I’ve been missing Paul (my last therapist) the past few days. I started working with him over 6 years ago and we worked together for 3 years. We didn’t have a proper end to our work for a few reasons… one being that he isn’t particularly good at endings… another is that I had my second child and couldn’t afford therapy while on maternity leave. When I was ready to come back to him I discovered he’d stopped working in the city I saw him. So that was it… we had a final Skype session a couple of months into me working with Anna and I said goodbye then. Paul told me he would always be my therapist and the door was always open to me but I really needed to feel the closing. I needed to feel an end. For as long as the door was open, the grief couldn’t happen. I’m still not fully there even though it’s been three years since I last saw him. It comes up with Anna every so often… the grief I need to process.
I reverted back to an old favourite self-destructive cycle today of casually browsing through his daughter’s social media account and felt myself slip into a familiar pattern of comparisons and jealousy. I guess if I try to see things from a distance – my therapy relationship with him wasn’t always therapeutic. Sometimes it was painful and retraumatising. There’s something about me, my history, my attachment wounds that makes me desperately need very firm boundaries. I didn’t know that about myself 6 years ago and so when Paul presented me with a very relaxed model of therapy (sharing many details about his personal life with me) I dove head first into the delicious sea of self disclosures, swimming in the idea that it somehow made me special or unique because he told me these things… ignoring the pain it conjured up or worse, blaming and shaming myself for the pain. Now I have experienced a very different therapy model (Anna doesn’t share anything about her personal life, the only self disclosing she freely gifts me is her authentic emotional responses and even then I am very aware she is constantly considering whether it is beneficial to my therapy for her to disclose).
Today the pain of missing Paul got the better of me and I started reading over old therapy notes from our sessions. It makes my heart ache because there is a part of me that loves him still so much and desperately wants to go to him now. Reading it back is interesting, I would do things differently now if I started working with him today. I thought I would share some of the notes here. This one is from June 2013. Almost exactly 6 years ago. I’d been working with Paul for 4 months.
We were in a different room today; it was a brighter, smaller room with a view out onto the skyline of the city. I stood at the window for a couple of minutes looking down at all the roof tops and people below. The other room has a small roof window that you can only see sky out of so it was nice to get a sense of where we were in the world. Paul explained why he had to move, something to do with a new colleague but I was too busy dealing with feeling anxious about the change of room and worrying about which seat to sit in and what each seat decision would say about me that I missed his explanation. I overanalyse everything in my head…. wondering what he is thinking about me. It’s exhausting. Paul said that he received my emails and that the first one was quite long and he didn’t thoroughly read all of it. I cringed and apologised and he said –‘no, no don’t apologise it’s absolutely fine, I said you could email me and I know it is a great therapeutic tool for you – you can email me whenever you want and I don’t want you to feel bad. When I have the time I really enjoy reading your emails – you’re a good writer – in fact I’ve only had two other clients who were as good at writing as you and they are both writers themselves.’ I thanked him and was a bit taken aback, I said I was embarrassed about needing to write such long emails and he asked why. I said I hated being so needy and that I imagine he feels burdened and dreads seeing my name pop up in his inbox. He thought for a bit and said he didn’t feel burdened at all. That feeling burdened was a choice and that he doesn’t push himself harder than he is capable of. He said he is marking for the SQA at the moment so he has less time for emails but still checks his emails every other day. He said, ‘you are paying for this service Lucy, it’s your therapy to use as you need it.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m paying for this hour a week not for you to spend your personal time looking at my emails,’ I joked about my brother teasing me about Paul telling his wife to cancel their weekend appointments because he received an email from Lucy King. He laughed and said, ‘You’re not quite that bad! I am glad my other 20 clients don’t email me though I have to say…’ I said, ‘What? Seriously? I’m the only one who emails you?’ and he said, ‘Well, yeah they email to arrange appointments and maybe run a couple of things by me but no they don’t email like you do…’ I couldn’t believe it – I was mortified but he said it was fine and that it obviously was cathartic for me to get it all out. He suggested that when I have a particularly important email I could print it off and highlight the important bits and bring it to session. I don’t know if it’s something to do with the ego but a part of me loves that I’m the only one who emails him like I do. That he sits and reads my words. That I will be forever known in his mind as the client who sent very long emails… not sure even what I mean by that… that I want to be remembered? That I want to be special? That I want to stand out in some way…? Maybe if I’m unique, interesting, special in some way then he wont want to stop working with me…?
So Paul then asked, ‘How’s things?’ and I paused for a while and looked out the window… ‘not great to be honest…’ He looked curious and I started to explain, ‘I have had a great week, really lovely catch up with friends, great weekend in the garden and a bbq with friends… lovely week… then I met up with dad yesterday and that put me back to square one! I don’t know how he still manages to do this. I thought that after bringing him to a therapy session things would change. Dad had suggested we meet up for lunch and stupidly I looked forward to it, I thought it would be nice. I arrive and all goes fine but he seems distant (I look up and Paul is nodding with a pensive look on his face, absorbed in my story), I just presumed it was because he just came from work. We make small talk and it’s a bit awkward. We talk about the weekend and talk about my daughter, we eat, he then asks about therapy. (I look up again and say, ‘you know it really annoys me that he still askes about therapy – why does he care? He doesn’t own it any more… he only paid for the first 3 sessions!’ Paul says, ‘it is none of his business and you don’t need to share any of it with him’). Dad then asked in so many words why therapy is taking so long, he says he thought it would just be ten or fifteen sessions. I told him I have a lot more to work through than I thought.’ I then went on to detail the rest of my lunch with dad, I explained that I told dad that it upsets me how mum still has the power to affect me just by being her. Dad told me there has to come a point where I get all I need from myself and stop looking to others to change how I feel. He didn’t understand so I changed the subject to asking him about work which in turn made him ask about my work.
‘I talked about how I’m not enjoying teaching at the moment. That the thought of teaching until I am nearly 70 feels like a life sentence. It is stressful and makes me more anxious, I have been looking into ways that I can do a little more learning and change career or something. But dad just said that everyone thinks their job is stressful and that very few people enjoy what they do and in fact it took him over twenty years before he enjoyed his job and that I should write a list of all the things I like about my job because I’d probably find that I wouldn’t get a better one.’ Paul then said, ‘it’s interesting that he didn’t say anything affirming there…’ I said, ‘I think he was only ever proud of me because I got a degree and became a teacher, I don’t think he would know how to feel about me if I changed career.’
I told Paul that I had explained to dad that I knew the pros and cons of my job, that it was pretty depressing to stay in a job because you get long holidays – that the plus side of your job is the times you aren’t in work. That I asked dad if he could imagine when he was 29 being told he would never earn any more money than what he earned at that point. Then he suggested going for promotion. I said the thing I love about teaching is the kids and being a head teacher I would spend no time with the kids.
I said to Paul, ‘I mean, it’s like he knows nothing about me… then dad said, ‘this was the problem with your mother, she was never happy, no matter what job she had or where we lived, nothing made her happy she always wanted something different…’ I just didn’t know what to say!’ Paul looked all kind of contemplative and screwed his face up a bit, ‘That makes me so angry!’ He said, ‘Doesn’t he realise that all his daughter needs is a hug and to be told she can do whatever she puts her mind to… you’re nothing like your mother Lucy, I could have told you in your first session that you are nothing like her, I think his comparison there is because of this issue he has where he unconsciously has merged you with your mum – he can’t see you are a separate person.’ I said, ‘well he should know me – he should know! It’s like he is trying to hurt me…’ Paul said, ‘I don’t think he has the capacity to see how other people are feeling, Lucy. If you were my daughter I would NEVER say anything like that to you… it is very easy to affirm you and validate you because it is true, you deserved better…’ I could have melted into the energy of the room… ‘if you were my daughter…’ that sentence makes my heart hurt. I looked away to stop myself from connecting fully to his compassionate eyes and losing it completely. I composed myself and finished the rest of my story about lunch with dad. ‘I told dad that I thought that if someone he respected like his wife told him she was thinking of a career change he would listen and take it seriously, he would ask what she didn’t like about the job and tell her she should follow what she enjoys but I felt that he was telling me I couldn’t get anything better than what I’ve got and I am just like my mother. Dad then said, ‘I didn’t say that… I said none of that. I wasn’t comparing you to your mother.’ I asked, ‘what was the purpose of bringing her up then?’ and he said, ‘what’s the point in me answering that?’ I said, ‘so I can understand you better,’ and he replied ‘we’re just digging ourselves deeper into this hole we’re in so we should stop talking about it.’ It makes me feel crazy, these kinds of conversations. I’m not allowed to have a response that contradicts his opinions… he literally wont let the interaction continue. So there was about 5 minutes of silence then I started getting my daughers coat on. I said, ‘with all due respect I am not going to waste 25 years of my life hating my job in the faint hope that by the time I am in my mid-fifties I might enjoy it. I am the main bread winner and want to not only enjoy and further my career opportunities but also widen the possibility that my family could have more money coming in, I do not make decisions lightly.’ Paul looked very serious and said, ‘you are nothing like your mother Lucy. You have been teaching all your adult life and have been with your husband for 12 years – you are a considered and stable person who commits to things.’ I nodded and just felt such deep sadness for the fact that this man I have only met for an hour or so a week for a few months knows me better than my own father. I told Paul that dad had said that I should count my blessings. I have a great husband and daughter. That it made me angry when people say I’ve to be grateful for the small mercy of other people enriching my life rather than being proud for the things I have worked damn hard at achieving, maintaining and improving.
I told Paul that I cried my eyes out all the way home. That I felt like such a fool. That at this present moment I want nothing to do with both mum and dad. They bring nothing positive to my life, just heartache and disappointment.
Paul said he resented dads comment about Paul encouraging me to take on more and more sessions. He said, ‘not only is he suggesting that I am unprofessional enough to lead you on like that but he is also implying you are stupid enough to be manipulated by me… I’m feeling angry and resentful about that,’ I said I was sorry that dad made him feel like that but it was good to hear because I was angry too. I said, ‘after we had the session with dad I asked him what he thought of you and dad said, ‘he’s a lot older than I thought’… I hadn’t told you about that because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings but I now realise your feelings wouldn’t be hurt because you don’t care about dad.’ Paul nodded and said, ‘he was just putting down your experience, belittling it… when the three of us were working together, I got the feeling that he was very intimidated by me and how in tune we are, that we have a connection, he probably felt threatened.’ I agreed and said, ‘I then asked dad what he thought of you as a person and dad said, ‘well he obviously cares a great deal about you!’ and I felt a mix of emotions, I felt happy because of course I want you to care about me but I felt sad because I want dad to care about me too, want him to care about me more…’ Paul said, ‘I just wonder though if your dad just doesn’t have the capacity to care about anyone other than himself, if all he is thinking is ‘how am I?’ then he won’t even consider anyone else.’ I said that made me sad and that’s what makes me wish I’d never started therapy because this feeling is so painful, knowing what it feels like to get it from Paul and knowing I will never feel that from my own dad. I said, ‘It’s just… well… it’s a shame, you know?’ and Paul said, ‘it’s a crying shame, that’s what unconditional positive regard is all about. You deserve nothing less.’ I said, ‘can you honestly say that with all the clients you’ve ever had you have always managed to have completely unconditional positive regard for them?’ and he thought for a bit and said that he was certainly aware of his judgements and prejudices so he doesn’t let it affect how he is with clients. He said, ‘I’ve been working in mental health for so long now it does come a lot easier than it used to. I remember one client when I first started doing this, I asked her at the end of what I thought was a great session if she thought it went well and she said, ‘no, I thought you were really judgemental…’ and she walked out and never came back. I learned a lot from that.’ I asked Paul if he agreed with her and he again thought for a bit like he always does, really considers his answers, then said, ‘no I didn’t agree with her but it taught me that your perceptions of things often differ from the clients.’ I said, ‘it was obviously her issue then,’ and he said, ‘yeah but o#I could have handled it differently…’ He said he has been trained to be aware of his reactions and why he feels certain ways.
I said that I was sick of constantly letting my dad hurt me, that I thought I was over all this and Paul said, ‘I thought you were too, I thought you had moved on from your dad and we were going to start talking about your mum,’ I replied, ‘well I guess this was a test about just how over it all I was. I failed big time because I still do care.’ Paul said, ‘do you think that you wish you’d never come to therapy because you think nothing has changed? You are still the same but many people believe they must change or get fixed in therapy but that’s not the case we are actually all fine we just need to learn to live with what we have,’ I said, ‘no, I feel like I’ve changed a lot. I am getting much better at expressing how I feel, better at accepting how I feel for example I am currently feeling that anxious pain that I get in my chest (he later explained again that was fight or flight) and instead of hating myself for feeling like that and believing there is something wrong with me, I now just think I have this feeling, that it’s probably quite understandable that I feel like that because of what we are talking about and I just carry on with what I’m doing.’ Paul said, ‘that’s interesting, good, that’s good…’ I explained that after dad’s lunch I felt really awful and would normally have swallowed the feeling down and just got on with my day not really knowing how I felt but yesterday after dad I just let myself feel sad. I cried and cried until I was done crying.
I said, ‘I just don’t know why I keep going back – why don’t I just refuse to have a relationship with them? I feel like such a fool.’ Paul said, ‘All humans live with hope – that’s what makes us human, but we are actually very self-destructive as a species and I don’t mean physically I mean we worry and think and can be very negative about ourselves and if our situation is more than our system can tolerate then we turn to physical ways of self-destruction like drinking or other ways… like you experienced,’ He talked about the need for balance and quiet in our minds, the effort we must put into trying to balance our thoughts. He said, ‘At work as a teacher you must see the children who are constantly ill because their bodies are trying to cope with this high level of hormones and chemicals that they’re producing to attempt to manage their anxiety?’ I said that I was always ill as a child, I hadn’t thought about it like that. I had a really bad attendance rate.
We talked a bit about how perceptions of things change over time. I said, ‘I think the biggest thing that has changed is that I used to have this stupid hope that things would get better or would have this expectation of what I thought mum and dad could be – that if only I could adapt myself enough and change who I am to fit in with what they would need and like then they would change. The difference now is that I can see that they can’t be what I want and it makes me really sad – like a grief.’ Paul said it was interesting I chose those words – that I used to be in denial and now I was grieving a relationship that never existed but that I’d always thought was possible. He explained about his own mum, that he doesn’t always get closeness from talking to people but sometimes just spending time with them, sometimes in silence, can feel intimate. That Paul and his mum speak a different language but he still feels close to her – he would just never talk about something emotional with her. He said he had always wished his relationship with his dad had been something more and that he had always had that feeling about his grandfather as well, that he wished their relationship could have been more than it was, but he didn’t think his grandfather understood what him – he said it was a sad time. I felt like Paul really connected with me and what I was going through. I love that he shares parts of himself with me.
I said I was sick of feeling like this irritating yappy dog that’s constantly leaping about and seeking love and attention, ‘love me love me love me…’ it’s humiliating… and all they’ve ever done is turn away from me. Paul said, ‘I’m really interested in your analogy about feeling like a wee yappy dog because it clearly illustrates how you feel and I think it’s about time you made the decision that you are no longer going to put your all into those relationships. You need to see that your parents are just two people, that they will not meet your very low and reasonable expectations. You have very validating relationships with Dave (husband), your friends and your Daniel (brother)… you’ve talked about him quite a bit and he sounds like a really positive influence in your life.’ I said, ‘yeah I’m so fortunate to have him in my life – if I had to go through all the crap with mum and dad just to get him in my life then I guess it was worth it.’ Paul smiled and said, ‘well that’s a really great way to look at it isn’t it, I mean if you didn’t have the parents you had you wouldn’t be you, I mean I know there are parts of yourself that you don’t like but there are plenty of things I’m sure you do like and you just wouldn’t be you, Daniel wouldn’t be Daniel, if you hadn’t had your mum and your dad… that’s a really interesting way to look at your experience isn’t it?’ I agreed and said that I can’t think of many things I like at the moment but that yes – I wouldn’t be me and Daniel wouldn’t be Daniel without our parents.
Somehow we got to talking about some of the techniques he’s taught me like the mindfulness meditation. I said that I was finding the meditation really helpful, that I feel like I’ve had a sleep after just 10 or 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation. He said it’s like a brain nap – that he loves it, loves clearing his mind. He said, ‘one day a few weeks ago I did the initial mindfulness meditation with five clients – in one day – I was so relaxed!’ I laughed and so did he, he said, ‘it was a bit of a cop-out, can’t do that every day!’ I said, ‘the initial time we did it I don’t think I was capable of doing it right though, it was a bit odd,’ Paul said, ‘yeah I’ve had a few clients who won’t do it with me in the room, one client told me, ‘there’s no way I’m doing that with you, it’s weird!’ He explained it is pretty intimate and you have to be very trusting to close your eyes and experience that with someone. I said, ‘well when we did it I did peek at you a few times!’ and he laughed again, I said, ‘I think that was the main benefit of the exercise actually – it wasn’t about the meditation it was about learning that I could trust you.’
I had been watching the clock all session as I usually do but by this point we were past the hour and Paul was still nestled in his seat looking pretty comfortable so I figured I could let him be in charge of the time keeping. (Interestingly when we did get to the end of the session after an hour and a half he started to wind the conversation up by asking the usual, ‘how did you find today then?’ and I stood up as I normally do and we then continued talking with me standing and him sitting for a further ten minutes. That often happens – I think I end things by standing up first so I feel in control and not rejected – I’m sure he is probably very aware of whatever reason it is that I do it). Paul said that he was going on holiday the first week of July (same as us) and that they were visiting the Scottish Isles (also a coincidence as we are going to Orkney). I said, ‘That’s a bit different from the Caribbean then…’ and he said, ‘well yeah it’s my brother in law who owns a hotel and restaurant out there, it is great and we get everything for free but the flights are extortionate and we just don’t have the money at the moment to fly 3 kids out there. I also feel a bit indebted to him and although they’re family I would rather not owe them anything. Plus I don’t think they like how opinionated I can be – they didn’t speak to me for two days on one trip because I said something they didn’t like,’ That made me laugh a lot. I have such a hunger to be part of his life. I want to know it all. I want to be in it with him. Oh my god I don’t know why I feel like this but it feels so good and so awful all at once.
We made some more small talk. He said I must be looking forward to my long holiday, talked a bit about how being a therapist is a really rewarding job. We talked a bit about the value of siblings and how he loves to hear his wee gang of kids rallying together. He mentioned a couple of books – one by John Cleese about surviving families and another about compassion. I showed him the book I am reading about the power of validation. He talked a bit about mental health and I said that everyone in Britain seems depressed. Paul said, ‘when I lived in Sweden I saw people with serious mental health issues in the street every day because they don’t over medicate out there like they do here… all sorts of people are just accepted and welcome in society. We numb everyone down over here…’ He continued, ‘I’ve always attracted people with mental health problems, I remember being in a bar at a music festival in the 70’s when a guy walked through the whole bar pushing his way through the crowd towards me. I take a sip of my pint and then the guy gets to me and says, ‘I’m a schizophrenic’ haha – it’s like he searched the whole place for me. That has happened a lot in my life.’ I said, ‘So you just thought I might as well be getting paid for this!’ and he laughed and said, ‘Yeah that’s exactly it.’
We got organised to leave and Paul started to walk me down the stairs to the main entrance. He saw me to my car and said he’d enjoyed talking to me today. I said I did too and that I looked forward to the sessions. I said I’d try to limit the emails this week and he smiled and said he looked forward to his bit of extra light reading. I drove away and felt better than I did when I arrived but also something else sitting in the pit of my stomach and in my chest… a sadness… maybe that I want so much more than I can ever really have from him. A feeling of dread at what I’ve started by walking into his office four months ago. Maybe healing is meant to hurt this much.
So… that was fairly long! If you made it through to the end then I applaud you… thank you!
I have a lot more psychological insight now than I did back then. I understand myself on a deeper level. I know about attachment pain, ego states, transference, counter transference, boundaries, projection, holding, containment… all of the behind the scenes things that make us tick, that make therapy what it is. I definitely have more to learn but I also want to acknowledge how much has changed in me. I’ve been feeling confused about the work I did with Paul – was it too ‘shallow’, why did we avoid so many topics, why did we talk so much about him, how do I feel about the lack of time boundaries and his self disclosures. I’ve talked a lot to Daniel about my experiences with Paul and the work I’m currently doing with Anna. He said these words to me… ‘People don’t come into our lives by chance Lucy. You were meant to work with Paul and you were meant to work with Anna. Perhaps Paul came along at a time when you needed to be shown you are loveable. That you are worthy of the extra time and bending of the boundaries, that you are not and were never too much, that something extraordinary about you made Paul want to work with you in an extraordinary way… and now you are stronger and now there is a part of you who believes you’re worthy, you can let Anna teach you about tolerating the deep emotional pain you’ve pushed away all your life.’ Perhaps he’s right. I know I couldn’t have done the work I’m doing now back then. The doors to those rooms in my mind and my soul were locked and I didn’t have the keys. Now with Anna I’m slowly sorting through the very complicated entry system within myself and braving what’s inside every room. One door at a time.
Tonight’s session was bloody hard.
Felt like I was holding my heart on the outside of my body.
As she held space for me.
The very soul of me was crying out.
All I could manage was a solitary tear,
Escaping down my cheek.
Choking in my throat.
Filling up my empty chest cavity.
So much pain, feels like more than any one person could contain.
Feelings held captive for decades.
I do hope I have the strength to see this through. I couldn’t live in this space for long.
I have a friend, Jen. I met Jen when I was 12 and we were friends until we left school at 17 when we went our separate ways. As kids, my perception of Jen was that she was a high achiever, super happy (all the time), loving family, parents happily married, she was innocent, had lots of lovely innocent high achieving friends. I liked her but knowing her hurt so much. So I picked on her, teased her. I was very unkind at times. I was happy to see the back of her when school finished. When I was in my late twenties I got back in touch with her. I wanted to apologise for how I’d treated her. Turns out she’d become a therapist. And she didn’t remember school like I did. She said she found me very funny. That a couple of our other friends make her very unhappy but she always liked spending time with me. She thought I was cool, interesting and had good taste in music and apparently a depth to me that she wished she had. I told her that depth is called trauma and we laughed… sometimes it’s all you can do! So since leaving school she had a breakdown and then spent a lot of time working on herself personally and then went into the job of helping others. She was pleased I’d got in touch with her. We’ve been good friends ever since, talked at length about life at school, our childhoods, adulthood… therapy.
So, I haven’t seen her in four months. The past 5 times we’ve arranged a catch up, Jen has cancelled. All different reasons. Two of the times she told me she was burnt out and very tearful and just couldn’t see anyone. I know she has a tendency to avoid. To withdraw and move away. I know she’s been depressed.
We arranged a catch up for today and this morning Jen cancelled an hour before she was due to be here. I had a feeling that she would cancel. I was gutted. I felt totally rejected. In her text she said she’d woken up feeling awful after a hard session with her therapist the previous day and was too tearful and fragile to see anyone today. Normally I ignore how I feel and just reply with something that I think will release her from any guilt she might feel. I end up saying that I hope she feels better soon and to get in touch whenever she wants. Because I know she identifies with an avoidant attachment style and I’m disorganised/preoccupied. I don’t want to hassle her, push her away with my neediness. But the truth is it hurts so much when she cancels. I can’t help but think it’s about me. She doesn’t want to be my friend anymore but is too ‘nice’ to tell me. I’ve had a couple of friends ghost me so it’s totally plausible she would want to leave. It triggers me in the same way I get triggered when Anna, my therapist cancels. Painful.
Today I did something I’ve never done before in this situation. I told her the truth. I sent her a message back saying, ‘Jen, please don’t withdraw from me. I accept you no matter what. Maybe push yourself into the discomfort of letting me be with you today. I can come to you, even just for an hour. You don’t have to be any particular way with me. I’m personally finding it really hard to deal with all the cancelled catch ups. Xx’
She replied straight away saying that I was right and she’d come to me.
She was at mine for 4 hours. We had an amazingly honest, authentic time together talking about everything that’s going on with us both. I told her how much it hurts when she pulls away from me. That I need connection. I need regular contact with my friends. I need to see that people want to be around me. That I’m not too much for them. She said that she’s been cancelling everyone, including her therapist until the session yesterday. She was so glad I had sent that text and so glad she came to see me. We talked about how hard it is to just sit inside ourselves. To ‘be’ in relationships. To figure out life. We have different attachment styles but there are overlaps. We both overthink. We both worry too much about what other people think. We both think we’re not good enough.
Today we were vulnerable with each other and we were each accepted by the other. I started to cry when talking about an early memory of one of the many times my mother rejected me. I’d not shared that memory before and I’ve not cried in front of a friend before. We both did something outside our comfort zone today.
We were honest and authentic. It was scary. Unfamiliar. But it was so worth it. I feel closer to her. She has seen that even in her most difficult times, she can still offer something to people and she can be accepted. The 4 hours was peppered with the usual laughs and jokes that only we ‘get’. In between the more serious conversations.
When the desire to run and hide washes over you… get curious… experiment with changing that behaviour (within a safe relationship) and move closer.
We are broken in relationships and we heal in relationships.
This is a muddled, multi dimensional look at my thoughts on empathy. Touching on what empathy is, empathy’s role in parenting and self-empathy.
Empathy is so powerful. I’ve learned that not everyone is capable of real empathy. I first truly felt it from my therapist and it hurt like hell. The grief of knowing what I had missed out on was unbearable. Being seen and heard, having someone completely empathise without demanding anything in return and without losing themselves in me. Wow. It is such an incredible gift to have and be able to give.
Empathy doesn’t judge or look to change. It doesn’t criticise or condemn. Empathy doesn’t ask for anything in return. Empathy respects and validates. The authenticity of true empathy can be felt. It is a healing wonder.
Empathy doesn’t say, ‘I agree with you’ it also doesn’t say, ‘I feel sorry for you’ it simply says, ‘I see you’.
When my kids hurt themselves, even if I think it’s not that sore to warrant the blood curdling cries, I don’t question the validity of their tears. I simply see them, ‘that was really sore, I saw you hurt yourself… that hurt so much…’ or just sit with them while they cry. If they’re crying or getting angry at me because I won’t let them watch more tv or have another biscuit I don’t tell them off for being demanding or spoilt. I don’t shut them in their room sending the message that their negative emotions are intolerable. I hear them out. ‘You’re really angry with me because I won’t let you have another biscuit… it’s so annoying when you want something you can’t have… it’s hard when you really want something but you’re not allowed it.. I understand.’ This usually makes them cry louder, shout harder, complain more incessantly or collapse in an emotional heap. That’s the full force of the feelings expressing themselves through their body. (On a side note, often when I witness this I think – ‘how many times did I suppress those feelings in any given day during my childhood as these needs were never met?’) When my kids have calmed down I’ll explain my reasoning, when they’re ready to hear logic and reason. ‘Remember we agreed you’d finish watching that programme then turn the telly off because it’s good to not watch too much tv. Let’s go play in the garden.’ Or ‘I know you love this biscuits but you already had two and it’s good to eat a balance of different foods, how about some carrot sticks/an apple/a drink of water…’ Feeling sorry for them, giving in or entering into a battle of wills takes their power away and it takes away mine too. My kids pain isn’t a problem that I need to fix or relieve them of. That would teach them they are incapable of coping with emotions and difficult situations. Empathy gives me a valuable tool in parenting but it also gives my kids power and the vocabulary to help them understand themselves and articulate themselves in the future.
Empathy and boundaries work together in harmony when attempting to build a deep connection in relationships. This is a steep learning curve for me as I’m doing this with no blue print for how to parent in a healthy way. I’m learning on the job, trying to follow my instincts, accepting guidance from my therapist and reading a lot!
Empathy allows me to take myself out of the equation and see the experience my child is having as being theirs. It helps me parent from a less easily triggered place which in turn helps the kids. The hurt, neglected child in me grieves the lack of this in their life but the adult in me knows that if I can practice giving it to my kids then perhaps one day I will be able to give it to myself.
When someone empathises with us our defences go down. When we feel less defensive we feel more open to curious observation and creativity. That’s where healing happens. That’s where we learn. The connection between two people. The bridge that says ‘I’m not afraid of your pain, in fact I understand it… I know it won’t destroy me to bear witness to your suffering.’
I have googled ‘what is dissociation’ probably a hundred times. Mostly in the first year of therapy. I think it’s some sort of validation I was looking for. To feel ‘seen’ in the words I read. The most validating thing I’ve read about dissociation were the words, ‘dissociation is as unique as the person experiencing it’… I don’t remember where I read it but it helped me breath a little. I’m very good at belittling myself, criticising and questioning myself. So any time I read about someone else’s experience that sounded different to mine I would immediately start to attack myself – what is wrong with me – why do I not experience it like that – why am I like this?
We were very early on in our sessions. Maybe session 6 or 7. I was 40 feet under the thick, dense grime of attachment hell already. I was so textbook. My journey with Paul lasted almost 3 years and in that time I read and researched and fed my brain with as much information as I could. But back at session 6 or 7 I didn’t really know that much. I just knew that I loved him more than I’d ever loved anyone before and that terrified me.
I was going out of my mind. Tormented by nightmares that had resurfaced after our first session and what I now know were flashbacks. I felt like I was going mad… so much worse than I was before I met Paul. I needed to fix myself and it needed to happen sooner rather than later. Session 6 or 7. I started talking to him about something very traumatic that had happened to me when I was 14. It just started to pour out of me. I had never said the words outloud before. I was desperate to purge myself of the story. It felt like when you drink so much alcohol that you have no choice but to make yourself sick. I wanted to vomit the pain out of me like I had spent years attempting to cut the pain out of me.
I was talking and must have been getting distressed. I remember Paul saying, ‘you don’t need to keep going, you don’t need to tell me this.’ I was determined, ‘don’t make me keep it inside me any longer…!’ He said, ‘I think I can work out what happened, you don’t need to go on.’ I now know that he was trying his best to prevent me from retraumatising myself. He wanted to keep me within my window of tolerance. He didn’t want me to go where I hadn’t been before… after just 6 hours of working together. Then something happened. I slipped back into a space that was completely alien and completely familiar to me. I lost myself. Like falling. Or flying. Or both.
I spent almost all of my childhood numb. It feels like an exaggeration but I’m fairly certain it’s accurate. Not all of the time and not to every emotion but to a lot of them – for a large amount of time I was switched off. At 29, I found myself in a room with a man who I felt a powerful love for (which I now understand was my attachment wound leaking all over me). Having him care for me, listening to me say words that I never wanted to say or admit to… feelings surfaced that I had blocked out for all of my life. It was too much for my system and I short circuited.
I found myself at home, exhausted and confused. I sent Paul a long email. ‘I don’t understand what happened… I can’t cope with this, it all feels too much… why can’t I remember the rest of the session, I don’t remember leaving your office…?’ he sent me an email back and told me he understood it was a very difficult session for me and that he was attaching some information that might help me understand… and that he would see me next week. The information was on dissociation. I don’t even remember what I felt. Ashamed maybe. Embarrassed. Confused. We didn’t talk much about it after that and I rarely ventured into vulnerable territory again with Paul. Not about that particular topic anyway. It’s not that I didn’t trust him, he was an excellent therapist. He was able to help me deal with so much of what I was struggling with but he wasn’t the right person to help me with the core stuff. For that I would have to wait a further 5 years to meet Anna.
Last week I had session number 70 with Anna. 70 hours plus a few phone calls dotted in between. She understands trauma and dissociation. She watches me. She seems to know when I am treading near the landmines and will ask me questions like, ‘how are you doing with this?’ or ‘what’s going on for you in here?’ while pointing to her chest or stomach. Sometimes, when I go quiet for slightly longer than usual, she will pause what she’s writing and glance her eyes up at me, checking. I can’t seem to say the word dissociate in the session. It’s drenched in shame. Anna has said it but I just can’t. In the rare moments that I feel the tide of disconnection coming before I drown in it I tell her I feel ‘weird’ or ‘spacey’ and then she knows and guides me through some grounding exercises. During the deepest dissociative moment with her I somehow asked for a hug and it was almost like her whole nervous system grounded me as she held me.
I drew a picture to help me process what dissociation feels like for me and to help me explain it to Anna. She pointed at the balloons and the space behind the balloons and said, ‘this is safe… here… this is safety?’ I nodded. She pointed to the burning river of lava between our feet and asked what it was. ‘Disconnection.’ I said. ‘Either you get too close to the pain and the crevasse appears and I leave the session in my mind… or in some way you miss me and the crevasse opens up and I can’t help but leave.’
She pointed to the space between us in the picture and asked, ‘what can I do to help make this space safe?’ I couldn’t come up with anything. The hardest question in the world seems to be, ‘what do you need?’ She changed the her wording slightly, ‘I wonder if you would be willing to share with me any time you feel that crevasse opening… any time I make this space unsafe. Do you think you would be prepared to share that with me?’ I nodded. She pointed to my body in the drawing, the part where the arms and neck are attached to the shoulders and said, ‘when you feel this unreal, I’d invite you to let me know. I know it might be hard to put into words when it’s happening but it’s important we learn your triggers and if we can trace back to what was said or what happened just before the dissociation then I’ll be more able to support you.’
If there’s a way to hold someone without actually touching them then that’s what Anna was doing in that moment. I felt very held.
I know dissociation was borne from the need for protection. I know it served it’s purpose and makes perfect sense considering my life experiences. I also know that it is now getting in the way of deep connection and healing. But there is something intoxicating about it’s powerful drag into the abyss. I am both drawn towards it and repelled away from it. Much like my attachment style. The push and pull. A need for love and a fear of it. Anna explains that we will work on this very slowly, at the pace of a child, one step at a time. She tells me that ‘feeling’ even just for ten minutes in the session and then catching myself before I fully dissociate is a huge achievement that I should be proud of (and that there’s no shame if I do disconnect). She explains, ‘As we nudge the edges of your window of tolerance they will widen and you will be able to cope with more exposure to the pain and connection.’ She tells me to be patient and compassionate with myself. Which always feels easier said than done.
I’m in this familiar fuzzy head space that often happens the day after a hard therapy session. It’s like driving at night through the countryside with no street lamps, only the occasional headlights moving towards you, blinding you as the cars zoom past. There’s that split second where it feels like the car is going to drive head first into you. My mind is blurred and black – an endless abyss of thoughts and images that I can’t see but I know are there, with the occasional blinding moment of complete overwhelm. Emotional flooding in a split second. Then back to nothing. It’s so fleeting that I can’t hold on to what it is or why it’s happening.
I know my brain is trying to process what we talked about and what happened. But life doesn’t just stop so I can deal with the aftermath. I have my adult hat on. I’m at work attempting to be responsible and get things done while just beneath the surface I feel like the ground is crumbling beneath me. What I want to do is go home, put my pyjamas back on and crawl under my duvet and stay there until this passes.
Last night was one of the hardest sessions I’ve ever had. I was nudged out of my very narrow window of tolerance many times and at one point thrown head first into complete dissociation. I remember sitting on the floor. I remember Anna asking me how old I felt and telling her ‘3’. I remember wanting to hide. I remember her gently enveloping me in her soft reassuring words, ‘this is so overwhelming for you… of course the feelings feel bigger than you, you’re very little… I’m here and I’m not going to leave you… it wasn’t your fault…’ but I really struggled to speak. She asked for a colour and I told her ‘sticky black, yucky, all over and inside me’ – I struggled to reach over and meet her attempts at connection. Couldn’t allow her gaze to touch me although it felt like it was penetrating me and at one point I asked for her to look away. And so I was hiding again. Curled on an armchair with another human being sitting a meter away from me. Doing everything in my power to not feel the force of her seeing me.
Anna asked me what I needed and I told her for the first time, ‘to cry’. But then another more powerful force stepped in ‘damned if I’m gonna let that happen!’ Anna asked who’s voice that was and as we explored all the ways my mother pushed me away and silenced me the more I felt like I was drowning in the inability to cry. A part of me was crying but not outwardly.
Normally my sessions are slow to start. As with each new session I need to be reminded I can trust Anna. However this session opened the wound immediately. We’d had a phone check in mid week that hadn’t reassured me like I’d hoped it would and so I started to try to explain how I’d been feeling. It turned out she had also been reflecting. Anna said she felt like she’d been taking the lead too much. Too much of her analysing/talking. She was going to change the way we use my drawings. She said she had been reflecting and had decided she was going to stop analysing my pictures completely and leave it to me to explain what I’d drawn. I could feel myself tightening. Legs curled under me. Arms folded around me. She said she felt that by her analysing the drawings it was keeping me in my head and that it was time to push further and delve into the feelings more. She asked how I felt about that and I said I didn’t like it. That it felt bad. That it felt like a rejection. She nodded. She said, ‘it’s not that I don’t want to see your drawings, you can still show me…’ I said, ‘well I don’t think I want to now!’ she smiled and nodded and I said, ‘what’s that smile? Is that a knowing smile? Did you know I would feel like that?’ she said, ‘yes’ and I asked why I felt like that. She said, ‘it’s like when you would open up or share something with your mum and she would turn you away or criticise you or not believe you so you’d think, ‘well I’m never showing you that again!’ I nodded. There was a bit of back and forth as we talked about how painful it felt to have Anna change our routine and how much harder she was making it for me. Anna talked about how every so often the work we do will begin to feel comfortable as I get stronger and that’s when we need to push a little harder into the painful areas. So that’s what she was doing. Challenging. Demanding that I grow to deal with the new limits.
Anna wouldn’t let me show her this weeks drawing. She wanted me to explain what had been going on for me this week rather than using the picture as a crutch. After a huge amount of delaying and discomfort I said, ‘when we spoke on the phone I said that I felt like we were talking too much but actually it’s that I felt you talked too much and when you talk a lot I want to listen and learn and take it all in so I stay in my head and it makes it easy to numb the feelings. But then I leave the session and the feelings come rushing back in and I’m drowned by them again so when we talked on the phone I didn’t want to say ‘you talked too much in the session’ coz I didn’t want to criticise you over the phone so I said ‘we talked too much and I need you to keep an eye out for that’ and then you said ‘you need to take ownership over that’ and… well I guess I am pissed off… coz I was protecting you by not criticising you and instead taking the blame…. then you said it was my fault basically and that I need to take ownership when really it was you that was talking too much and I don’t think I did make it that way but it’s all always my fault!’ I took a breath… it was a rambling, messy, frantic searching for words. Anna was smiling and nodding. She said she was glad I was pissed off. She said this was really important because it tells her what I need and how she can best work with me. She said she was proud of me. She said that we were on the same page. That I hadn’t told her in words how I was feeling last week (and the past few weeks) but that I’d told her transferencially. The times I’d said I felt like I was wasting my sessions. When I would be overwhelmed immediately after the session. These were all signs for her.
I then went on to explain how sometimes when she tries to normalise something for me, it feels invalidating. This was not easy to get out. The room was spinning and I felt sick. She asked for an example. I said that the picture I’d shown her last week (which was a drawing of my childhood bedroom with a thought bubble filling most of the space with my inner world inside it) I said that it was a really fucking big deal to show her that because it meant a lot to me and I’ve never ever shared it with anyone before. It was completely private and secret and mine. I explained that when she said along the lines of ‘everyone day dreams, escapism is normal, it’s understandable that you would want to do that considering what your life was like…’ I knew she was normalising my experience but it felt so invalidating to me because I wanted her to be saying, ‘oh my god that sounds massive’ not, ‘yeah that’s normal, everyone does it…’ I felt like I was sharing a deep precious secret with her and she was just saying ‘stop making a big deal out of nothing!’
There was a long quiet moment where that just hung in the air. ‘Stop making a big deal out of nothing!’ Eventually. Quietly. Anna spoke, ‘…and that feels familiar… doesn’t it…’ I suddenly felt like I’d been kicked in the chest. I nodded.
Anna said, ‘Tell me about that…’
And from there on the conversation felt very different. I was swimming in grief and shame. Feeling very little and very frightened.
We grounded at the end of the session and attempted to talk about what I’m going to do next week during the dreaded therapy break. We hugged and Anna told me again that she was proud of me and I’d done well. I thanked her. Got to my car and burst into tears. The tears that won’t come when I’m with her but so desperately need to be seen and shared.
I remember reading that progress in therapy is not linear, it’s like a spiral… like a slinky-toy. ‘Moving through a continuous spiral of levels, sometimes so tightly packed in that they seem to be a circle rather than a spiral, other times more clearly separate from one another and more obvious evidence of progress. Similar material is addressed therapeutically at each step along the spiral, but addressed differently at each level as the spiral progresses forward.’
It got me thinking that maybe I will feel like I am taking a few steps forward and one step back sometimes and maybe that’s okay. Because as Anna keeps reminding me, we are not in any rush to get through this. I want to be ‘finished’ already but it’s just not going to be that simple.
Every time I am less than what I believe I should be as a wife and mother I feel this stabbing fear that I am just like mum and that really I’m kidding myself thinking I can be anything better. The catastrophising kicks in. If I can’t get through a day without a cross word or irritation I feel like the whole day is fucked and that everyone who knows me will be storing these misdemeanours in their minds as reasons to hate me and never want to see me again as soon as they get the chance to leave. The thing is, I know these ‘mistakes’ I make are nothing compared to what she did to me but for some reason my mind leaves no room for error for me – I can’t so much as look at the word ‘mistake’ without fearing that I’ll career off on a journey of destruction and completely annihilate everyone in my path. I remember the day I read about narcissistic/histrionic mothers online and everything clicked into place. Like that scene on The Truman Show where he realises his whole life was a set up. It’s like it came as a surprised to me when I realised what she was really like, that it was an actual thing and that it wasn’t all my fault. Every so often I get this dead weight feeling inside me that maybe my husband and the kids don’t know it yet but they will soon realise in time how bad I am for them… just like I did about my mother. I can see that my perfectionism is still a very big part of me. The internalised unrelenting high standards/hyper-criticalness… it’s all still there, even after all the work I did on that with Paul it’s like I revert back to my original form in times of difficulties. There has been a slight softening in my internal voice as I have intentionally tried to be mindful of how I speak in my head. The voice no longer screams, ‘you piece of shit you’re so weak, grow up, no one likes you, you’re worthless…’ now the voice occasionally says, ‘maybe it makes sense that you feel like this…’ I cry by myself every day. Anna says I’m grieving. It hurts like a ball of lead in my chest but the pain doesn’t feel bigger than me like it has in the past. And crying helps reduce the intensity a bit. I’m grateful for this.
One thought that’s made me cry recently was that in the last session Anna said that I come out when I feel safe and go back in when I don’t feel safe. That touched me because I know I am like that but I forget, or I try to pretend that’s not what I’m like. It feels so amazing and so painful that she notices these things and still accepts me and wants to keep working with me. I am reminded of how mum used to say that I was a typical cancerian in that I’m a crab with a hard shell on the outside but I’m soft on the inside. For some reason it makes me feel angry that she used to say this. I feel like I couldn’t let her know me because she would just use these things against me in some way. But also she uses these things to excuse her bad behaviour – describing herself as a typical taurian, being ‘a bull in a china shop’ rather than learning how to think before she speaks or acts.
A few sessions ago Anna told me she felt I was stronger now and she wanted to start tackling the letter I’d written to my mum. I was defensive and I questioned whether I was stronger or were we just not talking about the hard stuff… what if we start talking about it and I go off the deep end again. She didn’t answer me and I felt like she was exasperated by my argumentativeness and unwillingness to just accept encouragement. I then proceeded to have a crap week and the following session was emotionally challenging. With relief I agreed when Anna suggested we delay discussing the letter. She didn’t want to push too hard and for me to retreat again. But I kind of wish she had pushed… because it’s like this tantruming toddler threw herself into the room and had a screaming fit that made us all back down and comply. The toddler didn’t want her to think I was stronger only for me to then let her down… but the adult me knows I can be stronger and still find this difficult. Being stronger doesn’t mean I won’t get upset or space out. Maybe I needed reassurance that Anna would stop if I needed her to, that I could take a step back and she wouldn’t be disappointed in me. That session served the purpose of reassuring the fearful part of me but frustrated the part of me that wants to push forward. Anna remained attuned to me the whole time amazingly (I felt so fragmented I couldn’t stay attuned to me… but she managed!). She became moved by a story I told her. I felt my trust deepening. I envy how effortlessly the emotions come and go for her like waves. I want to be like that.
I’m so conflicted. I always feel like I need to do something but I guess when I feel this conflicted the best thing is to just notice. Notice and do nothing. I’m not where I want to be but a few things have changed. I trust Anna more than I’ve ever trusted anyone before and I am prepared to go places inside myself I was never able to even see before. The progress is slow, but it’s still progress.