Hold fast to dreams
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
I’ve never been so relieved, and at the same time void of all feelings, when I left my mother’s house on that stone-cold October day. I began my two-hour drive to my home in Alto Pass, Iowa. The radio was off. Had my body wrapped in a cocoon of silence. Only the faint sounds of rolling tires and an air leak that whistled around the window’s edge could be heard. Without warning, my body shook as tears ran down my face and a layer of sweat covered my body. The front window was down; cold air blew across my face; and my hands gripped the steering wheel that directed me to the side of the road. The image of my dad was reduced to a mound of rubble. My persona, my existence, had developed in large part by the man I imagined to be my father.
The windows were down as the cars raced by, and my cries emulated through the air like the wailing of a wounded animal. These were unfamiliar emotions for me, the man who never cried.
My trip home demanded all of my strength and determination to complete. I instantly recalled the effort I needed when I ran the final 6-miles of a marathon in freezing rain. It was so cold that I prayed for a race-stopping injury so I could stop. My prayers went unanswered.
I drove in the slower lane while gripping the steering wheel hard. The car moved from 30 mph to 50 and accelerated to 70, 80, and even 90 mph. Getting home in the fastest time possible was the prevailing logic. Only thoughts of reaching the safety of my home pulled me through the final miles.
There, just ahead and at the end of the twisting driveway was my home. I clicked the remote, watched the garage door open, and brought the car to a halt. My hands shook as I removed the keys and walked into the house. PJ, my dog, jumped up and down in her predictable manner; my wife embraced me; and the “bet-you-can’t-make-me-cry man broke into tears. Apparently my complexion had turned a chalky-white color, causing my wife to help me down the hallway to the bedroom and into our bed.
I tried to explain what had happened in Orlen. “My mother told me that my brother used to beat me, and my dad didn’t love me, not even a little. “My explanation was brief, to the point, and intermingled with emotional bursts of crying.
Fortunately it was Sunday, giving me a full day before I had to go to work. I had planned on running a half-marathon road race with some of my running friends. But my energy and desire to run a race disappeared as depression took hold. I called my friends and told them that I was sick and unable to run. It was obvious that my life would never be the same. How could my relationship with my dad have been so different from what I had imagined, I thought? And who am I?
Monday came and the confusion had not disappeared. I focused on my morning appointments while storing my emotions in some imaginary mental compartment where others would never see. Between appointments, I swallowed hard hoping to keep the emotions from erupting like day-old vomit. Keeping my office door closed and not engaging with co-workers were my primary concerns.
It was early afternoon when it became clear: I needed to talk with someone, perhaps a psychologist. But lessons from my childhood troubled me. Deal with your own problems. Don’t hang out your dirty laundry. Forget about bad things and they will go away. Seeing a psychologist was a sign of weakness. But I had no choice. My life was beginning to unravel.
I decided to call Dr. Martha Wright, a psychologist and good friend of mine. Perhaps she could help me.
“Hey, Martha. This is Steve calling.”
“Hey to you, Steve. What’s up?”
Small talk preceded a brief summary of my problem. “Martha, I need your help. I have a problem.” My desperation must have seemed obvious.
“Steve, what’s bothering you?” She spoke with the soothing voice of someone who cared.
“Some things happened this weekend which I don’t understand. I don’t know where to begin. I think I might need your professional help.”
“Steve, I can talk to you as a friend, but not as a psychologist.” She went on to explain that since we were friends, a conflict of interest would prevent her from seeing me as a client. “Why don’t you come over and tell me what happened? Then, if you need, I could recommend someone for you to talk with.” Although my mind was so confused, her words were comforting. We ended our conversation by agreeing to meet on Tuesday at 4:00 pm.
That sounded good, I thought. Surely I can make it for another twenty-four hours. I’ll just keep myself busy and watch a lot of mindless television shows. I can do this.
The hours moved slower than anticipated. I was now sitting in Dr. Wright’s office with her Golden Retriever sitting on the floor next to me. Petting her dog calmed my anxiety. The office was quiet with soft colors and comfortable furniture, creating a peaceful environment. I began to recount the conversation with my mother, trying to explain the shock and confusion of her words and how my reality was broken and how I questioned who I was.
“Steve, that must have been very upsetting for you. It sounds like someone dropped a bomb on your life.
“Yes, that’s a good description. But I don’t understand what it means or why I’m so upset.”
“I think you need to talk with someone who will help you sort through all of this.” I sat quietly while Martha considered the possibilities. “It’s important to find the right match. Would you prefer talking with a man?”
My reaction was swift. “No, I don’t want to talk with a man. I couldn’t do that.” My quick response surprised me, and I didn’t know why. “I think I would feel more comfortable talking with a woman.”
“Olivia, yes. Olivia Jennings, PhD is the one. She would be a perfect fit for you.” Olivia was the director of the counseling center at Southern Illinois University and Cindy’s mentor while she completed the doctoral program at the university. “Let me call her and see if she is taking new clients.” An appointment was arranged for Wednesday at 4:00 pm. After talking with Cindy, my concerns about sharing information with a psychologist were dampened.
Wednesday came, possibly the most important day of my life. I parked two blocks from Olivia’s office. What would people think if they saw their financial planner’s car parked at a shrink’s office. I stepped from my car, leaned my head downward and to the side, trying to blend into the landscape as I walked to her office. I entered the waiting room and buried my head into a magazine, hoping that one of my clients would not appear. Olivia Jennings arrived and introduced herself. The two of us entered her office.
This is not what I expected, I thought. Maybe I’ve watched too many movies where the therapist’s darkened office had a leather couch, overstuffed chair, and a large desk with a single lamp bent over an open file. The client would be stretched out on the couch while the therapist, with yellow pad and fancy pen, worked her mental magic. Instead, I sat on a small navy-blue loveseat while Olivia sat facing me in a matching chair. To my right was a small table that held a lamp and an extra-large box of tissue. Next to the table was a small trash can overflowing with used tissues causing me to wonder what troublesome problems were discussed in this room.
“Steve, tell me why you wanted to see me.” Olivia watched my every move. If I crossed my legs, rubbed my arm, talked fast or slow or looked nervous she noticed. I have to admit that I was there with a degree of apprehension. But her attention was not unsettling. She performed an emotional scan in the comfort of her office. That’s how I felt.
“Well, I guess I should give you some background information. I have few memories of the first eight-years of my life, which were spent on a farm with my mother, father, and a brother who was six-years older than me. I just know that my parents got a divorce when I was almost eight and I was sent away to live with my mother and grandparents in Louisville. As a child, I occasionally asked about my father: what was he like; what did he talk about; did he have a sense of humor; looking for any clue that might give me some information about my father. But each time I asked, my mother shared nothing. She just cried. I soon stopped asking. Last week all of that changed. She told me things that I never knew.” Looking back, I realize that I never asked about my brother.
Olivia continued to ask questions. “Tell me what your mother said.”
I twisted in my chair while searching for the right words, the uncomfortable words: how I fell apart while driving home, and how I’d never broken down during my entire life. After I recounted the story as best I could, Olivia leaned forward, held my hand while looking very concerned.
“Steve, you’ve experienced the resurfacing of some traumatic memories which were triggered by comments that your mother made. At the moment, things may seem very confusing. But in time it will begin to make sense.” She paused. “I promise that everything will be okay and that I’ll be here to support you. I would like for you to come back next week at the same time. In the meantime, keep a written journal of your thoughts for the week.” I felt good about my first session with Olivia. There is something, perhaps unexplainable, that happens instantaneously between a client and a therapist when they are a good match.
That night, after dinner, I was exhausted and needed to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night a dream filled with detailed images and sexual suggestions were accompanied by my erection. It was like a mental video showing two people having sexual intercourse. But this was different. It was a penis moving in and out of something devoid of pubic hair. As I tried to make it out, I abruptly woke, confused and dismayed by what I had seen. While Olivia instructed me to maintain a journal of my feelings, that was not going to happen. No way. There’s no way that I could tell Olivia about this. I quickly dismissed any significance of the dream and returned to a deep sleep.
Thursday. My wife and I had made plans for a weekend trip to visit our older daughter and her family in Wisconsin. We would leave on Friday afternoon and return on Monday. Nothing unusual had happened on Thursday, leaving me to wonder if the turmoil had passed; maybe all of the confusion would leave; and maybe I didn’t need to see a psychologist.
That evening I relaxed, watched some television, and retired around 10:30 pm. Well into the night, I returned to the dream I had experienced the night a penis was moving in and out of something devoid of pubic hair. But unlike before, this dream took on a whole new
dimension. It was accompanied by the new sensation of my anus in an open position. I suddenly woke. It’s my brother, Ben. Oh my God, it’s Ben.
My body was covered in sweat, yet cold and unable to stand. I slid out of bed onto the floor, turned, and grabbed hold of the mattress while I rolled back and forth from the hyperventilating motion. I crawled to the bathroom and hugged the stool, feeling my body expel what seemed like poison. Dry heaves followed, strains of saliva dripped into a pool of colored water. I rested my head on the toilet seat. There was no doubt. Ben had raped me.
Not knowing what to expect, I lay on the tiled bathroom floor with my arms wrapped around the stool. Was there anymore to come? Time passed; minutes, hours, I was uncertain. Eventually I returned to my bed waiting for morning to come.
Friday. What does it all mean? Something happened to my mind which I didn’t have control over. Will it happen again? If more comes out, will I be able to handle it? Should I go to Wisconsin as planned? Should I leave my house? I later believed that what happened that night might have been worse than the actual rape. Victims of traumatic experiences are partially protected by their own brain. The remarkable organ that it is, helps the victim dissociate from the experience, making it possible to survive. Maybe the brain doesn’t protect the victim from horrific dreams. Perhaps the dreams were worse than the countless times I actually suffered such abuse as a child.
The next morning I collected my thoughts and went to work before any co-workers would arrive. I needed to call Olivia, but it has to be a private call. Olivia appeared to be the type of person who would be in her office earlier than most. As soon as the clock reached 8:00 am, I made the call.One ring, two rings, someone answered and transferred my call to Olivia. Thank God, Olivia is there.
“Olivia, this is Steve. I’m sorry to bother you but I need your help.”
“Tell me what happened.”
“I had a dream last night. It was sexual. Ben raped me.”
“Oh Steve, I’m so sorry. That must have been awful for you.” Her compassion and concern were unlike anything I had felt before. While it was an unfamiliar feeling, it was good.
I explained how we had planned on traveling to Wisconsin to visit our daughter and her family for the weekend. But I didn’t know what might surface in my brain and if it was safe for me to leave town.
“Go ahead and make the trip. It’ll be good for you to get away and enjoy the company of your family. Don’t think about the dreams. You’ve buried memories for more than 40-years. A few more days shouldn’t make a difference. When you return, we will discuss it in the safety of my office.”
I took her advice and made the trip as planned, concentrating on my family while visiting my favorite bookstores. If a hint of something uncomfortable began to appear, I quickly directed it to the mental compartment in my brain, stored away for another day. When we returned to Alto Pass, I wondered how my appointment with Olivia would go.
“How are you feeling? How was your trip to Wisconsin?”
“I feel well. I must have sounded awful when I called you last Friday. But now everything is okay.”
“That’s good. I’m glad you’re feeling better. Tell me about the dream you experienced.”
I should have known that she was not going to let me slip by without going over the dream. But will it feel the same? Maybe the dream was a once in a lifetime experience, one that I will never experience again.
As I described the dream, trying to visualize the whole thing in my mind, the nausea returned and the muscles in my stomach cramped hard. Olivia pushed the trash can next to me.
“Go ahead and use it if you need to. You can do anything in front of me. This is your safe place.”
I began to shake and dry heave into the can. My stomach cramped hard causing my saliva to expel into the can followed by me leaning back into my chair.
Olivia looked at me in that caring way. Her concern was strong. “You have some terrible memories that need to be addressed. We’ll move slowly. Too many memories at one time could be overwhelming, making it difficult to perform your day-to-day tasks. Imagine taking an onion and gradually peeling away one layer at a time. That’s what we’ll do. We will work on the difficult parts when you’re in the safety of my office, making certain you’re put back together and feeling better before you leave. Steve you can trust me.”