Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe – The Power Of The Past

Ever since my run-in with M. last week, I have been on extremely high alert. Like many people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder I am hyper vigilant at the best of times, but in the last week I have been a million times more nervous than usual, any sound I’m not expecting making me jump. From Monday when it happened until Wednesday night I didn’t sleep. Not as in I’ve barely slept a wink, but I literally didn’t sleep, at all. In fact, getting to A.’s place on the Wednesday afternoon was a real challenge as I was battling the symptoms of sleep deprivation, being confused, nauseas and very unsteady on my feet.

I used both my Wednesday and Friday session with A. to talk about what happened when I saw M. and how it’s really affected me quite badly. In the Wednesday session I was close to tears, just thinking about it, because I felt like any sense of security I had been able to create for myself had been totally and utterly shattered. My jitteriness was so bad that even the sound of A.’s voice made me jump more than once in session. [My relief upon realising it was A. and not someone else each time, on the other hand, was immense].

I have been trying really hard to calm myself, to tell myself that although I don’t feel safe, I am safe. Only it seems to make no difference whatsoever. My feelings out-power my intellect with frightening ease, in complete contrast to how I normally deal with any extreme emotions by rationalising them away. Also, one could argue that the reality of being safe holds very little, if any, value if you don’t feel safe.

Needless to say, my anxiety level has been on a steep upward curve every day since last Monday, doubling again and again the closer I got to my next session with Z.

Z. telephoned me on the morning of my session, just to reassure me that she would definitely be there to meet me at the reception, to let me know that I didn’t have to worry about having to walk through the building on my own. So, I picked up whatever fragments of courage I could find and set out. I had to stop several times on the way, because I was so anxious my legs didn’t seem to want to carry me. I kept looking nervously around, to see if he might be there.

And then it happened. Only fifty metres from the relative safety of the reception I spotted him. He was on the other side of the street, slightly behind me, accompanied by a woman, talking and laughing as if the world was a beautiful place to be. I stopped being the grown woman that I am in that instant and turned into 8-year-old me, hiding behind a tree as he walked past on the other side of the street. I went from Adult Me to Little S in seconds flat.

I hung back, watching him enter the building, not really knowing what to do. It was time to meet Z., but I just couldn’t go into the reception, in case he stopped to talk to someone there. So, I waited a while – I’m not sure how long – and then, on unsteady feet, made my way across the parking lot. As I cautiously approached the door, hoping to take a peek through the glass panes to make sure that M. had left the reception, a man came out through it, holding the door politely open for me. Ready or not, I had no choice but to enter.

I collapsed on one of the chairs immediately inside the door, bending forward, hiding my head in my hands, forcing myself to keep breathing. Z. came up to me right away; I guess she may have been sitting behind the receptionist desk, looking out for me – I wouldn’t know, because I never looked around when I entered.

I somehow managed to get it out that I knew M. was there, because I had seen him go in, and there was no way I could walk through the dining hall, even with Z. by my side. Z. thought for a moment and then told me to wait while she went back into the reception to ask another member of staff to open the fire exit for us, so we could enter the building that way; the only way you can get to the stairs leading to Z.’s room, without having to go through the dining hall.

I made it up to Z.’s room on shaky legs, and as soon as I was in there, I sat down on the chair. I didn’t do any of the things I usually do: put my backpack down, set my Rubik’s cube aside, take my shoes off. I just resumed the position I had had in the reception, head buried in my arms, bending over, sobbing violently without tears. It took me a good while before I was able to get back to myself enough to do those things, to bring myself back to where I was, and even then I left my shoes in such a position that I would be able to just step into them, should I need to flee.

I explained all of this to Z. That, even though she was there and I had made it to the room safely, I was ready to run, to jump through the window if need be. I just wasn’t at all able to catch hold of the fear or rein myself in. Throughout the session that feeling never left. At one point I could hear male voices in the hallway outside the room, and in panic realised that I might not be able to recognise his voice, as he would be speaking in English, and that might not at all sound like the very distinct way he spoke Swedish, with a strong Arabic accent.

That is something that has been playing in my mind almost on repeat during the last few days: the way he spoke. In particular, the way he used to say my name. He never used the short form of my name like everyone else, but would always call me by my full name, only his accent caused him to mispronounce it slightly.

It turned out to be a good session, all things considered. We spent time trying to explore the fear, and also talking about the circumstances surrounding M. coming to live with us. How we had a family meeting, talking about taking this badly psychologically damaged teenager in, and how, at first it had all been very exciting. He had three different foster families to choose from, but – much to our delight – decided on our family. He later said that the reason he chose our family over the other two was ‘because there were children’, and I couldn’t even begin to express the chills that sends down my spine thinking of it now, knowing what he went on to do.

We talked about changes that was made in my home prior to M. moving in: all toy guns, including water pistols, were banned – as M. was a refugee from the Lebanon and had seen war up close. The lock in the family bathroom was fixed, having never been in working order for as long as I could remember. I have a particularly vividly memory of my mother telling me that I was not to walk around in a towel after a bath or shower, as that wouldn’t be something he was used to, since it was something women from his culture didn’t do. It has stuck with me, that conversation with my mother, because even though I had never been someone who did that [always being very careful to cover up, never leaving my room without either being fully dressed or wearing pyjamas buttoned to the very top], I felt that there was some sort of indirect implication that were I to walk around in a state of semi-undress M. could not be held responsible for his actions. That it was somehow down to me to make sure nothing untoward happened.

We also talked a little about something else that I even now find difficult to deal with: the fact that while my parents have never outright said that I am lying about what happened with M., they have both categorically and repeatedly said that “it couldn’t have happened”. The reason they have given for this is that they were acutely aware, taking him in, that he was volatile and somewhat mentally unstable, and couldn’t necessarily be trusted as there was a violent and unpredictable side to him, and – according to them – they consequently made an agreement to ‘make sure that us children were never alone with him’. This – the idea that we were never left on our own with him – is of course highly implausible and falls to pieces at first look: my father was working full time and my mother, while being a stay-at-home mother at the time, certainly wasn’t ever someone who would be keeping her children in her sight at all times. We had always been allowed to roam free, and her own bipolar ups and downs would have had her sufficiently preoccupied to often not know where we were, or who we were with. And I know for a fact that I was regularly sent over to the guest house [where M. was staying] to fetch him. I know this because M. would often pretend that the intercom system wasn’t working when I rang to let him know dinner was ready, and my mother would tell me to not be so lazy and to just go over there and tell him myself..

Z. made a comment about this, about my parents deciding to take someone in who they apparently knew not to be safe, in spite of having three fairly young children at home. She wanted me to talk about how I felt about this, but, while I do have a lot of feelings about it, I simply didn’t feel quite able to, or – perhaps more accurately – didn’t feel quite ready – to express them.

I am not sure why my parents – who have no problem believing that their own son sexually abused me for more than twelve years – are so adamant that the abuse M. subjected me to could not have happened. Maybe the thought of having twice missed something like that is simply too much? Maybe the knowledge that he wasn’t safe, and the subsequent sense of guilt at not having protected me, stops them from being able to acknowledge – even to themselves – that it did happen? People often defend the hardest against the things that cause them the most pain, and I don’t think my parents are all that different in that respect. I have a few additional theories about their reasons for flatly denying what happened, all of them excruciatingly painful for all involved.. but, for now, I think I will keep the more probable ones to myself, as I don’t feel ready to deal with them just yet. I have on occasion talked to A. about it, but I feel that this blog is perhaps not the most appropriate place for me to explore it further. At least not for the time being.

After session, Z. walked me all the way through the building and across the parking lot outside, only saying goodbye when we got to the street, having first asked me how I was going to get home. It gave me the sense that it really mattered to her, all the things that have happened to me, all the fear I am carrying with me.

And that felt very special to me; very different to anything I have experienced before.

xx

Sharp eyed readers will have noticed that I have made no commented in this post as to whether or not the person I met really is M., or just someone who looks like him. The reason for this is that in so many ways it doesn’t matter whether it is really him or not. In my head it is him, and that’s what I am reacting to, so that’s what I have chosen to write about: my experience of what is going on. Whether the threat is real or not, the fear certainly is..

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Abandonment, Anger & Expressing Negative Emotions

As if by magic, following my previous post about wanting my therapist back, I received a two-line email from A. on Wednesday “to confirm that we are meeting on July Xth” and asking could I come at a slightly different time to my usual slot? Very formal and to the point, complete with a “Dear..” at the beginning and ending with “Best wishes,” in typical A. style. She does the same thing in texts, which I always find both amusing and somewhat incongruous to the kind of relationship we have and the way we communicate. It’s the text message equivalent of suddenly calling me Ms Y in session. :)

Anyway, having received said email I instantaneously found myself regressing into some sort of teenage state where my immediate reaction was I’ve spent months not knowing when my therapy will resume, weeks and weeks in limbo. If you think I’m going to reply to your stupid little email straight away, you’re wrong! You can sit there and wonder whether or not I can do the time you asked about. So THERE!

Not many points for maturity, as you can see, and of course entirely irrational; it’s not as if A. will have been anxiously awaiting our work to resume or has struggled to make it through this break. Nor is it likely that she will be particularly concerned about my holding back on replying to her email, but it still felt kind of good to allow myself to act out in this obviously infantile fashion.

Thus, it wasn’t until Friday I emailed her back. And when I did, I made sure to be decidedly less formal than she had been, writing in a way similar to how we speak, starting with a simple Hi A., and ending with a casual Shabbat Shalom for later. [Although, in hindsight, I realise that I actually don’t usually wish her Shabbat Shalom at the end of our Friday afternoon session, but more generally a good weekend. Stuff to ponder in another post, methinks.]

Clearly this need to act out stems from a place of anger at having been abandoned, and not wanting to make things easy for her. There is a part of me who wants to punish her for having put me through this separation, for having put me on hold while she carried on with her real life, and I have a feeling that it may well be a bumpy and challenging time to come once therapy starts over, while we work through this anger, which I genuinely hope I will allow myself to express.

This anger is, of course, not only about A.’s maternity leave, but also a deeply buried echo of all other times when I have felt left behind and uncared for, beginning with my birth mother giving me up for adoption and followed on by similar feelings towards my parents and other adults in my life, growing up. A person doesn’t need to be physically abandoned in order to experience the very powerful feelings associated with it..

And this – rather than just wanting to put A. through a bit of a rough time upon her return – is the reason why I say I hope I’ll be able to give myself licence to let this anger out. It has been trapped for a long time. Maybe the time has come to let it surface? Perhaps a chance for a much needed corrective emotional experience; being accepted even when expressing negative emotions?

xx

PS. Ever wondered how your therapist really feels about you blogging about your therapy? I think my lovely fellow blogging tweetist Therapy Tales has it right. Click the link for a spot on cartoon strip!

Ruins, Emotion & Change – Learning How To Feel

Had my first session at A.’s new place yesterday. Owing to my negative sense of direction I gave myself a ridiculous amount of time to find the place. As it turns out it was both needed and not needed. Went down the wrong road twice (not great when you’ve got a knee injury which is making every step agony) – but I still found the road well in time for session, meaning I ended up loitering on a side street for some thirty minutes. Luckily someone in the area had an open internet connection so I filled the time randomly browsing the interweb. Also it gave me the time to read another chapter of Dr Maroda’s book. (See previous post).

As I’ve mentioned in earlier blog offerings anxiety levels have been on a steady upward curve for the last couple of weeks, since I found out about A.’s move. Things, big things, are stirring inside of me. I do realise this is not all to do with A.’s move; the effect is far in excess of the cause. Admittedly, there are a number of things happening in my life, all of which have an effect – but this still feels different, disconnected somehow, to present events. It feels like a change on a much, much deeper level – outside of specific causes; on a basic human level.

Last Thursday I suddenly felt absolutely overwhelmed by emotions. I happened to be on the phone with my sisters at the time, but even that didn’t help. It was a tsunami-like wave of feelings that completely swept me off my feet, made me loose my grip. So I hung up on my sisters to try to deal with this. My initial feeling – or actually it was more of a self-protective instinct – was to try to shut down. Only I couldn’t. Next this very intense urge to cut hit me, wanting desperately to reach for those scalpels. But even at the height of intensity, in the middle of the urge, I knew that I wasn’t going to resort to that. Instead I tried to just stay in the moment – allow those feelings to be. To not fight them, even though every cell in my body was preparing for flight mode. I ended up curled up in bed, foetal position, unable to do anything but just breathe. In and out, through the experience. Just breathing. That was all I could cope with.

Getting a scalpel out would have been the easy option, but I knew that something big was happening, and that I had to find a way to let it. I had one single thought in my head that I can consciously remember: I need to find a way to bring this experience to session on Tuesday.

So this session, the first one at The New Place, was, at least for me, very different to other sessions. I’m not sure if it was noticeable to A., but I was very consciously allowing myself to just go quiet every time a feeling came over me. I didn’t really try to verbalise it much, because for me, even just allowing the feelings to exist (as opposed to immediately, and by any means necessary, control them) is pretty big. I don’t know if it showed on my face or not; it’s possible that to the outside world it would not have been possible to discern this difference in me. But, to me, this was a huge step. To allow myself to fully feel. And in the presence of another person.

At one stage in the session, having tried to explain what happened on Thursday (and has been happening – albeit in smaller doses – since then) to A. I asked if maybe this is me regressing. I posed it as a question, but, really I suppose what I was doing was trying to tell A. that this is what I believe is happening.

Later A. asked what I was regressing to, and also commented that I seem unsure as to whether I’m going backwards or forwards. I explained that I don’t really think of it as regressing backwards in a real sense, but more about somehow allowing myself to feel the things I should have felt a long time ago. Acknowledging these feelings.

As I said that a song popped into my head, so I quoted part of it to A.:

“..I will crawl through my past
over stones blood and glass
in the ruins

Reaching under the fence
as I try to make sense
in the ruins..

But if I am to heal
I must first learn to feel
in the ruins..”

Now, I’m not convinced about the need to be crawling over stones, blood or glass, nor am I sure that it is possible to make sense of the ruins or the damage done – some things are simply senseless – but I do think that there is a need to explore the past. Not necessarily through recounting and re-visiting every single memory in graphically verbalised detail – but rather through a true acceptance of the feelings attached to those memories.

“..if I am to heal, I must first learn to feel..”

So, frightening and painful as this experience is, I am absolutely sure that without allowing these emotions to play out you can’t bring about real change. Yes, you can change things on the surface. Of course you can. But not on a real lasting and deep level. For that you need to accept yourself as a vulnerable, feeling human being.

xx

PS. I was going to post a link to a YouTube clip of Melissa Etheridge performing Ruins – but I couldn’t find one that matched in emotion what the lyrics are saying. They all seemed too “showy”. Instead I recommend you listen to the studio version, which can be found on ME’s 1993 Yes, I Am-album.

Stress, Random Thoughts & Specific Theories

Tomorrow is Friday. The first one back in the country since counselling finished at the end of December. And it does make a difference..

In the midst of dealing with the hang-over from spending Christmas in Sweden, packing up my stuff at the flat, trying to take it in that I won’t be living with Dev come next week, well, I reckon a session with D. would have been pretty perfect.
Someone who knows and understands the context of the thoughts flying around in my head, and who genuinely cares about what I do with them.

Don’t get me wrong, I am doing reasonably well. It’s just that I’m not entirely sure if that is because I’m holding back on more than I should, or because I simply haven’t begun processing all these things yet. Or maybe, just maybe, because I have actually become better at coping with things. Either way, a session with D. would quite possibly help me to at least understand which of the above guesses is more likely to be accurate. I’m not saying that it would necessarily change anything, but I do think that the clearer I am on what I’m actually dealing with, the better I can find the right balance, emotionally.

Apart from the above worries, I am also quite nervous about this new place I’m moving to. I mean, although I have lived in shared accommodation before this will be a completely new experience. Not only will I be living with people who I actually don’t know at all, but the whole set up is very different from what I have experienced before. I think it’s reasonable to assume that it will be quite a big change to deal with; house meetings with my house mates and two therapists three times a week – well, it’s not exactly the norm, is it? I expect I will struggle quite a lot to find my place in this new situation. Still, having said that, I do believe that it is the right place for me to be. I think that staying in a place where the focus is personal change/insight, and all the challenges that will present me with, I’m certain that I will gain a lot from it.

On to something different..
A book arrived in the post while a was away – Karen J. Maroda’s The Power of Countertransference – and now that I’ve finally been able to start reading it I’m finding it difficult to put it down for long enough to get any packing done.

Maroda’s take on analytic technique is one that I personally find very appealing. To a lay-person such as myself her ideas seem to make perfect sense.

I am, of course, well aware of the traditional stance in psychoanalytic thinking; that the therapist will hold back on his or her immediate thoughts and feelings, in order to allow the patient to use the therapist as a blank canvass and to not burden the patient with the feelings the he or she may have evoked in the therapist etc. This is, in essence, to avoid allowing the patient to repeat past habits and thereby reinforcing his or her set pathology. Maroda’s theory, on the other hand, is – and this is a very general and broad summary – that for real change to take place in a therapy situation the therapist must join the patient in the experience of regression, rather than merely observing it from a safe distance. In other words, the therapist needs to both be able and willing to give more of herself to the patient, so that not only the transference factor is being looked at in the sessions, but also the countertransference factor. This, naturally, means breaking off from the often authoritarian therapist-patient relationship that psychoanalytic thinking typically entails. Maroda highlights the fact that even Freud was not unknown to alter his theories when he found that his experiments didn’t pan out the way he had expected, and that as society has undergone such tremendous change in the past several decades since Freud first introduced his theories to the world, so too psychoanalytic technique needs to change. Needless to say, when Maroda’s book was first published back in 1990 it caused something of a stir amongst the practitioners in this particular field. She was not at all the first to point to what to me seem like obvious flaws in the ‘blank canvas’-approach, however, up until then any attempt to bring about change had been fairly limited and there was no structured concept, such as the one Maroda presents in her book.

Anyway, if you happen to have a bit of spare time, I’d recommend this book. It’s probably one of the most accessible and readable texts around on practical implementation of counter-transference as an active part in the therapist-patient relationship, and a very interesting one at that!

xx