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 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.