I felt nervous about seeing Anna today because I had texted her after she cancelled the last session and between session communications always make me worry that I’m going to be told off and basically abandoned. In the text I’d asked her for a phone call because I was struggling with feeling awful for being so argumentative with her when I saw her last and not being able to feel connected to her. She had replied with a very caring and thoughtful message explaining that she’d rather have the conversation face to face, that I have nothing to apologise for and that it’s all part of the process. Anyway, as soon as I went in, Anna gave me a big smile, hugged me and said, ‘it’s nice to see you.’ I said, ‘you too’ and held on for the longest I’ve ever hugged her for. I thought I might cry, but I didn’t. Damn dysfunctional tear ducts! I thought she might have felt I was hugging her for too long but at least tears would have explained why. I sat down and she said, ‘so, where are you today then?’ Looking back that’s actually quite funny, clearly I wasn’t in the room! I said I didn’t know… I said, ‘I’m feeling really disconnected right now… from life at the moment actually…’ She asked for more information, asked if it was just this past week and because of the last session or before then. I said, ‘it’s been a really full on week, all about the kids coz it’s their birthday week, early starts every morning, day trips every day…’ Anna said she’d been thinking of me through the week and the fact that I’d be doing lots of things for the kids birthdays. The preoccupied part of me wants to latch onto that and ask her for all the details about what she had been thinking. But the avoidant part of me is stronger, I said nothing, just nodded.
Anna apologised for cancelling the last session and she brought up the fact that I had said in my text that I’d felt a lack of connection with her. I said I had been grateful for her reply and that I felt really bad for being so difficult with her. She asked me what I meant and I said, ‘well I was just disagreeing with everything you said and really struggling to connect to you.’ She talked a bit about how sometimes in sessions she might say something that reminds me of my mum and when this happens it might trigger a strong emotional response. I thought about that and then said that I’d actually found it really difficult because she wasn’t just agreeing with me. She asked me to go on and I said, ‘I just wanted you to agree that I’m a shit mum! Even though of course I know you can’t agree with me when I’m putting myself down like that but it’s just like… it’s as if you have this version of me in your head and you can’t bear to believe…’ she interrupted me and said, ‘I don’t know if you remember, but when we first started working together I said that you could tell me anything and I wouldn’t judge you, no matter what you say in this room, there is no judgement.’ I felt like she misunderstood what I meant and I said, ‘yes but it’s like… you know how when I was growing up I had my mum on a pedestal and she could do no wrong… like I thought that she was perfect… I feel like that’s how you were viewing me, like I’m a perfect flawless mum that can do no wrong and I don’t want to feel like that…’ she said, ‘we all have good days and bad days, we have days where we feel like we could have done better… but I hear you give me so many examples of times where you have put your kids first. Take this week as an example, all the things you have done for your kids birthdays, you could have just stayed in bed every day, not planned anything, given them cheap, easy gifts, but instead you have thought about what they like and what would make them happy…’ I said, ‘I just don’t feel like it’s enough… and I don’t feel like you understand me…’ Anna said, ‘I think it’s really important for you to hear me when I say this – I know you feel like you’re a shit mum, I know you feel like you’re going to fuck them up, I don’t believe that you are a shit mum, I think you’re a very thoughtful and loving mum, but I know you don’t feel like that.’ I nodded. I said, ‘you told me you think I have a phobia that I’m going to fuck up my kids. That statement has been sitting in my mind since you said it. I was thinking about what a phobia is, how phobias are irrational, that they don’t make sense but are very powerful and feel very real… and I was thinking that the phobia is actually…’ I started to well up and stopped to breathe, clench my jaw, turn my face away from the light of the window and put my hand up at my face. Despite the fact that I have already cried with Anna now, there are parts of me that do not want to cry in front of anyone… that part was very present today. I finished, ‘the phobia is that I am just like my mother.’ Anna agreed. She listed off examples of all the times mum repeatedly hurt me without ever mending the rupture or limiting the damage and then all the ways I seek connection with my kids, all the ways I try to make them feel loved. I was swaying in and out of the room like a silent wrecking ball, crashing in and feeling the intensity for a moment then fading, fading and sucked back out the hole in the wall.
I said that the kids birthdays have been quite triggering and then I tailed off. Staring into space, almost observing myself. Wanting to shake myself awake and scream into my face, ‘snap out of it! Fucking talk to her!’ Anna eventually broke the silence with, ‘of course it’s been triggering, your kids are getting everything they could wish for and when you were a child you didn’t have birthdays…’ I interrupted her and said, ‘I did have birthdays but they were just really… crap.’ Anna nodded and said, ‘I hear that there is a lot of hurt there.’ I said, ‘it does hurt but at least when I focus on my kids and me as a mother, I have some control over all of that. I wonder if I’m using that as a distraction.’ Anna said, ‘a distraction from…?’ And I said, ‘from thinking about me as a child, when I had no control. I can’t control the past, I can’t change any of it…’ Anna said, ‘no, but you can talk about it. I wonder if that’s what you’d like to do today?’ I nodded and quietly said, ‘not really but…’ and she said, ‘I know it’s very painful, but so important that she gets seen, that little girl who hasn’t been seen for so many years.’
I said, ‘I just, it’s not difficult… it’s so easy to give kids what they need… and to see them… and, even if they were properly skint like they say they were, I mean, you’ve got 12 months to prepare for a birthday… 12 fucking months to save up, to get to know the kid!’ Anna said, ‘yep and it’s the same date every year, it shouldn’t come as a surprise!’ every now and then I get a glimpse of a sassy Anna that I imagine has said these things to people who have hurt her in her personal life. I like it. I continued, ‘Yeah, I mean I prioritise the kids birthdays, I would give up everything to be able to give them what they need.’ Anna said, ‘your mum didn’t give up anything for you…’ I shook my head. I said, ‘I just don’t understand how she could fuck it all up so much! So she had no money but she had money for cigarettes and booze and new clothes and make up for her…’ I said some more angry sounding things but I can’t remember what I said now. More about how easy it is to show my kids love, even if I can’t feel the feelings. Anna said, ‘and that’s what I call being a good mother, meeting the needs of your kids and putting them first no matter what you’re feeling.’
I just sat there for a while, fairly dissociated, staring into space. Again. I started talking about what birthdays were like for me. In a very disorganised, confused way I tried to explain what I’d experienced. This very strong desire to make mum feel good, this big guilt about not really liking anything they gave me, that they never knew me well enough to get me what I liked, that they never fostered any interests in me so I didn’t even know what I liked. I talked about how I work really hard to figure out what Grace likes and that she has space to tell me if she’s disappointed or doesn’t like something or wants something else that I didn’t give her. I felt quite muddled and went back and forth talking about the kids and talking about me. I told her that mum had emailed me the other day apologising for getting the kids crap presents this year and that she would do better next time, even though we’d thanked her for her gifts and hadn’t complained at all. Anna said, ‘she’s fishing for compliments,’ and I was like, ‘yes! She always did that! Even when what she was giving me was really the bare minimum in parenting and she knew it and would eventually make some half hearted attempt at an apology, I would then have to lavish her with compliments and gratitude. Always about making her feel better about herself.’
I randomly started talking about how I wasn’t allowed to be in the livingroom in the evenings. My brother was but I wasn’t. Anna asked for more information and I said that they would always say they wanted adult time and so I wasn’t allowed in there. Anna asked me what would happen and I digressed. Talked about some other random memories. I tried to explain how I never even really knew there was anything ‘bad’ about what I experienced… Anna explained how when we are children we just accept our situation and it’s not until we’re older or maybe go to other people’s houses, then we see that what we are experiencing is not the norm. I said, ‘I’ve read about narcissists and she really fits in with this thing, like it’s so insidious you almost can’t pinpoint what’s wrong with the situation and like, they do things that are so subtle that if you were to complain about it it would make you look petty and critical… like how my mum would always cook dinner just a bit too early so my dad would miss dinner and have to eat by himself when he got home for work, that would then trigger an argument… every damn night! Anna said, ‘is this when your mum and dad were still together?’ and I said yeah but Anna seemed confused and asked, ‘would your dad not eat dinner then?’ I said, ‘she’d plate his dinner up and it would be cold in the kitchen when he got home.’ She asked me, ‘so you’d have your dinner in the kitchen then you’d be told to leave?’ I said, ‘we had our dinner off our laps in the livingroom, then I’d usually go outside to play…’ I spaced out a bit. Anna asked, ‘how are you doing with this?’ I said, ‘I feel like I’m seeing everything through a thick fog, it’s hard to make sense of it all…’ She said, ‘how are you experiencing our connection?’ I said, ‘um… it’s so hard… um I feel like you are fully here, in the room, but I am not here.’ Anna said, ‘what would help you feel more connected? What do you need?’ she said it with such a gentle and kind curiosity that I felt like I could burst into tears right then. I said, ‘to look at you, but it’s too hard.’ She made a joke about this being the only face she has and I sort of half smiled. I kind of wish she knew there are moments when I really don’t want her to joke around. She asked what makes it hard to look at her and I said, ‘because that connects me to the feelings.’ Anna nodded and said, ‘uhu, yeah and you said in your text that you had needed to cry last session?’ I curled up and said, ‘that too… I need that too now, but can’t.’ I rested my chin on my knees for a bit, looking closely at the weave of my big thick scarf that I’d spread over my legs.
I went off on a tangent and talked about how house proud my mum was and that it was all for show. I talked about how I used to find it really hard going to other people’s houses. That when I went to friend’s houses they always seemed so warm and friendly, their parents seemed really loving and welcoming… it was painful to be there and see how other people lived. I said, ‘I feel so ashamed of all of this, like I don’t want you to know how shit it all was.’ Anna said, ‘just take your time, this is important.’ I said, ‘if I could describe my whole childhood, I would say it was like one massive rollercoaster, everything happened so fast and just happened to me, at me almost, and I never knew what was coming next…’ Anna said, ‘and you had no control over any of it, and you couldn’t get off… that’s a really good analogy, Lucy.’ I gave a slight smile and looked at her, I said, ‘it was frightening a lot of the time, things would just happen and I didn’t have any time to process it, it just all happened…’ we spent a bit of time in silence, occasionally glancing at each other.
I continued, ‘it was different at different points, and we moved house a lot… but I’m thinking about when I was like 11 or 12, we lived in a flat with a long garden that had a river running along the bottom of the garden. I used to sit down there on the wall and cry while watching the water rushing past because the noise of the river drowned out the noise of me crying…’ Anna said, ‘that sounds really lonely.’ I said, ‘yeah’ not looking at her, I continued, ‘I used to do that a lot… just take myself off… I used to go for long cycles up the back roads to the countryside behind the village and sit and cry by myself, or cry in the shower, or in bed at night…’ I laughed a bit when I said this and she said, ‘that sounds like you were hurting a lot, something made you laugh?’ I said, ‘well I was just thinking what a loser! Then thought, don’t say that coz then Anna will say ‘don’t call yourself a loser’.’ She said, ‘I think it sounds like a child who is experiencing big emotions that she’s having to hold all by herself and then because you have no one to go to, you’re finding times to be by yourself to let the feelings out… I wonder if you hoped your mum would try to come find you and comfort you?’ I said, ‘maybe but I can’t imagine that ever happening… I mean I used to go off all the time… even when I was really young… like when I was 4, even back then I spent a lot of time outside… we lived in a tenement flat and the gardens all ran together along the back, then a wall, then a lane. I used to play out the back in that lane… I remember playing in a skip down that lane actually.’ I sort of shook my head in disbelief. ‘I remember being in and out of people’s houses… there was a sense of not being able to go home, you know? I didn’t ever feel like I could just ‘be’ at home.’ Anna questioned, ‘to stay out of her way?’ I said, ‘I guess I would have just been under her feet,’ she said, ‘so you knew to stay out of the house so you would not get under her feet so to avoid angering her?’ I was kind of spacey and didn’t really respond although I had listened, I said, ‘she did come after me back then, she’d run around shouting my name and then she’d find me…’ I don’t remember what Anna said after that. ‘She would tell me off for not staying in the garden.’
I randomly jumped back to what Anna had said, ‘you know, there were probably countless times throughout each and every day when I had to supress how I felt to keep her happy so it’s like it would all be stored up inside me and I guess then I’d find ways to let the feelings out, by myself.’ As I recall saying this, I don’t have a memory of what Anna looked like or what I was doing, I think actually I had my eyes closed. I did that quite a lot this session, closed my eyes when talking about some of the memories. As if on a roller coaster, terrified, eyes squeezed tightly shut. I wonder why I did that.
Anna started to talk about that little girl, me at 4 years old, as if she was in the room with us. She was being compassionate and I couldn’t stand it. I interrupted her and said, ‘I don’t want to have compassion for her, I’m so ashamed of her, I don’t even want to think about her, I can’t bear to imagine her being in this room with us.’ I felt hot with rage. Anna said, ‘let’s explore that shame, what are you ashamed of?’ I said, ‘I can see her in my mind. I don’t want to describe her to you, I don’t want you to see what I see.’ Anna said, ‘because…?’ in a curious tone. After a long pause I said, ‘I just hate her so much,’ Anna said, ‘what do you hate about her?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to tell you what I’m thinking because it’s words that an adult should never say about a kid…’ Anna said, ‘hmmm I understand, it’s important that you share how you feel though, these feelings deserve to be shared…’ eventually I said, ‘she looks like a homeless kid – it’s embarrassing, she’s dirty, her hair’s a mess coz… well my mum always cut my hair, she would always hack at it, it was a total mess all the time… and that girl, she’s dirty, a total loser… she’s needy… she’s too much…’ Anna said, ‘those are not your words, ‘too needy’ – who’s words are they?’ I reluctantly said they were my mum’s words. Anna said, ‘think about your kids, you take them to the hairdresser and they get to choose how they want to style their hair and you let them choose their clothes. You didn’t get to choose… that little girl, it’s not her fault that her hair was messy, you say she looks like a homeless child, it isn’t her fault that no one is taking care of her, she couldn’t go home so she stayed outside, she would stay away, she played at other people’s houses. You say she is dirty, you see a loser, I see resilience… I see a little girl who knew how to keep herself safe.’ I nodded and there was more silence then I looked right at her as she said, ‘I just want to scoop that little girl up into my arms and hug her.’ I started to tear up and quietly said, ‘that sounds nice.’ There was another quiet moment. I could amost hear the crying inside me. Anna then said, ‘one day that self compassion will grow and you’ll be able to reach down and pick up that little girl yourself and give her all the love she needed…’ I didn’t like the sound of that, I don’t want it to be me holding her I want it to be Anna, it made me feel rejected and embarrassed actually, to imagine me holding my child ego. I sort of blocked the idea out of my head and just held onto the idea that Anna isn’t repulsed by that girl and that she would hold her up in her arms if she could.
Anna gave me a ten minute warning and we agreed that it would probably be a good idea to stop. I started talking about something we had done as a family this week and we had a bit of a laugh about something funny that had happened. I then said, ‘you know, this stuff we’re doing, it hurts so much.’ Anna said, ‘I know, and you’re doing so well staying with it, so well.’
We hugged goodbye and then I found myself in my car, tears burning the back of my throat.