Now that we have had a number of sessions, I wanted to write to you to attempt to get down on paper some of the themes we have been discussing. This is not meant to be any kind of definitive statement, but rather a way-maker in our conversation – rather like taking a break when we are on a long walk, to rest, look at the view and review how far we have come, as well as where we are going next. I hope that you will want to respond, perhaps in kind by writing back to me.
When you first came to see me, I was so struck by how much and how often you have hurt yourself Fernando, with alcohol, with drugs and with unsafe sex with people who do not care about you. You told me that your mood swings widely and you don’t know why, or how to calm it, and that your mind is often frantically busy all over the place, searching and questioning, trying to find some meaning in things, anticipating the worst, ruminating obsessively about men who you long for, but who do not want to be with you. And your dreams are broken by terrifying nightmares so that even sleep is not a safe place for you. Your experience of life sounded overwhelming – confusing and frightening and distressing and it seemed that you found really hard to know how to take care of yourself, to soothe yourself, to respect yourself, or how to assert yourself with other people so that they treat you properly too.
But it is clear that you absolutely do know how to ‘look after’ others…
You care for your whole family, not just your mother, but all three of your siblings, sending them a huge proportion of what you earn, worrying about what’s going on at home and trying to improve things, even from such a long distance. This is a central source of self-esteem and an important role that was handed down to you by your father on his death. But you find it very hard to balance it with your responsibility to yourself – to recognise that your needs and your family’s needs may sometimes be in conflict and that it might be ok to prioritise yourself sometimes.
It has become clear that you are adept at giving others what they seem to want Fernando, as well as remaining calm, never being angry, even when others are mistreating you. Indeed it seems as though it is hard for you to relate to others except in ways that appease them and give them what they seem to want. In many ways, this strategy has served you well, for instance at work where you are very capable and able to get along with others at high level. But it doesn’t serve you so well in terms of looking after your own interests. Difficult feelings like anger seem to be very hard even to acknowledge, let alone express, and this can leave you open to mistreatment or abuse by other people. This can range from small examples, like being basically ignored by a hotel receptionist for many hours, even though you have locked yourself out of your room without many clothes, right through to examples of extremely abuse, like feeling as though it is ‘normal’ to be raped in a nightclub…
As we talked about your background and life experiences, we have been able to make more sense of where these patterns of thinking and behaviour first began. It is a complex history and I am very aware that there are many cultural differences, and so I may not have fully understood the nuance of some of what you have told me, but I’ll do my best to try to summarise the themes of your story as I have heard them, and I hope you will keep correcting and explaining further so that I can understand better…
You told me that you are the second child of four, and that your childhood was conducted against a background of constant volatility, danger and violence in Brazil. All around you, rape, kidnap and murder were common place and “everybody was afraid”. When you were 5 or 6, an older cousin, who lived next door, at your grandmother’s place – came around to play on your brother’s new gaming console – and began to sexually abuse you. At first you did not understand what it was that he really wanted, but as it continued each time he came around, you felt too afraid to resist, or ask him to stop and so it became a regular part of your experience. You got used to it, not wanting it but enduring it for fear of the worse, and learning to shut away your emotions about it, to feel nothing most of the time. You knew that your mother would be horrified and ashamed if you told her, so you kept it to yourself.
A few years later, another cousin also began to abuse you. You would hide under the bed, hoping to evade him, but he learned the code of taping on the window that you had created with your friend and tricked you into letting him in. As you grew older, he included another boy – a friend of his who was about 15 – who also raped you regularly. By this time, you were 12 years old, and you were attracted to this lad, but he rejected you, although the abuse did not stop. This was your first experience of rejection and although you were feeling hurt and bereft, the act of sex was divorced from your emotions, which seemed to be irrelevant.
All through this time, no-one in your family seemed to notice what was happening to you, to see your distress, it was as though it was invisible. So perhaps it is not surprising that you too learned to dismiss your experience and feelings as unimportant, and it is this powerful lesson that I hope we can begin to undo in our work together. It sound as though in a way, the sexual contact was the only focused attention that you were receiving, and I wonder if perhaps you learned to confuse sex with care and kindly attention.
Your father was a respected man in his local community and he worked as an accountant to a powerful family that his sister had married into. So he had status and respect in the community, and he felt it was his responsibility to help others whenever he could, and to try to look after all. When you were little, he was close and involved in your life, and you always had a special place in his affection, perhaps also because your older brother Guilherme was troubled and difficult.
But when the company that your father was working for got into trouble, the money dried up and he found it increasingly hard to look after his own immediate family let alone the wider circle. He locked himself away and drank too much and became increasingly distant. Your mother, who had given up her studies young, struggled along, trying to please him, and to look after you all with little money to do it with, and unsurprisingly she was fearful and anxious and often depressed. Your father cheated on her with other women and there was constant conflict in your home. He would say horrible things to her, shouting at her if she asked for money so that she could buy food. Your older brother Guilherme was increasingly troubled. He was violent and aggressive especially towards your mother. You were struggling yourself, but there was very little energy or attention left to pay to you and how you were feeling. Perhaps you hoped that if you could emulate your Dad and be the one that took care of things then maybe you might be able to get back some of the warmth and attention that you logged for. So you tried to step into the caring role and to protect your Mum from Guilherme, as you do to this day. This was a rule in which you were valued and important, so it was precious to you, as it is today. Although you were temperamentally naturally laid back and not aggressive, you told your father at one point that if Guilherme hit your mother again then you would kill him.
Times got harder and harder. Your little brother Eduardo spent more and more time away with his godparents – who could afford to look after him properly. You would be sent to the department store owned by the family your father worked for. You would wait anxiously by the cash register, feeling the responsibility you had been entrusted with – hoping that they would make a sale because then you could take the money home and then you could all eat. Your mother was already relying on you.
At school, you did well and wonder if your success here gave you some kind of respite from the many troubles at home, and some attention that was always based on what you were achieving rather than what you could do for others. You were bright and you did well academically, and the teachers were pleased and complementary. But your peers were from much richer backgrounds, and they teased you that you didn’t have money for sweets. You felt like an outsider, not accepted by the group. As you began to realise that you were gay, this estranged you further from your peers, who teased you about that too – you remembered vividly two girls who you heard talking about you and the gesture that one made about you. You were beginning to fear that you were disgusting to others and that you had no value apart from what you could do for them. So you continue to learn how to give to others what they seemed to want, and to dismiss your own needs in favour of looking after theirs, perhaps hoping that if you could do this successfully that you might be able to get some of what you needed for yourself.
I was struck by how resourceful you were Fernando. You got into acting age 14, and then when travelling away for a performance and seeing a ballet company rehearse, you knew you wanted to give it a try. By 15 you had won your place at the dance school and then within 3 months you had won a scholarship to come and study ballet in the UK. Your father was so proud of you that he overlooked the fact that you were a ballet dancer and begin a fundraising drive to raise the money needed to send you to England.
Around this time you also begin to seek out sex for yourself. You were longing for care and affection, but after years of abuse, you had also been highly sexualised at a very young age. You started to seek out sex, but once again getting yourself into vulnerable situations where you felt too scared (and too accustomed to giving others what they wanted) to resist the men cruising the pavements in the city where you were studying ballet, or the taxi driver who recognised your sexually and threatened to out you to your mum if you did not pay him extra and give him a blow job.
When you came to the UK you had a boyfriend for a couple of years, but by that age of 17 or 18 you would be hooking up with 5 or 6 guys a night, not bothering to take care of yourself by making sure it was safe, and often doing drugs at the same time, in a attempt to enhance the experience and perhaps to join in with the men you were with, to make yourself agreeable. The drugs take the edge of difficult feelings, lifting you or calming you as required, which was helpful when you hadn’t really ever figured out how to do this yourself.
Feeling that you needed to support your family financially, you stopped dancing, went to university and then on into the world of work where your intelligence combined with your ability to give others what they want has meant you have been very successful. But your personal life has suffered. Still logging for care and affection, you have continued to seek unsafe, self-abusive sexual encounters. You told me that true addiction kicked in around the age of 29 or 30 when your father died and you met Pedro. You have had a serious of obsessions with unavailable men over the years, and especially with Pedro, who was straight and never really interested in you in the way that you craved. You longed for him from afar, imagining a perfect fantasy of togetherness. Sometimes he would get high and drunk and flirt with you, but rather than recognising that this was cruel of him, it gave you false hope and you sought to get closer to him, hoping that he would notice you, taking more and more drugs just so that you could buy from him, giving you an excuse to be around him.
Hearing of his death recently was a huge shock, but you hoped that it might mark the end of that era and the beginning of a new phase. And writing your letter to him and posting it on your blog has enabled you to think through what he meant to you and the influence it has had on your life. Since then you have had other obsessions including Alex your piano teacher, who rather like Pedro, was flattering and flirtatious, which drew you in and then left you feeling really rejected and hurt when he wasn’t interested in you.
This longing for an almost magical perfect relationship with an idealised other means that your hopes for the impossible are inevitably disappointed and you were left feeling rejected and as though you are un-loveable. But in ordinary relationships, you feel like being taken advantage of or abused. So you are caught in a impossible dilemma Fernando. It feels as though there are only two possibilities in relating to others: either you are appeasing and end up feeling abused, or, you long for an idealised rescuer who never materialises and end up feeling rejected and bereft. I want to help you find a middle ground between these two positions.
On the other, your relationship with David has been very real and constant in your life for many years, you get on well and have similar interests and tastes and he has stuck around through thick and thin. It does sound as though you got very caught up in the pattern of trying to please him and that actually, your recent decision to live apart has given you a bit of space to please yourself and enjoy your own bed and create your own schedule, which is enabling you to begin to attend to what you want and need to be.
I hope that from now on, we can start exploring ways of responding to when feelings of being unloved and unimportant come to you, so that you can finally find the peace that deep down you long for.