Help me with this (potentially triggering) childhood memory
September 16, 2013 11:12 AM   Subscribe

I have this memory that's been bugging me for way too long. I don't know if this might be triggering for some of you, but I do want to give you a heads-up that it might be. It has to do with an encounter I had with a gym teacher, when I was six. I'm wondering if what this gym teacher did was at all *not* as intensely creepy as I feel it was.

When I was in first grade I performed poorly in gym, so I was put into something they called "remedial gym," where a male teacher--let's call him Mr. Smith-- had me and a few of my uncoordinated classmates playing catch with kickballs, stuff like that.

One day I was home, playing alone in our finished basement, when Mr. Smith came downstairs. He said he was there to help me. I can't remember how long he was down there with me (with, again, no parent nearby--my mom was upstairs) but what I do remember is this: he said we were going to play a game. He called it "The Octopus Game."

He then sat behind me (on the ground), straddled me so his legs were on either side, and then he grabbed me, and I had to get free. As far as I remember, the point was that when I got one arm off me, the other one would come in, so it was like, you know, an octopus. (A, um, four-legged one, I guess.) I immediately found this INTENSELY disturbing and panic-inducing, and as soon as I got free, I ran upstairs. Again, I was maybe six, so this could have gone on for longer, but that's what I remember.

I don't remember what I told my mom, or what she did, but I do remember there being some general amusement over my (healthy) need for boundaries, I think Mr. Smith was laughing as I ran upstairs. My mom thought I overreacted, too, I believe. (Again, no definite memory of that, but it's the general sense I got. Mr. Smith never came back to the house. I don't recall ever going to remedial gym again, either.

Now, this sounds like an idiotic question even as I'm asking it, but is there any chance this was some kind of valid form of occupational therapy? I mean, is the Octopus Game a thing? I assume at the very least it is very very un-kosher to do something like this ALONE with a small child, but, you know, this was the seventies. Is it possible this was some actual exercise, or is Mr. Smith the predator I assumed he was pretty much from that point on?

Even writing this down has made me feel physically ill. It's an extraordinarily unpleasant memory.
posted by brooklynlady to Human Relations (40 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
brooklynlady: One day I was home, playing alone in our finished basement, when Mr. Smith came downstairs. He said he was there to help me.

This alone is insanely creepy, much less the ensuing "game" which is so far over the line as to be legally actionable, in my personal opinion.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:17 AM on September 16, 2013 [9 favorites]

Super duper creepy, starting with the "what was your gym teacher doing at your home in the first place?" part of the equation.
posted by ook at 11:18 AM on September 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

I know, it's such a strange memory that sometimes I think it can't be real. But my gut tells me it is. Very, very strange.
posted by brooklynlady at 11:20 AM on September 16, 2013

I don't know whether this was a valid coaching technique or not, but it sounds really traumatic to me.

I understand that you have your reasons for asking this question, but this internet stranger would like you to know that your feelings are absolutely valid even if there's some kind of facially innocent explanation for the coach's actions.
posted by gauche at 11:20 AM on September 16, 2013 [21 favorites]

It sounds like something inappropriate to me.

I'd hasten to add that even if this were some widely recognized technique, your feelings of distress are entirely valid. Inappropriate or not, you were put in a traumatic position, and accepting that reality seems important, regardless of the reaction of your parents, or the orthodoxy of the technique, or whatever. Be well.

(On preview: what gauche said.)
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:24 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I really appreciate the validation, gauche (and others!). My mom's got some serious issues, so it's not like I can go to her to discuss this. It's a memory that pops up frequently, and at the strangest times, so it clearly still has real power, almost 40 years later.
posted by brooklynlady at 11:25 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is indeed an objectively creepy that you experienced, and I am sorry it happened to you, and that it affects you still.
posted by elizardbits at 11:33 AM on September 16, 2013

One thing that might help lessen the power of the memory is to replay it once in your mind as it happened (in as much detail as you can bring up) and then replay it again but change it (maybe your child self says "no" and runs out of the room or maybe this time your adult self walks into the basement and tells off the teacher, rescuing your child self.) Do this as vividly as you can. You may want to repeat it a couple of times, trying out different endings to see which are most satisfying.

My pop-psychology version of why this works: You now have two memories of the event in your mind - what actually happened and what you imagined might have happened. Somehow, when you go to recall the event, the second (imaginary) version gets recalled along with the original one, lessening the emotional wallop of the memory. I use this approach all the time to help let go of nightmares. If this was a major trauma, you want a therapist to help you but it sounds you would be OK doing this on your own. (If going through the memory of the incident in detail starts to get too upsetting then do get professional help.)
posted by metahawk at 11:39 AM on September 16, 2013 [11 favorites]

I think even the notion of "remedial gym" at age 6 is a bizarre and questionable thing. I'm sorry that happened to you.
posted by something something at 11:40 AM on September 16, 2013 [9 favorites]

Well...occupational therapy would require more than one session, for starters. Do you remember what became of this teacher? or what his name was? Did you try to goggle him just to check if he has a record?

Even if your mom had issues, he should have had way more strict boundaries, being the professional in the situation. If this was a (ridiculously strange) remedial gym situation, he should not have gone to your basement to do lessons that involve touching on his own. He let that situation happen. He also laughed when you became uncomfortable.

This whole situation does not look good to this internet stranger either. I would have been terrified if I had been you.
posted by Tarumba at 11:41 AM on September 16, 2013

Tarumba: I did indeed try to Google him, but he has a common name (not unlike Smith) and I couldn't find him. I imagine he is long retired. I couldn't find any evidence of charges pressed.
posted by brooklynlady at 11:44 AM on September 16, 2013

Reminds me of my creepy gym teacher, in the 70s. I think that (a) inappropriate scenarios like this were all-too-common, and (b) you're entirely justified to feel traumatized by it. The good news is that these scenes are finally recognized for what they are, and that they're being called out and prevented in many cases. The bad news is that for you and others, that awareness has come too late. I nth Gauche's assertion that your reaction is entirely appropriate, and I love metahawk's suggestion that you dilute the memory by re-writing it with a better ending.
posted by Capri at 11:48 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

The only place I have heard of a similar octopus wrestling game with kids is in this preschool book, where it is one of several silly roughhousing games in a story about a dad horsing around with his kids. If it is useful for you to think about this memory with the least creepy possible interpretation of the facts, here it is: Octopus Hug
posted by steinwald at 11:56 AM on September 16, 2013

Just a stab in the dark here, but I think this memory is not what it seems. I think it may be a partial memory, an grouping of several memories, or a memory that has been moved from it's "true" time or place. Too many things are way weird - remedial gym at 6 years old? The teacher coming to your house? Going to your basement with no supervision to play "Octopus"? I think that there is something disturbing that happened here - and maybe NOT the exact way you remember it. Memories are not like video recordings (look up stuff by Elizabeth Loftus).

Point is. This guy is/was CREEPY and he made you feel weirded out. He behaved in a way with you that made you feel bad. You instinctively knew that his behavior was wrong. I think working on THAT feeling, rather than trying to figure out how, why, where, and when this happened, or whether it was "normal" or not, will help you move on.

TL;DR: It was creepy, your feelings are valid.
posted by chainsofreedom at 12:02 PM on September 16, 2013 [28 favorites]

I know, it's such a strange memory that sometimes I think it can't be real. But my gut tells me it is. Very, very strange.

I have a memory, from about the same age, of going to a forest with glowing mushrooms and meeting the smurfs.

Obviously it's not real. There's no way it happened. But it is a memory, I remember it happening, and it is as visceral and personal and gut-felt as the memories I have of my seventh birthday.

All of this is to say that your gut is not actually a good way to evaluate if something happened or not. People go to jail (and walk free!) every day because someone's memory was faulty but they knew it was right.

What you're describing sounds completely inappropriate, and I'm sorry that you have to deal with that memory. I'm not saying it didn't happen to you. I'm saying that you can't rely on your gut in situations like these, if you're questioning what happened.

I know you said you can't discuss the question of appropriateness with your mother, and I get that. Could you ask your mother if any teachers ever came to your house, without bringing up any of the other issues? Just to confirm your memory that he was in fact at your house?
posted by Jairus at 12:06 PM on September 16, 2013 [10 favorites]

A neighborhood dad did something similar to me in the early 90's to be funny and I still remember being super creeped out by a relative stranger being all up in my business like that. (In his favor, he saw he had crossed a line with me and we both behaved in ways that prevented us from being in touching distance ever again.) Ugh.

Even if it was a supposedly theraputic game, even if he didn't have any ill intentions, even if your memory has some of the details as being more sinister than they would have looked to your family, your feelings of being creeped out were and are totally valid. There are a number of lines that most adults would see themselves as having crossed in that scenario.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:19 PM on September 16, 2013

I agree that the memory may not be correct as you've described it - that doesn't mean it's not a real memory for you, or that something very traumatic didn't happen to you with this man. The memory of him coming to your house and going alone into the basement is the part that feels wrong to me. it seems like even if it were appropriate for him to come to your house, your parents would have prepped you and been there. I'm younger than you, but I did have remedial gym (though we didn't call it that) when i was about 8 or so so that part doesn't seem unheard of, although 6 does sound young. Never heard of the octopus game though. I remember walking on a balance beam, and practicing catching and tossing a ball. It was all in school though, and I was actually happy about it because my parents were immigrants and playing catch with your kid just wasn't a thing, whereas it was for the other kids, so I just never learned some of that stuff.

Anyway, like everyone's saying just because the memory (of a six year old after all) doesn't really line up doesn't mean that you weren't assaulted or you were wrong about this man. Your feelings are valid.
posted by sweetkid at 12:25 PM on September 16, 2013

I suppose that there is an outside chance that this was some kind of motor skills assessment - children are often told these are "games" (like vision and hearing assessments, for example). But I am pretty sure that even the school, had they heard about it, would have been displeased with his behavior.

You could tell your mom you have a funny memory of the coach coming over once and does she remember that happening, just to see what she says.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:27 PM on September 16, 2013

Agreeing that you are not going to get anywhere trying to sort out the details of what may or may not have happened when you were six (or perhaps 5 or 7). Here's what you have - a disturbing mental image and feelings that you cannot control. That's a problem. Can you manage to get professional help? Insurance? Sliding scale clinic?

This is a valid problem and you havw every right and reason to seek help.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:31 PM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was in remedial gym when I was in kindergarten in the 70s and we did nothing like the octopus game you describe. It was held at school during actual gym class and we walked balance beams and learned to skip and hop and gallop.

At *best* your mother asked him to come over for some impromptu OT. But what he did WAS creepy, most likely whitewashed over by the attitude of that time that kids had no agency over their bodies.

Your feelings are very valid, and I hope all of these answers help you to get closure.
posted by kimberussell at 12:33 PM on September 16, 2013

I probably had something like remedial gym in the late 80's/early 90's. It does in fact sound like the balance beam/catching stuff some others have described. It was never alone, nor at home. This was always in a big city; I know the more country lifestyle some of my friends had things could be a lot less formal.

However, none of that changes your feelings on the matter. It sounds odd to me, personally, and may well have been over the line. Regardless, you have every right to feel how you feel about it. If it effects you today, you can work on it in therapy or by yourself. Metahawks technique, while odd and woo-woo sounding, really can work wonders. I know some very good therapists who use it/variants of it.
posted by Jacen at 12:41 PM on September 16, 2013

Six is a really unreliable age to have a full on memory like that. It may have happened, but there are components of that story that seem really far-fetched.

I'm with chainsoffreedom in that I suspect that you're having a memory amalgam and this is how it's presenting itself. Here are some scenarios that may be combining all of this into one yukky sounding memory.

1. You didn't like Mr. Smith and perhaps felt that he violated boundaries

2. You felt physically awkward (Remedial gym seems far fetched. If there were one, I would have spent my childhood in it.)

3. You may have played this game with other kids and felt weird about it.

4. Your basement was creepy.

Memory is not at all reliable, and the sucky thing about it is once something is in our brains as a "memory" it's nearly impossible to shake it loose.

I'll give you an example. My sister and I BOTH agree that our parents woke us up to watch the moon landing. The time this happened was July 20, 1969, 20:18 GMT (or UTC, or Zulu), so that seems right. Except that we were in California, and Pacific time is GMT -8 hours. So that puts the landing at aroud 12:00 PM in the afternoon, not in the dead of night. We watched the moon walk at around 6 at night. It was still light outside because it was the middle of summer. Intellectually we know our memory can't be true, but there were times that were were awakened to watch NASA stuff so our brains compressed this information and we're both stuck with this weird memory.

So. You have this brain thing floating around and it's giving you a gross feeling. For sure, probe around with your Mom as far as you think you can without getting weirdness. If you're still feeling squicked out by it, talk to a therapist.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:43 PM on September 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

Seconding others and adding a little of my own experience. I had a pretty traumatic experience at school when I was five - no need to go into all the gory details, but all the well-meaning adults convinced my mother that it was in my best interest to just Never Speak Of This Again. That wouldn't happen today, but it's what people thought, I suppose.

It did move out of my conscious mind, but it was always lurking in there somewhere, and little pieces of it did get changed around and take on a dreamlike quality, and by the time I was an adult I was sure it hadn't really happened. But it kept on bothering me. I was afraid to ask my mother about it, because of all the stories in the news about false repressed memories. But eventually I asked her, "This is going to sound strange, but did something like X ever happen to me when I started at Y school?" And she confirmed as much as she knew.

So, some of the details are still foggy to me and probably always will be. But I do have some of the facts, and some of the dreamlike bits make more sense.

It's not the same situation, obviously, but I think I might start as others have suggested, with asking your mother to conform if the teacher was alone with you in your basement.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:49 PM on September 16, 2013

Underpants Monster - OP says mom is not reliable and does not mention a dad. May be no one to confirm.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:52 PM on September 16, 2013

Asked my mom about the teacher coming over, and she confirmed it! Although she thinks I was more like 8 or 9, which makes more sense, memory-wise. All she remembers is he was going to help me out "one-on-one" but I "didn't like it."
posted by brooklynlady at 12:55 PM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Underpants Monster - OP says mom is not reliable and does not mention a dad. May be no one to confirm.

Right, I read that part, and I assume the others making the same recommendation had, too. I wasn't expecting her to be able to confirm what he did or didn't do there, just whether he was actually in the house or not.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:59 PM on September 16, 2013

Yes, it sounds inappropriate. I can't imagine any of my teachers ever coming to my house period, although I had a friend who's mom would invite her teachers to dinner.

However, I agree that it's impossible to rely on the specifics of your memory here. Already you know that you probably got the age wrong.

It sounds likely that your teacher was inappropriate - which is very distressing to think about I'm sure - but you may have to resign yourself to not ever knowing exactly and specifically what happened.
posted by latkes at 12:59 PM on September 16, 2013

Jumping back in to point out, in case it's necessary, that there's a lot of difference between "memories are tricky and not as reliable as we think they are, especially memories from childhood or memories of trauma" and "nothing of the kind ever happened to you."

The fact that your memories of this event may be unreliable is not even notable: most people's childhood memories are unreliable. Nevertheless, most people still had a childhood which had events and experiences in it.

Take care of yourself. Go slow and be kind to yourself with whatever you find. The fact that you are asking and thinking about this might mean that you are preparing to deal with it in some new way and that might be unsettling.
posted by gauche at 1:10 PM on September 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

Right, my question wasn't whether or not this happened, but whether what DID happen was a harmless game. What I've figured out already is it doesn't matter, because I was traumatized. I have no doubt that he came to the house and visited me while I was alone, and something about that traumatized me. Or maybe it was another event that I conflated with this one. Either way, the issue of "was this game innocent" seems more and more beside the point, as the discussion goes on...
posted by brooklynlady at 1:11 PM on September 16, 2013

Thank you, gauche. I thought I knew myself pretty well and had my various issues, you know, in order--decades of therapy and so forth--but this memory came up again for whatever reason and is incredibly strong. Writing about it here almost made me sick to my stomach. I agree that memory is tricky, but whatever happened, it obviously affected me more deeply than I thought.
posted by brooklynlady at 1:13 PM on September 16, 2013

My therapist would probably say that this is evidence you do have yourself in order: you are strong enough now to deal with this thing that you've been keeping locked up.

The fact you've been keeping it locked up might mean it's terrible, or it might not -- it just means that your mind thinks it has a lot of power. The fact that you're starting to unlock it means that your mind thinks you can handle that power now. You are stronger than it is. You're not that little girl. You can protect yourself however you feel you need to.

Take care, and don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
posted by gauche at 1:24 PM on September 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Even just the fact that this teacher came to your house (which it sounds like your mom confirmed) is incredibly bizarre. Regardless of whether this guy's interest in children was inappropriate in nature, the way he acted was wrong, and I would have been QUITE traumatized if that had happened to me.

Heck, it creeped me out pretty badly when my 8th grade history teacher randomly came up behind me and started trying to massage my shoulders. After a few seconds I told him to stop and he did; the only thing he said was that I'd "looked tense". I am uncomfortable to this day thinking about that incident, and I think my teacher was wrong to do what he did, but I don't think he was actually a predator. I think he "meant well" but had bad boundaries and wasn't used to thinking of children as people you just don't ever touch unless you have a darned good reason.

By analogy, I am sure most of us have met people who randomly pick up cats and squeeze and hug and carry them around without really checking to see if the cat seems to be into that sort of thing just then. Most of these people aren't predatory either, they're just not used to thinking of cats as "beings with preferences and bodily autonomy that ought to be heeded by default". Which, again, doesn't make it okay to do what they do.

I'm not saying "children = cats", but it's the same *kind* of thing. And both cats and children have every right to feel violated by "grabby" behavior. That part is the same regardless of whether the instigator is a predator or not. The only thing I'd do differently in the event of uncovering an actual predator would be to report any criminal behavior to appropriate authorities and do whatever I could to make sure they were stopped from victimizing anyone else. In the case of someone who was "just" an ignorant boundary-violator I'd simply remind myself it was okay and correct to feel violated by them and (if I had occasion to communicate with them again) let them know that what they'd done was Not Okay.
posted by aecorwin at 2:10 PM on September 16, 2013

> is there any chance this was some kind of valid form of occupational therapy?

I've been going to OT for years with my kid and I can't think of anything like this. I'm not an occupational therapist myself, obviously but I've spent hours and hours and hours doing it and seen a variety of kids do it. OTs want the children to trust them and would never laugh at one for being uncomfortable, for any reason.

Therapists do sometimes go to client's houses, but those are real therapists -- not your gym teacher from school.

Are you in touch with any classmates from then? Have you asked them if they remember this gym teacher?
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:24 PM on September 16, 2013

I was in remedial gym as a child in the early eighties, and OT in the mid-eighties. Nobody ever came to my house. The "Octopus Game" does, however, sound like EXACTLY the sort of thing I was trained to be on the lookout for when I took the mandatory reporter training to volunteer at the YMCA.

One thing I've learned in my own therapeutic journey is that events may be blurry or substituted or otherwise non-factual, but feelings are usually real. If the memory involves you feeling panicked, creeped out, and upset, then you probably felt panicked, creeped out, and upset. And regardless of whether this is or was an appropriate therapeutic technique, there is NO acceptable therapy that leaves a child panicked, creeped out, and upset. None.

Your feelings are valid. You have every reason to be upset. This sounds like a very unpleasant experience.

(p.s. my son's occupational therapist is making a home visit to us tomorrow. If you like, I can ask her what she thinks of this octopus game.)
posted by KathrynT at 2:55 PM on September 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also, if this "octopus game" was a valid therapeutic technique, then the fact that you didn't like it wouldn't have been enough reason to discontinue home-based visits entirely. Change the approach, maybe, but one-on-one intensive childhood physical therapy isn't something you just abandon after one visit, no matter how much the kid hates it. That's way more consistent with someone trying something boundary-pushing and cutting it off once he realizes he can't get away with it.
posted by KathrynT at 3:01 PM on September 16, 2013

Oh my goodness, KathrynT, that would be great.

Thank you so much, everyone, for validating my feelings about this. I know rationally, as an adult, and as a parent, that whatever happened was very much Not Okay, but until I wrote this question I harbored a nagging doubt that I was upset over something harmless. Which I know is wrong, even as I'm writing it.
posted by brooklynlady at 3:05 PM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know if it was supposed to be therapy as much as it was supposed to be some kind of exercise. Whatever it was, it's one of the few things I remember from my childhood *vividly.* I've been sent into a panic in the past by friends or boyfriends grabbing me from behind, especially if they playfully refuse to let go when I struggle to get away.
posted by brooklynlady at 3:08 PM on September 16, 2013

Also, I love that some of you were also in something called "remedial gym."

Also also, I wrote a question here a couple of years ago about my coordination problems and insecurity/anxiety over it. I wonder if the two issues are related...
posted by brooklynlady at 3:32 PM on September 16, 2013

[OP, glad this has been helpful, please do not threadsit.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:51 PM on September 16, 2013

Randomly because we just had an appointment scheduled for a variation of what you have described, you might want to ask a therapist about EMDR which is basically where a trained therapist walks you through a vivid and unpleasant memory while tapping your knee/shining a light/something. It's pretty common for PTSD treatment and is short - a few months max. At the end, the memory should be stripped of its emotional force and less disturbing and intrusive.
posted by viggorlijah at 10:28 PM on September 16, 2013

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