I’m a dog person. My aunt had a dog with extreme anxiety called Sammy. For many weeks, puppy Sammy wouldn’t come anywhere near me so I would sit on the floor, make no eye contact and just wait. Each week she would edge closer and closer until one day she crawled into my lap and fell asleep. When she woke up and realised where she was, she bolted away in terror.
This went on and on until eventually I earned her trust. She only ever learned to trust my aunt and me despite much training and treatment. With us she was affectionate, sweet and silly but she never learned to trust other humans, remaining fearful aggressive until her death. She would chase cyclists, growl at visitors, she even once bit my Excellent Long Term Friend who is practically an animal whisperer.
I often think of my inner critic as a Sammyesque dog or wolf utterly terrified of humans with no means of defence other than avoidance or aggressive outburst. After all, the critic’s first experience with humans was being with a father who used my normal natural curiosity about bodies and desire for affection against me. The critic was created to take my place in those interactions so I would have no memory of such betrayal, but in doing so, the critic has no experience of humans other than their desire to manipulate and control me for their own sick pleasure.
After Psychologist J cancelled Monday’s appointment due to being sick (I mean really, HOW DARE HE) I was not looking forward to Thursday’s appointment. I knew the cancellation had made the critic wary.
So before I go to my appointment, I write a note to J saying something along the lines of “the critic is feeling a lot of shame and anger and mistrust and this is why and I’m worried it will take over my body and I won’t be able to explain any of this.” I put the note in my pocket, drive to my appointment and hope for the best.
Sure enough, as soon as I am in his room, I sense the critic going into a memory.
Psychologist J asks me if the NDIS report is ok and I say yes but remind him he needs to add a cost estimate and so he goes to his desk off to my right to amend the report. When he’s done he asks me where I want him to sit.
“You can stay there,” I say wishing he could sit several rooms away. I clutch the blanket.
“Ok, good, that’s very helpful.”
Now that the session is officially starting, I am the inner critic in the presence of a man who wants to trick me into doing something perverse so I calmly pop myself into a trancelike state.
He mentions an email I’d sent about flashbacks, I stare at the painting. He validates how awful it was what happened to me as a child and that he believes me, I stare at the book case. He talks about how he was sick and how it must have been a disappointment after having been let down by so many other adults through out my life, I stare at my hands.
As he talks I hear voices:
“I’ve got no idea who he is talking to.”
“I didn’t write any emails.”
“What does that book over there say?”
“Where did that air vent come from?”
For some reason my hands start moving.
“Are you trying to point to something?” He asks. I shake my head no and keep staring at objects. Soon his voice is background noise. Everything seems pastel. I hold my hands out in front of me with the fingers tips lightly touching and then start to tap them together in a pattern; first each finger in order, then every second finger, back and forth from thumb to little finger and back again.
I’m starting to feel very spaced out in a good way but he won’t stop talking. I hear him say something about how upset I will be if I get to the end of the session and haven’t talked. I hear him ask if the critic is present. A small part of me is saying Get the note out of your pocket! Get the note out of your pocket! I try to block that out too.
“Are there other parts that want to talk?” I nod yes very slowly kind of entranced by how it feels to move so slowly.
“Is the critic not letting them talk?” I nod slowly again. Mmm that feels interesting.
“How will they feel if they don’t get to talk?” I scrunch my lips up and give the worlds smallest shrug.
“You don’t care?” I nod slowly. All I want is for him to vanish.
“Are you feeling scared, scared to let them talk?” I shake my head no but again very slowly paying attention to how smooth the motion feels slowed down. It’s shame and mistrust I’m trying not to feel but I’m scared of him knowing I feel shame and mistrust. So after a pause I give a slow nod.
“Yes,” he says. “It’s very brave that you’re here.”
He says a bunch of stuff I ignore partly because I’m trying not to feel any emotions and partly because that other part is nagging me again, Give him the letter! You can move your hand, get the letter out!
“Can you hear my voice?” he says after I have been still for some time. I nod. “Can you take in what I’m saying?” I shake my head no because everything he’s saying is making me feel more shame. I’m concentrating on trying to move my hand. “Do you want me to keep talking?” he asks. I shake my head no. I want you to shut the fuck up so I can try to unfreeze my hand and get the note.
“Ok.” He sighs with a twinge of defeat.
I start moving the fingers of my right hand open and closed very slowly. The part of me that wants to give him the letter is now fighting the critic for control of the body.
“That’s it, keep doing that,” he says much to my irritation. Stop looking at me! This would be so much easier if you would just stop looking at me!
There’s no way to make him move via telepathy so I try to block him out again and concentrate on making my whole hand rotate at the wrist. Part of me is going That’s it, keep it moving and don’t stop! while the critic is going No, I don’t want you to get anything from my pocket. I don’t want him to know how I feel. It’s not safe. It feels strange to be fighting with myself over my body. It’s kind of like this:
Eventually my hand and wrist and forearm are moving and I think intensely about how to get to my pocket. You can do it! You can do it! I slide my hand slowly towards my pocket. I have to do it sneakily so the critic doesn’t know what I’m doing. And then suddenly in one swift movement I pull out the letter and hold it up kind of like how a priest at communion holds up the Eucharist in wonder. The critic looks at it in disgust and almost sacrilegiously tosses it across the room at him.
He looks surprised, then picks it up. I look over at him as he reads. His face is serious.
“Ah yes.” he says nodding. He keeps reading. And nodding. And reading. And nodding. Then he finishes it and looks up and says something about how clever it was to have written that.
I don’t remember why or how, but at some point I started talking.
“It felt like after last session, we made an agreement about goals and then it was only 4 days later you cancelled. I felt disappointed and I missed you and those things were not allowed for me as a child. If I seemed disappointed then I was called spoilt or ungrateful. So to feel those two things made me feel so much shame and then I’m angry at you for making me feel them.” He nods. “Whenever the rest of (my name) feels disappointed by someone or it misses someone, it’s my job to be there to comfort her. I don’t get attached to people because I know it is pointless. It only leads to pain. And that’s what happened again. And it only took 4 days to happen again.” Suddenly I’m crying. But I’m not really crying about him, I’m in a memory. I’m crying about how painful it was my father used my love for him against me when I was so young. I’m crying about how when I found out my grandmother died and I burst into tears, my mother walked away from me.
He says something about how disappointment and forming attachments are normal and healthy. He said that having read the note I threw at him made him feel more protective of me the critic because I’ve never had anyone to help me. His kindness makes me feel awkward so I press on:
“I didn’t like your answer when I asked you last session why you would want to help me.”
“You thought I got some kind of kick out of your suffering.”
“Yes and the way you said you felt like you’d been put on this earth to help people made you sound like some kind of magical healer.”
He laughs and says, “no I’m not a magical healer.”
“But you have to understand, when you say things like that, I have to ask myself the same questions. What was I put on this earth for?” He nods and tries to answer the question by rephrasing why he likes to help people. I cut him off.
“That’s in general. I want to know why you would help ME.”
He says something about how he can see how alone I’ve been and how since he has known me for so long he has come to like me and care for me. He says something about sadness and sorrow and that he cares like how he would care seeing his own child hurt or seeing anyone hurt. He continues on for some time and for some reason I start to see myself as a stray puppy being rescued and the image of St Francis of Assisi pops into my head.
“I don’t want warm and fuzzy stuff. I want to understand why you would want to help me.” Warm and fuzzy is always a trick. It’s a seduction.
“Look, I think you want me to be someone I’m not.” His tone is different. I sense I’ve annoyed him. “I’ve had to radically accept that I’m not Dr K.”
Suddenly I feel triggered. The bear is back.
“Well I’m glad you’ve radically accepted that!” I snap. “How is that supposed to help me?”
I cross my arms and turn my head away from him. The tears come quickly as well as the emotions – anger, humiliation, betrayal. In a matter of seconds I’m in a flashback. My arms are aching. Someone is gripping my upper body holding me still. Psychologist J’s saying something but I can’t hear him. I’m starting to hyperventilate and grimace as I cry. He says something else I don’t hear.
“My arms hurt! Someone is hurting me!” I sob in between hyperventilation. Why are you hurting me! I want this to stop. Suddenly his tone of voice is serious.
“Ok. You’re having an emotional flashback. Can you hear me? We’ve had a rupture and it’s given you an emotional flashback.” His words come with just the right speed and urgency to snap me out of the worst of it. Still feeling bitten, I wipe my tears and rejoin the conversation.
“I don’t want you to be Dr K. I just don’t know how to do therapy with you. I saw a post on instagram that said ‘therapists want to hear your whole truth, not a sugar coated version’. But that’s never been true for me. When I share the real me, I drive people away with my awfulness so then I have to be a people pleaser and my whole goal here becomes trying to work out what you want, what I have to do in therapy to make you happy. I was just asking questions. I was just trying to understand why you would want to help me and not take advantage of me. I was being curious. I was being myself and it just proved my point. You pushed me away!”
“You’re right. It was my error. I was feeling judged and so I got defensive.”
“You were feeling judged by me questioning your desire to help?”
“Yes. I can see that was my mistake.”
“Except it’s not your mistake. It was always my mistake. No matter what he did to me it was my mistake for making him angry, it was my mistake for making him want to do those things to me. The mistake I always make is trusting people. I thought I could trust you but I can’t. When I trust people and I be myself, I always annoy people.”
“No no,” he insists. “You haven’t made a mistake at all. And the other difficulty is I just don’t see you how you see you. I don’t see your awfulness.”
“Dr K had a way of making me see me how she sees me. For some reason with you, I still see myself as bad.”
“I’m really on my training wheels with this part of you. I’m still getting to understand how the critic works. Do you remember the document we made last week? Did you like that?”
“Yes. But I feel like I’m like North Korea or something. For so long, I’ve been in charge of (my name) in so far as what memories she has access too. And now, its just not working anymore. I need help but before I accept help from another country, I need to really sus them out. And I have to do it in a way that is a bit hostile and threatening like Kim Jon-Un because I don’t want anyone to take advantage of me.”
“Yes that makes sense.”
“Every interaction feels like incest to me. Whenever you talk to me, it feels like -“
“Like I’m grooming you?”
“Yes! And when, when…for example the other part of me goes to pick up that child from childcare…I feel it. When people talk to me, I feel them touching me all over.”
“Yes,” he says. “I’m beginning to appreciate just how difficult interactions are for you especially as you were never allowed to make mistakes as a child.”
“That’s right. I feel like therapy is expecting me to be the total opposite of how I’ve learnt to be safe in the world. What he did to me taught me that to be safe I have to push people away. Avoid interaction. It’s so hard and scary to come here and interact.”
“Yes I can see that now. Mistakes are necessary. In my world, mistakes are how we learn things. Just think about babies learning to walk, how many times they have to fall down.”
“I understand. But I’m just so scared of becoming attached to you. I don’t want to be dependent on you at all.”
“No, I don’t want you to be dependent but I want you to maybe lean on people a bit. Like can you let the other parts help, the adult part?”
“No, I don’t trust her.” She might be older than me, but I still keep her safe.
“What about you, can you trust yourself that you’ll be ok if we interact more?
“No. I don’t trust myself. There are parts locked up.”
“Other parts? Other parts you aren’t letting out?”
“No other parts of me. Parts of me that I’m scared of. Feelings and emotions that are his that I’ve internalised.”
“Can we talk about them here?”
“Yes. I hope so.”
We talk for a bit more but I don’t recall what we discussed.
“You seem more like yourself. Are you a bit more a blend of the critic and (my name) now?”
“That’s what we want to aim for.”
“I can’t do that. It’s because I’m about to leave and I don’t want to feel how the critic will feel when it leaves this session so I kind of boot it out of the body.” As I come back into the body, I get that familiar cold feeling like I’m sliding into icy cold bedsheets. Then comes the exhaustion and strange burning eyes that always follow the exit of a part of me from the past that has been dormant for so long. Ooooooh Ahhh this is gonna give me one hell of a nap. I look forward to going home to rest before it’s time to go to childcare.
I don’t always understand humans, but dogs and wolves make perfect sense to me especially Sammy. Incidentally, my dog Toby is still alive. He’s 18 now. He might be immortal.
5 thoughts on “Once Bitten Twice Shy”
I’ve been catching up on your posts today. Thank you for all that you share. The way you articulate the internal struggle you experience in counseling sessions is so insightful, and I can feel it tap into the parts of me that struggle similarly.
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Thank you so much for your comment. I’m really happy you find it relatable. That’s actually very comforting.
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you’ve done a great job of reportage here; what I really like, what works for me are the animal parallels you set up; Sammy must have been through a lot; so have you; there’s a lot of talking going on here; what I find really helpful — and I stress it is what I find — is regular exercise, either walking, gym or swimming when all the mental stuff is shoved aside; a good laugh always helps; I find introspection dangerous but that’s just me 🙂
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Thank you! I’m glad you enjoy the animal parallels. Exercise is good that’s for sure. Introspection can be a dangerous tunnel to go down. It just leads to an underground cave of mazes.
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I know; I’ve been there 🙂
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