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.
I can count on my fingers the people that I hold close and have let into my heart. I’ve never been big on acquaintances – I’d sooner be alone with my thoughts in nature than stuck in a room of fake smiles and raucous artificial laughter. I don’t do surface level friendships or communications; I don’t see the point in it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a chameleon (trauma does that to you!) and can float round a large gathering appearing comfortable, being funny, showing interest, bringing people together – but as an introvert, that kind of situation wipes me out for days afterwards and it takes time to regroup. I would rather spend time with one or two close friends in a space that allows quiet for chat than out shouting over music any day of the week.
I am finding more and more that I avoid situations where I get out way less than I put in. I’ve always been a people pleaser, a giver, but I’m nearly forty now and I know that I am finally done wasting energy putting myself in situations that don’t feel good on an energetic level- whether that be with my family or in social situations. I only have so many spoons and these days I am seeing that I am actually worthy of using these spoons to support myself! Who knew?!
I want genuine, authentic, ‘warts and all’ relationships with like-minded souls. I seek people who are able to be vulnerable and show their wounds as well as their triumphs. I want deep conversations and comfortable silences not performance. Life is too short for show. Let’s get down to meeting one another on a soul level and supporting one another in our vulnerable authenticity rather than hiding from one another and putting on a brave face.
Over the course of my life, I have met some truly wonderful people who I cherish – friends that feel like family. And my goodness, I have needed a chosen family with the blood relatives I got dealt! Once that bond is made, once I let you into my circle, there’s no getting out… but then those people who are in that space don’t want out (at least they don’t seem to!).
There is nothing better than connecting with people who know you and see you for who you are, who love you in spite of your flaws and because of your sensitivity, people who celebrate your successes and commiserate with you when you fail, people who just want the best for you…and for all that to be reciprocated, for the love and care to run both ways. I want to know and be known by my chosen family.
Today I want to write about one particular member of this small group of special people that I hold dear in my heart. I don’t know if she’ll get to read this because currently, she’s very ill in a hospice suffering after a long battle with cancer… and also it means sharing the blog which is a vulnerable act in itself – not that she’d share it with anyone, but our mums are friends and I have always been a bit reluctant in case my mum got wind of what I was writing! (Can you even imagine?!)
This is not the first time I have written about the cancer thief on this blog – my darling friend and second ‘mother’ died a couple of years ago from myeloma and it knocked me for six but there was perhaps a bit more acceptance on my part then despite the devastation because she was almost sixty, this time I feel at a complete loss because there is no fucking way that my friend should be in this situation at 38 or having been battling since she was 30. It’s just brutal.
When you keep your world small and your loved ones in single digits I think you feel the loss of these significant people all the more acutely and I want my beautiful friend to know just how very much I love her. I know she knows anyway, but I just want to say it again publicly.
This amazing, strong, selfless, inspiration of woman is my longest standing friend. We met at primary school when we were six and I’d just moved into the area. We struck up an instant friendship. Back then we were all about roller-skating, gymnastics and playing with our dolls ‘Anna’ and ‘Amy’ (seriously, we had the same shivering baby dolls!). We spent hours playing and chatting and just being little girls together. The first time I went to her house to play I stepped in a bowl of custard, and I’ve never been able to live it down! But I love those memories.
It’s funny, really, because I moved away from the area when I was eleven and yet despite years of not really seeing much of each other there has always been this unbreakable bond between us. Whenever we have got together it’s like no time has passed and it hasn’t mattered that we haven’t actively been in one another’s lives. We pick up like there’s been no separation and I guess that is the hallmark of a strong relationship.
In some ways this is odd, isn’t? A friendship forged over just five years in childhood is not like my university friendships formed as a young adult and where you might think there would be a greater degree of like-mindedness and yet it is every bit as strong, every bit as valuable. As small girls we weren’t talking about the tremendous hurts our families caused us, our struggles with our bodies, sexuality, self-harm, health concerns, because that stuff wasn’t there then – back then we were just two little girls who got on well but somehow that deep knowing of those little girls has kept going all these years.
We are now two women, mothers ourselves, who still have each other’s backs and have come through so much – I’d smash anyone who wanted to hurt her in the face with my rollerblades- just you see! When I got diagnosed with Hodgkin’s it was incredible to have a friend who really ‘got it’. She understood the fear, and the bloody awful side effects of the chemo and radiotherapy. I never had to pretend I was ok about my cancer with her. We spend so much time protecting others when we get sick and trying to be ‘ok’ but to have someone who really knew what it was to feel chemically sick, to lose her hair, and all the other shit that comes with it was so valuable to me. I hope that she feels that there never needs to be an act for me even at the end now.
I’m not doing a great job with this today; I keep getting massive waves of grief and overwhelm to think that we are where we are. I so badly want to be able to put into words how very proud and honoured I am to call this special lady my friend. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you what an amazing person she is. The love that she and her family is held in is immense and it’s not surprising because she’s fucking incredible. She set up a charity to support people with cancer whilst battling with her own and has created a legacy that will live on long after she’s gone. I just wish she was going to be here to see it.
There is so so much I could say here about all her achievements but fundamentally I am just so proud to call her my friend and so thankful that she even wanted to be my friend. She has no idea how her friendship when we were kids helped me get through some really tough times. The safety and stability our friendship offered meant I didn’t feel alone when everything was terrible at home. I could at least escape into love and care at school.
Sometimes I think that life just seems to be a series of losses and heartbreaks, and wonder why we do it to ourselves? If essentially all relationships are set to end why bother? Why walk into something that will end causing us pain? But then of course, relationships are what makes life worth living. It’s our interactions with one another, the love we feel for one another that truly makes a life. And whilst I am beyond sad that I am watching, helplessly, as my darling friend faces this horrible time I am so very grateful to have been with her on this journey that we call life.
It’s not what we do in life that matters. It’s how we make others feel. And a lifetime of friendship, care, and love is the greatest gift she has given me. I will be lost without her.
My life is so hectic and busy … stressful… right now that I seem to be hurtling through the weeks and stuff only catches up with me/lands way after the event. Like, in the moment, I know whether something feels good or bad (in therapy) but it doesn’t seem to stick and make a solid memory right there and then. It’s almost as though I have the pictures in my mind but no time to glue them into the scrap book and so instead they fall out and float away when I am whizzing along. It feels like my short-term memory is completely fucked. I’m so forgetful!… I suppose I should be grateful that things catch up eventually.
Time is going so fast that I am struggling to do the basics: my house is a mess, I’m not keeping in touch with my friends, and last week was so dire that I even forgot to send Zoom links for my lessons until they were just about to commence – really professional eh?! I don’t know where my mind is but it’s not here. I think maybe there’s just so much firefighting going on that I can’t keep all my plates spinning. Yeah, that’s it, because as I start to slow a little now the holidays have started I notice there is a lot of broken crockery on the floor.
Last night I took myself off to bed early because I was just totally physically and emotionally done in. Things are really hard again at the moment in my adult life and it’s sent my all of my system into a complete meltdown which is hard going.
The therapy session I had on Friday was fronted by the protectors AGAIN and it was agonising for about forty minutes until Anita and I managed to connect and the young parts had a cuddle and sobbed for the remaining part of the session which helped a bit but there just wasn’t enough time and I came away feeling sad and annoyed that yet again the protective parts had ambushed me.
I don’t like it much at the moment. The physical stress my body is under when I am like that is awful. The pain is unreal and the pins and needles and goodness knows what else is just too much. I am constantly fighting dissociation. Inside there’s a part that desperately wants to run away and not be seen. The internal battle is immense…and I just don’t have to energy to be at war right now…and certainly not with myself. Fortunately, Anita is patient and present but those parts are really trying to give her a run for her money. It’s exhausting.
What’s causing all this? Well, the ‘need’ for Anita feels so massive right now. And because things feel so bad, part of me is absolutely terrified of being too much for her and then being left. Anita assures me that she is not going anywhere and that all she wants to do is be there and make it better for me, but it’s hard to let that filter down after what happened with Em. When I’ve been dropped like a hot potato when I was at my most vulnerable and struggling it’s no wonder the system is doing all it can to prevent that from happening again. I feel like my brain and body have got stuck in flight mode.
Anyway, last night I sent Anita a GIF to say goodnight and few minutes later she’d sent me something lovely back. As I lay there about to go to sleep, in the orange light of my salt lamp, I recalled what I am about to write about now having had it completely skip my memory this last few weeks.
I’ve been so caught up in survival and protection mode in all areas of my life, not just therapy, that remembering this day/session cut through the protective crap I’ve encased myself in and made me realise I bloody don’t have to go to therapy wearing armour and keeping my distance from A! And it’s really settled me down. I felt really unsettled and disconnected yesterday and now I feel like it’s ok. It’s crackers really because there are so many times when Anita has been great, and present, and accommodating but this recent memory recall seems to have settled stuff more.
A few weeks ago, when it was heading towards the anniversary of my dad dying I had a really bad spell of feeling utterly panicked and unsettled. It’s not unusual for this to happen at this time of year – so many memories of that awful time come up and the reality that, now, my dad has been gone longer than half the time he was with me and that hits hard. He’s missed out on a lot…I’ve missed out on so much, too. And thirteen years down the line I feel like I am forgetting things about him and it’s painful. There’s still so much left unprocessed and unhealed – especially where my family is concerned but I realise now, that I will never get the closure I want, and I think I won’t feel like it’s over until my grandmother actually dies. It sounds harsh but I have done all I can and so until she’s gone I can’t fully close the door on it. Anyway, that’s another story…
On this particular week, my wife was away for work too. It’s never brilliant when she’s gone – I never sleep all that well and I generally feel less safe. Even though, rationally, I know nothing bad is going to happen, my body doesn’t get the memo. I’d been to therapy on the Monday and my protectors had been really on guard but fortunately Anita had been her incredible, attuned self and had helped me connect in the end. Phew.
I woke up on the Tuesday and felt absolutely terrible. Everything felt wrong. I knew my wife was going to be away and I honestly wasn’t sure how I was going to make it through the day, let alone through the week to Friday. Part of me wanted to prove to myself that I can power through like I have always done but another part just wanted to reach out for support and not always have to struggle so hard.
With Em I could never ask for more contact. She didn’t do check ins. She wouldn’t even read my texts (and they were rarely sent). There was no sense of there being a support in her…even in the sessions it felt like I was being watched in my pain rather than being supported in it. So sometimes my brain doesn’t catch on that things are different now and I can ask for what I need with Anita and if she can she will try and help and be there for me.
Tuesday is my biggest teaching day: 9:15-4, 4:30-5:30, and 6:30-7:30 and it’s all one-to-one with high need students. I enjoy what I do, but it takes its toll, especially when I am trying to keep my littles safe inside and function. So, I decided that I would text Anita and asked if we might be able to have a check in sometime during the week just to hold things until Friday. She responded that she could do that evening about 8pm if I wanted. That was a perfect time and I snapped it up and thanked her. She then asked me if I wanted to do WhatsApp or face to face. Of course, as I was alone with my kids that evening it had to be WhatsApp.
As much as I hate online therapy, in this sort of situation any contact is better than no contact and to be honest I only expected to chat for ten or fifteen minutes. It seemed odd therefore, that A had offered face to face as an option seeing as it’s a 40 minute drive to hers but it didn’t matter as I couldn’t see her anyway but it was nice that the offer was there.
Later that afternoon I got a call from my wife to say she would be coming home as there was COVID in the place she was meant to be working the next day and so there was no point in staying over at the hotel as she would work closer to home the next day. My brain took about half a second to realise that perhaps I would now be able to see Anita face to face after all, as my wife would be back on time to be with the kids. IT felt like a massive win.
I text Anita and asked her if I could come and see her in person. The parts that were so upset and struggling would benefit so much from that contact – especially after all the shenanigans that the protectors have been putting me through. That day all I wanted was to go in and have a cuddle and settle those little parts who were struggling so hard. Anita said that she’d look forward to seeing me when I could get there.
So I arrived at 8:10pm and we had a really lovely session. There was a lot of talk and processing of stuff but from the get go it was close and connected. It was an hour session (which I hadn’t expected) and the entire time I was cuddled into A. It felt so safe and holding.
I won’t go into detail because it’s not really relevant now. But what is relevant it that I had ‘forgotten’ about this session until last night. I have been putting myself through the emotional wringer for weeks worrying about whether Anita cares, or wants me near her, or if I am too much for her … when clearly that’s not the case at all. There is no way she’d do the things she does for me if that was how she felt.
So, the upshot is, remembering that extra unscheduled session from a few weeks ago where Anita was so holding and caring and present and attuned and and and… has done a lot to settle the parts that have been freaking out. I’m hoping, therefore, tomorrow that I can just go in and be how it is, not be armoured up and pushing A away. There’s no need to put in a pre-emptive strike…because there isn’t an attack coming …well, not from her at least.
I am so far behind with the blog so hopefully over the next week or so I’ll be able to get up to speed as there’s been some amazing healing work done in between me being shut down and wearing a giant ‘keep out’ sign.
My last post here talked about the recent ‘shutdown’ Monday sessions where the teen ran amok for the first part of the therapy hour, and it felt like I was in an isolation zone. It was hard going, but the work that came as a result was definitely worthwhile. I think that those sessions have sent a message to the teen that she’s really ok with Anita and that Anita isn’t scared of her or about to shut up shop when she turns up in a rage or pushes away – in fact, Anita will come towards her and try and help her rather than punish her with more disconnection. This can only be a good thing going forward.
Despite this, I am hoping that the teen part stays in the background for a while now, because it thoroughly exhausts me when I have those emotionally charged, agonising sessions – especially when really, underneath, all I want is to be close to A. I know it’s protective and there for a reason, in the past (as a child) it was safer to hide or disconnect than ask for support or care and it’s hard to unlearn that. Although at least A seems to be willing to keep repeating the lesson over and over.
So, the Friday session that was sandwiched between those painful Mondays was different again. It was creeping ever closer to the anniversary of my dad dying and this always seems to result in at least one session where I re-tread old ground about the nature of the death and all the trauma that came at that time. I guess this is what we do in therapy, circle the same traumas but from different angles- each time we get a slightly different vantage point and perhaps a different insight. There is still so much pain around that loss, and as much as I cognitively understand a lot of what happened around that time, the physical and emotional trauma is still locked in my body and has caused me no end of trouble.
The conversations about that time are usually had by my actual Adult and not my False Adult but the content often activates stuff for the young parts inside who so desperately miss dad and who cannot understand why the family chose to scapegoat me for what happened to him. I don’t think those parts of me will every really understand what happened and why. The best my adult self can come up with is that my family have always excluded and demonised people and grief does strange things to people. Beyond that, I am stumped because the older I get and the more of life I experience I just cannot fathom how you could behave as they did.
Ah well. Their loss.
Only they don’t care… and much as I try not to, I do care.
After a lot of talk about all that and about three quarters of the way through that session I could feel that Adult was starting to disappear, and the young ones were moving in. I asked Anita at this point if we could read a story as I find that really settles the little parts and gives them time to connect with Anita but also process in a way that feels age appropriate to them. We have quite a stack of stories that we read and it’s nice because the repetitive retelling of the same five or six stories feels really grounding. I guess it’s a bit like with my kids, even now they’re getting bigger we still have some go to favourites that feel really connecting.
All of these books I read with Anita deal with feelings or attachment and relationships in one way or another and I can’t overstate how helpful they have been to these very young parts. Part of me is amazed that I have reached a point in therapy where I have been able to ask for what I need in this way. I guess it’s that thing, though, we inherently know what we need to heal and if it’s not dangerous then what’s wrong in it? Therapists don’t know everything and collaborating with the client to create a therapy that works for them is essential (in my view).
I used to feel so much shame having ANY kind of need with Em even, though I rarely expressed my needs because I was so clear that everything I wanted was a flat ‘No’. I don’t feel shame around asking for things at all now: reading books, washing my elephant so it smells like A, extra sessions, and check ins. I guess this is because I NEVER have to feel shame with Anita because she never makes me feel like asking for something is wrong, or too much, or pushing at a boundary. Everything is open to discussion and I know that Anita will try and accommodate me where she can, if it is reasonable to do so. This goes such a long way.
Looking back now I can hardly believe I am the same person who was made to feel so much shame for struggling with lack of contact between sessions. I can’t believe how bad I felt when I asked Em for the three dots to check-in midweek and she flat refused without even asking why I wanted it or why I thought it might be useful.
Even the transitional object with the pebble ended up doing more harm than good. And to think that Em thinks she works with ‘attachment disorders’ – it’s a fucking joke. Although, to even phrase it as a ‘disorder’ really shows the clinical and cold lens she views people with C-PTSD through. It’s pathologizing and demeaning suggesting that wanting to feel connected (perfectly reasonable human experience!) is a problem.
Leaving us stranded and isolated almost ‘outside’ the relationship massively triggers us and then more and more survival behaviours come out. No wonder we cling on tighter when we feel like we’re being abandoned or rejected or held at arm’s length. We have these ways of relating because of the developmental trauma we’ve experienced having often been abandoned by our mothers – that can be emotionally, physically, or sometimes both.
Wanting to be loved and cared for by an attachment figure isn’t mental or dysfunctional. In fact, I think it’s pretty amazing that even after so many relational setbacks, abandonments, and rejections that the part of us that wants to be loved still holds any kind of hope of that being possible at all. For a therapist to make us feel like we are ‘too much’ or ‘weird’ when we are trying to work on those most vulnerable and damaged parts is just the pits.
I would have loved to have brought stories into my work with Em but the one time I took a book in, ‘The Heart And The Bottle’, it was a total catastrophe and completely missed the mark. She sat and looked at the book on her own, in her chair, across the room, in silence and then said something like, “there’s some powerful images in this” but we never got discuss how it felt like the chair was empty when she was gone on breaks and how I felt like I had to protect my heart and not feel anything because otherwise I wouldn’t function. There was so much work that could have been done around that, but Em would never go there. She really didn’t like discussing what was going on between ‘us’ at all.
I remember in that session I ended up falling down the rabbit hole of doom in that and dissociated because Em just didn’t see me or my pain…actually, no, she did see it, she just chose to leave me drowning in it. As Em said, she was not prepared to ‘collude with the young part that wants holding’ and I was basically on my own – always.
Oh and then, of course there was the total shit show that happened just before we terminated when I gave her a copy of ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ for Christmas…
Anyway, that’s over now, thank goodness … and I have a therapist that works with me, not against me. Phew!
The best thing about reading the stories with A that it’s just another part of the work that we do. It’s not a ‘big thing’ or out of the ordinary. It just is. She’ll sometimes ask if I want a story and usually has them out in the room when I arrive just in case that’s where the session takes us. There’s no drama. Those young parts that like and need stories are as welcome as any of the other parts of me in that room…and that’s a really nice place to be. I really love snuggling into A, looking at the pictures and listening to her read the words – when the young parts feel scared or anxious it really helps settle them but also allows them to talk too.
It’s taken 1500 words to get here…but finally…to the point! On this day (the Friday!) we had a new book that I had ordered. I had heard good things about it but never read it. It’s called ‘The Invisible String’ by Patrice Karst. Anyway, after all the talk about my dad’s death and my family, I asked for the story and cuddled in beside A as she started to read.
The book is about two siblings who get scared in the night when a storm hits. They go rushing out to their mother to feel safe. The children wonder about how they can feel her when she’s not there or they’re in their room away from her. The mother gestures with her hands that they always have an invisible string linking them and when you tug on one end the other person feels it in their heart no matter where they are. The book goes on and the children ask where the invisible string works: under the sea, up a mountain, and even to heaven etc. It’s so lovely and really talks about how everybody is connected by the invisible string of love. It says that love is stronger than anger and so the strings are really strong… (well they’re meant to be!)
The message is so wonderful and so good for those of us working on attachment and object constancy who so often feel like our attachment figures don’t exist or are gone when we can’t see them. Anita asked me what I thought about the book. In the moment I had such mixed feelings. I was left, in part, with immense sadness and told her that I felt like I was holding a handful of severed strings (my family cutting me off, Em…) Anita was so lovely and said that she understood but that I also have so many wonderful strings connecting me, to my wife, kids, friends and that it was nothing I had ever done that led to those strings being severed.
I didn’t say anything for a while and just listened to Anita’s heartbeat and started to settle.
Anita then said, “They also reach heaven you know. It doesn’t stop. The love still continues.” And this was what those little parts needed to hear after Adult speaking about my dad for most of the session.
Then more silence.
I was battling inside with letting this next bit out. Even though I know Anita loves me and she tells me and demonstrates it all the time, there is still something incredibly vulnerable about asking someone how they feel rather than them freely telling you.
A little part whispered into her chest, “Do we have a string?”
Without a hint of hesitation Anita replied, “I definitely think we have a string.” And held me tighter into her chest.
And then the time was up. What a great phrase to end a session on… I mean obviously there was the small talk that happens at the end as I put my shoes back on and the hug as I leave – but the session itself ended on that.
When things feel shit and disconnected I am trying to remember that we do have an invisible string…and it’s helping a bit!
Therapy this last week or so has been a complete emotional rollercoaster. (How many times have I said this lately?!) Honestly, I can hardly keep up with myself! One minute, things are fine, the next it’s utterly desperate. The various parts of me are in and out on rapid rotation and I don’t know which way is up. It really would be really unnerving if I didn’t already have a reasonably good understanding of my system. Mind you, my teen trying to sabotage the shit out therapy is never a great deal of fun, even if I can see it and make sense of it after the event!
The last two Mondays have been quite similar…oh goody (*not ‘good’ at all) a pattern is emerging! I seem start off with a couple of minutes small talk – everything ‘seems’ fine (False Adult strikes again!) and then the clouds quickly roll in from the horizon and I am totally done for. The feeling of disconnection I feel is massive and rather than reach out for Anita, I freeze and get swept up in my internal storm which rumbles on and on about Anita wanting to get away from me and my not being able to trust her.
HELP ME PLEASE!
Last week (28th June) I walked in, sat down, and told Anita that I didn’t feel very good – I had terrible period pain and felt really drained and vulnerable and like my womb was trying to escape from my body. It was shit. I really just wanted a cuddle and to reconnect and feel safe with A – to rest in her presence – but instead of this, my teen went into complete shutdown and “fuck it all!” The young parts desperately wanted to be close, but the teen had gone into protect mode which resulted in a complete stand-off with Anita. It was agony. We’ve all been there haven’t we?!
When it gets like that, it feels like Anita is a million miles away even though it’s really me holding her at arm’s length and avoiding her. I think those young, vulnerable parts need such clear and demonstrative expressions of care and closeness when I feel off from the very outset of the session that a run of the mill, sitting next to me and tentatively asking questions just feels really … crap. Those little ones basically need Anita to be a mind-reader, and that’s never going to happen. Anita is amazingly perceptive, but she won’t know the second I walk in that I am crying out for a cuddle unless I actually tell her.
Anyway, the feeling of both physical and emotional distance between myself and Anita that I felt – or put between us- was absolute hell for the youngest parts and fuelled the anger in the teen. The longer this ‘stand off’ went on the worse it felt inside and the further I retreated. It’s totally infuriating that when the need is massive I retreat…but then of course this response is rooted in not wanting to be ‘too much’ or get ‘rejected’ by the other and so it makes sense.
I sat there rooted to the spot, staring at the door, not looking at Anita. A kept gently asking what was going on with me… but I totally stonewalled her. I’ve listened back to the session and OMG it’s just so fucking painful. When I am in that place, I feel so isolated, so cut off, and nothing Anita says or does feels right or enough, other than her explicitly telling me we are ok, that she cares, and realistically I need her to be physically touching me, either by holding my hand or giving me a hug. When it feels bad, I can’t hear her gentle, calm invitation to join her, to let her know what’s going on, to reconnect. I just feel fucked off and angry! And because I am angry, I push her further and further away.
That day, I think the need for connection was so strong when I arrived at session because I had felt ignored and rejected over the weekend (don’t ask…it was just mega PMS and the wonderful fucked up lens that that brings with it!).
And because I felt abandoned it necessarily brought the protectors online almost instantly when we met. There was a narrative of, “Don’t get too close, she’ll push you away – and she wasn’t interested in you over the weekend” sort of internal dialogue. I always feel like this after a weekend, more than I do on a Friday session – which is nuts because I’m sure if I checked my messages there wasn’t radio silence over the weekend – it just sometimes feels that way.
Anita persisted, “What are you thinking?”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Anita persisted, “You feel very distant today…has something happened?” There was so much care in and warmth in her voice that it felt like Anita was begining to get under the surface of my armour.
The teen grunted, “What do you mean?”
Anita was not put off and replied that she wasn’t sure but felt like there was a big distance between us. She asked me whether she had upset me and I replied, “It’s fine.”
Reader. It was not fine!
I’m sure loads of you are familiar with this sort of situation and how agonising it is to be trapped inside yourself screaming to get out but being completely mute so far as being able to say what is going on goes. You’re stuck in your internal prison.
“Can you share with me what you are thinking?” Anita probed.
And out came a really angry, venomous, “I’m not thinking anything!”
Grrrr. Rarrr. My god, the wobbler was coming! Lol.
Anita backed off and tried to soothe me a bit, “Okay… it’s okay”. I could feel myself getting more and more tense and upset as time elapsed. I just wanted to be close to her, but the teen was doing everything in her power to make Anita disappear.
I sat there, frozen, and then I started physically trembling and hid my face in my hands. I did not want to be seen in this state. I was full of anger and shame and embarrassment, and ALL THE FEELINGS and the little parts were beside themselves too.
Anita, as usual managed to cut through and wondered aloud about what could be going on. She said it felt uncomfortable to her, but she didn’t know what had triggered it or what it was about. She expressed that she didn’t know if what she was feeling was hers, mine, or whether it was even real. She said she wanted to give me a hug but wasn’t sure whether that was for her or for me. To hear her think aloud about it and talk about her process in real time helped me a lot because it showed me that she was engaged and thoughtful and trying to find a way through for us both and it made me see that my behaviour was also having an impact on her not just me.
Even though I was giving off the biggest “Fuck off” vibes, Anita asked me if I would like a hug. I’ve told her a lot recently that when this part is about, I need her to do this because it’s what I want but so often that protective rage won’t let me anywhere near her and vice versa.
A miserable and quiet, “I don’t know” left my lips.
Arghhh. Yes of course I wanted a hug – but I was too ashamed to tell her after the performance I’d just given.
Anita gently asked, “Can you feel this as well, or is it just me?”
I nodded and stared down at the carpet in corner of the room. The atmosphere and disconnect was hard and I didn’t know how to step away from it.
“Yeah. It’s not nice” soothed Anita. That simple acknowledgment that what was going on wasn’t easy for her either, somehow felt connecting. So often Em would leave me struggling in my own misery and just observe me, untouched and unmoved by my pain or whatever it was these protectors were trying to express. Even on our last session when we terminated she watched me cry and said, “It seems you are experiencing a lot of emotion”… FUCK ME! It felt so isolating and like I was completely alone in that room. Well, I was…so…
Anyway, I looked over to Anita and quietly asked, “What’s wrong?” I didn’t mean “What’s wrong with you”, but “What’s wrong here? What’s going on with us?” – I couldn’t work it out. I was just confused and lost.
Anita used her really warm, soothing voice and gently replied, “I don’t know. I don’t know what started it, or where it came from. I’d like to know, but I’m not sure how we find out. I think I might have felt like I’d let you down somehow…”
“About what?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I haven’t had chance to read the blog you sent me…”
I had sent Anita a blog post the night before the session and I guess there’s a part of me that hoped she’d have read it and perhaps I was a bit angry about it knowing she hadn’t. Although up until that point I didn’t actually know she hadn’t sooooo??? I dunno.
It was the post about the False Adult and it’s interesting to me to track back and see that I had a session where the False Adult stole the show and the next session the teen was going berserk. It’s like the protectors are all out and doing their thing right now and I guess we need to try and understand why.
Anyway, what she said resonated and the teen part felt seen and heard which allowed that part to power down.
A little voice whimpered, “You feel really far away.”
And that’s when Anita really took the cue and joined the dots, “Yeah, I know. That’s what I’m feeling too, and I don’t like it…Have I felt far away over the weekend?”
The little one nodded.
Anita said something about never knowing how much of her stuff to share with me and what is useful and what’s not. She told me that it had been a busy weekend and that she had hardly been near her phone and by the time she saw my message about the blog it was so late, and she needed to go to bed because she was really tired.
She didn’t need to justify herself, or explain, but it did really help that part who felt like she had been ignored and side-lined over the weekend. I sat quietly taking it all in and felt myself thawing a bit.
Anita continued on, “It doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. Distance doesn’t mean not caring. It really doesn’t… does that make sense?”
I shook my head.
That young part was still so upset and now the teen had backed off I was left with that really vulnerable little one that just can’t understand where Anita has gone when I am not with her.
Anita went on to say that, “sometimes people get distracted by things in their lives, but it doesn’t mean that the love isn’t there. It doesn’t mean it’s gone. It doesn’t change. Not if it’s real. It doesn’t change. And it is real.”
This attempt to reassure and reconnect went such a long way. The confirmation that the love isn’t gone was all I needed to hear.
“Why are you so far away?” I whispered.
“Can I come closer?… Do want a hug?…this feels horrible to me too…”
I shuffled over to Anita and snuggled into her and silently cried into her chest. There was so much grief coming up and out. The pain of disconnection is so powerful and it’s really something watching it play out in the therapeutic relationship.
Fortunately, Anita is really patient and really understands what it’s like for the parts. She is so accepting of the angry teen and really wants to give her space to be in the room. She told me that she loves that part just as much as all the others and can really see how traumatised she is and how much care she needs. It’s a new thing for me to hear that the part that is so dismissive and stand-offish has her place and is welcome in the room with Anita. Em ran scared from her when she finally came forward, but Anita wants her to know she’s safe to be out and say what she needs to say.
As I was cuddled into Anita she said, “I think you are so vulnerable to rejection that you see my being distracted as a rejection. And that is the last thing I ever want to do [reject me]. Maybe I am scared of doing that, too, because I know how vulnerable you are to it. The last thing I want to do is hurt you.”
Anita held me closer into her and gently rubbed my back as I sobbed. Part of me felt so foolish for all the drama I’d created in the session because it’s so fucking obvious that Anita is not setting out to hurt me, or ignore me, or abandon me. How much more evidence do the protective parts require?? It’s so frustrating that sometimes I just cannot see her care or feel it or hold onto it when she’s not there.
I keep banging on about object constancy, here on the blog, but this really is it. That’s the problem. The parts get so spooked and are so poised for rejection that they haven’t yet got the memo that Anita really cares. I know she does. She doesn’t just care – she loves me. I feel it… just not all the time. And that’s the kicker.
Sometimes I sit in my room and look at my lamp, or my necklace, or breathe in the smell of my elephant and I can keep a sense of Anita, I can see all that she does for me. I can feel her love and care…and other times it’s just gone. I just get sucked deep into the black hole of the mother wound and it’s total doom.
“I’m scared” whispered the little one. I think it was the seven-year-old part.
Anita mirrored, “you’re scared?…what are you scared of?”
A barely audible response came out, “Something bad happening.”
Anita questioned, “In what way?… Bad between us?… Scared that the relationship might end?”
There was a barely perceptible nod into Anita’s chest.
“Yeah” she considered, and then so carefully and warmly said, “And I guess, inevitably, relationships do end at some point.” I could feel fear rising in my body fearing what she was going to say next, and I held on more tightly to her. Was she about to tell me we’d have to end one day soon? Panic coarsed through my veins. She continued on, “It could be through death… and it’s always sad when relationships do end… but I have no intentions of not seeing you. I really don’t! I guess none of us really know what life is going to throw at us…does this make sense?…but I have no intentions of going anywhere.”
By this point I was properly sobbing and moaned “It’s just really bad timing”. And it is. It was coming up to the anniversary of my dad dying, and then of course, my family disowning me as a result of what happened, and then my best friend from primary school is terminally ill and has very little time left, and one of my wife’s colleagues had just died of COVID over that preceding weekend despite being young and double vaccinated…and it just felt like everything was funnelling into a horribly scary place and the terror of losing A was huge.
Anita acknowledged that there’s a lot of loss around for me at the moment and at this time of year and reiterated that she wasn’t going anywhere and she said she understands my fear. She then told me I’m the only client she sees without a screen and that she does everything she can to keep herself safe (this in relation to the fear about COVID). I am amazed that she does this for me, then. I am astounded, really, that she is so able to see my need and knows just how triggering distance is for me and so has decided to work with me how I need and keep touch and close physical proximity as part of our work. I am so grateful to her for this.
“I’m sorry” I groaned.
I felt so stupid for how I had behaved. Everyday Anita shows me just how committed to our work she is and yet so often I get triggered and freak out. I guess it is part of the process and it’s really good that these parts are now able to express themselves freely and get the attention and care they need.
Anita responded with, “You don’t have to be sorry. I think it’s important it happens here. Because everything that happens with us is, all the time, helping you to see that it is ok. That’s what we’re doing. It’s like you said the other day, it’s like trying to reconfigure the computer. So, it really is ok. It’s just the protector going by what it’s learnt. It might not feel ok for you, but it really is for me. How I feel about you is not going to change.”
I cuddled further into Anita, content now that everything was ok. My body relaxed and I closed my eyes and focused in on the steady beat of her heart.
“I love you” I murmured.
“I love you too, I really do.” She replied.
The remaining time of the session was just holding and calming and soothing and then it was time to go. I felt utterly knackered once I got home! The emotional marathons are hard work and take their toll and so I climbed into bed for an hour when I made it home.
The next session (Friday) was different again and needs its own post for different reasons – there was no teen or protectors there – so I’ll leapfrog it and go to last Monday which was basically a re-run of the session I’ve just written here! FFS! WTF is happening?!!
Again, I found myself at a complete stand off with Anita. Just before the session I had messaged my best-friend and told her not to let me head into rupture zone this coming week. I could almost feel it bubbling under and was terrified that I would go into session and create a rupture that didn’t need to happen.
I sat down and everything felt really wrong. Something had happened that morning that had triggered me around my dad’s anniversary, and I just felt really shaky. Anita listened carefully but I just couldn’t really convey what I was feeling. It was all really messy. I started to disappear inside myself and once again became frozen staring into the corner of the room.
Within a minute Anita asked me if I wanted her to come closer, but already the protectors were up and alert and said, “No.” I knew from there on out I was in for a rough ride because that part was up and proving that she didn’t need anyone.
When Anita asked me what I was thinking, I told her I wanted to go home. Anita replied that I could go home because I am free to do what I want with her, but that she didn’t want me to go home. I could feel myself drifting further and further away. Everything felt so bad inside.
Anita kept gently trying to find her way in, she asked me if I’d like to read a story – I just shook my head. The little ones would have loved to have read stories together but the protector was having none of it. At one point Anita asked what I needed from her and I snapped at her that I just wanted her to, “Leave me alone.” I don’t know why I was so dismissive or rude – it’s really really not like me but like I say it just didn’t feel ok.
I sat pickled in shame and frozen in that disconnected agony again. After a little while Anita said something that completely cut through to my core and disarmed the protector in one sentence, “It’s hard for a rabbit to sit here and watch while you’re in so much pain – when all I want to do is take it away” she said, referencing the book that I gave her for our one-year therapy anniversary, ‘The Rabbit Listened’. When things feel bad, she sometimes sends me emojis or pictures of rabbits – because in the story it is the rabbit that sits patiently with the character as he cycles through all the negative emotions and waits with him and never leaves him. Anita has always been my rabbit from the beginning.
Note to self: Anita is the good guy in this!
I smiled inside and reached out to hold her hand, and then moved in for a cuddle and started to cry and Anita just held me to her and let me cry it out. Has anyone noticed how much I seem to cry these days?!
Over the rest of the session, we spoke a lot about the protectors and their role. At one point I asked Anita if that part of me, that is so horrible and pushes her away makes her want to go away. She emphatically replied that this was not the case at all and said that we all have these parts. She knows what it’s like to feel trapped and angry and threatened and attacked and have parts that try and sabotage relationships. She says it comes from trauma and the more trauma we have the louder those protectors can be. It’s needed to be like that to survive.
Then she went on to say, “Even though it’s really hard for them to engage with me, I have an awful lot of empathy for them. They’re so troubled and I get it. It doesn’t mean I can’t love them as much as I do the rest of you.” She explained that she knows that they come up because they are scared: scared of being too much, scared of being abandoned and rejected, scared of everything going wrong between us, scared of being hurt – and hopefully one day they’ll learn that she’s staying.
We had such a productive conversation in the end and the cuddles were very needed. I do feel like I am putting myself through the emotional wringer at the moment. Therapy is seriously hard work isn’t it?! Despite all this, I really feel like we are doing important work and bit by bit this repetitive, painstaking work with the various parts is somehow rewriting the narrative I had forged early on in life and reconfirmed in the therapy with Em.
I really feel like I landed on my feet finding Anita. I know this kind of therapy isn’t for everyone and is probably quite a departure from what a lot of therapists do, but it’s what I need and what works for me. And after years of being left out in the emotional wasteland with Em it feels so good to be brought in out the cold and be cared for by Anita. Her demonstrating that I am lovable is starting to make me believe it and I am far more compassionate towards myself as a result which has to be good thing.
Last time I posted here I alluded to a ‘massive thing’ that Anita had told me towards the end of our first session back after the break. The ‘thing’ had really helped me feel loads better about myself and about how I had experienced the therapy (and end of it!) with Em.
Before this revelation I had been worrying about being too much and Anita being fed up of me – even though she’d done absolutely nothing to indicate this. During the break I was panicked that she would come back from the holiday and like Em (after our Christmas break 2019) everything would go down the toilet and we’d end up terminating because I was ‘too much’. I worried that Anita would have had a break from me and realise that working with me is a massive drain and she’d want to get away from my smothering her or sucking the lifeblood out of her ‘like a tick’.
Rational Adult knows I’ve actually got more chance of winning the lottery than Anita doing this to me (my god that’s a big statement on trust isn’t it?!) but the young parts who have been so badly hurt by the way Em ended things still worry that something bad will happen and they need a lot of reassurance…which btw Anita is always happy to give.
I’d spent the entire session cuddled into Anita and it was so grounding and soothing. However, I find this sense of safety comes (and goes) in waves and even when I am perfectly safe my brain and body will wander and flip into panic. This is usually when another part will make its fears and doubts known. It must be like Groundhog Day for Anita repeatedly reassuring the various young parts that we are ‘still ok’ and she’s ‘not going anywhere’ but she doesn’t seem to get frustrated or annoyed.
When the little one asked “Are you fed up with me?” She emphatically told me that this was not the case at all, that I was “easy to love”, and that I am not hard work or a problem which is what I was made to feel with Em. It was lovely to hear. Anita was quiet for a moment, I guess pondering whether she was going to tell me what came next.
Anita has been nothing but supportive of me since coming to her and has never once made me feel like what happened with Em was my fault. She has been clear that what happened was harmful and has done her very best to help me get over the trauma of it and validated my experience saying that both her and her supervisor believe I have grounds to make a complaint to her governing body.
In the back of my mind, though, there’s always been a little bit of me that wonders whether it was me, you know? Like maybe if I’d just done x, or said y, or not got so upset when she called me a ‘tick’…perhaps it’s me and my trauma that did this and maybe Em is a good therapist and I’m the useless client that can’t heal and is resistant. Maybe I overreacted. Maybe she handled things as they should have been handled… ugh.
Last year when Em and I terminated I think I very loosely mentioned ‘something I have learnt about her that might explain why she was not firing on all cylinders and could have impacted her’ but went no further with it at the time here. But given I am talking about ‘massive things’ I think I’ll say what that was about- this is anonymous and so it won’t impact her but I think it’s important that people know that this kind of thing happens…and us clients usually have no idea about it.
Last year my wife was working closely with a Clinical Psychologist in the NHS in our area as part of a multidisciplinary working team supporting a client. She’d become quite friendly with this CP and had got to chatting about their own various lives over lunches – you know, like you do with friends. My wife was talking about me (thanks wife!) and mentioned that I had been in therapy for a really long time but seemed to be really unhappy and she felt almost like therapy wasn’t helping, just hurting me. The CP said something along the lines of ‘people with complex trauma can need years of therapy and this is really common’ trying to put my wife’s mind at rest, I think. My wife then said something like “Her and Em have been working together on and off since 2012 – they met in x (where the CP works)”.
Apparently at this the CPs face dropped and she looked really concerned. My wife asked what was wrong. And that’s when the CP said, “I don’t know what to say. I really, really shouldn’t be telling you this, but it’s your wife and you say she’s in a really bad place with her therapist. Is that ‘Em X’ she works with?” My wife confirmed it was.
The CP then told her that other therapists in the NHS MH trust had raised concerns about Em and she had been ‘asked to leave’. Now we all know how underfunded and short-staffed NHS mental health services are, don’t we? I mean it took three years on a waiting list for me to get psychotherapy on the NHS. So to give a senior CP her marching orders is quite something.
Em wasn’t ‘sacked’ the NHS rarely do this. They just move the problems around. I know Em is now working in an MH trust in a neighbouring county from some Google sleuth work at the time. Of course, I know now that all of this was going on in the six months before we terminated. I imagine the stress that would have put her under would have been immense. It’s not justifying what happened, but it does give me and insight into her as well as how other professionals perceive her practice.
I feel sorry for all the clients that have suffered – probably like me. I guess in the NHS it’s not quite so bad because therapy is time-limited and so perhaps the damage is not quite so massive. The 16 months work I did with her in the NHS did enough to awaken all my attachment shit and lead me deep back into anorexia…which in hindsight clearly shows that things weren’t great!
Anyway, like I said, that information helped me a bit at the time of termination to see that maybe it wasn’t ALL my fault. Even with that, though, it’s hard to make it stick inside. Anita told me, last week, that she had been speaking to a friend/colleague (who she really rates and admires) recently who knows Em and her husband (also a therapist) well from living and working in the same town and crossing paths regularly in various working capacities. Apparently, this therapist is really horrified by how both Em and her husband conduct themselves and said that she would never in a million years refer a client to either of them because ‘they are horrible people’. She’s also certain that Em and her husband work as each other’s clinical supervisors……like what could possibly go wrong there?! No conflict of interest whatsoever, right?!
I know it sounds really gossipy, and probably not very professional for A and her friend to have that conversation in the first place – but I am sure people do it. Even in my line of work there are people I would recommend and those I DEFINITELY wouldn’t. Therapists know by reputation, through personal interactions, and through people like us who come through their door having experienced harm who they rate and who they wouldn’t.
I am glad Anita told me about this conversation – whether she was right to do it or not – because it really validated my experience again of what happened with Em not being my fault. I know Anita believes me when I tell her the things I do about how things were with Em, but to have this experience of Em corroborated by not just Anita’s friend but also the CP in the NHS might just now really start to help me let that self-hating, self-blaming, shaming narrative go.
I loved Em (and still do love her) but she really did a lot of damage and it wasn’t (all) my fault…
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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