The summer after I turned 25, I drove to Salt Lake City one afternoon to meet with my new psychologist for the first time. I was apprehensive because I didn’t have a positive experience with my first therapist.
I peered out of a floor-to-ceiling window of his office located in a high-rise downtown as I waited for our session to begin. I gazed down on the area where buildings had recently been demolished to make room for the new City Creek Center. Loud noises from the construction penetrated the large windows. I saw a large crane and many workers outside preparing way for new structures to be built. Unlike this area, I feared my life had no chance of being renewed.
This psychologist was a friend of my parents’. Since I continued to struggle even after meeting with a therapist he had recommended, he agreed to meet with me himself. I had interacted with him a little growing up. I found comfort knowing he knew who I was. Although I had given up believing anyone could help me, somewhere deep down I hoped he would be able to understand me and explain why I had stopped progressing.
I made it clear I didn’t want to focus on my homosexual feelings or spirituality as I had with my previous therapist. At that point, I had accepted that my attractions for my own gender were a part of me. Instead, I wanted to understand who I was and what would happen to me as I was choosing what type of life to lead. I told him about the on-again/off-again relationship I was in at the time. And how I worried about everything and feared most everyone for as long as I could remember. I told him about some troubling experiences from my LDS Mission.
The psychologist paused in the middle of our appointment and voiced an observation that changed my self-awareness forever. He said, “You’re in a lot of pain.”
“What?” I thought.
I didn’t understand what he meant. I became defensive and thought, “Me, in a lot of pain? How would you know? You hardly know me. Look at me. I don’t have any health problems or serious injuries. I have no reason to be in so much pain.” My understanding for causes of pain had been limited to physical injury or illness. I knew some people experienced emotional pain but perceived it was a choice to dwell in it. Strong people were able to brush it off and move on. I had always wanted to be strong so I had convinced myself I had everything under control.
He explained I had physical manifestations of pain and brought attention to my breathing. He asked me to listen to how forceful my exhale was. I paused for the first time to focus on my breathing as an indicator of my pain.
Inhale. I was almost gasping for air.
Exhale. The sound of my exhale seemed to drown out the noise from the construction. It was loud enough someone ten feet away could have heard.
I immediately became self-conscious. I wondered, “Do I always breath like this?”
He continued to explain this is how my body was trying to release pain. “Release invisible pain?” I wondered perplexedly.
He said that in all of his years of helping people he didn’t remember seeing anyone in as much pain as me. He was surprised that I had made it as far in life as I had. He thought I had actually done remarkably well.
I wondered, “Really? Me?” I knew he had worked with a lot of people throughout his career and questioned if I really felt THAT much pain. He had to have met with people way more messed up than I was. Did this mean I was the most damaged person he had encountered? Maybe he said this to all of his patients to keep them needing more therapy? But then I remembered, he was meeting with me for free. He wanted to help.
I didn’t esteem this observation as a badge of honor and didn’t want to be labeled as someone who chose to feel pain. Ashamed by how damaged this must have meant that I was; I felt even weaker than I had before entering his office.
I left questioning whether or not reaching out for help again had been a good idea. Making the connection between my pain and breathing had been an excruciating discovery. I didn’t know why this observation hurt so bad as I considered what pain these thunderous breaths might be masking. I had wanted to bolt out of his office and pretend this appointment had never happened.
How unaware of myself was I?
I didn’t want to accept there was any truth behind what he had said to me but could no longer ignore my true state-of-being. Reality sunk in as I reasoned with myself, “What good am I doing by denying that I feel pain? Ignoring doesn’t seem to make it go away. If I really am suffering, shouldn’t I be getting help?” The facade of being happy began cracking as I accepted that I really did feel pain. I concluded moving forward with him felt like the right thing to do, not knowing we had only reached the beginning, the tip of the iceberg.
Though I wasn’t willing to admit it at the time, my life had already spiraled out of control before meeting with him. I had stopped caring and felt worthless, incapable of accomplishing anything good. After transferring from two different schools, I had dropped out of college. My weekends were spent partying and drinking, which allowed me to escape for a while but made it harder to keep up my facade. I had never planned to make these types of decisions.
At the time, I was temporarily living at my parents’. I would disappear, sometimes for days without telling them where I was. No phone call or text message. I wasn’t sure why I acted this way, especially as a 25-year-old man. I began wondering if this was an indication of my pain. Instead of seeking for understanding and approval from others as much as I had in the past, I began trying to understand who I really was. As a consequence of dissociating from the abuse, I had unknowingly disconnected from myself.
Prior to and for many years after this visit, I often thought, “No one will ever understand me. No one really cares. I could die tomorrow and the world would keep moving forward soon to forget me. I am all alone.”
What I know now and wish I knew back then is that I wasn’t alone. Many survivors before me and many others continue to feel similarly to how I have felt. Many feel this invisible pain. A pain masked from everyone else and burdened alone, sometimes for years, unaware of the gravity of its impact. It’s hard to make connections between adult struggles and the childhood abuse we disconnect from.
Learning of other victims’ experiences has helped me feel less lonely, and not feeling alone has brought me comfort. Before I began healing, I didn’t know what life was like not to carry the burdens that should have been my abuser’s. What I didn’t know is how much better life would be once I began understanding and healing from this this masked pain.
As a male sexual abuse survivor, I am not alone. You are not alone. As survivors, we are not alone.