Thursday’s session was the worst session all year, quite possibly ever. And I say that because on Thursday night I sent Psychologist J an email that started with:
I have to say that was the worst session all year, quite possibly ever.
and the email ended with:
Just stop being a male. Just stop it ok. Just be safe please.
So yeah, that session, it didn’t go so well.
98% of the session was an emotional flashback to the anger and torment of sexual, physical and emotional abuse by my father though at the time I was convinced Psychologist J was a horrid being. I did some REALLY good crying though. Like proper sobbing with loud noises and panda eyes. I emptied his tissue box too.
In my defence, I didn’t used to send J emails but sometime earlier this year I started to hear an intrusive voice saying things like “you can get fucked!” I ignored it for a long time but when I told him I was hearing these things he told me to start saying out them loud no matter how rude because – AND I QUOTE – “it makes my job easier.”
What good is anger if you can’t act on its impulse? You have to stockpile it until you have a dangerous collection of grenades.
I recently read in the comment section of another blog something like anger has no purpose, that it solves nothing. It made me ponder this difficult emotion.
Anger is part of our central nervous system’s response to threat; part of our fight/flight/freeze response regulated by the limbic system which is part of what people refer to as our “primitive brain” – the part of our modern day brain structure that we share with the cavemen.
There is nothing inherently good or bad about any emotion. Anger is no more “bad” than happiness or sadness. It’s just a response to stimuli.
What I know about anger, I’ve learnt from the Catholic Church (it’s bad, don’t feel it you awful awful sinner), from Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing therapy by way of Dr K (it needs to be released in a useful way) and Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) via Psychologist J (it has a purpose that can be used for good or bad).
So what should we do with anger when it arises?
I met Psychologist J in 2008 in a DBT outpatient group therapy program. When I arrived for an introductory session, there he was in beige pants, a blue check shirt and boots I’ve since spent countless hours staring at. He was standing in the middle of a room in a cottage that had been converted into therapy rooms telling a bunch of us seated around him that there would be two groups going forward. I didn’t really listen to much more. I was intrigued by him. This was at a time when my fear of males was at its peak, and yet I felt for the first time curiosity. He emanated an aura of relaxed, calm assertiveness. A fellow group member would later tell me she assumed he was gay because he seemed so effeminate. I later learned he was a heterosexual married male but he has 4 older sisters which means he’s “very in touch with my feminine side.”
After that session I immediately called the therapy office and asked if I could be specifically put into his group. I wonder how my life would have turned out now if I’d ended up in the other group and never gotten to know him. Imagine if he had never referred me to Dr K when the group ended and I’d never been referred back to him when Dr K went on leave for the first time in 2009. Where would I be now? With another deadbeat Psychiatrist?
And yet, after these difficult months I sometimes wonder would I have ended up somewhere better? Right now he seems to be strumming on my rawest nerves which launch me into fits of anger.
After a recent spinal tap, my husband described a moment when the technician moved the needle in such a way that intense nerve pain shot down his back, through his leg and right down to his toe. He said he thought he was going to pass out. Is that what J is doing in therapy right now? It sometimes feels like it.
Anyway, as part of the “Emotion Regulation” section of DBT, we learned the purpose of emotions. Anger lets know we’ve been wronged. If we didn’t feel anger at all, imagine what might become of us?
Anger prepares the body to fight/flight it’s way out of a deadly attack. It fuels our body and brain to defend ourselves or someone. Think of all the passionate activists out there; if it was not for their ability to feel anger what would motivate them to fight for change?
Dr K used to talk about how people with depression are stuck in the freeze response and that they need help accessing anger to get their body back into balance. Of course it has to be done a certain way after all some people have the opposite problem and require anger management due to being stuck in the fight response.
She was going to help me unlock the anger trapped in me and feel “the goodness of righteous anger.”
That statement came at me like a hard shiny marble. Righteous anger. Such an interesting thought after having been called “self righteous” so many times by my parents. I turned it around in my mind’s eye, examined this tiny marble of thought from all angles. It sounds like the thing of Gods. Like Jesus’ one moment of anger at the Temple. That was righteous. Or how we speak of “the wrath of God” even though wrath is one of the seven deadly sins. Anger is not always unjustified and not always an ugly response to display?
Peter Levine, as I learnt from Dr K, created Somatic Experiencing therapy after he discovered that animals never experience PTSD because their bodies always release the energy generated by during intense danger either by using flight/flight or, if they go into freeze, by shaking and trembling after the threat is over.
Humans have a smarter, higher brain that tells us things like that if we punch our boss because what he said felt like a threat, we will be out of a job.
We might not be able to flee or fight as in often the case for children in abuse. The only option is to freeze like the impala. But when we come out of the freeze state, we don’t “shake it off” as the impala did because our higher brain stops us (for fear of looking “weird” I suppose) and because after traumatic physical accidents ER doctors and paramedics try to treat these natural shakes and the natural changes in blood pressure and heart rate by holding the patient still with restraints or medicating them. So the fight/flight response is truncated and we collect another grenade we have to find a way to intellectually “let go of” that never really feels satisfactory.
Peter Levine was once in a serious accident when he was hit by a car when walking, and aware of his newly forming theory, he clung to some sense of safety in the gaze of a friendly onlooker and argued with the paramedics about what he needed, allowed himself to feel the rage of being hit, let his body and heart rate do what it needed to do, and claims he never suffered any PTSD from the accident. Perhaps if he wasn’t a Doctor and he didn’t have the beginnings his now well researched therapy modality, he might not have fared so well.
So it seems we need anger. That’s isn’t the problem. When we feel anger, we can’t always discharge it safely. And that is where the real problem lies.
And it becomes an extra special sort of problem when the anger or the fight response is trapped in a part of yourself that you didn’t even know really existed until say…6 months ago.
I’ve put off writing about this session for so long, that another session has actually come and gone. I am looking at the notes I made and it makes me cringe. I should have compassion for myself, and at times I do, but other times…Eeek.
The problem with this session was that Psychologist J was wearing a bright button up short-sleeved collared shirt. I’ve told him before how much that reminds me of my father. It fills me with shame to admit that a shirt can make me come undone and yet intellectually I know people can be fearful of anything especially if it was part of a traumatic situation. So I shouldn’t feel shame and yet I do. But I had anticipated such a shirt and had through about what I could ask to make him seem safe. The other problem with this session is it was so emotional, that even my notes are kind of scattered jumbled fragments of what took place.
As soon as I sit down I know the shirt is going problem. I feel my whole body tense up in fear. J tries moving to various seats in the room asking me if it feels safe for me. It doesn’t. He notices me looking down and says
“You mentioned in an email that you wanted me to do the talking.” I immediately shake my head no. I don’t recognise him as a safe person yet. He asks me to try looking around the room.
“That won’t help.” He must have tried to help me ground myself some other way because eventually I blurt out, “Your shirt is bothering me.”
“I can’t really do anything to change it now.” I feel frustrated that he is acting so defeatist. Isn’t it my job to feel like nothing can be done with a problem?
“I wear it to cover up parts of my body. I wore it because it’s longer at the back and you told me not to expose my back.” He is referring to an email I sent that he thanked me for sending him where I told him that on a few rare occasions when he bends over or stoops to move a chair, I can see his back and his underwear and it makes me uncomfortable. This instantly irritates me because I hate it when someone tries to make me appreciate something I don’t like and also because
“I didn’t tell you you couldn’t wear a t-shirt! I told you I didn’t want to see your back or underwear. I didn’t want you to bend over and expose yourself. I like the t-shirts!” I think at this point I am already crying. Probably as so much crying was involved. I’ve quite possibly forgotten how long I was non-verbal at the start of the session too.
“I want you to tell me about the shirt to make it safe. Tell me everything you know about it.”
“Ok I bought it myself. I bought it from Uniqlo in the city.”
FINALLY. This is useful information. My brain is lining it up against what I know about my dad and his shirts. Does he buy them himself? No my mother does. Does he shop at Uniqlo? Never…ok this person must not be my father. Just as I’m about to feel safe he blurts out something like
“But I want to challenge you. Even if this shirt is the same as your father’s, I’m not him. Does that make sense?” It doesn’t.
“No. I don’t understand. I just want you to tell me about the shirt. I need you to do it like how you taught me to do a trauma script. (To go into detail about the present situation so I know it’s not the past) Tell me information about it so I can know it’s different to his.”
“OH you want me to do all that FOR you?” he says in a tone that I interpret as an accusation of laziness. Boy do things go downhill fast from here.
Here I cry out like a wounded child “Why did you say it like that? FOR you?”
“I was surprised that you needed all that information.”
“You shouldn’t say it like that! You told me to tell you what helps! I thought about this before session and I thought about what would help if you wore one of those shirts – “
“Oh did you?”
“-and then when I bravely ask you about the shirt you respond with that tone like I’m so annoying! I hate people making me feel so annoying. I’m so sick of this. You aren’t supposed to be the defeatist one! You aren’t suppose to say ‘oh well I can’t do anything about it.”
He says something that seems like he now understands my request and explains that he was just surprised not annoyed at me. He mentions what the shirt’s made of, where he wears it, how old it is and that I’ve seen him wear it before.
I look down, close my eyes and cry. He apologises for not understanding sooner where my line of questioning was going. But I am too emotional at this point and let rip a bunch of stuff, only a select few lines I recall:
“I feel so much anger and shame! This session is wasted!”
“I’m so sick of you being so perfect!”
Here my memory is patchy. Somehow all of this has worked me up into a kind of shame storm/flashback and I’m looking down with my eyes still closed and crying and trying to curl up into a ball while staying seated.
“Is this a flashback? This is probably a flashback. It is,” he says. “Can you indicate who is there? Is it the critic? Do you want me to help you ground. That will help.” He keeps talking and eventually I manage to shout at him “Stop talking! You’re trying to trick me!” This of course WAS a flashback to what I have since come to know about my father, everything nice he ever said was just a trick to reel me back in.
Here it all gets too much for me. He says there is only 15 minutes of the session left and he wants to help me. I take my glasses off, put my head in my hands and do those actual loud real sobbing noises like BOO HOO HOO.
“What am I going to do after this session? I was going to come today and say to you I don’t want to feel worse than when I came in and I do. I wanted help dealing with the anger and getting it out of my body. I didn’t want it triggered!”
“I can still help you with that.”
“It’s too late! It’s gone to the place where I want to hurt myself!”
“I can sit by you and put my hand on your back.”
“No!” Still I am sobbing and grabbing tissues and pull out the last tissue. The timing is just perfect. Another big sob about running out of tissues.
“Do you want more tissues? I can get more.” I say no. He spends some time talking about the session and mentions he feels guilty for making a mistake.
Here there is a chuck missing from my memory. Probably more crying and more talking by him but at some point I said I did want some comfort and he offers to come over and sit next to me on the couch and put his hand on my back. I say yes.
“Ok I’ll come over really slowly and I want you to pay attention to what you’re feeling in your body.”
He gets up and walks literally sooooooooooooo slowly almost like he’s doing some kind of modern slow motion pop-and-locking type dance. He sits on the couch a good distance from me.
“I don’t want you to put your hand on my back.”
“Ok. I’ll just stay here. How’s this. Is it ok?” I glance at him and for some reason his body seems really tiny and his face looks narrow and strange. He’s taller than me and I’m no midget yet every time I dare to glance at him, he’s still there so small and compact like a fold-up chair.
He explains again that he was just kind of surprised I wanted to know so much about the shirt and how prior to that, when I kept saying every seat he sat in was no good, he’d been thinking “ok I’m not very safe to her today.” I don’t know. Maybe he said he was unsure of how to proceed. Whatever he said I replied to him that it wouldn’t bother Dr K and that he should hide it from me and he said he couldn’t and I said “She could.”
We talked for a little bit sitting on the couch, I think because he didn’t want me to leave the session so emotional. I can only recall a few snippets of the conversation.
“The critic wants so much consistency.”
“I would never hurt you and I won’t let you ever do anything bad either because it’s my job to protect this space.”
And perhaps most importantly
“It’s been an awful week for you. We will get through this one day at a time.”
Linehan, M. (Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Chapter 3 Examples of Emotions and Their Functions. Retrieved from. https://www.sunrisertc.com/emotions-list/
Peter Levine’s accident. Retrieved from https://www.psychalive.org/video-dr-peter-levine-on-working-through-personal-traumatic-experience/