I Survived A Therapy Break

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.

xx

IMG_3885

A drawing Little S. made last night to show how happy bob, she and Adult Me feels that P. is finally back

 

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Making Sense Of Abuse & The Need To Feel Heard

I really shouldn’t be writing this. I ought to be writing an essay on attachment. Especially seeing as I’m working to an absolute deadline, having already exhausted all opportunity for extension. Only I simply haven’t got the head space to do any studying. Or anything else, really. In fact, if you find this post a bit fragmented that is because it has been written in fragments; a sentence here and there whenever I’ve had a short break from the hellish onslaught of constant flashbacks I am currently experiencing.

I’ve spent a lot of time in these past ten days [or however long it has been] talking both to the Samaritans and the Rape & Sexual Abuse Support Line. Talking to them doesn’t stop the flashbacks; I will often continue having them even while I’m on the phone, but at least, when I come out of them I’m not alone. Also, I’ve come to realise that what I really crave is to be allowed to tell my story. To share what happened to me. And, more importantly, to feel heard. To hear the reaction of others, when they hear what happened to me has played an important part in coming to see that what went on while I was growing up was actually quite bad.

Rather unsurprisingly, I’m very good at minimalising the abuse that I was subjected to as a child and teenager. Minimalising what went on is in essence how I got through it. I genuinely believe that had I allowed myself to see the magnitude of what was going on at the time there is no way I could have survived it. At least not with my sanity intact. So I dissociated and numbed myself to the whole experience.

But, there comes a point when you have to begin to look openly and honestly at what really happened. There is no way that you can forever keep running from it. Sooner or later you have to find the courage to look the past in the eye or you will never be able to heal. By that I don’t meant that it is necessary to explore in minute detail every single abuse situation you were ever in, but that one has to face one’s own emotions about what happened.

When I think back to the things my oldest brother did to me – not through flashbacks, but simply by normal recall – I can’t say that I remember feeling much at all. Maybe, very early on, when I was little, I have a vague memory of feeling confused, but that’s about the extent of conscious emotions. The rest is something of an emotional void. What is happening now with the flashbacks – and what makes them so terrifying – is that it is as if I am now reliving what happened, with the emotional response I should have had, but couldn’t have, as a child.

As a child, even from very early on, I always knew what was happening didn’t feel right, but in order to cope with it, I very soon began to understand ‘not feeling right’ as a the normal state of being. The abuse became so routine that it seemed no less normal to me than going to school or doing my chores. It was just one of the many parts that made up my day-to-day life.

I think the abuse began around the time when I was about four and a half, because that’s the earliest I can remember, and my brother says that was roughly when it started. Of course it could have started earlier, but I simply haven’t got any memories – happy or sad – from before that time.

It went on for a very long time – all the way until I was 17 – and only came to light because I tried to kill myself. There was one occasion, when I was about seven, when I did try to tell my mother about what my brother was doing to me [although my mother says this never happened, that I never told her], but unfortunately that ended disastrously with my mother unable to take on board what I was saying to her, and I never again tried to tell anyone. For years I held on to that question mark posed by my mother, that maybe I really hadn’t told her, because that idea was so much easier to cope with, so much less painful, than the idea that I did tell my mother and she was unable to do anything about it. There are definitive mitigating circumstances in terms of why my mother couldn’t cope with what I was telling her, but the unavoidable fact remains: as a consequence of my mother’s inability to intervene the abuse carried on for another ten years, which is – of course – and absolute eternity.

There was one year, when I was eight going on nine, when things could have changed quite dramatically. That year my brother was away from home, doing his military service – which was at the time mandatory. In a tragic twist, that same year – which could have been an opportunity for me to get to experience what life without abuse might be like – my parents decided to take in a foster child, a much damaged 16-year-old refugee boy from the Lebanon who had seen war up close and who was deeply disturbed by it. Cut a long story short, he began abusing me almost immediately after moving in with us.

What happened with this person was something I was completely unprepared for. You see, with my brother, what he got off on, was the idea that what went on was something we both wanted. So he would constantly be asking me questions. Do you like this? Does this feel good? What would you like to do? And I soon learned what was expected of me, learned to step into the role he wanted me to play. With this other person, there was something entirely different that motivated him. What he enjoyed was to see me terrified and in pain. Whereas with my brother I could choose to either step into a role – in a sense choose to not be me – or to dissociate and go somewhere else in my mind while he was doing what he was doing, with this other person, he wouldn’t allow me to do that. If he noticed that I was zoning out, he would slap my face to bring me back to the present, or he would hold my chin and peer into my eyes, thereby ensuring I couldn’t escape him or what he was doing to me. He had a knife strapped to his leg, concealed underneath his jeans – he called it his Rambo knife – which he would hold against my neck while he was raping me. Not with the sharp edge, but with the blunt back of it, just as a mind game making sure I could never be sure if this would be the time he would finally kill me. Even in completely normal situations he would play these horrendous mind games with me. For example, we would all be out in the garden, him, my brothers and I, playing football. He would then kick the ball far away, my brothers turning their backs to us, running after the ball, and as soon as they did, he would grab me by my throat and throw me against the wall of the house, choking me – and then immediately let go the second my brothers were turning back, as if to drive home the message that it doesn’t matter where we are or who is around, I can do whatever I want to you, whenever I want.

I had a very good session with A. earlier this week, where I for the first time ever, talked about the way the abuse happened. Not details of what actually happened or specific incidents, but the ways in which I was made to be compliant with it, both through things that were said, and through things that didn’t need to be said.

I spent an entire year in fear of this other person, and what happened with him; the violence, the threats and the psychological mind games matched exactly the stereotype painted by media. It took years for me to appreciate that what my brother did, the subtle grooming, coercion and indirect coaching, was also abuse.

But it’s all coming back now – all the pent up emotions – in the form of flashbacks.
And it’s really really scary.

xx