Topics: Keeping the Secret

Dark Secrets – from Victim to Survivor 

I thought I was the only one. I was 28, had four children and a marriage that was not working.  Severe depression led to hospitalization and subsequent sexual abuse, during regular office visits, by my psychiatrist. There was no way I could escape.  I trusted Dr. G when he told me: “affairs are good for marriages.” I thought I was “special” to him and the “only one.”  I did not realize, 30 years ago, how depressed I was and how that made me vulnerable to being abused by someone I trusted with every part of my soul. 

With the media focused on child and adult sexual abuse by clergy, there is little attention given to those of us who, as adults, have been sexually abused by psychotherapists.  We are reluctant to come forward to complain because of our intense feelings of guilt, self-blame, and shame. The act of “breaking the silence” is courageous, but it carries the threat of being re-victimized. Among the naïve challenges to our stories is, “why didn’t you just walk out?”

When we enter therapy, there is an immediate imbalance of power. Because of this, our psychotherapists bear all of the responsibility to ensure that sexual boundaries are never, ever crossed.  As patients we come, like children, trusting that our psychotherapists, parent figures, will help us. But, when a psychotherapist abuses his/her power, and the relationship becomes sexualized, the therapeutic relationship ends and professional incest begins. Similar to child incest by a parent, as victims of abuse by psychotherapists we believe that we love our perpetrators and do not want to get them into trouble. We know that the relationships must be kept secret.

We believe that this is normal because we have complete and blind trust in our psychotherapists. We also feel we are special and the only one.  Finding out that we are not triggers rage, disbelief, and severe feelings of betrayal.  Damage from this experience, whether it was a one-time occurrence, happened regularly, or took place off and on for months or years, is devastating. Most of us are in denial because we have been manipulated to believe that the sexual relationship is our fault, what we want, or in our best interest.  We may suffer long-term effects such as Post Traumatic Stress disorder, suicidal feelings, and eating disorders. When we finally realize that we were abused, the denial, rage and anger at having been betrayed and violated by someone we trusted, are almost too much to comprehend. We are so traumatized that the thought of trusting another therapist is almost unbearable; and we suffer in silence and in fear of being re-victimized.

My abuser told me that “affairs” are normal. What happened to me was no affair: It was sexual abuse and exploitation.  The abuse, under the guise of therapy, continued for several years.   I was mesmerized. I felt I couldn’t be without him, yet when I left his office, I wanted to go home and shower. As a devout Catholic, I felt unbelievable guilt and shame for something I thought was my fault.

I tried, for years, to close this part of the book of my life, put it on the shelf, and never look at it again. I could not tell anyone, not even my closest friends. Unfortunately, keeping the “secret” damaged me physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Dr. G’s career progressed. He held high positions and received awards: he was named Doctor of the Year and President of the Board at the hospital at which he practiced.  My life led to two divorces, physical, mental, and spiritual problems, and difficulties for my children.  As I move from victim to survivor, I still think of the “what ifs” in my life had I not fallen into the hands of a grossly incompetent and unethical psychiatrist.

Breaking the silence in October of 2004 was my first step in healing, in becoming a survivor instead of a victim. I had gone to a new therapist, not for help with this “affair,” but because I had lost my job, my home, had had a terrible car accident, was struggling with a very sick husband, and everything was going wrong.  It was not until my new therapist moved his office, a year or so into therapy, and I had to climb a flight of stairs to go to my sessions, that the flashbacks started. I had had to climb stairs to go to my abuser’s office, and the story of my previous abuse came out. “It is not your fault,” my new therapist told me, something he has assured me of again and again.

The decision to “break the silence” was not easy.  I chose very carefully whom I would tell.  All but one of those I told validated my experience and my pain, and supported me: The one insisted that I should have taken some responsibility for what happened.  In time, I hope he will understand the dynamics and change his mind. I also told my story to administrators at the hospital where my abuser had been on staff. They were generally supportive but refused to remove my abuser’s pictures from their walls for something that had happened so long ago and about which only one person had come forward. I will never completely “get over” what happened to me, but I am on the way to forgiving myself for believing it was my fault.

Keeping the secret for 30 years has not only taken an emotional toll: It has also left me with no possibilities for taking action.  I cannot confront my abuser: He is dead. When I learned of his death, I felt grief, but I also felt anger that I had not had the chance to challenge him about what he had done to me. Statutes of limitations have long passed, so I have no ability to file civil, criminal or licensing complaints.  My one option is to try to make a difference in someone else’s life. My goal now is to try to prevent this from happening to someone else.  If, by reading my story, someone is inspired to speak out and not hide in shame for having been abused, then “breaking my silence” and telling my story is a goal well reached.

Marilyn Nowak

For more information, see Anne Hallward’s TED Talk entitled:

“How telling our silenced stories can change the world."  ><

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