When a good therapy session happens.
Emotional flashbacks kind of feel like falling down a trapdoor and finding yourself in a dark forest that’s also a maze. After Monday’s appointment where we discussed my DEEPEST DARKEST SECRET SHAME in relation to incest, I was so rattled by emotional flashbacks, I sent Psychologist a series of emails on Tuesday. By Wednesday morning I was well sick of the sights and sounds of the forest and sent him a series of emotional text messages proclaiming COMPLETE AND UTTER CONFUSION AND DESPAIR about the maze that is therapy while sitting on the toilet at work before my 8:30am start time. At 8:29am my phone rings. It’s Psychologist J.
Whenever I get this destressed I have a specific set of negative emotions and a visual that I have always assumed to be about Psychologist J and Dr K.
I decide not to answer his call. Immediately he sends me a very supportive text message which I read but am unable to register as anything other than a bunch of words.
For some reason, I decide to reread it in Dr K’s voice. Suddenly it makes sense. It’s full of validation and support. Instantly I realise that the image and emotions I had been getting are not about Dr K and Psychologist J but are a memory resurfacing. I sit there stunned, as I always do, when I make sense of something my brain has been screaming at me for years. When a memory resurfaces I get this feeling like I have been peering into a telescope but everything in the distance is blurry and then someone has twisted it into focus. Something clicks, and the intensity of the emotions reduce but they also become in some ways more acute or specific. I jot down some notes and text him back saying I have just made sense of a flashback.
I feel a slight change in me, like I have stumbled into a new part of the dark forest and feel certain that Thursday is going to be a good appointment, that is, no dissociation and one of those rare appointments when J and I see an glimpse of light coming from a clearing in the maze.
Thursday arrives and the session starts after I chose to sit on the long couch and he is sitting in his proper armchair carefully positioned exactly were I request on my left. I tell him that my NDIS application has been approved (YAY) and we make plans to discuss that in later appointments.
“You left me with a lot to think about and talk about,” he says. This is his polite way of saying you totally lost the plot and spammed me with emotions on my days off.
I’m suddenly aware of an urge to put my feet up on the couch cross-legged.
“Can I put my feet up on the couch?”
“Of course.” Despite his reply, I’m unable to move my legs but now I can make sense of the resistance. The inner critic is scared to surrender to anything that feels good to do for my body in the presence of another lest it somehow turn into incest again. He leans forward and speaks gently, “the way we know we’re getting past the worst of it all is when there is less dissociation and a sense that ‘it happened to me’.”
“Not all of me feels that way. There are some parts that don’t understand or are confused or shocked. Like the ANP part.”
“I don’t even now where that part of me has gone. Every now and then, like every week or month it pops up and thinks what the fuck have I been doing? It remembers the last 6 months but it feels like a dream and so when it resurfaces it thinks no no, this can’t really be MY life! All this stuff couldn’t have happened to me! It’s too awful. And then almost straight away I start to feel the dissociation hitting me.”
“But this ANP part is also the part of me that feels safe and ok with you. The parts that are active now that know about the past, they don’t really know you.”
“And it’s harder to hear nice things from you. When I imagined your text message was from Dr K and heard it in her voice it made sense but when you say it I feel nothing or confused or angry or disgust because my father said nice things to me and it was all for sex.”
“When I send those messages, I become the perpetrator.”
“Yes. Although Dr K sets off some of this stuff. Good feelings in therapy, as soon as they feel safe, the critic feels the memory of incest.”
“So therapy IS harder with a male,” he says with a hint of ‘I told you so’ because in the past when I’d resisted his suggestions to switch to Dr K, I insisted it wasn’t harder with a male.
“Yes. Well it’s all hard. It’s different hard with a woman but yes harder with a man.”
I mention to J that I feel the urge to put my legs up on the couch and cross them but also that it doesn’t feel safe.
“The only way to know if it’s safe or not is to try it,” he says.
“No that’s not true. Because that part of me knows it as a fact that it isn’t safe. It’s like heroin. You know it’s not safe. So if someone passes you heroin you don’t say well I have to try it to see if this particular heroin is safe or not, you already know it’s not because it’s heroin. All relationships feel like that to the critic.” I see him nodding as I talk.
He pauses and then speaks in a tentative voice. “You said you had had a memory? Worked something out?”
“Yes, it’s really hard to put into words but it’s happened a few times now, the last time was when I was seeing Dr K. When I feel really stuck in therapy or I’m having lots of emotional flashbacks I get this mix of emotions that are really intense – so terrifying – but so hard to describe but suddenly all comfort and soothing is terrifying. It happened once with Dr K, I was crying and recoiling from her soothing words because it intensified the disgust and horror. And it happened yesterday before you called. I always get this same image. I see myself really small and cowering in the corner, just cowering away from all comfort and soothing. And even though I feel scared of a man, I realised yesterday that there are always two adults in the image, and the woman is kind of overwhelmed saying what are we going to do with her? Kind of despairing about how to fix the situation and calm me down and I always just assumed that was about you and Dr K worrying about how to help me when I keep getting worse in therapy. But then I realised, this has never happened in real life. And Dr K would never be unsure of how to proceed. And instantly I just knew this was the moment that I learnt that what my dad was doing to me was bad. It might have felt good but suddenly it was bad. I mean there are parts of me that think, no KNOW that she walked in on it happening. And I can just imagine the chaos and then it wouldn’t be unheard of for her to say what do we do now. After all I know she said it when I was older, whenever I was causing them problems she would say to him exasperated what are we going to do to fix this mess.”
“No, you’re right it’s not about us,” he says and then he adds emphatically, “that’s a scene.” I look at him and he is staring at me seriously. “I feel hot like my skin is burnt and I’m unsettled and I want to be picked up by not by them.”
“And you said that once you realised that, things seemed to settle down for you.”
“Yes. I mean I still meant everything else I said in the messages. But yes, I suddenly felt more in the present and less distressed.”
“You told me in your messages how stuck you’ve been feeling.”
“Yes. I feel like no matter what I try to do, it doesn’t work out. Who you are is kind of about that your likes and dislikes are but I’m not allowed to have them. There are just dead ends in therapy. You won’t let me talk about Dr K or what I don’t like about you.”
“When did I say you couldn’t do those things?”
“It’s not what you said, its how you reacted. I never got to tell my parents what I didn’t like about what they did to me. It wasn’t acceptable to ever complain about them. And a few times now I’ve told you there is something you do I don’t like and you got defensive and said ‘don’t tell me what I do wrong, tell me what helps.’ You got frustrated.”
“Yes I did get frustrated. But you can still tell me those things.”
“No I can’t. I know it’s only been two times that you’ve reacted this way but for me that is enough. You got frustrated. And that is enough to remind me that I am bad and you are good. I am the one that annoys and frustrates people. You don’t understand how important it is for me to be able to say ‘I don’t like this’ and for that to be accepted.” I see him nodding but I continue.
“And you don’t understand how hard it is for me to talk about what I DO like. I mean that memory of the incest, registering that something in a relationship feels nice is hard to do. And also my parents never allowed us to form attachments. My mother wanted us to only love her. They didn’t miss people. They didn’t even cry when their own parents died. So perhaps you don’t know how brave it is for me to admit that I miss Dr K and I liked some of the things she did that you didn’t do. But when I talk about her, you compare yourself to her, you make it about you and you get annoyed and say ‘I’ve radically accepted I’m not her’ or ‘you want me to be her’. I don’t. I just want to grieve her. I want to talk about what I miss. I can’t help that you happen to be her replacement.”
“Yes that’s so right. It isn’t about me at all.”
“And I can’t talk about what I don’t like. I can’t talk about things you do I don’t like and I can’t tell the rest of my family what my parents did and get angry at them. I can’t go to Childcare and call them all a bunch of numpties. I can’t get angry at Husband or son. Everywhere I’m just gagged. And I’m so mad at Dr K for that email. I hate that she sent me that personal email after she told me our contact would end and I can’t even reply to tell her how angry it made me. I know if I could talk to her for 2 minutes it would all be resolved and she would go back to seeming safe in my mind, but instead I’m gagged. I have to wait a year until I can take this up with her. This is just like my childhood.” At this point my voice is a touch shrill and the tears are running down my face.
“I can really understand why you felt so stuck and how this all just repeats the past for you.” It feels so good to be validated.
Psychologist J is talking but suddenly I’m aware of parts of me arguing in my head, one of them saying now is a good time to mention the problem about moving to other chairs in session or moving my feet up to the couch. He notices me not listening to him.
“Are you ok?”
“I’m just listening.” I’m also starting to dissociate. Mention the chair. Mention the chair.
“A part of me is saying now might be a good time to mention something to you.”
“Ok go ahead.”
“Um…well….um…about the um.”
He’s taking trying to help me talk and then he says “ok I’m just going to be quite.”
“Umm…well…um I want…”
“It’s ok, you’re doing good, take your time.”
“Well…it’s just that…um.” This used to happen so often in the past but now I can make sense of it. The child part wants to talk but the critic, sensing it isn’t safe to discuss how my body feels in the presence of a male, tries to put the child to “sleep” as in into a dissociative shutdown state, the kind that helped me cope with incest taking place. Not now. Not now. Another part of me is trying to convince the critic to back off.
“Can you go back a bit? Say it again?”
He starts to repeat things discussed earlier and I say no no no until he hits on me wanting to move my feet onto the couch and this helps me come back into the body. I tell him that the last two sessions when he has offered all the other seats to me I’ve actually ready wanted to try them all especially the one on the floor but as soon as I register that desire I feel someone telling me no that’s not allowed.
“I used to think that the fear of moving was only about the memories I have about being grabbed in a violent way, that if I move, someone will grab me and I’ll be attacked. But I realise that I’ve also experienced this sense that as soon as I have the urge to participate or move my body in the presence of another, I feel someone grab me and hold me back. Almost how I used to watch my son when he was 2 or 3 and anticipate when he might go to hit another child, I’d whisk him away. So I have an urge like to move my legs but as soon as the critic registers oh this will feel nicer to move or more comfortable or wanting to do something enjoyable with someone else there is the resistance. It’s not safe.”
“I’ve felt this growing for the last year or so; the child wants to move to safety and the critic doesn’t think it’s safe and holds it back. I feel the tension and its been growing.”
“That must be awful.”
“Yes, like being stretched like an elastic band.”
“This is something we can work on. We can put the trauma aside and work on following what’s good. We can do little experiments here with the furniture and add it to the contract document of goals.” Yes yes! This is what Dr K was going to do.
“Yes I’d like to do that.” The conversation drifts back to a previous topic. “The whole world is heroin to the critic. There are only two roles to choose from. Perpetrator or victim. And the critic is sick of choosing and wants to be left alone and have peace. But now it makes sense of why I’ve always hated teamwork or never understood it. Like I’ve always hated groupwork and team sports. And there was a time you said you pictured us in a boat together, like navigating things in therapy. And I remember that made no sense to me. I always pictured you off on the shore.”
“Yes, I still see us that way. I remember that session and the look on your face.”
“I mean it was nice but it made no sense.”
He’s nodding and then adds, “it’s safer for you to be angry at me and for me to be the bad one. What other roles might there be?”
“Rescuer. That whole triad thing. And I swap into that role too.”
“This leads into those questions you asked me about why I would help you and why I wouldn’t behave the way the critic expects.”
“Yes. The critic needs to know what will be different. How is this not the same heroin.”
He turns to me and says matter-of-fact, “because I’m in control of myself.”
“Yes, but it’s also about me. I want to be controlled. I mean I hate being controlled but the critic feels it needs to be. When I was 3, I was just being me and a bad thing happened. So, I have this worry, who will stop me. If I allow myself to follow what feels good, who will stop me from doing something bad.”
“I will. That’s my job. To keep this place safe and to keep you safe while you’re here.”
“We need to add that to the sheet with the contract and goals too,” I say.
“Ok, that sounds good.”
“I have it here. I’ve got some other changes I’d like.” I hand him the PDF he sent me. There’s highlighting in yellow and comments in red all over it.
“Oh you’ve even added the changes. Excellent!” I’ve never seen anyone so excited by an edited document.
The session draws to a close and I feel the first twinges of shame; almost like grey storm clouds looming that threaten to block out the light coming through the trees.
“Can you say something to me to give me reassurance that I haven’t done anything bad and that today was progress?”
“Sure. You did so well. You managed different competing states well. This was a good session.”
I’m not out of the woods, I’m not even half way, but maybe I’m not going in circles. This might be a new pathway. And that’s good enough for today.