There are two people here, one standing on each side of this glass wall.
I was feeling quite numb this morning. I’ve spent the majority of the past four days processing what’s going on between me and Anna. Going over the conversations. Looking at it from different angles. Talking it through. Trying to figure out how I’m going to make myself feel what I need to feel so I can persuade her to believe me when I tell her that the 4 weeks without her were absolute hell. I have noticed how my mind is picking her apart, urging me to grind her down. I know I’m going to need to share all of this with her in order to break through the well worn patterns of my attachment issues and give a new pattern a chance to develop. But the apathy had swallowed me whole and I could no longer find a thread of any thoughts or feelings.
One minute to go, I quickly glanced over some old journal notes and then clicked to join the meeting. She appeared on the screen and couldn’t see me initially. I’m going to need to fiddle with the zoom settings coz that’s quite annoying. I fixed it and we both asked, ‘how you doing?’ at the same time and instantly laughed. She then asked me how I’d been since Tuesday and I said it had been a very heavy few days and that I had been doing a lot of reflecting. I told her that yesterday had felt better, probably because I knew I had a session today but Thursday in particular was very very difficult. I noticed myself drifting off as I tried to explain it to her so I sat straight on to the screen and said, ‘It’s important I say this out loud… I am making a commitment to work hard at connecting with you today, I need to focus on looking at you and work hard at feeling a connection, I need to talk TO you rather than talking to myself in front of you… I’ve noticed I’ve been doing this thing where I talk and reflect and present my already well processed thoughts to you as if I’m just filming a video with little regard for you sitting there. It’s important that I engage with you today otherwise I’ll leave the session feeling like you were never even there.’ Anna asked me if I would be able to bring awareness to the desire to do that when it happens, even if at the same time we hold the fact that I don’t want to stop doing it… ‘perhaps you could just let me know ‘I’m noticing that I’m reflecting and talking as if you are not here but it feels safer to do that right now’ do you think that would be possible?’ I nodded and said that would be really helpful. She said it made sense that I would want to protect myself, that it feels less vulnerable to talk as if she’s not there, that I don’t need her to help me. We came back to this later and talked a bit more about the way my dissociation keeps me separate from things that feel threatening and therefore keeps me feeling safe yet isolated. I told her with total certainty, ‘I really want the dissociation to stop getting in the way of connection!’ and she said, calmly, ‘it will when you feel safe.’
She then said she too had been reflecting a lot since Tuesday and she had some things she wanted to say to me. I immediately started to panic thinking she wanted to stop working with me, surprise surprise. She began, ‘what really stayed with me after our last session was this belief you were holding on to that it was your fault I was ill and even when I reassured you that it wasn’t your fault you didn’t believe me. I’ve thought a lot about this and I’ve decided it’s very important to clarify this with you.’ There were these agonizingly slow milliseconds where I was trying to read her blurry face on the screen and her crackly audio… I asked her to readjust her microphone because every time it brushes past her clothes it crackles and I can’t hear her. She moved it to her chest and propped it on the scoop of her top and I joked, ‘just stick the cable between your boobs,’ and she laughed and said, ‘we won’t dwell on this too long but I’d hazard a guess that my boobs are a bit lower than yours and they won’t hold this microphone up!’ it was this funny little giggle in the middle of this very intense conversation. This next sentence she said with a serious tone, ‘so, I want you to know that I have asthma. A lot of the times I’ve had to cancel our sessions it’s been because of the asthma and this time this was also the case. And because of everything that’s been happening with covid19 I was quite worried. I wanted to make sure I was completely better before starting up our sessions again. It was important I didn’t come back and then go off again. Obviously the covid stuff is new to everyone, we are all stressed and anxious about it, scared about it. It was important I’d moved past all that before coming back to you. I did not want my stuff to impact you.’ I was sitting intently listening and watching her, feeling so relieved that she was reaching out to me and sharing this with me. It felt vulnerable and real.
I said, ‘one of my theories was that you had asthma. I said to Linda actually that I thought you might have had asthma or some sort of underlying health condition that would make this a very scary time for you… it’s amazing actually that she managed to listen to all my theories and not let on that she knew… she did ask me to look at why it was important and I said it was because my brain was trying to fill in all the unknowns, you know. It felt really unfair that I wasn’t allowed to know. Like, I know I’m not your family or whatever and that logically it makes sense that I would be the last to know if something happened to you but you’re so important to me, it hurts to know that.’ Anna said, ‘I was really pleased when you sent me the text saying that you’d asked Linda to tell you if I was still alive and she’d reassured you. I was so glad you were able to ask her. I said, ‘yeah well she kind of lead that one but I did ask her, I was just absolutely beside myself. I cant even really put into words Anna, it was the worst I’ve ever felt… very dark… suicidal thoughts and I just was out of options.’ Anna said she was glad that I looked after myself and that I’d asked Linda for clarification.
She continued with quite an intense expression, ‘Lucy, I really missed you when I was off. We’ve worked very closely together for the past 2 and a half years and I know you may find it hard to believe but this work is very important to me too and you are very important to me. I care very deeply about you and wanted to be there for you. I held you in mind throughout our time apart and especially during our usual session times I actively thought about you, hoping you were doing okay.’ She sort of paused and then made a very human looking face and said, ‘I actually felt quite jealous of Linda, that she was getting to work with you. In the last week before our first session back I worked on it in supervision, took you to supervision, and really focused on how I was feeling about it. The thoughts of whether you would choose to stop working with me and instead decide to work with Linda. But you know, I have seen you change beyond recognition… so much change… from the girl who walked in my office 2 and a half years ago who couldn’t tell me what she needed, it was like that for a very long time, and here we are in a moment of worldwide chaos and I am on the brink of abandoning you and you then reached to tell me you need to work with Linda in my absence. You figured out what you needed and you met that need – that is our work WORKING! That’s everything we’ve worked on together, coming together. That despite feeling very much that you couldn’t lean on anyone else in my absence, you took a leap and tried it out. That is massive and I am so so proud of you!’ I had silent tears rolling down my cheeks and I thanked her for being so honest with me. I said, ‘I cant believe you really think about me between session, thank you so much for telling me all of this you have completely disarmed me… I came to this session with so much resistance to opening up to you, all I had was anger, like this pain and sadness I felt would have to be turned into conflict and that you and I would have to battle through it to get to a point where one of us backs down. I spoke to my friend the other day and she reminded me that my feelings are valid no matter what the facts are but it’s really hard to believe that in my body when all I ever experienced was the opposite to that.’ Anna was listening and nodding and taking it all in, saying she understood.
I said, ‘this is amazing Anna, I mean obviously I don’t want you to feel jealous but you telling me about those feelings you were having and that you took it to supervision tells me that you did want me to come back to you and that you do want to work with me, you hoped I wouldn’t move on to Linda… it’s so good to hear that because I really felt like you would be glad to see the back of me.’ I said, ‘there wasn’t a single part of me that would choose to leave you right now. I only felt a resistance to coming back to you because I was so hurt. But I am really committed to this and I know there’s very deep stuff going on here. It’s triggering a massive amount of old unprocessed stuff from mum and dad that I need to unpick.’ Anna talked about how we have many different types of relationships and we behave differently in each of them. That just because I’m not her family or a friend doesn’t mean it isn’t a very important relationship. She had a powerful sincerity in her voice and I believed deep inside me that she was being very genuine.
I said, ‘talking about my raw and unprocessed feelings was never an option growing up. With my mum, if I was emotional, she would turn it into her emotion, she would become overwhelmed and I’d then have to make sure she was okay. So I learned to think very carefully about how I felt, like as if my problems and feelings were a lump of clay, I couldn’t go with it to her raw and unfinished and needing her help to fix it, instead what I’d do is figure it all out so that it was clear and articulate and processed… go with the clay already moulded. So, with my dad, he doesn’t believe in the value of emotions so with him it’s all reason and logic. He talks and argues his way round anyone’s feelings so there is no hope of feeling anything anymore. He works very hard on moving you into your intellect. So whenever I experience emotions it just feels like one way or another there’s going to be overthinking, conflict or numbing. There is this constant thinking and analysing then a battle inside me, to either come up with a very clever articulation of what’s going on with me so I can manipulate the other person to agree with and understand me. Or I numb and space away from any feelings because I know it’s hopeless, that no one will understand. So that’s what’s been going on for me.’ Anna talked about how that made so much sense and that she was really glad I was able to explain that to her. She wanted me to know that she would always work hard at hearing and understanding how I was feeling and that she believes me when I tell her how I feel. I felt this deep grief about how much I’ve missed this part of our work and I said to her, ‘I missed you so much when you were away… I really needed you. My brain immediately goes to cutting whenever I feel this much. Like on Thursday it was all I could think about. I was angry with you and just turning it all in on myself. I can’t regulate without you.’ Anna said, ‘I’m going to respectfully disagree with you on that on. What did you do on Thursday?’ I said I spoke to a friend and I watched some calming, regulating videos that helped soothe my breathing and I did some grounding exercises. I also read over some of the comforting things she’s told me in sessions before.’ Anna said, ‘what I would like you to do between now and the next session is think about all of the things you do that help you regulate your emotions when you’re on your own and write each of them down and put them in a box or jar or something. When we are triggered it’s really hard to find these ideas inside us but it may help for you to have them written down. What do you think?’ I really liked that idea and said I would do it. A bit later when I was talking about how overwhelmed I’ve been with Grace and her emotional needs Anna suggested I make a regulation box with her too. She also suggested that Adam and I spend some time talking to Grace about how we’re all feeling, to help give her some space to talk. She said that it’s hard enough for us adults to process our feelings but kids really need their parents to co-regulate.
I then said that during the time she was off I’d really struggled with Grace and really needed Anna. I had tried to talk to Linda and she had helped. I said, ‘I told Linda that she probably couldn’t help me because she didn’t have the back story and Linda had asked if she really needed the back story and maybe I could just give it a go.’ Anna smiled at this. I said, ‘it did help a bit but she doesn’t know the gravity behind these struggles… Anna, everything feels like it’s falling apart. I know this is where I go when I’m struggling but I really do know that I’m not meeting her needs right now. I screamed at her Anna, that’s what they did you know, I’m just like them!’ Anna said, ‘lets just pause there… first of all we are living through a worldwide pandemic, one that your parents were not experiencing when you were a child… you are under an enormous amount of stress and it’s understandable you’d be struggling… secondly, what did you do after you shouted at her?’ I told her I apologised and tried to mend things with her, that I listened to how she was feeling, told her I loved her and that it wasn’t her fault. Anna said, ‘exactly… and that is where the very important difference is between you and your parents.’ I said, ‘I know I’m failing her…’ and my voice faded. Anna gently said, ‘take your time Lucy,’ and I began to cry. I pulled my mic earpiece out so I wasn’t sobbing right in her ear and when I calmed and put it back in she quietly said, ‘are you scared?’ I said, ‘I’m terrified. But not about the virus. I’m scared this is all going to cause her permanent issues… there’s this big gap between us and I don’t know how I can mend it.’
I said, ‘this whole thing is giving me a window into why I am the way I am and what life was like for me as a kid and how confusing it all must have been for me… in the middle of it all when you were off I was really struggling with Grace, she was just up crying all night and it felt relentless. All day with her then all night too. And part of me wants so much to be there for her but another part of me… my cups empty! The only time it gets filled is with you and you weren’t there.’ Anna said, ‘I hear you. It’s important we work on ways for you to fill your cup when we’re unable to meet.’ I nodded and said, ‘One night I felt so alone with it all I uncharacteristically reached out on a family whatsapp group we have. In the group are my cousins, my brother and my dad. After a few messages and with my dad sending a generic, ‘you’re doing great’ I sent this message…
‘I’m not doing very well with the gentle / respectful parenting. End up with no patience left by the evening. I shouted at her. The message I’m giving her is, ‘you’re too much’. I don’t want her to feel that, ever. I want her to know she is unconditionally loved by us day and night but what I’m saying is, ‘I’ve had enough of you by the evening and you’re too much and I need a break from you’. It’s a really horrible message to give her but I’m done.’
My brother and cousins actually said some very sweet things. My brother private messaged me saying, ‘I want to reassure you with the strongest emphasis that you are not doing to your kids what mum and dad did to us. You cant see it coz you’re in it. these are two children who are very well adjusted. They show no signs (other than Grace’s understandable reaction to the lockdown) of having any issues remotely near like we did. You are a parent. Many times parents shout. Phillipa Perry even wrote in her book about shouting. The person you need to go easier on is yourself and that’s not a cliché. It’s a downwards spiral otherwise and you know that. The more you feel bad about not being perfect, the more stressed you will be, the less you’ll sleep. The more you’ll try to be perfect during the day with the kids thus creating a vacuum and an internal pressure to watch everything you say and do. Then when there’s a problem it will all come out. You are human and the big picture is that Grace knows she’s loved. You’re doing a great job with her. What you need to do is keep asserting boundaries and give yourself more time to be human.’ I was blown away by his thoughtful, considered and caring message. It really helped. Daniel and I are a team. We always have been. He gets it.
Then the next day my dad sent me this:
‘Something you said yesterday has stayed with me. About loving unconditionally. Loving unconditionally isn’t responding to someone’s every little whim. It’s responding to their needs. And one of the greatest needs is the need for self reliance. The ability to look after yourself, to respond to your own needs, to enjoy your own company. There’s no greater gift that giving someone the gift of self reliance instead of dependency.‘
He is trying. My dad’s done some work on himself and he is trying but he just doesn’t get it at all. I spent a lot of the day writing out this reply.
Thanks for thinking about this and messaging me. I don’t feel that what you’ve said applies here. Grace is only 8, it’s unrealistic to expect her to be self reliant. Even emotionally healthy adults need to co-regulate. It’s not emotionally healthy to be completely self contained, that’s a shutting down of emotional needs and leads to emotional numbing and avoidance. Healthy emotional processing involves expressing and having our need to be heard met. It’s not about meeting every whim. You can meet an emotional need to be heard and seen without bending to unrealistic requests. Love is an action. Love doesn’t scream in the face of another person. There’s a complete lack of love in telling a person ‘your emotional needs are too much for me’. This is deeply personal for me and something I swore I would never do. On this occasion I know undeniably that it’s not okay the way I responded to her and it can damage her and our relationship. But I’m working on it. It’s just very very hard right now.
In the end I didn’t send it because I realise that this is very close to the bone. I’m struggling with all of this because this is how I was parented. The reason I know how unlovable you feel when you’re being screamed at by your parent at night is because that happened to me. I refuse to think this is okay. It’s not okay!’
Anna said, ‘that’s a beautiful message you wrote and if you consider sending it to your child, what wonderful validation to her that she didn’t deserve to be treated the way she was and it wasn’t her fault. Your understanding about emotions and regulation is far deeper than your parents understanding.’ I said that we need to spend a lot of time on this and she said we can.
Anna said, ‘I just want to make another observation. I know you’ve drawn an analogy with me being your therapy mum and Linda being your therapy aunty and I want to just point out that your mum hurt you massively and then I hurt you… it’s just something to notice…’ I said, ‘except the important thing is that I believed you would hold space for me to tell you how I felt about it… I don’t think my mum has ever held space for me to share my feelings with her.’ I went back to what Anna had said about enjoying working with me and referred her to the phone call we’d had prior to her going off when I had told her I care a lot about her and she’d said she cares a lot about me too. I said, ‘you definitely did say that?’ and she nodded and I said, ‘coz my mind tears these things away from me, tells me I must have imagined it, that there’s no way you would have said that.’ Anna said, ‘oh right, uhu.’ In a very concerned voice and continued, ‘if that happens again I’d really invite you to ask me. Let me know that you’re questioning what was said and ask me.’ I said that I would and then said, ‘I just don’t get it though, why would you enjoy working with me? I bring the worst bits of myself to you, why would you like me when I’m a moany, relentless, miserable person when I see you?’ Anna said, ‘Why do you come to therapy? What is the drive to keep coming back?’ I said, ‘Because I want to heal.’ She said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘So that the parts of me that are hurt don’t hurt other people, so I don’t hurt my kids and so that I can feel freed from it all too.’ She said, ‘Yes and that desire to mend the parts of you that feel broken, the parts of you that are in pain, that is powerful and admirable. I feel very strongly that I am lucky to do this work with you. That part of you that want’s change and growth and to heal… that is what makes this work so special.’ I felt really moved by this and I don’t even know how to explain what I was feeling from her. Despite it being just a video call I felt very close to her, it just really felt so real and powerful. I really could feel her authenticity. She was being very real I almost forgot we weren’t in the same room.
All of a sudden it was time to finish up. Anna said, ‘okay so I’ll see you at 6 on Tuesday?’ I nodded. She said, ‘I was thinking about you saying you wished we could hug at the end of the session and I wondered, I know it’s not the same thing, maybe we could reach towards each other like this,’ she put her hand to the screen and I smiled and did it too… it felt a little awkward but also felt nice to know she’d been reflecting and wanted to suggest a way for us to hold that connection with each other. I held up Baby Panda that I’d been stroking off screen and told her I would also be cuddling my bears and she smiled. We waved and ended the call.
I am left feeling so much more hopeful about things between us. I am so grateful she reflected on things and was prepared to share her vulnerability with me. It’s made me realise that the wellbeing and balance of a relationship is not the responsibility of just one person. I was trying to solve all the problems by myself and I can’t do that. I was spinning plates and analysing and over thinking it all by myself in the hope that I could present a finished solution to her. But there was no need because she is not playing games with me. She’s prioritising connection. She went away and thought about it and adapted how she was handling things and it has changed everything. Growing up, the people in my life were defensive, rigid and selfish. They would choose to prioritise their own needs over mine and over thegood of the relationship. Anna prioritised our relationship. This is actually mind blowing for me. I didn’t see it before but I now clearly see… there are two people here, one standing on each side of this glass wall and we are both making an effort.