Prolonged Exposure Therapy: Session 6
for session six of Prolonged Exposure Therapy, I chose to focus on the final act of domestic violence by Scott (the man I was then married to) against me.
it was both more and less damaging than the previous event I'd focused on, the gas-lighting session by cult leaders that destroyed my ability to trust others and to make decisions on my own. it was more damaging because it brought me closer to accepting death as a solution to my pain than anything I'd previously encountered, even the verbal and physical abuse I suffered at the hands of my mother.
it was less damaging only because my psyche was already so damaged that it couldn't have created in my heart any more of a sense of worthlessness than I already harbored against myself. it is possible that if Scott, along with the cult leaders, had not destroyed my soul so completely in that closed-door session a few years before, I would have found the strength to gather up my children and walk out the door after he attacked me.
I was trapped, completely. marriage was for life. only "unbelievers" left a marriage. "unbelievers" did not deserve to have access to their children, according to cult doctrine. I would rather die than give up my children to gain my own freedom, and the cult had instilled in me the very real fear that I would not have access to them if I left my marriage.
the event took place about five years after the closed-door gas-lighting session. a new child had come into our lives. I had, of necessity, begun a career so I could support Scott and our children while he obtained a technical degree. he didn't want me to have a job; he felt that the real reason I wanted to work was so that I could divorce him, not so that I could make sure we had food on the table. he obtained his degree but, despite his protests when I'd begun working full-time outside the home, he seemed to have become accustomed to me working, running my part-time business, and doing all the cooking and cleaning. he made no effort to find a job. when he prepared food, he made only enough for himself even if our children were crying from hunger. he spent most of his time watching TV.
because of my naive belief in fairness and his unreasonable sense of entitlement, it was just a matter of time before Scott's extreme narcissism and my Asperger's inevitably clashed. this was one of the times it turned violent.
I had been frustrated. frustrated because the harder I worked toward what I thought were our common goals, the more Scott relinquished responsibility. frustrated because there was no equity in our relationship. frustrated because to me it seemed obvious that when circumstances in life change, for instance completing a degree acquired for the express purpose of pursuing a career, that some effort should be made to adapt to the new circumstances, for instance by seeking a job with said newly acquired qualifications.
but no, it was not obvious. when I attempted to encourage, I was rebuffed with the admonition that school had been hard work and Scott believed he was entitle to a vacation.
eventually it wore thin. one day I exited our bedroom, where I'd been on the computer for hours working at my part-time business, and in front of me was a trash can overflowing so that garbage was on the floor. it seemed to represent the state of our marriage. we had relocated to a new city and lived at three different addresses in two years. out of carelessness, Scott had almost burned down the apartment building we first lived in, then lied to cover it up. I'd tried to get him to seek professional counseling because I couldn't understand why he lied about everything from starting a building on fire to what he spent our household money on. our relationship was once again overflowing with garbage, just as it had so many times before. each time had led to an emotional crisis and Scott had found a temporary fix by relocating us.
in session, I recounted in present tense how I frustrated I felt about my overwhelming responsibilities. I had the choice at that moment of once again trying to get Scott on board as a participating member of our marriage, or taking the oft-used route of quietly taking care of the problem myself. my unhappiness was so acute that I decided to try to enlist Scott's help with housework. so I asked him, as long as he wasn't working, to help out with the housework.
as I spoke, he stirred from his usual spot in front of the TV to stand facing me from across the room. his only response to my request was to inform me that I was "a bitch and nag". according to him, all I ever did was nag.
I tried to overlook his complaint as one of the typical bouts of childish complaining that he was prone to, and pointed out that I was working full-time, running my business part-time, and doing all the cooking and cleaning was starting to get to me.
he responded with "what else are you good for?" at the time he said it, it confused me. by the time I'd recounted the event three times in session, it made me angry. what else was I good for? within that simply phrased rhetorical question, his meaning was quite clear: I was not good for anything.
I was not good for companionship. I was not good for talking to. I was not good for setting goals with. I was not good enough to respect. I was not important enough to have my needs considered. I was not good enough to deserve affection. I was only good for earning money, paying bills and doing housework. in effect, I was only good enough to serve him on the level of providing for his physical comfort.
at the time, though, I was not cognizant of his disdain for me. I was still laboring under the misapprehension that we were partners in life, so I tried to explain my frustration. across the room from me, he smiled, then he opened his mouth and mocked me, using gibberish words as he mimicked my voice in an exaggerated tone.
something snapped in me. I felt a scream tear its way out of my throat, and "I hate it when you do that!" burst from my mouth. I don't remember him mocking me on other occasions, but the fact that I responded the way I did tells me that he did, and that he did it to humiliate me.
my hands were in fists and I shook. a bookshelf was next to me. I grabbed some books and threw them straight down at the floor. I could feel my own breath, harsh as it rushed in and out of my lungs. I focused on those few books on the floor. throwing them on the floor was the extent I was willing to take to outwardly express my anger. in that split second, Scott rushed me as he yelled with delight "here, let me help you with that!" he used his arm to scoop books from the shelves, shelf after shelf, and flung them at my face, my head, my back.
our little girl, just two years old, ran to me and wrapped her arms around my leg, crying. her face, looking up at me full of fear, is burned in my memory. at that instant, my only thought was to protect her, so I tried to shield her with my hands and body as I shrieked "stop it! stop it!" at the top of my voice.
Scott did not stop. books flew at me and our little girl, and I wrapped my arms around her and ran. I could not leave the apartment, so I locked us into the bathroom and checked my daughter for injuries. there was a long scratch running the length of her little leg where a book had hit her. she cried and cried, and I rocked her until her sobs became hiccups.
Scott banged on the door and told me to come out, and I refused. he kept knocking, and eventually I came out after making him promise not to hurt us again. I wouldn't let him touch me or our daughter.
he took out the trash. I felt nothing. the numbness had set in.
sometime over the next few days, he wrote a letter of apology. he wrote that he never wanted to be the man who didn't recognize his wife's contribution to his education. he wrote that we could make it through this together. the words held no meaning for me, because they had no real meaning for him. he only said what he felt like he needed to. I'd forgiven him before. he had no reason to believe that I wouldn't again, no reason to believe everything wouldn't go back to the way it was before his temper tantrum.
the numbness didn't go away. I felt that I had nothing left to live for except to see my children to adulthood. I could not foresee my existence beyond that foggy goal.
after reliving the event for the third time in session, I was so angry that my heart raced. as I discussed the event with my therapist afterward, disgust overwhelmed me. "how could someone be so stupid?" I wanted to know. "Scott is such an idiot! he's stupid!" I recalled how I'd wanted a divorce six month into our marriage because I recognized that we were fundamentally incompatible. I stayed because of my naivete, because he refused divorced, because he convinced me that we could achieve our goals. looking back, I can see that we never did have goals in common. my goals were very clear, and he superficially agreed with them. why? I wanted to know. why would someone pretend to be compatible and spend their life in a miserable marriage with someone they weren't actually compatible with at all?
my homework, listening to the recording of that session, has been difficult. listening to my voice, as I express anger over Scott's duplicity, upsets me. my heart races. I don't know why.