The March Post

To say that this hasn’t been my favourite month ever would be a grave understatement; March has been seriously rough. But, then again, I always knew that part of this particular month would be a real challenge, as this happens to be the month in which one of my abusers’ birthdays falls, something which is always a big trigger for me. A truly awful day with masses and masses of flashbacks.

On top of that, I was sent one of those dreaded brown envelopes from the DWP that I mentioned in last month’s post, one which contained a form for me to fill out, relating to benefits. This is something that always sends me into a complete tailspin; the anxiety that these forms provoke is enormous, because they force me to have to think about all the things I can’t do, leaving me feeling like an utterly useless human being. Even at the best of times I find it hard to think myself worthy of any form of financial support (even though, in healthier times, I used to work crazy hours, and paid equally crazy amounts of income tax, earning national insurance aplenty) – but when I am already feeling low – well, those DWP forms seem to be designed to give one the experience of being kicked while already being on the ground..

I am very fortunate, I have a therapist, a care coordinator and a social worker who are all more than happy to help me with these forms and support me through the emotional turmoil they cause, but even so, my risk level increases incrementally with every page of questions on those forms. I spent a session with my care coordinator, filling out as much of it as possible, but even though – in all honesty – she did most of it, and even wrote on the form for the DWP to contact her if there were any questions – I was overcome with horrible thoughts of how the people at the DWP would rather I kill myself, than having to keep paying out money to me. Of course, the rational part of me understands that absolutely nothing about these forms is personal – that lots and lots of people are sent (read: tormented by) them every single day – they still have the power to reduce me to one giant suicidal self-harming mess. In the month and a half I needed to fill out that ruddy form, I lost count of the number of times I took it out – fully intending to manage at least a couple of questions that day – only to have to put it away again, as my urges to self-harm got too strong.

So, this, in combination with my abuser’s birthday, meant that I desperately needed the support of the crisis resolution team. I was having such strong urges to end my life – even though parts of me really wanted to live – that I was struggling to keep my Self safe from me. And, even though I was reluctant to work with them to start with, I know that the extra support that they offered this time around, is what kept me safe, kept me alive.

So, no, March 2018 hasn’t been a great one.
But, hopefully, April will treat me with the kindness I deserve.

xx

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The February Post – Anxiety…

Anxiety. That’s the word of the month for me. Not just the usual anxiety that I struggle with, about clearly identifiable things like ‘Will there be a horrible brown envelope from the DWP in the post today?’ or ‘What if the new flatmate turns out to be really scary?’, but that awful non-specific thing we like to call generalised anxiety. It been coming over me out of nowhere several times a day, gripping me with its icy cold claws, digging into my skin, even my soul – and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. My heart pounding so hard and fast it makes me think that there is a genuine chance it might explode in my chest. That sense of doom, of just knowing that no matter what I do, something very very bad is going to happen, and there is no escape. That horrible fizzy feelings behind my knees that makes me feel simultaneously completely paralysed and as if I can’t be still for even a second.

That. I’ve had an awful lot of that this month.

In therapy P. and I try to slow things down, try to work out what it is I am reacting to – but, unlike anxiety about something tangible and definable, this fuzzy whizzing fog of fear won’t be so easily captured and analysed. Of course we know that if there are a lot of things going on for me, I am much more likely to experience these episodes of panic and anxiety – but more often than not, it feels as if it’s been triggered by something so microscopically small that we can’t even distinguish it with our emotional super lens trained directly on it.

I can’t remember a time where I’ve suffered quite so much with anxiety (that wasn’t caused by something specific). And this constant fighting off an unseen enemy is exhausting. Recently I have even been considering whether or not I may need to look into getting prescription meds to help me manage it all.

Now, I know that many people have strong feelings about the use of medication to treat mental health disorders. Some feel they are an evil that should be avoided at all cost, while others say that they are absolute life savers. Personally, I am not for or against using meds. I have not been on any kind of medication for a very very long time – but the reason for that is that I have had some very severe adverse reactions to a number of drugs (both ones to treat physical and emotional ills), and for that reason my GP is very reluctant to start me on anything I’ve not been on before. Also, the one psycho-pharmaceutical I have ever been on without having one of those aforementioned severe adverse reactions happens to be one that is frighteningly high on the toxicity index, so – owing to a proven tendency to not stick to agreed safe dosages – I am rarely allowed to have even that. But, as I said, at the moment the anxiety is so bad that I am seriously considering trying to persuade my GP to let me have some sort of anxiety reducing chemical prescribed. (I’m not terribly hopeful that she will agree to do so; she once told me that she ‘doesn’t prescribe sleeping tablets for sleep’ in an attempt to not have to prescribe me an untested medication).

This kind of anxiety is kind of new to me. Or, at least having such frequent episodes is. I’ve had panic and anxiety attacks before, and I am a pro at getting exceptionally anxious about anything that could possibly go wrong – but I’ve never had multiple episodes every day. I am very used to suffering from PTSD flashbacks – I have those all day, every day – but this is something very different. As horrible as the flashbacks are (and they really are truly disturbing, each and every one of them), at least once I have managed to come out of them, I know what they were about; there is a distinct traumatic event attached to each one of them. But these anxiety attacks.. I really don’t know what to make of them.

Of course P. and I will continue to explore them, and hopefully they will get better. But for now.. it’s really tough.

Anyway, I think I’ll end this post here. It’s not quite the update I would have liked to write, – but I guess it is what it is.

To all of you out there,
be good to your Selfs

xx

Running Up That Hill

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And if I only could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get Her to swap our places
I’d be running up that road
Be running up that hill
~ With no problems..’

*

*

I’m not sure what Kate Bush had in mind when she wrote that song, those lyrics, but they really speak to me. I feel I’ve been running up that hill forever now, getting nowhere. It isn’t getting any easier, and I really wish there was a way to swap places, to make that deal. I’ve been running up that road for so many years, but nothing has changed. Lots has happened, but nothing has changed.

Last night was the 21st anniversary of the very first time I tried to end my life. I was seventeen and I didn’t know how to make the abuse stop, didn’t dare communicate what was going on – what had been going on for as long as I could remember, because I didn’t know what would happen if I did. So, at the very end of my mother’s 50th birthday I swallowed a cocktail of random anti-depressants, mood stabilisers, sleeping tablets and painkillers. This was before the internet, before you could google your way to the perfect concoction to put an end to your misery, and as a consequence I survived.

I woke up to a whole new world. One where – in a flurry of activity – suddenly lots of people knew about the abuse. Social services got called in. I remember so well how the head of social services – who just happened to be a close friend of the family – told me that ‘No one is allowed to make you do anything that you don’t want to do. Ever.’ Except, of course, that I would have to talk to the police and I would have to go to court, whether or not I wanted to, because those were not things I had the choice to opt out of.. You see where I’m going with this? Something happened, but nothing changed.

I’ve been in therapy for years and years and years by now, and although I firmly believe that talking about what happened – in a safe environment with a therapist sensitive to my needs [as opposed to at a police station or in a court room] – is key to ultimately reducing the traumatic re-experiencing of abuse that I am faced with every time I have a flashback, it feels as if that day is very very far away. Hardly even a blip on a distant horizon.

I know that if I manage to find a way to keep running up that hill – because, trust me, therapy can be such an uphill run – my day to day life could be greatly improved, in terms of the amount of flashbacks I suffer, in terms of being able to make and keep plans, in terms of feeling more in charge of my life. And that would be great. It really would.

But then there is that other thing. The Not Having Children.
No amount of therapy can change that. I could do therapy every day for the next two thousand four hundred and sixty-eight years, and that fact would simply not change. People are forever telling me that ‘No, that wouldn’t change. But, you might change. You might feel differently about it.’

Only I know that I won’t.

This is a wound that cannot heal. There are constant reminders to keep that wound open and bleeding. Three people in my life are currently pregnant, due at various points next year – so I already know that 2015 will be another year of Everyone Else having children. Another year of tears burning my skin as they roll down my face. Of a pain so sharp it shreds my soul from the inside..

And the problem is that every year is going to be A Year Like That. Until it turns into endless years of Everyone Else Having Grandchildren. And I can’t face a life like that. I just can’t.

Even if I managed to somehow accept that I won’t have children, I just can’t accept a life without them.

I will try, as I have been trying. But, I know that one day, soon, I’ll run out of steam. And I’ll stop running.

It is sad.
But it is what it is.

xx

Running Up That Hill [A Deal With God] Copyright © 1985 Kate Bush

Twenty-fourteen – A Year Of Changes & Challenges

I thought I’d make one final push to get an update out before the end of the year. I’m not in a great place, hence radio silence on most channels, but sometimes that’s when the best blog posts come out, so let’s hope for the best. Could be nothing, could be something.

It’s been a rough year. There are no two ways about it. At the beginning of the year I ended with my therapist of five years and started over with a new one. It’s a big transition, moving from A. to P., and a huge emotional undertaking. It’s a bit like being asked to switch out your parents. Sure, your parents might not always get you, might be unfair, might make mistakes, might be downright unsuitable to parent anyone, but at least you know them, right? You know their habits, their triggers, their blind spots and you know how they react to the things you say and do. And you also know how you react to the things they say and do. It’s that comfortable – if often less-than-ideal – Familiar versus the scarily unpredictable Unknown that I’ve written about so many times in the past.

That was pretty much what I was going through with A. at the beginning of the year, as we slowly neared and then reached The Ending. Things had been running along the heading-for-an-irreparable-relationship-breakdown route for some time – probably for far longer than I was ready to admit to you, or myself, at the time – but at least I knew what to expect, knew when odds were that my words would be met with silence, knew when there was potential for disappointment. I also knew what not to say and what not to do to keep the status quo, to keep us from falling off the edge. In addition, I was standing on the bedrock of our previous years together, all the times we had communicated really well, spoken a similar emotional language. I had a good sense of where we had one another, of how big or small the distance between us was at any given time, how close we could get, how much trust there was and where the boundaries of our relationship were; all those things that had made our work together so meaningful and fruitful for such a long time. So, it was with a lot of sadness that I had to accept that the time for us to part ways had come.

I had met P. only once before we actually started our joint therapeutic journey. Fifty shared minutes during an initial consultation to decide whether or not we could be A Match. I left that first meeting in December last year feeling that, yes, she could potentially be someone I could learn to trust, given enough time and space to Thoroughly Test what sort of stuff she was made of. But, apart from that gut feeling I didn’t know much about her [or attachment-based therapy] when I went for my first real session in February. I knew that there was something about the way she actively sought to make eye contact in that first meeting that both scared me beyond reason and made me feel that she genuinely wanted to get to know the real me. Actually, let me rephrase that: the way she actively sought to make eye contact with me scared me beyond reason, because she so clearly wanted to get to know the Real Me. Not just the Me she could glean or guess at from the polite introductory phrases or the bullet pointing of my fragmented, chequered and often painful past during this initial meeting, but the Real Me hiding behind all that – the Me that only comes out after the Thorough Testing has been done. The Me that even A., after nearly five years, was only just beginning to get to know.

I took the plunge, and it turned out that the water was far more calm and warm than I had expected. As K. put it only the other day: ‘When you finished with A. I didn’t think you’d ever be able to build a relationship with another therapist. I thought the trust had been shattered for good. I’m amazed at how quickly your relationship with P. has developed.’ I get exactly what K. meant, because it was what I, myself, was thinking at the time. How would I be able to trust? Why should I?

I suppose the answer to that lies in the way P. is, really. I wasn’t at all ready to trust, and P. was able to accept that completely, without any expectation that this would change. Was able to meet me where I was at. She was able to accept that I simply didn’t know if I really wanted to go on with therapy, or even with life. The exact thing that had ultimately caused the breakdown with A. The very thing A. had made clear she couldn’t accept; that I may not only feel that life wasn’t for me, but that I might actually act on it. P. made me, almost immediately – without the Thorough Testing – feel that this was a part of me she could accept. She in no way gave me license to act, but she simply accepted that this could be one of the paths our journey might take.

Then, of course, only a few months later this was put to the test. A splash of a toxic chemical on my tongue, the swallowing of some tricyclics – which I still to this day don’t remember taking – an ambulance ride from the women’s crisis centre to A&E and eleven hours in a coma.

Some might say this was part of my Thorough Testing. I’m not going to argue for or against. All I know is that we survived it: P. didn’t break, didn’t conclude that the reality of acting out was so different from the theory and phantasy of it that she could no longer work with me.

And our relationship grew a little stronger.

The aftermath of this overdose – along with a previous, more serious, intake of that same ototoxic chemical – was the loss of most of what remained of my already damaged hearing. Another big thing to deal with; the knowledge that my actions would have a lifelong effect – near deafness. But, also, in a backwards kind of way, the realisation that even when I mess up it is still within my power to do something about it; the decision to hop on the not-so-joyful steroid ride, the slight but miraculous recovery of some hearing, the sorting out of hearing aids [even though it at times makes me feel I’m ninety-something rather than thirty-something].

And all year long this journey has of course been fenced in and intercepted by flashbacks, by horrendous memories of a past that is never really in the past and by nightmares that don’t go away just because I wake up. Post but-never-quite-over traumatic stress disorder. The stuff that makes day to day life all but impossible to plan. The never knowing if a day will be a 40, 100 or near continuos flashback day. Making plans, cancelling plans, scheduling and rescheduling – because I simply can’t know in advance if any given day will be one where I can leave my house without putting myself at risk.

At the moment it seems worse than usual, more 100-a-day days than 40s. I went to visit my father for the first time in two and a half years at the end of November. That may have something to do with it. I don’t know. It might be related to the fact that both P. and K. have now gone on their respective Chrismukkah breaks, leaving Little S. feeling sad, scared and abandoned, and Adult Me struggling to cope in their absence. Or it might be chance. But, whatever the reason, it’s not so easy to deal with.

Anyway, I want to take the time to thank all of you who have faithfully stuck with me through the ups and downs of this year, in spite the updates being few and far between. It does make such a difference to me. It touches me deeply every single time one of you takes the time to post a comment or write me an email to share a bit of your Selfs with me. I know that is how most of my replies to your communications begin, but it is for a good reason: it’s the truth. I am very grateful for your support.

So, wherever you are in your lives, whatever is going on for you right now, good or bad, I do wish you all the very best.

xx

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Reconnecting

I’ve been writing this update in my head for about a month, only I’ve not got down to typing it up. I am struggling to remember where I was at, emotionally, when I posted my last update, but I know that it wasn’t a very nice place.

Things sort of spun out of control for a bit. I went into the worst period of constant flashbacks I have ever experienced and ended up, once again, at Drayton Park. The whole first two weeks of staying there I more or less only ventured outside of my room to see P. for therapy. I didn’t eat, didn’t sleep and didn’t socialise with any of the other women who were staying there, so this stay was very different to many of my previous stays at Drayton Park. I simply found it too much to be around others when I was being thrust back into the past again and again and again, in an endless waking nightmare of relentless flashbacks.

Something very serious happened while I was at the crisis house, something I still don’t feel I have properly processed or understood, and I may come back to that another time, but for the time being I won’t go into it. I need more time to think about it.

In my third and final week at Drayton Park the frequency of flashbacks began to decrease and I was able to be my usual self a bit more. I had a few really good conversations with some of the other women staying at the project, feeling privileged to be allowed hear their stories and to get to know them a little. It is always a very special thing when someone decides to trust you enough to share of themselves.

I saw D., my ex-counsellor, in passing a few times during my stay [since she is based at Drayton Park one day a week] and we had some good, honest banter over lunch one day. In fact, it must have been really good, even to others listening in, because after D. left one of the residents asked me if D. was my mother, because we had such a ‘natural and easy way with one another’. How anyone could associate ‘natural and easy’ with a mother-daughter relationship is beyond me, it certainly doesn’t fit with any experience of a mother-daughter relationship I’ve ever had, but it was a very nice thing to hear, nonetheless.

Good banter aside, as D. and I were ending one of our little mini-conversations she told me to take good care of myself. Force of habit I shot a semi-automatic “I always do” coupled with a bright smile in her direction. Only, this being D. on the receiving end, she didn’t just let that statement slide, but immediately lobbed a “No, you don’t” back at me. She then paused, looked me right in the eye and slowly repeated “No. You don’t.” And there was so much feeling in those words. There was an unspoken – but clearly received – message of ‘I so wish that you did take good care of yourself. Because you really, really matter.’  And that meant a lot to me.

 

*

 

It has now been four weeks since I left Drayton Park, and there have been both ups and downs. The frequency of flashbacks seems to be back to normal, more or less. It is in no way easy to deal with the flashbacks, regardless of the less intense frequency, but it is a lot better than what it was. As I explained to a friend of mine; it’s a bit like my breathing. While my breathing is never really all that good, immediately after a bad asthma attack the ‘not so good’ still feels like a relief, by comparison.

Therapy with P. is going well and we are continuing to build our relationship, making sure to take plenty of time to do so, so that all of the different parts of me – especially Little S., who is so terribly afraid of anything that resembles trust and care and attachment – feels both seen and heard. Little S. gets scared, because she learned very early on that all of those things will inevitably lead to pain and hurt, and as much as Adult Me wants to challenge that fear, wants to show her that this relationship with P. can be safe and won’t necessarily lead to pain, it takes time and patience to get there. It takes a lot of work to truly alleviate fears that are that deeply rooted.

We are coming up to our first therapy summer break by the end of this week and as a consequence anxiety has been running high both for Little S. and for Adult Me. Regular readers of this blog will know that psychotherapy breaks is a topic I have written about a lot over the years, because it brings to the fore all of my fears about being abandoned and forgotten. It is also one of those things that people who haven’t been in therapy never seem to fully understand or appreciate. And, to me, that is also part of what makes breaks in therapy difficult; the sense that others don’t understand how hard they really are. Whenever I mention to ‘non-therapy’ friends that I feel really anxious about an upcoming break, I always get the feeling that they are thinking that I am worrying over nothing. And if I, during the actual break, say something along the lines of finding it hard that my therapist is away, the immediate response is invariably ‘When will she be back?’ followed by an equally predictable ‘Well, it’s only X weeks left’. This, of course, feels terribly invalidating, since a therapy break isn’t really about length of time at all, but about strength of emotions and how to cope with them in the absence of a safe place to explore them.

P. and I have been talking about this upcoming break and how I will be able to manage while she is away. P. had a few different suggestions of things we could do and I felt incredibly touched by them. I know that it probably seems a little silly, but it had never even entered my mind that she would have spent time thinking of ways to make this easier. I am so used to doing all my thinking and coping on my own, and I feel simultaneously grateful and overwhelmed by the care she has shown me leading up to this break.

 

I think I will end this update here.
Hopefully it won’t be quite so long before I post another one.
[I always seem to be saying that, these days].

Just before I leave you for this time: Thank you all so very much for the many moving and kind words posted in the form of comments and emails during this past blog hiatus. I am sorry that I haven’t been able to respond to all of you, but please know that I do read every single email and comment, and they really do mean a huge deal to me.

Namaste.

 

xx

 

 

 

Daring To Trust

 

Today I did something that scared me, something that made me feel, something that needed me to be braver than I have ever been before. I shared something that I had never ever shared with anyone before.

*

I have now been seeing P. for just over a month. Ten sessions to be precise. And it has been, well, quite a big change for me. It is hard to not constantly compare the work I am doing with her to the work I did with A. It isn’t so much that I keep thinking that one is decidedly better than the other, but I am struck, over and over, by how different it is to be in therapy with P. The relationship we are tentatively building has a whole different feel to it, there is an added dimension to it, a quality that is hard to paint in words, but which is so real I can almost feel it physically.

That said, I miss A. I do. I really miss her. I miss the way I would spend time in session self-analysing and contemplating different angles to things, turning things round and round and having the luxury of going through all the ins and outs of my thoughts, with A. every now and then reflecting back to me what she heard me say.

I find myself, sometimes, making statements that I feel would have fitted well in A.’s therapy room, but which don’t quite work in the space I share with P. I find that doing my ‘getting into therapy mode’ routine, which I have been doing for nearly five years with A., feels awkward and out of place with P. I still do it, because it is simply the way I kick into gear, but I always feel very aware that P. is there, waiting for me to look at her and greet her properly.

So, there’s a lot to get used to. I find it so scary, the way P. meets me at the door, always with a big, warm and welcoming smile, and the way she seeks to make eye contact with me. I find her invitation to form a real relationship with her absolutely terrifying. There are alarm bells going off all over the place, simply because they have been tuned to mistrust that kind of openness and warmth, has been trained to automatically look for the ulterior motive behind any random act of kindness.

But, I am determined to not allow myself to use that fear as an excuse not to dig deeper. I am determined to find a way to ‘dare to trust’, to challenge my own hardwired concept of the world, of others being out to cause me harm. So, I’ve been pushing on with P. I’ve used my sessions to talk and talk and talk and talk about this fear of attaching, this extreme inability to trust – I’ve talked very openly about it all and she, in turn, has responded to it. And I think that that is where some of the healing may lay; in having those fears heard, having that reluctance be understood and accepted. Because – paradoxically – that is what may ultimately allow me to let my guard down, to allow P. in for real.

And today I took a leap of faith. I brought my journal with me, and I shared a drawing I made this morning of something that happened to me, something I had relived in the form of a flashback earlier today, and which I have never ever shared with anyone before.

It was incredibly scary to do, and before I did it, before I even opened up my journal, we spent time talking about what I was feeling, what the fear really was. I explained that there was something about P.’s presence that made me feel more scared than I would be, if I were on my own with the drawing. That something about her being there made me feel more exposed, more vulnerable, because I didn’t know how I would react to looking at the drawing in front of her, and I also didn’t know how she would react. The metaphor I used to explain it to P. was that it’s like standing in front of the mirror, naked, and then doing the same thing, but with someone next to you. The first is hard enough to do, the second all the more frightening.

At first I just sat with the journal in my lap, looking at the drawing I had made, without sharing it with P. Just to see what that would feel like, to test the waters. I found it difficult, had to actually use my hand to cover up the parts of my drawing that felt too difficult to look at. And then, in the middle of doing this – in the middle of shielding myself from my own drawing – it occurred to me that I didn’t need to be the one who was stuck with the drawing. I didn’t need to shield myself from it. I could give it to P., and she could protect me from the full force of the raw horror that the drawing contained. So, I handed it over to her, barely daring to look at her.

But I did. Look at her. And, yes, there was a reaction to what I had drawn, an obvious emotional response to what she was seeing splashed across her face, and it made me feel very afraid, anxious that maybe I had pushed her too hard, too soon. But then P. spoke, first about how what I had shared in the drawing was something no child should have to experience, and later, about how she felt about me having shared it with her. And it made me feel better.

In the session before this one, I also shared something, in words rather than through a drawing that time, and towards the end of the session P. asked me how I felt about what I had shared. So I talked about it. And then – the thing that made me really feel that there might be a possibility that I could trust her to take good care of me – she asked if maybe I needed to also know how she was feeling, having listened to me. So, I nodded and said that I thought that would be good, feeling so immensely grateful that she had understood how enormous my fear of breaking others with my story is.

And that – her honesty in sharing exactly how listening to me affected her – is what made it possible for me to take this huge step in today’s session. Because, something about that – about P. not holding back on her own response, is what makes me feel safe, makes me feel that she knows her own limitations, and that – because of this – she wouldn’t allow either one of us to go further than we could cope with.

xx

“It’s time we made a place
Where people’s souls may be seen and made safe

Be careful with each other
These fragile flames..
For innocence can’t be lost
It just needs to be maintained..”

JK

 

Innocence Maintained  © 1998 Jewel Kilcher

Living With PTSD – Not Like The Movies

I managed to go to service this morning, for the first time in a long long while. Last week I couldn’t go because I had managed to give myself a concussion, before then it was down to running a temperature, and before then – for many many weeks – it has been due to simply not being up to it; too depressed, too submerged in my life/death battle. And then there’s the PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder. The bane of my life. A big reason for previously mentioned life/death battle.

I feel that a lot of people don’t really understand what post-traumatic stress disorder is. Or, more accurately, they may not be aware of how it affects people. I think that, at least in part, media is responsible for this. People have generally heard of flashbacks as being one of the symptoms of PTSD, and you often come across storylines in which characters suffer from this disorder, and the viewers are treated to an insight into the flashbacks that they experience in a variety of ways. Only, there’s an issue with this: having a flashback isn’t like watching something happening on a film screen. It’s about feelings. About re-experiencing the traumatic event, as if it is happening all over again, and having an emotional response to it. Again and again and again and again.

In the most recent episode of BBC’s Silent Witness, the storyline followed a former soldier suffering from PTSD. It was explained that certain sounds and situation could trigger flashbacks for him. So far so good; this is all true for many people suffering from PTSD. Later on in the program we got to ‘experience’ a flashback alongside the character: he saw a person on the street, it morphed into a flashback person – someone who wasn’t actually there – someone who had been part of the trauma. All of this is fairly accurate, I think, for a lot of people: flashbacks can very well be triggered by someone who looks like someone who was part of the traumatic event, and flashbacks can absolutely cause a person to see someone who isn’t really there. Happens to me all the time.

But then the character talked to someone about his experience of having flashbacks, and when the person listening to him said something along the lines of “That must be really horrible” the character’s reply was “No, it’s OK. It’s actually quite nice.”

And this, to me, is a huge departure from what PTSD sufferers truly deal with. I have yet to meet a single person suffering from PTSD who would describe having flashbacks as ‘nice’. Because the disorder is caused by traumatic experiences, often very extreme ones, you are not likely to have an emotional response which could in any way, shape or form be described as ‘nice’. Having a traumatic experience is not nice, thus, the emotional response will probably not include positive feelings.

Let me illustrate: say your previously wonderful and perfect partner rapes you. Very traumatic, very hard to deal with, extremely emotionally damaging. Let’s say the effects of the experience go so far as to cause you to develop PTSD. You now have flashbacks of the event. This is hardly going to trigger emotions related to the rosy honey-moon period of your relationship. Whilst you may still – in your conscious mind – remember that time when your partner brought home a dozen roses and your favourite chocolates, and the lovely feelings that gave you, those feelings will not be triggered by a flashback to the rape. They just won’t. Those lovely feelings weren’t associated with the rape, and so can’t be triggered by flashbacks to the trauma.

When you have PTSD [as I understand it, and put in layman’s terms] the memories of the trauma are stored in a different part of the brain to where other, ‘normal’, memories are stored, and the response flashbacks produce completely bypass the part of the brain that is responsible for rational thought. Thus, even though some part of you may be aware that the trauma isn’t really happening right now, and most of the time you are able to remember both positive and negative aspects of a relationship [assuming there have been both], because rational thought is taken out of the equation, your emotional response to a flashback will be as if it the trauma had only just happened, and will involve the feelings you either had at the time, or the feelings you may have had to repress at the time in order to survive. It won’t involve feelings related to an entirely different situation.

I mentioned earlier that flashbacks are often caused by triggers. But there is more to it. While a majority of people with PTSD have flashbacks caused by external triggers [sounds, smells etc – things that in one way or another remind them of the trauma], some people – myself included – have flashbacks that are caused primarily by internal triggers. Internal triggers are tricky, because they are difficult to identify. And if you can’t identify triggers, it is almost impossible to avoid them.

For me, personally, it is often a case of one flashback triggering the next, in a continuous chain, and I am just as likely to have flashbacks if I am out having an absolutely fantabulous time ice-skating with my friends, as I am sitting with someone talking about really deep and difficult things. In short, if I’m going to have a flashback, it will happen, regardless of what I am doing, where I am or who I am with.

One of the first things people [professionals in particular, actually] tend to ask is “What do you do to stop the flashbacks from happening?” to which I answer “Nothing”. They will then in one way or another convey to me that I have a very negative and defeatist attitude which isn’t helpful. Or they will suggest that I do something nice and relaxing – light candles, have a bath, listen to music, and so on. So, I tell them, oh, I do all of those things. Because they are very nice things to do. But I will still have the flashback, only I will have it in the bathtub, with the music playing and the candles all around me. I then say “You know when you go to sleep..?” adding a pause to allow the person I am talking to to nod, since this is something everyone has an experience of, before continuing “Well, you know once you are asleep, yeah?” Another nod. “At what point do you choose not to have a nightmare?”  You see, I can’t choose to not have a flashback any more than you can choose not to have a nightmare. No amount of positive thinking or relaxation is going to change it. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, and it simply isn’t caused by a defeatist or negative attitude. I know a million different grounding techniques to help me come out of a flashback, all of which I employ on a daily basis, and I am working very hard at finding ways to cope with the emotions the flashbacks bring out, but there is no way I can stop the flashback from happening in the first place.

I have somewhere between 30 and 40 flashbacks on an average day. On a particularly bad day, when it seems like one flashback triggers the next, I can have over a hundred. That means re-experiencing, re-living – the abuse over a hundred times in a day. It means dealing with the emotional impact a hundred times in a day. To me, the fact that I am still here, in spite of this, is proof that I absolutely do not have a defeatist attitude.

If you would like to know what it is like [for me] to have flashbacks, there is a drawing (What Words Can’t Express – A Visual Representation Of Sexual Abuse Flashbacks) that I posted a number of years ago, trying to visually explain that sense of being in two places at once – the past and the present, simultaneously. I feel pushed to warn, though, that it is somewhat graphic, and could be potentially triggering.

I want to make it clear that I am in no way an expert on PTSD, and what I have written here is based on my own experience of living with flashbacks, and on what others with PTSD have told me. Of course, as with anything, different people react in different ways, and there may very well be PTSD sufferers out there who disagree entirely with my take on what PTSD is like. And that’s OK. I just wanted to offer my view of what it’s like.

 

All the very best,

xx

 

PS. In case you happen to know me, I’ve recently added a little section on the right, appropriately called “For People Who Know Me”. You may want to check that out. Not in any way saying that you can’t check it out even if you don’t know me, it just won’t be all that relevant to you. :)

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

The Beginning Of A Parallel Journey

My most beloved transitional object

My most beloved transitional object

 

You may remember that a few posts ago I wrote about deciding to go ahead and do some short term specialised trauma-focused counselling, parallel to the psychoanalytic therapy I am already doing with A.

I set out on this journey four weeks ago and it’s been quite a ride thus far, but before I begin writing about said journey, let me introduce you to a new character: Z., my counsellor. I have to admit that when I met her the first time I wasn’t entirely sure about her. My impression was mostly positive, and I absolutely felt that she was someone I could work with, but there was also a little bit of fear that she might not be quite strong enough to resist my habit of luring therapists and counsellors alike down side paths and blind alleys. What I mean by that is that, in the past, back when therapy was something I was doing because someone else wanted me to do it [parents, doctors, psychiatrists], I was very very good at finding ways of showing up for session each week, skilfully avoiding doing any actual therapy.

What I did was to go in and talk about something entirely unrelated [I spent an entire year talking about ice-hockey and the LA Lakers with my first therapist], then dazzling them by intellectually linking whatever I had decided to talk about with psychotherapeutic theory. I realise, of course, that this was something I did because I simply wasn’t ready to engage in therapy, so in one way this behaviour is hardly surprising. But, at the same time, there was always a part of me that was deeply disappointed that none of my first three therapists ever pulled me up on my fairly obvious attempts at outsmarting them, and that they were instead, session after session, drawn into complex discussions about attachment theory, projective identification etc etc. I think what I was really craving was a therapist who would step into that pseudo-parental role, different to my own parents, steering a clear path in showing me that they were more interested in me than in my ability to spin intricate and dazzling webs.

It wasn’t until many many years later in my very first session with D. that a counsellor finally told me that ‘Although your knowledge is very impressive, it’s not why we’re here.’ Felt like hitting a brick wall at a hundred miles an hour and then being told that it’s pretty silly to go running at a wall, when there was a perfectly good opportunity here to learn to use the ladder that was leaning against said wall. I’m not saying that D. was necessarily the first counsellor or therapist to see through this game I was playing, or to understand the reasons for why I was playing it, but she was the first person to properly make me feel that she understood that I was absolutely terrified and that rather than allowing me to carry on defending against this fear by using intellectualisation she cared enough about me to want to help me step onto the ladder and do something different. There was no pressure to make it to the top of the wall in the time we had, but instead there was a lot of focus on acknowledging the achievement of making it onto the first step. Any subsequent steps would be a bonus.

So, knowing that I was about to begin a completely new type of counselling with Z., one which focused solely on the sexual abuse I suffered, one where talking about my parents, or being adopted, or the million other things that are part of my life and who I am, would play very little part, I was completely and utterly petrified. Thus, meeting Z. for the first time was a big deal. Naturally, meeting a counsellor or therapist always is, but I was very aware of the need to find a counsellor who wouldn’t gobble up deliciously smoked red herrings thrown their way, and so there was a lot on the line in that first meeting.

Coming out of that meeting, my general impression of Z. was – as I said earlier – mainly positive, there was still a part of me that felt concerned that her statement that she ‘wouldn’t push me to go somewhere I didn’t want to go’, might potentially indicate that she was someone who, if I wanted to, I could easily string along in an attempt to not only avoid having to go to painful places, but to avoid challenging myself to move forward at all. Like I said to my sisters after the first session: ‘Z. is someone I would have had for lunch 10 years ago’.

But the four and a half years of doing therapy with A., along with the counselling I did with D. prior to that, has made me realise how much there is to gain from doing my utmost to stop myself from going down that route. To, in a sense, stay on that ladder and keep climbing it. So, I knew that even if I was somewhat unsure of Z., I knew that I was different, as were my reasons for going into this counselling. Of course, as much as I try to consciously stop myself from hopping off the ladder, there may still be a fair amount of unconscious [or subconscious, if you’re so inclined] motivation for leading myself astray, hence, needing to feel sure that Z. would be able to spot this when I can’t.

In my second meeting with Z., many of my initial fears were laid to rest. She came to the second session with a very clear view of what she would like us to work on and helped guide me through it. This is very new to me; I’m used to doing psychoanalytic therapy, where I’m pretty much always in the driver’s seat, and it’s a real challenge to now, suddenly, let someone else co-pilot. There were some things Z. had wanted to do in the second session, which she soon realised weren’t quite right for me, as they were things I had already worked out and implemented for myself, and she swiftly adapted to this, changing course to suit my trajectory. This lead to something I would never in a million years have thought possible: already in session three I took a plunge and showed her a drawing of one of the abuse situations and talked about it. It was scary as anything, but was much helped by discussing – prior to me handing the drawing over to Z. – what I wanted her to do with it so as to not have a repeat of that session with A. where I interpreted her immediate return of a drawing as a sign that she couldn’t quite bear looking at the reality of the abuse. Instead, this time, we made the agreement that Z. would hold on to my drawing until I indicated that I would like to have it back. Z. also showed some initiative when she felt I was getting into my normal way of racing ahead through a story, as though I’m talking about someone else, with complete emotional disconnect, by stopping me for a while and asking me to reconnect and to tell her what talking about this made me feel. This is very new to me. Naturally, A. is also very interested in what I’m feeling, and often tags a ‘Can you say more?’ [one of my absolute favourite questions] or ‘Can you unpack that?’ onto something I have said, in order to coax more out of me. But, I’m not used to being actually stopped in order to reconnect several times during a session.

I had brought my beloved Doth with me to session. Doth, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her, is a porcelain doll I’ve had since I was a child. She was made by my best friend’s mother and she was the only person who knew about the abuse while it was going on; I used to sit with Doth, whisper in her ear the things my brother and M. made me do. So, needless to say, she is very very precious to me, and as childish as it may seem, I thought having Doth with me in session might make it easier for me to talk about the abuse, because, in a way, she has already heard it all. I felt regressing to that childhood ritual of talking to Doth about the awful things that were happening might help me overcome my fear of talking about the abuse for fear of breaking the listener.

I think this parallel work with A. and Z. has the potential to be a very good thing. I had worried that I might be spreading myself too thin, or that it would become too confusing working with two people at the same time, but for now it seems to work quite well. Also, the work I am doing with Z. is very short term, only sixteen sessions in all, and is by its very nature a lot more intense than the therapy I’m doing with A., and I am hoping to use my sessions with A. to ensure that I remain safe while I’m doing this very painful work. I have already noticed that I am again having more flashbacks than the norm, but this is something I had expected. As I told a friend of mine: ‘Doing this was always going to be a totally rubbish time’, but I am hopeful that it will ultimately help reduce the amount of flashbacks I have, and also, that it will help me go further with A.

Sixteen sessions, even if structured, is not a lot of time, especially given that I suffered abuse from more than one person, and that the abuse went on for as long as it did, so I am hoping that doing this with Z. will open the door to carrying on talking about the abuse with A. once counselling comes to an end, much in the same way that the counselling with D. set me up for actively trying to avoid throwing red herrings at A., and subsequently, Z.

 

In other words: onwards and upwards, one rung at the time.

 

Be kind to your Selves,

xx

 

Long-Term Psychoanalytic Therapy & Short-Term Trauma Focused Counselling

I have been meaning to update my blog for a long time now, but blogging has had to take a step back in the midst of coping with what has felt like an ever-increasing onslaught of flashbacks. Still, here I am now, neatly posed in front [well, technically, behind] my computer and though I will more than likely have to make many stops to work my way out of flashbacks, I still wanted to write a little, just to keep you all in the loop as it were.

Firstly, I would like to apologise – or perhaps not so much apologise as acknowledge that my previous post was of a rather difficult-to-read nature. I know that some people found it a little too hard to cope with. And, at the same time, I have also had emails from people saying that they found it helpful in one way or another, and I suppose, at the end of the day, this blog, it is – as it states on the tin – an honesty focused blog, and does come with an explicit warning that it sometimes deals with difficult issues.

Now, moving on from that, you will be pleased to know that this post will be perhaps a little less difficult to stomach. I can’t guarantee that it will necessarily be joyful, but it won’t be leaving you with any particularly nasty mental images, I shouldn’t think.

So, what’s been going on in my life? Well, as mentioned above, there have been the flashbacks, and sometimes it really feels like that is ALL that there is, but, really, that’s not true, and I am hoping that – eventually, with plenty of hard work – I will get to a place where those will take a back seat.

As regular readers will know I am currently in twice weekly psychoanalytic therapy, and have been for nearly four years [thrice weekly, a lot of the time]. In fact, A.’s and my four year anniversary is coming up later this month. Perhaps time to crack open the champagne, or share a celebratory cigar ála Freud? But more than anything, I think, time to reflect.

People often ask me if my therapy helps, and what does A. say about all these flashbacks that I’m having, about self-harm, about feeling suicidal? And I find myself forever explaining that it’s not that type of therapy. It’s not the type of therapy in which A. and I sit and practice grounding techniques or where she advices me on what I should and shouldn’t do. It just isn’t. Psychoanalytic therapy isn’t a short term crisis action plan. But that is not the same as saying that my therapy isn’t helping. No, it doesn’t immediately offer relief from flashbacks or other psychological ills, but it helps in different ways. It helps me see things from different perspectives, it helps me develop self-awareness, it helps me understand why I sometimes react very differently to other people, it helps me see patterns in both my behaviour and in my way of thinking and relating. It helps me in a very broad way. This is not trauma focused therapy. We look at a lot more than ‘just’ the sexual abuse I experienced, we look at all different aspects of my life. It’s colour photography, as opposed to black and white, and I feel that it offers a bigger and more stable platform to stand on, when looking at all the various angles of being alive and being human. So, yes, therapy absolutely does help. It’s just that it is rather more complex than a plaster cast on a broken arm.

That said, the one thing that impacts my day-to-day life more than anything else is without a shadow of a doubt the flashbacks, the horrible experience of being made to relive the abuse again and again without warning. It’s a painful and uncontrollable mental bombardment which severely alters the way I live my life. Apart from, of course, being extremely emotionally exhausting (both the actual flashbacks and the aftermath of them – it’s simply not a case of OK, I’m out of the flashback, everything is fine now..) they also impact on a very practical level. Firstly, the unpredictability of when they [the flashbacks] are going to happen, means that it is very hard to relax. I don’t have easily identifiable triggers which give me warning that I might soon have a flashback, so, even when things are good, when I’m only having perhaps six or ten flashbacks in a day, I don’t know when they are going to happen, and so have to always be on the ready to deal with them. Secondly, when things are bad – like at the moment when I’m having anything between sixty and eighty flashbacks in a day – it leaves little time or energy to spare for doing other things. I can’t read, I can’t watch telly, because I’m constantly being interrupted by these flashbacks, and by the time I’ve come out of them and calmed down, I’ve forgotten what I was reading or what the storyline was. Also, having so many flashbacks makes venturing outside something to be avoided. It’s simply too hazardous, as I won’t notice traffic lights changing, I’ll keep walking while having them ending up getting lost, I’ll miss my stop on the tube etc etc. Even something so simple as making myself a cup of tea can become quite dangerous, as I discovered the other week; I was pouring out the water, had a flashback but kept pouring.. as a consequence the boiling water spilled onto my lap, and I got a burn on my thigh. So, even though the flashbacks are not psychotic; I do know where I am, it is like being in two places at once, it’s an altered state of awareness which affects daily life a lot more than people realise. I have to do a million different work-arounds just to get by, like being on the phone with someone whenever I’m out walking (so the person can help me notice if I have a flashback and tell me to stop walking), ask bus drivers and tube staff to make sure I get off at the right stop, meet friends in places that are easy for me to get to and generally meet at the station rather than at the cafe or restaurant we’re going to, to minimise the potential for getting lost on the way. Etc etc etc.

Because of this, I have decided that on top of my normal therapy with A. I am going to do some short-term specialised trauma-focused counselling, aimed at trying to reduce the number of flashbacks I have. I’ve talked to A. about it, and although it’s not the norm to see more than one therapist at any one time, it is something I really want to do. And I think that doing it this way, while I am still seeing A. will help me cope better with what can’t be anything but very painful trauma work. It’s one of those I don’t think it is meant to be easy, I think it’s meant to be WORTH it sort of things. Because, if it helped reduce the frequency of the flashbacks even just a little, it would improve my life enormously.

So, although there is much to discuss, not least of all the reasons why I am chosing to do this work with someone other than A. [is it to protect her? is it to protect me? maybe fear of ruining our relationship? etc etc], for now, I am waiting with some trepidation to start this new (additional) type of counselling. So do stay tuned. Updates will be forthcoming once I actually start.

All the very best,

xx