Boundaries – love hurts

When I started working with Anna all of my weird crazy behaviours became exaggerated… I wasn’t even aware of what was happening but basically I pushed every button, crossed many boundaries and in her words, ‘tested her to the max’… she says I was so certain she would leave me that I laid it all out on the table in the first couple of months like a challenge… ‘this is as bad as it can get so if you’re going to leave, you better leave now!’ That made me chuckle and squirm because it felt familiar, and embarrassing. One particular instance around session 20, I sent her a long text message which went along the lines of, ‘everything is awful, nothing’s getting any better, life is bleak and black and all things are dark and hopeless and I don’t know if I can keep myself safe tonight but I’m worried that you’ll terminate our work if I can’t look after myself…’ In my head I was freaking out because the previous night I’d been triggered during an intimate moment with my husband, had a flashback and then cut myself. All this came out of the blue and hadn’t happened for years… I was worried that if she knew I’d hurt myself she would stop working with me. A few hours after I sent the message she phoned me. I was completely shocked and didn’t answer. She had been very clear about the fact that she would never reply to a message unless it was about session timings and we would only speak on the phone if I asked for a call. I quickly sent her a message saying I was fine and that I would see her at the next session. I then sent a few more texts apologising if she thought I was trying to manipulate her with my initial text and then finally the following day I couldn’t take it anymore and I asked her to call me. She arranged to call me the following day and when we spoke on the phone she was reassuring and brief. She gave me a ten minute boundary and instructed me to not get into the depths of the issue on the phone. I asked for reassurance that she wasn’t planning on leaving me and she assured me that she had no intentions of leaving and that she would be there at the next session to talk to me about all this.

At the next session she started by saying she wanted to address the messages. She was very formal and stern seeming, she laid down some pretty solid new boundaries around texting. She called it ‘hammering in the posts’. She made it clear what I was and wasn’t allowed to say and that she wouldn’t reply to any texts other than session time arrangements. She told me that I was harming myself by sending those kinds of messages in full knowledge that I wouldn’t get a reply, it was a re-enactment of getting no support for my cries for help as a child. That made sense but it was so excruciating. She then talked about the frame of therapy and how she needs to keep herself well and that means having sessions in a protected space and time… she said, ‘your messages are encroaching on the rest of my week… I didn’t think you’d need the text support for this long…’ among other things. She tried to help me understand that in order for her to be able to help me, we needed the boundaries. She explained that boundaries are a caring and loving thing to do, not a rejection but a way to maintain health in a relationship… presently I can see how that is true however back then I was swimming in shame and triggered rejection wounds. I was sure she hated me, that I was ruining her life and that she regretted ever agreeing to work with me (though she ensured me that wasn’t the case). I couldn’t look at her, I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to peel my skin off and set my bones alight… I was in pure agony.

I have held the shame and pain of that session close to my heart for nearly two years. I drew about it to try to express to Anna how her delivery and choice of words had built a wall between us but I never showed her (see image at the start of the post). In the session yesterday I finally told her how I’d felt. I awkwardly blurted out how painful it had been to hear her say that she basically felt burdened by me. I don’t know if I missed something but I feel like she wasn’t fully absorbing what a big deal it was to me. She did say it was great that I told her, she encouraged me to keep going when I wanted to stop, she felt like it was a good sign of progress that I was being honest with her and not keeping it bottled in. But something inside me felt full of doubt and fear, certain that she must hate me. I feel like I lost the connected, bonded feeling and just became very isolated. I told her it had frightened me when she called me after I’d sent that text, that she had broken her boundary and that unsettled me. She explained that part of the boundary we set when we created the contract around texting and phoning was that if she felt I was at risk of harming myself she would call me or my named person on our contract. I said, ‘well maybe I needed you to believe that I was going to be okay and felt like you over reacted..?’ she said, ‘I didn’t know you well enough back then to take that risk, it was my duty to make sure I followed up, I was very concerned about you because of the way you worded the message which is why it’s really important you don’t send texts where you’re expecting me to read between the lines… it has to be clear communication… does that make sense?’ I said it did.

I said that when I was working with my last therapist it felt like I was a box of fireworks that had accidentally been set alight and he just sat me down in the corner of the room to fire off inside myself, sparks ricocheting around the room, with him sitting unscathed occasionally offering compassionate glances. He would let me email him as often as I wanted and he never reacted to the evocative things I wrote in them. I interpreted that as ultimate acceptance, ‘unconditional positive regard’ as he kept referring to it… but I wonder now if it was too passive… a bit neglectful… lazy? Working with Anna has been starkly different. She opened the box immediately and my sparks hit her and it scared me… it maybe frightened her too… she showed me how my behaviour and the things I said could impact her. She wasn’t going to let me ‘misbehave’ while she turned a blind eye. She was going to let herself care enough about me to really see me and I was going to need to bare that in mind if we were to form a healthy connection.

At our session yesterday I told Anna that at the end of our second session she looked me in the eye as I was leaving and said, ‘you don’t need to do this on your own anymore, Lucy.’ I told her I felt two things when she said that. A small part of me lit up with hope and wonder, gratefully ready to receive all the help and care, while a much more powerful part was furious. I said, ‘it was like who does she think she is, she doesn’t know me, she doesn’t know what my life is like, I am completely on my own, I walk out of here and I have to deal with this all by myself, I only have her one session a week… what a generic, shitty thing to say!’ I stopped and scanned her face. She had a curious, open expression and seemed intrigued by this insight, I asked if she was hurt by what I was saying or if she felt anything negative at all towards me and she said, ‘no keep going, this is really good…’ so I continued explaining how maybe a part of me took her up on the challenge… ‘maybe I thought okay – you wanna show me how I don’t have to do this on my own? I’m gonna give you a window into the bleakest, most desperately alone moments of my life and see how you handle it…’ she didn’t say much but she was listening. I wonder if she was reflecting on how unhelpful her statement of support had been, or maybe she was hating me… who knows. She talked about how this really shows us that we can be hurt by people, we can hold anger for them, but we can also have a relationship with them and like other parts of them… something was lacking, I think I wanted her to apologise for it all, to really connect to what I was saying rather than give a general overview of the therapeutic learning. I told her I wished it had never happened – that I was ashamed of my behaviour back then and I know better now but back then I’d never experienced her kind and caring nature, I just saw her as harsh and very boundaried. Anna talked a little about how I wasn’t able to take in any kindness when we started working together and that she needed to establish safety within our relationship, then build trust, then introduce care.

Writing out my thoughts on the session is helping me process it all. I don’t feel as anxious about it now and I can see that Anna probably thinks it was a great session and would be very surprised to learn that I had such a massive kickback from what was discussed. I no longer feel an urgent need to check that we’re okay. I will wait and see her the day after tomorrow and check in with her then.

A Year Ago Today

I was tidying up my desktop and I found an unnamed word document which turned out to be a journal entry from exactly a year ago. June 2018. It has highlighted two things. One is that I am not where I was a year ago and two is my relationship with Anna has grown. A year ago I was very confused by these newly emerging feelings I was experiencing. I was trying to supress them, frightened by what would happen if they came out. I still struggle with being emotionally vulnerable in front of people but I am getting more comfortable with it. And I’m crying on my own most days now which has never happened before. Last year I really struggled to trust Anna. Now I feel more secure in our attachment… I was going through a particularly hard time when I wrote this. It was Anna’s holiday break and I was feeling very alone without knowing how to reach out to anyone. I am so grateful of that small leap of progress – I now know and have experience of reaching out to people and allowing them to be there for me. I am also better at asking Anna for what I need, whether that’s a phone call or extra session or just extra reassurance.

Here is what I wrote last year…

I have 159 contacts in my mobile phone. One of them belongs to me so really it’s just 158. I just sat here reading down the list of people through blurry, tear filled eyes. 158 phone numbers that I will not call. I did call Daniel earlier but his phone is going straight to voicemail again. I’m sure he’s avoiding me.

I scrolled past mum. It’s been a month since I spoke to her and in another month it will be my birthday and she will not care. Last year for my birthday she sent me a card with a scrawled message in felt tip pen, ‘here’s a voucher, it’s hard to choose things for people’… I’m not people! I’m your daughter. You’re meant to know what I like! She’s apparently in Mallorca at the moment, which feels weird because Anna is also on holiday. For some reason that feels significant enough to mention. It amuses me that both mum and dad have enjoyed holidaying in Mallorca since the time we were there as a family almost twenty years ago. Nothing could persuade me to go back there after that experience. It was the worst holiday ever, and that’s saying something because all of our family holidays were completely shite.

I kept scrolling through the numbers. The doctor and dentist don’t count. Work doesn’t count.

Paul. I must have saved it from that one time he phoned me to ask if we could move my session for a client in crisis. I remember feeling pretty good about the fact that he thought I was stable enough to be able to cope with that. Not feeling quite so stable now. I’m tempted to phone him from a different phone just to hear his voice. I’m eleven digits away from potentially having an impact on him this very minute. Maybe he’d hear the phone and have to get up from where he is, walk across the room, lift his phone and speak into my ear. I miss his voice. I torment myself by looking at some emails he sent me years ago. It hurts my heart more than I can bear. I wonder if I ever cross his mind. I wonder if anyone ever thinks of me. I wonder what it would take to make them think of me.  

At lunchtime today Natalie told us that a mutual acquaintance took an overdose last night. Hearing those words and people’s reactions made me emotionally check out. This small, distant voice in the back of my head was saying, that was me twenty years ago. I wondered what they’d all say if it had been me she was talking about. I got up and walked out the room, out the school and sat in my car for the remaining fifteen minutes and deleted the internet history on my phone. Therapy blogs, psychology today, psych forums, google searches asking for ways I can hurt myself without it showing. Delete. Delete. Delete. Anna keeps gently encouraging me to stop all of that. It’s like an addiction.

My husband went upstairs to settle our son 50 minutes ago and I can hear him snoring over the monitor. I tried talking to him last night, lying in the dark. Told him I was feeling really shitty, that I didn’t need him to do anything but I just wanted to tell him. I rolled in for a hug but he’d fallen asleep.

I feel like I’ve been crying on the inside for days and every so often it seeps out of me and I have to take myself away to suck it all back in. But right now I’m sitting on my own and don’t need to hide it, yet still I stuff it all down and stem the flow of tears. I can’t even cry by myself. What the hell is wrong with me?

I scroll past dad’s number. A few friends. I pause at Jennifer and remember that she said to me just a couple of weeks ago that I could call her if I needed to. I imagine how the emotions I am feeling right now would instantly evaporate the minute I hear her voice.

I stare at Anna’s phone number knowing that even if she wasn’t on holiday I still couldn’t phone her. I am starting to doubt her again, doubt that she cares or that she can help me. I cycle round and round past these feelings of doubt. Why is this creeping in again, I felt like I was beginning to trust her more but is the trust really so fragile that 14 days of no contact can make me feel like I want to reject her before she rejects me? At the end of the last session I told her I might miss her. Those words fell out of my mouth before I even really knew I felt them and the kind smile she responded with stole my breathe. The normalising. The reassurance that she would hold me in mind, not forget me. That we will see each other on the 9th. That she thinks I’m stronger now than I was 6 months ago. Reminding me of the tools I have now that I can use to get me through. I find the stone I took down to mum’s on Anna’s advice and I sit and hold it which helps me feel a bit more grounded. I rub my thumb over the smooth side. I get my art stuff out but I put it all back again and decide just to write this instead. It’s so shit that I need therapy. It’s so shit that I don’t have these kind, caring people in my life without having to employ them to help me. It’s so shit that I can’t just call her or Paul when I really need them. It’s so shit that I don’t get that kind of support from my own mum. She’s not dead but it feels like she is.

In our second session, Anna stopped me at the door on the way out. She put her hand lightly on the top of my arm and looked me in the eyes and said, ‘you don’t have to do this on your own any more, Lucy.’ What a fucking joke. I am on my own with this, just like I always have been. It’s fucking bull shit to call it anything else. No one else can be there for me. Where are you now Anna? Fucking on holiday with your actual family. And I am here, comforted by my dysfunction. Yeah… you don’t have to do it on your own for ONE HOUR A WEEK! The rest you’ll have to deal with yourself!

I sneak into my daughter’s room and sit on the floor beside her bed. Watch her breathing. Gently move her hair from her sweaty forehead. Six years old. She’s still my baby. Some days I feel like there is a glass wall between us. That I can’t reach her. That she doesn’t love me or like me and that I’m not good enough for her. They’re both too precious and pure, I don’t deserve either of them. I imagine all the ways I may be fucking them up. All the things they may need to take to therapy in thirty years time. It’s so painful to imagine all the ways I might be irreversibly damaging them just because I am me. Like an invisible poison seeps out of my skin and is slowly corrupting them. Did my mother ever feel like this? Did she ever sit silently staring at my sleeping face?

Never in my whole life has my mum dedicated herself to me. Never. I don’t remember a single time where she was there just for me and didn’t make it about herself. All my life. She has never been able to allow me space to have it be about me. When I’m in therapy, that time is mine – it’s about me. And I can’t fully absorb it. Then my hour is over and it’s taken from me and I just don’t know what to do with the fucking pain. It’s not enough. One hour. How can this be called reparenting? I need so much more than this. Am I destined to have this aching need forever and simultaneously be repulsed by the need in me?

It’s actually quite reassuring sometimes to read these old notes over. If I felt this desperately alone now I would do one of a few things. I’d tell my husband, I’d message a friend, I’d text Anna asking to schedule a phone call or for an additional session… I’d be patient with myself and know that it will pass. Maybe I’d give myself space to cry. I need to remember that although I’m currently going through a huge emotional shift with a great deal of feelings coming up that I’ve not processed yet, this is progress. It’s messy and sore and feels overwhelming at times but this is the road untrodden. This is what I’ve signed up for… and it changes every day.

Giving her a voice

I am hunched and hiding, tucked in behind draped clothes inside the foot of the wardrobe, knees to my chest, eyes shut tight. My mother’s clothes hanging around my face and body, I am squashed between a tall stack of shoe boxes and the cold inside wall of the creaking piece of furniture. I am being held by these inanimate objects in a sort of a hug that smells like it should feel comforting. I can feel her all around me and see her on the inside of my eyelids. There is a throbbing pulse of pain that radiates from the centre of my chest and out down my arms. My tummy is telling me I’m feeling something but I have no idea what it is. I remember to breathe and then I sob as if I will never stop. It feels like I will run out of tears. I am searching my mind for the words to make this make sense. All I have is words, I’m good with words I can be articulate and clever and make grown ups impressed with all the things that I know. But I can’t figure out how I feel, what my body is feeling. Why can’t I work this out?

Why doesn’t she want me? I need for her to show some delight when she sees me. I need for her to be gentle and tuned in to me and my needs. But what hope does she have of doing that when I don’t even know what my needs are? When I am so unacceptable… of course she can’t bear to even look at me.

I feel like the elaborately decorated elephant balancing on the circus ball – clumsily attempting to keep everyone happy by fulfilling a role I was not made for. I am not made for this. I feel like an imposter and at every opportunity I take the chance to disappear. I hide in, on and under furniture. I hide at the bottom of the garden next to the loud and cleansing stream as it noisily drowns out my crying. I imagine somehow making myself small and fluid enough to be washed away by the water. I hide up in no-mans-land behind the golf course, when I am able to get away. I run up there and just breathe in the space around me. I imagine the repeating fantasy that began when I was 7 or 8 years old that I could gently sink back into the enveloping body of the earth and be drawn in and be gone. Part of the landscape. The image of the rolling hills holding me is such a comfort it warms me inside. When I am trapped in the house or the car, I hide in my mind. This beautiful tapestry of fixed and perfect situations I have created and cultivated for hours and hours. I look forward to visiting that vast space up there that is filled with exciting adventures that revolve around me and people who love me and I am so happy and funny and beautiful and all the things I am really not.

But hiding, deep inside the wardrobe… deep inside my mind. I can be anybody.