This session took place two Thursdays ago.
It was the first week of Kindergarten for my son. Though his week was going amazingly well, I’d done the school drop off for the first time which had stirred up unpleasant memories of my school years. Then on the way to my appointment I realised I hadn’t done the homework Psychologist J had left me with which was to think about the needs of the critic, who might meet them and what comforting things does the critic need to hear. As I thought about the critic, I felt the memories it holds being activated. By the time I arrived for my appointment I was feeling intense disgust.
When I sit down, I am quiet and unable to speak partly due to the fear that opening my mouth would result in me vomiting. I feel the critic keeping my mouth clamped shut.
“Who is present today? Is it safe to indicate if it is the little critic?”
“No.” I say meaning it doesn’t feel safe.
“On a scale of one to ten, how dissociated are you?” I never know how to answer this question and I suspect that being able to answer it indicates a low level of dissociation even if you answer 10.
“I don’t know how to answer that.”
I pause and then force myself to speak despite the internal disapproval I sense coming from the critic. I feel I’m being watched by it.
“I’ve been anxious this morning because of school memories that got triggered when I dropped of (son). I wanted to tell you how well he was going this week but then I realised on the way here I hadn’t done my homework and when I thought about it it activated memories. Everything looks disgusting and gross right now. Even you. You look disgusting today. The whole room looks covered in filth.”
We talked a little about how I was perceiving him and the room through the filter of memories of incest. Then we moved back to the homework.
“After that session, I felt a sense of having been comforted even though we didn’t come up with anything comforting to say. But I think it was just because you were thinking about what the critic might need. And also how you said you googled what the malformation in my brain might be and you had though about returning my text message.”
“It felt good to be thought about.”
“But I remember when you left me the homework I instantly felt the critic not wanting to do the homework and on the way here I realised why it resisted is because doing the homework goes against one of it’s needs.”
“It needs to be in control.”
“No. The critic needs a break. It’s always working. And so by asking it to think about its needs you’re asking it to do more work. It wants someone else to do the work of figuring out what it needs.”
“It wants to be able to not be the one always looking out for danger and keeping me safe. The critic feels like it’s always working. Its at war or on duty.”
“There’s a word for that. It’s called hypervigilant.”
I ignore him because I already know the word and am irritated I didn’t think to use it.
“And relaxing is too much like submitting. Tension means I’m alive. The critic can’t rest and relax.”
J nods as I continue.
“You know how when you have a baby, you put it in a cot and then you might go out of the room to let it have some space and some peace but as the parent you are still close by. You know sometimes a baby wants to be held and comforted but that’s more how my inner child feels. But other times when you’re a parent you’re not in the room fussing over the baby, but you’re there so the baby can rest and have space. That’s what the critic wants. For everyone to leave it the fuck alone while it rests but for someone else to be on duty.”
“Yes, that makes a lot of sense.” J is nodding. “How does it feel for you as we talk about this? How does it feel to have you in mind?”
“Not good like last time. I feel stuck in a memory.” I’m aware that the disgust is moving onto feeling like I’m being violated.
“What’s happening in the memory?”
“You look scary.”
“What looks scary about me?”
“That you’re human and breathing and alive.” Its almost as if I can feel him writhing all over me, his body heat and sweat soaking into me. “You look sexual and like you’re too close. Everything looks gross. My body feels like its being invaded. I want clothes.”
“Clothes!” He interjects. “Clothes.” This time he says it is like he is mulling it over. I ignore him.
“I’m having that feeling like I just want to die right now.”
“I have a weighted blanket. Would you like to try that?” I put the blanket on my lap but instantly throw it off.
“No when I feel like this it makes it worse. I want to feel nothing.” I’m at the point where I want to run away but can’t. It’s the memory of being trapped.
“You’re overstimulated. How would it be for me to be quiet and keep guard for anything dangerous. I’ll just sit here.”
I feel instantly irritated. His suggestion feels clumsy.
“I know what you’re trying to do and it’s not working!”
“You’re trying to do what I said earlier about the baby in a room with a parent outside. What would feel good would be to bang my head on the wall or punch my arms.” The memory has reached the point where I can’t stand the physical feelings.
“It would give you competing sensations,” he says without judgement.
“It makes me feel solid. I feel like I’m floating away.”
“Can you focus on the urges again. What part of your body feels gross the least and is the quietest?’
“Do you want to push me away?”
“I’d want you in another room. I feel something pressing against my forehead.”
“How would you fix it?”
“Move it away with my hands I suppose.”
“How would your hands move?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re hands are always very still.”
“Sometimes when I’m at home and I feel like this I can move and I find myself doing this.” Without thinking I’m thrashing my arms around as if to push someone away. It’s the first time I’ve ever acted on a truncated fight/flight response in session. A part of me is surprised by my ability to move this way mid-memory in session.
I look at J and suddenly a child part that was sectioned off and frozen at the time of trauma has recently emerged in the previous weeks is present and I hear it think who is he? I look away and freeze. I feel that new part taking over my body. I feel the urge to turn my head completely away from him but I can’t move my neck. I’m gently digging my thumb nails into my pointer fingers. I’m a small child frozen in fear.
J stops what he’s talking about. “Are you ok?”
My whole body is frozen except I can slowly turn my head. Over the space of a minute, I turn my head so it is facing away from him. The tapping of thumbnails slowly changes into clenching fists.
“Ok I think this is an emotional flashback,” he says after I am non-responsive to several questions. “You’re clenching your fists. It seems like you’re going deeper into it.” I say nothing. I don’t know where I am.
“Do things feel safe?”
I shake my head no.
“Try to look around the room. See where you are.” I shake my head no. He doesn’t realise that the room is unfamiliar to me. I don’t know who you are.
“See if you can try to ground yourself. You’re having a flashback but you’re in (suburb). I have to let you know that the session is coming to an end soon.” He keeps talking trying to ground me. I turn to him slowly and mouth the words I don’t know who you are.
“I can see you’re trying to say something. Focus on grounding yourself. That will make it easier to talk.”
“I don’t know who you are.” I mouth the words but no sound comes out.
“Don’t worry about trying to talk. Move your fingers.”
I feel the panic growing. It feels urgent to tell him I don’t know who he is, more urgent that grounding. But I listen, I don’t know why or how but I move my hands a bit and then with tears in my eyes I say in a whisper “I don’t know who you are.”
He looks at me kindly and says “I’m J.”
“Ok,” I whisper wide-eyed.
“Do you have a name?” I think hard but I can’t work out what my name might be.
“I don’t know.”
“Is the room familiar?”
I look around. The room is filled with objects that look strange. It feels as though I don’t even know what most of them are called.
“I don’t think I’ve been here before.”
“(my name) brought you here because she thinks I’m safe and she wouldn’t do anything to hurt you.”
“I don’t feel like I know who that is.”
“That’s ok. You will. I’m safe. I won’t hurt you.”
“Why won’t you hurt me?”
“Because I’m not a hurtful person. We’re working on safety. We’re working on learning that memories are from the past. Can you look at your shoes? Do you know what shoes are?”
I think for a moment. Shoes. What are shoes. I feel like I might have shoes somewhere but don’t know where to look.
“Can you look at your hands?”
I glance down to my lap and see the hands of a middle-aged woman and my eyes immediately burn as though I’m looking at something to bright. I look away quickly.
“Can you move your neck?” I think hard and decide I can do it. My own body, my toddler body is miles away. I can’t seem to locate it but I feel something moving slowly left and right. It feels strange, as though I am moving someone else’s neck.
“Can you lean forward?” I try but I can’t.
“Can you do this?” He holds up his hand and makes his pointer and thumb touch. I watch and then feel my hands doing it. “And now do this.” He touches his thumb against each finger tip one at a time. I copy him and slowly feel the adult me coming back into existence. It feels as though I am crushing the new child part. I feel the sensation of being crushed by a large adult and the sensation of crushing a child as I return to the room.
I tell him I’m starting to come back.
“Fuck.” I close my eyes and shake my head as if trying to dislodge sand from inside it.
“Keep your eyes open.”
“Fuck.” Then my head feels as if it is spinning.
J is talking as the dissociation starts to wear off. He mentions that I’m able to follow his instructions better now.
“That felt so scary. That was that new part I mentioned the other session. Fuck.”
J is talking but I can’t yet make sense of it, too lost am I still in the fog of switching parts.
“I’m scared. Like later I will try to minimise what just happened but I didn’t know who you were!”
“No you didn’t. That’s true dissociation.”
“Things are getting bad. I can feel the bad feelings coming. Fuck that was scary. I’m worried that when I get home I’ll have to do something to get out of this state.”
J is talking. I can’t understand him.
“That’s joint attention.”
“I know what joint attention is but I don’t know what you said.”
“You’re doing really well. You moved too quickly up the brain stem.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you did that big shaking movement you went into flight mode,” he explains referring to when I showed him how when I’m at home I do what Dr K had taught me to follow my body’s urges and act out the rest of movement that I wasn’t able to do during an assault.
“Fuck. That was so strange.”
“Read that book. It will help,” he says referring to Coping with Trauma-Related Dissociation.
“I want to be normal like you not crazy.”
“You’re on your way.”
“Can you move?” I ask pointing to the empty chair on the left of me. He moves.
“Ok now I recognise you.”
He looks familiar but I can’t tell for sure if I’m in a dream or not. “I’m having this sudden urge to poke you.”
“You can if you want.”
“I can’t. The urge came and then I imagined doing it and then in my imagination you seemed to real.”
“Yes things are either too real or not real enough.”
“Yes or else too safe or not safe enough. Sometimes you look almost Godlike and then other times scary. I want you to look ordinary safe.”
“Yes that’s what we want.”
“Yes so that then I know that the world is full of Js.”
He nods and adds “You came out of that quicker.”
“Yes. It’s easier for me to get you to orient towards me.”
“Oh. Is that a good thing?”
“Yes. Previously you would go much further into it. You would go to the point where you want to explode and start hurting yourself.”
“Oh.” It doesn’t feel like I did anything better or quicker than usual. I’m still reeling from having had the experience of not recognising him or my own name. Perhaps my face is looking anxious, perhaps it’s just a throwaway line but when I hear it I chose to believe it.
“You did really well.” I collect the pebble of reassurance and leave holding onto it tight