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Heavy Meddle: Haunted By A Childhood Game That Went Too Far

Struggling in adulthood to heal from a close but troubling boyhood friendship. (stuart anthony/flickr)
Struggling in adulthood to heal from a close but troubling boyhood friendship. (stuart anthony/flickr)

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions via email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,

Steve

Dear Steve,

I was 5 when I started “messing around” with my best friend, who was 6. This is where it gets complicated. We were both young and naive; not even preteens yet. But George (not his real name) knew more about sex than I did. He would tell me stories, and then we would play Truth or Dare, and then things got physical.

At the time, I didn't know what I was doing. I knew it felt pretty good, and I was with someone who was my best friend. So, I thought, why not? This went on for a few years. And then I started to grow up. I slowly started connecting the dots. What George and I were doing was, indeed, sexual.

We never actually “went all the way” (although he attempted the act once). It mostly consisted of other forms of sexual contact. Naturally, as we got older, our hormones kicked in. He wanted more; I wanted less. He asked me, "We're gay, right?" And I didn't know what to say. Because what do you say when you’re 11? I certainly did not know the answer. I barely knew who I was as a person, let alone my sexual identity. But things pressed on, and I never said no. I had a disgusting feeling that what I was doing was wrong, but I wanted it. It felt good. He was my best friend. I figured I could trust him.

George moved away when I was graduating middle school, and we fell out of contact. I forgot about him for a while.

And then I went to high school. I met boys. I met girls. I started becoming a sexual being, in the traditional sense. And suddenly, I was plagued with flashbacks of George and me in dark rooms and hidden corners. It all felt so terribly wrong. I began to associate any act of sex with something shameful.

These feelings went on for a while, until I started seeing a therapist. I connected more dots, and I eventually came out of the closet.

Now I'm a college student. I'm happily homosexual and pretty comfortable in many aspects of my life, but I'm tired of George haunting me. I blame him for a number of things (why I can't have sex without feeling guilty, why I have trust issues, etc.) but then, on the flip side, sometimes I blame myself. I wanted it. I never said no. Is it right to blame myself?

Labels are just words, I know, but they help. They provide clarity. And while a therapist told me recently that what I experienced is, by definition, “rape,” I'm still not sure. And what I'm even more unsure of is how I can ever possibly move past George and the damage he inflicted upon me at such a young age.

I'm just looking for some clarity. I want to be able to be with someone and feel safe with him or her. George took advantage of me and hurt me. I know not everyone is like that, and there have been people who have come into my life who care deeply for me and want to love me the right way. But I'm just so afraid that I'll never be able to let go.

Thanks for listening, Steve.

Sincerely,

Still Haunted
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Dear Still Haunted ,

The central thing you need to hear right now is that you are not alone. In fact, most children partake in some kind of sexual experimentation when they’re kids. As troubling as this notion can be to adults, children do have sexual impulses, and they do act on them, though often in the guise of imaginative play (i.e., “Let’s play doctor.”) Usually, one child initiates and another (or others) choose to comply.

Based on what you’ve told me, this does not sound like “rape,” because rape is a crime of sexual violence that involves a perpetrator taking by force what he or she cannot gain by consent. But I’m more interested in the emotional content of these experiences—which were clearly profound—than in how we might label them.

In this case, the physical contact wasn’t just a form of play, but a sustained sexual relationship, one about which you felt increasingly conflicted. As you grew up, you came to see these interactions with George as coercive.

The part of this equation that’s troubling here has to do with blame, which implies wrongdoing. So let me say this as clearly as I can: you are not to blame. It is a natural impulse—for both children and adults—to seek pleasure. And it is a natural impulse to trust and want to be close to your best friend. There is nothing shameful about this. Please (please please) let yourself off the hook.

It is a natural impulse...to seek pleasure. And it is a natural impulse to trust and want to be close to your best friend. There is nothing shameful about this.

From what I can tell, your humiliation arises from having semi-consciously traded sexual compliance for the approval and affection of a beloved friend.

But look: this is something that kids and adults do all the time. It’s a transaction predicated not just on desire, but fear of abandonment (“if I don’t do these things, this person won’t love me”).

I suspect this fear is still living inside you and poisoning your efforts to find a love that feels “safe.” There’s no advice column that can resolve these complex dynamics. That’s work you have to do, day by day, with a therapist.

But the end goal here shouldn’t be to define yourself as a victim. On the contrary, you need to recognize that your desire to remain close to George, and to give and receive pleasure, wasn't a crime, but a natural impulse that gradually grew distorted by need and fear.

The central lesson is not that you’re doomed to re-enact these dynamics, but that you can take charge of your romantic life by listening to your own desires, rather than complying with others. This is how your search for love and intimacy will be liberated from the dark corners of your mind.

Easier said than done, I know. But your brave letter, and the work you’re doing in therapy, is a good start. Clarity can take a while when it comes to matters of the heart, and the body. But you’ve got to be willing to examine your own life with precision—and mercy.

I wish you courage and kindness,

Steve

This letter called up all sorts of memories for me. I never had an experience this intense. But I took part in plenty of games of Truth or Dare, where I went further than I wanted to, due to peer pressure. I’m curious what you readers make of Haunted’s letter. Did it call up experiences for you? What counsel would you offer? Let us know in the comments section. And please send your own questions along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don’t have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your queries via email.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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