six minutes, there is a lot of subtext to what I’m saying which sounds to me like I’m wrestling with imposter syndrome. There are so many references to it if you know what to look for. You can also count the number of times I drunkenly stumble over my words. I guess most people never caught on.

But I have to confess, even today, I find that pajama pants joke pretty funny.

If you’d like to see me fake my way through giving an “inspirational” speech, but knowing what was really going on, check this out:

 

 

A post-script to this example is that while I was giving this speech, my daughter was one town away, winning her middle school talent show. She was a bit of a wallflower, not participating in many activities and I have so much regret not being there to see it. My injured mind told me it was easier to fake being a successful professional in front of 3,000 than being a good father, blended into a small audience.

It was years of rehab, therapy, research, introspection, writing and very intentionally making different behavioral decisions that helped me move away from imposter syndrome. If you’d like to learn some practical techniques for overcoming it, check out the article that inspired this post at: Imposter Syndrome I wrote several more thoughts in their comments I haven’t shared here.

 

Facing Triggers Makes You Stronger

I hope this entry doesn’t trigger anyone, but I wanted to talk about triggers. So, it may be triggery. Prepare to be triggered. Is this a good enough trigger warning? Trigger.

I think it’s time in the mental health/addiction/abuse survivor communities that we talk a long, hard look at triggers and figure out – on an individual basis – what are actual debilitating triggers and what are excuses for us to not live our lives and face the challenges everyday life brings.

I was talking to a therapist recently, exchanging emails about my book, and they expressed something that I’ve often felt but never thought was safe to say: Some people use their mental illness, addiction or past abuse as a crutch and excuse to sit on the sidelines of life and “triggers” are the doctor’s note that excuses them from gym class. Sometimes, you actually can’t participate, but a lot of the time, you just don’t want to…it’s hard, it’s too much work, it makes you tired, you might not be good at, you don’t like it, people might laugh at you and you may just be lazy.

I was glad to hear this, because I agree. As somebody who is in recovery with a couple of addictions, was the victim of some childhood abuse and tries to keep a couple of diagnosed mental illness issues in check, I could easily throw myself on the floor and take a pass on living life. I know I could also easily create the kind of enablers who would let me.

I don’t want this article to come off as cold or unfeeling. I understand we’re all at different phases of our recovery, but it feels like the more I become part of a recovery community, the more I meet people who have never had an identity in life until they became “addiction/abuse/mental health survivor.” It wholly consumes them and it just doesn’t seem healthy. They use “triggers” as excuses, crutches and ways to draw attention to themselves.

Why not look at triggers as challenges to our recovery – good challenges. Recovery means nothing if we’re not overcoming something. Those drug addicts sitting in prison are not in recovery. They are just being denied their addiction, and not by choice. Triggers allow us to use the tools we develop in recovery. Isn’t that why we learned them in the first place?

My alcohol triggers

I don’t want somebody to put alcohol in front of me and I don’t want to be around drunk people. I have had both happen to me since I stopped drinking almost four years ago and it comes with a combination of jealousy, anger and irritation. I haven’t always been able to immediately remove myself from the situation. When this first happened several years ago, it was that I wanted to drink. Now, it’s more about not being around the assholes that people turn into when they are drunk, because it reminds me of the kind of asshole I was. It’s still triggering of strong emotions, but they have evolved…and I don’t have to run from them. I think it’s actually better to sit with them and figure out what they are about.

I try to avoid alcohol. I don’t have any need to go down that aisle at the grocery store, I won’t buy it for other people if asked and I don’t keep any in my home. I could avoid family gatherings, where drinking happens and I could never go to a restaurant again to keep away from alcohol. That would reduce trigger-causing situations. It would also mean I don’t spend Christmas with my family or enjoy quality food made for me that I don’t know how to make at home.

My porn triggers

I have Cinemax and HBO and whatever other cable channels are part of the massive introductory package for DirecTV. They show plenty of late night skin. I use the Internet for my job as a freelancer writer. Nobody knows more than me just how much porn can be found on the Internet. Almost every convenience store has Playboy, Penthouse and other adult magazines. In the past, I turned on HBO specifically for the dirty stuff and went online with porn as the only item on the agenda.

Yeah, if I happen to be up at midnight and I’m cruising through the preview guide and see something like “Lust Island” on one of the pay channels, it piques my curiosity. I know my favorite porn sites are only a couple keystrokes away at any given moment and when I see a porno magazine as I’m buying gas or coffee with a particularly intriguing cover behind the counter, I wonder what that woman looks like naked on the inside.

And then I just keep going. I don’t watch the movie, look at the websites or purchase the magazine. Is it hard? Not nearly as much as it was when I first started addressing my porn addiction, but there are still times where I have to actually tell myself “No. Walk away.”

I could get rid of the cable channels with one phone call. I could find a job that never means I need to be on the Internet again. I could only buy gas or coffee at places that don’t have pornographic magazines.

If I did that though, I’d miss out on a lot of good, non-pornographic movies and shows. I’d have to turn my back on a career I’ve spent over 20 years building and I’d have to drive further for gas and coffee. Why would I want to deny myself these things and make my life even more complicated? Because of triggers?

My abuse triggers

As somebody who suffered from various forms of abuse from a non-family caregiver when I was a kid and has had to deal with all kinds of repressed memories surfacing in the last few years, I get how hard it can be if you’re an abuse victim and don’t have addictions.

For 25 years, I could drive by this babysitter’s house without even thinking about the amount of time I spent in terror in that home. When these memories started to be unlocked, I couldn’t ignore her home when I drove by. The proximity to my parents’ house makes it almost impossible to avoid, although I could drive 2-3 miles out of my way and get to their house from another route.

I probably had a visceral reaction to her home for over a year. I would bet that’s 100 times at least. I could say the positive is that I didn’t drive 200-300 miles out of my way, which isn’t cheap when it comes to gas. I drove by that house earlier today. I saw it, said to myself “there it is” and kept on driving. She’s dead. She hadn’t lived there in 10 years before she died. But if I went a different way, it’s like she won.

Summing Up

I think for real recovery, we need to face our triggers more than we do. We allow them to act as anchors, as hurdles and as impediments to a better life. We’re scared of the emotions we’ll feel or the actions we’ll take facing them, but if you can get through, you’re going to be stronger on the other side.

I don’t think I’ll ever get myself in a situation where somebody is pouring booze down my throat, holding my eyelids open to look at porn, or forcing me to tour that home and tell the stories of my abuse. So as long as I learn to control my own actions, triggers are actually little exercises in making me stronger over the long-term.

If you’re incapable of facing your triggers, I’m sorry. It must be horrible. But for every trigger you honestly can’t handle, are there one or two that you can but choose not to deal with? I could let all of my triggers run my life and make my decisions for me, but I don’t. I choose to be the one in control now. Ask yourself if there’s more control in your life by facing your triggers head-on and defeating them. I think you know the answer.

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