I hate change. My sense of safety is reliant on predictably and familiarity. When my husband bought a new quilt for our bed, I felt trapped by its sinister grip for weeks. When we moved houses in April, I had nightly flashbacks for a month. Whenever I travel, I take my pillow with me.
This need is one of the many ‘gifts’ of C-PTSD and dissociative amnesia. I don’t have a singular internalised timeline so I rely on visual and sensory cues to be sure I am the same person in the same place with people who are going to behave similarly to the last time I saw them.
I go batshit crazy if Psychologist J changes himself or his room. One time he forgot his glasses and I spent the session in tears unable to look at him or talk to him because my brain was telling me he was a dangerous stranger. Another time he forgot his work shoes and got his sneakers wet coming to work so he ran the appointment in socks and I felt at any moment he might strip naked. He’s moved offices three times and each time was like starting with a new therapist. I often experience derealisation mid-session; it’s not uncommon for me to ask him if he’s real, ask him if he’s definitely the same J I met 10 years ago in group therapy, and twice I’ve asked if I could to touch him just to be sure he’s real. Yes, I actually asked him if I could poke him in the knee.
So when I arrive at my appointment on Thursday and find the single seater couch that I usually sit on inside his office OUT IN THE WAITING ROOM, my first though is Oh no, shit’s gonna get crazy. I look around the rest of the waiting room. Everything else is the same. Look, there’s that same stack of elitist intellectual magazines.
One time the magazine on top was a political magazine with a naked man in the foetal position on the front cover which gave me an instant urge to rip it up in a rage. I tried moving it to the bottom of the pile but I still felt violated. I knew that naked man was hiding under there. I ended up throwing it in the cupboard under Psychologist J’s sink. Each week I would check to see if it was there. One day it was gone and I admitted to having put it there. His reply was merely, “did you notice I never returned it to the pile?”
I’m still standing in front of the usual chair with a frown on my face when he opens the door and invites me in. I’m relieved that he’s wearing something fairly typical; plastic glasses, blue jeans, a navy blue v-neck t-shirt and black boots but the kind that might be environmentally friendly or vegan.
I enter the room and there it is: THE NEW CHAIR. It’s a hideous thing; a grey, smooth, bulging kind of single seater couch with a low back and low arms. Something about it looks expensive and Nordic. It is so strangely proportioned I can’t help but imagine it designed by an eccentric ergonomic company run by people with round glasses, rolled up jeans and slip-ons in order to win some industry award like Most Seductive Sustainable Seat 2020. On it is an equally bulbous blue cushion made in the style I find MOST offensive: shabby chic. Blech. There is no universe in which country bumpkin can look chic!
The couch looked kind of like this I suppose.
Actually no, more like this.
UGH. Why J, WHY?!?!? Why must you be so….TRENDY! He seems me staring at it with a curled top lip.
“Yes I got a new couch. The other one is too sunken in even with a cushion on it. This one is good because it swivels!”
I remove the shitty chic cushion and slowly lower myself into it. I instantly feel uncomfortable.
“I don’t like it.” The seat part is so padded it feels like it’s pushing up into me. My feet don’t touch the floor. I feel like a child in a highchair or on someone’s lap. I feel my body going into freeze.
“Is it ok if I sit here?” he says pointing to the long stereotypical therapy lounge. He sits before I answer.
“I don’t like this at all. I want to get out of the chair.” Except I can’t move.
“Ok, sure, you can move.” I need to run but there is no where safe to go. I’m already in a memory. I’m sitting on his lap. I can’t feel my legs. I can’t move my arms. My neck and shoulders are tensed up so hard they hurt. I know what he’s doing to me.
Psychologist J starts a series of attempts to get me out of a flashback. He’s sitting directly across from me which keeps the flashback going. He’s asking me if I want his help. I can’t respond. My mouth and neck are tensed up. I’m clenching my teeth.
“You can indicate what you need.” Somehow I move one finger 4 mm to the right.
“You want me to move? Yes? Over there? Ok I can move.” He moves to his desk but it isn’t enough. The flashback is still going.
“Are you in a memory?” he asks. I nod.
“I need to get out of the chair,” I manage to whisper.
“You can get up. I know you can. It’s safe to move.” I shake my head no.
“Do you want me to help you?” I see him get up as though to come over. Sometimes he has to literally pull me up out of a chair when I’m having a flashback but this time his movements scare me. I frantically shake my head no.
“Ok,” he sits down. He runs through a list of his usual prompts:
“What part of your body can you feel? Try to push your feet into the ground. Can you feel your feet?” I shake my head no. “Can you feel your hands on the leather? Try to feel the leather.” I can’t feel my hands at all. They always vanish when I am in a flashback.
“Is the critic present? Is the child present?” I don’t answer because I can’t tell. I want him to stop touching me!
“You drove here for help. I know you can move. You can do this. Nothing will happen if you move. You won’t get hurt.”
“Do you feel an urge in your body? Try to follow the urge.” I need to get out of this chair but there is no where safe to run to. This is part of the memory. I wish he would tell me where a safe place to go is.
“Do you know who I am? And where you are?” he asks.
“Do you want me to help you? Do you want me to keep talking?” I shake my head no. His voice is too male. “Ok then you’ll have to get yourself out. You’re having an emotional flashback ok?”
I close my eyes in an attempt to try to concentrate. I need to find the adult part of me that knows where I am.
“Keep your eyes open,” he says.
I’m suddenly aware that my glasses are sliding down my nose except they aren’t my nose after all I’m a child. A hand comes up and adjusts the glasses.
“Oh, look you moved your hand! You just moved your hand to adjust your glasses. How did that feel?” I didn’t move it and that isn’t my hand. I can’t feel my hands.
“I need to get out of the chair,” I say again.
“You can move,” he says. There’s no where to run to. My eyes are flicking back and forth between the couch he was sitting on before across from me and the door out of his room. I need him to tell me where is safe. I want to run but I don’t want to be caught. I don’t want to be chased.
“I need you to tell me where to go.”
“How about you go out to the bathroom and splash water on your face.” He always forgets that water on my face is triggering. I shake my head no frantically again as the flashback intensifies.
“No, no, no, no, no.” I say over and over.
The longer the flashback goes on, the worse they usually get because there is always some part of me aware this is a flashback and there is growing frustration and panic and shame that I can’t move. It feels just as it was back then, WHY CAN’T I MOVE! WHY CAN’T I MOVE! The torment and helplessness grows and then the panic attack starts. My breathing becomes quick and loud and the tears start to fall.
“Ok you’ve having a flashback and the start of a panic attack.” His voice is serious now. He knows he has to do something fast.
“You’re safe here. You can move. No one will hurt you.” My breathing escalates. In a rush of words he says,” my-favourite-animal-is-the-red-panda!”
The inner critic is suddenly there. Red panda. I remember him saying something about that before. I remember that being our safe thing. He isn’t a man, he’s a red panda. But just as soon it is understood by the inner critic, the inner critic, having been suddenly woken is unsure of what’s going on. I feel confused. And my head suddenly starts to hurt. I feel like someone is holding my head in their hands, pushing it at the temples hard to keep me still. It’s another memory. I feel the hands gripping my head over and over and I keep wincing and trying to turn my head away while he does that thing to me. I feel like I’m going to be sick.
“You’re not going to get in trouble if you move and I’m not angry at you,” he says.
“You sound angry.” His serious voice always sounds angry to me.
“I’m not angry. Listen to my voice.”
I know there’s only one way out of this, I need Psychologist J to leave the room. Stopping a flashback is always so much harder with a spectator. Still twisting my head away in pain I say, “I want you to go away for a bit.”
“Where?” he asks.
“In the waiting room?” he sounds incredulous. “You want me to leave my own room?” I nod.
“Well…ok,” he sighs. “You’ll have to tell me when to come back.” Out of the corner of my eye a tall dark blue figure leaves the room. As soon as he is gone, I feel the hands fall away from my body. It’s over!
I hear J fussing around in the waiting room; clinking dishes, opening cupboard doors. I shake my head as though dislodging sand from within and look around a little shocked to find myself in Psychologist J’s office. When I stand my legs feel stiff and shaky like some ancient creature with Covid. I walk over to the couch and slump down in it. It’s over. I feel that strange mix of relief, shame, filth and grief wash over me. Another memory only this time it’s how I felt afterwards.
“Can I come back now?” I hear him ask. “Yes,” I reply. He comes in slowly.
“Can you pass me the pillow?” Suddenly the crappy chic pillow is all I want. He passes it to me. It’s huge and I hug it tight; this ugly barrier between me and the rest of the world is suddenly the best thing in the room. If only it were bigger to hide more of me.
“That’s it, hug the pillow. Can you feel how it feels?” His insistence on trying to ground me with mindfulness irritates me. I don’t want to be seen and I certainly don’t want to be aware of my body which feels violated and humiliated.
He’s sitting in a regular wooden chair to the right and he leans forward with his arms on his knees and speaks kindly. He praises me for getting out of a flashback and I tell him I feel so much shame and I’m angry at myself for wasting half a session.
“A session is never wasted,” he says. I look at him but I’m dazzled by the sun coming in from the window behind him; he’s illuminated like some godly figure.
“It is wasted. I want to feel like I’ve achieved something.”
“No, the chair scared you.”
I nod and start crying but I’m pouting like an angry child. “Yes, I was having a flashback but I DON’T want to talk about it. I DON’T want to tell you what was happening in the flashback!” I can feel the anger rising, anger that he changed the chair. I tell him how the old chair was familiar and how because it was lower, the back and arms were higher and made me feel protected.
“You mean your back and shoulders felt more covered?”
He says that other people sit in other places in the room. He points to his official couch that he rarely sits in during appointments with me and offers it to me.
“I can’t sit on that chair, it’s yours.”
“Well, technically these are all my chairs.” He says with a smile.
“I know. But I can’t sit in one you sit in a lot.” It would be like sitting ON you.
He points to a strange cushion on the floor that has a cushion back rest and explains that some people chose to sit there because being lower to the ground helps them feel grounded.
“Really? People sit on that?” He nods. I continue. “When I was driving over here I was thinking that I actually wanted to sit on the floor curled up in a ball and how it wouldn’t feel right to sit in a couch.”
“Oh really? Do you want to move now?”
“No, I told you in my email it feels like so much of my life is changing. I just wanted something in my life to be familiar.”
“Look around. What else is familiar?”
“Nothing,” I say sulkily.
“Oh come on!” he jokes. “It seems when the critic is present things are so black and white.”
How dare he! How dare he question my reasoning!
“It feels like you don’t understand!” I snap. I’m crying again.
“You minimised how I felt! Familiar is about how my body feels not how the room looks. I don’t sit on the walls or the carpet or the ornaments so it’s irrelevant if they’re the same. I sit on the chair and that chair felt tolerably safe! Then you took it away! Now the room doesn’t feel familiar to my body anymore!”
Suddenly he understands and he apologises. I tell him that I didn’t like that my feet didn’t touch the floor and it made me feel like a child and I haven’t felt like a child in a flashback for a while here. I’m still angry and so I add again “and there is something else about the chair I don’t like but I’m not going to tell you. I’m not going to tell you what it felt like.” The truth is I want to tell him but I am too disgusted by what I recalled.
I’m sick of him looking like a saint so I ask him to move to a seat on my left so I’m no longer looking at him surrounded by a halo of light. He moves and now I recognise his face.
“Where would you sit next time? We need to make this feel safe for you,” he asks.
“Really I just wish I could sit in a little cave and peek out at you.”
“I’ve just had an idea. How about we rotate the couch you’re sitting on so that the headrest bit is on your left next to that book case.”
‘Yes, I’d like that. I’ve thought of that before.”
“Come on, let’s do it now.”
“No. Not now.” I don’t want to move. It isn’t safe.
“We can do it now and try it out.”
I start crying. “No! It will take up too much time. We haven’t got much time left.” There’s only 15 minutes left of the session.
“We can do it quickly.”
“No, because if I don’t like it we will have to move it back and then we will have even less time. I don’t want to move. If I move you will see my body moving!”
“Ah yes, body shame,” he says nodding. “We have to find a way to help you with that.”
“Look I want you to know I’m not angry at you. You’re allowed to have a new chair. I’m not the only client. I just need to be negative. It feels safer.”
“The critic needs to push away when attachment feels too risky.”
“Yes,” I continue. “My parents made things so messed up. Attachments make no sense. They’re just about who dominates who, who is going to get in the first punch. I don’t even know what the critic needs. It wants someone to do exactly what it says but even then it isn’t happy. There’s no way in for you.”
He’s nodding a little too enthusiastically saying it is hard for him and I feel a twinge of guilt for being such a difficult client. I push away the guilt and continue, “I’ve tried to talk to that part of me but even I can’t say to it exactly what it wants to hear to trust me. I can sense sometimes that what I say isn’t right.”
“It’s good you talk to it.”
“I just feel so angry about the past but I have to hold it in. I can’t be angry at Husband, I can’t be angry at son, I can’t be angry at Childcare. I have to act civil around them all even when they annoy me or are unfair to me. I want help getting the anger from the past out.”
“If I could redo the last two weeks while you’ve been struggling I wouldn’t have had the time off. It’s been a hard two weeks for you.”
“No it’s not your fault. I need to do more than just talk about how angry I am.”
“You really like the body stuff Dr K was doing with you.”
“Yes. It’s ok to release some of the anger here in session but even the smallest thing you do, half the time the critic is still in a memory and so the anger towards you is so over the top. I hate writing ‘I hate you’ in emails, it seems unfair considering you’ve done nothing except try to be nice and helpful but the critic is like I don’t give a fuck!”
“Just so you know, I don’t mind when you send those emails. Keep sending them. I mean sometimes I get a bit ruffled especially if it seems the session was good. But I don’t really mind at all. But I understand the other part of you wouldn’t like it when the critic sends them.”
“Well I told that part of me it’s ok to be angry and rude to you but I control myself elsewhere. I’m still angry at you and Dr K for repeating the past.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well the last time she left on maternity leave, it brought up so much trauma stuff and I didn’t understand that stuff back then and you didn’t really do anything to help me deal with it. So I was determined to never be in that position again and when I resisted your suggestions to go see her again you never asked me why.”
“No, you’re right. I never looked into that.”
“And then I went to see her again and she shocked me by going maternity leave again and it feels exactly like last time. You aren’t doing anything to help me deal with the grief and new memories and stuff she has triggered. And then that book you gave me, you know I’ve been doing therapy for so long and then I get this book and it felt like here are another 300 pages on what is wrong with you. The stuff Dr K does; Peter Levine’s book felt positive. It’s about how everyone’s body has the ability to heal. It’s more like here is this amazing potential we all have locked inside us, you just have to unlock it.” Psychologist J is nodding.
“And then she ruined it all by sending me that email after she gave birth. I’m still angry at her for that. I mean it’s not that I would be friends with you or her outside of here if I never knew either of you through therapy, but her email just reminded me that I wouldn’t be able to be your friends. I only fit into your lives as a problem to be fixed. I just don’t feel like your equal.”
“It’s awful how trauma does that.”
“I didn’t want to know anything about Dr K’s personal life! I didn’t want to know her children’s names, genders, anything about her husband! I didn’t want to see her without makeup. I deliberately avoided that and I’m angry she emailed me personal stuff! I don’t need to be reminded I’m not special and I’m stupid and embarrassing and bad!” I’m crying again.
“I don’t think you are those things,” he says. For a nanosecond it feels comforting to hear that but I brush it off quickly. I see him glance at the clock. There is a flash of something in his expression. He must be thinking whether to wrap things up or to not.
“It’s not your fault that I know things about you. It’s my fault. I snooped on social media.”
“How did you find things? I thought I had all my settings on private.”
“Oh you do, but your family and friends don’t.”
“Oh,” he laughs.
“Anyway I did that snooping years ago. The critic did it to shame me and to help me detach from you. To remind myself I mean nothing to you so I wouldn’t get too attached.”
“It’s awful not to feel equal and no matter how much I say you are, you don’t feel it.”
“I don’t like how you try to sound relatable. It doesn’t make me feel equal. When you said you were on your training wheels when it came to understanding the critic, I think to myself ‘J doesn’t even know what it means to be on training wheels. You supervise other psychologists! You have two masters degrees! You aren’t on training wheels for anything!’ I don’t even know how to make a new friend! And I like how Dr K sounds confident. I don’t like it when you say you’re anxious or you felt defensive or when you say that by making mistakes you’re just like me.”
“I didn’t say it for that reason. I said I made a mistake because it was factual.”
“No, in the email you said that the reason you shared that you got defensive and made a mistake is to let me see that you’re human like me. But you’re nothing like me. Dr K always seemed confident. She would say things like ‘you have let me do my job’ or if I was worried about dissociating she would say ‘I’m not concerned about that’. She doesn’t try to be relatable.”
“Yes I can see that how that would be more settling. The critic doesn’t like it when I try to hard. I wonder what kind of parent the critic wants?” he asks.
“The critic wants a parent that is going to be there, stay put in one spot while the critic comes and goes. The critic wants to be interested and then leave and look back and see the parent there and be like ok well I don’t care about you.”
“That sounds dismissive.”
“I suppose it is.”
“Most of you wants connection and then it’s the critic’s job to push away. I needs a different kind of parent.”
“Yes.” But it isn’t quite right. “The critic wants to attach but it’s learnt that attachments never work. Attachment always leads to pain.”
“It’s like those parts are frozen in time.”
“Yes. At age 2 or 3.”
“Perhaps I need to write to the critic directly and tell it things like ‘I won’t raise my and or voice at you or hurt you.'”
“Maybe, but it would just be suspicious.”
“The critic is always looking out for a seduction,” he says.
“Yes because all it knows is dominate or be dominated. It doesn’t understand when we just talk. It thinks when is one of us going to hurt the other?”
He nods. I continue.
“I just want to know who I am. I want to be allowed to say how I feel. I want to protest. The critic wants to be understood and for someone to say yes you’re right. It likes when people say bad stuff about my parents and explains to it what it doesn’t know and says firmly no you’re not bad. Bad is what they did. It’s bad for a parent to this, this, and that. Because I know it’s bad to email ‘I hate you’ but no one has told the critic that what they did to it was worse.”
“You need to protest to learn who you are,” he says. “The emails you sent and the two poems, especially the end of one, all the things you can do like eat rotten flesh. I felt very protective of the critic.” I look down as shame grips my shoulders.
“How does it feel now when I talk to the critic?”
I pause to see how my body feels. I feel something warm inside but I also feel unsettled and claustrophobic. “Unsatisfying… but also not bad.”
“Ok, so to recap, let’s make the place safer for the critic, let’s move the chair for next time. This is your space. We have to find some comfort here for you.”
“And I need to know how to deal with losses. The critic doesn’t want to get attached because it can’t handle it. I haven’t even begun to process what the 6 months with Dr K meant. Not to mention when my Grandma died or the other losses of the past.”
“First we have to make you feel safe because you can’t process anything if you can’t talk. Then we can deal with the needs of the critic, and preparing for when I go on leave over Christmas, and preparing your son for school, and Dr K and the past.”
“That sounds good.”
“And look, just put the book aside. Let’s do the Levine one if it feels better.”
“Ok, thank you. I’m sorry I’ve made you go over time again.”
“No, no it’s ok. It was important to make sure you were ok.”
After the session I lay in bed for about 2 hours half asleep waiting for the flashback hangover emotions to pass. On Friday I wake up with day-after flashback hangover, so hard to describe but similar to how I imagine anyone would feel if they woke up after a big night out and found evidence that they’d done something immoral.
I hate change and yet I need it. The critic needs to change how it relates to people. And I don’t like losing time to post-session naps.
I wonder how he will have his room tomorrow? Will I like sitting on the rotated recliner couch? Will he look familiar so the session will feel useful or will I dissociate again? Only time will tell.