I think I broke my psychologist.
Psychologist J once said he pictured us in a boat working together to navigate a storm. This made no sense to me because the dissociation I experience in sessions usually renders me completely isolated in fog and rain so heavy I can barely make sense of the shape in front of me much less some safe distant shore.
I prefer to think of the therapist as a lighthouse fixed to the land of the sane far away from the demons of the deep. My job is just to keep looking for the light and heading that way.
On Monday a storm was brewing inside as I drove to my appointment. It’s as though I was hit with a tsunami as soon as I sat in his office, so sudden and so intense was the confusion. When the session ended, I was so dissociated and exhausted that I couldn’t make any useful notes. All I have are some bits of shipwreck: a few images in my head, a couple of sentences exchanged, some recollection of the emotional waves and the rest is a mystery.
I woke up the next morning with a horrible shame hangover and the feeling I had survived a beating I’d forgotten about. I knew my body was fine and yet my bones felt grey and cold and it seemed odd I couldn’t see bruises and blood.
How did everything go so pear-shaped? I look at the pieces I have from that session and I feel the grasping-at-the-wind sensation I get when I ask my son how his day went at childcare. The car ride home from childcare usually involves trying to dredge some information out of him but he’s always far too busy counting the bumps on his 3 crackers (“what’s 3 times 15 mum?”) and yelling at traffic lights that dare to go red to answer my questions about who he played with or what he ate. But sometimes I get a snippet of information which I combine with what the carer said about his emotional state and try to match it to a picture from the Childcare app to get a feel for his day.
It was bad, though. I know that. Psychologist J asked me where I wanted him to sit and I was already speechless and looking at the ceiling. But this time I wasn’t sure who I was either. Was I an adult? A child? The inner critic? I think he tried sitting in his usual place. I know he spent some time standing near the door. At another point he was sitting at his desk. He was also talking and asking me questions.
I remember hearing the questions but not understanding how to answer any of them.
“Where do you want me to sit?” Far away. I don’t want you or I to have bodies.
“Can you take a look around the room?” What I see doesn’t make any sense.
“Do you know where you are?” Do I know where I am? I don’t know. I think so but also I don’t think so. I don’t know what this place is called.
“Do you know why you are here?” No. I have no idea. What do I do here?
“Do you know who I am?” I think so and yet I don’t think so. I think I know your name and yet I don’t know it right now.
“Are you having a memory?” I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m in the past and yet I know things are bad. I know something is wrong with my brain right now. I feel frozen and confused. Maybe I should nod yes so that he knows I can hear him and that I’m not ok. But maybe I shouldn’t because it would be a lie because this isn’t a memory is it? Maybe it is. I don’t know.
It went on like that for some time. Or maybe it didn’t. I can’t recall. I think he sat down at his desk after saying “I have to sit somewhere.” But my next memory is that he went to sit to the right of me and I must have reacted quite strongly because he said “Whoa! Ok no not there.” I think as I started to cry he also said, “I want to help you but I need you to help me help you.”
For some reason he moved to the left of me but he was positioned in a way that I hate, with his body directed at me. This just intensified the flashback. I wanted him to move further to the left but was powerless to say so.
“Can you maybe just point a finger. Point a finger where you want me to sit.” No I can’t. I’m totally unable to move.
“Can you feel an urge in your body. If you can feel an urge, try to do it.” I know this was his attempt to do the kind of therapy I’d been doing with Dr K but he was doing it wrong. I had an urge to swing my left arm out and punch him out of the way, that’s always the urge, to swipe at an attacker on the left of me, but I was too far in the memory to act on the urge and was just in a re-enactment of being frozen. After all, a 3 year old can’t fight off an adult.
At that point, I really started to panic. When I’m stuck in a memory of being frozen because I can’t escape an attack and I hear a potential rescuer tell me they can’t help me, usually despair and horror escalate to the point that I start hurting myself by digging my nails into my hands as hard as I can to block out the feelings.
BUT…today something new happened. Today the inner critic who is usually the part that puts the rest of me into these dissociated states, suddenly popped into my head and said, “Ok I’ll do this. Just hand it over to me. I’ll move the finger”. And then, I tried as best as I could to block out whatever Psychologist J was saying and concentrated on allowing the inner critic to have access to the body. It was a strange strange feeling, almost like how it feels to wake from a deep sleep, or how you might see in a Sci-Fi movie when a character is morphing from a person into an animal. The very frozen child state kind of slowly transitioned to a different part of me. Bit by bit I could feel myself changing into a different person. (The term for this is “switching”). Finally, the inner critic was awake and I moved my finger to point to the far left of me. Psychologist J immediately saw the gesture and moved. As I blinked, slowly looked around the room and shook off the last of the ice and stiffness, he said
“I don’t think I’m being very useful to you at all today. I think I’m making things worse and have been for some time now.”
WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?
Here again lots of the conversation is lost to me. He said something which he’s said before about how people find when they see a therapist two times a week it can speed things up and something about how him being male makes things harder for me. I think that’s when I started to cry again because he said something that sounded like he thought I should see someone else. Or maybe that’s when I rolled my eyes. At some point I did roll my eyes at him and he chuckled “Shut the fuck up, J” which was almost precisely what I was thinking. There was some talk about what he meant, that he is worried about me and that he is fond of me and wants me to have the best help and if there is someone who can help me better he would always be happy for me to see them instead. But he also said that he wants to be the one to help me and that he wasn’t suggesting I stop coming to therapy. It was all so confusing.
I’ve actually accused him in the past of making me feel worse. I’ve complained that therapy isn’t feeling healing. But when he says it too it feels scary to be right. I know I said the “someone else” for me is Dr K but she has gone so what are we supposed to do.
There was a point where I found my voice again, well the inner critic because that’s who was present. I was speaking about myself in third person as I do when the inner critic is in the driver’s seat. He was talking and then I think I cut him off and what I said must have come out really harshly and he got almost angry. He raised his hand and said “Wait a minute can I just talk?” His irritation shocked me into silence.
“Instead of just telling me what I’m doing wrong, why don’t you tell me what I can do to help?” And I started crying saying very dramatically “I’m just trying to tell you what happened for me just now! I’m just trying to tell you how I feel!” Maybe this is the point he said the thing about not being very useful to me. I can’t tell. So often my memories of conversations are circular or jumbled.
I don’t even remember how the session ended. I know that things got better. He spoke to this part of me as though it wasn’t the usual me; he was careful not to call me by my name and spoke about me in third person too. I remember him saying “But you’re a protector!” I must have been saying something awful about myself. He was saying something about how he felt like this part of me almost has the inside scoop on what was going on for all the parts of me. I disagree but it’s 2 days too late to disagree. He was saying something about wanting to come to this part of me for help, kind of like approaching the president of an organisation or something. I wish I could remember. It felt important at the time. And I think I nodded and said yes to whatever it was he said. Hmmm, whatever did I agree to?
Later in the afternoon I started to piece together how I had felt before the session, how the pressure of dealing with the trauma memories on top of things going on in my life currently was giving me pain all over and I had an overwhelming urge to go to his office and curl up on the floor in a ball and never get up. But I knew that that wouldn’t be productive and it might appear kind of melodramatic. So instead I must have “opted” to dissociate. And when I sent a “what the f just happened” email a few hours later, he replied that the session was like “four seasons in one session” and it had given him an appreciation for how hard I had to work as a child to get anything from my parents and that he would see me on Thursday.
So maybe I made it out of the storm? Maybe I’m not marooned after all. Maybe he isn’t broken. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow.