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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Being Unwell And Feeling Cared For

Cure For The Ill

Cure For The Ill

I’ve been unwell. Still am, actually. Pneumonia. It’s a bit of a long-winded story, but in short it involves leaving a psychotherapy session early for the first time ever, thinking I was better when I wasn’t, and ultimately on Friday having to go see the doc urgently.

I had just left a session, and on the train home I suddenly had this terrible pain in my chest. And it was a pain I had felt before; two years ago I had a pneumonia, and this was what it felt like.

Anyway, once I got to the doctor’s, she had a good listen to my chest, took my medical history and told me she felt confident that what I had the previous week was more than likely a flu virus, but that I had milder symptoms than most, since I’d had the flu jab, and that despite this my immune system was compromised enough for me to develop a pneumonia. [Ironically, the reason I have the jab every year in the first place is so as to make sure I don’t come down with secondary complications, such as this..] Since I have a history of pneumonia, starting in exactly the same way [top right lobe a week after having had another illness] and because my asthma was kicking off like crazy, she decided that she’d rather start me on antibiotics straight away, than wait for test results to come through.

So, home I went, antibiotics in hand. Crashed into bed, and this is where I’ve been stuck up until just now. I have to say, antibiotics are a wonderful thing once they kick in. You really do feel so much better, very quickly. Of course there was always a chance that the pneumonia I had was viral rather than bacterial, in which case the antibiotics would have done nothing for me, but ‘thankfully’ it turns out that it must have been bacterial.

While in bed I have been thinking about being unwell. It’s something I have a fair amount of experience with. You see, I have a really poor immune system, and so whenever something’s going ‘round, I tend to catch it. I mean, I had swine flu long before it became fashionable. But, also – as I have mentioned in previous posts – I am prone to what I call psychosomatic fevers. Other people get upset tummies when they are stressed out; I get a temperature. And this is what’s been on my mind, these last few days; the relationship between having a genuinely poor immune system and getting psychosomatic illnesses.

You see, I don’t think it is entirely chance that I get ill very easily, weak immune system aside. When I was little I was always seen as someone who could look after myself, someone who was responsible and dependable and able, far beyond my years. My parents tended to assume I’d be OK on my own, and mostly I was. I’m sure it was sometimes hard for my parents, this fierce independence I had; not so easy parenting a child like that. But, at the same time, they were very busy people; three other kids, one of whom really rinsed them clean of any energy they may have had. So, as confusing as it may have been for them, I’m guessing it was also something of a relief that I didn’t seem to need much looking after, that in fact, I was perfectly able to look after myself as well as anyone else.

But, when I was unwell, it was almost as if my parents’ parenting instincts suddenly kicked in, as if this was the kind of parenting they could understand, could relate to. After all, they are both trained in healthcare professions. This was something they knew what to do with. And so, as a consequence, when I was unwell, those were times when I truly felt like a child, like they were my parents and I was in their care.

At all other times I always felt equal to my parents. I always felt like I was an adult, just like them. And to a large degree, I think that’s how they and other adults around me saw me, too. But when I was sick, well, I could allow myself to be the child I really was.

So, is it so strange that I am prone to getting ill? Even now, as an adult, when I am ill, both of my parents will call me, will want to know how I am, will maybe even worry a little. This in contrast to other times, when I am nearly always the one to call them, nearly always the one to ask what’s going on for them.

Of course, something like pneumonia is a very real illness, it’s not psychosomatic, not imagined, not exaggerated, but in the midst of feeling so terribly poorly, I also do feel cared for, in that very special way.
Just like I did back then.

Psychology..
It’s interesting stuff.

xx

How I’ve kept myself busy. The Square-1 cube puzzle. It’s a fair challenge, getting it back into a cube shape, and then getting all the colours right.

Square-1

Square-1

Candle Lighting, Ice-Skating & Honouring Thy Mother And Father

A painted chanukkiah on my window

A painted chanukkiah on my window

Tonight is the first night of Chanukkah (Hanukkah, Hanukah, Chanukah..whatever.. you know.. the Jewish holiday.. חנוכה), and thus time to light the first candle. The mitzvah of lighting Chanukkah candles states that one should not only light them, but that one should publicise the miracle of Chanukkah, thus it is customary to place your chanukkiah on the windowsill so that it can be seen by people walking past. Now, I would love to do that, but unfortunately where I live there are no windowsills, so I can’t do that.

Wanting to still fulfil the commandment, I did the next best thing; I painted a chanukkiah on my window. This is something I get from my mother, who used to paint advent candles on our kitchen window every year, “lighting” another candle each Sunday in the lead-up to Christmas. So, choosing to publicise my chanukkiah in this way feels doubly good, because it can also be seen as a way of honouring my mother. And that matters to me, not only because it’s a commandment, but because it is so easy to, when thinking back to my childhood, focus on all the things that were less than ideal. As much as there were a lot of things that were not right, there were also many things that were really good. Happy memories, which need also be allowed space in my heart.

Another happy memory came to life for me a few weeks ago, when I – for the first time in ten years – went ice-skating. Prior to going, and in spite of having not skated for such a long time, I was thinking How hard can it be? Growing up in the very north of Sweden, I got my first skates when I was something like two and a half, and I’ve been skating reasonably regularly every winter all the way up until I moved to London ten years ago and took on the shape and size of a baby whale.

Baby whale attributes aside, I really didn’t think skating would be a problem. Bit like riding a bike, right? Wrong! I stepped onto the ice and for the first time ever I felt aware that there was a chance I could fall. I mean, I was properly scared. I was like Bambi on ice, only less graceful. It was like learning to walk again. And yet, as surprising as this was, there was something else that also hit me straight in the chest, and that was an utter sense of freedom, of happiness. I felt like a child again, like the kid I used to be, when things were good.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my last few sessions with A., exploring this, because I genuinely can’t remember the last time I felt so free and happy. The closest thing to it is when I write or paint, but this was way more than that. It brought back the memory of going skating with my family as a kid. Either my mother or my father would take my brothers and I down to the rink, and it was the best thing ever. Often we’d go to one of the many outdoor rinks which most schools in my home town had at the time. These were rinks that hadn’t been Zambonied to perfection, rather, it wasn’t unusual for us to get to the rink and find it completely snow covered. So – as a family – we would have to clear the rink before we could even begin skating. It would be pitch dark all around us, even if it might not be late at all, only the floodlights at the rink cutting through the darkness, making me feel as if the only thing that existed was my family and I, and the sheer joy of speeding across the ice.

Happy memory trigger

My Beloved Skates
Happy Memory Trigger

Being back on the ice again brought all of this back to me. I remember how my father would have us do ten laps clockwise and then another ten counter-clockwise as a warm up, before we were allowed to free-skate, and how we kids would do it without questioning him, despite the fact that my father happens to be possibly the worst skater in the history of ever. It was, as I explained to A. in session, special – because – growing up I didn’t have very many rules given to me by my parents, and this, well, it allowed me to be the kid, rather than the responsible little person I had to be at most other times. Another ice-skating memory that came flooding back is from when I was really little, back when I was only just able to stand on the ice in my skates, and my mother would hold my hands to support me. It may seem like a very small thing, in the grander scheme of things, but – as I said to A. – it must be important, because I remember it. I have a million memories of worrying about my mother, feeling like I was the adult, and plenty others where the child/adult boundaries were blurred, to say the least, and this – in contrast – was a situation where my mother was unquestionably the adult, and all I had to do was to be a child, safe in the knowledge that she wouldn’t let me fall.

So, as I light my Chanukkah candles this year, at the very darkest time of the year, I am challenging myself to remember the brightest, happiest memories.

Happy Chanukkah!

xx

PS. Just in case you didn’t know, the Holiday armadillo – as introduced in Friends – is a myth. The Chanukkah GECKO, on the other hand, is clearly real. See photographic evidence below.

Chanukkah 5773 - Day 1 The ACTUAL chanukkiah

Chanukkah 5773 – Day 1
The ACTUAL chanukkiah
..and the very real Chanukkah gecko..