Three years ago today I first met K for a half hour initial consultation, to see if working together felt right for both of us. At the time I was quite a mess, to put it mildly. I had been really struggling since a close friend committed suicide in December 2014, something which triggered the worst emotional flashbacks and annihilation blackouts I’d ever experienced and left me unable to sleep or function for 6 weeks, and in April 2015 on a family holiday, without warning, hundreds of memories of childhood trauma, abuse and neglect came back and I ended up self-harming in the bathroom there for the first time in 4 years. After this holiday I started to understand what was going on and what it was I was trying to heal myself from, but I was plunged into further darkness as the reality of my Mum’s mental illness began to make itself known to me and I had to act to limit the amount of time Nina and I spent with her.
By the time I met K in August 2015 I had been seeing a shamanic journey therapist fortnightly for a couple of months, as well as the acupuncturist who I’d worked with on and off since I was 21, but despite some moments of clarity and release, I was falling apart in a big way. My nights were plagued with terrors and bad dreams and I was experiencing high levels of dissociation (although I didn’t know this is what it was) as well as extreme distress and suicidal thoughts and feelings. I knew a lot about complex-PTSD because of the work I do and then suddenly one day it hit me – the reason I was so drawn to this area of research was because it described my struggles. I found K when it became obvious I needed ‘proper therapy’ because I was in so much distress having been triggered into yet another emotional flashback upon leaving my acupuncturist’s treatment room. She was the only therapist in my area when I searched for complex trauma therapists in my city and I emailed her straightaway saying I was looking for a therapist to work through what I thought was complex-PTSD resulting from childhood abuse and neglect, the memories of which had only recently returned to me. She called me a few days later and we arranged to meet the following week for a half hour session and then we would take things from there. During this initial phone call I asked if we could work fortnightly – hah! This has made me giggle in session a few times, as I ended up doing 6 times as much as that at least, meeting for 3 hours a week and then doing two double sessions a week plus an email during our first summer of working together! How little I knew about the hell that was about to be unleashed on us both and the depths we would journey to together.
The first time I drove to K’s house I felt slightly apprehensive but at the same time very composed and together. I’d seen many therapists and counsellors and alternative medicine practitioners and hospital specialists over the years so I was used to trotting out facts about my life with relatively little emotion. I can’t really remember what we talked about, I know she told me she had almost grown-up children and her family’s diet was practically vegan, that she had done yoga outside in the garden that day and enjoyed riding her bike – all things that made me warm to her. I told her how much I enjoyed cycling and being outside in nature and about a recent camping trip Nina and I had been on. We talked a bit about what I needed help with and how much I had been struggling, and she said that the work would commence at a very slow pace and would involve a lot of resourcing and stabilising before we touched on any of the trauma. During this initial session we both agreed it felt right to work together and arranged to start meeting weekly the following week. When I got home I remember writing how I knew she could ‘handle’ me and wouldn’t be taking any shit from me. She wasn’t going to let me get away with bullshitting her either, about how I was doing and how I felt, and both these things felt really important as I’ve always been good at convincing myself and the people around me that my emotions and experiences are other than they are. I’ve always known, on some level at least, that I needed someone very strong to walk beside me on this journey, and I think this is why all the chaos that suddenly let loose when therapy started had not manifested in any other healing relationship.
The day before our first proper session I ended up stuck in my office at work in a really intense shame-driven and despair-filled emotional flashback. All I could think was that I needed to kill myself and Nina because the level of damage and inter-generational trauma was too great. I couldn’t see a way out. I text my acupuncturist who had been my anchor and a huge support for me since the previous December, asking him what happened on a soul level if a person kills themselves and their child to end both their suffering in this lifetime, and whether it could be a good thing for our soul’s overall journey. I told him I just couldn’t keep going and was scared I’d damaged Nina irreparably as well. (As it turns out K and I ended up doing some work about my relationship with Nina early on because the fear that I had broken her came up a lot, and K has since successfully reassured me that Nina is securely attached and thriving in a way I never have been). He responded with something along the lines of ‘love her, don’t kill her’ and I eventually manged to get myself home once the building was deserted. This flashback lasted all evening and into the following day, and then dissipated suddenly so when I went to see K for our first proper session I was in a good and stable place again. I must have told her about this experience and how desperate I had been – I think this was the first time the word ‘dissociation’ was used – because she offered for me to email or call whilst I was away at a conference the following week if things became ‘rather overwhelming’. This offer surprised me at the time, I didn’t think between session contact was a ‘thing’ in private therapy, but looking back I can see how some of the things I was coming out with (such as killing myself and Nina to end the cycle), whilst seeming entirely logical and rational to me, were really dark and more-than-a-little concerning.
Things continued to unravel after those early meetings and I descended into a dark and hopeless place which lasted many, many months as the level of damage and dysfunction I had experienced began to make itself known and all my attachment fears and survival behaviours were repeatedly triggered. I don’t want to go to those places today though, instead I want to reflect upon the fact that through all that, and recent events – she has stayed.
Sometimes I still cannot believe that she has stayed for three years, walking beside me as I have journeyed into the darkest parts of my soul, helping me shine a light on the most disturbing aspects of my infancy and childhood. She has stayed through all of the turmoil and despair and the “borderline” rage and cognitive distortions I threw at her via text and email. She held hope for me and her faith in my ability to come through this never once wavered. And she didn’t just stay, she stayed the same – she was constant, consistent, predictable, stable and safe. She never changed. I have driven to her house almost 300 times over the past 3 years and every time she has been there waiting for me with the door open and has asked me what I’d like to drink. I’ve arrived in floods of tears, too dissociated to walk properly, in a shame flashback and unable to look at her, highly anxious, suicidal, excited and joyful, as various other parts/alters, with no sense of her at all when my brain has erased her, with my rabbits in their travel cage and baby guinea pigs in a box, with huge cuddly toys hidden under my coat and with my tale between my legs when teen parts have kicked off over the weekend via text. And through all of this she has been there, waiting for me, her voice and smile and demeanour unchanging. Only once in three years have I sensed her being different and not herself in session, and she apologised for that the following the week. I’ve often thought she was being different, felt my own self-hatred reflected back at me from her and thought she despised me and held me in contempt, imagined impatience and irritation in her responses, but these feelings have been my own, spectres of my past, and not her feelings towards me at all. She has been the same and because of this she has been the first safe person I’ve ever really had and her therapy room is the first place I’ve ever felt safe. What an incredible gift to have bestowed on someone – their first experience of what it means to be safe.
She has been the therapist I have needed. Despite how difficult therapy has been because it has involved me facing my biggest triggers – relationship, connection, getting closer to someone, being seen – every single week, usually multiple times, I have never really doubted that she was the one to do this work with. Often my abandonment fears would become even more acute when I was triggered into thinking she was going away because there was nothing about the way we have worked together that I didn’t like and wished could be different – losing her would be so hard because I cannot imagine finding someone else who I could build up such a strong therapeutic alliance with. I’m working on a separate post on boundaries in therapy so I won’t go into this too much here, but her allowing of ‘just the right amount’ of outside contact (though it only feels like it was the right amount in retrospect!) and her giving my system support via text but not too much, has played a huge part in helping me get to where I am today. She gave me enough to help me keep going, help me feel as contained as possible (and sometimes it wasn’t possible to feel contained at all with the amount that was coming up each week), help me keep a sense of connection to her, help me, and all my parts, develop a sense of her being safe, and enable us to feel just about okay-enough to keep doing the work and not run away like we often wanted to, but never so much that we became too dependent on her or we had huge ruptures because she couldn’t sustain the amount of outside contact she had first allowed. Our ruptures have never really been that bad, aside from the awful one after the phone call back in May, and in large part I think this is because she has handled the boundaries around outside contact so skillfully.
So, here I am – 3 years in to the most significant therapeutic relationship (or any relationship, probably, barring my parents and daughter) I’ve ever had, and around 3 or 4 months from the end of it, for now at least. And I am okay. I am incredibly sleepy today (excessive daytime sleepiness and low energy is something I really struggle with on grey, overcast days and I’ve actually just ordered some 5 HTP to see if that can help as it’s clearly linked to too much melatonin and insufficient seratonin on these kinds of days, and I live in England so sunshine is usually in short supply) but I am okay. As predicted I have lost myself and come back to myself numerous times during this break, but what is so hopeful is that I’ve been able to find myself without seeing K, and I’ve mostly been able to hold on to a sense of connection to her too, although she has been very much in the background of my life for the past 4 weeks which has been nice.
It is now only a week until therapy resumes and to be honest I don’t feel in desperate need of it. I do miss K and I am really looking forward to seeing her and telling her about my experiences with the CK and the ways my system has cared for each other and how we have been the past few weeks. And I am looking forward to discussing with her how I will navigate dating (another topic for another post!) and new friendships in light of my past, my triggers and my difficulties with ‘intimacy’ (blanket term covering all kinds of potential crazy around relationships and sexual activity!) but I don’t feel either a desperate need for her or completely cut off from her – two things that have usually characterised any therapy breaks in the past. I am beginning to notice parts feeling very unsettled because once the break is over that will not be the focus anymore, and instead the focus will be on ‘the end’ – something we would rather avoid really – but generally it is a contented missing; we all know we will see her next week and things will be the same – she will be the same.
The months ahead may well be very difficult at times, they will undoubtedly be up and down, but I do know I will survive them. I think surviving those awful, awful weeks in June and July when she first told me she was taking next year as a sabbatical for her health have given me even more strength and belief in myself than I had before. I survived what I thought would be unsurvivable and am now feeling ready to work through the ending with K and transition to a different phase of my life. In many ways I would rather not be doing this, but I do also feel ready to live without therapy for a while at least. I notice a lot of people saying they are on their own without their therapist, but I genuinely don’t feel this way now – I have friends, other supportive people, and most importantly – I have myself.
The past 4 weeks have shown me that their can be, is, life after therapy, and have thrown into sharp relief that the therapeutic relationship is not the cause of the pain all of us with attachment trauma experience, it is the vehicle which enables us to access and start to understand and transform it. Today I am left with so much gratitude for K – I do hope so much we will work together again after her year off, but for now I am left with this overwhelming relief that despite all the fears of her going away that dominated our time working together, she really did stay. She has stayed through it all and never let me down. She has been here for three whole years despite how much I have needed from her and despite how much I have struggled to stay working with her. She has stayed, a calm ship in a safe harbour, whilst I have journeyed away from her through darkness and turmoil in the days between sessions. Sometimes I’ve been surprised to sit with her again after a huge emotional storm because to me it had felt like she had changed and nothing was the same and yet, when my internal storm had passed, I’ve been able to look back and see that through it all she had just stayed the same; calm, solid and unwavering. She has stayed her safe and constant self until I have been able to internalise her enough to take her with me when she goes away. And even if I lose her sometimes when we are far apart, she is part of me now and I can look inside myself to find her when times are hard and I need a reminder of what it feels like to have someone else to help me carry myself through the dark days.