On Wednesday, July 11, I walk into Bea’s office, feeling scared, but not as scared as I have been. I feel vulnerable, too, and it shows when I walk in, unable to look at Bea. Today, she notices, she sees me.
“I was really glad to get the teen’s email this morning. To know that she is able to feel some of those things. And I want her to know that she is right. I do care.”
I don’t say anything, just sit down, my face reddening. Bea already has my blanket sitting on the couch.
“You know,” she says slowly, as I grab a pillow to hide behind, “Let’s just notice for a moment we are safe. That nothing bad is happening. Maybe feel the pillow in your arms, hear the birds. Just take a moment. We aren’t in any hurry. We don’t have to rush into anything.”
I try, I really do, but it’s hard. I’m so scared that I have made a bigger mess.
“We don’t have to do anything today, we don’t have to talk about anything. Maybe we just need to focus on safety and being here this morning. That’s okay. Take a moment, think about what will help you feel safe. What do you need?”
I do think about it. At first, I don’t know, I’m uncertain. But then I relize what I do need. “I need…..I don’t….I need for…….. this to be fixed…..if….I can’t do nothing today because until we talk about it and it’s…..resolved, I’m going to stay worried and anxious.”
“Okay. We can talk about things. I think to do that though, you have to stay here, at least here enough to talk. What is the anxiety connected to?” Bea asks.
“I don’t know. Something bad is going to happen.”
“Okay, good. That’s a starting place, right? What are the things you worry about happening?”
“There’s no list, not…I guess it’s like nothing, no things to write down, not something I can tell you. I’m not worried about anything…..just something bad is going to happen.” I stumble over words and explanation. This is difficult to describe.
“Is is more of a feeling, just a general sort of thing?” Bea gets it.
I nod. “Yeah. I guess so.”
“So, I think that sort of generalized worry that we cannot pinpoint is our trauma brain. It’s normal, and the feelings are real. This is again where we have to tell ourselves, feelings aren’t facts. I can’t promise you nothing bad will happen, because bad things do happen, but we also have to realize that it’s not likely. Right? I mean, what are the chances a plane is going to crash into my office?” Bea’s voice is sympathetic, but she isn’t going to let me worry about things unlikly to happen.
“No……it’s not that……..not like that……I don’t worry…..it’s not worries about accidents. More….it’s maybe more about people.” I don’t know how to say what is in my head. I don’t know that I have the words or the language to really define it. I just know that the general something bad is going to happen worries aren’t about accidents or things like that.
“Okay, Okay. That’s good. This is helpful. Is it more worries that people will let you down somehow, or is it more worries that people will hurt you?”
It’s too much, and overwhelmed, I hide under my blanket, hugging cloud pillow to me. “I don’t know, people……. leaving me, rejecting me, not wanting to deal with me.” I wish I had the words to explain the fear I have surrounding my relationships.
“So, attachment stuff then. When attachment stuff is triggered…..that fear, that worry that something bad will happen, it’s very real. Attachment trauma, there really isn’t a list of worries. It’s very young, such early stuff, it’s from this time when we were too little and too helpless to care for ourselves, and so any rupture, any sign that our people were leaving us, that would have meant…anniliahtion back then. Developmental trauma, attachment trauma, this is all to do with very early years, so young we probably have no memories of it. With you, I think the trauma of sexual abuse compounds and even confuses the issue, but…this, what you are describing, it is attachment trauma.” Bea is speaking slowly, but with certainty.
“So….not crazy then?” I ask.
“Not crazy. This is a real thing, and when it’s triggered, it is incredibly scary and incredibly painful. I’m not sure I realized how deep…..well, how deep your attachment trauma runs. I see now I wasn’t seeing that, and I’m sorry. I’m aware of it now,” she tells me, and I think how well I have hidden this from her. I know when my impulse to freak out over a relationship is not *normal* and most offen, Ms. Perfect is really good at stopping those reactions.
We sit quietly for a moment, and then Bea asks me if I am here. “Here enough,” I say.
“Are you here enough to talk?” She checks.
“Yeah….it’s just hard. But I am here.”
“Okay. Then we will talk about all this scary stuff. Slowly, and as safely as possible.” She is using the voice that she uses when she is speaking to the little girl, that gentle, soothing voice.
“Okay. I can do this.” I hug the pillow and I feal my stomach twist in fear, but I mean what I am saying.
“I want to start by saying I am sorry I didn’t recognize your cry for help. I think, well, I know my own stuff got in the way. You are right about that. I was hurt, and I reacted from that hurt place. It doesn’t make it okay, but I was really struggling with how you could think those things of me after all this time, given our relationship, and I reacted from that place. I chose to ignore it, because in my hurt, I read it as rage.”
“But I— the teen doesn’t have a relationship with you! You don’t know her anymore than she knows you. I mean…that’s unfair.” The words jump out of me, frustrated and slightly angry.
“You’re right. We were building a relationship when all this happened. But you are right, we don’t have a relationship. Not yet. I didn’t think of that. It also….well, as I said, I was expecting coping skills like reality testing, to kick in. But I don’t even know what coping skills the teen has. We need to spend some time on the relationship, working on that safety and trust, maybe building some skills.” Bea sounds….well, like she means it when she says she wants to work on a relationship with the teen.
“There were no coping skills. That’s why I emailed you! I just wanted…..” I trail off when I realize what I was about to say, horrified that I had been about to admit to wanting anything.
“Wanted what? You just wanted…..?” Bea prompts me after several seconds tick by and I don’t continue.
“I…well, I just….ugh. I told you thing get all twisted in my head. I told you I go to the dark and twisty place where everyone hates me and……I mean, I thought…I just….I wish you had just said, *Alice stop. You’re in the dark twisty place. Those things aren’t true.* Or something.”
Bea is silent, thinking. I can hear her fingers tapping on her chair. “I don’t know that I could have done that. I don’t want to presume to know what is going on in your head, or to impose my reality on you as the true reality.”
“Maybe ask me then? If I’m in that place? I don’t know. I mean, sometimes I know I’m there, sort of, but…….it’s too risky to say it or ask someone, I just…I don’t know. But you not acknowledging those feelings, that just made them true in my mind. And then I did rage. Before, if you had just been able to say, “Those things aren’t true. I know they feel bad, but they aren’t true, I don’t think those things. I think you are in the dak and twisty place, you need to come out and I’ll be here waiting. I think that would have changed this. That’s all I wanted. Not….logic and explanations.”
“You wanted me to help you stop the distortions. Which is what my boundary of not responding to them was meant to do. It felt like responding to them would reinforce them.”
“Ignoring them reinforced them.” I tell her..
“I see that now. I think….I was feeling this need to set a boundary, but I set the wrong one, and even when I was clear that a boundary was needed, I maintained a boundary that was unhelpful.”
“I get not wanting to reinforce distortions, but can’t you acknowledge them without doing that? Can’t you just reassurance they are not true?” I don’t understand.
“You know, that’s a boundary. You wanted a boundary set. I just set the wrong one. I’ve never felt a need for boundaries with the little girl. I think the teen wanted a boundary set, and I was picking up on that.”
“No….I didn’t want a boundary. Boundaries are mean, they mean go away, you are a bother, I don’t want to deal with you….. no! I don’t like boundaries. And I don’t want you to change everything.”
“I’m not changing anything. Anything that changes we will do together. I’m not going to spring a bunch of changes on you, okay? But we need to talk about boundaries. Boundaries aren’t bad. They don’t have to feel bad to either person. Like right now, you have set a boundary. The blanket is a physical boundary. But even with the boundary there is a connection between us, there is attunement and a feeling of us both being present. I don’t see the blanket as a go away….it is what you need to feel safe, and so I feel glad you are taking care of yourself, that you can set a boundary and feel safe. And, dare I say, that boundary making you feel safer…… perhaps it makes it possible for us to feel more connection than we would without the boundary.”
I shake my head. “I don’t like boundaries. Boundaries are scary.”
“They can be. But I think once you feel, experience healthy boundaries, well, then they aren’t so scary.” She says gently.
“They are. Well, I guess I don’t really know about boundaries. My Mom’s boundaries are…..I weird. Maybe just all over the place.”
“Like your therapist’s have been lately?” Bea sounds, disapointed in herself, or something.
I think about what she has said. “No… not like that. Hers…..either they didn’t exist, I think….like, I just….I did what she wanted, dressed how she wanted, acted like she wanted, I was…like I just was part of her…I don’t know.” I sigh, not sure how to explain this.
“There’s a shrinky word for that. Enmeshment. It means your mom viewed you as extension of herself.”
“Yeah…..and I was loved and accepted and we were close as long as I was…..well, being like her. But if I didn’t….if I diagreed….she just……I don’t know. She would be upset. Then she set these boundaries….over silly things. Like really, truly, silly things. Like one time, I didn’t like these one shoes that she liked and so I just like got a different pair and she was really not happy with me. There was a boundary set then. Well, I think anyway. Silent treatment.” I blink away tears. It still hurts now, thinking about it.
“That is a boundary. Wow. No wonder me ignoring your feelings about me expressing anxiety over insurance was painful. It felt like I was giving you the silent treatment.” Bea’s voice has that sound in it, the one that means things are falling into place and she is making sense of things.
“You know….I don’t….I mean….well, you know what, never mind.” Words tumble out of me, a mess of them, blocking what I really need to say.
“Whatever it is, you can say it. I’m listening. It’s okay,” Bea reassures me.
“I don’t like it when you say it was just about you expressing worries over insurance. That’s not the story, not at all. I wish you would get that.” I whisper the words, cringing as I say them.
“You’re right. That’s not the whole story. But I do want to say, it’s important that we discuss insurance…that the adult and I talk about those things.”
“But it wasn’t a conversation! It was you freaking out and not even aware of what was going on for me! You can’t say it was us having a conversation, because you were talking…..at me. And it wouldn’t matter anyway, it isn’t about insurance! It’s about how you were talking!” I feel like I am shouting, but really, I am speaking firmly, and louder than usual.
“You know….what you wrote, asking me to imagine the situation, and describing it from your viewpoint, I….well, I have been that client before. I have had my therapist not be as present as I needed, and I have left sessions feeling unseen and unheard and hurt.”
“Except this wasn’t even my session! Not really. You can not compare the two. We have had sessions where you weren’t as attuned as I needed, and I’ve left feeling bad. But this, no. Wednesday was something else. It wasn’t my session, because I never….this was nothing about me, it wasn’t a case of I shared where I was at and you weren’t super present. This was you talking and spinning out from the moment I sat down. It wasn’t even a session! I mean, I don’t even know why I was there.” I’m being blunt, but I can’t, I won’t sugar coat it.
“You’re right. The two things don’t compare. Which I was going to say, that I have experienced the unattuned sessions, and so I can imagine how painful this was, how scary. I am so sorry, I really am. I knew the it was bad, I wanted to stop, to erase it, to have a redo, because I knew it was bad. And I am so sorry,” Bea says, sadly.
“I know. I know you are sorry. It’s okay. It was a bad day and a bad mistake, and I can’t pretend it didn’t happen, or call it something it’s not, but I’m not mad or upset or hurt anymore.” As I say the words, I realize they are true.
“If you were, that would be okay,” she reminds me. Bea worries that I forgive to make sure people don’t leave me.
“No…It’s okay. Honestly, I was more hurt and upset that I was ignored when I was hurting and scared. I just wish you had said to me, from the first email, *hey, listen, those things aren’t true. I don’t feel that way at all. You need to get out of the dark twisty place so we can talk, because I can’t help you when you are there. So come out now, I want to help you.* You know?” I say.
“Now that, that sounds like you are channeling your Grandma.” Bea sounds like she is smiling.
“Yeah….that is something she would say. She didn’t….well, she would just tell me what was and wasn’t okay. She didn’t….she made things very clear. I guess that is boundaries?”
“Yes. Your Grandma had good boundaries.” Bea agrees.
“She really did, if I think about it. She didn’t….not like mom. Grandma didn’t ignore me when I messed up or didn’t agree with her. She just, well, she just said it. Jusf plain, just like that.”
“And I’m thinking that while I was feeling it would be harsh or feel cruel to just say, hey you are twisting things, maybe that sort of bluntness feels safe to you because your Grandma set boundaries in that way. Straight forward, honest. I need to channel your Grandma, not your mom. Because in my concern of behaving like your mom and trying to avoid it, I did exactly what I was trying not to do.” Bea sighs.
“Well, you definitely don’t remind me of my mom. More of my grandma. Not age wise, but just….you feel the same, sometimes.” I shrug. It’s not something I have words for. “Like hubby feels the same as my grandpa sometimes. He reminds me of him, he always has.”
Bea laughs. “That is a very big compliment. I know how much your grandma means to you. Thank you.”
“Am I right in saying that what I was wanting from that first email was reassurance and to be told I was in the dark and twisty place….which you said was a boundary. And you felt it was me raging and so there was this feeling of needing to set a boundary……so we both really wanted the same thing?”
“Yes, yes, you are. We both did want the same thing.” Bea chuckles again.
“So….next time….maybe you can set a different boundary sooner?”
“Yes. I can do that,” Bea agrees.
I break the silence by saying what pops into my head. “Hey, you did what you said you would!”
“What do you mean?”
“When……when we talked about Kathy, and I asked you what you would have done…..and you told me? Do you remember?” I ask.
“Yes. I remember that.”
“Well….this rupture, you did what you said you would do.” I smile. Something about that feels right.
“I did? Well, thank goodness I did what I said I would!” Bea laughs, but she is sort of serious, too.
“Yeah….I’m glad you did what you said you would.”
Her tone lignt, Bea says, “You know, that brings up the whole question of enactment. Maybe you needed to see if I would do what I said I would, or maybe I needed to see if I would do what I said……it’s so interesting……”
“Don’t get shrinky,” I say, cutting her off. “And I definitely didn’t cause this mess on purpose.”
“No, enactments aren’t a concious thing. It’s all completely unconscious. But it is interesting, especially in this situation…..”
I cut her off again. “Don’t be shrinky!” I recognize this as a boundary, a need for her to not be shrinky so I can feel safe and secure knowing that Bea is Bea and not a cold analytical shrink.
“You brought it up,” she laughs.
“Just talk to your shrinky friends about this,” I tell her. It’s such a teen response, that I laugh, too.
Laughing, she agrees. “Okay. But the grown up might want to talk about this one day, and when she does want to, we can. It will be okay.” .
“Maybe. Not now.” I am stubborn.
“No, not right now. When you are in it, it’s the wrong time for shrinky. I get that. So not right now.” She is so calm, so sure, so caring again. Bea is herself again, she is really back.
“I think it’s okay. I feel okay, this is okay. Nothing bad happened and you did what you said you would.” I breathe out relief and fear and anxiety and anger as I say the words.
“Yes. Nothing bad happened. Actually, something good happened,” Bea says kindly.
“Yeah. And it’s new. Something new. And it was ok.”
“Yes. I think you grew a lot, even if it’s not something we want to happen again, I think there will be more growth and learning, more felt experience from this. I think there was a lot of new things in this for you.”
“Yes. You listened. And didn’t want me to just agree and be…whatever you wanted.” This….this means so much to me. I don’t have words for it, but there is a lightness where the fear of not being what she wanted used to be. The fear isn’t gone because it is old, old fear, but there is less of it there.
“No! Never. I want you to just be you. You are enough. Just like you are, you are enough and you deserve to be seen and heard and cared for just for being you.” Bea is adamant, and while I think she has said this before, everytime she says it, it sinks in a little more.
“Is that….is what I wrote, what you said true?” I ask quietly.
“That I care?” Her voice is neutral, maybe curious about what part of what I wrote.
“Yeah.” Shame floods me as I confirm her guess.
“Yes. Very much so. This is a real relationship. Just because it is therapy doesn’t make it not real. If it weren’t real, and I didn’t care about you, you wouldn’t have been able to hurt me. What you wrote, all of it, is true. Absolutely. I care.” She means it, I can hear it in her voice.
“Okay,” I say. It’s all I can say, because I don’t know how I feel about this. It’s….I want her to care, and I care about her, but I don’t….well, I guess I don’t want to matter. I’m afraid to matter, and there is something painful about having the whole of me accepted so openly. I blink back tears.
After a while, I ask Bea to tell me something regular, and so we talk about dogs and coffee and clothes. When I leave her office, I feel drained, but also more present and peaceful than I have felt in a while.
The wound will never be erased, the scar remains, but it’s not a bad thing. There is beauty to be found in the scars that make us who we are.