I arrive early and sit in the teeny waiting area. I feel anxious so I pop a strong mint into my mouth; I find it helps keeps my mind busy. The door opens and a client leaves the therapy room, a young male in jeans and a slogan t-shirt. He looks so normal. I wonder what his problem is I hear myself think. Moments later Psychologist J steps out into the waiting area.
“Hi (my name), go right in, I’ll just be a moment.” He leaves the suite, presumably to go to the toilet. I go into the room, sit in my usual spot on the couch and look around. For a moment, I wonder about what I could snoop at while he is gone. His bag? His computer files? I wouldn’t snoop and I like that he trusts me not to snoop. I just like to imagine doing it.
Staring at me is the dreaded new chair that I haven’t sat in since the first time it appeared in his office. For some reason I jump up, cross the room and sit in it. It feels ok to sit in it today and l like seeing the room from this perspective again. I go back to the couch to compare again but I’m perched awkwardly on the edge when J returns. He closes the door and stands just inside the room waiting, I suppose, for me to tell him either with words or body language how close he should come.
“How are you doing?”
“I think I want to sit in that chair. I was just about to try it out again but you came back.”
“Ok, sure go ahead.”
“Can you leave the room for a moment? I just want to try something out.” This time he doesn’t reply in an incredulous tone at my request to make him leave his own work space.
“Sure, I’ll get a glass of water.” He leaves. I hear him fussing around in the kitchenette. I grab the blanket and cushion and sit in the bulging new chair with the blanket over my lap and the cushion clutched to my chest. I look around. The room looks normal.
“Ok, you can come back.” He comes in and sits down slowly in his swivel chair opposite me careful to turn his body to the side.
“Good. Take your time to settle in. Take a look around the room. Hang on, let me get something for you.” He reaches for another cushion and brings it to me. “Let me put this under your feet.” I find I can’t face the idea of putting my shoes on his nice blue and white cushion. I also feel the instant urge to push away, to say no, whenever a male does a nice gesture.
“No thank you.” I feel myself falling into a protective part, perhaps the critic. I notice a box I haven’t seen before and without even thinking I blurt out my thoughts.
“What’s in that box?”
“Oh a vacuum,” he smiles. “You’d be surprised how much fluff this carpet makes.”
His answer annoys me a bit. Perhaps because he laughed a little and seemed friendly, perhaps just because he answered at all. I don’t really want this hypervigilant part of me in the driver’s seat and I’m not accustomed to it being able to access my voice so easily to vocalise what is usually experienced as chatter that I ignore.
“How are you going?”
I mention wanting to work on the script he mentioned several sessions ago where we make a list of comforting words to say to the critic. I also talk a little about how week two of Kindergarten is presenting some problems for my son or rather my son is presenting some problems for the teachers.
“I mean his teacher was so nice about it. She asked me which of his therapists she should contact and now I feel like I have yet another thing to do. I have to work even harder with (son). Somehow I have to find away to do more therapy at home.”
“It’s so hard to hand it over to the experts.”
“Well yes especially after last year (at Childcare) because that all started out the same way, all nice and friendly.”
“Yes except that seemed like it was a problem particular to that Childcare. (Psychologist) S told me that the culture there was horrible.”
“He said that? When did you speak to him?”
“Oh just in the meeting on Friday when we were recalling how things had been going for your family. When I spoke to S and (other therapist).”
J moves the conversation back to my request to work on the script of things to I can say to the critic when it is struggling. As he is talking, I feel as though there is someone sitting next to me looking around the room and making random observations. That part looks at his watch and I hear it say why is the face totally black. I wonder if its a smart watch. As he is mid sentence I hear myself talking out loud.
“Is that one of-” and then I stop when I suddenly realise the critic has pushed its way to the front and blurted out a question about his watch.
“What’s that? I didn’t catch it.”
I freeze. I can hear two parts arguing about whether to ask the question about his watch, how to proceed and who should be in the body attending the session.
“Oh nothing,” I say pushing the critic aside.
J says ok and returns to his explanation of how he sees things in regards to the needs of the critic but I’m unable to make sense of it due to the critic’s running commentary in my head.
“What do you think?”
“I didn’t hear what you said. I’m just hearing a lot of chatter.”
“Can you tell me what you hear?”
“Yes. I can hear someone saying what’s the point and also blah blah blah. It reminds me of being in school and the person next to me is making comments to disrupt the class.”
“Is it the critic?”
J goes back to discussing what things I can say to the critic to comfort it but starts with discussing the needs of the critic. As he does this I feel that part of me growing increasingly impatient and irritated.
“Can we think about the needs of the critic for a moment?”
“The critic needs to be not working and to relax. But we already know that,” I snap feeling more like the critic each second.
“We need to help the critic take a break.”
“We can’t. The critic just goes away when it’s had enough.”
“Where does it go to rest?”
“I don’t know. It just goes away.”
“Can we ask the critic?”
“I can’t hear anything,” I say as I hear the critic say dead.
“Can you go inside and ask it?”
“Dead. I heard it say dead.”
“Oh you go dead?”
“No, it’s just dead but when it wakes up it wake up where it left off, in the middle of it. There’s no rest.”
“Ah,” he says nodding. “Ok that must feel exhausting. We need to create a place for it to rest.”
“We’ve already talked about this!”
“There’s that impatience again. Is the critic present? Am I talking to the critic now?” I feel the critic freeze my voice as it considers whether I wants to be seen. It senses safety and I nod.
I feel young, stroppy, irritated. He keeps asking questions but each one feels physical like he’s poking my body with his fingers. It starts to feel like a flashback. My arms are crossed, my body is tense, I lean back in the chair and stare at the ceiling and start to dissociate.
J keeps talking. He says something validating about how hard I work to keep the rest of (my name) safe but I’m shouting in my head Get away from me! Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up! I’m in that twilight zone that is both the past and the present. He’s both the predator and someone from the present poking around in parts that have been hurt. I want to shout at him to shut up but I can’t make my mouth move.
“…You’re brave…” I roll my eyes at this. He notices.
“I know you don’t like compliments.” He keeps talking and I remain frozen. He notices that I’ve not moved in a while other than the eye roll.
“Are you having a memory?”
“Can you tell me what you see?” I don’t respond because I can’t see anything. I can feel the things of the past being done to my body.
“You’re in (suburb) having a memory about the past.” He keeps taking trying to bring me back to the present but his voice just intensifies the flashback. Shut the fuck up!
“Can you hear my voice? You can just blink if you can.” I give a miniscule nod.
“Was that a nod? I think that was a nod. You’re having a memory. What urge does your body have right now. Can you follow the urge?”
I have no urge because I’ve left my body although I can still feeling it being violated. Shut the fuck up! I want everything to stop NOW!
“Do you want me to come and sit next to you? You can hold my hand and I can be with you here in the present while you remember the past.” HELL NO, STOP TALKING! Shut up!
“Can you still here me? Blink if you can hear me.” I can hear him but it’s getting harder to respond. The dissociation is taking a hold of me. I feel the next phase of the memory begin, when the sensations of the abuse get too much even for the critic, the critic leaves and the child returns but the critic puts the child part to sleep. I start to feel like I’ve been drugged, nothing makes sense, nothing seems to matter. I’m slipping into tonic immobility. It always comes with a sickening feeling.
J’s voice is suddenly urgent and loud. He’s calling my name over and over.
“Listen to my voice,” he says firmly. He knows I’m slipping too far into the flashback. Somewhere in the back of my mind I hear the adult part of me talking to the part stuck in the flashback. You need to come back to the room. You need to get help before the session ends. J keeps talking and the adult part keeps talking and I move my eyes down from the ceiling. The critic is back.
“I don’t have an urge,” I say quietly. It feels like the assault is over like it just ended then. My whole body feels overstimulated and irritated.
I explain to him what just happened and how it feels to fall into tonic immobility.
“It feels awful when it happens kind of like how when they give you aesthetic, and you feel this sick cold feeling going through your body, its like that only its an emotion.”
Rape victims often describe going through a sequence of responses both during the assault and when experiencing PTSD symptoms when having unwanted memories or reminders of the rape. An initial reaction of stunned disbelief or feeling “frozen with fear” is common, often followed by an intense desire to escape or struggle to defend oneself. If the assailant is able to restrain or trap the victim more than briefly, victims often describe feeling as if their body simply gives out and they shut down and give up mentally. ..This is consistent with research with animals and humans showing that when no other response is available, the body’s stress response system shifts into a mode of conserving physical resources that redirects the body’s energies toward healing and staying alive rather than flight or fight.Julian D. Ford, Damon J.Grasso, and Christine A. Courtois, in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (Second Edition), 2015
“I offered you my hand because I wanted you to be in touch with something real in the present so you weren’t so alone with the memories. Something more than just my voice. Do you want me to come and sit by you now?”
“No. It’s past that point. Now it feels like everything is annoying me like even this blanket and my clothes.”
“What do you want to do? Do you want to push the blanket away?”
“No. I want to run outside and jump in front of a car.” It sounds dramatic and yet it feels like only intense pain would obliterate the feeling of having been assaulted. I tell him that I was saying “shut the fuck up” over and over in my head.
“I think when you have these memories you misconstrue me as your fa- for the person who attacked you.”
“No I don’t! I know who you are but I’m stuck in a memory so your voice makes it worse. It’s like I have cuts all over my body and you’re prodding and poking around in the cuts. You’re poking wounds, you’re not the one who made them.” He doesn’t look convinced and rightly so. A part of me knows that I do confuse him for my father, that when I have these in-session memories he splits into two people, the therapist and the predator. “I don’t even like for (husband) to touch me when I feel like this. My whole body feels raw like it’s been burnt. Nothing feels comforting. It all hurts.”
“What do you usually do when you feel like this?”
“I go to bed and cry or I wait for it to pass.” He’s nodding empathetically while I feel the anger bubbling up to cover up the urge to cry. The critic isn’t a crier.
“I’ve frustrated you.”
“No, I’m just angry because I’m not meant to be here. (My name) can usually sense me in the background and she needs to know what to say because nothing she says to me feels right! I feel worse now! This isn’t what I wanted. I didn’t want to dwell on needs that can’t be met. I didn’t want to be stirred up and brought out. This is the state I get in that I need help with! This was all so pointless to talk about all this to bring me to life so I could feel this.”
“How about we talk about how you feel?”
“I just want to get a knife and stab myself all over. I don’t want to think about this stuff!”
“You might find yourself later wanting to send me an email about how you feel. Why don’t you take a moment and see if there’s anything you want to tell me now, so you don’t have to send it later.”
“When I feel like this I don’t give a fuck about anything!” I look at him and feel something intensely negative akin to jealousy or hatred. I feel angry that his life is full of comfort and for me the critic there is none.
“What about the wants of the others?”
“What do you mean?”
“Can I ask you to step aside and see if any other parts want help with this?”
“No! I need help!” Suddenly the tears come and with them the shame of crying.
“You want help?”
J starts talking again but I don’t really hear what he’s saying. His words feel cold and clinical. I interrupt him.
“I feel like you’re being mean but I don’t know how. Your words aren’t mean but you look mean to me.” The whole room appears to be darker, he seems stiff and stern; I’m in a memory again.
“I feel like you’re withholding something from me.”
“You’re so in touch with the love that was withheld from you.”
“You’re analysing and talking when I’m sitting here in pain and in need of comfort! I’m a person and you’re treating my like I’m a character in a novel to be discussed. You offered to sit near me at the wrong time! You should be offering now.”
“Do you want it now?”
“That’s great! You asked!” He gets up from his chair and moves to a seat that is easy to carry and puts it to my left. He stretches his right hand out to me.
“No, I don’t want that.”
“How’s this,” he says referring to the distance between us.
J starts talking. His words are full of validation. I don’t hear most of them but I feel their effect. My whole left side stops hurting.
“You’re a protector. You’ve worked so hard to protect (my name) from so much. It’s so bad that you were treated how you were. You deserved a parent to protect you and pick you up and soothe you.”
“Yes, the rest of me deserved that.”
“You too.” He says I deserved parents?
“I deserved parents?”
“I didn’t know I deserved parents.”
“You deserved parents who were fiercely protective of you.”
Something clicks in my head, a new thought.
“Am I a human?”
“Yes. You’re human, you’re part of a human and without you (my name) would have
“I’m a human?”
“I’m so used to being a thing that was created to protect (my name).”
“You’re a human entitled to all the same rights and care as anyone else. You belong.” As he’s talking, I feel the whole left side of my body heating up. I feel like I am glowing with orange warmth. It feels both good and strange. My head feels dizzy and full. Its almost as if each of these new facts are rewiring my brain as we speak.
“I have rights?”
“This is part of my anger, that I have a job to protect (my name)’s right but I have none. I’m just stuck here in this world as a thing.”
“You’re not a thing. A thing can’t talk.”
“Yes it can. A robot can.”
“No a thing can’t have memories or hopes and dreams or reflect.” He glances at his empty armchair in front of us with a red cushion on it. “A pillow is a thing.”
“I feel like a thing because I was treated like one.”
“That’s right. You were there when it all happened.”
“I can’t believe this. I’m a human.” I’m smiling.
“Yes. You won’t be able to put it in the past until you realise you’re a human.”
“I have a body?”
My mind is swirling. How can this be? How can I be more than thing whose job is to inhabit someone else’s body so it could survive abuse.
“How does it feel to hear this?”
“Good but so strange. I’m so confused. I can’t think of a metaphor. I think this is what I needed to hear to be comforted! I knew I had needs but I assumed they couldn’t be met because I wasn’t human. I needed to learn I was a human!” I glance at him and make eye contact for the first time since since I came into the body this session. He smiles at me.
“Hello,” he says but I quickly look away.
“Can we say hello?”
“Because it’s what humans do. They acknowledge each other. I don’t say hello to my pillow,” he says glancing at the red cushion.
I try to focus on how safe my body feels wanting to hold onto the feeling for as long as I can. I wish the session wasn’t almost over. “Next session if I’m around, can you say all this to me again about being human? I’m in shock. I need it to sink in.”
I glance at him again. He doesn’t have that magical god-like glow he takes on when the child part sees him. He has strange wrinkles near his ears, his hair is thinning and I can see his freckled scalp through his buzz cut, his face looks ordinary. He looks 51.
“So I can die!” I say referring to a previous session when I said my (the critic’s) one wish was to be dead. “I feel like I’ve been reborn. Like Pinocchio. That’s what I feel like, like all my life I wanted to be a real person and you granted my wish and made me human.”
We both sit in silence for a moment then a huge smile breaks out on my face. “We did what we planned to do! We found the words I need to hear. Now that other part can say these things to me!”
“I’m giving you the credit!”
“We worked it out together.”
The critic has always been protective of me but it has disowned my body and uses my body to hurt me. But I leave the session feeling changed. I feel the critic taking part ownership of my body. I feel like genuine self-care is suddenly possible. By the time I get to the car I feel like the critic is no longer present but instead of it being suddenly gone in the background I feel the critic resting for the first time in my life.
Julian D. Ford, Damon J.Grasso, and Christine A. Courtois (2015). Neurobiology of traumatic stress disorders and their impact on physical health. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (Second Edition). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/tonic-immobility