I’m sitting in my usual spot on Bea’s couch, curled up, but I’m relaxed, even looking at her from time to time. I’ve just finished telling her about hiding the dirty dishes in the oven when my parents came to visit.
“That was defiant of you! I like it. That’s great….it’s taking some of your own back, saying ‘this is me.’ Did you feel defiant?” Bea sounds proud, and she’s got laughter in her voice.
I smile at the memory of the dirty dishes in the oven. “Yeah. I was a little worried someone would open the oven for some reason though, and I would have a lot of explaining to do. And of course the first thing my mom said was ‘did you go on a cleaning spree?’ when she walked in the house.”
“Then having those dishes in the oven should have made you feel a little devious and like you were getting away with something, I hope, after that comment,” Bea says.
I think about it, and nod my head in agreement. It did help.
“So what else happened with their visit?”
“I don’t know. They didn’t get there until noon, so I only had 3 hours until Hubby got home. Which was good. They played with Kat. My mom brought all those pictures. They saw my new car. I opened my birthday present,” I rattle off the list of things my parents did while they were here.
“What was your present?” Bea is curious, she is looking at me like she really wants to know. I don’t usually look at her when I talk about myself, so this is different. She really seems to want to know; like I am interesting to her.
“Coffee, wine– that plum wine I like. A sweater that’s too small.”
Bea zeros in on the sweater. Oh, crap. “Hmmmm. Is that weird? That your mom got your size wrong?”
I’m looking down, not at her now. I don’t know, I can’t answer. I’m not as here as I was a minute ago. Things go hazy and floaty in a split second.
“That question sent you far away,” Bea says.
I’m surprised. This is a time I’d gone away that she shouldn’t have noticed, that she wouldn’t have noticed before I had informed her of my inside thoughts, and the truth of me. Crap.
“Did you expect that to be an easy question to answer?” I turn it around on her, but doing so helps ground me a little. I feel more present again, more in control.
“I didn’t expect it to send you away, no. But that’s okay. I was more wondering if that was a usual thing with your mom? To buy the wrong size?”
It’s easier to answer now, with a more direct question. “Yes.”
“Do you think she doesn’t know your size? Or is there a reason?”
I’m silent. I have a theory, true or not, I have a reason why. I can’t say it though.
Bea continues talking about buying clothing for other people. She talks about erring on the side of caution and buying a little bit larger if you aren’t sure of the proper size. She talks about how usually, she wouldn’t but clothing for someone if she didn’t know their size. And then she waits.
“I think she buys the size she thinks I should be,” I finally say. I’m looking down at the floor, but I don’t have my face hidden.
When Bea speaks, it is soft and sympathetic, “I was wondering about that. Did you tell her it was too small?” I shake my head no.
“Did she ask you to try it on?” I shake my head no again.
“Was there a gift receipt?” I shake my head no yet again.
“Will you return it anyway?”
This question stops me. I won’t return it, not directly. I’ll have Hubby do it. He likes returning things. I feel guilty, like I am making the store employee accepting the return feel bad.
“I’ll have Hubby do it,” I finally say.
“I say return that sweater. Say ‘this is me.’ Say I’m okay, just as I am. Your size is perfect. There is nothing wrong with your body, with your size. Take back the sweater that doesn’t fit, and get one that does,” Bea is off on some sort of empower Alice speech. I’m not following. It’s a fairy tale. Cinderella married a prince because she had a glass slipper. Alice isn’t going to magically love her body because she exchanged a sweater that was too small. Real life doesn’t work like that.
We continue on, talking about the rest of the day, dinner and when they left. Bea wants to know how I felt when they left.
“Tired. I went to bed. I had a headache. I don’t know,” I tell her.
She looks at me. “I was going to say that tired isn’t a feeling. But I guess it is, in a way. So you were tired. And? Relief? Sad? Anger? What else?”
I stare at her. Nothing. There was nothing else. How do I explain that? I should have some feeling about my parents. But I didn’t, not then.
“Numb. I was just detached from them. I’ve been detached from everything since Thursday anyways,” I say.
“Ahhhh,” Bea says, “That makes sense. I noticed that on Friday, when you brought Kat in. You were functioning just fine, but you really weren’t here. I’m not sure anyone would really notice though.”
That confirms it. I let her into my world, my head, and now she knows when I’m not here, even the times when no one should be able to tell– except maybe Kat, and that is only because she is special.
“We should talk about Thursday,” she suggests.
I shrug. “It was hard. I don’t know. And then yoga was cancelled because she was sick.”
“Oh no,” Bea says, “I was thinking that going to yoga after a session like Thursdays would be so beneficial and healing. I wish I had known it was cancelled, I’m sorry.”
“It was okay,” I say, “I went home, journaled, has a rest, cleaned. No big deal.”
“Sometimes,” Bea is speaking slowly, cautiously, “in a session like that, the therapist can almost start to feel like the abuser. You were upset, and obviously terrified, and I was really quite torn; do I pull you out, or let you work towards verbalizing something? It seemed like you really needed to get that out, and I’m sure there’s more, but once you got the word out, it was very clear that you needed to be pulled out of that memory. Being that upset, as stuck in the memory as you were at the end, that can almost be retraumatiziing. Do you know what your experience was? Of this time– the present time?”
I’m looking down again, but risking glances at her, once on a while. She is worried. She’s worried that I am not okay and she helped caused it. The only thing I experienced was her helping me, giving me choices. I think about it, try to focus on what I can remember from the “now.” She gave me choices, she spoke to me, she encouraged me, she supported me. I felt like she took care of me. Finally I say, “I felt like you were supporting me.”
“Okay, that’s good. I’m glad that’s how you felt. If that’s ever not how you feel, that’s okay, too. You are allowed to feel like I pushed too much or was not there enough, or whatever. That can happen.”
I shrug at her, “okay.”
“What we want to work on is dual awareness. That’s what allows you to be part in the “here and now” and part in the “then”. You know how that works, how it feels, you are able to do that. So we need to go back to when I check in, and ask you to name something you see in this room, or something you hear…we’ve done that before,” Bea says.
“Okay,” I say. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. It’s too much right now.
“Should we look at something on your list?” Bea asks me. It’s almost like she is aware that I can’t talk about Thursday’s session anymore. And last night, I had sent her an email, listing out all my random thoughts of things I wanted to talk about, as well as a short synopsis of my teen years “issues” and therapy history and parental relationships.
“Yeah, whatever you want to pick,” I tell her.
“Well, I am curious about this talk you and Hubby had,” she says.
And so I tell her about me telling Hubby about my parents needing me to,be perfect, and Hubby saying he loves me just because I’m Alice.
“But?” Bea says the word that hangs, silently in the air between us.
“I….I don’t believe him.”
“Do you believe it for other people?” She asks.
I nod. Of course.
“So, just not youself? You believe it cognitively. Just not on a knowing level. Not for you?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s it, that’s right,” I agree.
Bea smiles, and says, “Like Kat is learning with you, to attach properly, to have a secure base, you are relearning a healthy attachment with Hubby. Your spouse would be the closest thing to a primary attachment figure, as an adult. So, this can be changed, just like it could be changed for Kat, and relearned.”
I stare at her. I’m confused.
Bea starts to explain, again, the same as she explained months ago in regards to Kat, about attachment theory, and how if a child doesn’t form a healthy, or a secure attachment, that can mean trouble later on. In Kat’s case, she was so deregulated as an infant, due to her neurology, that she was unable to form a healthy attachment; it’s taken many therapy hours and much reassurance that I didn’t do anything.
“For you, not having your parents emotionally attuned to you, emotionally supportive, emotionally mirroring you, that caused an unhealthy attachment,” Bea says, “and-”
I cut her off there, “And that’s why I’m so screwed up, I can’t even be ‘real’ in my own marriage? That’s why I’m broken?”
“No! I was about to say, and you are damn lucky you didn’t repeat the pattern and you married Hubby. He is good for you, he does love you for you, just like he says. You can learn to have a healthy attachment with him. Overtime, as you trust him a little more, you’ll start to be able to see that it’s okay, that you can be real with him, and that he does love you just for being Alice, and you’ll form new responses. That’s how a new attachment pattern is made. And I know I’m not supposed to talk about relationships, but it’s the same with me, overtime, you learn new patterns with me, too.”
I’ve gone from looking at her intermittently to looking down, and I’m picking at my fingers, an old self-harm habit that arises when I’m anxious. I’m picking with my right hand, and using the left to hide it. When Bea stops speaking, I don’t say anything, I just keep picking and looking at the floor.
“Alice, I know you are so uncomfortable right now. And you probably really are wanting to pick, I was just noticing now you are holding your hand together instead of picking, that’s such a good self care skill, and I was thinking how good you have done, how you haven’t been picking for quite a while now,” Bea says. She sounds proud, glad for me.
My heart drops. I had been doing really well. The strategy of using silly putty in place of picking was silly, but it had helped– once I had silly putty everywhere I might need it. I had added in nice lotion, doing my nails again– turning that into weekly manicure time with Kat– sometimes I had to really fight not to pick, but even grounding techniques could help there. They all failed on Thursday, though. My immediate and first response on the drive home had been to begin picking. I had not even noticed until my fingers were raw and sore. The weekend had not gotten much better after that.
Silently, I hold my hands up and out so Bea can see my fingers. Then I drop my head to my knees, which are already curled to my chest and cover it with my arms while I begin to sob, almost uncontrollably.
Bea gives me space to cry for a few minutes, then she says, “What made you feel so upset? Was it the picking? What I said? Or was it what we were talking about before— the relationship stuff and attachment?”
I cry and cry. I can’t answer, I’m just crying too hard. Even if I could answer, I don’t know. Everything just got too overwhelming. But I have no idea why I am so upset. I feel insane. I’m certain Bea is going to run for the hills as soon as she can.
“Crying, grief, tears, this can feel so painful, but it’s what needs to happen to be able to heal. It’s okay to cry,” Bea tells me.
My only answer is to cry some more, but I am grateful, so grateful for her words. To be reminded it’s okay to cry, is everything when you have spent years fighting these kinds of tears.
“I have a memory, I had almost forgotten, I used to pick at scabs, at bumps, at anything, when I was little. And my mom would always be chastising me, ‘stop picking!’ It was so shaming. I hope that’s not what you are feeling. That wasn’t my intention, I don’t care if you pick. If you need to pick right now to soothe, to cope, I think that’s okay,” Bea tells me. She is so kind, so caring. I shake my head, that’s not it, it’s not shame. I don’t feel shamed. She wasn’t scolding me, she didn’t even know I was picking again.
“Was it feelings about your parents?” She asks me.
I’m still crying, but less, and I can talk, now. “No. Yes. I….they…I mean. I don’t know.” I’m confused. It’s not really right, I’m upset about that, but not really, that’s not the whole of it, I don’t think.
“Go ahead. They what?” She asks me.
I’m sure our time has to be close to up, or up. “Nothing, nothing. Shouldn’t we be going?” I say, quickly, forcing the tears down. Years of practice at fighting my tears back has made this easy to do; not as easy as it once was, but still, pretty easy.
“I want you to get this out. We’re okay. They what?” Bea says, she’s more firm this time, but not in a mean way. Not in the way I think of when I think of someone being firm.
I stop and think, try to gather my thoughts, to push the words from my mind out into the world, into the space between Bea and I. Talking is hard work. I still can’t lift my head, I can’t look at her. Just thinking of what I am about to say, what I am thinking about saying, is enough to have tears forming again, and falling.
“They ……….they………weren’t ……there….they didn’t care. They just didn’t. When I screwed up, when I was bad, when I was the not following the script, the rules, they were just gone!” I sob the words out.
“Oh…oh. You really were alone. You really needed to feel loved, so much then, especially then, and that withdraw felt like they didn’t love you anymore,” As Bea talks, she sounds sad, but she gets it.
“I know they loved me. They dumped my butt in therapy. They came and got me when Kay called them from college. But they weren’t really there like I needed. They never were. Ever. Even when I was little. It just wasn’t so noticeable. Because I was following the rules, I was perfect. So they loved me,” I stop to choke back some sobs before I can continue, “once I was ‘fixed’ they would just rewrite history and make me perfect again, like nothing was ever wrong. And I let them. I told their story. Over and over.”
“What we have to remember is that it wasn’t you. It was them. Their shortcomings. They weren’t able to provide emotional attunement, emotional support……we might never know why. It likely made them feel very scared. Your parents weren’t strong enough to face those scary feelings, not like you,” Bea tells me.
I cry some more, and Bea lets me. I think it must be hard, sometimes, to be a therapist. I would have trouble allowing a person the space to cry. Maybe because of how I was raised, I want to stop all pain, right away. Being given the space to cry, to feel sadness, and to not be alone with the sadness and tears, is good. I’m so afraid to cry. I was afraid for a long time that if I did allow the tears out, they would never stop, and I would drown in them. That didn’t happen. Even then, I didn’t like crying. It felt bad. Crying alone seemed the thing to do. But that felt awful. It made me want to cut, or have a bulimic episode. Then, I finally broke down in front of Bea, really broke down and didn’t try to force the tears to stop. That was different. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t alone, and she didn’t get upset at me for crying, she didn’t panic, or try to get the tears to stop. It was okay. It was good. It was healing.