It’s the day after the dentist visit, and I just want to hide and not think. I don’t feel like doing anything. I’m not feeling triggered or bad, exactly, just more like I don’t want to deal with anything. I email Bea, and she responds back, telling me it makes sense I would want to hide out and lick my wounds after the day I had yesterday. Feeling validated, and slightly less guilty for ignoring all the household chores I’ve fallen so far behind on, I decide to veg out on the couch and relax.
I think back to the last time I saw Bea, the session with the scented markers, and remember my thought that there are different kinds of being present and feeling far away. After a while, I begin to jot down notes, and make a type of chart describing the differences. I email it to Bea, and she likes it. From the notes she writes back, I feel that she gets what I’m describing, and despite myself, I feel a little bit excited to have been able to put all of these different far aways and presents into a list and describe them. Six months ago, I would have said far away is far away, and present is present. (I’m going to post the list as a page, if anyone is interested in seeing it)
It’s later in the day, nearing Kat’s bedtime, when I begin to feel triggered. Kat is being very touchy feely, and hubby has his headphones on playing a video game (and he tends to moan and groan when he gets shot in the game, and the noises are extremely triggering at times). I want to crawl out of my skin, rip my hair out, stuff my face and throw it all up. I can feel this huge amount of anxiety just covering me, suffocating me, and there is this feeling that something very, very bad is going to happen soon. It takes me forever to fall asleep, and even when I do, my sleep is broken by nightmares and memories.
Wednesday I wake up groggy and scared, feeling like I need to hide, as if everything bad has happened. I somehow manage to get Kat to school, and then I hide in the closet with my blanket and my dog. It takes over an hour, but I write a short email to Bea, telling her I’m struggling. When she writes back, she validates that this feels really scary right now, and offers up some ideas to help get me out of this headspace. They all seem too difficult, so I continue sitting until it’s time to go get Kat. The rest of Wednesday passes by in a dissociative blur, and that night is another full of bad dreams.
Thursday morning, I drive to Bea’s office with Hagrid, park, and head inside. I don’t feel as badly as yesterday, but there is still this cloak of anxiety covering me, and if I stop and let myself think, I feel like something very awful is about to happen, or currently happening.
“Good morning.” I peek into the door, and tentatively say hello.
Bea smiles, looking up from the paperwork in her lap. “Good morning.”
Hagrid runs into her office, and after removing my snow and slush covered boots, I follow. We settle ourselves onto the couch in the usual spot, as Bea sets her papers down. Hagrid hops in my lap, and I hug him, pressing my face into his hair. Bea’s office feels safe again.
“I was going to get the markers and some paper out, and set it up earlier, before you got here. I can do that now…….” She trails off, looking at me. “Or, why don’t we just sit a minute and catch up first?” She suggests instead.
I nod my head, but don’t say anything. I feel like I’m halfway between getting stuck in the past again, or pretending everything is perfect. I end up doing neither.
“It your tooth feeling better?”
“Yeah,” I nod.
“You know, it really does make sense that the dentist is so scary for you. I’ve had other clients with trauma who were afraid, too, and who struggled with going to the dentist. One women I saw, years and years ago, she ended up needing a lot of dental work done, but she got through it, and she was so proud of herself for doing it.”
“I just…..I feel so….stupid.” The last work is said in a snappy whisper.
“Not the way I see it. Think about it. Going to see the dentist, it’s like recreating a nightmare for an abuse survivor. You are being asked to lay back, to allow someone to do things to you, seeing the dentist…it’s this very passive thing, how scary for someone with trauma! And then there’s the things in your mouth, and not knowing what is going on, and having someone standing over you. It’s very scary. Talk about triggering!” Bea tells me. She is speaking a tone that says she wants me to listen and understand I am not crazy or stupid. How is she always able to make the most crazy behaviors seem normal and okay? How is it that she is always abl to have so much empathy for situations like this, and not just want to laugh and tell me to get over myself?
“I just……I mean…..I cry. It’s….” My voice trails off, and I don’t finish the sentence.
“No. Embarrassing,” I finally say.
“Well, I think, as I wrote to you, that when you find the dentist you want to see long term, it will be important to communicate to them that you have PTSD. That will give your fear a name, and explain some of your behaviors, like crying.”
By this time, I’ve curled up and buried my face. I only want to hide.
“Do you think it was the dentist visit that triggered you yesterday and made you feel like hiding?” She asks. When I shrug, she says, “It wouldn’t be surprising. That was a lot of triggers, and a lot to deal with. Was it just a general bad feeling or a specific memory that sent you to the closet?”
“I….well……Tuesday night…that’s when….” The words come slowly, but I start to explain. I’m not sure I’ve ever walked Bea through a day of triggers and what exactly happens. Usually, I’m too embarrassed and afraid of being that vulnerable to do so. But before the emails, I had been able to be a lot more unfiltered with Bea, and I find myself wanting that now. “Kat was being touchy feely. And I’m not. I mean, I try. But….sometimes……I can’t. I just can’t.”
“Kids are very touchy feely creatures.”
“Yeah…..but Kat, she just…..she wants to be touching me all the time. I don’t know.”
“Is there something specific she does that is triggering? Or is it just specific times? You were really primed to have a very triggery day.”
“She……” I stumble. Just saying the words makes me want to climb of of my skin. What in the world is wrong with me? “She wants to like, pet me. Like I’m a dog or something. Just….ugh.” I shudder and feel nauseous.
“Like she wants to rub your arm?” Bea clarifies.
I nod. “It’s never….I never like it, but sometimes I can deal. But Tuesday…….” I shake my head.
“It was too much?” I nod, and Bea continues, “Are there things that feel better, or are maybe easier with her?”
“I…if she would sit on my lap, and just sit. Or a hug, but a quick one. Or not moving. I don’t know. ” As I’m talking, I realize that touch always feels safer when the other person doesn’t move. Huh.
“What if she could sit in your lap, and you could give her something soft to hold, or a book to hold, something like that?” Bea suggests.
“Maybe…….but it’s hard with her, you know. But anyway…..so that was the first thing Tuesday night. And then hubby…..he was playing his game….with his headphones. You know.”
“That makes it feel like he is in his own world, closed off from you and not seeing you.”
I nod. It’s not the biggest problem with his headphones and game, but it is one of the things that make it hard to feel connected to him. “And he…..it’s the…..I mean…..” I struggle to get the words out. Even just thinking about it is triggering and makes me feel creepy crawly.
Bea gives me space, and then when that doesn’t work, she talks a little bit about husbands and marriage, just normal everyday things. I finally manage to say it. “He groans, like makes noises…..” The problem is, I speak so quickly and quietly that Bea doesn’t hear me.
I can hear her lean forward, and softly she says, “My ears aren’t working very good today. I didn’t catch that. Can you tell me again?”
I shake my head. I can’t. I just can’t say it again. “It’s so triggering…I just can’t.”
“The words are triggering? Or thinking about what it is he does?” She wonders.
“I don’t know. It……I don’t know. I emailed you about it once.” I’m hoping that is enough. It wasn’t a long email, though, and it wasn’t a big thing we had discussed. I only remember the email because I felt so dumb for being triggered by this.
“I know, I remember that. I’m just having trouble remembering what it is he does.” We sit for a moment, and then she says, “The noises. Is that right? He makes noises when he plays his game?”
Relived, I tell her, “Yes. And then it’s like…..before…..Kenny….and I just…..” I’m having trouble breathing and it’s hard to get any words out.
“Of course that is triggering, of course that reminds you of being a kid. That is very hard, very triggering, and to make it worse, he is closed off from you and unaware that he is triggering you.”
“So…..it just….I wanted to go away. It was just that bad, scary feeling. But I finally fell asleep.”
“Was it really hard to fall asleep?”
“Yeah, yeah it was. I was just….I don’t know. Scared. And then there was a dream, a memory. And that is what made me really want to hide in the closet.”
“So you got Kat to school and then came home……” Bea prompts.
“And I hid in the closet. Doing nothing, just hiding.”
“You emailed me. That was something,” she says.
I nod. “Yes. I did email you.”
“Did you get out of the closet? Well, you’re here, so obviously you got out of the closet, but how did the rest of the day go? Did you get back to a little more present?”
I shake my head. “When I had to get Kat from school, that’s when I left. And then…it’s trying to act normal, listen and respond to other adults. I forced myself to clean up when ABA was there, and then when hubby got home, I hid in the bathtub. And slept for a few hours, a bad dream woke me.” The words rush out of me, finishing off the story of yesterday.
“Did you go back to sleep after the dream?”
“No…..it’s scary to do that.”
“It does feel really scary to fall back asleep after a bad dream,” she validates.
“Does the little guy go with you when you hide in the closet?” She’s talking about Hagrid.
“Yeah. He doesn’t like it when I hide in the closet though. But he follows me.”
“Does it feel safe in the closet? Do you take a blanket with you? Or anything with you?” She sounds like we are talking about something perfectly normal, and I’m reminded of the first time I admitted my hiding place to her.
“It’s not…..nothing feels safe when I feel like this. But it feels better.” The words are whisper quiet, but Bea manages to hear.
“Better is good. Better is something.”
After a minute, I decide to answer her other questions. “I always….I have a favorite blanket…..it maybe changes because I get new ones, but I always have a favorite……” Even when I was a child, I had always had a special blanket, and I would carry it around with me. When I moved away to college, I actually brought my blanky with me. And hubby was the first guy I never hid blanky from. I’m not sure why I didn’t feel the need to hide it from him, I just didn’t. “So, I take my blanket and wrap up in it, put it over my head, and hide in the closet.” Just like I used to do as a child.
“Well, in my mind, it’s not real hiding without a blanket,” she tells me kindly.
“It’s embarrassing.” My face is hot, and I know it must be bright red.
“You think it’s embarrassing?”
I nod. I’m a 32 year old woman, married, with a child, and I still have a blanky. And not only do I still have a blanky, but I hide under it, in a closet, when I get really scared. I’m not 5 years old. It’s incredibly embarrassing.
“I bet it’s not embarrassing to the little girl.” Her voice is soft, but matter of fact. I might be 32 years old, but there is a part of me that is just a little girl.
“Probably not,” I admit.
We sit in silence for a moment, maybe longer, and I really don’t feel as embarrassed as I had. Bea’s acceptance of the little girl and her needs goes a long way toward that. She is more kind and understanding toward the little girl than I am.
“I have some ideas of things we could try to help get out of that retraumatizing headspace,” she tells me. “And none of it has to do with the body, it’s all focusing on things outside of yourself. Do you want to hear a little bit about it?”
I feel a little frozen, afraid of the things she might have to say, but then I nod my head. “Okay.”
She talks about the orientating response– The orienting response, also called orienting reflex, is an organism’s immediate response to a change in its environment, when that change is not sudden enough to elicit the startle reflex.– and how with trauma, this response gets mixed up, and traumatized individuals end up orientating towards the internal, like past memories or feelings. (Or something like that.) She says that we can work to retrain this response to orient towards the external, like naming colors or objects in a room. “It’s like right now a flashlight is shining on trauma memories, so our goal is to try to get the light to shine on something else. And we do that by paying attention to the present moment, but it does not have to be internal or body related at all.” I’m sure she explained it better than that, and it made a lot of sense when she was talking. I’m just having trouble fully remembering everything she said.
“You can orient to color, to objects, to sounds. One thing I think you already do is orient to my voice,” she tells me. I feel my face flush, embarrassed……exactly why, I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with needing her to help ground me. I hate needing anyone.
“Maybe that’s why I always ask you to just talk?” My voice sounds small, and shy.
“Yes, exactly like that,” she agrees. “So, I was thinking we could try some things with this. Maybe coloring, and just orientating towards the colors you are choosing. What do you think?”
I’m honestly not sure what I think. It seems as if it sounds simpler than it is, but it also doesn’t sound as scary as other things she has suggested. Finally, nodding, I say, “It might be okay.”
“And what about the little girl? What does she think? I feel like we always need to be mindful of her.”
I take a minute and try to feel the little girl part. “It doesn’t sound so terrible,” I whisper.
“Shall I get some markers and maybe some coloring books?” She asks me.
“Okay.” I agree, and she gets up. I can hear her moving around the room, gathering our materials. I slowly look up, and Hagrid jumps back into my lap. I hug him for a few minutes.
Bea chooses a picture, and starts to color. It takes me longer, but I choose a picture too, and then I stare at it blankly for a while. We chat about normal things, about Kat and school, the weather, books we’ve read. I finally choose a green marker and start to color. After a while, Bea asks, “What made you start with green?”
I shrug, I have no idea. I just did. “Ummm..I don’t know. This seems like a hard question.”
“Well, it is, in a way. But if I really stop and think about it, I can think that I chose to start with blue because I decided I wanted to use all the blues in this picture.” She tells me.
“I guess it just made sense, to start with green.”
Bea continues to periodically bring my attention back to what I’m coloring. Why did I switch colors? Did that color turn out how I expected? Did I notice my picture is colored very symmetrically? Was that pink or orange I colored the flowers with? I start to feel more anxious the longer we sit at the little table coloring. It hasn’t even really been 15 minutes, and I want to cry.
I look up at Bea. “You don’t agree with this, but I….I think the present is scary.” My voice breaks while I’m talking, and I start to cry. Frantically, I try to bury my face, and set my marker down. I need to hide right now. I am not okay. In my panic, I knock my coffee cup (thankfully it is a straw thermos with a lid) and drop my picture and marker on the floor. I curl into a ball and cry.
Bea calmly picks up the coffee cup and wipes up the spill. She sets my stuff back on the table and says very quietly, “There’s those emotions bubbling up to the surface. That’s okay.”
“It’s not. It’s not. This is why…..it’s not okay, it is not safe to be here, the present is bad. All the feelings are here.” I choke out between sobs.
“Those old beliefs are very strong,” she tells me, as Hagrid nudges me with his nose. “She’s okay, Hagrid, she is just learning that it is okay to be present, that she is okay. When she was a little girl, it wasn’t safe to be present, she couldn’t be present. Imagine how terrifying it would have been to be in the present moment. And all the little girl has ever really known is that it isn’t safe to be present. And she was right, then. But she’s a grown up now, and being far away isn’t always so helpful. Very slowly and carefully, the little girl will start to learn it is okay to be present.”
I’m listening to Bea, and she sounds so calm and understanding, like she really cares and wants the little girl to feel safe, I start to relax, just a little bit. I’m feeling very defective, and broken, that something as simple as paying attention to what is going on in the room, in the moment has sent me into this meltdown place. “I hate that this is so hard for me,” I tell her.
“I hate that this is so hard for you, too,” she says, and I hear tears in her voice. “But, I also celebrate every bit of progress you make, every victory you have. And you’ve made a lot of progress.” She sounds proud. I can’t really take it in, not fully, but her words stay with me.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her. I feel badly that I just can’t do this, like I have failed.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for. This is the process, and we are on this journey together.”
She lets me have some room to cry, and then encourages me to try to sit up and color one more thing on my picture, not wanting me to end this activity with the overwhelming feelings causing panic. “I won’t ask about your picture, or the colors, or anything, okay? I might talk about mine, because I’m proud of it, but I won’t ask you anything.”
I sit up, and slowly choose a turquoise marker. I color in one small section of my picture, and sit it down on the table. We talk about everyday, simple stuff, and I’m feeling okay when I leave. I hate that this is all so hard and complicated. I hate that I can’t just be normal. But I don’t feel horribly overwhelmed or ashamed when I leave, even after my meltdown. And, more importantly, I feel connected to Bea again, and like we really are okay.