Friday, May 30, 2014

A life lived in fear is half a life

Fred Mimmack, M.D.
Originally a speech published on Male Survivor and reproduced with the consent of the author.

My name is Fred Mimmack. I am a survivor of incest from my earliest years until age 13. The incestuous relations were with my mother. The effects upon my physical and psychological development, my school and work performance, my friendships and love relationships were profound, but I didn't begin to face the facts completely until about six years ago. I have lived a life of secret shame.

Image from Pixabay
There is a Spanish proverb which says: "A life lived in fear is half a life." I think that all of us here tonight would say that a life lived in shame is half a life.

I am 60 years old. I am a husband, a father, and a grandfather. I am a physician. I have practiced psychiatry and psychoanalysis in Denver for over 30 years. I am respected as a clinician and as a teacher at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. By any reasonable standard, my life is a success. But for most of those 60 years, I have not respected myself and my achievements have felt fraudulent to me, because I have been hiding a shameful secret truth.

On December 1, 1992, Marilyn VanDerbur Atler was the speaker at Grand Rounds for the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Health Sciences Center. I had arranged for my class of psychiatric residents to be present to hear her message. Prior to that, I had had some correspondence with her, and had heard her speak publicly on two occasions, but I was not prepared for what she did that day following her presentation. She asked survivors to stand. I stood. It took almost no thought for me to do that. It was the truth. It was a relief to say it. I am a survivor. At that moment, I felt that not to stand would have continuing to hide the truth. That was my first public disclosure. This is my second. A psychiatrist is trained not to disclose personal, private information about himself or herself. That rule, like so many rules, when incompletely understood, has been carried to ridiculous extremes. I believe that many facts are readily available and should not be denied, and other realities can be intuitively perceived, so I'm breaking the rule here tonight. In my own experience working with survivors of sexual abuse, we often get to a critical point in the therapy when he or she knows that I am a survivor, and asks. 

It comes through in facial expression, in the wording of a question, in a pause or hesitation, or the patient simply has the sensitivity and the intuition to know it. For me to deny it, or to say: "I wonder why you ask" is to play a cruel mind game, and we have all had too many mind games played on us. It's not only our bodies which have been violated; our minds have been violated. I hope that telling you my story tonight will resonate somehow with the work that you are doing, and encourage you in that work. Mrs. Atler assures me that it will. I speak particularly to those of you who are male, to those who were violated by your mothers, and to those who live with and love a survivor.
You may notice that I alternate between referring to Marilyn as "Marilyn" and as "Mrs. Atler". I enjoy saying "Marilyn" because it reminds me of her friendly support; but it's important for me to say "Mrs. Atler" because it is so important that there is a Larry Atler. Thank God for Larry Atler. There is also a Barbara Mimmack, my wife. Thank God also for Barbara Mimmack. She has been a constant, and healing force in my life. She has provided a safe place for me.

My mother was an incest victim herself, and remained a victim until her death at age 74. She never healed. She was violated by her father and, I suspect, by one or more of her brothers. For the 35 years that I knew her, her life was dominated by shame, guilt, self-loathing and the hatred of men. Even on her death-bed, her last words to my father were the most bitter, hateful, cruel words imaginable, and he did not deserve that; he was not the person responsible for her abuse. Very early in my life, she established a bond with me which excluded my father and sister as much as possible. She often said that she lived vicariously through me. 

For her, that meant possessing my mind and body. For me, it meant being so close to her that I identified with her in every way: her shame, her guilt, her fears, her hatreds. She hated her body; I hated my body. I insisted upon covering my body from head to toe —wearing long-sleeved shirts buttoned at the neck, and long pants always. I made myself a freak and I developed no physical skills or comfort with sports. I was afraid of separation from my mother and believed that I could not survive without her. She made suicide threats and swore me to secrecy about them. Secrecy and seething rage were the undercurrents in our home. I stayed by my mother's side and listened to her endlessly. I developed phobias and panic symptoms, making me even more certain that my body was defective. My father kept his distance, and he responded with silence to my mother's contemptuous verbal attacks on him. He and I did almost nothing together, and I knew him only through her eyes. Eventually I became as skilful at verbally abusing him as she was. That seemed safer than trying to get close to him and risking my mother's disapproval.

When I was 15, my mother told me of her sexual abuse at the hands of her father, when she was a teenager and her mother was ill. Her father was a notorious womanizer who shamed his family. When my mother told me this, I had not fully repressed what had occurred between us earlier, but I had mentally split off its significance. In fact, for most of my life I have denied that what she did with me amounted to abuse or incest. It was just something that happened. She said that she was telling me of her abuse as a warning- that her father and the other men in her family were "over-sexed", and now that I was old enough to ejaculate, I would be over-sexed too. I would be a beast like all men. I was paralyzed with confusion. I secretly longed to become manly, but this was an ugly picture of manliness. It confused me that my mother seemed so unaware that I had no sex life, that I was a sissy, a freak, a wimp. 

No girl was in danger of being ravished by me. I stuck to the "brainy" asexual girls in high school and if anything sexual did appear in the atmosphere, I developed panic symptoms with muscle spasms and complete anaesthesia in vital parts of my body. This was the beginning of various forms of sexual dysfunction which followed me into adult life just one more proof to myself that there was something terribly wrong with me. That became my conscious secret: that I was defective and deviant; I couldn't be a man. I compensated with intellectual achievement, but I didn't value it because I felt I was hiding behind it, that I was deceiving people, and that sooner or later I would be found out. This feeling of transience and fraudulence has permeated all of my work and all of my relationships, causing me to hold back, trying to protect myself from the inevitable loss and humiliation. I went ahead and did the things "normal" people do and which I really wanted to do, but felt I was faking: I went to an excellent university and medical school, established a career, married, had children, but there was always that nagging feeling that I was a fraud and could lose it all. It saddens me terribly now to face how much of myself I have held back from the people whom I love the most. I felt like I was struggling to perform with no solid foundation, and sometimes my rage would break through. It horrifies me to recognize that rage has usually taken the same form as my mother's rage, and usually with those closest to me. I'm still working on that.

It's hard to say when the work of recovery started for me. Surely leaving home at 17 to go to college was critical. That must have done something toward establishing safety for me, although it took many years for me to know how to be really safe. Making it in college helped, because my mother predicted I'd be back home in a week —"too frail". Being accepted by the university itself and by new friends was healing. Even though I couldn't fully believe it, there was enough there to keep me going. Acceptance to medical school was unbelievable thrill, although my mother eroded my joy by telling me that her brother had used his influence to get me in. I believed that for years, and felt fraudulent as usual, but there were great teachers, great classmates, and the atmosphere of passionate learning that helped chip away at the self-doubting and the old ugly self-image. Meeting, courting and marrying my wife has been a vital healing force. My mother refused to attend the wedding, and my father and sister did not have the courage to attend without her. In spite of my feeling of fraudulence, my wife has provided safety and constancy for me. She has had a solid enough sense of herself, that when I would fly into one of my self-righteous, paranoid tantrums, she would not get drawn in, would wait it out, and get on with business when it was over. That's not to say that my efforts to make her feel that she was abusing me didn't hurt, they did, but she simply knew that she wasn't abusing me, and that steady, unabashed honestly has helped me to stop blaming her and start examining myself. We're still doing some healing work. My moods and tantrums were more damaging to our sons whose developing young minds were much more vulnerable to assault. I have a great deal of healing work to do with them.

Choosing the profession of psychiatry has opened up an ideal field for my search for the truth about myself, as I searched for the truth about others. I am so grateful to my patients who have shared their lives and their courage with me. Their work of healing has furthered my own. The same is true of my students.

I did have some formal treatment. In my 40's, I entered a personal psychoanalysis which lasted 7 years. It was helpful in relieving depressive and phobic symptoms, and in freeing up useful energy. It even saved my life, but it didn't integrate the issue of sexual abuse. It couldn't: I hid from my analyst those symptoms of which I was the most ashamed. Had I revealed them, we could have confronted the issue of incest, by integrating those symptoms with the scattered and fragmented memories that were present. That confrontation and integration has been done pretty much on my own, backed up by a great support system. I'm not sure of all the reasons for it's taking so long. Perhaps one reason is that very thing: that I did try to do so much of it on my own. I know that new knowledge, published in the last several years, about incest, child abuse and sexual abuse, and clearer treatment techniques for post-traumatic stress disorder have inspired and changed me. In recent years, I've done a lot of physical training and that has done a lot to change my body image, and hence my self-image. My sons who are all very athletic have been my inspiration for that, and they have directly with encouragement and participation.

Facing the complete truth about myself has been painfully wrenching, but freeing and strengthening, including that day last December when I stood with other survivors. It was a symbol for facing the truth. What happened between me and my mother is the truth. the way in which it crippled me is the truth. The distorted means I developed for hiding and yet expressing my bitterness and rage are the truth; but the good in me is also the truth. It's taken a long time for me to be able to say that. Recently a young woman survivor heard my story and asked me: "How could your wife live with you"? I said: "She loves me". Six or seven years ago, although I knew that, I would not have let myself say that so spontaneously. My wife always knew that I had been abused; she knew it intuitively, but she has found something in me to love, and she has provided me with safety and support. She is not present here tonight because she is a very private person. I respect her preference for privacy. I don't need her here to feel her support, because by now I know I have it. Our oldest son is here tonight. His presence represents a new phase of our relationship which I hope will free him from that baggage - my baggage which got between us in the past.

I thank you, Marilyn VanDerbur Atler, for inviting me here, and I thank all of you for your courage in coming here. My wish for all of you is that you find your place of safety so that you can do your work of healing, learn to trust yourselves more than you think possible now, and move toward living not half a life, but a full life.