‘Sibling’ Jealousy In The Therapy Room: Don’t Ask Questions You Don’t Really Want The Answers To.

So, following on from my last post here things got much worse and I found myself deep down the rabbit hole of doom! I felt so terrible by the time Sunday rolled around that I just didn’t know what to do with myself. Anita acknowledged my crying bear message in the afternoon on Sunday with what felt like a really formal ‘un-Anita-y’message. She asked if I was ok (uh no, not really) and then sent quite a long message that talked about discussing working out payment stuff and how she had meant to discuss it on Friday but how ‘obviously that didn’t happen’ (yeah, that’s because my session was cancelled…and I am still having a meltdown about it!).

The message landed badly. It felt really off because there I was feeling really upset and abandoned and disconnected and all the bad feelings over the session cancellation on Friday – wondering whether she had chosen to just cancel me rather than work online and here was a message about ‘boundaries’ and ‘therapy dynamics’ and admin, basically. Because I was so triggered already, the message felt cold and just really missed where I was at. I felt like I was invisible to her.

Even though boundaries are very important it can be such a triggering word to those of us with C-PTSD. I think it’s because so often when therapists start banging on about boundaries it can often seem to be something about distancing themselves from us. Like the boundary talk happens because we’re seen to be pushing boundaries, we’re trying to be too close. So, when there’s talk of boundaries from the therapist it often feels like barriers being put up etc…’here’s the boundary, don’t step over it’. Basically ‘back off’ – ‘I’m just your therapist’.

Looking back, I don’t think that’s what was intended and I really don’t ever feel like Anita is a ‘boundaries for boundaries’ sake’ therapist. I think A was just trying to put my mind at rest that we would find a way forward but phrases like ’I’m not going to just drop you’ still sent panic through my system especially as the messages over the weekend had so clearly missed what was going on after Friday and even the word ‘drop’ made me feel vulnerable because of course she could ‘drop’ me at any time.

I didn’t know what to do so I just sent Anita the link to the blog I’d just posted about all the shit that was swirling and asked her to read it. Thankfully, she read it and it clearly made sense to her because the response she sent afterward felt much more like the Anita I am used to. The problem was by the time she sent it, I was so tangled up in knots and had been putting all the jigsaw pieces from the last few days together and creating some kind of impressionist image – you know where the nose is where the ear should be and the mouth is up on the forehead. All the elements are there, just all in totally the wrong place.

My teen felt so wounded that I sent this:

and said ‘I think I need to stay away for a while’.

Anita was lovely and somehow coaxed me back out of that dark internal dungeon to a place where it felt possible to go to see her because I believed that she actually wanted to see me, too. Before that point I had convinced myself she was fed up and wanted away from me. I told her I needed a hug and she said she would give me one in person, I just had to come to my session. I was physically and emotionally exhausted by the time the weekend was over. Man this is hard going!

When I arrived at Anita’s on Monday morning, I hugged her as soon as she opened the door. I felt shaky and sad but also relieved to be there. Anita acknowledged that it must have been hard for me to come to the session and I agreed. It was. There were so many different activated parts that it’s so hard to know what to do for the best sometimes. I guess just keep turning up and giving myself the opportunity to talk?

Anita told me that she had had no idea where I was with everything until she’d read my blog. And this is the problem. I can drift so far away so quickly because on the surface I seem fine when, really, I am not. Things blow up inside and a lot of the time it is masked by my False Adult who glosses over everything ‘Ok’ and smiles to cover what’s underneath. Of course, if I am not even in the room and something happens then it’s even less visible.

I’m my own worst enemy sometimes.

Then the truth came out about Friday.

Anita was honest but…ouch.

She told me that she hadn’t offered me an online session on Friday because she felt like I would find it insulting (given how hard they have been over lockdown) and how far they are from what I really need. She apologised and said that she’d got that wrong and was really sorry not to have given me the option. I felt really sad about it, I’d really missed her on Friday and had really needed some reassurance that things were ok with us because the cancellation had let all sorts rip through my system. I was glad she wasn’t trying to paste over it but it was still painful.

I think she probably now understands that whilst online isn’t ideal, in that situation some kind of contact is much better than a complete severing of contact and whilst I might respond with ‘OK’ when I resort to short replies and don’t reach out, I am anything but ‘Ok’. It’s like the shutters go down and I go into self-protection mode. It was so painful on Friday and I couldn’t stop myself from spiralling down.

She acknowledged that she had been in a bit of panic about her daughter which is what I suspected. It felt ok having this conversation – or rather her telling me her side of things. She’s human, after all and we don’t always get things right but it’s not because we are deliberately trying to hurt the other person. I asked her if I could have a hug and basically just started trembling and crying. The impact the weekend, or last couple of weeks had had on my system was really something else. This feeling of abandonment stuff is really tapping into the deep mother wound and it’s fucking exhausting navigating it.

Again, I don’t remember much of that session. When the young parts are so activated and I am teetering on the edge of dissociation my memory seems to just go blank. I remember Anita saying something about how sometimes separation is good because we can learn that separation doesn’t have to mean abandonment but that what had happened in the last two weeks was too much, too sudden, and like I had been thrown in the deep end. I mean the reality is her dog had to go to the vet and her daughter might have had COVID but everything that got wrapped around those two events was massive.  Anita said I had joined all the dots wrongly in my head (written in the blog) but that’s it’s not surprising because that’s what trauma does.

My system definitely started to settle and calm down throughout the session. I cried a lot and just snuggled into her. That’s really all the young parts need or are capable of when things have been so badly triggered. Calm care and reassurance are everything and settling my nervous system is essential before I can ‘think’ about what’s gone on. I saw something the other day from Margaret Atwood.

It’s true. And I think this is where talk therapy so often falls down. When we hit the deck and start sliding with the pre-verbal young stuff, words just don’t cut it and I am so grateful to Anita that she is ok with physical touch because it has definitely enabled the most wounded parts of me to feel safe to come out.

The time between sessions this week seemed to go by really slowly and whilst I felt like we’d repaired some of the hurt feelings and settled the young parts that had got so worked up over the weekend, in the Monday session, I’d still felt really vulnerable and exposed during the week and not very sure-footed. I went to see K for a cup of tea on Thursday and had broken down crying when speaking to her about what the last few weeks had been like and the stuff about the cancelled session on Friday with Anita. She saw immediately how impacted my inner child had been by the messages and cancellation, and was both validating and understanding and it took some of the shame and embarrassment out of my meltdown. By the time it got to Friday I was so ready to see Anita as things felt really wobbly.

My best friend had a horrific week this week as her work with her long-term therapist came to an abrupt end. I am absolutely devastated for her. It’s set some things jangling internally for me, too. Her therapist was so much like Anita in the early days of their work together -so attuned and holding – and over time things have just got more and more distanced, less and less caring, and I can’t help but panic. What happens if this happens with Anita? I’ve been terminated by Em for being a ‘tick’ (and I never showed her ANYTHING like as much as I do A) and now my friend has lost her therapist…it just seems like people like us end up hurt and abandoned time and again. It’s so painful…and terrifying to those parts that are so scared of being hurt.

What’s happened with my friend is absolutely not her fault, nor was what happened with Em mine, but it’s not the therapist that is left bereft and retraumatised when, yet again, the narrative of being too much and toxic gets replayed. They can just move onto the next poor, unsuspecting client, and here we are left trying to pick up the pieces again.

I spoke to Anita about that situation and said how frequently my friend had been misled and gaslit and how really you can’t bullshit clients like us, it’s better to be honest because we see through lies. Anita agreed. I could feel myself getting upset. I asked for a hug (check me out asking for what I need!). Things settled inside a bit and then Anita told me that she needed to tell me about the holiday she has coming up. Oh god. She said she was waiting for the right time to tell me but realised there’s no good time to let me know but wanted to give me plenty of notice. The reaction to the news wasn’t desperately bad inside but it wasn’t great either. Anita said we can text whilst she’s away and last year that was nice, and I didn’t drop dead during the break (much). I am thinking of asking her whether she’ll take the little blue elephant with her so he can see some of the places too.

Just as I’d got over my mini internal meltdown over the upcoming holiday I opened my eyes and looked up and wondered about a box on the shelf. It’s beautiful and ornate. For some reason I decided to ask what was inside the box – and this, my friends, is a lesson on not asking questions when you haven’t really considered what the answer may be! In the past I had asked about what was in another, bigger, carved, wooden box in the room. Anita had said there were colouring pens for when people do art or drawing/writing in their session. However, this box is high up, safely placed in the middle of the shelf and clearly would not be housing pens.

I don’t know why, but I was not ready for what was coming and yet clearly the answer was going to be something like this. Anita told me that one of her long-term clients (a trauma client like me) had given her the box for Christmas because it was important to her (the client), and inside it is a stone with the word ‘trust’ on it and I could have a look at it if I liked.

I’m guessing for most of you reading this that I needn’t say any more about how this felt.

I realise in this situation Anita really couldn’t win, earlier in the session we’d only just spoken about how you can’t bullshit clients like me/us because we see through it, but at the same time this revelation was just too much information and NO I did not want to look at the box.

I am so sensitive at the moment. After the session on Friday I text Anita and used the analogy that I feel like I am tiptoeing so carefully at the minute, trying to avoid danger, but no matter how I try almost every step I take I seem to set off a landmine beneath me…

…and this wasn’t just a landmine, this was a nuclear bomb going off inside.

Everything fell apart in that moment. I dissociated immediately. I was so far gone. It was awful. I felt like I was tumbling over and over through black space. It was dizzying and made me feel physically sick. The feelings of not being good enough, being insignificant, and unimportant flooded my system. It was the same stuff that was triggered the other week by Anita telling she was ‘mega busy’ when I suggested rescheduling because her dog was going to the vet, and also when my session got cancelled last Friday because her daughter might have had COVID.

The voice says that the relationship isn’t real – is meaningless – and I am deluded for thinking otherwise got really loud really quickly. And to be honest it has a point, because, when it comes down to it, I’m just one of many clients and not only that, I’m someone who can be left and let go because there are always going to be people who are more worthy and have more of a claim to Anita’s care and time than I do. Even when we think things are ‘safe enough’ it can turn sour in a matter of weeks and we’re let go, terminated, and left stranded. My experience with Em showed me that but also what’s happened to my friend this last week.

My body was frozen. I felt like I stopped breathing. I think it must’ve been a freeze response. I felt so sad and had no idea I was crying silent tears until I felt my hand was wet.

I think Anita felt the change in me. I was cuddled into her so she couldn’t see my face but I could hear her talking to me but I just didn’t have any words to respond to her and I think this is because what this episode triggered was down into that really young, preverbal stuff. She tried to check in with me about how I was feeling soon after she’d told me about the box but I couldn’t respond. She told me explicitly that just because she’s been seeing this other client a long time it didn’t make our relationship less than. She said something about her having a big heart. And I get it…or Adult Me does, sort of.

It’s like with my kids. When my son arrived, my daughter didn’t suddenly get half the love she had received before he was born because my finite supply of love now had to be split two ways. It doesn’t work that way. Our capacity to love is not finite at all. It’s something that keeps growing. I don’t love my son more than my daughter. I love them both ‘the same’ for who they are and because they are different. I don’t prefer one over the other or compare one to the other. And I guess this must kind of be how it is in therapy…maybe…but then I’m not her child I’m just a client and I come back to that horrible stuff about everyone else being better than me, less difficult, more lovable etc etc. I’m sure other clients have fewer tantrums, are less demanding, less needy…

A small voice said, ‘I want to go home’. It felt so broken at that point. It’s horrible how fragile everything feels. When it feels like that the only sensible option seems to be to run away and protect myself like I always have done before.

It would be so easy to say that this episode on Friday with the box is just a case of ‘jealousy’ and that client ‘sibling rivalry’ stuff that we feel sometimes – but when you dig beneath it it’s not as crazy as it all sounds… or at least I hope not! We all know we aren’t the only client a therapist sees and as much as we’d like to think we’re their favourite (thinking about LS here! 😉) it’s pretty unlikely. But it’s hard because our therapists are so important to us – I think it’s natural that we would want to feel important to them, too, especially when we have a lifetime of not mattering.

When I think about my own teaching work. I like all my students BUT there are some I look forward to working with more than others…and what if I’m one of those ‘less favoured and sometimes dreaded’ hours in Anita’s week? The thought of that really upsets me. And that’s why I am doomed because even Adult Me can’t convince all those hurting parts that everything is ok and that it’s not ‘pretend’ with Anita, because Adult Me has preferences about who I work with, too… and so I can’t help but feel like I am walking my way blindfolded into getting hurt again. Even if there is SO SO SO much evidence to the contrary (which there really is!).

To be honest, when I am like this, Anita must be banging her head up against a brick wall because she shows me ALL THE TIME in SO MANY WAYS that she cares and that I am important. She doesn’t just demonstrate it through her actions, she tells me she ‘loves me’ and ‘thinks the world of me’…so why can’t these scared young parts let that evidence override the doubting parts? Why do I have to let a fucking gift from another client derail my time with Anita?

Trauma.

Simple.

I think it’s just going to take time and patience on both our parts – I just hope she doesn’t get fed up with me first. This work is like recoiling a spring the other way. It’s a repetitive process and sometimes the spring just pings back to how it was before…and it’s not surprising really. I learnt pretty early on that I wasn’t central and my needs didn’t matter. It continued on and on being left at childminders and never feeling like I was wanted or important enough to be made a priority. I just had to fit in and get on with it. I was seen as easy-going child and no trouble – amenable – but that’s because I had to be. There’s no point in acting up when nothing will change.

And this is really the legacy I’ve been left with. In some ways being adaptable is good, but so often it means I put my own needs at the bottom of the pile and try and make things right for everyone else. When I get hurt, I take that pain inwards and spare the other person the hassle of dealing with me. The other day Anita said she thought there were a lot of tears bottled up inside. And she’s right -there’s a lifetime of them. I never cried as a child…because what was the point? There was never anyone there to wipe them away. I learnt not to express my feelings and that runs both ways. I struggle even to show or feel joy. I have the best poker face.

Ugh.

Anyway, I don’t remember much about that session because I was so far gone and so upset. I felt like I had drifted away. What I do know is that Anita was holding me more tightly than usual and whilst I felt a million miles away there was a part of me that could feel how hard she was trying to help bring me back to her. She didn’t let me go until I was more together and settled – she is amazing like that.

I feel like such a bloody idiot after all this but I am trying to show myself some compassion. It’s been a hard few weeks/months…and I guess what’s happening is the young stuff is far closer to the surface than it’s ever been before and so it gets triggered more easily. In some ways it’s mortifying but I guess in other ways it’s progress. Noone wants to be a mute sobbing wreck in therapy but this is clearly a big indicator that this attachment and relational stuff is where the work is (as if we didn’t already know!) and it’s far better that it comes up with Anita where it can be worked on then pretending it’s all ok when something hurts and then going home and going through all the feelings alone and catastrophising even more.

I’ll end there because this is already long.

God give us strength!