Maybe it is something, not nothing

The teen is raging this morning, livid with Bea for continuing to insist that the memory at the window was not “nothing”, that it was “something”. I had typed a response to Bea’s last email of the day yesterday, and then realized before I sent it that it was all teen sass and frustration. So I held it until this morning, sending it as I log into therapy.

We say good morning, and then it’s silent. I hate silence, especially right now, and to fill the uncomfortableness of it, I start chatting. I tell Bea some things I’ve learned about how neurodiverse brains work, and why I think Kat is struggling so much to finish a task like cleaning her room. We talk about this new (to me) piece of information, and I tell her how I plan to help support Kat if this is indeed part of the challenge.

Finally, I take a deep breath and say, “I don’t want to spend all my time talking about Kat. I just….”

Bea picks up where I trailed off, “Need to ease into things and make sure I am here and me. I know. And, this is good information, so I am glad you shared. But you know what I was thinking?” I shake my head, and she continues, “I was thinking how great it is that even with so much coming up, you have been able to focus on some other tasks, that the grown up has been able to sort of step away and give everyone a break from the yuck.”

My face feels hot and I shrug. “I guess. I just….I don’t….parts don’t like it when…..well, I mean, I guess it is better than it was like three or four years ago or even a year ago, but I don’t like….I just….”

“I wasn’t really thinking ‘better’. Maybe more that you are able to get to a regulated place and not be swallowed by the ick all day, everyday. That this is different than it was in the past,” Bea explains.

“The thing is, it is better. But it’s not….the parts don’t really want you to…” I keep trying to say the words, to tell her I don’t want her to think I am fine now because that might mean she will decide to leave me, but they keep getting stuck. It feels too vulnerable making to say that right now.

“To think everything is better and for me to put expectations on them?” Bea asks.

“Yeah. Exactly. But it is better, sort of. It’s like certain things….specific things I can focus on and sort of step away from the ick. Like cleaning or organizing or trying to find solutions to help Kat, or being social, like when one my girl scouts stopped by to pick up more cookies. That sort of stuff. Playing with Kat or being really engaged and present, maybe not so much. But those more specific things, I can focus on those and function.”

“I can see that. It makes sense, really, because those were always Miss Perfect’s sort of things she did to distract and function, right?”

“Yes,” I say slowly, “but it’s not Miss Perfect, not this time. It’s just me. Or, I think it is just me. Because Miss Perfect is more….everything is scheduled. I mean, I used to clean the grout in my kitchen once a week with a toothbrush and vacuum hourly so there would be literally no pet hair anywhere. People who knew me used to joke about me having OCD, but I don’t think it was OCD like for real. It was just trying to control everything. Everything was a routine, a schedule and Miss Perfect couldn’t function if something screwed that up.”

Bea tells me she remembers this, how it was, and how it is no small thing how much that has changed.

“I emailed you this morning,” I blurt the words out before I can decide to shove them back down.

“Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t see it. Can I look at it now?”

“I sent it just when I logged in. It’s more of a list, and then…well, a sort of response, I guess to your last email. I just thought, if I sent it and you read it now, it was like my notebook, sort of. An email notebook.”

“Yes, a virtual notebook. That’s good, that’s great. Let me pull it up now.” So Bea pulls it up, and after checking that it’s okay, she starts to read.

Bea starts to talk through each list point as she reads them, but I stop her. “Just read it all first. Please. Because there’s….well, the teen.”

“Okay, I’ll to read it all the way through.”

When she looks up from reading, I hide my face. The teen has probably made a big mistake and everything is really going to fall apart now.

“I think we need to let the teen be heard and seen right now, and I’d really like to tell her something.” Bea’s voice is soft, her tone is gentle.

“I….I…okay,” I stumbled over the apology I want to say. The teen was not nice, she was blunt and angry and half shouting in what she had written.

Here is the short email exchange I had added to this morning’s virtual notebook. (trigger warning for a few blunt explicit details)

Bea: I do think the window memory was bad even though “nothing” happened. He still violated boundaries and imposed himself. That’s definitely “something.” Just being in your life at that point was “something.” Triggering without a doubt:(

The teen: UGH! You don’t get it. Just stop, okay? You don’t know anything! It was nothing. Nothing. It didn’t matter. Why don’t you get that? I keep telling you and telling you and you won’t believe me. You aren’t listening. Do you even care? Something was when I was 5. Something was when we played secret games. Something was when he wanted me to pretend it was a popsicle even though it wasn’t. Something was when I was 8. Something was when we were at the cabin. Something was on the Ferris wheel. Something was a hundred different times. Do you get it now? Because that night? That was NOTHING. I was old enough to flirt and to kiss. And that’s literally all it was. A kiss. Nothing. Not something at all. And definitely not something I get to be upset about. It was nothing. So just stop, stop all of this fake shrinky nice thing you always do. I hate it! UGH!

“It was something. I know it feels like nothing in comparison to all the many somethings you listed. I know it feels like you were the age when flirting and kissing were okay, so that makes it nothing. And maybe, it feels safer to yell and work really hard to convince me it was nothing, rather than taking a risk to see if I will hear and see and understand the hurt and pain that night did cause you.” Bea speaks slowly and carefully, but her tone is serious. She means what she is saying, and even with all the teen’s resistance, I can feel her words sinking in.

“It was nothing. It should be nothing.”

“But it wasn’t nothing. You had all the somethings from before, you know. You inherited all of the somethings from the little girl. Even if it wasn’t all conscious, even if you couldn’t label it as more than a game, it was all there. So how could you not be triggered when he violated boundaries and imposed himself on you again?” Bea is still speaking so calm and her voice is full of compassion.

I smush myself as far into the corner as I can and grab a pillow off the floor to hide my face. “It’s just stupid anyway.”

“Right…because you were being a drama queen, just over reacting, making a big deal out of things, right?” Bea says this in such a way that I know, like really know, that she is putting voice to my silent unspoken words.

“Yeah. And, everyone was flirting and kissing then, anyway. So it’s not like I was a little kid anymore.”

“No, maybe not, although I would argue there will always be a power imbalance between you and Kenny. I would also argue that if a boy your own age had been flirting with you and kissed you, you wouldn’t have had a reaction to harm yourself.”

“Maybe. I think it would still be confusing. Because…well…I just…it would have been confusing.” How do I even begin to explain the swirling mess of confusion that flirting and kissing and everything that goes with that?

“Yeah, of course. I think it would have been confusing for you. It might have even been triggering, but I don’t think it would have been as triggering as this situation with Kenny. I don’t think it would have triggered you to hurt yourself like that.” Bea starts to say something about fight parts being triggered or something about why we hurt ourselves like that, but I interrupt her.

“No, it wasn’t like that,” I look up at Bea, and even though she had started to go down a shrink sounding path, she’s just Bea. “I didn’t want to die. I just wanted everything to stop and to go away. I was just so confused and all these feelings…… I couldn’t shut my brain off. I just needed it to stop for a little while.”

“Ahhh, mmmhmmm. It was too much to hold by yourself. Of course you wanted everything to stop.”

“I just…I was so confused because of how I….” I stop, mid-sentence, feeling stupid and ashamed.

When I don’t continue, Bea asks, “Because you felt those crush type feelings in that moment in the window?”

I don’t speak. I just bury my face again and start to sob.

“Oh, Alice. Of course those feelings came back. It would be normal for you to have a crush or even several crushes at that age. How could those feelings not exist after the hope of him marrying you and the crush you had on him? How could they not come back after he kissed you in your window? It’s okay if they did.”

“I didn’t have crushes. Not then, I couldn’t.” I say the words sounding fiercely, harshly. Crushes are not allowed. It is not safe.

“No? It would be normal if you did.” Bea speaks casually, as if she is commenting on the grass being green or the sky being blue. Her voice says it is okay, that it’s not a big deal and I don’t have to be scared to have this conversation.

“It just….crushes feel icky.” I sound like a whiny version of my teen self, but I don’t care.

“I can see that. It probably didn’t feel safe, and it would be understandable if the exciting, good feelings of having a crush on someone with the not safe, icky feelings was really confusing. I can see it would be easier to just cut that part of you off.”

“I just…yes. That night, in my window, yes, okay? You win. Yes, all the feelings came up and it was just confusing and not good and I just…I needed it to stop.” I’m shouting at Bea, mad that she is right, and hating myself for how I felt.

“I know. It’s okay that those feelings came back. There’s nothing wrong or bad about you.”

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” I whisper.

“Okay. We can talk about it more when you feel ready,” Bea assures me.

“No…it’s not like that. I just…I don’t know how to do this.”

“You are doing it, right now.”

I roll my eyes. “You always say things like that. It can’t always be true.”

Bea chuckles at my sass. “I think it is true when I say it. I know it doesn’t always feel like you are doing a lot but you are doing hard work.”

“This feels different though.”

“How does it feel different?”

“Because…..usually it’s the words that matter….but it’s all about feelings right now.”

“Yes, the feelings and finding words for them is really important to you,” Bea agrees with me. Except she’s wrong, that is not what I meant, and she doesn’t get anything after all.

I shake my head, disappointed and hurt that she doesn’t understand. “You really don’t get it.”

“I want to. Can you tell me again? It is important to me to get it.”

“Fine. Whatever, I’ll try to explain it again.” I’m huffy and maybe a little rude, but Bea ignores that and waits for me to speak. “Always, always, the thing that matters when I’m triggered is the words. The story of what happened. That’s the part that always feels most…..important. It’s the biggest thing. But now…..this is different. It’s not….I mean, I know what memory things are sort of linked to, but it isn’t the part that I need to….feelings, thoughts, those are the things that are so big right now. It’s not even the what happened that seems to matter, it’s all these feelings.”

“Yeah, the feelings are really front and center right now, aren’t they? The story needing to be told, I wonder if that was because you needed to be heard and seen and held, and for that to happen you needed me to know the story, to know what happened. This, with the feelings, maybe that it a more vulnerable place for you, it’s another layer of the work. And when we share our feelings, that can make us feel deeply understood.”

Bea isn’t wrong about anything she says, and writing it out now, I think she is spot on. But in that moment, the teen was really running the ship. “Of course you would think sharing feelings is the way to feel understood!”

“That is a little shrinky like, isn’t it? But it’s also true.” Bea doesn’t miss a beat, and she doesn’t get defensive. She is so good with this confused, sassy, sometimes raging teen part of me.

“Ugh. Fine.” I don’t want her to be right. I don’t know how to do feelings. “But I don’t know how to do therapy like this. This isn’t how I do therapy. I write, I find the words. I don’t….ugh. I am not good at feelings.”

“We can figure it out together.”

“Shouldn’t you already know how to do this?” I retort.

Bea laughs again, but in a nice way. Somehow she always enjoys the teen, instead of hating her. “Well, I suppose I do already know how to work with my feelings, or how to start the process. But I know what works for me. We can figure out together what works for you.”

“But I don’t know what to do!” I protest.

“Well, you like words, right? Maybe we can try to find the words for the feelings.”

“I suck at putting words to my feelings. That’s why you made me use the kimochis for so long.”

“Awwwwww, the kimochis! I love the kimochis,” Bea says happily. “And you have gotten so good at knowing what words to use to describe your feelings. Maybe in this case, though, words just don’t seem enough to convey the feeling?”

Slowly, I nod my head and look at Bea again. “Words aren’t working. And I don’t know what to do with that.”

“Well, maybe we could do some art therapy if you felt up to it.”

“I have lots of art stuff. Would this be one of those times you would have just got out paint and paper and stuff if we were in your office?” I ask.

“Probably.” Bea smiles at me. “Would you want to get paper and paint out next time and see if that might work?”

I shrug. “I never painted when you did that.” What I don’t say is that I wanted to, I just wasn’t brave enough to try and I wasn’t sure where to even start.

“Well, maybe it wasn’t the right time then.”

“Okay. I’ll get paints out next week.” I whisper it, afraid to agree because what if I fail? What if I can’t do it? What if it doesn’t work?

“Good! It’s a plan then. We’ll try some art therapy next week.”

“What if I don’t know where to start? I’d like a map or instruction book or something. I’d even take one of those hard to make sense of ikea type instruction manuals,” I say it all jokingly, but I am also really serious.

“Well, maybe start with thinking about what colors seem right for all the feelings,” Bea suggests.

“Maybe. But if I don’t….”

“Then that’s okay, too.”

We wrap things up pretty quickly after that, and for the rest of the day, I am surprised at how many things make me think “That’s how I feel”.

When I am out running errands, I see a small weeping willow tree with no leaves standing alone in a pile of snow and ice that hasn’t melted yet. The sky is grey and dark, no sun shining through at all. That’s how I feel, like that tree.

Listening to an old playlist while I clean, Fiona Apple’s Sullen Girl resonates with me.

Looking out my back window when I let the dog outside, the crumpled muddy, dead brown leaves strike me as how I feel— dead and forgotten and no longer worth anything.

When I try to think of a color to paint for how I feel, I picture a watermelon pink covered with black, trying to hide.

Maybe I can do this. Maybe there is a way to express feelings when words just don’t seem to be enough.

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