*TRIGGER WARNING* Post contains references to self-harm.
Words that soothe or bruise.
Monday was a bit of a shit show although it didn’t start that way.
Husband, son (4) and I had an appointment in the inner city with Specialist Paediatrician Dr L. On the 45 minute drive, son announced that he was MOST DEFINITELY NOT going to see Dr L. Then he said his three favourite words were pants, vans and Japan and his favourite numbers were 99, 8 and 4. He spent the rest of the drive eating his toast and saying, “99 paaaants. 8 vaaaaans. Japaaaan. 4 paaaants,” super loud and giggling at himself. (He seems to share my appreciation for the sound of words). When he was done, he tossed his bowl onto the empty seat next to him, got out of the car and went to Dr L’s office without any protest. She listened to my story about Childcare while rolling her eyes in all the right places, classified his autism as level 2 for social communication and level 1 for restricted interest, was happy with his progress and concluded that he absolutely must go to a mainstream school next year. Yay us! Gold star at parenting.
On the weekend I’d had a fight with someone that was resolved by Sunday evening but not before triggering a host of bad memory states for the inner critic. By Monday, most of me was keen for the session while the inner critic was NOT.
By the time I parked the car, I was gone and the inner critic was running the show.
In the waiting room, I lay on the floor curled in a ball and covered my ears to block out the jazz music coming from the waiting room radio. It was like a random collection of electric jolts and taps as though someone was throwing little pebbles all up and down my body. I was careful to be sitting on the seat when Psychologist J called me into the room.
“You owe me a receipt,” said I said flatly.
“Oh yes I do! Sorry about that! I’ll do that for you now.” I watched him walk over to his desk. Ugh. I don’t like how he looks. I’m not comfortable being around a man.
“You sent me a text message earlier to say you’re feeling very split and things might get messy. How are you going right now?” he asks cautiously.
“I’m exhausted. I mean actually exhausted from not sleeping well on the weekend because REDACTED and I had a fight but also exhausted as in a bit dissociated.”
“Oh yes. It’s not good when you don’t sleep. It makes everything harder. ” he says kindly. Why isn’t he asking about the fight? I’m irritated now.
“Have you had a chance to take a look at the book I lent you,” he asks referring to Coping with Trauma Related Dissociation. I feel the irritation growing because I know the adult part of me sent an email with feedback about Chapter 1. For a moment I consider not saying anything else for the entire session especially as I didn’t want to even come today and my body is already starting to hurt from being near a male. Perhaps I’ll do my other trick. I’ll just pretend I’m not the inner critic and talk as though I’m the adult part.
“I know I sent a lot of emails but in one of them I wrote something about what I thought.”
“Oh yes, you’re right, there was one with feedback about the book. Can you tell me what you thought of it?”
“No, I can’t.” I’m keeping my body and neck really still. Keeping still makes it harder to feel like his body is invading mine. Then, realising I have to hide who I am I add something helpful. “I’m not really in touch with the part that wrote that email.”
“Thank you for letting me know that,” he says. “Are you in touch with other parts? The inner critic?” I don’t respond.
“Do the parts disagree about the book? Is it messy in there?” I’m aware that other parts of me want to talk about the fight and want to talk about how poorly I’m doing even though I don’t want to talk about how poorly I’m doing. I want everyone to fuck off.
“No, it’s not like that.” I say impatiently. Then I try to explain without explaining at all. I like to be ambiguous. It’s safer that way. “How the session goes…it just depends if some parts are allowed to speak.” I don’t want to tell him that its ME not letting the other parts speak.
“I just want you to know that all the parts are welcome to speak.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” I snap. “You don’t get to decided that. It depends if some parts are going to let other parts speak. Some parts want to have a tantrum and not be here.” I’m hoping that he hasn’t picked up that I’m the inner critic pretending to be the adult part talking about me. I really don’t want him to see me.
He says the inner critic is allowed to have a tantrum if she wants to have one and she is allowed to participate or not. I don’t like that he called me a she. Being gendered isn’t safe. I continue to talk as though I am the adult me talking about the inner critic.
“It doesn’t have a choice not to participate. Being in this room, being near a man wakes it up, activates it and makes it feel all the shit.”
“Is it feeling bad because of the emails sent or is it something else?”
“The emails and the weekend.”
As I talked about the weekend that began with a crappy birthday, I vanished and the normal adult part came back. I discussed the fight in detail and Psychologist J was extremely validating. At one point his exact words were:
“Do you mind if I swear? If that happened to me I’d be pretty fucked off too.”
I talked about how fights activate the inner critic who is stuck in the past moments after being abused and wants to fight with anyone who dares come near it. I talked about how when the inner critic talks to people, it sounds exactly like my mother and I remember how horrible it was to be on the receiving end of her nastiness. I mentioned how Dr K leaving, my husband being diagnosed with MS, and the situation at Childcare had all stirred up the past for the inner critic.
“When things are really bad for the inner critic, what does it want to do?”
“But there is no one to kill.” I continue. “So then I want to kill myself except I don’t want to die.”
“How does the critic manage those feelings?”
“Well mostly I just dissociated. (Husband) was in bed a lot this weekend (because of MS) so I had to cope. Someone had to look after (son). But there were times I was playing with him and I’d also be having a flashback at the same time or spacing out from dissociation. Other times on the weekend the pain was so intense or I was so spaced out I wanted to self harm. But I don’t do that anymore. I know it doesn’t solve anything. But I did put elastic bands on my wrists and snap them really hard. I had to do something that wouldn’t damage anyone or anything in a lasting way.”
“Oh,” I say although in hindsight I already know this.
He lifts his right leg to cross it over the left. He knows this is a pose that reminds me of my father. I must have looked at him funny because he says “Is it ok if I do this?” I nod but I guess not convincingly enough. He puts his legs back out straight crossed at the ankles. I look at his jeans. He always wears blue jeans. There is something comforting about him always wearing the same pants.
“I think if the critic and I had an arm wrestle it would snap off my arm,” he says smiling.
“No it wouldn’t.” I look down at his shoes. “The anger just feels stuck in me. I can’t hurt anyone. It wouldn’t be right.”
“So you just end up hurting yourself out of trying to protect others.”
It feels like we are just starting to have a good conversation about the critic without the critic in the body doing the talking and obfuscating the matter when he says the session is over. In a panic I add, “We need to find a way for the critic to get out feelings safely and to find some comfort. Because the only options I have at the moment are to hurt myself or watch The Handmaids Tale.”
“Ah, the Handmaids Tale, yes.” He goes to the printer to get a receipt. I can feel the inner critic coming back in control of the body. It’s heard the conversation. It never likes being talked about. We say our goodbyes.
As soon as I leave the office the inner critic is jolted back into the body and I burst into tears. The rage is back.
On the drive home I decided to try doing what Dr K taught me: try to ground to the present, feel the urge in your body and then do the urge mindfully. I concentrate on the fact that I’m in 2020 driving a car and pay attention to what I feel in my body. I feel the same urge I always do, to hit something away from me to the left. I start smacking the front passage seat with a fist as though I’m punching someone in the chest. It feels good but it also feels pretty silly to be smacking the passenger seat while I drive. I’m sure this isn’t what Dr K had in mind. I settle for glaring at other cars while blasting angry music.
Later that evening the inner critic returns again and has a meltdown. There are tears and flashbacks with awful body sensations but there is also a super comfy bed and no one disturbing me. Ok, a far off distant part of me says, this is a flashback. There’s literally nothing happening right now to be this upset about.
I sit up but still bawling, I write Psychologist J an angry email about how I hate sessions like these where he learns something and I learn nothing and all the awful feelings from the past are stirred up. There is much typing, some swearing and I sign the email “Critic”. Overall it was such a brilliantly dramatic and ranty email/meltdown I feel it deserves more than one meme.
Later that evening I ask my husband if he ever speaks to himself in third person or if he ever hears more that one voice in his head arguing about something and he says no and looks at me like I’m 7 shades of crazy. Then I sit down to enjoy an episode of The Handmaids Tale. It’s excellent and twisted. I feel soothed.
The next day I receive a reply from Psychologist J. He is unfazed by my ranty email and ends his reply to the critic with “I do wish to find a way for us to become allies, as I don’t expect you’ve ever felt like you have had one. And, you are a really important part of a very important whole person.” I wait for this to sink in.
Milner R. (2019). Reconnecting to your Body after Peritraumatic Dissociation. CPTSD Foundation. Retrieved from https://cptsdfoundation.org/2019/10/17/reconnecting-to-your-organism-after-peritraumatic-dissociation/