I’ve been feeling better lately. I am not missing the job I left on September 1, though I”ll admit I’m fretting about money a bit. I’ve been spending hours in my garden. I take walks and sometimes go to yoga, plus of course my TRE class. My nervous system is calming down. My impulses to self-harm have almost disappeared in the past week. So far so good.
So I’m in reasonably good shape when I walk into my Monday therapy session with E. I show her the collage I made to illustrate how 14 was feeling about her life. We talk about my mother and some of the things I have written on my blog recently.
“What do you think you are trying to accomplish by looking more closely at your mother’s experience?” E asks me.
I can answer this one. “I am trying to understand why. Why would a mother not protect her children from the kind of emotional abuse we experienced from Leo? Why did she turn away from seeing everything that was wrong? If it’s not my inherent unworthiness, what is it?”
E thinks it’s promising that I am considering explanations besides my own revolting unlovability. She thinks it’s possible to both see the constraints my mom felt while also validating the unmet needs of the girl. She thinks my wise adult self can still meet some of those needs now.
We talk a bit more, and I say something to the effect of, “One thing that is also hard about this is that it makes me aware of things I wish I had done for my own children when they were little. I worry about whether they understand their right to feel their emotions, if not always to act on them. And was I attuned to what all they needed? Did I understand and help them process everything that hurt them about their parents’ divorce? I worry I failed them.”
E responds with something along the lines of, “You probably did… of course you are imperfect… everyone has to heal their own psyche…” Actually I am not sure exactly what she says. Maybe she says, “I can see in your soul that you are a piece-of-shit human being.” All I know is that I am hit by an electric shock that is devastatingly painful.
My usual reaction to something that hurt in therapy is to pull back, get quiet, pretend it’s all fine and brood obsessively over it later. But if I’ve learned one thing in therapy, I have learned that pulling away from what hurts doesn’t help. So I try really hard to be honest about what is going on. “I get that intellectually,” I tell her. “But emotionally I can’t accept this. I can’t even look at it. It’s hot, sharp, electric…”
“What are the feelings? she asks.
“Fear,” I say first. Then I add, “Guilt. Shame.”
It is so hard to stay there, saying this to her. The pain behind my breastbone dominates everything in this moment. It is pulling me somewhere, or pushing me to run somewhere; it’s hard to know exactly when your thoughts are starting to spin out.
E talks to me about putting it all in a box. She doesn’t want me to leave her office all activated. I don’t have to look at it all now, she tells me. I don’t have to look at it at all, if I don’t want to, though she thinks it will probably be helpful. I can put it in a box to contain it. If I want, later we can just lift the corner and take a peek at it.
The box, the box, the box. I try to connect with her words. I don’t want this to engulf me either. I imagine sticking this in a pretty handmade paper box, the kind I keep my stamps in. I imagine tying it with brown raffia. I envision myself telling it, you stay there for now; I’ll come back to you when I’m ready.
And it’s time to leave. E opens the door, smiles at me, says as she always does, “See you next week.” I actually don’t like that because a week is a long time, and it means nothing to her not to see me, but it’s hard for me to cope with everything and not have her there. I want to be honest. I am trying. I say, “It’s hard for me, to wait a week to see you.” I pause, thinking I should say something after that, but I realize there’s nothing to add. “That’s all; it’s just hard.”
She looks at me, warmly, and puts her hand on my arm. “Are we okay?”
I nod at her. “Yes, we’re okay.” And I leave.
The pain and confusion in my chest are big and urgent. I go home and dig more Sibirian irises out of the flower bed. I haven’t divided them in years, and I have what seems like billions of them. (If you want some, let me know.) I make a meatloaf, a comfort food I haven’t made in years; it’s the kind of food my mom used to make. It smells good. I stay in my body. Sometimes I want to hurt myself, but I don’t.
I think about the box before bedtime. It’s grown enormous in my mind, far taller than I am. In my mind, I walk around it. It’s just feelings in there, I tell myself. I can live with feelings. But I feel shaky.
At night, I dream I am being raped, by multiple men. I wake up, shaking and sickened. I fall asleep and slide back into the same dream. When I wake up again, my entire body is trembling. I breathe, tell myself it’s just a bad dream. I slip back into it and in my dream, I attack a man to protect myself. There is blood everywhere. I don’t know if I have killed him. When I wake up this third time, I can hardly breathe. In the morning, I ask myself if the two are connected, the electric shock and the nightmare, but I can’t see how. My skin is tingling. I want to burn myself, but I just hit myself a few times–a compromise.
I don’t want to be like this. I don’t want to repeat these cycles over and over. I have gone to therapy forever, taken my meds, meditated, even quit my job for god’s sake. I am not doing this anymore! I refuse. Something has to change, and the only thing I can change right now is my reaction.
I tell myself, I am not going to be afraid of what’s in that box. I am not sure what it is, but I know shame is a big component. So I pick out the most shameful memory I can think of, one in which I do a very bad thing. And I write a long letter to that memory. I won’t share it all here–too personal, and I’m not ready to admit what I did to everyone. But here’s the last part of the letter:
So, okay, you did something wrong and harmful, something you regret deeply. It feels like crap. How could you do that, you wonder.
You could do that because you are a human being, and you fuck up sometimes. It doesn’t mean you are disgusting, loathsome and irredeemable. Disgusting, loathsome and irredeemable would be continuing to do that. Disgusting, loathsome and irredeemable would be believing it’s okay to behave that way. But you have a conscience and know it’s not okay. You feel regret about the impact on others. In fact, you never would have done it if you’d understood the harm you were causing. You know that is true. You want to be a kind, good person. You are sorry and that matters.
You are a human being, so you will make mistakes. You can learn from them and continue to grow to be a deeper, more thoughtful person.
Probably the most important thing I need to tell is that what you did is forgivable, and if you don’t believe that now, that’s okay. Maybe you will in time. I’ll keep telling you.
the wisest part of Q, the part that wants to be well
I read the the letter, and the tingling on my skin goes down a notch or two. This suggests perhaps I’m on the right track. Perhaps.