I’ve recently emerged from a hellish place called January. I’d been on school holidays with my son for what felt like a year. Don’t get me wrong, I love my boy and I made a point of savouring the extra time with him as best as I could. I feel we have grown closer over the month and my love for him has deepened. But I have to say, 10 hours a day with a special needs child leaves little room for blogging. Or living. Or anything really. Hence why this blog post appears the week he’s started school.
Parenting my child can sometimes feel like this:
I never did blog the last three sessions last year so I will do it now.
Bad session. Can’t remember it.
Bad session. Can’t remember it.
Good session. Felt safe. Felt connected. Told J I didn’t want him to go on a break. The end.
Then a month of struggling without a therapist.
Some days I felt like a ghost or a shell or a stranger to myself; an empty nothing whose eeriness frightened me. Was I being erased? Other days I felt strangely liberated by this emptiness after weeks of intense sessions riddled with dissociation and transference.
Sometimes I cried, felt angry or talked to Psychologist J in my head. I might even have sent him two emails.
The child part and the inner critic when silent. A new part emerged; a child fragment that was unaware of the past and horrified to learn about it.
Then Psychologist J came back and with him the missing parts. That session was GOOD.
He looked familiar, safe, normal. He looked like the J of 2018. I told him about how I felt like I had vanished and been replaced by a functioning shell. He said it sounded like a coper part. I agreed that it was and that the last time it was around was when I was a child. It was the part that just got though things when I was a child living with people who gave me no love.
I told him about my changes to my diet and how I am terrified of packing lunches for my son when he starts school. He said he could help with the lunches and something about scarcity, about not having had good eating habits modelled. His hair was longer and I liked it. He had new glasses I liked too. At one point he was laughing about his plant that was missing from the room. He took it home over the break to look after it but accidently killed it with too much sun.
He told me I’d done well to get thought what sounded like a tough break. I told him I stayed sane by distracting myself. I binge watched Netflix series each evening while shopping online for Christmas decorations.
“No, I mean I spend a ridiculous amount of money on Christmas decorations mostly from America. They have so much good stuff there. I just spent the evenings adding things to the cart then removing them then adding them.”
“No, you don’t understand. I’m talking a RIDICULOUS amount of money.” I didn’t tell him it was probably now over AUD$1000.
“Before the break you said one thing you know about me is that I like Onitsuka Tiger Brand shoes.”
“Yes,” he nods.
“But you’re wrong. I used to buy them because I thought they were cool. Now I buy them because it’s easy. I know what size I am and I can buy them quickly. I buy them because they’re practical and safe.”
“Ah. You mentioned wanting to work on dressing more like yourself in the future.”
“Yes I do. Anyway, one thing about me that you don’t know is that I’m obsessed with Christmas decorations. I mean OBSESSED. Christmas was the one time in my life as a child that my family seemed tolerable. Christmas has good memories for me. So I buy Christmas decorations in a vain attempt to capture that good feeling.”
It’s February now and I have 6 boxes of decorations sitting in a shipping company’s storage facility in America. I still have two carts pending as well. Not to mention the two orders that have already arrived via Amazon. And the order that will arrive later in the year. And there’s the glass decoration I bought from eBay from China for $6.92 that turned out to be a lump of plastic. I enjoyed battling it out with the seller for a refund. After about a month of arguing, Paypal has refunded me the full amount.
“But at least I didn’t do anything bad like self harm or binge eat.”
“Exactly,” he says, “there are worse ways to cope than buying decorations.”
I remember telling him I was exhausted from several nights of broken sleep, the cause being inexplicable shoulder pain and being woken by either my son calling out or my husband snoring. He said something about the shoulder pain being reflective of what I’m carrying.
“You’re literally carrying a burden.” I think that’s what he said. Nice observation but it didn’t really do anything to remove said burden.
The next appointment, can’t really be written about without mentioning a brief but horrendous trip to psychoville. It’s not often I find myself in a full blown crisis, and when I do, I recognise it sooner, know what to do, I come out of it faster but it never feels easier or less horrendous. The first time it happened, it took a year to pass. Now, a matter of days. And as yet, I don’t think I’ve ever returned from one of these extended visits to the past without the help of Psychologist J and a few of my favourite emergency anti-psychotics and benzodiazepines. All hail the inventors of Lorazepam, Xyprexa, and Quetiapine! And God bless Dr M for trusting me to use them wisely. My cupboard is always well stocked.
The worst flashback states ever are always triggered by being woken in the night and something preventing me from going back to sleep (in this case, my husband snoring). It maps onto having been woken at night to be abused. The wish is the same: for the intrusion on my sleep to stop RIGHT NOW and there being no where safe to run to to get away from the intrusion.
After the second night of sleeping on the couch near a snoring dog, I woke the next morning and could feel the first twinge of horror. By breakfast I was in full blown crisis. Waves of nausea, unstoppable tears, utter confusion. At one point I was crawling on the floor trying to pick up Lego but I was unable to remember how to move my arm to reach for it because my body was thrown into tonic immobility. Somehow I guided myself to stand up and go to the bed where I lay in a ball sobbing and trembling waiting for something to be over. In this state, no one seems familiar, not even myself. I feel truly insane and like my life is in imminent danger. My brain feels squeezed by a bench vice. My body relives the physical sensations of sexual abuse.
Then began the usual route out of hell. A phone call to Psychologist J and then grasping at whatever scraps of my mind are free and turning them over to the task of grounding me to the safety of the present.
I call J again in the evening as the horror escalates again but he isn’t available. Most of my voicemail is me crying. He leaves me a voicemail message with skills prompts but I can’t make sense of his instructions. My brain is unable to hold the meaning of a sentence longer than a handful of words. I replay the message and focus on the safe sound of his voice instead. Then I call a trusted friend and she walks me through some self-calming statements. And when evening comes, I take the medication to knock myself out.
While I’m stuck in this land of horror, there is a part of my mind piecing together the other triggers besides broken sleep: a recent MRI, a Netflix series about a serial rapist, going to a male chiropractor. (On a side note, I heavily recommend aforementioned series Unbelievable if only for people to better understand how difficult it is for survivors to report sexual abuse to police. Retraumatising is an understatement).
When Monday’s appointment rolled around, I was coming out of the worst of the trip down nightmare lane. I mention again that over the break, familiar parts of me seemed inaccessible but a new part seemed to be emerging.
“It feels like a part of me that is very young that doesn’t know that the trauma is real. I could kind of feel it there in the background kind of like how you might watch someone crying and know how they feel.”
“Being able to sense these parts is a sign of growth,” he says.
“I wish I didn’t have that kind of growth,” I say rolling my eyes in disgust. “Thank you for returning my call and leaving that message to write an orienting script although I couldn’t really make sense of it.”
“No,” he laughs and he says something as though to imply it was his fault.
“It’s not your fault. The partof my brain that can understand big words wasn’t present. I could hear the words but I couldn’t work out what to do. I ended up calling a friend and she helped me. She said the words I needed to say to myself, you know like she said ‘you’re safe, you’re safe’.” He nods. “I really just needed to hear someone’s voice, someone who was real and safe who I trusted to tell me I was safe and for me to know that I was in the same dimension as them.”
He starts helping me prepare an orienting script for the next time this happens. An orienting script is just a bunch of facts you can say to yourself about what is happening so that you can know that what you are feeling is not really about now, its a flashback.
“The thing that triggers me is when something in the night is preventing me from going back to sleep. It maps onto the abuse. When (husband) snores my internal reaction is ‘ you need to stop that right now!’ and then it doesn’t stop and I also can’t escape it because there is nowhere quiet to sleep. That’s like the abuse, being woken up to be abused and then not being able to escape and then the distress of being trapped sets off all the body memories of being stuck in freeze.”
He leaps up from his chair, “Oh that’s really important about the snoring!”
“But I already know this.”
“But I don’t,” he says smiling and returns to his chair with a clipboard and pen and then he dictates out loud to himself as he writes a script something like “Right now I am being kept awake by snoring and it’s making me feel as though -“
“No,” I interrupt him. “I need the script for the next evening. The next evening when I want to go to bed, that’s when the terror and horror is at its peak.”
As we talk, I feel the terror and horror of the other day returning and suddenly I feel like I am 3 years old and urgently need to hold his hand and almost simultaneously I feel the critic angered by this urge and it starts squeezing the child’s hand (my left hand starts digging into my right arm but I feel each arm as though it belongs to a different person. I feel myself both hurting someone and I feel myself being hurt by someone). I start to dissociate.
Psychologist J notices that I am spaced out and offers to move closer and asks if I would like to hold his hand. This offer intensifies both opposing urges (to accept comfort and reject it) and unable to say yes or no, I feel myself split into more than two people. Now it feels as though I am a small child listening to two adults arguing about how to proceed. I start to experience derealisation – where everything begins to look dead, too still, dangerous. Then comes the feelings of confusion and finally I feel the waves of analgesia rolling in; this kind of sick feeling of being drunk and not being able to remember what was bothering me.
All the while Psychologist J is talking to me. He asks me if I would like to throw a ball back and forth to which I shake my head furiously in terror for what feels like a minute. He says something about losing words and asks if I want to write something to him.
I eventually manage to answer his questions in such a way that I imply that a part of me isn’t letting another part of me talk.
“Ok, I want to speak to the part that isn’t letting you do the talking. You’ve senses something isn’t safe.” I nod as he says this. “Can you tell me what isn’t safe?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s thinking. I can just feel it holding me back.”
At some point I manage to say that there is another part that can see what is happening, can see the two parts stuck in a stalemate but isn’t able to speak to tell him what is going on. I also tell him that one part of me had a sudden urge to hold his hand and another part was instantly appalled by that.
“I feel crazy talking this way.”
“Crazy for wanting to hold my hand?”
“No crazy for talking about having so many parts.”
“It isn’t crazy. It’s self preservation.”
“I know it’s the critic holding me back. It’s worried that touching you will bring bad memories later after the session. The critic doesn’t want to talk about the night time flashback stuff because wants help but it can’t get it from anyone.” J nods. “But at the same time I feel the child part having an opposite urge.”
“What urge do you feel?”
“The urge to run. To run to you, to run somewhere to safety.”
“Where do you feel it?”
“In my legs.”
“Can you do the first part of the urge?”
“No because I feel shame and disgust holding me back.”
“Do you feel that somewhere in your body?”
“No. I just hear it. Not in specific words. I just feel the critic’s disgust and shame at the part of me that wants to reach out to you.”
Psychologist J talks about how important touch and comfort are for babies and how they need it and crave it.
“But I’m not a baby.”
“No but you didn’t get it when you were a baby.”
J keeps talking but I feel the child part starting to panic because it still has the urge to hold his hand or get some comfort and is confused by why he isn’t offering his hand again. He notices me space out again and asks me what’s going on.
“I don’t understand what we’re doing. I told you what I suddenly wanted but all we’re doing is talking about it and so if the session ends and you don’t offer again, that will make the child part feel even worse and it will make the critic double down on shaming that child part in the future.”
“Ah I see. How did you feel when we were talking about the urge?”
“Shame because the other part won’t let me hold your hand and then I feel pain next and then the urge to die or to explode because I can’t get safety, I can’t get what I want and I can’t stop wanting it. I don’t understand why you offered your hand earlier but you aren’t offering it now.”
“The reason I haven’t offered it again is because I’m aware one part is wary of me and so I don’t want to repeat what was done to you in the past. I will only offer again if you ask for it.”
“Can I, now?” He says yes and stretches out his left hand. I look inside to see which part of me needs it. I decide it is the critic.
“I need the other one.” He stretches out his right hand, palm up and before I can even think I grab it.
It feels strange, as it did the one and only other time I’ve held his hand with my left hand. My whole left hand side of my body holds trauma memories. Though I feel something, it is hard to register it is coming from my hand. I ask him to squeeze my hand. It’s almost like my hand is floating up and around the room. The sensations are there, but I can’t work out where my hand is in relation to my body.
“For context,” he says smiling at me, “I’m J and we’re in (suburb) and we’re working on safety.”
“Can you say that bit again? Can you say I’m safe.”
“You’re safe.” I feel the sensations floating down towards me. I nod and look at him briefly.
“You’re safe.” I feel myself returning to my body.
“That bit helped.”
“What effect did it have?”
“In my brain. I feel more like me and also I feel my feet.”
“Can I get you to say something really daggy?” he says with a smirk.
“Can you say ‘hello feet?'”
I immediately laugh, “No, I can’t say hello feet.” I let go of his hand.
“Did you notice you laughed?”
“Yes I laughed but also because of the word daggy. I associate that word with when I was in school.”
“Ah, so some part of you knows we’re both children of the 70s.”
“Actually the laughing made things feel worse for the critic because connection isn’t safe and laughing isn’t safe because you’re relaxed and not on guard.”
“Yes and later you’ll think we did something bad just now.”
“Yes exactly. I know we didn’t do anything bad or sexual but the critic can’t know for sure. The critic couldn’t tell when the abuse started. When was the line crossed? Maybe this is grooming. It’s safer to have no connection to anyone.”
Psychologist J is nodding, “We’re teaching the critic new boundaries.”
We talk for a bit longer and I mention again how I wish things could go back to how they were in 2018 before I started talking about trauma memories.
“Things will be better again, like 2018 but different. The price of feeling alive is all these memories.”