I finally feel a bit normal.
Dysregulated, but in a way that allows my mind to engage with the dysregulation. I can engage my ability to reason and reflect along with the feelings at the same time, in other words. So that’s nice.
I didn’t really know what to do or how to calm down enough to know what was wrong, if that makes any sense. I was walking home and tried a grounding strategy a commenter suggested, and that sent images through my mind of smashing my own skull. Not pleasant.
I don’t know if that was because I calmed down enough to start to tap into the distress or if it intensified it.
I got home and sent a message to a good friend from a part: “Can we talk to you? It’s loud in here.”
Okay, so that was helpful. Things are too intense. It was helpful to myself to know what the problem seemed to be, and I am sure it was also helpful to feel some connection to my friend (even though she was sleeping at the time).
I have some more reflections on the session with the therapist that I had on Monday. I think there will be more to come, as I am thinking about not just what happened for me in 50 minutes, but what it reminds me of about therapy in general. I haven’t seen a therapist in four years. I can’t remember how long I saw that particular therapist I saw before I left for Country X. It might have been two years. But there was a long gap before that, as I stopped therapy when I went to graduate school and began teaching, because school and work full-time along with a substantantial commute made it impossible to continue. In other words, it’s been quite a long time since I saw a therapist, and I have changed substantially since then.
I hope you won’t get bored.
The therapist asked a lot of questions about what I had discussed or not discussed with a therapist before. Well, it’s been four years. I don’t exactly remember. She wanted to know what I had discussed with therapists prior to the most recent one–what were the goals? Well, that was 12 years ago. She wanted to know what the goals were. Fuck if I know.
Trying to answer those questions, I was acutely aware of how life feels in parts: that it is often authentically experienced as scattered moments rather than as readily identifiable patterns. I thought about one therapist and what I remember most is staring at her rug for long periods of time. She exclaimed once, “You’re individuating!” And I wondered why this felt important to her and what evidence of that happening she was responding to. She used to say I hadn’t had adequate mirroring, and I wondered where one goes with that. It’s not something you can time-travel to fix. She used to tell me as I learned to self-soothe things would get better, and that I needed to stop depending on other people to soothe me. Those are things I remember.
The thing that strikes me is that particular therapist’s assumption that I would understand where she was coming from and that she didn’t need to explain. I also take away from it that when I went into a freeze state–staring at the carpet seems like a freeze state to me–she was patient, and did not push, which was at least not harmful. But she did not know how to help or even that I might need help.
I remember the one I saw after she retired used to ask me, “And how do you take care of yourself?” when I was unable to pin down what was happening during conflicts. Why was my partner responding to me in the way she was? What about her response was upsetting me. The therapist seemed to believe boundaries would fix everything. To me, looking back, her expectations look much more like tit-for-tat. Hurt her the way she is hurting you, and she’ll stop.
She tried to point out “healthy ways” to set boundaries and I now see them as unassailable ways to fight.
That’s my honest opinion a decade or so down the line. Not that boundaries aren’t important or that I shouldn’t stand up for myself in a conflict. It’s just what I see as her motives. Not actually very good. At some point in her life, she had felt given permission to get other people to behave the way that she wanted by punishing them for misbehaviour, and she assumed that I would respond well to the same kind of permission.
What I think now is that people are free to choose and you need to find the strength to accept their choices. My ex was free to choose to intentionally hurt me, and I needed to find the strength to accept that she does that and to her this represents a valid choice. Those aren’t choices I am willing to make and as it turns out I don’t want to be around someone who sees that choice as an acceptable one, but I need to allow her to make that choice. Standing up for myself does not take away her choice to hurt me intentionally. That choice remains hers to make.
What I am getting at is that what was memorable to me about my therapy experiences weren’t the things that interested the therapist I saw on Monday.
She wanted to know what I talked about in therapy when I was in college. I know it had to do then with my family and with sexual abuse, but fuck if I know what the specifics were. It was 25 years ago.
The therapist seemed to be a bit younger than me–I don’t know if she actually was or not. If she were 10 years younger than me, it might be difficult for someone that age to think about what it is like to remember what happened when they were in still late childhood. That’s one possibility.
A lot of the session seemed to hinge on memory and how we experience it and understand it. Early on, something came up and she said the usual thing, I guess, which is that it protects us not to remember. Now, I am aware people think this, but the evidence is pretty strongly against it, that people who don’t remember traumas have more intrusive symptoms, more disruptions in relationships and are generally less happy than people with the same kinds of trauma who do remember.
So I explained why I think people have trouble remembering trauma, or one of the reasons, which has to do with our constructing meaning out of events collectively. If no one else saw the “ghost,” you start to think there is no ghost. If no else sees you are being harmed, you find yourself unsure that the harm is occurring, even though you seem to be feeling pain.
She said this happens only when you are little.
I looked at her for a minute. She was very sure of herself. “Okay.”
I am not going to argue about this. I said what I think. You said what you think. We have established we disagree about it.
But I can imagine she thought of my attempts to describe previous experiences of therapy and she presumed I am protecting myself from something. I don’t think that necessarily. Get away from the assumption of the need to forget as a dominant motivation, and other things start to crop up as possible explanations: I am a teacher; there are many reasons I have observed that people don’t remember things. Among them, it didn’t seem important or worth remembering in the first place. Or, that information has not been accessed in a long time, and the neural pathway to it is not very strong.
I am reminded of the tissue incident as I write about this, because it seemed to create some confusion. In talking about the therapist handing me tissues, I was pointing out my willingness to see this as rejecting. I don’t know what the therapist intended by it. I am not in her head. I don’t even know what most people intend by it, since I have never done it before. People do cry around me from time to time–students do, parents do more often than I ever expected. Tissues don’t usually cross my mind.
But my thought about what it meant–get yourself together, stop crying, this is making me uncomfortable–told me about the lens through which I was viewing her already. People refer to this as a distortion, but I won’t go that far. It sounds judgmental to me. It’s a lens, a preconceived notion. It’s not possible to go through life without these. We need to have some framework through which to interpret reality, even if that framework may be imperfect or inaccurate.
This is part of the therapist’s lens: Forgetfulness is motivated by a desire for self-protection, to avoid the pain of memory. She probably does not think of this as a lens, nor does she probably wonder periodically, “If I didn’t what I think, how would I understand this? Are there other ways to think about this that are more interesting or that seem to be more accurate?” I don’t think most people do that.
What I think about my own forgetfulness is that it does not protect me, because I already have the fragments within my mind which constitutes memory. I already know. So not thinking about them or reflecting upon them makes my world less comprehensible to me, but it does not protect me from pain. It does, however, protect other people from that pain. They don’t have those fragments, and if I don’t construct a memory out of them, then there is nothing for them to know. I do think people learn forgetting as a coping strategy, because forgetfulness helps other people to cope, but I don’t think it’s as simple as our minds protecting us by not remembering.
There were four points in the session when connection with the therapist seemed to be possible, times when I felt connected to myself. The second was our discussion about memory, because this question of memory interests me. We disagreed. I don’t know if the therapist understood this as disagreeing.
Anyway, we did.
The first time was when she asked me who cared for me as a child, and I thought of who those people were: Aisha, Ksymcia, Nata. Losses. And I began to sob.
She got the tissues. I tried to box it up. I told her about Aisha or at least the fact of her existence. After that, the question of memory came up.
The third time was when I was telling her about trying to put a dismembered corpse back together. I can’t remember how that came up. I told her how distressing it was to be unable to get the pieces to fit.
She said something like, “Do you remember that?” I didn’t somehow quite catch the words. Well, I was telling her what I remembered. I couldn’t understand the question. It seemed to suggest that what I was telling her did not seem to fall under the category of memory for her–“Is there a “real” memory?” she seemed to be asking. What’s a real memory for her?
I think I just said yes. I remember it.
But it was another dysjunction between us.
The last time was when she asked me something to do with trafficking–the answer ought to have been Yuri. I know I mentioned this in my first post about.
I felt suddenly frightened. So, I paused, surprised about it, and told her. She might have asked something about that, or maybe I volunteered. I said I seemed to be afraid of speaking. It might be that Yuri is someone I cannot talk about, or it might be that Yuri did not like when I spoke.
She said, “Let’s leave this for now.”
Later, I came back to it. I just said, “It’s interesting.”
And she said again, “Let’s leave that.”
After that, I checked out and performed.
Now, in retrospect, what I think was so dysregulating about the session was the intensity of my desire to connect, and my inability to do so–the combination of this pain that’s really separation distress and fear.