You saw me

I reconnected with R this week after more than 18 months without seeing each other. He is an acupuncturist who I have had a profoundly deep, healing, and beautiful relationship with since I was 21 when I first saw him with constant and debilitating head pain. At times our connection has been distorted through transference and projection on both our parts, and at times I have drifted from him and wondered if our work is done, but I have always returned to him. His steady and familiar presence when I message him even after months of not talking is one of the most comforting things I’ve ever experienced. It had been nearly a year of no contact up till the start of December when we have been in regular contact via texts and voice notes. Being with him again felt like coming home and we have agreed never to let it be that long again. But he also understands that I needed to be away from people who knew me last year, so that I could discover who I am . And that is what I did; in solitude, away from the world, I found myself.

He used to tell me he was always here, that we were connected, that he wouldn’t go away from me (over and over and over when I needed it…) but he also told me that he knew the person I was seeking connection with wasn’t really him – it was myself. I felt so ashamed when he said that, as if he was telling me we weren’t really connected and what we had wasn’t real. He wasn’t. I understand it now. I connected to myself last year and now I can see how much I needed that and how much more authentic and livable life is when we are the biggest and most important person in our own lives. None of this made sense to me before but now it does and I can see it takes nothing from our relationship. It adds to it in fact, because, along with K, he laid the foundations for the journey to reclaim myself that finally transformed my life last summer. What a gift he was willing to give me, and what a lifelong connection it has carved out, in my heart and his.

He held me in 3 of the longest hugs I’ve had in years and the first hugs I’ve had since February last year. I burrowed into him like a child, so close I could hear his heart beating, and felt my system beginning to settle as I sunk into his familiar safety and allowed myself to feel his arms tightly around me. He is the only person I allow to really hug me, who I don’t pull away from before I am ready in case I stay too long and give them chance to feel what is inside of me or think I am dirty and broken for enjoying human touch. He is the only one who I can tell how much I love their hugs without feeling ashamed and toxic. He has seen everything that is inside of me and he still loves me. He was there when none of it made any sense at all. He has seen the black, desperate, shadow side of me, and also the light. To be able to see him having changed beyond recognition this past year was indescribable. The years fell away as soon as I stepped into the room and we were connected as we always have been. He shed a few tears as he hugged me. He told me how proud he is of me. When he asked how my sleep had been I said the past few weeks had been bad but generally last year my sleep had been fine for the first time in my life and he stopped me to exclaim ‘Look at you! Look what you’ve done’ and it lit me up inside to know that someone who really knows me could see the change so clearly. I am not who I was but I am also the same. These words make no sense and yet they are the only way I can describe the transformation that has taken place inside of me. A different person and yet more more myself than ever.

I do not know who R is to me, I only know my feelings for him are true and pure and that it means the world to me that he is able to express his love for me. I think small parts of me see him as a father figure and want to clamber into his lap and curl up and listen to him breathing, some teen parts see him as a slightly annoying old person always telling us to eat and look after ourselves, and others just see him as someone wise and loving who is always on the end of the phone when we need him but who doesn’t really exist beyond that. He is part therapist, part teacher, part spiritual guide, part friend, part father figure (but far too wise and compassionate and open to comfortably fit our archetype of even ‘good enough’ fathering and so casting him in this role is odd). In the end I let him be ‘my acupuncturist’, knowing that will never do justice to the depth of attachment and connection we share, and knowing that all that matters is that we know it is real, what we have, and also full of messiness and transference and projection for both of us. And that is okay. I’ve learnt to let him be in his place in my life and not try and work out where our boundaries lie. He lets me go away and come back and every time I return I seem to be able to take in his love a little more.

As he held me I whispered how I felt as though I could see myself through my own eyes for the first time this past year, instead of needing someone else to show me I’m real and that I exist. I said how all the times I text him and K asking if they were still here I was really asking if I was here, because I didn’t feel real if they couldn’t see me. He said of course I didn’t, because my parents couldn’t see me for who I was. My mum looked to me to fill her up because she was empty. Instead of bringing who I really am into existence for both of us she emptied me to try and fill herself. But she was insatiable and there was never enough of me. ‘When I looked into my mum’s eyes I didn’t see myself, all I saw was her pain’. R saw me and K saw me and they helped me learn to see myself. I realised last night that R saw me before I saw myself. And I realised how huge this is, has been, that he really did see me, actually saw me, let himself know me. I wrote this just now that I will share with him next week:

There was a time when I didn’t exist, because the only person who needs to truly see us is ourselves, and I couldn’t. I couldn’t see myself because as an infant no one provided me with a mirror to see and know myself. I grew up feeling invisible and non-existent because I couldn’t see myself reflected back in the faces of those who loved me. They weren’t able to see me so they couldn’t love the real me and so I learnt to keep her hidden so far out of sight I couldn’t reach her either. Even as an adult I only existed when other people could see me and were reflecting me back. Alone I disappeared. And so the me I saw wasn’t really me, it was other people’s versions of me. Fragile and out of reach. An image that dissolved as soon as their light wasn’t shining upon me. You told me you saw me and I didn’t understand then what you meant and how clear I was to you. The truth is that when you can’t see yourself you can’t see others either; I needed others to show me who I was instead of who they were. I was invisible and others were an illusion, a projection. I didn’t know how clearly others could see me because to myself I was always just a grey outline round a scribbled grey mass and others were merely a way of making myself more real. Now I know what it means that you could see me and even though I don’t need you in the way I once did, it seems to matter even more than I thought it did that you are here and that you know me. You have always loved me for who I am but I didn’t know till now how clearly you could see who that person was. Now I know what it really means to see somebody. Now I know that you being able to see me was a sacred knowing of all the parts of me; I was real to you. I was whole. You saw all of me. You saw me before I saw myself. And now I can see myself too, through my own eyes for the first time, and I understand what it was you could see.

We sat in his new practice room in a wooden cabin in the countryside near my house as the light was fading and for 75 minutes we were in our own world and the pandemic and isolation and Nina and my lack of family didn’t matter anymore. I thought it would feel strange and unsettling to see him somewhere new after 15 years in the previous room but it didn’t, it was magical – a magical place and a magical feeling. A new start that felt like coming home. He asked if I would rather be in the old room next time and I said no – that room holds so much of my pain. It feels right this way. ‘Yes, you are different now’ he said. And I am.

Bad blood (2)

***TW mention of suicide***

Being raised by a narcissist is the absolute worst. It is crazy-making, stretching the fucking tentacles of self-doubt around everything, for years and years and years, even when they are not in our lives any longer, they are still there, ruining everything. I cannot work out what is real about me and how I’ve lived and parented. The shame and despair and panic in me over what I am, how bad I am, what I’ve done and how much I’ve broken Nina is just never ending sometimes.

This lockdown is breaking me. It is still 10 weeks till Nina goes back to school. I am working all but 3 of those weeks so she will be home, pranging out about things and provoking me. She is ‘off school’ for 7 of those weeks, officially on holiday, and I don’t know how to cope. I’m so scared I’m going to break her this summer and that all my hard work not to be an out of control, dysregulated, abusive parent will be obliterated.

Being in lockdown with a teenager on my own is fucking hell. Honestly. I cannot do this anymore. I wish she was still little and I was enough for her, so that even if I was tired out, at least I could make her happy. Nina’s teen brain, that reads everything as threat even where none is meant or intended, means she is constantly freaking out that I am angry with her, that I don’t like her, that I wish she wasn’t here. Apparently this is ‘normal’ for teens, they read every facial expression as anger, but it still triggers me into spirals of self-loathing – what have I done to her? I cannot bear that she would think I am angry with her all the time, that I hate her, because I love her so much and she is growing up to be someone so amazing. And then I lose my temper so badly that it must completely confirm to her that I really am angry with her all the time.

Every time I ask her – nicely – to do something she flips out in defensive anger at me. And I expend so much energy on not reacting, staying calm, but then I flip out back at her and all the hard work is wasted. In those moments I’m just like my mum, for minutes not hours like she was maybe, but it is enough. The damage is done. I don’t know how much damage and it drives me mad not knowing how badly I’ve fucked her up – ‘when will we know?’ I ask K. And her words reassure me for a few minutes and then the self-loathing and shame engulf me again, and voices whisper that she’d be better off without me. Maybe she would.

K reassures me she’s fine, a normal teen, not damaged and traumatised but how does she know? She doesn’t see me yelling. She doesn’t see me swearing. She didn’t see me in the middle of the night last night when Nina had woken me up AGAIN going to the loo at some stupid time (because as far as she’s concerned this is a 6 month holiday and she is totally self-absorbed at her age and has no concerns about me beyond whether I will shout at her), when I was trying to sleep ahead of another full week of work, when I yelled and slammed my door and left her crying in her bed because I couldn’t deal with the fall out of my anger, didn’t have time for the repair because I needed to sleep. She didn’t see Nina in tears this morning because she couldn’t sleep after that. And yes I repaired it, apologised without making excuses for myself, explained the pressure of the pandemic, the stress and worry over money and job safety, and everything falling apart, how hard it is to work in a demanding job like mine when I am tired, distracted, stressed. But the repair wasn’t enough. She is still mad with me. We couldn’t make it right today. It needs to be left and not forced.

I have spent hours and hours and hours trying to be a good parent, and I know in some ways I have been attuned and empathic and fun, but I don’t know if it’s been enough to save my daughter from going through what I have been through and I am scared. I try so hard but all it takes is a few fucking angry words, a few sighs and eye rolls, and I’m in the territory of my own mum and it honestly makes me wish we were both dead. And she will never see or know or understand all the good I’ve done, all the ways I’ve not been like my mum, all the ways I’ve not fucked her up and broken her. All she will see is the damage, the shouting, the tears.

I’m scared I’ve given her too much information about her grandma, that she has that to use against me, that she can tell me I’m the same because she doesn’t know how bad her grandma really was. But maybe I’m just trying to reassure myself when really I am just as bad. I can see that she thinks it is never okay for people to yell, and really it isn’t but we are human and living through a global crisis, and she conflates this sense that people shouldn’t yell with the idea that I am mean and shout about nothing and that she is always in the right. It is like her normal teenage feelings about me, about being unwanted and misunderstood, get all tangled up with the narcissistic/borderline legacy and she gets it all out of proportion too, thinking I am always in the wrong, thinking I should never raise my voice when she has been reminded for the tenth time to do something. I feel like I’ve over-reacted so many times during this lockdown, when she’s been having a meltdown over clothes or her hair or her eyebrows when I’m trying to work, or yelled in the car when we’ve tried to go out somewhere because my window of tolerance has shrunk even smaller than a letterbox lately, and that has just confirmed for her that I’m an utter fuck up and that every time I shout I’m like her grandma, rather than a normal parent doing their best through a fucking pandemic.

Earlier I found something she wrote last night, after I shouted, saying how scared she is of me and that she never knows when I’m going to shout and it is not okay how I treat her. And I know the teen brain splits people, wipes out all the good and can only see the bad when it is under threat, but what if she really is nervous of me all the time?  I want to say it’s not all the time, it can’t be, that there are times, lots of them, when we are relaxed and happy and laughing, but maybe it is that bad for her. I know that parents can do a lot of damage without meaning to. I don’t know how bad my mum was because I can’t remember, but I know it was bad enough that I fragmented into 23 different parts (at least) and that 5 years of therapy hasn’t been enough to untangle what she did to me, let alone heal it. I can’t believe Nina, who says until lockdown she felt happy nearly all the time, is broken like me, but no one knows. K says she would know by now, but what if she only wants to see the good in me? What if she can’t imagine what I’m really like?

I feel like I’m going fucking mad. For years when I felt suicidal I knew I’d have to take Nina with me because I couldn’t leave her alone with our fucked up family. For the first time tonight I really am wondering if she would be better off without me. I’m not going to act on this so please don’t worry, but it crosses my mind more than it should that I should leave her now when there is a chance of her being okay still.

K and I talked earlier about me at 13 – already smoking, anorexic, beginning to purge, self-harming, getting really very drunk and kissing older men. I told her about New Year’s Eve when I was 13 when I threw myself down a really steep flight of stairs because I knew it wouldn’t hurt because I was so drunk. I could have broken my neck. K said it is no wonder Nina is triggering my system all the time at the moment, when the parts have no space and were so broken and reckless at that age. I said I feel invisible when Nina wakes me in the night or refuses to help at home or argues with every single thing I say, and K says I was invisible to my parents at that age so it’s no wonder I am finding this so hard.

Nina is not invisible to me. But she will never see all the good. Only the bad. And I can’t fucking tell what is real. I don’t know what is normal. I don’t know what ‘good enough’ parenting is since I clearly never had it. And I don’t know how bad I am. I don’t know if I’m splitting myself, if Nina is splitting me. I don’t know if her love for me is trauma bonding. I know my mum wasn’t crazy and abusive all the time, if she had been it would be easier, because it is that which makes me utterly crazy as I cannot work out what is real about me and others and the past. I constantly doubt myself even when I’m good enough so I have no idea now if I’m doing an okay job with this, and there is no way of finding out, no way of reassuring myself, since my mum reassured herself by denying all the fucking awful abusive shit she did and so maybe I am just like her and doing that too. I don’t know if I feel like I’ve really fucked up badly as a parent because I’m finally facing the truth about myself, that I’m a really shit, selfish, angry, abusive person, or if it’s because my parents fucked me up so much that I still split myself and end up unable to see anything good about myself. And if Nina is splitting me is it normal for a teen to do this, to speak in all-or-nothing always/never statements, or is it because her brain is fucked up too?

I honestly feel like I’m losing my fucking mind. I never, ever want Nina to feel this way, ever in her life. Not now and not in 24 years time when she is my age. I want her to know what is real and what isn’t, but how can I teach her that when I don’t even know myself.

I almost do

 I bet, this time of night you’re still up
I bet, you’re tired from a long hard week
I bet, you’re sittin’ in your chair by the window
Looking out at the city and I bet
Sometimes you wonder ’bout me

And I just wanna tell you
It takes everything in me not to call you
And I wish I could run to you
And I hope you know that every time I don’t
I almost do

Last month my mum was found to have a pulmonary embolism and multiple clots on the lungs. They had quite a scare, my mum and sister and brother, but I only found out afterwards, when she was stable and on treatment, as my sister had been unsure whether to tell me. She said I needed to let her know what she should do next time, and what Nina would want to do, in case Mum were to die at such a time. I never wrote about it at the time because it was too huge and awful and brought up too much to process, and then a week later K made me sit further away and in a different room for therapy and all hell broke lose for several weeks.

I replied to my sister’s text to say that K and I had discussed this in therapy last summer and that I would want to say goodbye, but what didn’t really occur to me at the time was that it is unlikely to be a one-time thing, and there might be multiple times over the next year, five years, even 10-15 years (she’s 71 at the moment) when Mum is very unwell and we are told it would be a good idea to say our goodbyes. And it could also be that later on Mum is very unwell for an extended period of time and it will be very hard to manage what to do around contact and seeing her then. (I am not thinking about this at the moment, but it will be something to talk through with K in the abstract at some point I know, and then make a decision over if it were to arise).

The other thing I hadn’t really realised until this news was that estrangement is not a one-time decision, it is a choice that must be remade and recommitted to over and over again. Perhaps this isn’t the case for everyone, but I know my mum would want to see me and Nina if I were to ever want that, and so it is a choice I can still make, to see her or not see her. It is painful to keep making that choice and all I can do is keep in mind that being estranged from my mum will never be okay, it is just more okay than it would be to see her. I still worry I have made all this up and that she is really not abusive and mentally ill and damaging, but K said again yesterday that I’m not making this up, and we laughed that it would be hard to do therapy all this time if you were making things up. As I wrote in my previous post, my behaviour and emotional dysregulation are pretty good indicators of how bad it was.

In the days after hearing from my sister that Mum had been ill I went to a really dark place over my brother’s longer term well-being in particular. He is disabled and hugely traumatised (it’s hard to tell which of his ‘problems’ are caused by his disability and which result from the abuse he has endured for nearly 50 years) and still lives with Mum and even though he is quite a bit older than me (he will turn 50 next year) he is still likely to live a long time after her and it is very frightening to think of what will happen to him – physically and psychologically – without her here. It is something I have worried about since I was very young, when it first became apparent that I was expected to have him to live with me and basically take over everything our mum does for him when she is no longer able to do it. This is not something I feel able to do, in large part because of the difficulties my mum’s abuse and mental illness has left me with, but at the same time I feel horribly guilty and ashamed that I’m not willing to take care of him as much as he will need. And there is also a lot of anxiety over how we will provide what he needs in terms of living support when Mum isn’t here, financially and logistically. It’s all a horrible mess and hearing about Mum’s illness brought back how complex and painful it all is, and how I will never truly be free of it all. K was very supportive and one of the best things about her is that she is probably the first professional I’ve spoken to about my complex family situation who hasn’t just told me ‘your brother is not your responsibility’ as if that is 1) true, and 2) makes everything okay. She has sat with me in the huge feelings and never tried to tell me it is not as complex and difficult as it really is.

Not reaching out to Mum when she was ill was really hard. And then Covid-19 has, of course, brought up even more for me in terms of family estrangement and fears that my mum will die, not least because it will leave my brother in a terrible situation physically and emotionally at a really shit time when there is limited support. I felt such a strong pull towards my mum three weeks ago, when I was first off work and Nina was first off school, so I asked my sister if she thought it would upset Mum too much if I contacted her to say I was thinking of her and my brother and sending love. My sister said she thought Mum would really like to hear from me as she had been asking how Nina and I were, and she said if I didn’t want to open up contact again to say I ‘wasn’t ready’ to be in contact again, even if I think I never will be, because Mum doesn’t need to hear that I never will be ‘ready’ at the moment. So I wrote her a text that said I am not ready to be in contact yet, but wanted her to know Nina and I are thinking of her and my brother during these difficult times. I said I was pleased to hear from Katie [my sister] that my brother is off work and that we were self-isolating due to Nina’s asthma so she was off school (before they closed) and we were safe. I wrote that we were both sending much love to them both. I pressed send and held my breath.

Fifteen minutes later Mum replied with a message that was heartbreaking yet exactly what was needed, telling me they had been thinking of us too and that they were safe and being careful, and that they both love Nina and I very much. I wanted to message back SO MUCH but I knew I couldn’t because there could be no end to it, and she might then start messaging at other times with updates and so on, and it could lead to a place I am not able to be in. It would also hurt Mum too much for me to pull back and so I cried – a lot – but didn’t reply, leaving it as a one-time reaching out which definitely felt like the right thing to do during this time. The next day hearing from my sister that my brother is really struggling with isolation and not being at work and not having his routine also broke my heart. I wanted to reach out, to help him, to support him, to do something to try and ease this time. I considered making cards with Nina to send him, but again – where does it end and could it do more harm than good?

K and I spoke about Mum and my brother on the phone the day after I heard how much my brother was struggling and I cried and cried. It was really fucking difficult to be feeling such horrible and huge emotions around both of them and not to be physically with K either. I told her I’d text Mum too and she agreed it was a good thing to do in the circumstances and that I had done it in a way that maintained boundaries. We spoke about how this pain and struggle is a long-standing thing that is amplified by the current pandemic – generally, my brother’s life has been pretty shit and the coronavirus outbreak has just made it shitter. Even if I was in contact with him he would still be really struggling at this time and I would still be powerless to change that. Not reaching out to him is so difficult though. Not being able to help him, save him, has been something I’ve struggled with so much since I was really a little girl, witnessing the way our mum abuses him and how traumatically bonded he is to her. It’s come up in therapy over and over again. Letting it be there whilst humanity is going through this crisis is incredibly difficult. Slowly, over the years, I am coming to accept that it is just awful and confusing and a total mind fuck and that I can’t change that. I can’t make it okay. I can’t make my brother okay. I can’t make any of it okay. This has been one of the toughest parts of my healing journey for sure, having to accept my brother’s life is what it is.

As I mentioned in my last post, on Sunday I got hit by another huge wave of Mum pain. I missed her so much and was desperate to reach out to her. It is so hard and distressing not to be in her life, not to be supporting her or to hear how she is. I tried to let it be there – the longing to connect, the hurt, the emptiness and sadness that it has come to this. A part started writing in our parts’ journal how we made it all up and she wasn’t that bad and cutting her out was a total over-reaction. This is the way the crazy always starts. I reminded everyone that it is natural to seek connection with our birth parents, that we are hardwired to do this, and that the yearning will likely never go away (though it will evolve and how we relate to it will change, I know this now), but that this doesn’t change how impossible it is to have her in our life. Last night I talked to K about it, mostly from an adult place, though I could feel and hear young and teen parts struggling too, with memories of ‘happy’ times with Mum and doubts over what we have done, and fears that she will die soon, too soon. Something that came up at the start of March, when I heard Mum was ill, was that this is really going to be how it is – she will die, one day, and we will have been estranged. It will never be put right. It cannot be.

On the phone to K yesterday I said how hard it is – still – to believe it was so bad with her that it had to come to this. And I said how hard it is because there were good times, and she tried really hard, and if she was dead, if that was the reason I don’t see her, it would be easier to hold the fact that there were bad times (lots of them) but also good times, but because it is a ‘choice’ not to see her it is hard to open to the good times and accept they were good because it makes me doubt everything. And whilst I know these times were rare, that they stand out because they were not the norm, and that they were also still unhealthy and all about her and what was going on for her, they still make it so hard because they make me want to go back. K reminded me how difficult it had been and we talked about how I had needed to protect Nina. It also came up when we spoke about my excessive drinking and crazy relationships, that those things are there are as proof of how difficult things with Mum were and continued to be.

I sobbed how much I miss her and that I just can’t bear that she could die and that it would have ended like this. It will never be okay and nothing takes it away, it is just there and it doesn’t matter what I do, I can’t change that hole in me. I don’t want her to die not knowing certain things. I want her to know I feel only compassion for her now, that I don’t feel angry, that I understand, and I don’t even feel I need her to know how damaged I am because of her. I just want her to know that estrangement was never about her, it was only ever about me. K said I should write this down because it was very mature and wise and shows that I’ve reached a very different place from where I was when we were first working – a place of forgiveness and compassion. I feel very sad for Mum and I expressed worry that this present place I’m in is just me making her feelings bigger than my own again, like I always have done, but K said she thinks it’s different because her and I are both holding other perspectives on this and we know that other stuff hasn’t gone away, but at the same time I have truly reached a place where I am beginning to forgive my mum for her madness and what it did to me. It is incredibly hard to hold such compassion for someone and not to be able to reach out to them during a time of crisis, but I know if I did nothing would have changed and being in each other’s lives would be untenable again very quickly. So I sit with all these confusing, conflicting thoughts and feelings whilst at the same time knowing that there are huge and painful experiences to go through in my relationship with her in the future, despite the distance between us that I must maintain for my own sanity. There is more difficult and conflicting stuff to come and it is this that I don’t think I had realised until I heard she was ill last month. I thought I had made the decision to become estranged and that’s how it would be, but she is still my Mum and her life, and death, will always impact me in different ways.

 

Haunted

Last night I got hit by a huge wave of grief and pain and sadness over my mum – being estranged from her, who she is and the life she has had and is living now, memories of happy times together when I was growing up that punctuate the years of chaos and abuse. It’s almost like my brain thought ‘hey, you’re not in crisis anymore, have this instead!’. It didn’t rip me open like it has before, but it is a deep sadness that she is not in my life, as well as an uneasiness that maybe I made a mistake in terms of cutting her out because it can’t have been that bad (that old friend again…). And of course at the moment the spectre of so much death is looming and it is natural to feel drawn towards our primary caregivers and to feel a need to be in a place of peace with those in our lives who may be taken away. It is sad and unnatural not to have those people in our lives and I am trying to just let that pain be there without thinking it needs to be acted upon or that it means I made a mistake by cutting contact with mum. I managed to distract last night and have felt okay today, though aware of young and teen parts crying, and then managed to have a painful, but holding and adult, conversation with K about it and let out some of the sadness that has been building throughout the day.

The past few days things have been quite a bit easier generally. I feel much more settled internally and this makes it easier to stay present and focus on my own life, and to deal with the uncertainty that is manifesting in the external world without getting destabilised and drawn into issues that are sad and scary but that are not directly affecting my well-being at this time. It may not last, but for now I feel okay and am managing self-care and spiritual practices and enjoying the slower pace of life that living under lockdown brings. It is nice to be in a place of stability and to feel at peace with what is happening even though so much is not okay, whilst also accepting that there will be more times on this journey when I feel lost and isolated and like K has abandoned me, and perhaps when people in my life who I care about are directly affected (physically, emotionally, financially) by what is unfolding. I feel quite withdrawn and introspective at the moment too and I am aware how little social interaction I actually need to feel okay, provided it is good quality and nurturing as the phone and video calls, and time with Nina at home, I’ve had over the weekend has been. (I also know I could easily get used to this self-regulating state and need to watch myself that I don’t settle and withdraw from the world too much).

I’m in the middle of another period of extended trauma dreams, where the nights are an endless tangle of past relationships and a parade of people who were once important in my life trek through my mind, their memory haunting me for days afterwards and leaving me struggling to metabolise their emotional presence in my life again. In our session this afternoon K said it is no surprise these past attachments are coming in just as I am also struggling with missing my mum and with the familiar questions over whether things with her were really so bad as to justify this. She says it makes sense for me to be piecing together in my dreams past attachments that, whilst not so important in terms of what we’ve covered in therapy, were really important in my life at different times. I said I find it hard knowing those people will never know why I behaved how I did because at the time I didn’t know why I was how I was. I will always be the crazy, intense, psycho ex-girlfriend who got drunk and angry and cried and self-harmed and tried to throw myself onto train tracks or stormed out in the night telling them never to contact me again (and then, of course, calling them 10 minutes later to make sure they knew just how hurt and angry I was, desperate for them to beg me to return but also desperate to get away and not be hurt again). Speaking to K I realised it’s almost as if my mind is looking for proof of what mum did to me in those past relationships, proof that it was that bad growing up with her as a mum, because it led me to behave in such out of control ways, particularly in intimate relationships.

I linked this also to a book I read over the weekend about a former alcoholic which was, quite by accident, or perhaps synchronicity, really such a good book for me to read at the moment. Life has felt kind of dull and flat, inside and out, this past week and I have felt myself drawn to alcohol and substances to provide some excitement and stimulation. I’ve been sober for 3 and a half years now (see here where I wrote about some of my journey with – and without – alcohol and other drugs) and in many ways it is really only beginning to become apparent just how needed and necessary that sobriety was. With hindsight it has become far, far clearer what a destructive force drinking was in my life and just how out of control it left me. The intense shame that has crippled me all my life was quadrupled by alcohol and it led me to behave in ways that made everything I was going through a hundred million times worse. I can see that turning to alcohol at this time would be dangerous and self-destructive and yet it is calling to me and it is interesting to see how strongly it is there despite how many years have gone by.

Something in me knew it was time to stop drinking back in 2015 and 2016 and I managed a couple of sober periods in those years, usually three months at a time, but they always ended with me getting absolutely horrifyingly drunk and crying on people I barely knew then blacking out, waking up in my own vomit with no idea how I’d got home or where my belongings were. Not ideal. Over the past few years I’ve often thought of my decision to stop drinking completely as something that could have gone either way – I could have chosen to drink more moderately or to not drink alone, to not drink with my partner when I am next in a relationship to avoid angry attachment-fuelled outbursts and crazy, dramatic crying scenes, or to not drink when I am feeling sad or destructive or reckless or already out of control, or not to drink when with people I might get triggered by or might be driven to share too much with, or might end up saying something I regret to. Waking up covered in shame happens all too easily for me when I’ve had a drink, even just one, and so as the years have gone by I’ve become more and more committed to this being a life choice that will stay with me forever. I used to phrase it to inquiring people (colleagues mostly, who are always gobsmacked that I don’t drink, perhaps because they’ve not seen the trail of destruction that follows me whenever I have a drink in my hand) that I had ‘drunk a lot over the past 20 years and was taking some time away to re-evaluate my relationship with it’. That usually quietened them, and it is actually what I’ve ended up doing – re-evaluated my relationship with it and realised I cannot have it in my life in a way that is not toxic and harmful.

The truth is I am not really able to drink. Having it in my life as an option, something I try to be in relationship with and work out how to be around a bit, means there is always the potential for things to go very wrong. The author of the book I read definitely drank more than me, definitely was an alcoholic whereas I would say I was ‘just’ dependent on alcohol (and, later in my life, other drugs), definitely made more of a mess of her life due to alcohol than I ever did. And yet, so much of her story resonated with me. My mum used to worry about the amount I drank. She would warn me to be careful, remind me that alcoholism runs in my family (her dad and her half brother were both alcoholics and both died quite young (my mum lost both her parents by the age of 17) either directly or indirectly as a result of alcohol abuse) and I would laugh and shrug it off because I was in my 20s and early 30s and that’s what people do at that age to have fun. Being able to look back on my drinking from a place of sobriety enables me to see that I was never drinking just because it was fun, there was so much more going on than that, always, and it is this that means that drinking is not a choice I can make if I am serious about healing myself from the past.

Perhaps I was in need of this reframing right now, when I’m sure in many ways a few drinks would bring me comfort and relief, just as it is for hundreds of thousands of others across the globe. I was saying to K how I could see how nice it must be at the moment to be at home with a few drinks and connecting virtually with groups of friends who were also drinking. I miss that. I wish I was part of it, even though I’m sure it is super lonely at the same time. I was also saying how my sister had said we’d have to do some kind of ‘virtual party’ for my birthday in a few weeks and I was thinking how much nicer that would be for me with some drinks (her and her partner were drinking red wine on Saturday evening when we FaceTimed them and it left me desperately longing for the same). I sometimes think the choice I made not to drink is too harsh on myself, ‘too extreme’ (my mum’s favourite phrase to describe most things about me), and that there could be a comfortable middle ground between total abstinence and binge drinking and/or self-medicating with alcohol, if only I let myself embrace it. This book served as a very helpful reminder that for me that middle ground does not exist. Part of AA is the ‘one day at a time’ mantra but also the emphasis on choice – alcoholics cannot ‘choose’ to just have one or two drinks and therefore they cannot drink at all. Whilst I am not, strictly speaking, an alcoholic, I am slowly coming to see that this choice does not exist for me either. The possibility of getting blackout drunk and doing something utterly degrading and humiliating, or self-destructive and shame-provoking, is always there because I find it so, so hard to stop drinking once I’ve started.

I tend to think of ‘stopping drinking’ as something that has not really been a big part of my healing journey, my recovery. It’s something I talk about as incidental and shrug off, perhaps because I am not ready to face just how awful I was at times when drinking was such a huge part of who I was. I often forget what a huge part of my life it was for 20 years and just how much of a storm of destruction it tore through my life. I don’t see how huge it is that we are in the middle of a global pandemic that left me reeling and in a huge attachment crisis and yet I haven’t reached for a bottle of something to help me through. It is huge though. I play it down because it still feels dull and anti-social not to drink, and embarrassing to admit that alcohol had such a grip one me that I now cannot touch it at all, but it is huge that I have gone so long without getting drunk and that I rarely even think of it now. I also know the longing to drink will never leave me completely and so it is important to revisit the reasons I don’t drink and remember just how many fucking horrendous rows and crying, screaming meltdowns I’ve had because of it, how many times I’ve called and texted people I shouldn’t have and said things that never should have been spoken out loud. Occasionally I probably could manage to just have one or two drinks, but the problem is that when that is there as an option for me there is no telling which of those occasions will lead to a time when I drink too much or do something I really regret. I’m really lucky to be alive and not in jail after some of the reckless nights out I’ve had on drink and illegal drugs – K told me earlier about someone she heard of who accidentally killed their boyfriend whilst they were both taking substances, and reminded me that there, but for the grace of God, go I…

So, just for today, I am re-committing to my journey of sobriety and estrangement. The two go hand-in-hand in many ways because both have involved freeing myself from the mental distortions that enabled me to keep going back to people and places that were so destructive and damaging for me. K said the dreams about past relationships and friendships make sense in terms of what I am figuring out and still trying to make sense of about mum and her life and what it did to me. Revisiting those relationships, of which my relationship with alcohol formed such a huge part and was such a huge indicator of how totally fucked up and incapable of true intimacy I was, is part of my subconscious trying to work out what mum did to me and how it caused me to feel and behave in relationships. It’s like I can only see how bad it was to have her as a mum when I see how out of control and borderline psychotic at times I was throughout my life. My behaviour and emotional dysregulation and sensitivity to perceived abandonment, and my attempts to regulate and cope with my feelings and dissociation using substances, are all evidence of how damaging my mum was, something that is still too painful to really hold in awareness for most of the time.

It was nice to do what felt like ‘proper therapy work’ with K, instead of fighting the coronavirus-fuelled attachment panic that descended for so long. It’s strange working by phone, there seems to be less of a narrative, less of a sense of pulling things together and finding our way through and out the other side of things in partnership. It’s like I need a constant reminder that she knows all these things, that she knows my life and what has happened, that she still understands why I don’t see mum, what my childhood was like, what it has left me with. It was horrible sitting on my bed crying over all this, over mum and the past and all that not having her did to me, and being alone in my room instead of safe with K opposite me in her cosy therapy space. It is not good enough. At one point I dissociated and disappeared which is such a strange thing to experience happening when she is so far away. I said how much we hate not being there and she said she hates us not being there too, that she finds it really sad, but that she is still here for us. I think for now knowing she misses us being there and is committed to keeping us close and connected during this time has to be enough, but I hope a day will soon come when we can be with her and that she is right – we will have memories of this time to add to all the other memories we have of being together.

Attachment still hurts

Attachment pain is killing me. It’s not felt like this for months and months, since December last year in fact so nearly 9 months. I can’t even remember what to do with this pain and the gnawing, aching sensations in my chest and tummy. I feel so empty inside, so desperate for something I cannot even articulate. I want to curl up and die, preferably with K right next to me. It hurts so much. When it was time to end our phone call earlier I just wanted to scream and cry. It wasn’t enough time, it feels like it will never be enough time again, even though for all those months therapy hasn’t felt like this at all. It is like K and I are the same but the new house feels so strange and all wrong and we are both floating untethered in the new space. I need longer there, to learn what it is like there, to know I can trust it, to know K and I are the same and everything is still there. It still feels so far away and I can’t work out how our skies match up or where the moon should be.

K continues to be amazing and kind and validating. Monday’s session was not enough to settle this wave, I could feel the abandonment tidal wave threatening to erupt even before I left, as the time trickled away and the week apart stretched ahead. She took me outside before we left, to the special spot in her new garden, a shady space where you can sit under the trees and look across to the rolling hills and the edge of the moors and watch the sun go down. And as we sat there I wanted to beg her not to send me home yet, to let me stay until I’d soaked in enough of her to sustain me again and could feel deep inside that everything is the same and will be okay. I know she can feel my internal disturbances even when I don’t speak them out loud, and she said for now it is like it was when we met and to contact her when I needed to, to not hold back if I need her, to let her know how I am doing. She didn’t used to say those things, although we text most days at the start and often worked by phone, but I think before texting never used to help, and waiting for a reply was agonising, and we just couldn’t take in what she was saying and would end up more triggered, whereas now she knows this is temporary and that her presence helps me. She knows I can support and care for myself in the ordinary course of life now, that I have come so far, and that is why she is offering more, knowing she won’t have to pour this much into me again forever. It is good to remember things are different now, even though the storm feels the same.

Walking to the car I could hear the screaming inside, the pain was so intense, like part of me had been ripped away, like I was being left alone to die. The week ahead, even with phone contact, felt completely impossible to survive on my own. I nearly threw up before I got in the car. I wanted to scream and sob and wail, but feeling those feelings alone is intolerable so I swallowed the screams and I drove home, the pain in my head intensifying as I got nearer home and I pushed the feelings down more and more so I wouldn’t be a mess when I got back to Nina. We text K an hour after getting home. She said it is a big storm that will settle, to resource and rest, that we could work the next day (yesterday) by phone if it would be helpful. I tried to rest but young parts were so disturbed and the head pain was so intense and debilitating. Yesterday I had to work in my office and had meetings and a training and coffee with a friend and mostly I was adult but there was an undercurrent of disturbance all day and at Nina’s bedtime I yelled at her because she had the guinea pigs on her bed and one of them did a wee and so her sheets needed changing at 9.45pm. This was an annoyance, but the rage it triggered in me was clearly disproportionate. I did myself a reiki treatment and that soothed things a bit and I apologised for yelling before she fell asleep. K and I spoke this morning and it helped and hurt at the same time. I can’t even remember really what she said, but it was about attachment and trauma and not feeling safe in relationship, about how we are still working through the imprint of what happened to me as an infant and my attachment system, and that we were both working really hard to contain this wave and would continue to do so. I wish I could remember her words, but they’ve mostly dissolved already and I want to reach out by text but there is nothing she can do and ultimately this pain is not about her. It was so soothing to hear her voice and know how solid she is but it also hurt so much to have her there and to know I would then have to survive until Monday again without her. This feels so ridiculous to be writing, I’ve not struggled between sessions like this for so long.

I told her the huge and really intense dream I had last night about her and my Mum and all the pain I keep hidden. I was shouting a lot in the dream and just so completely broken. The content of the dream is pretty textbook, but as those of us who experience trauma dreams and nightmares will testify, their power and their residue is immense. I had intense knee pain, and other body pains, in the dream (which I have had a lot of lately, and could feel in the night every time I was semi-conscious) and had been carrying on for weeks as though my knee wasn’t hurting, but finally went to have X-Rays. My body was broken in multiple places and when the radiographer showed me my knee images my knee caps were cracked in two. I was told I would need to wear a cast for 3 months and my first thought was practicalities around getting Nina to and from swimming training and getting to work, shortly followed by ‘how will I get to K’s?’. Somehow I managed to get dropped off at the junction of the A-road I come off at to get to her new house, thinking that however much it hurt my knees I would walk the rest of the way, but then every time I went round a corner I was somewhere different than I expected to be and there were still miles to go. I was in so much pain and made it to a telephone box thinking if I called K she would come and get me (which she has said she will do in the landrover if there is ever flooding or snow I can’t get through to get to hers), but she wasn’t bothered and said she’d see me when I was healed and the cast was off. So I called my Mum to come and drive me to K’s and she did. I don’t remember seeing her in the dream though, and the next thing I was at her house, where I grew up, with my sister sitting across from me and when she found out how I’d got to K’s she went crazy at me about what I had done to my Mum and did I not realise the state she’d been in since I cut contact two years ago, and how this would destroy her (i.e. me reaching out to her when nothing has changed). I said it was fine, she knew nothing had changed and this was a one-off, but my sister continued to say angry things to me until I exploded and screamed at her ‘what about what Mum has done to ME?’ and how she broke me, how it is taking years and loads of money in therapy to recover, how for the first 18 months of therapy my plan was to kill Nina and I, so ‘what about ME?’ and if it wasn’t for what she had done I wouldn’t have needed to get to K’s in the first place.

This dream is so obviously about all my system is struggling to process at the moment, about climate breakdown and not being able to get to K’s, about attachment and damage and my dysfunctional family and the impact what I’ve had to do will have had on family members, and about the lengths I go to to conceal my pain, physical and emotional, consciously and unconsciously. And K says it shows us what big things have been coming up around her move and not being able to get to her, and things changing, and then not being able to see my sister at the weekend, for various reasons but in part because of the family mess and the emotions it would bring up. It has stayed with me all day.

I still feel as though I am dying, but I realise what is worse is knowing I won’t actually die between now and Monday, instead I will just have to live with these intolerable feelings and with no one to soothe it for all that time (obviously logically I can see actual death would be worse, but it doesn’t feel that way). I cannot escape this pain. I can’t remember what I did to soothe it, did anything work? I’ve been trying to think about ways this pain is different from before. I don’t feel K and I’s relationship is under threat, only our ability to see each other and work together. I don’t feel caught in the disorganised attachment dance, desperate to reach out to her yet terrified of pushing her away, I am just aware, from an adult space, that I can’t keep texting as there is not really anything she can do other than wait out the storm with me. And I also know now this pain is not about her, and this does leave me feeling like at least we are in this together; it is not about me needing more and her holding back from me, it is not making her angry that I feel this way, it is not making her want to give up on me, she is on my side and doing all she can to help make things better right now. If I text she would reply. She’s said we can work by phone again on Friday (except how much is all this phone time costing me, argh) and that she is solid in us and it doesn’t feel different for her.

I really, really hate feeling this way. I hate having young parts freaking out whilst at the same time I am trying to work. I want someone to hold me but I know if there was someone here it wouldn’t help. I asked K if she would go away if the baby part (Hope, she is called) really screamed with her and she said she thinks that baby did scream with her on Friday and I said “not as loudly as she screams when you’re not there” (because I was aware, even in that state, of holding back and not making too much noise) and she said if you become aware of that baby part coming out tell me and we will find ways to soothe her because it’s not good for babies to be allowed to just scream. And I said ‘but she doesn’t know what it’s like to scream and not be on her own’ and I think K understood this. I know she knows the level of distress, but to have it witnessed in all its intensity before it is soothed feels like something older parts need to witness happening if that makes sense.

This past week or two has been so hard. It is crazy thinking I felt so much worse than this for weeks and weeks on end for such a sustained period of my life. I don’t know how I coped, especially when it truly felt all about K and she couldn’t reach me in it. She thinks this will take a while to settle again, that it is a good reminder for us of how even though things are so much better now that it doesn’t take much to tip the balance again, that it shows why my body is so broken, but it is also really hard knowing these feelings still lurk and are still so life or death in their intensity.

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