I walk into therapy, and right away, as I’m getting settled, I talk about Kat and school and our first Girl Scout meeting. I’m desperately trying to pretend away this sense of dread, and feeling of panic I have. I tell Bea how amazing Kat is doing, and great is was to see her interacting socially with girls she had never met before. I tell her how it was, being the troop leader. I’ve never done anything like that before, but I had a blast.
Thankfully, I have a co-leader, who seems very comfortable when it comes to dealing with the parents. That was the one thing I was unsure about— I don’t ever feel comfortable taking a position of authority or being the “expert” over my peers. Mostly because I often feel like a 5 year or a teen, I don’t feel as if my peers are really my peers. I’m much more comfortable with kids; the little girl part of me connects with them really well.
Today Bea won’t let me spend the entire session talking about surface stuff. I’d sent a series of emails Monday and Tuesday, and had spent the last 36 hours in a hypervigilant, panicky feeling state.
“Okay, I’m going to find your email and just read through it really quick to get back in that headspace.” Bea transitions us to talking through the email I had sent the day before.
“Sorry….I’m sorry.” I mumble, covering my face with my hands.
“Why sorry? Nothing to be sorry about. Needing that transition time, that’s why we have 90 minute sessions. We have time built in.” It’s no big deal, she’s saying.
“Because I won’t stop talking.” I bury my face, mortified.
“No that’s not it at all! We have the time because that time is important for building safety, for helping you feel safe enough to drop some of those defenses you need to get through your day to day life.” She corrects me and sounds firm, as if she wants to make sure I don’t start thinking badly of myself for needing that extra time.
Bea begins to go through my email, reading it to herself, and responding as she reads.
“I wondered– as I was saying that about the feeling impatient, annoyed— in the back of my mind, I wondered how that was sounding to you. I wasn’t talking about you, I have never felt that towards you. I do check in with myself, see how I am feeling, but it never has come up with you. Even at times when you are stuck, or avoiding things, it’s so obvious to me why you would be stuck or why your defenses would be needed at those times. You work hard in therapy and this is hard stuff. You can’t stay raw and open all the time. It would be way too much. I was talking more about people….it’s maybe people who……. they are in therapy because they know something is wrong, but maybe aren’t even sure what, and they are so defended, there is no getting through the walls they have built up, when I check in with myself and notice I am feeling impatient or annoyed with that person, then I know that maybe it is time to push against some of those walls, to challenge some of those defenses.”
“This is interesting. You say you didn’t notice anything, that there is nothing to notice, but then you noticed a whole bunch!”
I think, maybe it’s that I have this idea that anything I’m noticing isn’t ‘right’ it isn’t what you are supposed to notice and get out of this exercise.
“Even right away, when you are saying how you just kept thinking that it’s no big deal……..just a phone or a coffee cup you are thinking about picking up, those are your defenses, the it’s no big deal, this is silly. That is you using your mind to distract yourself.”
We talk about how reaching out is very, very hard for me.
“And here you are looking at this reaching and touching from hubby’s point of view. When he grabs your hand, or puts an arm around you, how triggering is that? Is it triggering like distract yourself, or triggering like heart pounding, or triggering like go away?”
“I don’t know.” It comes out automatically.
“I’m just wondering because knowing how triggering it is will help us to know where we might want to start with this, or what things we might want to try.”
I sigh. “It’s……maybe it depends.”
We sit in silence for a bit, and Bea finally asks if I can say more about that. She wonders what is it like when hubby holds my hand at the doctors office. “Maybe that isn’t so scary. You’ve had good touches in your life, too, so maybe that is a time when you remember your mom or dad holding your hand and comforting you at the doctors office. Do you have other times you can remember good touch, like cuddling with your mom?”
“No…..my parents aren’t touchy feely. My mom thinks it’s weird that I would snuggle up with Kat to watch movies or let her sleep in my bed. She’s good with babies, really little kids, being cuddly, but not so much with anything else.”
“So maybe there isn’t a lot of memory there. What happens when hubby holds your hand? What is going on then?”
“It….if we are like, out walking and he grabs my hand, it’s just….I just distract myself. It’s not a big deal. But if like….I’m at the counter cooking and he comes up and hugs me or thinks he will run my shoulders it’s like……triggered in my head. Heart racing….like want to run away…..but of course I can’t do that. So I go away instead.”
“So maybe when you are out for a walk, and hubby holds your hand you can notice how you are safe. And other times you could use the four steps to freedom— reminding yourself you are safe, that this is a reaction from a long time ago, that you are having a flashback, that sort of thing? Or maybe it’s too triggering to even do that. It’s just some things to play around with. To see what you notice, what helps or doesn’t help.”
We talk about couples therapy and how that could have been helpful, and how hubby just hasn’t bothered to call and schedule and how I had asked twice so I’m done begging him to do things to help our marriage be better.
“Okay, here you are talking about sending the email to me. You noticed you physically pulled back from the iPad and it was making you have that anxious sick feeling and that you had to go away to press send. You really feel very vulnerable reaching out. It’s hard for you to reach out.”
“But then you did reach out. You were able to send me the email.” She says.
“Yes. I just….have to pretend it doesn’t matter to me.” The interesting thing is, I have a great imagination, and can pretend away a lot of stuff.
“I’m glad you sent it. I know it’s hard to reach out. Interesting that words are needed to feel not alone, that having no words means alone, when for so long you kept this secret and had no words. It’s a little confusing to me. I wonder if it means that in the last few years you have learned that using words and telling your story means someone can hear and understand? That it means someone can be there for you and that you have learned telling your story and being heard feels less alone to you?” Bea asks.
“No……it’s like……words for anything. It’s like I need words to connect at all…..like hubby would be happy and feel connected if we were sitting next to each other watching a movie or each doing our own thing, but next to each other and that is like…..nothing to me. I need to talk.” I try to explain, but I’m not sure I’m doing a good enough job of making sense.
“Ohhhhh….okay. I hear that from a lot of women. I think that is pretty normal.”
“Well…..it’s like a simple example I could think of. Like even when I was a kid, I needed to talk, I needed to talk and be heard. I would talk about anything and get in trouble for talking too much.” I say, trying to clarify it more.
“Yes, okay, so talking was how you connected. It’s not trauma relayed, it’s attachment based, it’s how you feel secure in the world, by being heard.”
“So, I’m thinking attachment, and what are other ways we can communicate and connect? What are ways I see kids connect? Touch is one of the more obvious ones, I guess. But then I also see kids, they look up to see if their attachment person is paying attention. Some kids will act out, to get seen.”
“That was never me,” I say.
“No, I wouldn’t think so. Some kids go the other way, and might be very clever or very well behaved, to get noticed that way.”
I nod. Maybe me. That’s more me than anything else.
“All of the ways we use to get our attachment needs met as kids, well, I’d imagine they would be similar when we are adults. So, when you are needing words, maybe we can try other ways to connect, you can ask yourself how else you can get your needs met, or what it is you are needing that you aren’t getting because you have no words.”
My first thought is that there is nothing if I don’t have words. Even though Bea has literally just listed out several other ways, that belief is so automatic I have to remind myself that she has listed out other ways.
“The more I think about just how vital words can be, how they really can keep an anxious kid feeling connected, how much having words is an inherent part of who you are, the idea that you held that secret for so long is even more horrible. It’s no wonder everything bombarded you when you broke that silence.”
I don’t say anything, but I think that maybe she does get it, my need for words. I’ve been upset and feeling overwhelmed for weeks, but it’s all come to a point where I can barely handle it. These last two weeks I’ve just wanted Bea to fix it. The little girl has been very much in control, and she has been wanting a grown up to make it better, to make all the hurt stop, to just fix it. I know, rationally, that Bea can’t just fix it, but that doesn’t stop me from being frustrated with myself for having no words, and with Bea for not being able to make it all better. I have this urge to just scream at her *Just help me. Help me.*
“Am I right that there is a lot going on internally, so much so that it is very overwhelming feeling, and it’s more than usually is going on, that there just aren’t words to go with what is happening?” She asks.
I nod my head, just a little.
“Okay. Can we try to define what type of things are going on internally? Feelings? Images? Emotions? Thoughts?”
As Bea speaks, I let go of the breath I had been holding. She is trying to help me. She’s not abandoning me, leaving me alone in this. It’s not Bea on the outside, waiting for me to have words and connect with her, she is right here with me, trying to help me find the words I so desperately need. “I don’t know.”
“No words can be communication, too. If I was having lot of stuff going on internally but had no words, to me that would mean the things happening were too horrible, too scary, maybe too overwhelming, too sad, to put into words. Could having no words mean something for you?”
I shrug. Maybe. I don’t know.
“Try to focus on those feelings, if you can. See if anything comes up, if we can categorize these things,” Bea encourages.
As we have been talking– or rather as Bea has been reading my words and talking– all the internal chaos has been stirred up, and I’ve gone from sitting upright, to curled up, knees bent princess style, my head down, resting on my arms. I try to sit with all the feelings, and I try to check in, to see if I can’t categorize this mess.
After a while, I think, ‘it’s all of it.’ It’s emotions so strong I can’t sit with them, and so it’s hard to name them. It’s pictures, and thoughts, and I can hear his voice. I can feel things in my body. I want to tell Bea, to say that it’s all of it all rolled up together in a big giant bowling ball that is going to knock me down. I’m not sure if I manage to tell her anything at all. I’m really far away, so far away that I don’t even realize how far I’ve gone until much, much later.
I’m crying and shaking my head, and it’s hard to breathe.
“You’re really closed off. You really need to feel safe and protected right now.” Bea comments. “I wonder….when kids build walls, they build them for different reasons. Sometimes to keep something scary out, and sometimes to keep things in. I wonder which one your wall is for?”
I could build the tallest, biggest wall, and it still wouldn’t keep him out. I try and try, but nothing stops him. “It doesn’t matter,” I say. The words are disjointed, out of context, although they make sense in a way.
“What doesn’t matter?” Bea asks softly.
Maybe I’m trying to keep the horror in my head inside. Maybe my walls are for keeping this awful stuff inside. Nobody needs to hear these things, or know them. Maybe my walls are to keep everyone out. People can’t hurt you if they can’t get inside the wall. Maybe my wall is to keep the little girl as safe as she can be. Maybe there is no such thing as safe. Maybe there never was. Maybe none of it matters. He can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants and there is nothing I can do to stop it or change it.
“What is ‘It’?” Bea questions gently. I’d forgotten she was there, and her voice makes me jump.
“Nothing. Nothing. There is nothing I can do. I’m doing everything wrong and it doesn’t matter.” I blurt the thoughts out before I can stop myself.
Bea might be talking, I’m not sure. She might be asking me what it is that I can do nothing about, or she might be reassuring me I’m not doing anything wrong; she might be telling me that it is an old belief.
Her voice breaks through the fog in my head eventually. “You are really needing to feel safe and protected, to be far away. Are you far away in a safe space? I can see how tight you are holding onto everything, to keep yourself safe.”
“No! It’s not a nice place. It’s not a nice place at all,” and I begin to cry.
“It’s not a nice place. It doesn’t feel good to be where you are,” she echoes. “Can you focus on your hands, on the fists they have made? They are holding on really, really tight.”
I don’t say anything, but I’m listening. It doesn’t truly matter what Bea is saying, her voice equals safety to me, and it’s like having a rope to grasp onto.
“Can relax some of the tension in your arms and shoulders? You are holding on so tight. I wonder what would happen if you just let go a little bit?”
I shake my head. “Can’t.”
“Because your frozen or because it doesn’t feel safe?”
I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m really frozen in the way I usually am, but everything in me is screaming that I can’t let go, I can’t move, it’s not okay. Finally I whisper, “It’s not okay.”
“What about making things even tighter? Sometimes that can be a way to get some movement back, too. To go with what is already happening.”
“No,” I say, and I sound like a stubborn toddler.
“Okay. That’s okay,” she is speaking in that soothing voice, the one I use with Kat when she is really hurt and upset. “Can you stay with the feeling in your shoulders? See if anything comes up or if your arms or hands want to do anything? Maybe an image or a thought will come up.”
If I weren’t so far away, I’d probably be annoyed that Bea was bring SP into this, but as it stands, I’m not upset with her at all. (And a day later, I’m still okay with it. Having no words and being so far away, SP was maybe the only tool that was going to be of any use. And Bea felt like Bea, not like a shrink, which made all the difference.) So, I tried to pay attention to how my shoulders, arms and hands felt. I was surprised to feel my hands in fits, and how tensed up and locked my shoulders and arms were. I hadn’t noticed.
“I can’t do this, I can not do this. I can’t do anything. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.” I’m whispering, talking fast, my voice blurred by tears and punctuated by gasps.
“That begs the question, why?”
“Why?” I’m incredulous. Shouldn’t she know? Isn’t it obvious? “Why doesn’t it matter?”
“Yes,” she responds simply. Or maybe she says more, and the words don’t register because I’m lost in this maze in my head and I can’t find my way out and he is going to come and there is nothing I am do, it doesn’t matter.
“Because! Because I can’t do anything to change it or stop it! I can’t stop it!” Oh my God, I can’t breathe, nothing is okay, there is no such thing as safe, why isn’t my mom here, I wish my mom would come save me, no one cares, I’m all alone, he is going to hurt me, oh my God, please just make it all stop.
“You can’t stop it,” she says carefully, and then adds firmly, “You couldn’t stop it THEN. This is now. You are safe now. You survived and you are safe.”
“No! Stop it! I’m not safe. I’m not okay. He’s just going to do whatever he wants. He can do whatever he wants and it doesn’t matter what I do, there is no such thing as keeping the scary out, he can do whatever he wants! I can’t do anything. It doesn’t matter. He is going to do whatever he wants and I can’t stop it!” I practically scream the words at Bea. Why isn’t she getting this? Why doesn’t she see? I’m terrified and he’s going to hurt me and she is not getting it and I’m so mad at her right now, if she would just get it, she could fix it, she could stop it. Why isn’t she getting it? Why won’t she stop it?
“Yes! Yes! You found words!” Bea shouts back, but her voice is…..well, happy isn’t the right word, exactly…..maybe excited or proud? “You are safe and you have a voice! And you aren’t alone. You did it! You did it and you are safe. You’re safe now. It was awful, and scary and nothing you should have had to live through, but you did live through it, you survived and you are okay. You are here, in my office, with me, and you aren’t alone.”
Bea’s voice somehow registers enough that I know it’s okay to let go and melt down, and so I do. I curl into the smallest ball I can manage, and sob. I’m shaking and crying, and I feel wildly out of control, and very, very young and very, very afraid. “He does what he wants and he’s hurting me and it doesn’t matter I can’t hide and I can’t stop him and I can’t do anything at all.”
“It’s over now. You are safe. You’re safe now. You aren’t alone, and you have words, and I am here. You are safe now. It’s all over. It’s not happening now, no matter how much it feels like it is.” Her voice is a quiet comfort, soft and gentle. “Can I move my chair closer to you?”
“Why? Why?” I feel as though I almost shriek the words. I’m freaked out. Why does she want to be near me? What does she want?
“So you aren’t alone, so that I’m not so far away. It’s totally your choice. I just want you to know I am here.” She’s matter-of-fact about it, and I believe her that she just wanted to make sure I don’t feel alone.
“O-okay,” I say, and my voice is shaky. I’m still crying, and hyperventilating off and on, trying to catch my breath.
Bea moves her chair next to me, and the moment I feel her nearer, I have this urge to sort of shout, ‘don’t touch me!’ My filter is still enough in place that I check myself, and hold the words in. A moment after the urge passes, I realize it’s silly. Bea has never just touched me, or sat nearer to me, without asking. Even at times when she has maybe thought holding my hand would help me feel less alone, she has only offered, and let me know that if I ever ask her to do so, she will hold my hand.
I start to feel as though I’ve let go of a horrible, awful secret, like my biggest fear has been revealed, and the world didn’t end. My tears slow, and I manage to catch my breath. Bea talks softly, about nothing, just soothing words, letting me know I’m not alone, giving me that verbal connection I need in order to feel safe in the world.
“I’m scared,” I whisper.
“I know,” she says. “That was very scary to let go of.”
“I’m so, so scared.”
“I know. It’s a really scary thing, to feel how little control you had. It’s very, very scary.”
“I didn’t want it to be true,” I confide.
“You really didn’t want it to be true. It was really important to you that it wasn’t true, it was so hard, and so scary to let go of the idea that it was just a fun game. I know how badly you didn’t want it to be true. I wish for you it wasn’t true.” Her voice sounds sad, I hear tears in it. Her tears somehow make mine more acceptable; it’s okay to be full grief over this, it’s emotional and it’s a lot.
Eventually she gently tells me I need to come back to the room, that I’ve gone really deep into things, and it’s time to come back. She reminds me of my busy day, and talks about what she sees in the room. When she has the sense I’m back here, or at least in that here but not here place, where I can function, she says, “I’m going to move my chair back, so I’m not in your face when you sit up.”
When I do sit up, I can’t look at her, and I wonder about what she had said earlier, how looking a child will look at their parents to see if they are looking at the child, to get attachment needs met. I wonder then, why looking at Bea and having her look back at me feels like being ripped open, like everything in me is being spread out for her to see. I stare at the floor, slipping on my shoes and grabbing my bag. I heard the downstairs door a few minutes ago, which means Bea’s next appointment is here.
“This was a lot. I want to make sure you feel safe, that you know you are safe and not alone.” Bea says.
I nod. “I’m fine,” I say. I’m always fine.
“I wish we had a little more time; my ten o’clock is here,” she confirms what I had already been thinking. She doesn’t want me to leave here and not be safe, but she doesn’t sound scared or panicked, just caring. “If you need to talk more, you can email or call. Okay?”
I nod. Fine, okay. I’m fine.
“This is a day for self care. Be gentle with yourself today, okay? Go get a coffee, relax. If you want you can sit out in the other room, as long as you need, okay?”
“Okay. I’m okay.”
“I’ll see you later today, okay? With Kat,” she reminds me.
“I’ll see you later,” I echo, as I walk out the door. I’ve managed not to look at her at all, and in a fog, I walk to my car.
Wednesdays are busy. It’s not a bad day to have tough things come out in therapy, because after i leave Bea’s, I have non-stop distractions until I bring Kat back for therapy. Then I can hide in Bea’s waiting room, back in h safe space, knowing she is right there, and begin to sort through the crap that came out during my morning session.