This is a hard post to write because some of it is about other people so I have to omit it and write around the missing information and it’s also hard because some memory states were triggered that made me behave in ways I’m not proud of.
Nevertheless it must be blogged about. Must it? Yes it must! If it isn’t blogged about, it won’t be remembered by me, such is the slippery slope that is my memory; a tilted bookshelf were all the books slide off into an abyss.
I drive to the session feeling unstable. By that I mean I’m juggling several things that feel pressing to talk about and I can feel both the child part and the inner critic part getting frazzled and threatening to pull me into the past. So I decide to try grounding myself as I drive. I feel my hands on the steering wheel. There are the bumps that have been picked at. I name all the sights I can see – ugly building, famous bridge, clouds…But still I find it hard to stay grounded to the present. So I prepare what I want to say for the start of the session and I enter the room and sit down. Before I get a chance to start my prepared monologue Psychologist J gets up and walks over to his desk saying “I just want to quickly discuss the Christmas period. I’ll be away from …” he comes back from his desk and hands me a small piece of paper with the dates on it. My brain is sluggish. It wants to tell him to stop talking, let me have a chance to locate where I am in time and space.
“You better get out your phone,” he says. My body obeys while my mind is still thinking I need him to stop but I’m unable to find the words. “I’m going to be away Thursday the 24th of December so we won’t have a session that day. But I’m working the …do you want a session on that week?” I misunderstand and think he’s talking about the week before.
“Ok so we can have a session on the Thursday.”
“So I’ll have only one session that week?”
“So you’ll be away Monday 15th of December?”
“Ok I’m so confused.” My head is starting to hurt. I can feel the fogginess growing and also a mild sense of distress.
“Ok lets start over.” He repeats himself and I finally understand but I struggle to put the appointments into my phone. Apple has done an update recently that has affected my calendar widget which I’m still trying to work out. My frustration grows as I find I’m unable to enter the appointment.
“I really don’t want to do this right now,” I say with petulance.
“I just want to get it out of the way,” he says. I’m still trying to enter the information into the calendar as a tear rolls down my cheek. I rub my head which has a dull ache and is filled with buzzing bees. Next comes the anger and overwhelm.
“I can’t do it! I needed a moment before we started this!” I snap.
“Do you want to put it aside?” he says. But it’s too late. I’m in a memory now, feeling young and frustrated and angry and hurt and ashamed.
“No. I’ll do it now.” I finally manage to enter the information and throw my phone to the side. I cover my eyes with my hand as I rub my forehead and feel the waves of shame and anger washing over me. I hate him! I hate him! Why did he do this to me!
There’s a period where I’m silent and crying and hiding behind my hand that’s resting on my forehead. He’s taking and I’m not listening. Eventually I say in my most melodramatic voice “I didn’t want to feel like this! The session is ruined!” Psychologist J is speaking slowly and calmly about how I seem so alone in my torment and maybe he can do something to help settle me .
“It’s too late. I just want to curl up under this blanket and die.” I’m serious when I say that, so intense is the shame/anger flashback. Sometimes, after my father would abuse me, he would try to reconcile with me or comfort me and yet the memory of him trying to comfort me is devoid of emotions. The feelings have been stripped from it and stored in a different part of the brain as an emotional flashback. Such is the nature of emotional flashbacks – they are free-floating horrors too intense for a child’s brain, frozen in time, and only released when the event is over. A collection of feelings ready to latch onto any event in the present and cling there like a deadly parasite. But now two years into this focus on trauma with Psychologist J, I’m starting to see the parasitic emotions for what they are. This particular parasite stings me with betrayal and humiliation.
So there I was, flooded with the feelings of the past, feeling intense torment and feeling there is no way out of a horrible relationship. Much to my annoyance, I’m unable to curl up into a ball and hide or run from the room – frozen again as I was then in the presence of a much larger human, frozen in a state of exposure and humiliation. I toss my glasses off and start sobbing into my hands. J passes me the box of tissues.
“I was holding it together! I just needed a moment to ground myself first before you started talking. I was managing all the parts and trying not to freak out!” I’m sure J was listening and responding calmly but I don’t recall his words.
“The weekend was awful and I can’t cope with [incidents I can’t mention here]!”
“That sounds awful.”
“Yes. I didn’t want to do the calender thing but you insisted on it.”
“I wasn’t aware I was being so stubborn.” He’s changed his tone of voice to match how you would speak to a child. A part of me is instantly irritated by this gentle assertiveness because it intensifies my shame. I immediately recognise his manner and choice of words as how I manage my own child and have a flash of imagining what he’s thinking. She’s angry but I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t insist on doing anything. She didn’t tell me she didn’t want to work out the dates. She got her phone out. I would have stopped if she’d asked me.
“No you weren’t. I should have been able to say no but I never can. And later when I tried to say no you still pushed to do it.”
“I gave you a bit of a fright. I was being dominant.” Yes! He has identified the trigger! He was dominant and I submitted to a request despite my gut instinct not to. That is the link to the past.
“Yes. I feel steamrolled.
“I kind of spooked you.”
“Yes. I just needed a moment to come into the room. Dr K always spent some time making sure I was present and grounded. She said it didn’t matter if it took the whole session, it was the most important thing.” Psychologist J is nodding. “You don’t realise how I was just holding it together. I was juggling parts. There was stuff I was going to tell you about [incident].” More nods from J.
“I didn’t want to activate the critic because I so need your help and the child part would accept it but now that the critic has been activated I can’t make use of comfort.” He says he wishes he could offer comfort and says he’s there to help.
“It’s too late. The only thing that will help when I’m this far into the memory is to hurt myself.”
“You’re angry at me.”
“No I’m not. I only want to block out the feelings.” The flashback has morphed to a point where my entire body feels like it is on fire with pain and betrayal.
I gently hit my forehead with a fist right where my head is pounding. It feels good. The sharp bang knocks me out of my body for a millisecond giving me relief from the inferno. I hit my head again and again each time a little harder until I am doing a decent punch.
“Look, I won’t allow that,” he says firmly. “I won’t let you hurt yourself. I will help you stomp it out or twist the rug.”
“No, I need to hurt myself.”
“No only me. You seemed so safe to me but all the parts were feeling very triggery like I knew a hair trigger would set them off. After we did that document you felt safe. We have a good session and then everything goes bad!”
“The critic is very scared.” For some reason when he says this, it reaches deep into me. The critic IS very scared but it never likes to feel it or admit it since it’s job has always been to cope with the worst so the rest of me could survive. His simple phrase releases something inside me, I start sobbing and I feel both the critic and the child crying at once. For a split second I see them inside myself as the same child split in two – like identical twins but one the good child and one the evil child – or like opposite sides of the same coin.
I start telling him in detail about the incidents that have been troubling me so much and how I feel I can’t deal with it. He says things like “you’re managing so much” and “good for you, good for you for saying that to [that person].” But now another change is taking place inside. I knew before the session that the child part was the most troubled by these incidents and I had wanted to go slowly this session so as to not fully activate this part of me. But now as the floodgates have crashed down and tidal waves of thoughts and emotions have splashed out all over the room, the child part is suddenly the one in the drivers seat of my body.
“I’m so scared! I can’t cope with [these incidents] and I need someone to help me! Dr K is gone and I need your help now. I’m not supposed to be here! I’m supposed to be in the back of the mind and (my name) is supposed to be here. I’m not supposed to be here because (my name) knows I want so much safety, I won’t want to leave this session because I can never get enough comfort. I want comfort and there is no one who can give it to me!” As I’m wailing, my voice is high-pitched like a child, my body feels tiny and as per usual I feel half in a dream state because this is another re-enactment of unmet childhood needs.
“I can offer you some comfort. If you like, I can sit near you and put my hand your your back. But I don’t want to scare the critic.” For a second I imagine how good it would feel to have his hand there while I feel so small. But I know I can’t accept because the critic will be disgusted later.
“I feel like I’m in a memory.”
“Ok, I’m going to put my hand out.” He leans forward and a huge hand comes into my line of vision. His right arm is outstretched at me with his palm up. “I’m going to help you ground yourself. I’ll leave my hand here and I want you to put your hand into mine.” I stare at the hand. It’s on the side of me that I associate with the inner critic. The critic would never take his hand and the child is unable to make sense of something out of it’s 180 degrees of existence.
“I need the other hand.” He switches hands and the urge to grab it flickers and then shifts to fear. “I can’t do it because I’ll fall down.”
“I’ll catch you. If you stand up and feel wobbly I can put my hand on your back or on you like this (he demonstrates) but only to steady you. Or you can put your other hand on the wall.” There have been times I’ve accepted his hand and the falling sensation when I stand is awful.
“No, I fall down in my head.”
“Oh. You’ve never told me that before.”
“I fall down inside but I don’t want to explain. I don’t want to talk about something that another part would talk about.”
“Another part wants to talk about this?”
I eventually pass on the message I hear in my head, that my body is small but when I stand up, I’m suddenly in a big tall body and I fall down into it. It feels like being lifted high into the air and plummeting down much like a carnival ride. And then I always feel so dizzy and wobbly just like I’ve stepped off a merry-go-round.
“How about I hold one end of the blanket and you hold the other and we pull it.” I can’t do that. It feels too scary. I don’t want to feel him pulling. The present is still being overlaid with images from the past making me want to recoil from any form of participation. “I want you to hold onto something that’s real.” I know that his suggestions would work, would eventually bring me to the present but the first step is always the hardest because the sensations from the present momentarily make the flashback louder.
“Ok, how about we play a game…like catch. I can throw a ball to you.” Hell no! To risky. I can’t interact that much with a man. He’s talking to me but I’m too dissociated to understand him.
“I can’t understand what you’re saying. I’m too scared.”
He rolls out another oldie but a goody from his bad of grounding tricks.
“Do you want to play a game where we to name 5 things? I’ll start first.” Naming things you see is a well known grounding technique, one I had used on the way over. The more you force your brain to see the current safe environment, the easier it is for your amygdala to stop firing images of terror from the past.
But this time the child is also feeling some of the memories of the inner critic. Therapy has done more than just “recover” memories or unlock parts of my brain, it has also been eroding the amnesiac walls that kept parts from knowing what other parts know. The child is wary of participating in an activity with a man. What if it’s a trick? What if it leads to that bad stuff?
I shake my head no.
“You start first?” I shake my head no again.
“You don’t want to play?” I nod.
“How about we do a number game.” I shake my head no.
“I need you to move.” He gets up and moves to a chair on my right.
“Does that feel safe?” I nod. “How do you know it feels safe?”
“Oh,” he smiles. We spend some time adjusting him to just the right angle and distance and I suddenly I recognise him.
“Do you know who I am?” I hear someone in my head say his name but I’m unable to say it.
“I’m J.” I nod.
“Do you know where you are?” I nod.
“Yes. I know you. You’re safe to me now.” I look at his face and it seems beautiful and warm and old. I know this is transference and yet I can’t shake it. The child always sees him this way.
“I wasn’t supposed to be here today.” I say sadly.
“Yes.” There is a moment of silence and then I say, “What was the number game?”
“You want to try it?” I nod yes.
“Do you know numbers. Big ones?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Ok, I’ll start. I’ll say a number and you say what comes next.” This is another grounding technique. Another way to try to activate a part of the brain other than the amygdala and hippocampus that are responsible for fight/flight and replaying memories respectively. By activating other parts of the brain, it can eventually shut off dissociation and/or a flashback.
“One,” he says. “Do you know what comes next?” I don’t answer. My brain is unable to make sense of this word.
My head feels dreamy and cloudy, no thicker than that, like I’m swimming through honey. Off in the distance I hear a voice saying “two, two, two.” I listen to the word but can’t seem to work out how to make it come out of me, I feel as child must feel as it learns to make and control the sounds that come from it’s mouth. TWO. TWO. TWOOOOOO. The voice is screaming at me now.
“Is someone shouting it at the back?” he asks. I nod.
I work on each step slowly. I curl my mouth into an o shape. I take a breath in, I touch my tongue to the tip of my mouth, I slowly push the air past my vocal chords.
“T..wo,” I whisper. There is a flash of shock as I hear myself. I said a word!
“Three.” There is silence again. “You can ask someone to tell you.”
“Four,” I say. The words flow out as the softest meekest sound ever. I’m starting to feel safe. My body is feeling warm.
“Five.” Now the warm feeling is morphing into another flashback because I’m engaging in something with a man. I start to feel the hint of unpleasant sexual body memories. I remain silent. “Can you go inside and ask for the next number?”
“You’re having a memory?” I nod. I tell him how good and bad feelings feel meshed due to being so young when my father abused me. Dr K called it “over coupling.” We’ve discussed this often, how whenever I feel safe in therapy with him or Dr K, but especially him, after the session it triggers memories of what came after the sexual abuse – the betrayal, the shame, the horror, the disgust. We talk about how my father lost control of his lustful urges which have lead me to believe I will also lose control of myself whenever I feel good in the presence of another (except for a rare few people I have come to trust in my life).
He looks at me intently and says, “I would never let anything happen to you. I wouldn’t ever do anything to you that would hurt you.”
“But who will stop me? Dr K said she would make sure I wouldn’t lose control of myself if I allow myself to let in good feelings.”
“I would stop you but in a way that was kind and safe.”
“I don’t even know what it is I’m afraid I would do. There were just no boundaries in that relationship.” Psychologist J agrees that my dad had no boundaries and had lost control of himself completely around me as a child both sexually and with anger.
“I think we need to add this to the document. We need a rule that says when things feel safe, I can say to myself ‘it’s safe to feel the safe feelings because J would never do anything to me and he won’t allow me to do anything bad either so nothing will happen that I will later discover was bad.'”
“Yes! That’s right.”
“Ok. Good. Because if I feel safety or comfort I want to be able to take it in.”
“Yes. You’ve earned this comfort. Maybe we need to go slower when things feel safe so when it starts to not feel safe you can tell me. That’s why I was going slowly with the number game.”
“Except that there isn’t a moment. As soon as I feel safe it goes straight to the memory of having been a part of something horrible. The good and bad feelings come together.” I tell him that when we were playing the number game, the moment my body started to feel warm and safe, I had also felt like someone was doing awful things to other parts of my body. Even though he has told me many times that nothing shocks him and that he is totally comfortable hearing all things sexual and explicit, I remain vague about what I recalled knowing he will fill in the blanks. As the session draws to a close, I feel myself kind of booting the child out of the drivers seat but not before it asks in a panic “Do you know what I mean, about my body hurting?”
“Oh yes, yes. I know.”
I like these sessions where there’s time for a good wrap up; time for him to talk for a paragraph or more while I burn the image of his safe face into my mind. I’m still seeing his face through the eyes of a child. He seems to be glowing with goodness and kindness, like Santa Claus or Glinda the Good Witch from the Wizard of Oz.
After assuring me he has been working on the document and will add experimenting with movement in the room he smiles and says “You did well doing that game with me. Well done you. There was a rocky start but we worked through it. So yes well done you!”
It is so strange to be praised for behaviour that was considered so intolerable by my parents when I was a child. I think his praise helps me register that it took effort to pull myself out of the violent quicksand of emotional flashbacks. It feels almost like my very insides have been vacuumed out of me. Even so, I’m aware I’d lost the plot simply because he asked me to put a date into my calendar.
So yes…it feels so strange. Without his kindness and acceptance, I know such behaviour would inevitably lead to a shame storm, cruel words said to myself and a wish to never return to therapy. So much of how he handles my emotions reminds me of how I handle my child’s meltdowns. I suppose that isn’t so surprising since I practice attachment parenting. I guess it feels odd to be parented as I parent. Still I can not fathom why any therapist would tackle attachment trauma. How hard it must be for him to stay calm and empathetic in the presence of an adult behaving childishly.
“You seem more stable now, a bit more present.”
“Yes but I’m still not fully here.”
“No. But more so than before.”
I’ve watched Youtube videos of people with DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder formerly Multiple Personality Disorder) dissociating and switching from one alter to another and while I can usually pick up when they are dissociating, I can’t necessarily know when they are a blend of alters or separate alters and yet people with DID have even more pronounced parts than I have. There is a part of me always amazed at how intuitive he is; how he can pick up the early signs of dissociation. He reads breathing rate, skin colour, pupil dilation, body tension, eye focus…affect I suppose is the technical term. So I leave, a strange mix of the child, adult and critic and for the next few days, I carry his glowing face in my mind. I’m Dorothy, I’m a long way from Kansas but for now it feels like I’m on the right path home.
If you would like to read a scientific explanation of emotional flashbacks and what parts of the brain and body are involved in this phenomenon please go to this link which discusses a few research papers.