We’ve been on a break, my therapist and I. A Pesach / Easter / training combo break. Leading up to the break I was very aware of Little S. inside having a lot of feelings about P. going away. This, even though, I – or should I write we..? – were also going to be away for almost the entire break. There was an increased and very distinct need for emailing and texting P. to make sure that she was Real.
I think that what Little S. means by someone being Real is a combination of them not forgetting her when she’s not with them and for them to not abandon her when things get rough. But, at times it is also a way to express genuine fear that maybe the relationship with the other person is too good to be true, it is asking for reassurance; are you Real, or just a figment of my imagination, because it seems so unbelievable to me to have someone who is really there for me when I need them.
A break always brings out a lot of abandonment issues, especially for the Little S. part in me. From Adult Me’s vantage point this makes perfect sense, I understand why this happens; so many people in my life haven’t been there when I’ve needed them the most, so, naturally, when someone as important to me as P. declares that she’s going to be away, it is bound to trigger all manner of emotional echoes inside me. But, as much as Adult Me can see this, it doesn’t actually make it any easier for Little S. to deal with the anxiety and sadness that these separations inevitably bring to surface. To Little S. the worry that P. might be going on a break because she has been too much for her is very real, as is the fear that P. might – during the break – realise that she prefers not to have to deal with her ups and downs, her neediness, her constant need for reassurance.. Before a break the tension inside Little S. will keep building, until she is convinced that a) there is no way she can survive this break and b) that, should she through some form of miracle survive, there is no way that P. will ever choose to return.
A few years ago, back when I was still seeing A., I would never ever talk about any of this directly with her before a break. I would suffer in silence, and maybe – very maybe – mention it after the break was over, although generally in a very brief glossing over kind of fashion. Before a break, I would just feel the anxiety mounting, bring me closer and closer to breaking point, but I would not really acknowledge just how difficult breaks are for me. This, of course, lead to breaks being absolutely catastrophic in my mind, and it was extremely rare that I would not need to be working with the crisis resolution team during them.
In the first year or so of seeing P. I slowly and very gradually became better at talking around the subject of breaks, slightly dipping my toes in it, so to speak. I would talk about it in the way Adult Me sees it, intellectualising it, rather than actually feeling it. In part this was because I didn’t really know how else to approach it; intellectualising difficult feelings, analysing why they are triggered, rather than actually feeling the feelings, is how I have got through an awful lot of difficult times; it is a well beaten path. But, as I have been working more and more closely with P. to try to notice that there are feelings stirring inside, and to identify what those feelings are, I can now fairly often allow myself to stay with them.
The other part of why – back in the early days – I didn’t really talk about the feelings was that many of those feelings [particularly the ones to do with abandonment and separation, and the shame of needing someone else] belonged more to Little S. than to Adult Me, and Little S. hadn’t yet found her voice. Or rather, I hadn’t yet found a way to allow Little S. to express herself directly in our therapy. But, eventually we cracked it; first by letting Little S. email and text P. between sessions and then by Little S. speaking directly to P. in sessions [as opposed to through Adult Me]. It’s been a long journey, but I do feel that Little S. is now reasonably able to take part in therapy when she wants or needs to.
So, this time around, on top of the many emails and texts asking P. if she is Real, she was also able to not only talk about her feelings prior to the break, but she was able to experience them while she was talking about them. And that felt like a very big step forward.
The break in itself actually went quite well this time. Of course we all missed seeing P., and there were a few times when either Little S., bob, or Adult Me needed to email P., but there wasn’t quite as much anxiety to deal with as there might have been, had we not been able to experience and explore some of the feelings before the break, had P. not helped me make space for these feelings to be not only shared, but also heard. P. doesn’t ever make me talk about difficult feelings, but she does actively encourage me to try – and we set the pace together. She makes it very clear to me that it is safe to allow feelings out, that she wants to hear about them, whether it be in session or in an email, a text or in a drawing. And, possibly most importantly – especially to Little S. – she reassures her that she will be able to bear those feelings, that they won’t be too much, and they won’t result in P. no longer wanting to see her. That feeling and talking and talking about feelings is very much welcomed and valued in our relationship. Even when it’s scary. Especially when it’s scary.
Another thing that P. and I do to help Little S. manage during breaks and particularly difficult times, is to let one of P.’s ‘little friends’ – a soap stone hippo called Ringo [*not his real name, gotta protect his privacy!] – stay with me. I will also leave something of mine with P. to further strengthen the sense of connection between us during the break. As Little S. would say: “Something to help you ‘merember’ me, in case you start to forget.” It may sound like a childish thing to do, this exchanging of personal artefacts, but, Little S. inside is just that – she’s little – she may live inside the body of an adult, but she still finds comfort in having something physical to hold on to help her connect with P. So, no matter how silly it may seem to outsiders, taking Ringo with me everywhere I go, it makes all the difference in the world to Little S. And that’s worth a lot!
So, when you’re facing a break in your therapy, here is my advice to you: listen to what all of you need to make that break as bearable as possible. Don’t allow your Adult Self to stop your Little from getting what they need to manage it. To the best of your ability, talk about the fears and worries that all of the different parts of you carry about this break. Write it in a letter if it is too hard to say it out loud, if the fear of rejection gets too much. And if needed: ask if Ringo can come stay with you. And, if asking for a Ringo to stay with you feels too much; start small. I was given this tip by one of my readers many years ago, and at first, having something personal of P.’s felt way too overwhelming for me, so we started by my borrowing a random pen of hers that I could use to write in my journal with. And a little note from P. to help reassure me that she wouldn’t forget me and that she would be back.
But now that I have worked my way up to having Ringo stay with me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And neither would my sisters’ kids!
Be good to your Selfs.