Sarah Beaulieu believed for many years that there was no real answer to healing from her sexual trauma. Until she took steps to find the right therapist.
I have encountered a lot of bad therapists in my life. Really bad ones. One of the first therapists I ever encountered was a close friend of my grandmother, which should have been the first indication of her credentials, expertise, and judgment. My grandmother was a woman who stood by her pedophile husband for over 50 years and sexually abused me and other girls and boys throughout her life. When I finally broke silence about the abuse, my grandmother’s therapist friend – whom I had never met – sent me a letter telling me I had made the whole thing up. I was fifteen.
Despite this horrendous first encounter, finding the right therapist was an essential part of my journey back to myself. It was the key to unlocking a pathway to healing from my own experiences of sexual abuse and assault. While I had a lot of friends who loved me deeply and would talk to me about anything in the world, it wasn’t the same as having a sacred and safe space to explore my heart and spirit, learn about what made me tick, and build the skills I needed to love and accept myself on every level.
My personal journey to the right person, however, took a lot of trial and error. While some therapists were truly misguided and even unethical, most were just not the right people for me at the right time. And what I saw along the way taught me an important lesson that therapists aren’t gods or experts, they are partners, guides, and coaches on a journey that is 100% your own.
There was another therapist friend that told my parents that being sexually abused wasn’t that big of a deal. She advised them not to bring it up, and that if I wanted to talk about it, I would come to them. At the time, I was an eleven year old child who just desperately needed someone to help me understand what had happened to me.
In high school, I started seeing a therapist who also agreed to see my mother, which can sometimes be a good practice. However, her office was in her house, a 30-minute drive from where we lived, so we would schedule sessions for the same days. During my mother’s session, I would sit in this woman’s living room, play solitaire or try to do homework, and listen to the muffled sounds of talking and other emotions. Then we switched places for the next hour. I could never shake the feeling that she was going to tell my mom everything I told her. So I never found a way to trust her – big surprise – and that’s a critical part of any therapeutic relationship.
Later, I started seeing a new woman that I really liked a lot – she just couldn’t seem to help me. While I was seeing her, I developed a full-blown eating disorder. She told me I should keep a journal of my foods, which I did – obsessively – and also underlined all the things I threw back up. We’d review the journal at our sessions, but it never seemed to make a difference in my behavior. Sometimes I would just sit there and not say anything at all.
When I got to college, I was walking close to my own edge of self-destruction, and continuing to unravel. I thought I was such damaged goods that I should just accept any therapist who wanted to see me, because why would someone in their right mind want to help me with all my problems and baggage? I picked the first person I met and started seeing her faithfully once a week, while I continued to spiral downward with an eating disorder, exercising, cutting, and increasingly drinking. We talked about my family history, the eating disorder, and the rest of my life. I could speak at length about how being abused led me to hate my body which was the reason I had an eating disorder. I knew all the things I was supposed to do to and ways I was supposed to behave to be considered “healthy.” I just found myself unable to do them.
One afternoon, she said to me, “You understand yourself so well. Why are you here?”
I thought to myself, “Because I still want to die?”
At this point, I started to despair. What if no one could help me? What if I was so far gone to ever have a chance at a normal life? Talking about my problems didn’t seem to help me very much. I didn’t want to re-hash my life, I wanted to LIVE my life without feeling like I wanted to die. I wanted to love people. I wanted to trust people. I wanted to have hope for the future.
Later that week, I had a conversation with a dorm-mate of mine, who was much wiser than I was at the time. I told her what my therapist had said to me, and how it made me feel like I couldn’t be helped. She said something to me that totally changed my life:
Therapists are like peanut butter. First, you have to decide what kind you like: creamy, crunchy, natural. Then you go out and find one that works for you.
Duh. Really? It’s that simple?
So I started a project to find a new therapist. I knew how to manage a project, so already I felt like I was in a more confident zone. I made a list of therapists, and called them to make an initial appointment. During that first conversation, I told them a little bit about my history, my current cycle of self-destruction, and that talk-therapy wasn’t really working for me.
The responses I received ranged from candid to bizarre to amusing:
- “Are you planning on going to court to sue your abusers? If so, we can’t do hypnosis.” Next.
- “I wish I could be more helpful, but talk therapy is all I really know how to do.” I liked her the best – at least she was honest.
- “What kind of insurance do you have?” This was left as a phone message the night before our first session. I called back and canceled.
- “I’m really interested in your story. It’s fascinating.” Um, are you going to help me or write a book about me?
After eliminating these non-sweet, crunchy peanut butter varieties, I received a call from M., one of the last therapists on my list. I decided to just cut to the chase on the first phone call because I was tired of wasting my time. I told her talk therapy wasn’t working for me, and I needed something different. She immediately responded with a list of alternatives – art, heart-centered approaches, and the Hakomi method, something I had never heard of before. And she told me that her specialty was working with adolescent women with histories of sexual abuse and eating disorders.
Her tone was compassionate and re-assuring. I felt like I could take a deep breath and rest for a second. I liked her instantly, and we hadn’t even met yet. I made my first appointment for the following week. When I walked into her small office on the second floor of an office building above a hair salon, we sat down and started connecting.
I knew I was home.
I spent nearly 10 years working with M., and credit her with saving my life. She helped me find, celebrate, and strengthen all the parts of my life and had an unwavering belief in the other side of my long, dark tunnel. When I found her, I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew that what I currently had wasn’t working.
My wish for all survivors of sexual violence is for them to find the path to healing and recovery that is right for them. For me, in order to heal, the first step was learning to trust my gut about what I needed to recover and become strong again. And I knew I needed a partner who could do more than just re-hash my problems. Therapy might not be the best path for everyone, but it was for me, and I needed someone like M. to light the way.
Whatever your pathway may be, don’t judge yourself or let yourself be judged for how yours might look different than someone else’s. There is a light at the other end of your tunnel, and I will hold that unwavering belief for you until you are strong enough to hold it for yourself.
If you’re a survivor and in need of help, these organizations may be able to offer some support:
Photo: Flickr/Dan McKay