Sexually exploited help each other

December 19, 1993|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,Contributing Writer

Deeply depressed about a failing marriage and the news that her pre-school son had been diagnosed with cancer, Pat sought help from a psychiatrist.

But instead of receiving treatment, she was lured into a sexual relationship that she says damaged her mental health. Feeling confused, angry and betrayed, there were times she considered suicide.

When months of visits to a gynecologist didn't give Kay relief for severe menstrual problems, she went to a chiropractor to seek a more nontraditional form of treatment.

She didn't get the help she had sought; instead, she says, she was intellectually, spiritually and emotionally raped by her doctor.

After years of therapy, both women, who have asked that their last names not be used, have not healed from the emotional jTC wounds inflicted by the professionals they say betrayed their trust. But they are recovering with the help of a newly organized Harford County support group -- Treatment Exploitation Recovery Network, or TERN for short.

An offspring of TERN in Baltimore, the local chapter of the self-help group has been meeting every other Friday since September at the Commission for Women office in Bel Air. Three people are attending the Bel Air meeting; membership at the Baltimore group averages between 16 and 20.

Kay, who had been traveling weekly to Baltimore to attend TERN meetings there, organized the local group. "I felt there was a need in this area to provide a safe place where survivors of sexual exploitation could come together and share resources, information, and experiences with others who empathize and understand," says Kay. "But meetings are not intended as a substitute or alternative to psychotherapy," she says.

Most important, survivors attending the support group meetings find out that they are not alone and that they are definitely not to blame, she says.

Sex in a doctor-patient relationship is never acceptable. It violates the doctor's Hippocratic oath and its primary pledge to do patients no harm, says Catherine Nugent, co-founder of Baltimore TERN and a recovered survivor.

Even if the sexual relationship continues, it can never be considered an affair, adds Ms. Nugent.

"There's such a power imbalance . . . it negates the possibility of an equal, consenting relationship," says Ms. Nugent.

"Ethical and competent health professionals use their power for the benefit of patients," she says. "Incompetent, unscrupulous doctors use that power to gratify their own needs at the expense of their patients."

Often, patients view their therapists as powerful, parental figures and admire and idealize them, says Ms. Nugent.

Pat agrees. In the two-year relationship with her psychiatrist, she says he became her "god."

"It was almost cult-like," says Pat. "I trusted his judgment more than my own. He had tremendous power over me; anything he said was right."

When Pat finally broke off the relationship, she was confused and ashamed. Feeling unworthy of her family, she contemplated suicide. Why she never went through with her plan to drive her car off a cliff, she cannot explain.

Several years later, she stopped working and spent a year in Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital on a psychiatric disability.

Pat took her case before the Health Claims Arbitration Board in the mid-1980s, but lost in a 2-1 decision for lack of evidence. And because of a procedural error by her attorney in filing for appeal, the case was dismissed. She was later successful in suing her attorney for malpractice.

Her marriage survived, her son won his battle with cancer, and she continues to play the violin in a community orchestra.

But Pat says the damage is lifelong. Her trust has been destroyed, and she's hesitant to make friends, she says. But after 18 years of pain and confusion, she finally has hope of recovery. By attending TERN meetings, she's beginning to deal with her problem.

"Until I started going to meetings, I never truly dealt with the abuse," says Pat. "It's good to be able to talk with people who understand."

Kay adds that attending TERN meetings has helped her regain some self-respect.

"For so many years, my life was just washed down the drain, my self-esteem totally clipped away," says Kay.

Kay has gained more than 60 pounds, and doctors say the skin disease from which she now suffers is "self-inflicted."

"Looking this way, I know that no one wants to be attracted to me and abuse me," says Kay, who remembers being extremely trusting when she went to the chiropractor for help.

"His attention was so subtle, I didn't even notice it at first," she says. "An inappropriate touch, frequent physical contact and hugs, compliments on my looks."

She remembers initially thinking that he was just being nice to his patients. Shy by nature, she was unable to tell him how uncomfortable his remarks and inappropriate behavior made her. When the attention continued and he started telling her about his sexual problems and asked her to enter into an affair, she became very confused and stopped seeing him.

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