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.
It’s been a few weeks since I last posted. Life has been just as hectic as ever this end. It’s all been pretty same same…where same same is high anxiety, stress, and general survival – holding it together with rubber bands and chewing gum!
Therapy over this time has been fine, there’s nothing really ‘big’ or ‘blogworthy’ I can think of to talk about hence the fact that I haven’t posted in a while…and add to the fact it’s the school holidays and we’ve had family visiting, there hasn’t been much available free time to sit and type.
Anita and I have been getting down to work and it’s been good. It’s felt really comfortable in so much as no matter what comes up, we can get through it and process together. I’ve had lots of really strong somatic responses to the stuff we’ve been talking about – I am so over pins and needles in my feet and cramp in my legs! When I am with Anita, I feel confident that she cares and that I am safe with her and that’s a big part of the work – it feels safe to feel the feelings with her.
I wish I still kept notes from my sessions because I literally have no idea what’s gone on in the last few weeks – the specifics escape me almost immediately after a session unless there’s something very important or memorable happened. Instead, what I tend to be left with is a feeling of how things are/have been…and that feeling is that it’s ‘fine’ or ‘good’ even if the content has been ‘hard’ or ‘upsetting’.
I think I had hit a bit of a complacent patch “Ha! I’ve mastered this therapy business.” Because the time between sessions has been ok (even if life is really tough) and it’s felt like two sessions a week has been just the right amount of holding and containment to cope with what the world throws at me…which btw seems to be giant dollops of horse shit a lot of the time!
So…good…it’s been manageable…
It’s not so good, then, when that routine gets thrown out the window at short notice.
It’s a fucking great disaster when that happens! That’s when I realise that things are hanging by a thread and not quite as good as I think…or…I guess a different way of looking at it, is that that my maintenance plan works but is very necessary to keep things going.
Anita and I have had some largely ‘adult’ sessions recently, where I have talked about some really big things that required a lot of trust to bring to the room – one of these sessions was last Thursday. Yeah, Thursday, not Friday. Anita had to reschedule my Friday session last week which was ok (only a little internal wobble!) but I was conscious that it felt longer until Monday. I knew I would cope but would be ready for the Monday session when it arrived.
Over the weekend the young parts started to move in after the string sessions with them being largely absent. I could really feel that little part missing A and wanting to be close to her. Rather than ignore that little voice inside, on Sunday evening I text Anita and asked if we could read stories in our Monday session. I felt really small that evening and like I could just use a session where we would connect and cuddle and hear some of the little one’s concerns. I needed a bit of a break from the hard work I had been doing in previous sessions and to give those child parts space so that they didn’t creep out into the week between sessions and hijack me when the attachment stuff got really activated.
I went to bed early on Sunday night, I felt really tired and a bit hormonal and figured the sooner I went to bed the sooner I’d get to therapy and put some of the things that were bothering me down for a while.
I woke up at 10:20pm and glanced at my phone. There was a message from A. I assumed it would be a message to say that we could read stories and she’d see me in the morning.
It took a few seconds to process what was there before my heart sank and that internal wailing from the youngest parts kicked in.
I responded to her message about cancelling the session and then turned over in bed and cried… a lot. Of course, Anita can’t help getting sick. It’s just one of those things that happen. It just felt really bad timing. Adult me gets it – those young parts who were so ready for a story did not.
I hardly slept on Sunday night, my anxiety sky-rocketed and every small sound in the house set my system jangling. On Monday morning I asked my wife if she might be around on Wednesday morning so I could get to session, but she is in meetings and has some big work stuff on this week that was already causing her/us stress and so she wouldn’t be available.
I’ve mentioned before that it’s been a real nightmare these last few months with my wife’s job, anyway, and it’s all coming to a head at the moment so I really, really needed to retreat into that calm space with A this week as I am freaking out inside. Sometimes it just feels like the universe conspires against me!
I’m still not sure if I can get to Friday’s session this week, and next week looks impossible, too. It’s a nightmare trying to rope in favours for childcare over the summer holidays in order to get to sessions, and whilst I’ve done reasonably well over this break it’s just looking really unlikely that I’ll get to see Anita face to face between now and school returning.
I can, of course, do online sessions which are better than nothing, but are far from ideal especially when my body is off its tits and just won’t calm down and the young parts are really activated.
I feel physically sick from the anxiety I am feeling this week. It’s so annoying because I had been doing well, even though things felt scary and difficult…but now, well, jeez it’s hideous. I think some of it is tied to my cycle too – I feel paranoid about bad things happening when I have PMS and this is really heightened this month…although I think I have mentally adopted the brace position until I know the lay of the land with my wife’s job.
I don’t really have anything much more to say – I guess I just needed to let off steam about this somewhere where people will understand how big a deal not getting to therapy and last minute disruptions are.
A few weeks ago, I was really struggling with the sense of Anita being out there somewhere, still. It seems to come in waves. The protectors had been doing their thing and then the really vulnerable stuff from the young parts had been really activated and I just felt really at sea outside the sessions because so much was going on inside them!
I bang on so much here about the sense of object constancy (or lack of it!) and I was right in the thick of that horrible stuff again – panicking that something had gone wrong, or something had changed between Anita and I, that she was fed up or backing away…all that wonderfully destabilising shite! Although there was absolutely no evidence of this in the sessions AT ALL, because I was so sensitive and hypervigilant, I was looking for evidence of things going wrong. This was especially apparent and troubling me over the weekends which is always just the very best time for having a worry overload about therapy… you know, when the therapist ISN’T THERE!
Anita and I have a really great therapeutic relationship and I feel so blessed to have found her. It’s been incredible to have this amazing connection and to experience so much healing with my therapist – especially after what happened with Em. As I’ve said a lot, my relationship with A is not straightforward or plain sailing. It is not ‘easy’ being in the therapy. I don’t go in and relax and chat – we do A LOT of work both in the room and out of it and A LOT of my stuff gets triggered in the relationship with Anita. It’s certainly not pretty, but it is authentic and stripped back and it is really working with the wounding in a meaningful and productive way.
Anyway, you know what it’s like when you are stressed out and panicking about things going wrong in therapy. I trust Anita implicitly, but there are certainly parts that are poised looking for signs of abandonment and rejection. I figure this time I’ll get out first before being pushed away and having my vulnerable parts annihilated like what happened with Em. I said at the very beginning when I met Anita that she’d have her work cut out for her because she’d be tested so much more because of the breakdown of the therapy with Em. She didn’t seem in the least bit fazed and understood that my ‘antenna’ (her word) would be very active.
I posted a picture on one of my recent posts about runners
…and after what happened with Em my runners are race fit, wearing spikes, and waiting for the starting gun. Honestly, they’re set for a world record run if they need to go! How funny would it be to line up all our runners together in a mini ‘Therapy Goers Olympics’…It’d be the saddest competition ever but my goodness can you imagine the races?!
*I’m really sorry…this post, and my brain, is all over the shop.
I think the feeling of being distant from A outside the sessions was what was triggering the protectors in sessions at that time. It’s really hard to explain what exactly it was that was wrong. If you were to look through my message exchanges between A and I most people wouldn’t see anything amiss. I just felt like something was wrong. A is usually so responsive and yet she seemed to have backed away somehow. She felt distant and I didn’t know what to do.
I didn’t say anything when I first felt it because I know that I am so fucking sensitive to small changes and I also realise that A has her life and does her very best where I am concerned. I know she’s not big on using her phone and so if she doesn’t respond to me then it’s not her ignoring me, she is probably just outside with her phone away from her. So… I just sat with it, trying to remember all the evidence that things are actually fine with us. And I (adult) know they are fine… but it’s not the adult that sees and feels these minute differences in communication and when things start to get stirred up my body goes into a state of high alert and panic.
On her break in June (ugh) I felt really disconnected and was upset that in the first week she had seemed AWOL and I worried that something was up. But then she sent me a bunch of lovely photographs halfway through the holiday and was much more ‘there’ in the second week so it sort of settled stuff down. When she came back, she told me that her phone had run out of charge in the first week and as she’d been wild camping there was no power – so I do get it…well adult me does!
So, the other week I wanted to get a handle on myself rather than spiralling off thinking that something bad was afoot. But then a couple of weekends felt ‘off’ and my spidey senses were so alerted that I just couldn’t get over myself. I’d had a terrible week anyway, things have been really bad for my wife with work and she’d been away working most of the week. It was the same week where I had had the extra session (that I only just recently logged in my brain – what a fucking fool I am!) and coincided with the anniversary of my dad’s death.
Basically, I was a complete emotional mess, and my system was melting down (not that dissimilar to how things are now, actually!). The week was topped off with a really crap interaction with my mum that had exacerbated my stress and just left me feeling overwhelmed, unseen, and unsupported. I had sent Anita a text on the Friday afternoon where I said something about hoping she was still holding onto the invisible string…and she didn’t respond. On Sunday I sent her an ‘I miss you’ gif and still no response.
“OH GOD. WHAT HAS HAPPENED? WHAT HAVE I DONE WRONG????”
Anita is usually so good at replying to that kind of message but there was radio silence.
In the normal run of things, I probably would have been ok with no response. As I said a minute ago, I get she has a life, and isn’t always by her phone – but it just felt really off. You know when your gut just ‘knows’ things aren’t quite right but you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is? Well, it was that. I just felt something was off.
Usually, if we’ve not had much/any contact between sessions then A will send me a message the night before saying something like, “looking forward to seeing you tomorrow” but again there was nothing on this particular weekend and because there was so much already not right in my day-to-day life my brain started to freak out and everything started to spiral. I felt sick to my core… “here we go again” I thought and braced for inevitable rejection.
By Monday morning I was terrified that I was going to walk into something terrible and convinced myself that it was better to stay away then go in and be rejected in some way. My runners were warmed up and ready to race…away.
I sent a stressed-out message first thing:
A, I feel really anxious and like something is very wrong – or that I have done something wrong. I couldn’t get to sleep for ages last night and when I did there were nightmares again. I’m scared I am not going to be able to connect because the protectors are so out, and I can’t bear the thought of it feeling worse than it already does. I’m wondering whether I should just stay home and give us both a break today – which is probably just running away but it all feels too much, and I don’t know how to make it better.
Anita responded warmly and said that from her side nothing was wrong, that she’d had a busy weekend, and that she thought that if I didn’t come that it might actually feed the protectors and that she was really like to see me.
I could see her point, but I also had that enormous feeling of dread in my stomach and didn’t want to go and it be awful. Anita’s message was clear – things were ok with her…but I was not Ok. My need for connection felt enormous and overwhelming and I feared that if the protectors kept me ‘safely’ disconnected from A it would lead to some really bad dissociation. But I decided I needed to go. I didn’t want this feeling of rupture to increase. I feared being abandoned and yet if I didn’t go I would be stopping myself from having any chance of getting what I needed.
Anita is so familiar with my inner battle and comments on it frequently…neither one of us is new to this push and pull dance that goes on for me. So I got in the car and drove to session. The closer I got the more anxious I felt.
I arrived at the session feeling sick, like I would actually puke, and so nervous I was actually trembling. Anita opened the door, sometimes I just walk in and barely look at her, but that morning I, somehow, managed to make fleeting eye contact.
She was not scary.
She was Anita.
Nothing had changed.
I moved towards her, she opened her arms and we hugged on the doorstep. I find that when I do that, it often helps to keep the protectors at bay. I needed to connect straight off. I didn’t want to hide from A, I wanted to be able to get to the bottom of things and make it feel better. I wanted to let her in not run away.
In a really soft, gentle voice, Anita said “I can feel you’re really struggling” as she held me to her. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. We hugged for a few seconds and then I pulled away and went to the therapy room. As I sat down and felt completely overwhelmed despite the hug literally twenty seconds previously. Anita gently said, “I am here. I know it doesn’t feel like it sometimes but I am.” She was sitting beside me, but I couldn’t look at her. I felt so vulnerable and overwhelmed.
I immediately asked for another hug as I knew I was going to disappear and that there was a very small window before it could all go to shit. I’m familiar enough with myself now to know that there’s not much time to circumnavigate the protectors coming online and I really didn’t want to be imprisoned by them and unable to get to A that day.
(Yes, I am totally aware of how much UNNECESSARY drama there is! – chill your tits RB!!)
Anita opened her arms and told me to “come here” she said. I shuffled across the sofa and snuggled in close to her I could barely breathe. I felt like I was hyperventilating and struggled to catch my breath – I felt so panicked. It’s almost like being that close to her, being held safely by her, allows all the stuff I have been holding to finally come out and the strength of the overwhelm is right there in those moments. It’s like a dam bursting, but kind of in a good way. It’s a relief to let it out even if it is hugely draining.
“I can feel you’re really shaky,” Anita soothed and held me tighter to her. I just lay there in her arms trying to ground and regroup and focus in on her steady breathing and slow, regular heartbeat. I can never get over how big a physical response to emotional upset I experience now. All those years of being numb or dissociated and now it’s like everything goes wild – I feel ALL THE FEELINGS with Anita. I am still not great letting it all out by myself: I get the panic and the anxiety and the tension and shaking at home, but the tears only come when I am safe with A and it is the tears that really need to come.
It can take quite a long time before I am able to actually talk when this sort of thing happens because my system takes a while to settle and regulate. I really, really need that co-regulation and proximity to Anita. She is so patient and just allows whatever is there to come. I was crying and hanging onto her like my life depended on it when she softly said, “I so wish I could take all this away from you…It absolutely cripples you doesn’t it?”
“I don’t feel very good.” I murmured.
“What can I do to help?” Anita wondered.
What more could she do in that moment? Not a lot. She was already holding me, trying to get me to a place where I felt safe and Ok…my struggle wasn’t about what was happening in the room. It was about my perception of what was/wasn’t happening anymore out of it. Somehow, I was going to have to tell her that I had got the sense that something was wrong because our interactions outside the room seemed to have changed and I needed to know if I had done something wrong and basically if I was about to get some kind of boundary talk.
Anita started talking. And to my complete surprise, she knew immediately that the state I was in was about was about the messages – or lack of them. I hadn’t said a word. And that’s why I love her. She’s so intuitive and attuned. Em would never have joined the dots on this, and if I had explained she would have shamed me and put me in my place…closed ranks, reasserted the boundaries, told me that it was my own fault, and I would have felt even worse than I already did.
Fortunately, Anita is not Em. She began by telling me that because of her dyslexia it takes her quite a while to formulate messages in text and that it’s worse at weekends because she has less time and needs to be on her own to think about what she needs to say. She said that when she doesn’t reply to me it’s not that she can’t be bothered, in fact, she said, “It’s the exact opposite. I don’t want to get it wrong. I don’t want to send the wrong emoji or message and it look like I don’t care. If anything, it’s that I care too much and I don’t want to hurt you by getting it wrong. My little ones get so overwhelmed that sometimes they run away.”
She explained that she’s so aware of how hurt I have been by other people that it’s the last thing she wants to do. She said that sometimes parts of her get triggered around writing, not necessarily to me, but admin stuff that might need doing and then they need, “Escape time”.
It was all going so well, up to that point. I could understand what she was saying. Her honesty about what happens, and her process was valuable. But the word “escape” sent fear through my system. Does she need to escape from me? Am I too much for her?
I had been quietly cuddling into A but I think I must have started to shake again, “What are you thinking” Anita asked. I took a deep breath and whispered, “I don’t want you to feel like you need to escape from me”.
Anita didn’t miss a beat and emphatically replied, “I don’t want to escape from you! It’s an escape from the parts of me that really struggle…escaping from needing to get it right…escaping from me! It’s me… it’s not you. It’s not your fault. You’re not too demanding. You don’t ask too much of me…I hope this makes sense…”
At this point I was sobbing fat tears into her chest. I so needed to hear that. There would have been a time where I would have just sat with that word, ‘escape’ tumbling round in my brain, doing so much damage, because I would have feared bringing it up only to have my thinking confirmed: I am too much and she wants to get away form me. With Anita, I still get triggered (!!!) – like I said earlier – but somehow, I feel like I can tell her what’s up. I’m confident enough in us, her, the relationship to be able to tell when things feel bad, and she so quickly puts things right.
“I hope you’re hearing what I am trying to say.” She soothed. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for you as much as I’d like to have been there for you this weekend. And it’s not because you are too demanding because you’re really not…” and she went on to tell me some things about her weekend and just how hectic it had all been and how she’d been overthinking a reply and a GIF to send me but couldn’t find exactly the right one and then how her phone had actually died again.
She reiterated how she really didn’t want to hurt me by not responding well enough. “I care too much for it not to feel like I really care. I want to show you that I really care. I don’t want to get it wrong. Then I don’t do anything…which is worse. Then I think I’ll do it later when I have the time…and…but it’s not that you’re too much.” The authenticity in her voice was so moving. It was so connecting and so healing and such a contrast of what I have been used to. “I really, really do care” Anita went on, “And maybe I should just put that?… I’m sorry.”
My young parts were really able hear what she was saying it was enough to settle them and my adult came back online (finally!). I didn’t say anything and continued to listen as she spoke about her struggle with writing being one of her flaws and a fault – we’ve spoken about it before a bit, and how this internalised pressure really had come out for her recently – not because of me. I realised just how much of a challenge it feels to her and I realised that it can’t be easy especially as I am an English teacher.
It was at that point I decided to tell her that my English teacher is not in a relationship with her and that I wanted her to know I don’t judge her messages in that way. I also explained that I felt really sad that she felt like she was inadequate or flawed because she absolutely isn’t. I do think this a is a legacy of the education system for dyslexic people – if not now, certainly in the past where there was very little understanding or support for dyslexic people.
More heartfelt words came from Anita. The poor woman was completely covered in my tears by then! “I’m scared of hurting you if I get the words wrong. I don’t want you to hear negative. And with trauma that’s what can happen. I am scared that I could hurt you and it’s the last thing I would want to do. When we are here in the room – like just now – you heard the word ‘escape’ and what you heard wasn’t what I had meant- but when we are together, we can talk it through…I really do care about you. I really, really do. You mean so much to me. And the last thing I’d want to do is hurt you. And I hear what you are saying, it doesn’t matter what I send, just send something.”
Anita said that she knew in the past I had told her that an emoji would be enough just to maintain the connection but somehow, she hadn’t let it sink in because she feels that sometimes it isn’t enough.
“It’s like you are dead.” I groaned. “Even a picture of the dog helps when it’s like that.”
Anita took it all on board and we agreed what we would do going forward.
It was a massive session – really huge. The entirety of that session happened in a cuddle and that feels really important, too. Feeling physically safe and held really helps me say what I need. I was so dysregulated to begin with but over time that closeness and proximity helps me get back into my window of tolerance.
I felt like I had run a marathon in that hour, but it was so helpful. The honestly and vulnerability on both sides was so connecting. The level of emotional intimacy we have now absolutely stuns me sometimes, but it’s really teaching me so much. It’s ok to be vulnerable, and wounded, and all the things that seemed so dangerous and shameful in the past. The fact that Anita models this behaviour is so massive for me. It’s such a contrast from the blank screen of Em – I mean it their approaches really are like chalk and cheese – but I find having someone tell me what’s going on for them, explaining their feelings, rather than leaving me doing guess work so helpful. I feel like Anita and I genuinely have something really special.
Since then, things have been great so far as our communications outside sessions has gone. We don’t have big, long wordy, messages – we never have (except when there’s been a big rupture). Mostly it’s photos of nature or GIFs that we send but it’s really helpful to me. A couple of weeks ago, though, things took a desperate nosedive. Lots has been going on here and I have been right up to my limit with coping. Anita and I hadn’t had contact since the Monday session where we’d read a new story book and we’d had a joke about it. When Anita sent me a message on the Thursday evening telling me she was looking forward to seeing me the next day I just crumbled. I was so ready to see her the next day.
Here is the thread of messages. It was bad but Anita in her magic really settled things.
Can you see why I love her?
This last weekend she reached out knowing I was going to the hospice to visit my friend to tell me she was thinking of me. I text her when I got out saying it had been really hard and she told me she to drive home safe, that she was thinking of me and sending love. The care she exhibits means such a lot. I have loads to write about but…crikey…this is epically long! Sorry! I’ll come back in another post.
I guess what all this post demonstrates is how important finding a good fit in therapy is. Finding the right therapist for you is essential. Everyone is different and needs different things. Some people would hate to work the way Anita and I do, and would prefer the detached, cooler approach of Em. But that didn’t work for me. I’ve seen a lot of therapists in my time, and I can hand on heart say, I wish I had met Anita years ago…and never crossed paths with Em! Because for me, it’s all about the relationship…and this relationship is so healing for me.
I saw this – and really it says it all. I don’t feel alone anymore, and my child parts don’t either.
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.