The single most shaming question you can ask a victim of abuse is… why didn’t you just leave?
Most of us recognize that children and the elderly are vulnerable and therefore need to be protected from sexual predators. But what do people say when an adult is abused? I’m afraid it gets labeled a mutual affair, but mutual requires consent and consent is not possible in a relationship with an imbalance of power.
So why do so many adults find themselves stuck in abusive situations with therapists and religious leaders for example? What is the magic formula these predators possess that allows them to take so many people captive? I can tell you that it does not involve magic. Abusers trap victims through a slow, calculated and insidious process called “grooming” and once ensnared, it is near impossible to escape.
I think victims are prematurely judged largely because this type of abuse is not well understood. It is also a terrifying prospect to admit that our religious leaders and mental health professionals, those who are supposed to provide guidance and counsel can also be wolves masquerading as sheep. Rather than let this frightening reality sink in, we blame victims as if passing the hot potato to someone else.
In my upcoming memoir, PRAYED UPON, I describe the grooming process that ensnares victims in this type of abuse. I talk about the subtle and methodical tactics my abuser employed to weave his web around me until I was trapped. Did he hold a gun to my head? No, but he used an equally powerful weapon—cunning manipulation tactics that he implemented over time until he had me right where he wanted me. Essentially, I was a pawn in his twisted game.
One reason a victim stays trapped in an abusive therapy relationship is because they typically need support to get away from the predator, and they know that if they tell someone they will likely not be believed. After all, they are an adult. Can adults be groomed and abused? I didn’t think so until it happened to me.
Unfortunately, I did reach out to a close friend to tell her what was happening to me, and I was not believed. In fact, she took the abuser’s side, and it crushed me. I vowed to never tell another soul and that I would figure out how to escape on my own. Because of this setback, it was months later—after more abuse—when I was able to muster the strength to speak of it again.
Besides the small minority who are educated in the area of therapist abuse, I would bet most people would respond with something like this: “That’s ludicrous. It was mutual. She’s a grown woman.” And so my first response to the question of why didn’t you just leave is simply that.
We know we won’t be believed. And for well-meaning friends and family who do believe us, we know they won’t understand it, leaving a lingering feeling of judgement hanging awkwardly in the air between us.
The sad but true reality is many will blame us for what occurred. What were we wearing? Did we lead the therapist on? Were we too needy? Ironic when many victims are in therapy because of childhood sexual abuse and a fear of being seen as attractive by men. My therapist even pointed this out to me. He said, “You know you dress boyish in order to deter male attention.”
When I was sitting in the Oklahoma Medical Board meeting listening to the panel of doctors bantering over whether or not to accept my abuser’s “surrender of license,” there was a stranger sitting next to me. When I stood up to leave, he mumbled, “Please, that’s not abuse…that’s mutual.” There you have it.
POSSIBLE DAMAGE TO OUR LIVES
Being blamed raises a host of terrifying prospects: Will we lose our families? What about our jobs? Marriages? Friends? Reputations? We know we didn’t want what occurred to happen, but will others see that? It’s a lot to risk in order to do the right thing. If we are able to get away without enlisting help from someone outside, keeping the secret will prove tricky. The emotional baggage from such a trauma weighs heavily on a victim, and suppressed grief tends to multiply.
I know when I was making the decision to tell, I considered how it would affect my marriage and my family. What if my husband didn’t understand? What if I lost everything? That is one of the reasons the idea of suicide comes up. I was already devastated that someone who I thought cared about me like a father figure was simply using me for his entertainment, but now I could lose everything I’ve ever cared about. It puts a victim in a horribly unfair position.
WHO CAN HELP US?
Once we do get out, will anyone be able to help us? We may view all therapists as dangerous. For many of us, clergy have also proven dangerous. In my case, my counselor was also a respected elder at my church. Are we safe anywhere? For more on future therapy after therapist abuse, see the following link: https://amynordhues.com/who-can-help-you-recover-from-therapist-abuse/.
Should we go to the police? The advice I got was that filing a criminal charge against my attacker would be brutal for myself and my family and that the doctor would likely walk. After all, therapist sexual misconduct is not illegal in the state of Oklahoma. As of now, I believe 27 states have criminal statutes against such behavior. To see which states have legislation on therapist abuse click here: https://partnersagainstsexualabuse.org/?fbclid=IwAR0X5EoZ8nOmPGrzYFCEWCgi8W6xelhaSJ-fPeEoXit4rtlA1Uia_h-jC4Q Even then, can the victim prove the assault without witnesses?
What about reporting to the licensing boards? Will they take our complaint seriously? Maybe, maybe not. I know I was terrified of the idea of talking to a strange man from the medical board. Luckily for me, I had a positive experience.
What about filing a malpractice lawsuit? Will an attorney understand? Not likely unless you happen upon one who has been trained in this area. The first two attorneys I spoke with made me feel re-victimized. They wanted to know why I went back, and each time, their tone was dripping with condemnation and judgement. I almost gave up right then. It didn’t seem worth it.
PLAYING ON OUR EMPATHY
What other things held me captive? The doctor shared his personal life with me, his brokenness, until I felt responsible for him. He made himself seem very small, very vulnerable, and made me think it would destroy him if I ever left. In fact, he told me that if I ever left him his heart would shatter into a million pieces.
He shared about his mom’s alcoholism and how he believed it was his and his brother’s fault. He told me of the sadness he felt in his marriage. I heard about his loneliness as a child, how he wished I could be his mother! How could I hurt such a sweet, tender soul, after he’d done so much for me?
Love bombing is the practice of showering a person with excessive affection and attention in order to gain control or significantly influence their behavior. Predators do this through attention, gifts, flattery. They make you feel “special,” a powerful elixir, and it feels amazing to be on the receiving end of it.
How did my doctor do this with me? With comforting words, gifts, longer sessions, personal phone calls, free sessions, anything he could tell filled a void inside of me. The real world can be rough at times, and when the therapist is love bombing his patient, his office becomes a sort of “sanctuary” away from the world’s stressors where the client feels cared about and appreciated and deeply understood. It’s easy to see how this can become enticing.
Mirroring occurs when the perpetrator morphs into the epitome of all you’ve ever wanted or needed in another person. Perpetrators seek out that need in you—that one thing you’ve longed for your entire life. And then they conveniently become that thing; essentially, they “mirror” it back to you. For those on the receiving end of this kind of attention, it can feel like you’ve met your soul mate—someone who has the same likes and dislikes, the same take on life. For most, this feels intoxicating.
I know for me, the abuser provided an emotional connection I’d never experienced before, a closeness with a father figure. How could something that felt so healing be so wrong? I thought it was a blessing that God was providing me, that I just happened upon a kindred spirit. It was so reassuring to find someone just like me. It did wonders for my self-esteem.
I had to return week after week, like an addict to a drug. The attention and love the doctor provided made my normal life seem lonely and unsatisfying. He was the only one who really understood me, who saw me, right? How could any normal relationship compete with someone who is love bombing you?
In the outside world, my friends fell away one by one as the doctor moved higher and higher up on my priority list. Pretty soon, I couldn’t ask for help if I wanted to because I needed whatever it was this man was providing, this elusive thing that seemed to be making me better. After all, I was feeling happier, the light in my eyes brighter, the lightness in my step returning. Sadly, it wasn’t due to my healing at all. It was all the carrots the doctor was dangling in front me—the idea of being heard and understood and cared about, the idea of being special.
I felt too guilty to leave. The doctor told me it would break his heart if I left him. He was fragile. He needed me too. It felt kind of good that we benefitted each other in some small way instead of the help only being one-sided. When it was mutual, I was more of a daughter and less of a client.
For seven months, the doctor didn’t charge me for my sessions, and at first I saw that as a kind, therapeutic gesture. After all, he knew that I still carried some pain and guilt from my childhood because I had been told how expensive I was. I appreciated the supposed act of kindness at first, but in time, I wondered if he was trying to make me feel indebted to him, and I began to resent it. His sneaky tactic worked because it made me pause when I thought of leaving him.
My abuser isolated me from family and friends. He made me believe he was the only one who could love me in the ways I needed to be loved. The only one who would ever fully know me and get me. After all, he was my therapist so he knew all of my secrets, all of my vulnerabilities that remained hidden to the outside world. He told me he was loving me for Jesus, and I believed him.
The doctor created such a bizarre therapy process that I felt uncomfortable talking to anyone else about it. He lured me into an increasingly inappropriate relationship, knowing I was against it, but would be too ashamed to speak of it, and knowing I was too attached to venture out on my own. After turning to my best friend and not being believed, I felt utterly alone. So who was left? That’s right. My abuser. Towards the end, I had no one else so he became my tormentor and my comforter. A twisted situation to say the least.
LOW SELF-WORTH (SOMETHING’S JUST WRONG WITH US)
I had always felt defective. Since being molested as a child, I believed that something was inherently damaged in me. So I minimized things the doctor did that made me uneasy. I downplayed them, ignored them and assumed they were my fault somehow.
Surely a devout Christian doctor would not really be taking advantage of me. Had I caused it somehow? It must be my fault. Maybe I’m too needy? I wanted him to be the “good guy” because if he’s the “bad guy” my entire world would come crumbling down around me. If it’s my fault I can fix it. I can get my father figure and safe place back. Yes, I will fix it! In the last weeks, I was promising God I would make the doctor see he was hurting me and when he realized that, truly understood that, he would stop and all could go back to being safe and nurturing and fatherly. Wrong.
The doctor made a point to hug me every Sunday at church to condition those around us to his behavior. He’s just touchy that way, others would think. You just have to know him, I imagine them saying. And for the most part, it worked. He encouraged his victims to attend his church, I believe, for that very reason. So that he could make big displays of affection in front of everyone, making it seem less suspicious if it happened behind closed doors.
He was also a church elder and a member of the prayer team, which gave me a false sense of trust in his character. I respected my Pastor, so the doctor must be a good guy. Weird maybe, but not evil. Regardless, it was a good cover. It served him for 36 years until I crossed his path and reported him.
This has to be one of the most powerful oppressors for victims. The shame in being duped as an adult, in participating in behavior that is completely out of character for many of us, in having to accept that we kept going back seemingly by choice, in knowing that we would likely not be able to explain our reason for staying because even we aren’t sure…this all adds up to a huge amount of shame.
Shame is why victims stay quiet. And staying quiet compounds the shame because then we are “hiding” and not being completely honest with ourselves or anyone. We are essentially living a lie. Even worse, this means the abuser has won because we are still captives—we are prisoners to the shame that the doctor caused us.
Sexual abuse carries an inherent side effect. The victim, especially when it’s a child, always believes the abuse is their fault. Their supposed failure in their eyes is so heinous, so atrocious, that no one must ever find out. And don’t most therapists work with patients who have sexual abuse in their pasts? I would say yes they do.
For me, it took fellow victims, other smart, educated women, to tell me that they were also taken advantage of for this shame to begin to lift even a smidgen. This is why I am coming forward—so other victims know they are not alone and they are not to blame.
Shame is a prison that I’m afraid many don’t escape. Abusers know this. It is an almost built-in guarantee that their victims will protect them, an extremely powerful motivator to continue therapy and stay quiet. The reason I believe many take their own lives is because they cannot see that the shame is not theirs. It belongs to the abuser.
THE ABUSER’S CHARMING PERSONALITY
My doctor was goofy all the time with everyone. Surely, goofy and evil cannot go together? I found that an unlikely pairing. He presented himself as a bumbling grandpa type. Silly old farts are not sexual predators, are they? My Pastor told me he was completely duped by this “act” as well.
Sociopaths are charming and oh was he ever charming. The doctor told me when I cried in my therapy sessions that he wished he could wrap me up in bubble wrap or something soft so that I would never have to hurt again. He brought me tea and held the door. When I was upset, he dabbed my tears with a tissue and covered me up with blankets from his office. A collection of dainty china tea cups lined his bookshelf. He bowed at the waist when he saw me like a butler in an old mansion. He wore a suit with silly ties and a big cross necklace!
According to Wikipedia, “Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them cognitive dissonance and other changes such as low self-esteem. Using denial, misdirection, contradiction, and misinformation, gaslighting involves attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s beliefs. Instances can range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents occurred to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.”
My doctor’s spiritual approach to therapy was so bizarre—full of evil spirits and witchcraft and prayer—that I was beginning to lose touch with my own reality. What was of God and what was Satan, I wondered. And when I questioned the process, I felt like I was disrespecting God.
Some of my experiences in therapy seemed to be legitimate spiritual experiences and other times I felt like I was playing along in the doctor’s twisted game of make believe. As soon as I thought it was a joke, I thought it was real and vice versa. I felt like I was losing my mind towards the end.
Is this helping me or hurting me? Was Satan trying to take away my father figure or was God telling me to run? There was no one else to discuss such things with, except the one inflicting the pain. So I went back hoping maybe he could help me figure it out. The doctor told me that Satan was trying to do the same to him—to make him question that his motives with me were anything less than pure.
I felt as if the doctor had created another universe, one that only he and I inhabited, and the more time I spent there the more my normal life seemed to be fading from view. It was like being trapped inside of a snow globe. People could see me but even if I screamed for help no one would hear me. It was too late. I was in too deep.
THE CHRISTIAN COVER
This one outrages me the most. It’s so heartbreaking to me that abusers are often disguised as “Christians” or religious leaders. In the article “SEXUAL ABUSE IN SOCIAL CONTEXT: CLERGY AND OTHER PROFESSIONALS,” a Special Report by Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights states: “…in studies done in the 1980s, 12 percent of ministers had ‘engaged in sexual intercourse with members’ and nearly 40 percent had ‘acknowledged sexually inappropriate behavior.’ The report concluded that ‘…the rate of incidence for clergy abuse exceeds the client-professional rate for physicians and psychologists.'”
If you think about it, it is one of the best hiding places. My abuser prayed in our sessions as he was preying on me. He bragged about the cross necklace he never took off. An elder at my church and a member of the prayer team, he frequently spoke of Jesus during my sessions. Artwork of Jesus lined the walls of his office. He claimed the Holy Spirit was his boss! Because I was a rather naive new believer, this was a powerful tactic.
When the abuse worsened and the doctor’s hold was slipping, he told me others would not believe me if I told. Once you are in counseling, you are viewed as unstable, he pointed out. To another victim, he threatened that he was best friends with the DA. Go ahead and try to tell, he taunted.
So why didn’t I just leave?
Each of these predatory tactics added a link in a chain until the chain was so well-constructed that even when I knew the doctor was hurting me, I couldn’t escape, not without help at least. And to tell came with great risk. Only with God’s help did I find the courage to tell. And you can too.
It is like you are pulling thoughts from my head. Thank you for being brave and vulnerable to share Amy. 💗
Thank you, sweet friend! I am so glad that my experiences speak to a broader audience. Sadly, so many of us have experienced narcissists, sociopaths and abusers. They come in all forms and fashions…