holding it together as I journey through therapy – a personal account of what it's like to be in long-term psychotherapy navigating the healing of C-PTSD, childhood trauma and neglect, an eating disorder, self-harming behaviours, as well as giving grief and cancer an occasional nod.
This is hard and I am struggling. It happens, without fail, every year. The period from the 27th December to the start of the new school term is a complete emotional disaster zone. I can trace this feeling back over at least the last twenty years, if not longer. It’s become part of the season just as much as Santa and Christmas films. I think a lot of people feel this way (do they?) – but even if there’s a lot of people in the same boat, it doesn’t help because what I feel right now is so incredibly isolating.
I desperately need time to recharge and given how hectic my day-to-day life is surely now, of all the times in the calendar, this should be the time I kick back and relax and have pj days. Nobody is expected to do much – I mean there’s the joke about not knowing what day it is and feeling like there’s no purpose – only it’s absolutely no joke feeling the way I do now. This isn’t relaxing. It’s harrowing. Yes, I am in my pjs but it’s because I have no energy or will to get dressed.
I feel so depressed. Everything feels a huge effort and I feel overwhelmed by the smallest of tasks. I should go and empty and reload the dishwasher, or at least get in the shower, but I can’t. I will do it at the very last minute before my wife gets home from work so as not to arouse suspicion of the fact that I am not functioning.
I feel so lonely and unsafe… I don’t mean that I am going to self-harm (although that has been a feature of this time of year before) I just mean I feel scared and not ok, not safe in my body. My nervous system is in tatters. I feel incapacitated. Frozen. Paralysed.
It’s at this time, every year, when all my fears rise up and I just feel desperately sad but also worthless and useless and all of those other horrible things that I struggle with so much. I can’t escape it and I can’t shift it – in fact, thinking about it, a decade ago it was this time that signalled my complete emotional breakdown which saw me off work for 17 months. It’s not a good time!!
As much as I want to ‘cheer up’ and find some energy and joy I just feel emotionally and physically wiped out. I know, now, that this is the very young stuff – pre-verbal- activating. It’s the feeling of that endless painful black hole in my chest that I wake up with, the panic, the emptiness, the tears that won’t come, the overwhelm and the detailed relentless bad dreams night after night.
And I can’t soothe it, that part of me. I just feel like I am in my own emotional prison and I don’t have the key to unlock the door and get out.
Thinking about it, I am not surprised that over the years it’s been this time that has signalled the start of a rupture with Em. Things feel so desperate. I mean it’s as bad as it gets for me, and I’d reach out when I shouldn’t and then get radio silence which obviously triggered more pain, more shame, more of the ‘I am not worthy of care or love’. And this is where I am at again – now. Only I am writing this in a blog post in order not to create a rupture or to push you away. I don’t want to be ‘too much’ but this stuff, these feelings are too much for me and it’s hurting…and we’re only at the midway point.
It’s a negative downward spiral.
I know you’d probably say something like ‘try and do something nice for yourself’ but I don’t even feel like I have the capacity to exist right now. I know that’s dramatic. But ‘self-care’ feels like asking me to start speaking Chinese. I simply can’t do it.
I feel so stupid. In my last post here I wrote about how I genuinely thought this break would be ok because things are so much more secure and settled in my relationship with you. What I failed to recognise was the part that was around then is settled but this part, here, now is not. This part is the one that cannot take anything positive in. It’s the one who has no sense of object constancy. It’s the one who feels desperately alone and scared and has no words – it feels like a matter of life and death. I guess, given how bad it feels in my body it has to be the baby. It is the distress of a child who needs holding and is left out in the cold.
I don’t think how I feel is triggered by the break alone. It doesn’t feel like that…but when this stuff becomes live, it’s the break – the lack of contact – that makes it so much worse. My mental health maintenance plan is on ice – you and K aren’t there. In the usual run of things if I felt this way, the longest I would have to wait to see you is three days. I could text you and ask for a check-in and we’d probably be able to speak within 24 hours, and you’d respond with something holding in the meantime. But it’s different now. This is your holiday and I don’t want to burden you with my mess. It’s only been 9 days since I saw you but to these little ones that are panicked that feels like a lifetime ago.
Adult me is trying hard to just count it down and get through the days until we meet again. The thing is, this year I don’t even feel like I can take comfort in the fact that I am seeing you on Monday, 5 days from now. I really need to see you. I need to hug you and to cry and let some of this stuff out…but there is no guarantee that will actually happen. I am usually panicked enough on a break that my therapist won’t come back or that something bad has happened or things will go wrong (and they did last year!) but whilst I think you will come back because you care, we still might not get to see each other.
The COVID numbers are going mad here in the UK and I genuinely think we will be put in a strict lockdown again. It’s only a matter of time. And whilst there have been more provisions made for supporting mental health face-to-face in recent lockdowns, even if you don’t choose to go away and bubble with your partner, if schools revert to online learning as of next week, I will be home, here, looking after my kids and still won’t be able to see you face-to-face because I’ll be unable to get out in the daytime. As daft as it sounds there is a part of me that hopes you do go away because the idea of you staying here and my being unable to see you during the week when you are just down the road feels utterly unbearable. I could cry.
And so there it is. All my usual annual Christmas stuff playing out, the attachment pain, break struggles, and the extra cherry on top of the doom of potential lockdown just to add insult to injury. 2020 has been so hard and yet I fear there’s not a great deal to look forward to going forward.
I am so sick of hanging on by my fingertips. Survival mode is … overrated.
Well, here we are, it’s Christmas Eve, and well done to us, we’ve almost made it through the shittest, shitty, shit heap that has been 2020! I mean what a year it’s been, and it’s not even done yet. It seems like it’s the year that wants to drag every last drop of misery out of itself – here in the UK a new, more virulent strain of COVID is doing the rounds and more of the country is about to go into a tier 4 lockdown as of Boxing Day. Great stuff.
Still, I am not here to go on about the state of all things Covid related – we all know what’s going on, we’re all in the storm together, although to be fair we’re definitely not all in the same boat. Some people are clearly doing ok on their super yachts, others of us are in leaky rowing boats, but there are so many others who are clinging on to driftwood desperately trying to stay afloat. I feel incredibly grateful for what I have this year even though it’s been tough.
Never has this blog name been more apt than in 2020, as I quite literally have been holding it together with rubber bands and chewing gum. I know it’s been hard for loads of you guys, too, so I really hope that you are able to have a decent time this Christmas – when, let’s be fair, it’s not always the easiest time even on a ‘regular’ year. I guess maybe one saving grace this year is that many of us will not be forced into hideous family celebrations and might actually be able to Christmas our way…pjs and a tub of Ben and Jerry’s anyone?!
Work has now ended for the term. I’ve just about got on top of the house (although with kids it never lasts!) and am near enough Christmas ready, and so it’s that time where my brain starts reflecting back over the year trying to make sense of what’s happened and how things have changed…and this year, thank goodness, lots has changed for the better. I can’t really believe how different things are now but what a journey it’s been getting here. Sweet Jesus!
This time last year, I was in yet another rupture with Em – it hadn’t spiralled as far as ‘tick gate’ and ‘I shouldn’t have accepted your gift’ just yet (those delights came in January) but we’d started the Christmas break on a really bizarre and uncomfortable footing. You might remember that she came out in a big 30-minute rant as a Tory (!) in our final session before the break suggesting left wing leaders were ‘communists’ and openly mocked one of the female leaders as ‘Jo Swimsuit’.
That session left me stunned and shocked. I mean I had already worked out we were on different pages politically, but up until now I had never experienced anything like this with Em. Mrs Blank Screen was so vehement in her opinions and ranted at me that day. It certainly wasn’t what I wanted or needed heading into a long break and it also set off a few more alarm bells.
Despite having repeatedly asked to do some work to help stabilise things for the young parts before the break she made no attempt to help me with it whatsoever (too busy ranting!), and when I fell apart after that session, she left me suffering for the three weeks. That’s a really potted history but you can always go back to December 2019 if you missed the steady descent into termination. Ugh!
Anyway, I was just rereading those posts as I was interested to see what was going on (although on reflection it seems like a bit of a wilful act of self-harm as nothing good was going to be there!) and to compare it to now.
Two things I wrote stick out to me. One was a text I had sent to Em on the Friday of my holiday. I was meant to Skype her, but it was just not on the cards so I sent a rather long text of which this is a part:
I suspect that you’ll say something about difficult feelings being stirred up and how you’re ‘just my therapist’. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong after nearly 8 years (on and off) because I feel further away from you than ever right now. It seems like at a time when lots of people like me struggle some therapists are bringing in transitional objects, writing notes, encouraging parts that struggle to communicate verbally to write, offering up text check ins, playing games, sitting next to clients and generally being reassuring etc and I get that’s not how you work but yet again we’ve landed upon a break and it’s, ‘if we don’t speak, I think we’re back on the 3rd or 4th’ and it’s just a world away from what I needed. I hate that it feels like this and disruption is so hard.
Reading this again makes me so sad and I remember how painful it felt. The somatic feeling of rejection and abandonment is just so awful and just gnawed away at my solar plexus and chest. I wish I had known before I got deep into that therapy that absolutely everything I listed above (and touch that I was too ashamed to mention in the text) was ‘off limits’ with her. It was really only once I was deeply attached to her that it become clear she was unwilling to meet me where I was at. I mean it took six loooongg excruciating months to get her to even write some words on a pebble – and they had to be my words, not even hers!! – to serve as a transitional object. I should have left then!
For those of you that have followed me for a long time, you’ll know how hard I tried to fit my square peg into the round hole that was on offer with Em (haha – no pun intended!) – even if it meant distorting myself and shaving bits off. I tried to reduce my needs to the absolute bare minimum: remember the three dots in a text that she wouldn’t do? I look back now and just can’t believe I was made to feel like there was something wrong with me for wanting a real and genuine connection with her. I can’t believe that I tried so hard to fit in a mould that wasn’t right because I was told that was what was best… more pears!
In the same post I wondered:
The question I guess I have to ask myself is whether the things I feel like I’m missing out on are deal-breakers or whether or not I think what is on offer with heris enough. What I do know is that I have given so much time and energy to this therapy and yet I feel like I’m stuck. I feel like I’m trying so hard but just keep running into walls which makes me reinforce my own walls.
And that was it, wasn’t it? No matter how I tried to make what Em was offering ‘enough’ it simply wasn’t. I was never safely held in that therapy and it just left me in a state of perpetual ache and anxiety. It was retraumatising and kept me stuck in what felt like a huge re-enactment of being unimportant and unwanted as well as being too much… but despite knowing this, there was still part of me that wanted to believe if I just tried a bit harder then maybe it’d be ok, that at some point something in me would shift and it would feel better…it was just part of the process.
There was another part of me that was steadily gathering momentum and was slowly reaching the point where actually I couldn’t do it to myself anymore. Those things I mention above weren’t complete deal breakers but the no touch boundary was killing me – it was a fast track into dissociation time and again, and the key ingredient that was missing was that actually I just didn’t feel cared for. I wanted a therapist that was prepared to think outside the box a bit. I wanted to feel connected to Em. And I get that there are a zillion ways to forge a connection but being in the emotional dead zone for so long I was willing and wanting to try anything – in reality it shouldn’t have needed anything in the listed stuff above. Those individual things aren’t deal breakers, but feeling genuinely cared for is!…and that was what was lacking.
It was over this Christmas break that I realised I needed something different and started looking around for another therapist. Anita had been on my radar for a couple of years (!!) but I had never taken the leap to contact her, which looking back now is a huge regret – imagine how much better things could have been! Still, I am a great believer in things happen when they are meant to.
The first session back with Em in the new year was a disaster and at that point I approached Anita to arrange an initial meeting to see how it felt and try and work out of a way of moving forward. It went really well and I wish-wish-wish that I had gone with my gut at that point and left Em- that way the ending would have been completely on my terms. Instead, I decided that I wanted to try and work things out with Em and, although I knew I would probably have to leave, I thought it would be better to work through the rupture and create a decent ending and transition into therapy with Anita in a more gradual way…I guess a kind of weaning off process!
It obviously didn’t work out that way in the end as we rapidly descended into her calling my child parts a tick and then her telling me she’d reached the limit of her competency when I challenged her on it…and then terminating via a two-line email… before conceding that maybe a termination session might be ok! January was absolutely fucking horrific!
My system is still in shock about it all and I still have to do a lot of work on this with Anita- but really this year has been mainly about stabilising and creating a sense of safety and trust in the new therapeutic relationship, which is easier said than done when having just experienced harm in the previous therapy!
I feel so lucky to have met Anita. I genuinely feel like we are a good fit- a great team…and it’s not just because of the hugs (but of course they help)! It’s been a complete revelation to be in a therapy where, as she told me the other week, ‘I am in the driving seat’, where I can express my needs and know that they will be listened to, probably met, but if not, I’ll certainly not shamed for them.
Therapy doesn’t make me feel ill or sick or anxious like it used to. I mean I literally used to drive to Em’s with my heart pounding and feeling like I was going to be sick. The attachment stuff is there with A (a lot!), and it gets activated (especially when we’ve been working online) but the difference is Anita responds to me with care and compassion and like it’s ok to be attached to her. It used to repulse Em. And because I feel safe with A, all the parts do – the youngest ones, the angry teen, the protectors- there is a LOT less dissociation in sessions than there ever was with Em. I don’t need to leave so much now because I am not left feeling endlessly alone. Anita is attuned to me and comes and takes my hand before I disappear.
I said recently about how it feels like she has a big bucket of ‘soapy shame remover’ and keeps steadily dousing me in it. It is working. More and more I am able to ask for what I need. I don’t need to get swallowed up in shame for wanting connection or holding. I don’t get flooded with shame when I send her a text. I don’t feel unworthy of her care and attention. I know that I am accepted and loved as I am. I don’t need to pretend to be anything other than who I am with her. And that’s incredible.
I’m not going to write up my recent sessions because there’s really not much to say that’s any different from the others, recently. They have been holding and helpful and deeply connecting. I feel settled. For the first time in years, I can say that I feel ok about the Christmas break. The little parts of me miss her already, of course they do, but what’s different this year is that the separation is bearable because I know, deep down that Anita is going to come back, that she cares about me, and that I am held in mind.
I am loved.
And it is through Anita’s love and care (And K’s too!) that I am beginning to see that I am worthy of love and care. My internal narrative is starting to change bit by bit…finally! And it is because of the transformative power of relationship. Anita doesn’t do anything fancy, doesn’t bombard me with theory, or techniques…she’s just highly present and connected, she’s doesn’t hold herself back from me and she gets me, gets it, and for a child that has been emotionally abandoned and neglected this is therapy gold.
After our last session on Monday she sent me this…
and alongside my beating heart necklace and all the patient hours Anita has sat with my witnessing my pain I feel that my little heart that has been so badly hurt on so many occasions is safe now.
I wrote most of this last night and have just finished up this morning…I find it staggering how much my mood can change in just twelve hours. Yesterday I was stuck in the pit of doom – it was awful, and today I feel fine. It’s like bloody Jekyll and Hyde. Or rather, today I think my adult has come back online after a week of being dictated to by the young parts and the protector. I am not going to go back and edit this again to reflect my, now, better mood!
It’s been one of those weeks where everything has just felt terribly wrong and shit. I’ve been drowning in shame and loneliness, and generally just feeling crap in my body: overwhelm, panic, dissociation… the usual attachment stuff – disaster zone!…
And then just to top it off today, the blog post I was about twenty minutes from finishing and posting has disappeared from my laptop without a trace. I hadn’t saved the Word document (I always write on Word first) but usually these things are retrievable… not this time! I mean it’s not the end of the world, losing the post, but having spent a good couple of hours writing I feel like part of me just wants to say, ‘Yeah, the return to face-to-face again has been interesting – good, bad, crazy, and things are going ok-ish’.
I’m actually exhausted and honestly feel like I am playing in my own little orchestra and creating a cacophony of noise with tiny, whiny, little violins! 😦
Anyway, no one wants to hear me rattle on like this, so let’s give this post a whirl (again). Come on RB – get your shit together (my mantra for the last twenty years!!)!
So, last Thursday saw the return to face-to-face therapy (thank god!). Usually, I see Anita on Mondays and Fridays but I am such a monumental loser that I couldn’t actually wait until Friday to see her after how the three weeks online had been. I have been hanging on by a thread and was just desperate to see her again and wanted to try and fast track my way out of the pit of doom and disconnect that I had fallen into online. Frankly, my nervous system needed a break. It’s been in perpetual flight mode this whole time (although that’s pretty much my default…along with freeze!) and needed regulating.
My heart was beating rapidly as I walked up Anita’s drive. I was anxious but another part of me felt like I was coming home after the weeks away and working online. She had decorated her garden with Christmas lights and my inner child – who loves sparkly lights and snowmen – was delighted. Anita opened the door and I hugged her immediately, she told me it was great to see me and I smiled inside and then walked into the room and sat down.
It was so nice to see her but a part of me was terrified that things would have changed, that my complete meltdowns online would have pushed her away (even if she says she’s a boomerang), that I would go in and face some kind of ‘talk’ about boundaries and being ‘intrusive’ and ‘demanding’ – the painful narrative that is branded into my brain.
I appreciate none of this is coming from anything Anita has said or done – I have Em to thank for this – but I’m noticing more and more that I am struggling with the fears around being rejected and abandoned as we’ve moved into December. I guess it’s hardly surprising as we approach the anniversary of everything going wrong with Em, but it’s not easy to cope with. It’s exhausting in fact. No matter how many times I tell myself that it’s going to be ok, or Anita does, there’s that young part inside that is just absolutely beside herself in a panic…and that can set off a chain reaction inside where all the parts lose their shit!
After all the time online, I really desperately wanted to reconnect with A in our session. The young parts just wanted to cuddle into her and find some sense of safety again after what has been such a destabilising time.
Oh, if only it were as simple as that!
I have been on overdrive panicking about being ‘too much’, ‘too needy’, and ‘too intense’ and so whilst I really wanted to be close to Anita, there was a part of me warning me to stay away because they are terrified of everything going wrong. I may really need and want to be held by Anita but surely at some point she’s going to get fed up of me and push me away. The idea of being rebuffed or kept at arm’s length sends me into a shame spiral – so it’s easier to keep my distance – at least that way I am in control. It might cause me a lot of pain to keep back but at least it’s me that’s causing it.
I know how mental this all sounds but it really is the product of my system being flooded with genuine terror that history is going to repeat itself this year. I’ll lose another therapist…unless I tone it down a bit. And so over this last week, on and off, there has been a desperate battle inside: there’s the part that just so badly needs touch and holding and reassurance and the other part who is trying to make sure we don’t lose that by being too much now- the need is still there but I am trying to hide it – and failing miserably and feeling shit in the process.
I told you I was mental! I understand what’s going on inside but I seem absolutely powerless to do anything about it in the moment. As I have said so many times, adult me just isn’t bloody there when she needs to be and it’s the younger parts and protectors battling it out in the room.
Anyway, back to the room. Anita had sat down in her chair and immediately my system had gone into a panic. ‘Why is she over there? What’s changed? Why does she want to keep her distance?…’ It’s amazing how the smallest of things can trigger and internal meltdown. Anita was warm, open, smiling and yet because she’d sat in her chair everything fell apart inside. Somehow, I managed to tell A that I didn’t want her to sit where she was and she came and sat beside me. It was better, but because my system had triggered into worrying that she wanted to be away from me, it still felt like she was a desperately long way away. I couldn’t look at her and internally it was mayhem.
I felt awkward and just incredibly needy. I wanted to reach out, but there was that internal resistance kicking in fuelled by the doubt of those beginning couple of minutes. What if she doesn’t want me near her now?
I was determined not to get sucked into a huge dissociation and tried to dig myself out before I disappeared. During the break, if you can call it that, I had ordered Anita a sloth Christmas decoration and card to give her when we finally got back to the room and I had it ready to give her when I saw her.
I can’t remember what I wrote inside the card but it was something about thanking her for putting up with me recently (!!!). The sloth was a throwback to a kind of ‘in joke’ we have about having an inner sloth sometimes (all the time!). I really wanted to give it to her because I wanted her to know that I value her and am grateful for what she does for me and that I am aware of how challenging it must be working with a fruit cake like me.
I wish it was as simple as just handing these things over – but it’s not. I felt a wave of nausea and shame engulf me as I gave Anita the envelope. This is the legacy of working with Em and what happened last Christmas and the rejection of ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’. There is now so much anxiety around giving gifts that it feels utterly awful – which is such a shame because I definitely think my love language is gift giving. When I give people things it’s never about the cost, it’s about the symbolism, and so a rejection of the gift by Em last year felt like a rejection of me and my love. It’s little wonder I feel nervous now giving A things. Having said that, she seemed to really like the crystal egg I gave her when the first lockdown ended so that’s a start of repairing the damage.
I really need to get it into my head that Anita, is not Em (repeat repeat repeat…when will it sink in?!) and she responded so positively to the card and sloth. You’d think that would be enough for me to go, ‘Phew! It’s safe! She’s the same. Nothing has changed. The relationship is real. There’s no need to be scared.’ But that would be far too logical and straightforward. Because I had been braced for rejection, even when Anita was anything but rejecting, I found it hard to take her in. She felt a million miles away – or I did. I guess I was protecting myself for a possible rejection and had retreated.
It wasn’t her, it was me.
The intense shame I feel for needing her, needing to be close to her, was rising and I could feel myself slipping away.
Anita said, ‘It hasn’t been difficult to put up with you’ – in reference to what I had written in the card.
‘It has. It has been difficult to put up with me’ I moaned.
Anita was using the calm, soothing voice – you know the one – and replied, ‘I think it would be if I didn’t understand it but I do. I really do.’
And I know she gets it. She frequently demonstrates just how much she understands complex trauma and why I am the way I am. As I have said before, she has this amazing capacity to drain the shame away. She talks to me like there’s nothing wrong with me, that how I am is completely reasonable given what’s happened to me. It’s a world away from the pathologising that happened with Em at the end.
‘It’s been hard for you hasn’t it?’ Anita asked.
‘It’s really good to see you’ she said.
I could hear her words but I just had nowhere to hang them.
Overwhelm was creeping in.
Anita was giving me all the cues that things were ok and that we were ok still, and yet there was this part of me that just couldn’t move towards her. When it’s like that I need her to physically reach out to me and give me a definitive green light that it’s ok to be close.
I sat there frozen saying nothing for a while. My body felt tense and I wanted to cry. It was agony being so close to A but essentially as far away as ever. ‘What’s happening for you now? You look like you have an internal battle going on’ she wondered. A small voice said, ‘I don’t feel like I am here’ I felt like retreating deep inside myself – I guess trying to find some sense of safety.
With so much understanding and warmth A said, ‘You are here and I am here…. But it feels like it’s not real?’ I sighed. Inside the little part was longing to be told it was ok to come closer. The possibility of sitting there feeling disconnected for very much longer made me feel sick. ‘I don’t feel very good.’ I groaned.
I still hadn’t managed to look at Anita. I think if was able to make eye contact it’d probably make things feel much better but again there is that part that is too scared to look in case there’s something negative to read in her expression – or maybe worse still – no expression at all. Still face is so triggering to my young parts.
Gently Anita asked, ‘Do you want a hug?’
‘Come here and have a hug.’
Hooray – green light, right?
Yes. But no.
I was fixed to the spot. I so badly wanted to move but I couldn’t allow myself to go. You can imagine the wailing that was coming from the little ones inside. How can it be that Anita is reaching out with open arms and yet there is a part of me that can’t trust it, or actually it’s not that, it just doesn’t want to risk it being withdrawn – and I suppose the reality is, in not a great deal of time, the next break begins and so there’s a part that wants to protect against the vulnerability and attachment because when she’s gone the child parts are all at sea again. It makes sense, but disconnecting when I’m in the room makes things so much worse outside it- and yet it’s a pattern I fall into time and again.
‘I’m not going to push anything on you’ she soothed ‘I am here for when you’re ready – a bit like the story with the rabbit, I’m here to be whatever you want me to be’.
I don’t think I have mentioned about the book, ‘The Rabbit Listened’ here yet, but recently I came across a children’s book (oh but of course!) about a child that was having a bad time, lots of animals came to offer advice on how to get through it but none of it helped. In the end a rabbit showed up and just sat and waited until the child was ready to do whatever he needed to move forward. In the end because it was on the child’s timeline and not the animals’ that had given advice, and he could do all the grieving and raging and feeling that he needed.
I sent Anita the link and told her that she was my rabbit, and just like the sloth had been one of ‘our things’ the rabbit is now another. My young parts really like it when she signs a message with a bunny emoji.
Do you know, writing this now, I feel like such a colossal dickhead behaving the way I have this last week– because thinking about all this here just really demonstrates how safe Anita is. I just wish my system would get the memo and file it somewhere rather than keep getting stuck in this agonising hell hole.
Anita told me a story about a time with her grandson when he’d hurt himself and he’d pushed her away and how she had waited on the floor next to him until he was ready and then eventually he hugged her. She said she felt like what was going on with us, now, was similar. ‘I don’t know what you need’, she said, ‘but you do, so I’m just going to sit here. I can guess what you need and can offer it, but only you know. It might be hard to access it…does this make sense?’
But, still, I was frozen. I so desperately wanted to reach out. But I was so dysregulated that it was reaching the point where I wanted to run away because it felt like I was torturing myself. It is so fucking painful when this stuff happens. It’s like being trapped. Why is it so hard to be vulnerable and get what you need- even when it’s being given to you on a platter? I mean thinking back to an earlier metaphor, Anita was literally showing me the cupboard full of chocolate, offering me it, had actually unwrapped a bar, and yet the part of me that is so conditioned to only being allowed pears couldn’t reach for it.
‘What’s happening? What are you thinking?’ she wondered. ‘I can’t come into your world if you don’t let me… What do you need?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know.’ I whispered. At this point I was so far gone that there weren’t even the words to say, ‘I need a cuddle’ but actually whenever I go silent and frozen that is what I need. Always. Touch is such a powerful tool. It tells me I am safe, that I am accepted, and that I’m ok as I am. It reaches through the protector and soothes the youngest parts.
It was quiet for a while and Anita asked me again what I was thinking. I managed to tell her that I didn’t feel safe. I don’t know what wasn’t feeling safe, I think probably the feeling of being disconnected and alone. I find that really scary. Being in the presence of another person but being unable to connect with them feels really awful to me even when it is me that is in hiding. Anita asked me what would help to make it feel safe and again I couldn’t respond because there is so much shame wrapped up in, ‘I need you’.
‘I want to tell you’ Anita said, ‘I’ve bought you a present as well. I’ve bought you your own beating heart necklace. I just haven’t collected it yet…’
I literally could not believe what I was hearing. I mean…that’s huge…MASSIVE huge…in that couple of sentences it was like Anita had taken a great big sledgehammer to the wall that I had built around myself and was showing me in no uncertain terms that she cares about me – a lot. I mean I honestly cannot believe that she would do this for me. I couldn’t even drag so much as ‘I care about you’ out of Em and here is A thinking about me and buying me something that is meaningful and significant. Blown away doesn’t even cover it.
I felt really stupid for sitting there silent and distanced when it was clearly not coming from Anita. I mean I do get it, this is my messy system doing it’s thing, but here was yet another enormous reminder that Anita is real and genuine…and gets me…and isn’t going anywhere.
I instantly moved over to her and cuddled her. My body was shaking and all the stuff I had been holding for the last few weeks came up and out. The tears…oh my fucking god…for someone that has never cried in therapy until this year I seem to be crying quite a bit! The rest of this session was lots of crying and sniffing and generally being an emotional wreck and feeling all the feelings. All the grief and the stuff about fear of abandonment was right there but I was only able to get to it because I was close to A. The littlest parts can’t say what’s wrong or let themselves express this stuff if they aren’t held. I guess this comes from a lifetime of no one being there and so learning it’s not safe to feel.
‘I feel stupid’ I moaned.
A replied, ‘You’re hurt, that’s what it is, you’re not stupid.’
And having gone from feeling like I was on a completely different planet to A a few minutes before I now felt so connected that I was able to tell her that I loved her.
‘I love you too, I do’ she said.
That was exactly what I needed to hear and it felt so settling but then behind that, a sadness washed over me. I told A what I was feeling. She asked me what the sadness was about but I didn’t know or have words for it at that point. I think it’s something about how kind and nice Anita is to me and yet Em was repulsed by me and my child parts. Trying to take in the love and care that Anita gives so freely is bittersweet, in a way, because the contrast against what I am used to is so enormous.
How can one therapist be so cold, mean, and dismissive (her last words to me were, ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t help you but it is what is and it’s time to stop’. There wasn’t even a ‘goodbye’ or a ‘take care’.) and the other so warm and loving… when I am the same? Or actually, I am a fucking clingy, needy nightmare now (!) and yet Anita still loves me despite all this. I am really, really struggling with it because to hold the idea that Anita actually can love me means that I have to change the patterning that is ‘there is something fundamentally wrong with me’ and somehow adjust it to, ‘it wasn’t my fault’ (what happened with Em).
Easier said than done, that’s for sure.
As the young parts had settled in and felt safe, the gushy stuff flowed, ‘I missed you’ I whined. I find it amazing that I can even say that, when expressing anything remotely vulnerable used to make me feel sick because it was never met well.
‘I missed you too.’ Replied Anita ‘And you’re right it’s not the same as on a screen’ and she hugged me closer into her body. I said how hard it had been working online and A acknowledged it and agreed that it has been tough for me.
The conversation shifted and we spoke about all sorts of stuff from books to emails from my blog readers.
‘I’m sorry’, I said. Sometimes I smack face first into the reality of how I have behaved and reacted and I realise just how bloody difficult I have been. I don’t mean to be. I am not planning to be a nightmare but so much has been triggered lately that it’s been hard to hold it. It’s all coming out in a tangled mess.
With so much feeling and kindness in her voice A said, ‘You don’t need to be sorry. You haven’t chosen any of this. It’s not your fault. And you’re ok. And I’m ok with you. I really am. I don’t have to be here. I am here because I want to be. There’s a big difference. And you are worth it.’ Those words felt like another warm, soapy bucket of ‘Shame Remover’ had been thrown over me and it felt so nice. I appreciate it’s nuts just how much reassurance I seem to need but these buckets need to fill an empty reservoir and it’s going to take time.
A and I both seem to like nature. Or at least we both own dogs and have to go outside quite a lot! Sometimes we send each other photos of the walks we have been on and recently A sent me some of a place she had been where lots of trees had been felled. It looked so barren and empty. I don’t know why I asked about it in the session but somehow it came up and we spoke about how it looks awful now but it will make way for other things to grow. A said that actually that was a good metaphor for me, ‘Once the scars of the abuse have been healed you’ll see how beautiful you are.’
The problem is, it feels like that healing is such a long way off. I mean part of me knows it’s not. Part of me sees it happening every day, in little bits…but sometimes when things feel so desperately hard and I am struggling to keep all my plates spinning and am down to my last spoon, healing this complex trauma feels like an impossible task.
The other week I sent A something about Object Constancy – it really explained how it feels to not be able to hold ‘the other’ in mind and the panic that happens as a result. I asked A how she thinks something so fundamental can heal. Like if you miss a foundational developmental milestone then how on earth can you mend it?
‘How does it fix?’ A asked. ‘I’m going to sound like Carl Rogers here, but I really believe it’s all in the relationship, it makes a huge difference.’ She talked about how the need for unconditional love was important because that’s the area where the damage had occurred. Our parents should have done this and yet instead this is where things went wrong. She talked about how our relationship was different from others in my life which is something we had spoken about at the very beginning when we met. I told her, then, that I wanted a real and genuine relationship that felt connecting but that I needed her to be my therapist…after Em I was clear what I was looking to avoid!
Anita continued, ‘I want to say it’s a healing relationship -because that’s what I want it to be. I really want it to be that.’ She went on, ‘I know sometimes along the path -as I have already- I’ll say and do things that may not be helpful, but it can be healing if we work with it well.’ Essentially, I think what this comes down to the transformative power of relationship, the healing capacity of rupture and repair, and the balm of ‘unconditional positive regard’ or what the rest of us like to call ‘love’. Anita commented that she thinks that Em works differently to her and we giggled. I mean talk about chalk and cheese!
We talked a lot over the next few sessions about how painful it has been, being separated and working online, how it hooks into so many painful areas of my past. As I said there was a lot of crying alongside the cuddles but also there has been a surprising amount of narrative coming out that I hadn’t shared with Anita before.
Talking about needing to collect my kids on time led to a load of stuff about how no one was ever there for me as a child and about all kinds of horrible experiences of being left and the craziness that has been part of my growing up. We’ve touched on the eating disorder, self-harm, the violence, hiding under the bed…I mean it’s all leaking out now! It’s funny, really, how you get used to your own story and sometimes it’s only in the retelling that you realise that it was completely fucked up. I mean we know it’s damaged us, but it’s not until you share it that you understand just how messed up things have been.
There’s been a lot of grieving in the last week. I feel so sad for the little parts of me. Nearly every session has felt like a battle at the beginning. I have wanted to be close to A but the fear of her getting fed up with me and leaving has escalated session on session. Anita has been patient and sat with me in it, reassured me, ‘I’ll be here no matter what’, but the toll it takes on my system is immense.
The other day I was frozen AGAIN and the young parts were crying out (inside) to cuddle into her and yet the powerful feelings of being too much and possibly pushing her away were just totally debilitating. As Christmas approaches this panic is escalating. Anita held out her hand to me and yet I couldn’t take it. I told her she felt far away and she offered me a hug and again I couldn’t accept it. It feels like I am punishing myself for having a need and yet in those moments I can do nothing to help myself. On Friday she put her hand on my leg and I still couldn’t feel it. When it gets bad, I retreat so deeply into myself that it’s like being lost in the dark and I need someone to come in and grab me and shine a light on the pathway out. Fortunately, we always seem to get there in the end and so I don’t walk out the room feeling completely bereft.
On Monday Anita handed me a little package wrapped in tissue paper. It was my beating heart necklace. I opened it and it is gorgeous. I absolutely adore it. I love silver, and blue is my favourite colour so it could not have been better for me.
I gave her a massive hug. I felt completely overwhelmed. I am still utterly stunned that A would do this for me. I don’t know if she realises how massive it feels to me or the impact that it has had on me. I wear it all the time. It’s a reminder that we are connected and evidence that she is not freaked out by my need to be close. Hearing her heart beating settles the young parts (I still cannot believe I told her this) but when she’s not there I have this beating heart from her.
I think some of my panic this week is really coming from what it would mean to lose her now. Anita has seen me at me most vulnerable and needy…and horrid! (eek) … and the attachment to her is strong. I feel like I don’t want to put a foot wrong by being too much because the loss would be just unbearable and so as I said at the top, there’s a part that feels it’s better to brace for it, even if it hurts.
I guess it’s just going to take time to settle and I’ll need to be patient with myself over the next few weeks. Maybe I should keep a diary of all the nice things A says to me so when I am freaking out that she’s going to leave I can remind myself that she says things like,
‘I wish I could have been there when you were small and made things different for you back then, I wish I could take the pain away, then but I am here now.’
I knew that the return to online sessions, after so much deep work and holding had taken place in the room, was going to be challenging but even I couldn’t have predicted quite how difficult it was going to feel being back on screen again with Anita. Oh, the irony of the pre-emptive message I sent at the end of our last face-to-face session!:
The next few weeks is going to be really tough and I’m going to try really hard not to have another meltdown over it, but I’ll just apologise in advance for myself now just in case. Please take elephant with you and don’t forget about me xx
Eek! Let’s just hide!
During the first lockdown Anita and I worked together from mid-March through to mid-August online and whilst it wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t a complete train crash either – well not initially, anyway. There are a few reasons I can think of as to why this is.
Firstly, in March we had only been seeing each other for a couple of months. We were building the relationship and it was feeling good but I was still very guarded, still very much in my adult- the really vulnerable parts hadn’t made their way into the room yet.
Secondly, in March I think a lot of us were just in a panic about COVID, we really didn’t know what to expect, or how bad it might be- I mean people were bulk buying bog roll and stripping the super market shelves of pasta for goodness sake! (Not me personally, but you know what I mean!) Everything stopped: we were properly locked down – not this bizarre non-lock down that we’ve had the last month where B&M and all sorts of places have managed to call themselves ‘essential retail’!
The rules and guidance were so strict last time round that there wasn’t any room for manoeuvre. It was online therapy or nothing – it was as though mental health provision was completely overlooked and therapy was lumped in with hairdressers and nail bars. I mean, my hairdresser is fab, and I certainly needed my roots doing at the end of lockdown but not getting my hair done didn’t send me over the edge, whereas not getting to see A did, in the end.
I think the government has maybe learnt a few lessons this time round and has made it clear that mental health services can run face-to-face because actually even ‘normal’ people have struggled this year. Of course, this guidance doesn’t really help people who have been stuck online throughout, or whose therapists think they are doing fine online (when they really aren’t!), or don’t feel willing or comfortable to return to the therapy room just yet…or go and bubble somewhere else! I get a lot of emails from people with C-PTSD saying how bloody awful working online is – and I get it. I really, really do.
Anyway, online therapy only started to feel really tough at the end of June although I have friends who have been in therapy for a long time and it was hell from the start (which is what’s happened this time for me). Even when the relationship is built and the attachment is strong not getting to be in the room is really traumatising for the young parts who haven’t yet developed object constancy. Most of us struggle from week to week, or certainly on breaks, so a protracted period of disruption to therapy is hard. I actually don’t think therapists realise how bad it has been.
Things only started to feel difficult for me in the summer when the attachment stuff really kicked in and the child parts were now present and invested in the relationship. As I said to Anita in a text, at the time, up until that point she could really have been anyone, I needed a therapist to process what had happened with Em but I wasn’t attached to her yet. I liked her a lot. I thought she was a good fit for me, but my protectors had been taking it slow and so working online felt ok, the distance was manageable because I was distanced anyway – to an extent.
But then suddenly it wasn’t ok anymore. Like a switch had been flicked. Suddenly those online sessions felt painful and distanced and not enough. Nothing had changed from Anita’s side but EVERYTHING had changed from mine. And it was from that point that the mini-ruptures started to happen. I felt disconnected over some text exchanges and cancelled a session (for about half an hour until we sorted it out!) and then I had that epic meltdown when I found out A had been for a walk with another client.
All these big reactions stemmed from those young parts feeling hurt and abandoned. I had spent so long being cagey and disconnected, ‘talking but not really’, protecting those vulnerable parts that when those parts felt safe enough, they attached in the biggest way to A. It must have been like witnessing a change of seasons from summer to winter overnight. Watch out – here comes the crazy tantrums!
I know I am lucky because eventually I could resume face-to-face sessions but that six weeks or so where things had shifted felt like an eternity for those little parts who just wanted to be close to her and hug her and who got triggered by the screen.
The return to the room was so great in August and it’s been mind-blowing, really, how much things have moved on and the level of vulnerability and emotional intimacy that has happened. I almost don’t recognise myself…or…I do recognise myself but I am staggered that I am letting someone else see these parts of me.
The fact that I have been able to cry with A is huge. All those years with Em and I never felt safe enough to connect with my feelings like I do with Anita. It was only in our termination session that tears came with Em– how on earth can you sit in a room with someone for all those years, talking about the stuff we do, and not be able to let it out?
It wasn’t safe.
I had suspected all along that if I cried, she would leave me high and dry and, on that day, when my heart was breaking, she saw my pain and looked away before walking away. It was utterly horrific. It felt cruel, actually.
Anyway, ugh, enough of that. What a lot of preamble to get to the point where I talk about the last few weeks online with A.
Where to start, though? I mean I guess I’ll begin by saying I’m not proud of how I have behaved at times. As I said, whilst I knew it was going to a challenge working online, I had no idea that I was going to lose my shit in the way I did, as frequently as I did. Fuck! Poor Anita!
This is going to be a sort of summary because I actually can’t remember what happened in each specific session or even what happened in a chronological order. It’s kind of a blur. My system was so dysregulated and triggered that all I can say for sure is that RB was a handful and Anita deserves a medal for putting up with me….and also that I am so, so glad it’s over and we are back face-to-face. Well, that is until Christmas break which is imminent.
Please pray for me!
I think, probably, as I can’t remember what was going on it’s probably best to describe what happens online and why it’s triggering because it’s pretty much always the same. Basically, the screen goes live and immediately my system inside feels a million miles away from A. It’s a painful reminder of how far apart we are, or how alone I am. I so badly want to see her, and feel connected but it just feels like there are so many barriers. I struggle enough with Anita sitting in her chair in the therapy room and feeling like it’s too far away so being in completely different locations behind a screen is just a total nightmare.
As I said in the post the other day, remote working hooks back into the separation of being away from my mum between the ages of 5-11 and then I guess my dad being gone 11-16, or even when I was 9months-3.5 years. My whole life has been punctuated by caregivers not being there. Although I do think it’s the bit from being 5 with mum that is the biggest trigger.
I used to speak on the phone on a Wednesday with my mum and it was rubbish. Never enough time and always disrupted by the beeps. It just felt like I was perpetually hanging on to feel safe and connected (not that this actually happened when she was home but I guess that’s what I hoped for). This is exactly how it feels online with A. We both know it’s not the same online. We both know it’s triggering for the young parts. There’s not a great deal we can do about it other than sit it out. I guess the positive is that when we do actually see each other in real life there is sense of re-connecting and holding… but the waiting is horrendous.
If I can manage to stay in my adult then online is just about ok. The last/final session of this lockdown we had online was like this, but at the same time I just feel like I am disconnected from myself and actually kind of hiding from A. At least, though, if I can do that and talk about stuff that is hard but not impacting the child parts I don’t get the rage and hang up the call…which happened a few times in the last few weeks.
So, yeah, the feeling of disconnection online seems to get worse and worse as the calls go on. No matter what A says or does, no matter how much she tries to reassure me, tell me she’s still there, or that she’s coming back, or loves me – none of it goes in, it just bounces off. I can hear it but I don’t feel it. At all. It’s so painful. The longer this goes on, the harder it becomes, and then eventually the teen part comes online because those child parts are in agony. This is where the fun really begins. Jesus.
The teen’s protective anger is like lighting the touch paper and…BANG! Everyone take cover!!
It was Friday 13th November the day that everything went off the rails…I mean omen or what?! I can’t even remember what Anita said on that first day I put the phone down on her but I think it was something really innocuous like, ‘you’ve survived this before (as a child) and you’ll survive it again now. Sometimes it’s hard to keep know what’s in the here and now and what’s in the past’. Adult me knows what she meant but, unfortunately, I wasn’t here then and that sentence was like a red rag to a bull.
Like, ok, sure, I survived this stuff as a kid – but look at the damage that it’s done!! And now you’re saying I’m supposed to be comforted by the fact that I have a fucking great survival skills and can tolerate just about anything because I have learnt to? But the detrimental impact on me is enormous: my nervous system has been totally battered; I can’t sleep, and when I do sleep I jolt awake at 2am feeling sick and like there’s a black hole in my chest; I’m dissociated to the point that I am burning myself by putting my hands in the oven not realising I haven’t got a tea towel or oven glove; and I feel tearful and unsafe ALL THE TIME…but sure, I’ll get through it because I have no other choice…
It just gave me the rage because, yes, this is familiar territory – but let’s be clear here, this was triggered because A had gone away (which she is totally entitled to do btw!)! And, ok, yes it was hooking into all sorts from the past, but I was hurting in the here and now because she was gone and I had thought she wouldn’t be.
We’ve since talked about how these kinds of statements- ‘you’ll get through it’- don’t help. I don’t want her to fix it or tell me I can cope with it, I need her to sit with me and accept my feelings and validate my experience of what’s going on. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself…
I think I said, ‘I don’t want to talk to you’ – we were only about ten minutes into the session- and hung up. I think in person I would have been able to say why I was so upset by that comment but when I don’t feel connected online I just can’t. Everything feels wrong. It feels like everything is falling apart and the relationship isn’t real.
There was so much conflict going on inside as a sat in my living room – I felt so angry, but underneath that, just really hurt and unseen. The little parts were distraught. What had I done?
The reality of this, for those parts, is if the teen expresses anger is that’s the therapy finished. I did this just once, last January, and look what happened. GAME OVER. The absolute terror that flooded my system when I realised what I had just done with A was huge.
Then a message came up on my phone:
I’m still here if you want to talk. I can hear you’re angry and that’s ok. I still love and care about you and am ok to hear your anger. I accept you as a whole, good and bad xx
I stared at my phone for a minute. What on earth was I meant to do with that? The shame that was building felt huge. I felt like such a fucking idiot. How many times does A need to prove herself for me to understand and be able to hold onto the fact that she is there with me and is safe?
I wanted to talk to her, I didn’t want to be hanging onto this crap all weekend and so I rang her back and pointed my phone up to the ceiling. I couldn’t bear to be seen – not after this performance. The child parts were right there and it was so hard to talk.
I can’t remember if it was on this occasion where I disconnected the call or the next time I did it on Zoom…
(OMG I JUST WANT TO CRAWL INTO A HOLE AND DIE THINKING ABOUT HOW IT’S BEEN!)
…but it’s all one and the same, the teen part was so angry – and said, ‘you have no idea what you’re dealing with’ and Anita responded, ‘not up to the job?’ and I replied ‘yeah’. Oh, fuck me! I cannot believe I said that. Because let’s be clear, if she’s not up to the job then there is no one out there who will be and I don’t want to do this with anyone else!
I told her I was angry. ‘At me leaving?’ she asked. Yep. Of course. But we quickly understood that the anger is just Sad’s bodyguard. Things started to feel better and I apologised for pushing her away. I think this might have been the day where A told me she wasn’t going anywhere, ‘I’m like a boomerang – you can push me away but I’ll keep coming back until you decide you don’t want me anymore’ but like I say, I have totally lost my chronology because it’s generally felt like one long drawn out struggle all about the same thing – I don’t do separation well!
I wonder what it feels like to them (therapists) when are like this? Because I know I’m not pleasant. I know that really, when I push away it’s because I need connection so badly and I can’t feel it, so it feels safer to run away then sit in the discomfort of feeling alone/abandoned and find out that what I fear is actually real. I’d sooner cut and run than be dumped. But how must it feel to be trying your best to be there for someone and nothing that you do be good enough – and then get a personal attack because of it?
I really hope Anita knows that I value her, love her, and am so grateful for everything she does for me because honestly working with her has changed my life.
I might have fallen on my arse this month but, actually, overall things are SO MUCH BETTER!
I do generally apologise in session, or text afterwards when I have had a meltdown and I feel really lucky that I can send her a message as sitting on this stuff feels hard, because that part that fears abandonment will run riot if I feel like I have left things on a rupture because I’d convince myself that she would leave. This is one of my many, many messages over this period:
A, I really love you and I am so sorry that I push you away. It’s just utter hell. As I said before, the more I need you or miss you – but feel like I can’t reach/feel you – the harder I push away. It’s a desperate self-protection strategy. If I say I don’t want to talk to you or do this anymore, please don’t agree with me and say that’s ok because it ISN’T OK and just adds to the feeling that there is no connection and you’ll just let me go which is what that part is testing – do you actually care enough to reach out and stop me hitting self-destruct? … and that triggers all kinds of hurt from January. ‘I don’t want to do this’ / ‘ok fine’…it’s too painful. Anyway, I need you to know that I am sorry and I do understand and see what you do for me, I get you’re human. And I don’t want to lash out because I am hurting. When you come home can we have a long session and just cuddle please x And then these…
It’ll come as no surprise to you guys that A always responds warmly and shows how much she really gets it. She has this amazing way of just draining the shame and embarrassment I feel away:
Of course, we can have a longer session. I know it’s your defences that push me away and I respect them for the job they are ‘trying’ to do. That’s why it’s ok for me but that doesn’t mean I am going to go! Just like I called you back the other day and didn’t leave today when you tried to push me away. My saying ‘it’s ok’ means it’s so understable you’re feeling the way you do. Not ‘ok I will leave then’ because I know that’s not what you really want. I want to be with you for the whole journey, through the storms and the sunny days.
You’d think that getting messages like that and multiple hug gifs and little demonstrations that she’s still there would have been enough for me to not have any further meltdowns.
You’d be wrong!
By the 23rd of November my system was totally tanking. Talk about walking, talking, pile of disaster and need! I just really needed for A to come home and to cuddle her. Or at least to know when she might be home. I had started to panic that lockdown might be extended and that I might not end up seeing Anita until the new year. It was catastrophising 101 in my brain but it was a product of the panic and feelings of disconnect that were swirling inside. I know December and January are going to be hard this year. My brain is already serving me up flashbacks to what it was like in those final sessions with Em last year ☹ and so the thought of online on top was just awful for the little parts.
I haven’t the feintest clue about what triggered me into disconnecting the call that Monday. I have absolutely no recollection of the call at all. All I know I can see on my phone records that A tried to call me back twice and I didn’t pick up. The only reason I know what’s gone on is from the texts we exchanged afterwards. I was so triggered that I text her and told her that I didn’t want to do this anymore… it felt really, really bad.
As usual A was there, solid, supportive, reassuring and somehow it came out in the texts that she would be back next the next week whatever happened, lockdown or not. The relief I felt was palpable but there was also anger. Why hadn’t she told me this before? She genuinely thought she had, but somewhere along the line things got missed. Either way, it was enough to help me just about get a handle on myself – and for the distressed young parts to see some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. It was like counting down sleeps until Christmas – not even joking!
These online sessions have been hard (understatement) in lots of ways but I guess one thing I would say is that if Anita was in any doubt of the terrain we are working on before this lockdown she isn’t now. I suppose if I put the shame and embarrassment to one side and try and find the positives in what’s happened over the last month, it’d be that I must trust and feel safe enough with A to be able to express myself in this way…i.e whatever is there comes up in whichever way it needs to. Part of me must know and believe that she is what and who she says she is, and is in for the long haul otherwise there’s no way I would let this stuff out. I’d still be ‘a good girl’ and not a show her the ‘hurt, angry girl’.
Anyway, this is bloody enormous again – and not even that good of a summary of the last month or so! Thankfully we’re now back face-to-face which has been awesome but also … exhausting. I guess almost a month of holding everything in (or at least trying to) means it has to come out now!
The last session before the separation for lockdown was not quite as I expected it would be – well not to begin with anyway! Fortunately, Anita and I had, again, booked in a longer session (75 mins) so that hopefully things could end feeling as held and contained as possible. I’m so glad we had arranged this because the weekend leading into the Monday session threw up some real-life adulting shit that was massively unsettling and destabilising for me. I can’t really say what it is about in much detail because it’s so specific it would be highly identifying. Needless to say, though, I am so over significant health stresses that can have an impact on our financial security and stability. Ugh.
I had text Anita on the Saturday when I found out the situation with my wife so she knew what was coming on Monday and we spent the first ten minutes talking about this unexpected crisis. Adult, or False Adult, was there joking her way through it all – upbeat. I tend to do this when something very scary is happening in my here and now. I do that buzzy ‘it’ll be fine’ stuff when actually inside I am crumbling and terrified. FFS!
And then it just stopped. Silence. I’ve noticed I do this a lot. I just run out of performance and realise that I don’t need to do this with A. Sure, it was important to me to talk about what had happened but actually I didn’t need to do it in the ‘make light of it’ way because there is no bright side to this situation. It’s utterly crap.
After a minute of saying nothing and feeling the energy drain out my body, I just whispered, ‘I don’t really know what to say…’ all the animation had gone from my voice. It was just flat – which was exactly how I was feeling. The reality of having to navigate the next few months with a significant stress hanging over our heads coinciding with Anita going away just felt unbearable. The child parts were frightened. Adult me was frightened too. How on earth was I going to function with all the day-to-day crap that I struggle with at the best of times with this additional worry and A gone too? It’s just not fucking fair how life seems to keep knocking me down.
Anita felt a long way away in her chair. I hate how just a couple of metres can feel like such a huge distance – especially to the youngest parts who just need her to be right there beside me. Even now, I don’t think I could ask her to come and sit next to me from the beginning of a session. I appreciate this is bonkers given how close we have become, but I think this has more to do with my worry at the start of a session that maybe something will have changed. Perhaps she won’t like me anymore. Perhaps she’ll want to stay away. And I hate to keep coming back to it (it’s boring for us all – I know), but I am so scared of being perceived as a parasite – a tick- that I won’t ask for her to come and will wait for the offer of proximity because I couldn’t actually bear her to say no or to think I am too needy.
When will that bloody conversation and that fucking word leave my psyche?
So, I sat there, the deep pain of feeling disconnected and alone rising up and the child parts getting increasingly distressed inside.
Anita’s voice was soft and warm as she asked, ‘Are the younger parts starting to come through, or are they there? Because for me, when you arrive, I never know whether to sit here or to sit there. And it’s almost like the adult part is ok for me to be over here but I think when the younger parts come up I need to be closer to you – is that how it feels? Am I right with that?’
THANK GOD FOR THIS THERAPIST!!
A barely audible, ‘yeah’ came out. I looked up and met Anita’s gaze. The child parts had landed with a thud and the need felt massive. How many of you get that feeling where you just wish you could crawl into your therapist’s lap when the child parts come up? I mean it wouldn’t be ideal, a great big adult body squashing them, but that need when it gets like that is so young isn’t it?
Anita continued on, ‘I think that’s why I start here [in her chair], because when you first come in you’re in adult and it feels like I am ok to be here, not always though, and I want to check out if I am reading this correctly… or would it be better if I always started over there?’ [on the sofa with me]
I nodded. I felt so much relief that she really gets it…and not only gets it but is able to have these open conversations with me. She takes the shame right out of the situation…and that’s massive.
I really hate it when we get in the room and she sits in her chair. I know she always comes to me when I need her but starting the sessions so far apart straight away makes the young parts go into panic. What if she doesn’t come this time? What if she abandons them? I know how nuts that sounds – we are, after all, in the same room together, but this is the legacy of years of work with Em, that two metres could have been the Grand Canyon and so any distance feels kind of rejecting.
I really love how Anita responds to me, sees me, and is so attuned to what I need. She got up from her chair and said, ‘In that case I’m going to come over there now because I never know where to start. And sometimes I can feel the younger vulnerable parts. I guess they’re always there just below the surface – it’s that swan isn’t it?’ [we’ve talked about how on the surface I look like I have it together but underneath it’s a shit show of panic for the littles]
She sat down beside me and I sighed. Silence. More silence. I couldn’t look at her because the need was just so fucking huge and overwhelming. I was so pleased she was closer …but it was just not close enough.
‘How are you feeling? What’s happening for you?’ wondered A.
‘I’m shaking.’ I replied.
With no pause or hesitation, Anita opened her arms to me and gently invited me to, ‘Come here.’
And just like in the preceding sessions, that green light was all I needed, I shuffled over to her and cuddled in close to her body.
Then there was quiet but stillness too. The panic and shaking subsided really quickly as I tuned into her heartbeat and her slow, steady breathing. It’s that coregulation stuff. Magic.
There was nothing much going round in my mind, nothing conscious that I wanted to say, I just needed to be with her in the moment. After ten minutes, or so, I asked Anita what she was thinking. She said something about how we would both come through the other side of this [lockdown/separation] and that it will be ok. And how she wished she could be in two places at once, and how hard it must be for me.
Man! I wished that, too.
Anita then asked me what I was thinking. I didn’t answer straight away but then simply said, ‘I’m going to miss you’ – because that’s all there was in my head, all that had been in my body, just the huge sense that I was going to miss this amazing woman when she wasn’t here and that it was going to be really hard.
A hugged me tighter, ‘I know, and I will miss you too. I really will.’ She paused for a minute and then said, ‘it really has been a shit year hasn’t it?’ I laughed and agreed.
There was a long pause – maybe two or three minutes – and then I said ‘It hasn’t been all shit…’
Anita instantly understood what I meant, ‘I guess we met this year didn’t we?’
And do you know what? It has been a really fucking hard year but I wouldn’t change it if it meant that I didn’t have Anita. Looking back to this time last year, where the wheels started to get dangerously loose with Em it felt like things would never get better. The pain of our termination in February took me into a place of such deep grief and pain that I can barely look at it even know– it still hurts so much. The rejection. The abandonment. The lack of basic care.
Covid and lockdown and fucking everything has been so hard but I feel so blessed because I have built a relationship with someone who I genuinely think I can do the work with, who understands me, and is committed to me. The world has felt like it’s been falling down around my ears at times, my wife losing her job at the start of the first lockdown, the latest health problems, but I feel like I have Anita on my team and that is huge.
Listening back to this last face-to-face session, there’s a lot of silence but it’s not awkward or uncomfortable which can sometimes happen when you’re sitting across from someone. When we’re just cuddling there isn’t always a need to talk. The words come sometimes and the parts talk, and sometimes there are no words but the holding is still so healing.
After another while I murmured, ‘I love you’ into her chest.
Anita immediately responded with, ‘I love you too… is it hard to believe it?’
I thought about it for a second. I scanned my brain and my body and there was no doubt in my mind, no voice inside my head doubting her feelings for me. I know she loves me. I feel it deeply.
‘No’ I replied.
A kissed the top of my head. I love it when she does this. It was quiet again. Anita checked in with me and asked if I was wanting to say something but struggling to find the words to say it. I shook my head. I was just content to be with her. A said, ‘sometimes I don’t always think we need words, sometimes I just think we need to show, and to do, and to feel.’
I told her I felt really shaky all week and it had been hard. Anita asked if there was anything she could do to help. This is where I should have said, ‘please can you give me something like a scarf or a jumper that you wear that smells like you’… and I am pretty sure she would have said yes…but there’s this part of me that still worries and cringes – like what if I say that and she is freaked out and disgusted by me? What happens if I lose it all? I know this is pretty unlikely given how I have spent the last month like a baby monkey clinging on to her, but still… I just don’t want to be so weird that she backs away.
I started to cry. Anita rubbed my back gently and held me close to her. I was aware that time was ticking away and the grief of her going away was really coming up now. We had about thirty minutes left of the session and as wonderful as it had been just to go in and spend the time connecting and being held, there was also a real sense of that in a few minutes it was all going to be ripped away and it was overwhelming for the young parts.
A small voice said, ‘I just feel really sad’.
‘I know… and it is sad’ soothed Anita. She gently stroked my back as I cried. To have someone hold me in my pain and grief was so incredible – but so alien too. I feel a bit embarrassed now, thinking back to this, sitting there and crying about my therapist going away for three weeks like it was the end of the world…but that is how it felt, and has felt to the young parts. I anticipated the struggle that this separation would be. I know attachment pain well. And I was right. To be honest, if I had known just how fucking hard it was going to be, I would have been wailing and convulsing in her arms rather than shedding slow, steady tears!
‘Why are you so kind to me?’ I wondered aloud. After so many years with Em who would never give me the slightest thing to grab onto to ground myself in the safety of the relationship, Anita just exudes care and kindness. It doesn’t feel forced or fake – it’s lovely – but my head sometimes has a hard time understanding how the two relationships are so different because I am the same. My needs are the same. In fact, if anything I am more demanding, more needy, more of a pain in the arse than I ever was with Em and yet Anita is steadily there, consistent, calm, warm, and loving.
I know therapy is not all about reassurance and making you feel good. It’s not always plain sailing with Anita, but what the relationship is built on feels so much more solid and so I feel like we weather our little (and sometimes bigger) storms more easily or, at least, more safely. I was clinging onto a bloody piece of driftwood being battered by the storms with Em watching from a ship and yet with Anita I feel like we are together in a lifeboat. It still feels a bit scary, I don’t like storms or boats, but at least I feel confident that we are in the best suited boat to the situation.
Anita replied with, ‘You’re beautiful in so many ways, inside outside, you really are that’s why I am so nice to you. There’s nothing wrong with you. And I know that may be really hard to hear and believe but there isn’t it. And I know I sound like a broken record, but you’ve been let down in so many ways and the way you respond is a normal response to what’s happened to you. And you’re ok, you really are. I don’t suppose there’s many people who don’t like you.’
Unfortunately, it hit a raw nerve. ‘There’s one or two’ I moaned. And then the grief of Em just flooded in like a tsunami. The reality is, yes, I do have some great people in my life and I am well loved by my friends BUT there’s that wound, the mother wound, and what Em did last year has thrown a bomb into it. The feeling of being unlovable and unlikeable and not good enough has been brought into sharp focus and I am trying to pick the shrapnel out of myself – thank god I have Anita with me helping.
I cried and cried. I don’t think A had any idea what was going on in my head. It didn’t matter, though. I didn’t have the energy to start harping on about how hurt I am about Em just before the break – no point in raking all that up further with only ten minutes to go. It was enough to cry and be held. And I will talk about this when we get back in the room later this week. So much stuff has been stirred up this last month relating to being left and abandoned and Em that it’s unavoidable…but certainly best done face-to-face.
I continued to cry cuddled in to A. ‘I feel like I could hold you all day’ she said. ‘I don’t want to let go… You really are very special you know, and I think a lot of people would agree with me.’
I really love this woman. (Is it obvious?)
It’s strange. Even when she says these affirming, validating things there’s sometimes another part that comes up and needs to check it’s real.
‘Do you think I’m weird?’
I’m not sure which part that asked that, or feels so weird, is but I suspect it’s the younger teen, maybe 14.
Again, Anita responded in the perfect way. ‘I don’t think you are weird, far from it… or hard work…before you think that one too! I don’t think you are hard work either. It’s when we’re hurt that we become more vulnerable and want that reassurance which makes perfect sense, and also wary, again, it makes perfectly good sense- doesn’t it?’
This sad, young, teen part said, ‘I don’t want you to turn on me.’ That part is so used to people not being quite who they say they are or changing, and it’s not surprising after what happened with Em that she’s wary. Everything disintegrated in less than a month last year with Em. We went from ‘we need to focus carefully on the parts’ to ‘I’ve reached the limit of my competency and your child parts are like a tick’.
Anita reassured me, ‘I’m not going to turn on you or hurt you. I’m not going to hurt you – not purposefully. I might [hurt you] but it would never be on purpose. I might make mistakes again. Like I say, I am only human. But I would never purposefully reject you, and if I do make mistakes, I hope that you can be honest – as you have been- so we can work through that. It’s important that we own mistakes and to apologise when we make them. I can’t say I won’t make mistakes and won’t hurt you, but it will never ever be because I don’t like you or because I have done it on purpose or I want to attack. I promise you that. I just hope we can be honest with each other and it will help us to get through that…which we have done.’
I let out a long sigh of relief and jokingly said, ‘It’s not short-term work is it?!’ and A completely agreed with me. We would be in it for the long haul and there is no rush, it’ll take as long as it’ll take and she finished up with, ‘I do love you. I really do.’
Then the time was up. Ugh. I hate that. Time to wipe my tears, set my coping face, and go off and manage for the next god knows how many weeks. I squeezed Anita tightly and thanked her. I felt so much better than I had the same time last week on learning she was going away. It wasn’t going to be easy but at least we weren’t parting on a rupture. She replied with, ‘Thank you. It takes a lot of guts to be like this with a therapist, so thank you.’ I smiled inside.
In amongst the shame and embarrassment that’s been there for so long, there’s a little nook inside me where I am starting to house the feeling of being a tiny bit proud of myself. This therapy business isn’t easy and for someone who has been so guarded for so long I am astounded that I am turning up and being authentically me… I mean I have Anita to thank, I know that, it is her that has made it feel safe enough for me to bring it all…and I am so grateful to her.
I moved and got up and my back had seized up! Fucking great. That’s what an hour-long cuddle does! It was funny and lightened the mood a bit. We joked about how our bodies don’t match the age in our heads. I genuinely expect to have the flexibility and stamina and youthful looks of a twenty-year-old and am always shocked to learn I am heading towards forty, have the body of a woman who has birthed two babies and done twelve rounds of chemo. The mirror doesn’t lie, though…nor do the aches and pains!
I left the session feeling…ok. Happy sad. Happy that we are so connected but sad that I was going to have to cope without all that amazing stuff until she came home…whenever that might be.
Later that afternoon I sent a text to A:
Thank you for meeting me exactly where I am at and for ‘seeing’ me – or is it ‘feeling’? I dunno. Both I guess. 2020 has been a complete shit show but I got to find you in it and so feel sooooo lucky because you make me feel safe. These next few weeks are going to be really tough and I’m going to try really hard to not have another meltdown, but I apologise in advance for myself, now, just in case! Please take elephant with you and don’t forget about me xx
Oh, if only you knew the painful irony in that message after what came next!!…meltdown should have been meltdowns…let’s go for the plural. Groan!
This is basically what I have been like for the last three weeks!
Musing on counselling-related issues in the UK. I am a counsellor/psychotherapist and a client too. As the blog title suggests, my counselling journey began in the client's seat. For information about my counselling and psychotherapy practice see my website: www.erinstevens.co.uk
holding it together as I journey through therapy - a personal account of what it's like to be in long-term psychotherapy navigating the healing of C-PTSD, childhood trauma and neglect, an eating disorder, self-harming behaviours, as well as giving grief and cancer an occasional nod.
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