I glance up from the magazine I’ve been nervously skimming and stand cautiously, as if trying to get my bearings. Then rather shakily I move toward the doorway and the beckoning voice, but hesitate for just a fraction of a second. As if I’ve then somehow shored up my courage,I resolutely follow the receptionist down the corridor to Dr. Holmes’s office.
I had started these therapy sessions a few weeks ago after I’d ended an especially disturbing relationship. Unable to understand how, at the supposedly mature age of thirty-nine, I could so compulsively self-destruct on such a regular basis... especially since I’d reached a modicum of success in other areas of my life.
Today the hypnosis would begin.
“How are you feeling, Phoebe?” Dr. Holmes, a woman in her mid-fifties, sits behind a desk piled high with files and against a backdrop of walls lined with books placed helter-skelter, with no logical design. My curiosity about her office arrangement is probably more of a function of my own compulsive tendencies than an indictment of her messy habits. Noticing my sweeping glance, she smiles as if she can read my mind, and then peers at me quizzically over her half-glasses, her forehead creasing with her ever-present look of concern.
I shrug and squirm around in the chair for a moment, feeling like a child brought to the principal’s office for some misbehavior. Being on this side of a desk always makes me feel subordinate, even when I'm not on the hot seat. As I am today.
We settle into the routine then, which Dr. Holmes had carefully explained beforehand.
She leads me into the hypnotic state, gradually regressing me through the years, until finally she asks: “And where are you now, Phoebe?”
“I’m standing at the front door. It’s open, and I’m staring outside through the screen. I don’t know how I got there. I’m wearing pajamas and I’m barefoot. I hear something. A footstep. I turn and he’s behind me! He sees me, but then walks down the hall, his eyes looking away real fast, as if he doesn’t want me to see him.
"I’m scared. I turn and run down the hallway to my room.”
“Who do you see behind you?”
“It’s Daddy.” Silence. Then, “and when I get to my room, I hide under the covers, hoping he won’t come in. ‘Cause, sometimes, late at night, I wake up and he’s there, just standing over me with a…look on his face. If he catches me with my eyes open, he says: ‘Just tucking you in....’
"But I feel so cold and scared afterwards.
“Next thing I know, my mother is pulling the covers off and saying: ‘Time to get up.’
“I dress for school real fast. I still get a knot in my tummy every day, but when I tell Mommy, she always laughs and says: ‘You get homesick when you’re at school.’ And she looks happy, like I’ve said something that makes her feel good.
“After I eat my oatmeal and drink my hot chocolate, I put on my jacket and scarf…I don’t want to forget my gloves! There, now I’ve put them in my pockets. It’s starting to get real cold in the mornings and when I get to school, I always have to wait outside on the playground for awhile in the cold, because I ride the first bus.”
Dr. Holmes watches her patient, whose face is now contorting, and she’s wriggling around on the chair, almost like a child. “How old are you, Phoebe?”
“I’m six, and I’ve just started the first grade. I like it.” A smile flashes, but then a shadow appears. “I ride the bus and get off at the playground, but nobody’s there yet, not even my friend Janice. She comes later.”
Dr. Holmes sees a frown. “Now what’s happening?”
“I’m walking along these benches…I’m trying to balance. But here comes Thea. She lives in town and she’s trying to jump from bench to bench. Last time she did that, she fell…and there was blood everywhere! Next day she comes to school with a big bandage on her head, telling everyone: ‘I busted my head.’ I don’t like it when she does that. I hope Thea won’t fall today, ‘cause there’s nobody else around.
“I get a lump in my throat watching her, so I walk slowly back to the buildings, waiting for Janice to get there. Oh, good! Here she is now, coming down the steps of her bus, and my heart goes thump. My tummy feels a little better. I smile real big until finally she sees me and waves. ‘Hi, Phoebe.’ ”
Settles into chair with heavy sigh.
“Now where are you?” Dr. Holmes prods.
“We’re in class. We’ve had our groups, and now we get our milk. It comes in a carton, with a straw. Before I started school, I never saw milk in a carton before. Ours comes straight from the cows and Daddy brings it in from the barn in a big can. Then Mommy pours it into jars. This milk tasted funny at first, ‘cause it’s pasteurized. Now I really like it.”
“Let’s move forward a little. It’s summertime and school is over. What are you doing?”
Deep breath, then a big smile. “I’m at Cassie’s house. She has so many dolls.” Sad face. “I haven’t had one since I turned four. Daddy hates dolls, he says they’re stupid; when he was little, he put his sister’s doll in the slop bucket.
“Cassie’s got about three-hundred dolls.” Laughs gleefully. “Dolls with hair…blond, black, and even red…and we braid their hair. When we’re done playing, her mom lets us watch TV and have our snack on trays. We don’t even have a TV. Daddy says the TV is the Devil’s tool.
“Oh, no!” A look of panic.
“What’s going on, now?”
“It’s night. Daddy’s yelling and Mommy’s crying. Somebody falls on the floor…I think he hit her…I hide my head under the covers. But I can still hear them and I’m scared. I think they’re never going to stop. Then I don’t hear anything at all…
“And next morning, Mommy acts like nothing happened, but I see her eyes are all red. Maybe it’s like the sleepwalking. Maybe it doesn’t even happen at all. Did I dream it?”
“Let’s move ahead a little. You’re older, now. Where are you?”
“I’m walking to the junior high school from my bus stop. I hate it! All the other girls have pretty clothes, but mine are too long and too big. Everyone laughs at me, even Janice sometimes, but especially Eva, who has boobs. All the boys chase her!
“I begged for a Lady ‘n’ the Tramp skirt. You can get the gores from the fabric store, and even Janice has one. But Mother says ‘no’, with that little wrinkled look she gets around her mouth. She won’t look me in the eye, and lately she acts like I’ve done something wrong.
“And Daddy…well, he goes ballistic if I even talk to a boy, even at church. And he gets this look sometimes, like I’m trash or something, and he yells at me for nothing. Then one day, out of the blue, he reaches out and grabs my boob. My face turns hot and I look around, but nobody’s watching. When I jump back, he glares and says: ‘I feel sorry for whoever ends up with you.’ Like I’ve done something wrong! I don’t understand any of it. Then later, I wonder if I’ve imagined it or maybe it was an accident? I walk around thinking I must be crazy or something.”
Dr. Holmes clears her throat. “We’re coming back, slowly, and you’re going to wake up feeling refreshed, and you’ll remember everything. One, two, three.”
Frowning, I sit forward in the chair. “God, I hadn’t thought about any of that stuff for the longest time. But why do I feel that there’s still so much more?”
“There probably is more, but I don’t want to move too quickly. I think you need time to sort out what you’ve remembered today. Next time, we’ll try again. Can you come in again on Thursday?”
I check my appointment book and nod. “Sure. Same time?”
We chitchat and say our good-byes.
As I walk out, a strange and eerie calm has descended. But near the edge of my awareness, I have a sensation of something…but it’s just out of reach and I can’t retrieve it. I go over the memories of the sleepwalking and something about my father coming into my room…but then, I push the thought away. There’ll be time for all that later, I promise myself and I quickly head for the parking lot.
Later that night, I think about Cassie again.
God, I haven’t thought about her in years. Last time I saw her, we were about ten or so. She moved to Arizona right after fifth grade. I remember feeling abandoned, even though she’d promised to write. And she did. I got several letters from her, describing the horse ranch where she lived and the adobe ranchhouse. But we stopped writing about a year or so later. I’m not sure why.
That same year, I found another new friend riding on the school bus. Her name was Mary, and she had boxes and boxes of Nancy Drew books. I’d go to her house after school sometimes or on Saturday. When I could get permission. Getting permission to leave the house was like a major undertaking, back then. Usually I was only able to manage it because my father was out in the field working and my mother would say it was okay. She did that a lot, now that I think about it. Giving permission for things that my father had forbidden. We had a secret thing going.
Now that my memories have been unleashed, I ruminate about my high school years later that evening, as I sip a glass of wine. I feel too restless to read or watch TV. I mentally traipse through the minefields of my adolescence, grinning wryly to myself as I recall my awkward teenage self.
Janice was still around back then and we did lots of stuff together. Her parents were like a second mom and dad for me, inviting me to dinner, to spend the night, or to go on trips.
Again, I only got permission when my mother pulled the strings. I’m still not sure how she convinced my dad to let me go. Maybe he wanted me out of sight.
But then, something would always happen and I’d get in trouble. He’d find out about the boys I went out with while I was at Janice’s house, and he’d rant and rave, and one time, he punched me in the mouth, calling me “whore.” My mouth was swollen for two days!
In those years, I lived for my eighteenth birthday when I could be on my own. My eighteenth birthday loomed like some faraway goal post, with so many obstacles to overcome along the way. I wanted to go to college, but I knew that I had to get out of that house. My survival seemed to depend on it.
I filled my days with school activities, including writing for the school newspaper. I learned to express my feelings through writing and believed that I had actually developed a flair for it. I thought I might study journalism in college, or maybe English. I could be an English teacher, I decided.
I moved out of the house right after my eighteenth birthday, renting a room from an elderly lady in the next largest town. I worked during the day in a library, pasting pockets in books, stacking books on the cart, and walking up and down the aisles shelving the returned books. It was incredibly boring. I took classes at night at the community college.
By the time I had worked there a year, I decided I needed to jumpstart my college education. I applied for financial aid and worked part-time so I could take a full load.
During my sophomore year, as I was still floundering around trying to find my niche, I started having trouble getting out of bed in the morning. I walked through my days like a zombie, barely alive. I started bingeing on candy bars to get through the afternoons.
I had a friend that year, a girl named Joyce. She told me I was probably depressed.
I visited the counseling offices, where I had several sessions with a man who listened and said “um-hum” a lot, occasionally raising his eyebrows. I asked for somebody else and got a woman this time. She tried to probe into my childhood, asking questions about my relationship with my father. She seemed especially interested in my early childhood experiences, but I remember being really vague about all that. Actually, I couldn’t recall anything very specific. I always had the feeling she was hoping to hear about some horrific incident. But since I couldn’t give her what she wanted, she seemed to lose interest. After awhile, I stopped going to the sessions.
On Thursday, I enter Dr. Holmes’s office with some trepidation. I know that, today, she plans to try and regress me again to the early years, hoping to retrieve something more.
For some odd reason, I feel both fearful and hopeful.
“Hi, Phoebe,” she greets me pleasantly. Today she offers me a soda or coffee.
I shake my head. I want to get down to it.
She takes me through the steps again, until I am under. She leads me back, back, to the time before I first started sleepwalking. “How old are you, Phoebe?”
“I’m five. I had to go to the doctor again.” Lips pouting. “Mommy says I’m con-sti-pated. Doctor gave me some bad tasting stuff. Ooh!” Face scrunched up. Then, rocks back and forth.
“What’s happening now?”
“Mommy gave me an…en-ema. I hate it! Daddy’s standing there watching.” Hands folded across chest, followed by shivering. “Mommy finished and I’m in bed now. But I’m cold. Somebody pulled the covers off. I’m trying to get under the covers again, but he keeps pulling them off!” Frantic. Starts shaking.
“Now what’s going on? Are you still in bed?”
Nodding. “Yes. He’s rubbing my back…now he’s touching my legs, up and down, up and down. Ooh. He’s pulling my panties down. Ow! It hurts! Daddy, why are you hurting me?”
Puzzled expression. “Oh, good. Now he’s stopping. He goes away. I curl up in bed with my teddy bear…there…where it hurts. I cry a little and then I start to sing to myself.
‘Itsy-bitsy spider….’ I think I fall asleep for awhile, but now I’m standing at the front door looking out. It’s dark outside. I don’t know how I got there….”
Dr. Holmes soothes with her calm voice, bringing me out of the hypnotic state.
We talk a little bit, about what I’ve remembered in this session. I feel strangely calm and as if events have begun to shape themselves into a crystal clear picture. Dr. Holmes schedules our next appointment and I leave.
As I started getting pieces of memory back, everything began to make sense. The inappropriate touching from my adolescent years had been just the tip of the iceberg. My memories of the nighttime visitations, seemingly directly connected to the sleepwalking episodes, freed me from that horrible sensation of something being just out of my reach…A nagging awareness of unidentifiable horrors. Dr. Holmes theorized that I had tried to cope in the only way I knew how back then, and the sleepwalking was an escape mechanism of sorts. She calculated from my descriptions of events over the years that the actual abuse, other than the occasional touching, had probably stopped shortly after I started school.
I can’t say that my depressions ended with these sessions and the retrieval of the repressed memories. But I developed new coping skills. And when the blackness descended, I could usually extricate myself fairly quickly. Through action.
But, like any progress, there are steps forward and then steps backward. I’d achieved clarity about some of my past self-destructive behaviors, including the years of alcohol and drug abuse, sexual acting out, and even eating disorders. By the time I’d faced my past fully in those sessions, I had begun to cope more directly with my angst. I wrote in my journals a lot and even started writing fiction. My career as a journalist veered off onto a different path. I traveled to Europe, where I taught English as a second language, and helped support myself through free lance writing for a local newspaper.
When I returned to the states, I segued into a totally new direction professionally, enrolling in graduate school in order to earn my master’s degree in social work.
Eventually, I reached a perspective of seeing life as a series of challenges to overcome, with each successive obstacle a test of the skills I’d developed along the way. I came to believe that other people and situations are put in our path for a reason, either to present us with obstacles or opportunities to learn our life lessons. Sometimes we’re even given the chance to help and guide others, offering the benefit of our own experiences.
If we’re fortunate, we may encounter many challenges before we reach the end of our journey.