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All the things I’ll never tell you

Dear K,

I can’t believe 6 months have passed. It feels as though everything and nothing are the same as when we said goodbye for a little while, all those weeks ago. It is 11 months since we last drove to your house. Somehow the passing of time is comforting because it doesn’t feel as though we’ve lost you, despite this time apart, and one day the end will come, even if it turns out to be many more months till we can see your face again. Our brain erasing you for the whole break was our greatest fear but we feel so connected to you still. We are scared you will have forgotten us or let us go but when we look through old messages and think back on our time together we can feel how connected we are and we don’t think that would disappear for you if it hasn’t for us. Whenever we couldn’t remember you before you could always remember us, so if we haven’t forgotten then we are pretty sure you won’t have either.

We wondered if you thought of us when Joe Biden was elected or when Taylor Swift released another surprise lockdown album or when it was the first Monday of the year and you weren’t seeing us for the first time since the start of 2015. We have thought of you every day but it hasn’t always hurt. Some days it has but a lot of the time we have felt patient and calm and just so grateful for you and all the work we’ve done because it has become obvious this past year just how much we’ve healed and internalised your safety now. And we have mostly enjoyed this time of integration and settling, waiting to return, knowing both of us hold the intention that we will continue our work when we can.

There is so much I want to tell you. It’s also been nice to keep so much to myself for so long, almost as if there is a clearer line around myself now. I don’t think about how I will explain things to you or hold out for a time to share them. I don’t do things to tell you anymore, I just do things. There is a peace and a spaciousness in that – it’s such a different way of being. It is also sad. It marks a loss. When I return things will not be how they once were. There will be joy but also grief when we are reunited. I am learning that life is endless cycles of coterminous grief and joy, balance and instability, hope and despair. And I am learning to be okay with that.

I want you to know Christmas was incredibly hard, that my dad is intolerable, that I have been so lonely during this latest lockdown that sometimes I cannot breathe. I want you to know that attachment panic and shame has been killing me this past week and I’ve run out of space on my thighs to cut and it is taking all my willpower to not take the razor to my arms, that I only hold off from that because I am desperate to feel the warmth on my skin when I’m out on my bike in a few weeks’ time. I am disappointed in myself and also I don’t care. There are worse things and nothing else soothes and settles things like that, not yet.

I want you to know that despite self-harm since mid-December I have continued to grow and learn about myself during this time apart. I want to tell you that this respite and solitude has led to the biggest transformation in my life imaginable but that I am done now and desperate to rejoin the world. I want to transition into being more sure of who I am among other people now, instead of only being able to keep sight of myself when I’m alone. I want to practice what I’ve learnt and prove that I can be more balanced and see myself clearly even when life isn’t stripped back to the bare minimum. I needed this time so much, but now I am in need of human contact more than I ever have been before. Or it feels that way at least.

I’ve wanted to tell you that giving up sugar and gluten completely was the best thing I could have done for my health. I want to tell you I have no cravings and I never eat more than I want to and I haven’t deliberately starved myself since May last year. For the first time since I was 8 years old I don’t feel as though I am living under the weight of an eating disorder. Maybe there is just the right amount of control in this diet to please everyone, without needing to restrict. It works so well and I know you will be so happy. I don’t know if it will last, attachment might shake us back into anorexia again, but things feel so different around food now. It doesn’t dominate. It just is. And it has definitely helped my gut and brain health, reduced the grey day fogginess a little, given me a steady flow of energy throughout the day. I will forever be grateful that in the stillness of the pandemic I had the space to make this choice and integrate it into my daily life with such ease.

I want you to know that we are waiting for Ana to die and this in between place is deeply painful, as she hovers between life and death and I imagine a world without her or Jess now. She was sick last time we spoke to you and I knew how sick she was but she didn’t, not yet. In November she told me she had a year left to live but then Jess’s sisters emailed 4 weeks ago to say she’d deteriorated rapidly and had only a few days to a couple of weeks left. She is holding on still, waiting for a sunny day so she can feel the warmth on her face in the garden before she goes. More than anything we hope she gets that chance. I was able to say my goodbyes and it helps that there is not unspoken love. I want you to know that there is gut wrenching sadness that this connection to Jess will be gone, but there is also guilt-inducing relief because being with her triggered all my feelings and all my shame around being unseen and disconnected and invisible because of how she is, and now I don’t have to decide whether to continue to atone by seeing her.

I wonder how you would feel and what you would think about the fact that I reconnected with R in December and have been seeing him every week since the start of this third lockdown. I needed him when I lost my mind when I first realised Nina likely has ADHD, and over Christmas when spending 5 hours with Dad destroyed us both, and when Nina was hating me and raging at me constantly for weeks on end at the start of the year and I lost myself in doubt, not knowing if she was right that I am the worst parent in the world and have ruined her life and caused all her problems. I felt out of my mind with shame and panic and despair and his endless reality checks brought me back. He said some things you would have said, about normal teenage behaviour and how hard it is for me to hold steady as I have no idea what is real after growing up under the shadow of such extreme narcissism. And he reassured me that her story is so different from mine, that she is damaged but not like I was. He helped me carry on loving her and myself when killing us both, once again, felt like the only way through.

Nina turned 14 in January and you weren’t here and that broke my heart. It is the hardest age for me – the contrasts are so stark. The year I turned 14 I was off school for 3 months because of anorexia and self-harm. It is the age I started drinking really heavily and lost my virginity and we did “family therapy” which led to Mum becoming more abusive and out of control. Leia and T’s worst memories are when we were 14. We needed you and you weren’t here and we understand why but it still hurts. The weeks around her birthday were the hardest I’ve experienced as a parent – we were both so dysregulated, I was barely sleeping, we were rowing all the time. We came through and have only had one small argument in the past month now, but I hope you are there next time we hit a rocky patch because your presence and voice soothe me and I’ve never felt closer to you than when you and I talked about how parenting a teen was affecting me last summer. I can still remember the warmth in my heart as I sat on the grass in a field near our home and it felt as though you were right beside me even though we were miles apart.

Connecting with R again has been steadying and destabilising, beautiful and agonising, healing and damaging, all at the same time. It has shown me things I’d rather have kept hidden, about myself and what happens to me when I move closer to someone and the terror and craziness it still triggers. His presence is a gift and curse. He loves me and holds me and tells me all the things I need to hear and I can feel pieces of me falling into place as he holds me at the same time as different parts of me unravel and I lose myself again. And I’m forced to confront the fact that disorganised attachment means this is what relationships are for me. He said this week he wants to be a stabilising force for me and not make things worse. I put my head in my hands and groaned that this just is not possible, not all the time at least. It is not a viable goal because connection and attachment activate my nervous system and throw me into that terrifying push/pull where I need to move closer and run away at the same time because I feel so unsafe.

Inside me is still a big melting point of disorganised attachment pain and shame and distrust and terror of intimacy and fear of abandonment and the pain of feeling invisible unless I am the only one. I can observe it all happening now but I am not past this. I thought I was, and it is not at the intensity it was with you for years for sure, but it has left me wondering how I will ever be free of what my parents did to me. How will I ever manage a relationship with someone I don’t pay, where it is not all about me, where they are allowed needs too? I want to talk to you about this and hear you make reassuring sounds about how far I’ve come and how much is possible.

R is amazed by how solid and stable I now am – relatively speaking! – and says such beautiful things about the work you and I have done and how much you both love me. It feels like more of our work is integrating with him to bear witness, because he has walked this path beside me since I was 21 and he knows more than even you about the level of physical pain I used to experience. He reminds me you are not here because you are afraid for your son and not because you don’t want me. He tells me ‘never’ is a long time when I panic that we won’t ever meet again.

And he is learning about disorganised attachment and he is beginning to understand how incredibly traumatised I am. It’s like he knew before how broken I was but has now seen my level of pain and dysfunction and fragmentation is at a different intensity than his. I needed this from him. He wants to learn about me so he can help me better which both warms and terrifies me – what if he goes away when he realises how intense my process is? He is not you though, and sometimes when he holds me it makes me miss you more than at any other time this past year. Despite this I’m so glad he is here. He gives me some of what I need, some of what I lost when we suddenly couldn’t meet. He tells me he is here because he wants to be and that I am so easy to love and when he holds me it begins to thaw some of the ice that is inside me and helps me feel less repulsive and toxic and untouchable. Being with him is another step towards learning it is safe to feel safe in relationship.

I want to tell you how much we miss Ollie, that his absence hangs heavy every single day. Rainbow is doing well but she needs a new friend. She is sad. Do you remember they were together all the time? We used to tell you how much they helped us because they always snuggled up together and knew where each other was – they felt no shame for loving and needing contact and company and it started to loosen some of the shame that kept us separate from others too. I hope next time we see you we will have adopted a new bunny and will be able to show you pictures. Your new house is too far to bring them in the car but we will always remember Rainbow and Ollie at your old house.

And the time we have missed you the most was when Rainbow started a small fire!!! She jumped on the coffee table and knocked a candle on the floor and it set fire to the rug!! This is the naughtiest-silliest thing she has ever done and not being able to draw a picture to show you was probably the worst part of this break, for Lotta and Miffy and Cody at least! It will likely be the first thing they tell you when we see you. We know how shocked you will be and can hear you saying ‘oh my goodness!’ and laughing a lot.

I want to tell you I miss you but if I could do that then I wouldn’t need to because you would be here. I hope it is not too much longer till we are together again and that we find each other – changed but the same.

Please don’t forget us.

Love CB and everyone xx

Mr Raposa

We first met Mr Raposa (not his real name) on 10th February 2016, almost six months after starting work with K. It was a Wednesday evening and adult me had just shared how I had noticed at the weekend young parts really taking over at Nina’s bedtime, playing with Sylvanian families and being pretty silly at times. I remember it was one of the first times I had really noticed how I was in the back seat and younger parts were out and taking control – I could watch what they were doing but was unable to stop them or get to the front to take control again. It was like watching people talking in the front seat of a car, watching the action and dialogue unfold but not really being part of it. Anyway, K confirmed that really it wasn’t okay for young parts to join in at bedtime, even though they really wanted to, and everyone was feeling sad and fed up. In the break K went to make us a cup of tea and when she came back she asked if we would like to meet Mr Raposa, one of her rescue dogs. The next minute he came trotting around the door of the therapy room – an orange podengo with huge ears, who looked just like a fox. I can’t remember now how long he stayed in the room, but young parts were transfixed and it was the beginning of a very special relationship that has been a huge part of our healing journey.

That night I was kept awake all night by young parts excitedly twittering about Mr Raposa. Looking back it is actually really cute, but at the time it was quite irritating. They were really excited to see him again and from then on he became a regular visitor to the therapy room and a huge part of our relationship with K and the development of an internalised sense of safety. The first message K sent about Mr Raposa was a month after we met him, after I’d had an almighty meltdown and had ended up texting her on a Sunday panicking that she was going to end therapy or stop us from seeing Mr Raposa because we were always such a pain. She replied with her usual calm reassurances that she was looking forward to seeing us all the next day and that Mr Raposa would be there too. The next day was also the day when she said for the first time (in response to general panic that getting well would mean losing her) that sometimes when the therapeutic work has been particularly intense and the wounding has been particularly deep it can be appropriate to never end therapy permanently and to transition into something else – not friends, still a therapeutic relationship, but something ongoing even when the intense therapy is done. Everything shifted that day because suddenly getting better stopped meaning we would lose K (although in the end the intense work of therapy has taken longer than either of us could have imagined at the start) and it was that evening that a young part came out and wrote for the first time ever – about Mr Raposa! I remember it vividly – I was writing in my journal about therapy and suddenly I was taken over by a young part who started writing in huge messy writing about Mr Raposa slurping our cup of tea and what a nice doggy he was. It went on for ages and left me feeling pretty insane to be honest, but also really excited to share this development with K the next day.

Knowing Mr Raposa has taught me so much about myself. K rescued him when she was living abroad a few years before we started working together, from a country with non-existent welfare legislation for animals and where animal abuse and abandonment is at epidemic levels. He had been living in a shelter for two years at that time and when she first had him he was so traumatised because of the abuse he had experienced that he was frightened to walk through doorways and used to run off multiple times every day. Although he had learnt to trust her and her partner and had settled to a certain extent, the abuse he had experienced still lived in him and because of this he has taught me so much about healing from trauma and what is possible and what isn’t.

One time I was holding a tube of giant bubbles when Mr Raposa came to say hello and he flinched, thinking I was going to hit him with it because he used to get beaten with a stick. This made us all so sad, because he didn’t know how much we loved him and that we would never, ever hurt him. And I started to understand why I was so scared of people and found it so hard to trust – my earliest experiences had taught me people would hurt me and it wasn’t a matter of just ‘getting over it’. Even though I knew K would never hurt us intentionally, it was so hard to develop a felt sense of this and to trust her. I started to hate myself a little less for not being able to trust someone I knew to be good and kind. And I felt so sad for the awful abuse Mr Raposa must have experienced and this in turn helped me develop a little (this is a work in progress!) more compassion for myself and the parts.

He has always reminded me so much of little me – needing everything the same, needing order and to know what was happening next, not liking unexpected things, getting cross with the other dogs for misbehaving and not doing what they were meant to be doing. He had his favourite spot on the sofa where he always sat, his favourite sunny spot by the pond in the garden, and he liked to go to bed at 7 o’clock every night. I began to see that I, too, needed that stability and predictability, and that it wasn’t ever possible to heal completely from extensive trauma, that I was expecting too much of myself. As Cody [10] wrote in our parts’ journal:

He will never be like other dogs that very bad things didn’t happen to so he needs special care and things to be the same.

And also Amelia who is 21:

Mr Raposa helps me realise I can’t ever be as though my hellish childhood didn’t happen and so I need to learn to understand it and be kind to myself and learn my limits and they will be different limits than people who weren’t abused and traumatised every day at home. This is really hard to accept, and even harder to put into practice, but Mr Raposa has helped me do this, and sometimes Mr Raposa feels safe and happy because of K. She rescued him.’

This theme of being rescued by K was something a lot of parts have been pretty obsessed with throughout our work. She rescued Mr Raposa , and she rescued us all too. Lotta (7) wrote some stories for one of our most troubled parts, Scarlet (10), about being rescued from our awful, scary home by Mr Raposa and being kept safe and warm in the woods with him, and later he took her to a fairy called K and she kept her safe forever too. One time we were doing a sand tray and had put figures representing K and Mr Raposa under a tree, with a young girl really far away. And we were crying that we were having such a difficult time when we were little in a little body and K didn’t even know. And K took a little plane and made the dog figure fly it to rescue little me and take me to her.

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And he helped us all beyond measure in developing a sense of trust and safety in K. It was clear very early on that in order for him to feel safe with her she must have been the same with him over and over again – patient, kind, loving, firm, predictable. He trusted her and somehow that helped us start to see and feel that it was safe for us to trust her too. Asking endless questions about Mr Raposa, and writing them down between sessions to ask in our next session, really helped us to get to know K and enabled parts to establish a relationship with her in a safe, fun and light way. ‘K understands him‘ was something Leia wrote in the parts’ book, and it was this that helped us see that she was capable of understanding us too, that she would never judge us for our difficulties either, just as she didn’t judge Mr Raposa and get impatient with him. He helped the relationship between young parts and K develop so easily. She was so loving and protective of him. She really knew and understood why he is how he is. And she never shamed or laughed at us for being so attached to him. It became possible for young parts to express huge amounts of love, for the first time ever really, and at first there was a lot of shame over loving him so much, but K validated our love for him over and over again until one day we weren’t ashamed of it anymore.

There have been so many cosy times with Mr Raposa. The first time K and I watched a film together, to try and get teen parts on board with therapy, he came and cuddled in our armchair. He was there when we did cutting and sticking to make a book as a transitional object and it was very amusing when he was poking about in the craft boxes and at some point pulled out a purple feather and started playing with it. He came in for cuddles when we got stuck on the motorway because of an accident and arrived at our session ninety minutes late and K let us still work – there had been a proper screaming, sobbing meltdown from young parts in the car about not being able to get there and we were incredibly distressed. K brought us in a plate of bread with peanut butter and Mr Raposa shared the food and provided so much comfort. One time he made a really happy noise when he saw me and rushed over. He always put his head down when he saw us to have behind his ears scratched and he loved stretching out for cuddles. He was discerning and yet he knew me and he loved me, so he showed me maybe there was something good in me worthy of that love.

He bought so much laughter and joy to the therapy space, something that is so needed when doing the depth of work K and I have had to do. Sometimes we gave him his afternoon milk and we used to take him in the garden and he would scavenge around for food and eat rotten fruit. We would laugh at his loud barking, his goose noises, the fact he licks the sofa every night, him taking things out of the bin and K having to take them off him, and the way he tells tales on the other dogs for being silly and not doing what they are supposed to be doing. Dog film night became a fairly regular part of therapy and the first time all four dogs came and it was hilarious. K had warned the dogs to be ‘not too silly’ [something she said a lot and which tickled us because it meant she knew they would be a bit silly] and then they were the silliest they had ever been, jumping around and cavorting for 40 minutes until they finally settled down. K and I laughed so much and it was the most magical evening. K said she would keep it in her heart forever, and we definitely have too.

And a year in to therapy we were really triggered on a weekend at a family wedding and about to go to another city for a really important conference adult me was giving a paper at. K and I did a phone session on the Sunday afternoon to try and contain things and young parts were lamenting how they wanted to take Mr Raposa with us. Instead of saying, “well don’t be silly, you can’t take a dog to a conference,” K asked young parts what it would feel like to take him with us. “Safe and warm” we replied and K tried to get us to take that feeling into our hearts and imagine taking him with us and having him there. We took Mr Raposa with us in our heart and imagined him laying next to us in the hotel bed and sitting under the dining table. It helped so much and after that we began to take Mr Raposa around with us a lot and it really helped to develop a felt sense of safety internally and also out in the world. It was often painful because he wasn’t our dog and we always had to leave him behind, and we so desperately wanted to hold him close to our heart all the time and cuddle him in our bed, but he really showed us so much about what it felt like to be safe. Miffy wrote how she felt safe at K’s with Mr Raposa and sometimes when she wasn’t there she felt safe remembering what it felt like to be there with him. We would write stories about doing things with him and the other dogs, and learnt to hold those imaginary times in our heart to feel safe. One time we wrote a story about camping in K’s garden with Mr Raposa and another of K’s dogs we also have a very special relationship with, and sometimes it feels as though it really did happen.

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When things in therapy were especially difficult and we were floaty and far away and feeling unsafe in the space we found Mr Raposa grounding. He would come in to the therapy room when we were really dissociated, or we would talk about him and the other dogs with K and it would help us feel safe and come back when we felt disconnected and really far away. It was a safe way to reconnect. He came to the car on his lead with another dog on our last session before Christmas in 2016, because I had told K I couldn’t bear to be shut outside of her house alone just before Christmas and needed some kind of transition into the car. That helped so much, not being shut out by ourselves in the dark.

When it was too painful to imagine K at home when we weren’t there, because we felt so excluded from her real life, we would picture Mr Raposa and the other dogs and that helped enormously. Mr Raposa can’t go out because he is aggressive to other dogs (because he is afraid), so we knew he was always there and it helped provide some kind of balance and stability and object permanency, in a way that was less triggering than trying to remember K was there. Imagining what he was doing, and getting messages and photographs from K about him, helped us feel safe. And gradually we became able to imagine K with him and the other dogs, and that felt okay and less triggering than imagining her there with friends and family. It was nice knowing she was there with all the dogs when we were away from her. He was always there, he never went anywhere and so we could imagine him at home even when K was on holiday and far away. And this helped to ease things ever so slightly around breaks. And the first time she went on holiday whilst we were working, when we weren’t at all prepared for how difficult breaks would be, K wrote in an email for Miffy ‘I think we are all missing Mr Raposa’ and it was like being cuddled inside.

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And then something bad happened, the worst thing ever for young parts, Mr Raposa and his friends [2 other of her 4 dogs] moved to another country with K’s partner in September 2017 and we had to say goodbye. It was genuinely heartbreaking. I also knew it was really difficult for K saying goodbye to them and her partner so I managed to contain the parts as much as I could in the final session when Mr Raposa and another dog we were also very attached to came in for a goodbye story and cuddles, only allowing the screams and sobs to erupt in the car once we had left. Knowing they were leaving in the morning was very difficult, but we also knew they were going somewhere they would be happier and freer. And I knew we were welcome to go to the centre K’s partner was opening and see them at some point, if we ever felt brave enough. Since then we’ve posted presents to him sometimes and K’s partner sends photos quite often and tells us what he has been doing. He says he will always remember me and I really hope that is true. I also really hope we will be able to make the trip to see them one day. And now when K goes away it is easier, because we know she will be with them.

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I will end with something a young part wrote in August 2016, because I think finally, after all these years, this is what is starting to happen as a result of therapy with K.

Me and Mr Raposa both runned away all the time when we scared which is all the time sometimes. I go away in my head and Mr Raposa tries to go somewhere else with his legs. He doesn’t do that so much now because of K. Maybe she will help me stop running away so much too.