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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Encased In Ice Cold Fear, Trapped In Panic Mode – Upon Seeing A Ghost

I am feeling a little worried that this blog is becoming somewhat scattered, that there isn’t much of a red thread running through it anymore, and that it might be difficult to follow what’s actually going on with me, but sometimes, well, I sit down, fully intending to write an update on what I wrote about in the previous post, and it just feels like the moment has passed, and there are other – more pressing – things I feel a need to write about. Tonight is one of those times. There are two main things I feel I want to write about, so I think I will write two separate entries, to give you guys a chance to rest your eyes, hearts and souls a little in between sittings..

This Monday I went to my session with Z. as I usually do; a little lost in thought, trying to get into The Zone. The room I see Z. in is situated in a building which houses an entirely different kind of project, which is nothing to do with the counselling I am doing. In order to get to Z.’s room I have to walk through first a tiny reception area and then what seems to be some sort of dining hall. There are usually a fair few people in there when I arrive for my session and I generally just walk straight through it, not really paying attention to who is there. This time ended up being very different.

Sitting at one of the tables, right next to the door I needed to go through, was a person who was an absolute dead ringer for M., one of the people I was abused by. NOT the way he looked back then, but the way he would look now: older, heavier, but with those same eyes, the same way of looking at me..

I’m not really sure how to explain what happened, but it was as if my body reacted instantly to this person, before my brain had even had time to work out the reason for the reaction. I have prosopagnosia, a condition that is a little bit like being dyslexic, but with faces instead of letters; my brain simply doesn’t store the memory of peoples’ faces, and it is very, very rare for me to recognise people. Even people I know well, like my sisters, I’m unable to picture, when I’m not with them. But, somehow, with this person, my body reacted instantaneously, before I had even clocked what [who] my eyes were seeing.

All heat seemed to drain from my body at once, I felt ice cold, my heart was beating so hard it was painful, my legs went spaghettiose. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and that I actually didn’t want to breathe. But somehow I managed to keep walking.

I made it to the stairs leading to the waiting room, and bumped into Z. who was coming down them. I could hear her greet me, and I know I said something back, ‘though I have no idea at all what I said. All I remember was that I thought my knees were going to buckle under me, and focusing ALL my energy on this tea cup Z. happened to be holding, because that was the only thing that seemed to not be spinning, that seemed real, safe. [Could write a whole essay on why it was the tea cup, rather than Z. herself, that seemed real and safe, but it seems of secondary importance right now.]

I got to the top of the stairs and into the waiting room and collapsed on one of the chairs, shaking from head to toe. My hands were trembling completely out of control. It is something that happens to me in moments of extreme anxiety or fear, and I tend to hide my hands so that no one will see it.

By the time I got into Z.’s consulting room I was in what I could only describe as a state of shock, unable to speak. I’m not sure how long for, it might not have been very long in real time, but it felt like an eternity. I felt like all my words were stuck in my throat, blocked by this horrible, unmeltable, icy lump of fear.

Z. at first assumed that it was an air freshener that had triggered this reaction in me, as in a previous session I had reacted to it, as it somehow reminded me of another, similar, smell that almost inevitably sets off a chain of flashbacks, so she went to open the window a little wider. I managed to let her know that that wasn’t it. I’m not sure if I actually told her, or if she asked and I just shook my head.

Eventually I was able to explain to Z. what had happened, who I thought I had seen. Who I felt sure I had seen.

It was such a strange sensation, all these extremely intense feelings, very similar to when I am having flashbacks, only I wasn’t in a flashback. I was reacting to something real. To someone real.

I tried to calm myself down, tried to tell myself that no matter how much this person looked like M., the odds that it was really him was very, very small, infinitesimal, really. But, somehow that just didn’t matter. I experienced a complete split between intellect and emotion, an absolute refusal to believe that it was just someone who looked like him: every cell in my body was telling me that it was him, and no amount of rationalisation or probability calculation could change that.

It was as if every single incident of abuse that he had ever subjected me to in the year or so he was living with us were washing over me all at once, like an enormous tidal wave, sweeping all rational thought from my mind, leaving me completely and utterly encased in ice cold fear, trapped in panic mode. I managed to tell Z. this; that I felt terrified, like the abuse could start over at any second, because in my mind M. was sitting downstairs, and he was always able to find a way to play his cruel games. It didn’t matter that there were lots of people in the building, or that Z. was in the room with me. He could do whatever he wanted, absolutely whenever he wanted to back then, and to me this was still true now. Z. tried to reassure me that no one could hurt me, that I was safe, and I could hear 8-year-old Little S ask “Am I?” in a tone drenched in doubt, so certain in the knowledge that there is nowhere in the entire world I am safe from him, as long as he is still alive.

I genuinely cannot remember feeling so scared or so panicked ever in my life, not since the abuse was actually happening. And that feeling hasn’t subsided. I feel like I am stuck in this horrendous place where my usual, reasoned, realistic way of dealing with things is completely helpless to shield me from my own feelings. I am trying my best to tell myself that it can’t have been him. And at the same time, in my head, it was. There was something about the way my body just reacted to seeing this person, that just makes it impossible for me to accept that it wasn’t.

I told Z. that I was scared of when I would have to leave that room and go downstairs again, even though on the way out I don’t have to go through the dining hall. Z. very gently offered to come with me, so I wouldn’t have to go on my own, in fact she offered more than once, but I had already switched into my ‘Let No One In, Trust No One’-mode, telling her “I’ll be OK. I’m always OK”. To which Z. answered that I certainly had come through a hell of a lot, but she also reminded me that there was no need for me to ‘Be OK’ in session or with her.

I did leave on my own. I’m not sure how. All I know is that as soon as I was out of the building and across the street, tears were streaming down my face and I had to stop twice to be sick before I even got to the bus stop.

I feel so frightened now. And I am scared about going to my next session. I want to go to it, but what if he is there again? I don’t know if I can cope with it. In many ways it doesn’t even really matter whether or not it really is him: the fear he instilled in me back then has returned with a vengeance, regardless of which it is.

I wrote Z. an email earlier this evening, asking could she meet me downstairs in the reception area next session, because it might help me feel a little less frightened if I know I won’t have to walk through the dining hall on my own. It is very unusual for me to ask for help. I am so used to always relying on myself to find ways of dealing with everything on my own, no matter how hard. But I was thinking about what Z. said in session, that there was no need for me to ‘Be OK’, and decided that it was better to ask than to push myself through more fear and anxiety than what is actually necessary.

 

I am sorry that this ended up being such a long post. I suppose there was a lot I needed to get out of my head.

 

Be kind to your Selves.

xx