A story in five parts.
Part One: The Evening After
After I leave my Wednesday therapy session, I feel shell-shocked. Maybe it’s not as bad as the first time I told E that I’d been abused. But it wasn’t all that much better either. I am shaken and disoriented. And in my stunned state, I can’t remember what I am supposed to do.
I’m so fortunate that E lets me text her. That evening, I write to her:
Lots of body stuff triggered.
I forgot, am I supposed to do something with this? Or just notice?
And why is it that I suddenly cannot remember anything (except, thanks to your reminder this afternoon: empathy first!).
Soon after, she answers:
You are just supposed to notice, allow, and soothe. All the stuff you have been getting really good at.
Oh right, allow. That was the part I had forgotten. In electrified mode, all my instincts say Danger! Avoid! Retreat! It is counterintuitive to allow, although in truth, that is the only thing I’ve found that actually helps.
I breathe in, and out. I put my hand over my heart and tell my wounded child self: Oh, dear young one. What you have been through! It was terrible, and you didn’t deserve it. Of course you are feeling upset. It’s a little scary but normal to feel the emotions associated with abuse. You couldn’t feel them back then–it didn’t seem safe–but now you have me, grown up wise self, and I can keep you safe. You can feel all the feelings, and I will sit with you and stroke your hair. I will keep you safe.
Part Two: The Urge to Self-Harm Resurfaces
Despite my kind words to my inner child, some version of myself is freaked out. By Thursday morning, I am having urges to harm myself. I’ve seldom had these recently, and I haven’t done anything about it (i.e. haven’t harmed myself intentionally) since early February.
Again, I breathe in, and then out again. Anchoring myself in the breath has become almost second nature to me over the past year. I ask myself, What is this urge to self-harm about? What do I really need?
Ha, wouldn’t it be good to know? I’m sorry to say, I’m not there yet. I can’t figure it out. It’s all very twisted and obscure.
Part Three: Can I Be Present for Sex?
Recently in therapy, I’ve been talking (haltingly, awkwardly), about how challenging I find it to be present during sex with my husband. This is not about him; it is about my past. It is not easy to shake even if I want to, and I do want to.
So here I am, Thursday night, all stirred up about my past, yet I decide I’m going to seduce my husband. I’m not sure the timing makes any sense–but then, where does it say we have to make sense? I’m happy to say that even after all these years together, seducing my husband is ridiculously easy. What is different is that I’m starting to speak up for myself in ways that I hope will make it easier to stay emotionally present.
For example, earlier I asked him, “Would you be mad if we started making love and then I said, no wait, stop?” And he said, “Of course it would be all right, and I’d stop right away. Anything else is rape.” This is not a guy who has taken women’s studies classes or been in college workshops about consent (we are from the days before anyone talked about consent). He just knows what is loving and respectful and what is wrong, intuitively. (Unlike first husband, yuck.)
So I tell him, “Let’s go really slow, okay? Extra slow.” And he just smiles; it’s fine with him. We go slow, and I focus on the feeling of his hand on my back, his kiss on my shoulder. This is my husband, I think. This is the man I love and who loves me back, who is unfailingly supportive. This is nothing like the past.
It hurts when he enters me, almost like it did after my surgery last year. I gasp in pain, and he stops immediately. Is this physical or emotional? I’m not sure, but we go slow, and then it’s okay..
I make it much longer than I usually do before I check out, disappear, dissociate, whatever you want to call it. And I decide to be happy with more time present, instead of mad that I can’t (yet) stay present throughout the lovemaking.
Four: Back in E’s Office
E doesn’t usually see clients on Fridays, except on the first Friday of the month. After the rawness of Wednesday’s session, she offered me a Friday session, and I decided I didn’t want to spend the weekend with wounds wide open, so I accepted.
When I arrive Friday morning, she already has the mandala coloring books and pens out on the floor. It’s maybe a little weird that we have them out now every single session. Yet at the same time, it’s not weird. It means we take our shoes off and sit on the floor, nearer to one another. That is what I most value about it. Sometimes we hardly do any coloring at all. Other times we do. Sometimes coloring is a good break from something that’s intense and difficult. Sometimes we consult one another about which color to add next. She feels more like a friend, though I don’t forget for a moment that she’s my therapist.
She wants to know how I’m doing, and I tell her about breathing and trying to allow the feelings to be there. I say the urge to harm myself is much closer to the surface than its been, but I can’t figure out what that means about underlying needs.
She asks what I think it might mean for the girl, that inner child. What does she need? “Validation, I guess,” I say. “Someone to listen perhaps? Just listen and hold the pain, without pushing it away?”
E reads me a passage from the book Circle of Stones. It asks (I’m paraphrasing), “How would your life have been different, if as a girl you’d had a nursemaid, a substantial woman who let you climb into her ample lap. How would it have been for you if she had rocked you and told you, go ahead and cry, child, cry as much as you need to. I’m here, and you are safe now.”
“Something like that,” E says. “Maybe the girl needs something like that?” I agree it sounds pretty appealing.
I move the conversation away from the touchiest subjects. I tell her about my sons–one who is doing well, one who is struggling. I tell her about a paper I am working on for publication. These things matter in my life, but they are not the focus of therapy.
“I didn’t come here with a particular agenda today,” I tell her. “I just wanted to be here and feel that things were okay.”
She tells me about a blog post she’d been thinking about writing: How Coloring Helps Therapy. She says it would be about us, and how much we’ve been able to talk about since we started sitting on the floor and coloring. She thinks it helps for the reasons I’ve mentioned before, but she has an additional reason. “I think it’s empowering, because you asked for it, and you got to see that your request was heard and fulfilled.” She also indicates she likes it; she isn’t just doing something she dislikes because I want to.
“But that idea will just float around as an idea,” she says. “Just like so many of my blog post ideas. I never get around to writing them up.”
“If we had a different relationship,” I reply, “I would write them up for you. You could tell me your idea, and I’d write it up. I love the writing part.”
“Well, maybe we’ll do that, five years after whenever you are done with therapy.”
“Ha, by then I’ll be 85,” I say.
She laughs, too. “And I’ll be 90-something! I can be the oldest therapist-blogger ever.”
Five: A Mind-Body Therapy Session
I don’t write about this much, but in addition to seeing E, and Tabitha the psychiatric nurse, I’ve been seeing C, a mind-body therapist, for nearly a year. She’s been guiding me to a greater awareness of what is happening in my body. She has helped me get serious about and committed to my meditation practice.
Usually in a session we talk a little, not a lot. I might update her about how something is going. She asks what is going on for me now, and by that she means, what am I feeling? We might do a short guided meditation or some exercise, and then we move to the table or the mat for some bodywork. Sometimes this is very deep massage on the inside of my hips, when I say my pelvis is tight (she’s also the source of the golden ball of light). Sometimes she rocks my head and massages my shoulders until I can let go of my frantic thoughts.
Today I tell her about having been triggered in therapy and that I’m still feeling it. I tell her how surprised I was that as soon as I was triggered, I forgot what I was supposed to do. C thinks that’s pretty normal. She sees how I fold my arms and grow smaller when I start to talk about this (and I don’t tell her any details at all).
She asks me what my body wants to do when I am triggered. “Don’t tell me,” she says. “Show me. You started to show it just now. Take a minute, and give yourself over to it, if you feel okay about that.”
I draw my knees up to my chest. I put my arms on my knees, and my forehead on my arms. I’m closed up to the world.
C checks that I am okay. Then she says, “We’ve talked before about that wise woman self you have in you. Can you bring her out to be with you?”
I try, but I find it’s difficult. She seems remote.
I move back into a regular seated position, and C asks me what that felt like. I said that when I was all closed up like that, I couldn’t really summon that wise self like that.
“Interesting,” she says. We try a sitting position, most like a meditation posture. This feels grounded and solid, and I can easily feel the presence of the wiser self.
On the table, we decide to work on the tightness in my pelvis. With a hand on my back and one on my low belly, she holds and then lightly massages. Then she pulls on my feet, turning them inward and outward. Finally, she moves to my neck and head.
I follow my breath and her touch. When she shifts to my head, I carefully open in supta baddha konasana, a very open yoga position (no props used with C, though I love them at the end of an Iyengar class). Slowly, I feel myself start to relax.
Without ever saying so in words, C has shown me how much my body posture, position, and tension have to do with my ability to cope with triggers and intense emotions. This is something I can keep exploring on my own, I know.
And In Conclusion
Being triggered in therapy on Wednesday was a shock. It came right at a time I was doing well, which at first I found aggravating. Not again! Just when I’m feeling better! But the fact is, I’m stronger now. I have more skills, and I am past the suicidal thoughts I was obsessed with all winter. My body chemistry is becoming stabilized. And all that has meant that Wednesday’s “ouch” has transformed itself into an opportunity to learn.