About 10 days ago, I shared a very painful secret with E. It was something I had never talked about, something that happened when I was 14 or 15, something that I am truly ashamed about. It shot us, like a rocket, into an alternate therapy universe, where we text daily and I more openly acknowledge how much I need her support.
So what do we do in this new universe? In Monday’s session we start off a little unfocused; I don’t think either of us really know what to do next. After talking in circles for a while, E. asks how that my teen self is doing and whether she is willing to talk.
“I don’t know if she’ll talk,” I say. “Before I came, I told her she didn’t have to. I wanted her to feel safe. I tried to imagine her in a cozy place in the house where she used to live. But the truth is that her bedroom up in the attic was usually cold [yes, sounds a little like Cinderella, doesn’t it? it was actually a proper bedroom but cold] and not that comfortable. Then I tried to imagine another spot in that house but realized that she didn’t feel comfortable or emotionally safe in that house.”
“So instead I told her she could have a room in my imaginary emotional house, and she could have it any way she wanted. She ended up getting a teenage fantasy room, in purple and black, enormous, overly elaborately decorated with a chandelier. It also has state of the art electronics [that didn’t even exist when she was a teen]. And one of the things it has is a little round window that she can open to listen and look into your office. She can also shut it if it’s too much for her.”
E. approves, “You are taking good care of her, making her feel safe.”
The teen will need to feel safe for a while, I think, before she can talk about this. She is pretty closed, pretty frightened and self-protective right now.
“If she’s not ready to talk, maybe you can slip a note under her door,” suggests E. “Do you think she’d be okay with that?”
“Maybe,” I say. “I can try that.”
“You can tell her that you believe in her and see the good in her.”
In the past, E. often suggested approaches like this and intended it as homework I would do out of session. Sometimes I would do it, and sometimes I wouldn’t, depending on how much work I had to do or how overwhelming it felt to do on my own. Lately I’ve been pushing for us to start these activities in session, together. So I pick up the yellow notepad she always leaves for clients and begin tearing off squares and writing messages.
I know you are a good person, I write.
I’d like to be a support to you and someone you can trust.
E. asks me to read them and listens thoughtfully. “Maybe you can tell her specific things you like about her. And show you understand her situation.”
So I keep writing. It won’t always be this hard and lonely.
I really like the way and your sisters bond together to encourage and support each other in this difficult family.
I love that you still find a glimmer of hope even though so much in your life is so disheartening.
It’s completely okay to be angry about how things are going.
You are right – a lot of what is happening to you is not right or fair, and you have every reason to be mad.
We talk about these messages for a while. Then E. cautions me, “You might long to get this over with, but don’t push her. Go slow so that no part of you feels pressured or gets too agitated.There is no rush. The subconscious doesn’t have a sense of time. ”
She’s right, I do want to get it over with. It’s so difficult and humiliating and painful. It’s very tempting to push on it, to go as fast as possible. I take a long breath. Okay, slow. I can do this.
Over the last few days, however, I’ve wavered quite a bit between “I can do this,” and “omg, there is no way I can do this.” Whenever I express the latter, E. assures me I can, while not trivializing how challenging it is.
Maybe I have been just trying to distract us because I can’t believe I told you such a terrible thing about myself, something so unforgivable.
Maybe. What you’re facing is really, really, really hard. Distraction would be a sweet relief. It will take an incredibly strong and courageous woman to explore the option of forgiveness. I know such a woman. She lives in your skin.
Hm, if so, she is hiding…
Give her time. Wholeness is a natural state.
Not for me! I have lived unwhole for a long time. You keep telling me something else is possible. I don’t know. Sometimes I believe you, but other times??
Anyway, I guess the point is can I forgive myself? I don’t know yet.
If you had been content “unwhole,” you wouldn’t have started this work. Something in you knows there is a better way.
I don’t know if you can forgive yourself, but I’m going to stick around and find out! It will be a joyous day.
Another time, I tell her that the teen is freaked out and wants to harm herself. I won’t let her, I tell E., but otherwise I just give her some space, right?
Yes. Just come by and check on her. Ask her to give you a sign that she’s okay in there. Maybe a knock back if you knock to her. Give her some choice about how to communicate. Let her know it’s your job to keep her safe (sounds like you are doing that) and give as much warmth and sweetness as she’ll allow. If nothing else, put your warm hand on the closed door and think good thoughts of her. Love is an awfully hard thing to resist for long. She’s lucky to have your presence and patience.
(Seriously, could I have a better therapist?)
Today, I thought about that teen a bit more. I remember how constantly negative and harshly critical my stepdad was. My mom, my siblings and I tip-toed and let him get away with all sorts of cruelty in our efforts to keep him from going on the rampage. The teen felt constantly under attack by her stepdad and completely abandoned by her mother. I realized this would not put her in a good position to deal with more painful material.
I’m realizing how unhappy she is about her life… she feels constantly criticized & now I ask her to process something where she feels she deserves criticism but can’t handle any more.
Can you demonstrate to her that you understand this? Don’t ask her to process. Just ask her to receive your understanding and empathy. Tell her you just don’t want her to be alone with the pain, confusion and anger.
Behold and be held–this is what you can offer.
I can try to offer that (sometimes more solid on this than other times). She is mad now, not super ready to listen. Maybe a good time for another angry art project. I can just let her be mad for a while.
What a good mother you are.
I am coming to think that she can’t take responsibility for things she did and ultimately forgive herself while she feels she is still being blamed and criticized for things unfairly. Maybe she needs to be openly mad about that first, and then she can put her behavior in context.
So for now, my raging teen self gets an amazing purple and black bedroom and permission to be as mad as she needs to be.
(Photo seems to be missing the stuffed animals, posters, and stacks of books she would have to have in there.)