Trauma Hidden in My Body
Sexual abuse by a person in power can be especially devastating because the abused persons often think that nobody will believe them. An example of this dilemma is illustrated by the poignant story of Gail Hayssen who allowed us to use her story as well as her actual name. She titled her narrative “Trauma Hidden in my Body.” Gail’s experience took place in late 2018.
— Stanley Krippner
I’ve spent the past four days in a fetal position. I’m just gradually coming out of it. I’m typing this with one finger. As painful as it is — as raw and vulnerable as I feel — I am still driven to write this.
I had never understood what Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is. I think of my veteran friend Ed who won’t go out on the lake in my pontoon boat because of his combat experiences in Vietnam. That was 50 years ago. I have asked him so many times. ” Come on, let’s go out and cruise the lake — beauty, nature, wildlife. We’ll have a great time.” He always replies, “I’m busy.”
But now I see a pattern. Something similar happens to me each time I have intense dental work. I realize how I’ve been protected from terrible pain by keeping it hidden in my body.
In my 50’s I was sedated for a wisdom tooth extraction. As I came out of the dreamy state, I found no one in the room with me, and I was crying hysterically. I felt no pain in my mouth — but the pain in my entire body was debilitating. I was so weakened by intense emotions it was hard to walk. My friend Kim and the secretary were the only ones in the waiting room. My sobbing had cleared the place.
I didn’t know what happened or why I was crying so much as Kim helped me to the car.
As we drove home and the drugs started wearing off, my body became flooded with images of my first time in a dental chair for a root canal. And I remember Leonard, the nice Bayside dentist who molested me.
I was 14 and still a virgin, raised in a family by a Dad who did not believe in medical or dental care. So I had asked friends for help because my tooth had become so infected it had abscessed. A nurse I met had said her friend was a dentist and he owed her a favor.
I don’t remember what Leonard used to sedate me. He was pulling my pants down around my firm young legs and shoving his hand up me telling me it’s important for him to check me out. After he sedated me, I don’t know what happened.
A few years ago I was preparing for work on the tooth that had been worked on 40 years earlier by that dentist who had molested me. I thought I might have a reaction again, so I had a meeting with the dentist, describing the problem, and explaining that I needed a little gentle care when she re-did the root canal. I was comforted to know that this was an office staffed by women. I thought that they would be sensitive to my issue.
Instead, on the day of surgery, with my mouth propped open as she worked inside me, her focus was on dictating a text message to her assistant. I was in a room of people lined up like cattle, drooling with their mouths open. The dentist never asked how I was doing. There was no concern for the dental trauma I had experienced decades earlier.
My body held all the memory, the pain, the vision of the man who molested me. When I got out of the chair I just ran out of that office and crumbled in the stairwell, crying my heart out. My husband came chasing after me. Again, I felt humiliated, unheard and unseen by these women, even after I had told them about my sexually abused dental history.
I wrote a letter to their office explaining everything and never received any return call or message — only a bill for a thousand dollars.
And last month, in my sixties, I need a tooth extracted. I find myself in the kindest, most caring dental office ever, where my tooth is pulled out. I am only numbed, not sedated. It is as positive and pain-free an experience as you could ever want — and the valium to relax me beforehand certainly helped. I’m laughing and joking as my husband assists me to the car. The receptionist is trying to control her laughter as she watches us leave.
I figure, great. This is an amazingly positive experience. It’s Tuesday at noon and I’ll go home, take meds, go to sleep, hoping I will not have any excruciating tooth pain.
Instead I wake up paralyzed in pain. And just like before, it’s nowhere in my mouth. It’s in my entire being — every muscle in my body screaming in pain. My heart hurts so much I just hold my hands over it, as if I could somehow give it the tender love and care it has not received. I am so overcome by the rage, anger, and deep guttural sobbing coming out of this 4 foot 11 inch body that is Gail.
I’m lost in images and details of every #MeToo story my body holds. Molestations from a Hindu monk at the age of 7, him rubbing against my body and holding me so I cannot escape. Beatings from my father for eating ice cream. A mother who locks me in a dark dirt basement. A relationship with an abusive alcoholic. Images of men and women who have physically and mentally abused me throughout my life.
From Tuesday until Friday I’m in a fetal position — my body crying out, sobbing, having no control when it surges up and overtakes me. Then I am so full of anger that I have to break stuff and throw things until I snap inside to let this old deep crap release itself where it hides deep in the cells of my inner body, despite years of psychotherapy, body therapy, meditations, retreats, and self-help. I don’t want anyone to see me in this raw vulnerable state. I put my body in a bathtub knowing this can help calm me down.
As I lay in the tub feeling the warmth of the water, I’m enveloped in feelings of worthlessness.
Visions of being raped with a gun to my head by someone I barely knew. Having my family say and do very hurtful things like keeping secret who my real mother was, having a sister raised as my cousin, and the family denying this fact, and her refusing to accept me as her sister. Being betrayed by my family, being treated with no respect for my feelings or even just ever including me with my brothers and sisters.
I have never heard the words I am sorry for what happened to you. I should have protected you.
In this black hole, dark thoughts arise. I’m so hopeless, helpless, and alone I can’t grasp onto any reason for my life to go on. As a teenager, I was lost in that black hole. I was confused by all the lies, abandonment, and betrayal. I took aspirin and other pills and ground them up hoping to end my misery. Instead I was terribly sick with stomach pain. I didn’t take aspirin after that for many years.
Ending my bath, I sit on my little stool realizing these harmful thoughts are trying to take over my being. This old tape from my youth, so worthless and unloved, was back in my head. How dare these thoughts return again as if I was in this state of mind in my adult life?
For a year I’ve read constantly about famous people and their horror stories in places of power with men — their #MeToo stories. Let me tell you this week’s tooth removal taught me the power and the length of time — my fucking lifetime — these violations to my body, these pains of family rejections still rearing their ugly heads, no matter how much time, how much work, how much therapy, how much unconditional love I have received.
I never heard any apology from any of these men and women who hurt me as a child and adult. My father and mother told me those things were all my fault. My mother’s miserable migraine headaches were my fault. The fact that men molested and raped me, my Dad says was my fault. The fact that at 14 I had to find a dentist to get out of pain was my fault — for eating candy.
I accepted blame for this and I am now on the other side of four days of seeing a lifetime of injustice, the immoral violations I’ve endured. Reminding myself all I wanted was to know I counted — that I was loved — and to be held, hugged, and fed. But that is not what happened, and I will not have closure, no court dates or newspaper headlines or even a fucking apology from any man who violated my body nor from anyone in my family for their lies and betrayals.
This is what my body holds inside that I do not see. Instead I make family Thanksgiving dinners for 30 years. I love and care for my father until he dies, waiting or hoping he will say I am sorry. But he says nothing. I keep trying for years to connect to this sister cousin and other family that I know of, but nothing positive or loving comes of it.
I let go of it all years ago. I’m no victim. It’s made me stronger and more compassionate. I always forgive. And I still feel love for this father, this mother, this family. But inside my body, deep in the folds, there’s still the energetic charge of experiences a child should not have to endure. The mental gyrations I have to deal with when I feel it’s somehow all my fault, that I have no right to allow the anger or betrayal I feel to surface — because there are people who have suffered so much more and I should never feel sorry for myself.
I have a wonderful, joyous, exciting life. I’m surrounded by loving family and friends in a beautiful, peaceful setting. But when the past comes up after a dental experience, the days that follow are like living in a hell fighting demons. I never want my three children to know even a minute of such painful mental and physical abuse.
When Ed comes by today, I am going to tell him I will never tease him or push him to go to the lake and float around the water. The lake, my happy place that brings me peace and serenity — for him could bring the dental experience. It can turn from Lake Sonoma to the Mekong Delta.
Now I understand the true meaning of PTSD and how I could not function for four days even after a positive dental experience. These women who come forth are not exaggerating how these traumas effect their lives. From what I have experienced it still remains in the cells of my body.
Reprinted with permission from the book:
Understanding Suicide’s Allure, Stanley Krippner et. al. 2021