Today I head back into therapy after a week off. I’m excited to see E; I’ve missed her. I’ve been feeling good and feeling grateful that I’m feeling good.
I sat down on the floor, and right away E asked, “How was the visit with your dad? And how are you feeling?
I have just returned from a long weekend in southern California, which was mostly spent with my sisters, my cousins and my aunt, a women-only family reunion. I thought parts of it would be challenging, but instead it was loving and silly and made me feel like I was 12 years old and still infatuated with my aunt.
The last day before I flew home, my sister suggested we go visit my dad in his new assisted living home. We only a little time to see him, an hour at most, so I said yes. I thought it will be a chance for the side of me that cares about him to check in on how he’s settling in, and he’ll be happy to see me. The part of me that gets nervous about seeing him was a little bit scared, but reassured itself that “it’s only an hour.”
So I tell E, “It was good. He likes the place he’s in and is participating in more activities and getting to know people. But honestly, I haven’t been thinking about him very much.”
“Is this out of avoidance,” she asks me, “or because it’s not important?”
“I’m glad he’s doing well, but I guess I’ve just been occupied with other things, so soon after I left there, the visit slipped into the background.”
“It can be hard to hold both things,” she says, “Both your concern for this aging man, and the thought that this man didn’t support you in the way you needed support…”
I am a little taken aback by her phrasing, “More than that.”
“Yes,” she says, “he was really inattentive to your needs.”
Boom. Just like that, I am gone from this conversation. My protective wall has gone up, and I’ve hid myself behind it.
“Anyway,” I say, “I enjoyed my sisters and…”
“Wait, wait,” E says, rather urgently. “What just happened there?”
I just look at her.
She goes on, “I was talking, and all of a sudden, you pulled away. Your eyes went blank. I said something, I think. Can we talk about what it was?”
I pause for a moment, thinking. It’s not the direction I imagined we might go today. Yet I appreciate that she noticed right away that something was not right. And even though it wasn’t right, I find I can still trust her.
“Okay,” I say. “You said my dad wasn’t supportive of me. And while I guess that was true, that was not the core of the issue. And I suppose I felt you didn’t get it, so I withdrew.”
“Right, I saw that,” she says, “And where do you think you would go, beyond withdrawing? What would you have done if I didn’t stop us?”
“Um,” I say. “I guess first I just needed to protect myself, pull away to feel safer. And then I’d think about it later. And I would wonder if you thought maybe it wasn’t true after all, what I kind of remember happening. Maybe you didn’t really believe me after all. Maybe I shouldn’t believe myself. After all, you are the therapist, and you probably know better how to assess memory fragments. But I don’t really want to go down the “I made it all up” path yet again. Maybe I’d conclude you don’t get it. Or I’d think for a while and decide to just let it go, because ultimately I trust you.”
“Can you think of any other path you might take?” she asks. “Is there any other direction you could go with this?”
“I suppose I could ask you,” This makes me squirm and is hard to articulate. “I could say, wait, when you said my dad wasn’t supportive, that felt like you were minimizing what was a big deal to me. And I wonder why you would say that, what you really meant. I wonder if you have doubt that anything more happened.”
She asks me if I want her to answer those questions. I nod.
“Well, I often speak in generalities rather than specifics,” she starts off, “because unless you bring it up, I don’t want to push you into the specifics. I want that to come when you feel ready and want to talk about it.”
She pauses a moment, then continues, “Also, were you talking about when you were a baby? I thought that was your grandfather.”
“No,” I say, “I was talking about when I was eight or nine. That was my father, I know it. The other memory from when I was maybe three(?), that was at my grandfather’s house. I don’t know who it was. It might have been my grandfather. Sometimes I feel like it was, but other times I don’t.”
She thinks for a moment. Then she says, “I hate saying this, because, to be honest, it brings up all my own ‘bad therapist’ shit, but I can’t remember the details of what happened. Can you remind me?”
Oddly enough, I don’t feel upset that she can’t remember. I want to reassure her, “You aren’t a bad therapist. You have a lot of clients. You talk to tons of people.”
“I can always look back in my notes, but that involves digging through…” she says.
“But you have a lot of notes,” I say, sympathetically.
“I do, for you especially because we’ve been working together so long,” she smiles. “Anyway, thank you. I can generally manage my own stuff, so it’s okay. I wonder though, can you remind me what happened?”
(It gets more graphic here, so please skip this if it pains you to read details. You can stop entirely, or start again at the asterisks** below. )
“My dad, he came into my room at night…” and then I’m struck mute, utterly unable to continue. My body tingles, my face grows hot, my breath becomes tight and shallow, and I find I can’t look at her.
“Did he… was this when… did he make you touch him? No, I remember. He… I think he made you… did he make you suck his penis?”
I nod, still unable to talk. But I do notice that it’s almost as hard for her to say as it is for me. Because it’s fucking disgusting.
** She checks in on how I feel. I’m sure she can see from my face that this is a big painful mountain of shit for me.
“I am surprised,” I tell her. “I thought we had worked on this. But I find it still feels hot, electric.”
We have a couple of conversations that spin off from this, and I can’t remember in what order they come in.
One conversation is about how to handle the feelings that sprung up, so I don’t have to carry away too much “electricity.” She asks if I can tell the electric thing, “I see you need some attention. I will come back to you; I promise not to forget you. But I need you to stay in this box for a little while.”
“No,” I tell her. “It’s not the electric thing that needs attention. It’s the eight- or nine-year-old girl who had the experience. She is the one who is triggered.”
We talk about what that girl needs: validation, reassurance, and some tenderness. I say I might write her a letter. E offers me a Friday session follow-up, since we missed Monday whenI was in southern California. She also suggests I remind the girl that I am learning to advocate for her, for example by challenging statements that minimize her experience.
Another conversation is about E expressing some remorse about bringing this all up for me. She feels sorry that she didn’t remember the details when they were clearly so important to me. I tell her honestly, “You know, I don’t feel mad that you didn’t remember. What you always remember is where I’m at emotionally and how it feels to me.”
I can see, however, that she is frustrated with herself. She’s triggered my emotional pain from abuse that happened long ago. And I’ve triggered her “I’m a bad therapist” anxiety. Ouch.
She wants to be there for me as I deal with the aftermath, she says. She encourages me to call or text her. I appreciate this, I really do. She repeatedly demonstrates her commitment to supporting me.
The other conversation we have is about how useful, if unintended, this experience is. It shows me that I don’t have to put up a wall and then try to discount something hurtful that she says. We can stop together and take that one sentence she said, open it up, and look at everything that’s inside there for me. It also makes us realize that although we have spent a lot of time on what the wounded girl needs and how to be kind to her, we have not processed the experiences sufficiently. We can do more together, when I feel ready, to lessen the intensity of the electric shock reaction.
I leave feeling a bit destabilized. And yet at the same time, I feel cared for and supported because when she noticed something was wrong, she had the courage and care for me to dig into it, even when it hit on her own anxiety.