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.

Call it what you want

I don’t really know where to start with this post, or where it is going, where it needs to go. Thoughts have been coming and going while I’ve been cycling and doing other things this week, but nothing seems too urgent. Big shifts are taking place, but I don’t feel in too much of a hurry to work out what they mean. There is a certain level of resistance too – I don’t really want to think about therapy or the future right now. Yet here I am, writing, feeling like something needs to be said. We’ll see what happens.

For the past couple of weeks I have felt a huge internal shift with regards my relationship with K. I keep trying to work out if it’s positive or negative, but I think that means different things to different parts, and different parts have different experiences of this shift and what it is caused by, so I don’t think there is a ‘right’ answer or way of understanding things. I’ve noticed over the past few months that I’ve been turning inwards and towards my own life for security and safety, much, much more than I ever have before. And then with K’s changed availability due to the pandemic I felt very angry that my well-being still seemed to be dependent on somebody else after all this time in therapy. More than being angry with K for not being clear about the whole Friday email debacle, I felt angry that it mattered and angry that the pandemic had led me to regress in terms of needing her between sessions, and I no longer wanted to be that person. I wanted to be able to take in K’s support during my paid for time and just get on with my life the rest of the time.

Young parts definitely feel defeated lately, with the whole remote therapy thing, but it has seemed as though instead of shutting down and freezing and disappearing, they’ve turned to me, to each other, to their own lives and the things that give them meaning, in order to feel okay. I just feel as though I don’t need K anymore. I can’t tell if this is a defensive shutting down lack of need, or if it’s a more genuine moving forwards and away from her in order to develop more of my own sense of self. I think it could be both. It is hard to put it all into words, and it is definitely fuelled by K not being able to fully give me what I need in my sessions now we are working remotely, but it could be that her changed availability acted as a catalyst for my system to just think ‘enough!’ It is time to move away from her to a certain extent I think, although this could just be that I shift my perspective on therapy and what it is now, compared with what it used to be in my life, and take steps towards myself instead of ending therapy or taking a long break. It does seem as though this is what has changed, as though my mind has pushed her away, but instead of the usual experience of being lost and dissociated and unreal without her, I have found myself a little more.

A while back K was saying again about my fragile sense of self, about how unwell I feel when I don’t feel connected to her. She was kind and gentle, and she is right, but it makes me so ashamed and sad. It’s the reason I went into therapy really, underneath all the other stuff, but the shame is still there. It is work we plan to do when I return from this short 3 week break – thinking in more depth about my ‘loss of self’ due to narcissistic parenting, talking about a book on this we started looking at back in February, before everything went to shit! One of the things that I’m really struggling with is that I feel I am really growing and healing and discovering myself at the moment, but I don’t feel able to share much at all of it with K. This has always been a problem of mine, and it is something we were working on prior to lockdown after I got promoted at work and spiralled into a horrible shame spiral, and also needed others to reflect my success back to me so it felt real. I wish I could share this progress and growth with K, but I find sharing good things almost as triggering and shame-provoking as sharing difficult things, more so now even I think, and so trying to do this via a screen is basically impossible. There is work to be done here, but I hate the thought of not doing it in-person.

There’s also a sense of K being ‘just a person’ that has become very dominant during the pandemic. The pedestal I put her on at the start of therapy has gradually eroded over the years, in large part because of the careful disclosures she has made over our time together about her own life and childhood, and I was definitely past the idealising stage and had come to accept a lot about her humanness, but the past few months have really made it clear that she is just a person with her own messy life and health worries and stressful life circumstances. I’ve bumped up against her perception of the threat of the virus multiple times and it has really highlighted how I have absolutely no control or power in our relationship and she will always put her own well-being and family first (as she should, of course, as we all should). I don’t know if her perception of the threat to her and her son, and her refusal to work in-person for a long time is reasonable or not, and it is irrelevant really, it is more just knowing that it is time I became more reliant upon myself to provide stability and permanence, because she cannot do it. That hasn’t changed – there has never been control on my part, just as we can’t control anyone else, or most things in life – but my understanding and willingness to push against it has changed; I am not able to know or predict what she will do or determine when we will meet again. I can decide not to see her or work with her, but I can’t decide anything else in our relationship. I don’t want this reality of what she is to me to be such a strong determinant of my well-being.

It helps having more time – in some ways, not all – whilst we’ve been in lockdown and I’ve been working from home. It means I can stay in contact with who I am more easily, because there is more time for me and I’m not getting lost in interactions with other people and driving Nina around and so on. This time away from normal life has taught me a lot about myself, more than I ever would have learnt in therapy during this time, and I will blog about it separately because every time I think about going back to ‘how things were’ I panic and feel overwhelmed and I need to find a way of carrying some of the benefits and certainty of this time into the future. I get incredibly stressed and overwhelmed when I think about what things will be like once swimming has started again and school term starts and work gets busy again. And whilst I can see it could be nice to have K’s support with all this, having more time and money could also be helpful during this time. I have to live this stuff, live the changes, to a certain extent. I’m not sure what I can get from K over the next few months that will come close to what I can get from myself.

Over the past week or so it’s seemed as though whether or not I see K makes little difference in terms of moving forward and continuing to heal. In part this is because of remote therapy not giving me what I need, and the likelihood that this will continue for quite some time. I think it is also that I’ve internalised K and the therapeutic relationship a lot, and therefore don’t actually need to see K to continue to draw on the work we’ve done together. There’s work we can do for sure, and Nina and I had a huge argument on Tuesday evening and I definitely wanted K then, but I just don’t know if I want to do it right now, or if I want a break from thinking about the whole thing. I think maybe I want some time to really integrate the healing I’ve done so far. It’s like I can usually work out for myself what is going on now, what I need to do. I am really getting to know myself during this reprieve. I’ve prioritised self-care in all its forms for years now, but over the past 4 months certain things have become even more embedded and habitual. I’ve completely quit sugar and gluten and can already feel the difference. I think this will be a lifelong commitment for me, or until climate breakdown leads to food shortages and scarcity here at least. I am in a very clear routine with meditation and yoga and journaling and creative activities and exercise now, more than I’ve ever been before. All I can see is me continuing to really develop a sense of what I want and need, and then try to live by it, over the coming months and years. It is tough because I can’t live the life I need in all ways, because of work and Nina, but talking about that with K won’t change it.

And I really don’t want to be spending £300 – £400 a month on therapy anymore. I really, really don’t. During lockdown life has been quite a bit cheaper (predominantly petrol – I worked out I’ve saved around £450 over 4 months on petrol not driving Nina around to swimming or travelling to therapy) and I’ve been able to put a little aside and also had some spare cash to replace things that had broken, get some new supplements and things, and get some new-to-me clothes from Depop. It has been nice not needing to watch every penny. However, as life is returning to some kind of normality, and swimming starts again on Saturday, this isn’t going to be the case anymore. And if I wasn’t spending so much on therapy…

Obviously for a long time therapy was an essential expenditure. I don’t begrudge any of the money I’ve spent on it so far. But now? Now things feel different…

And it is scary. Very, very scary. I wonder if I’m ready to end therapy, move to less frequent sessions, or take an extended break. I don’t want to be ready but I can feel an increasing sense that I am, that I need to let go and move forward. I guess it’s why the boundaries in therapy are so important, otherwise we would stay forever, but if I’m not willing to work on depth material or difficult things I can’t have K. It makes me not want her, because I don’t want to look at those things at the moment. I always imagined when it was time to end that I would put into words how huge what we’ve done has been, pull it all together and reflect on how far we had come together. I never imagined it would just drift away and I wouldn’t necessarily want to look back at all the ground we had covered because I had become more central and prominent in my own life and it didn’t matter so much. How can K and I’s journey not matter?! This is the part that makes me suspicious, makes me wonder if I’ve just cut off from her as some kind of defence mechanism… But if I have, it definitely hasn’t caused me to lose sight of myself. Is this the place we are meant to get to in therapy?

Something my sister said a long time ago about working – and ending – with ‘borderline’ clients has really stayed with me. She said that when her work with borderline clients has been coming to an end they often got incredibly distressed and felt they weren’t ready to end at all. It stirred up all their abandonment fears and made them really act out. But when they were asked to complete a follow up survey a few weeks after ending therapy they would report feeling much better, and this tends to continue long after the therapy has ended. So, although I don’t have BPD in the strictest sense, it’s all developmental trauma and I share the fear of abandonment that is at the core of it, and therefore I don’t think I will ever feel unequivocally ready to end therapy. I also know when I decide to, when I try to, I will experience a huge wave of abandonment and annihilation pain, just as I have multiple times this year about not being able to get to K because of the pandemic, each time that wound has been triggered, but that won’t mean it’s not the right time. I don’t think I will be able to end therapy and not feel that way, I  may even need an emergency therapy session after I end therapy to cope with the feelings that come after I end therapy, but I don’t think that will be a sign that I’m not ready. If I wait until I don’t feel that pain to end therapy then I will be in therapy forever.

To make it clear, I’m not actually considering ending my therapy with K. There is definitely still work I want and need to do with her. I’m not sure if what I’m experiencing now is being ready to end but I definitely wouldn’t want to do it remotely. An extended break is a possibility. Or, like I said above, I continue and just accept that therapy’s place in my life has shifted and other things are more important, either on a temporary or permanent basis, and I focus on those things too. I don’t know what I want and I’m not in any rush to decide really. I’m enjoying some time off work and some time away from therapy and deciding what to take there. And I have worries about a break…

My fears are varied. Top is that if I take a break, K won’t be there when I return because she will stop working as a T because of the pandemic and her health (auto-immune thyroid disease). Next is that if I take a break when I return she won’t honour the £10 an hour fee reduction she is giving me from September (less than the discount I’ve had till now, but still £60-£100 a month depending on whether I do 90 or 120 minute sessions) because I’ll have saved money during the break. Next is that she will give my time to someone else and when I want to start again it won’t be available and she won’t have an end-of-day slot I can do. This wouldn’t happen if it was a set period of time, but none of us knows how long she will be working remotely for, or how long I would want to take as a break, and so I don’t see how we can have a set return date. And I’m worried I will need her because something bad happens, and she won’t be there. I’m even more worried I won’t need her – what will this mean for the future of our relationship? Is it over? This is never how I would have wanted to end things but the pandemic has changed everything.

I know if we were working in-person I would continue. There is a healing and containment and emotional regulation I would get from K that I still need and want and benefit from. Things are different now though. I don’t want to cling on to our weekly work during this time if it stops me moving forward in my life.

Maybe I have to take a break and trust she will be there if I need her. But maybe I also have to trust that if she is not there again that I will be okay.

It must seem as though I spiral through this break/not-break place a lot, but every time it is clearer and easier and less intense. I don’t feel caught in that awful place where each option (carrying on/taking a break) feels utterly unmanageable. I know I can do therapy remotely now, so it is more just a sense of not needing it, and being able to work out what will serve me over the coming months, all the time holding in mind that events may transpire to mean K and I don’t work in-person again and I need to be okay with that, I want to be okay with that. She feels very far away and it is heart-breaking really that after this short break we won’t actually be ‘reunited’ – she won’t open the door and smile and say ‘welcome back’ and that it is nice to see me. The familiarity and routine of my therapy time has been taken away, and without it I don’t know what is left to salvage.

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.

False God

I am feeling a lot of shame over the things I am about to share. I am aware that cognitively I have no reason to feel ashamed but this doesn’t shift the emotional legacy of toxic parenting so… I’m sharing, but feeling uncomfortable about it.

Since my promotion I’ve not been in a good place at all. I spent most of the weekend feeling very unwell – dissociated, heavy, lethargic, quite extreme levels of pain – and whilst I would love to blame it all on the lack of sunlight (which definitely doesn’t help), a busy week, getting my period, and not having anything exciting or joyful planned for the weekend, I am also aware that a lot of big feelings are being held inside and that, as usual, the physical symptoms I have been experiencing are caused by blocked emotional energy. It strikes me as faintly ridiculous that I get triggered by something objectively good, something I should be proud and happy about, but when I unpick the reasons for it I can see that it’s to be expected really, given my narcissistic parents.

There are quite a few strands to unpick to work out how I’ve gone from a place of such excitement and relief to a place where I feel so depleted and small in the face of my success. The first is that I seemed to fall into fight/flight over my promotion – I found it really hard to emotionally regulate in the days that followed, because I am unable to emotionally regulate I guess, and I think being excited and happy and proud of myself are difficult emotional and cognitive states for me. I definitely felt on edge and borderline manic and all my usual routines seemed to go out the window. It is clear that I don’t really know how to deal with any emotions – although my capacity is increasing through therapy of course – and I know growing up I was shamed by my parents for all my emotional states and when I was successful my mum would be proud and happy for me for as long as it reflected on her well, and then she would snap at me that I was boasting and being big-headed. She did this in particular on the night I found out my PhD amendments had been accepted and I was officially Dr B__________. It hurt a lot, because I didn’t know back then all it must have triggered in her, and it felt like I really was showing off and deserving of contempt and humiliation. And it was always so confusing because she was so proud of my successes, especially in writing, but I wasn’t allowed to feel and experience them myself. It was all about her, of course, but it never made sense when I was growing up and I just felt rubbish and not good enough all the time, and that if I felt happy or proud of myself it was because I was a bad person.

So I was having a hard time being with what was happening inside for me last week – I couldn’t take it in or just be with my internal state. I couldn’t even access my internal state. I’m not sure I even had one. I totally disappeared. I said to K earlier it felt like my success was only real when I was talking to other people about it. I think this is linked to the first strand – I needed others to help me emotionally regulate in the face of such a huge event – but goes beyond it also because it stems from growing up with an engulfing narcissistic mother who eclipsed my sense of self. So last week when I tried to feel inside for what my promotion meant TO ME there was nothing there. It’s so hard to explain, but I just had no sense of myself at all, nothing inside. I told K I feel like I don’t exist. And she said how, as we already know, I have a sense of myself not existing unless it’s in relation to others, not having a sense of self, a true sense of foundational self, unless it is reflected by others. And this stings so much because it is true, of course it is, but I feel such enormous shame that I feel so unreal and need other people to validate me and make me real. It feels so shameful because it is like I am always seeking approval from others and trying to make myself visible to them because I want to be better than everyone else. The truth is, as I’ve written before, it is about feeling invisible and unreal unless I am extra visible, leaving me always having to do more than most to exist at all. It feels as though it is my fault that I don’t have a sense of self, that I have been weak and let myself be absorbed and reflected back by others. I know this isn’t how it works, that I didn’t and don’t choose this, but I still feel pathetic for being this way.

And Mum’s absence was loud last week. There is a deep sadness that because we are estranged, and most likely always will be now, I was not able to share this news with her – it was the first time something big had happened and I hadn’t been able to tell her and even though I know had she been involved she would have spoilt it and made it about her and left me feeling all kinds of yuck, she has been there for everything else and knowing she doesn’t even know (unless she googles me, which I guess she probably does do from time-to-time) is hard. She would be proud. She would have bought me flowers and a card and taken me for a meal and told me she was proud of all my hard work. K said earlier how of course it would bring up huge feelings of loss, when something big happens in my life and there is no one to share it with, and that of course I would want to share it with my family of origin even when it is a really complicated situation. I miss my mum so much. There is just this huge hole where she is supposed to be and it fucking aches so much.

She really did help me get where I am now (even if she was a large part of the reason why getting here was such a fucking struggle) and I am grateful to her for instilling a lifelong love of reading and learning in me and for supporting me in my studies. I am grateful that even though she was a terrible mother in most ways, she left me that gift and it is something that I will always treasure. K said this evening that it’s probably the only good thing Mum has left me with – academic success and a love of learning – and it is sad because she she is right, there is nothing else good from her, but it is also something I am so grateful for and I wish she knew that. I wish she knew that even though I can no longer see her, that gratitude hasn’t changed. I love what I do for work. And it saved me from a life of drugs and binge drinking and overdoses, I am sure of that.

K asked what I needed from my Mum, beyond just being able to share the news with her, and I said I just wanted to hear ‘you’ve done enough’ so I can stop now and just be. I cried a lot when I said these words earlier, because all week I’ve had this sense of ‘now what?’ and I just want this to be enough. I want to feel as though I’ve arrived. Cognitively I do have this sense of things calming for me now, but emotionally I still don’t feel as though I’ve done enough. K said how I just wanted to be recognised by her (Mum) for who I am, what I’ve achieved, the struggle. She said how young it is, the need to share, the excitement. And I can feel that. I can feel young parts in me feeling so sad because it was never enough – fantastic GCSE results, 4 As at A Level, a first class Law degree, Research Council funding to do a PhD, getting a doctorate, proper academic posts, none of it has been enough to stop me feeling like I don’t exist.

All I’ve ever wanted is for my parents to notice me, the me inside my achievements, the person I am inside. The text from my Dad last week just said ‘well done’ (ugh) and when I was trying to talk to my Grandma on Saturday about my work and she was asking questions about what this promotion will mean (which was nice as she can’t really relate to my work and was clearly really trying to show an interest) he kept butting in and turning it back to him and then changed the subject entirely after less than two minutes. I get it is a reflection of him, of how he feels about himself, of his insecurities and limitations, and that it is not about me, but it is still infuriating, especially knowing he has been like that my whole life, at times when it will have had a lasting impact on my development. I remember getting twelve awards in an end of term assembly when I was 13 and when I rang to tell him after school he was like ‘yeah? and…’. It is just such a shit way to raise a child.

It came to me this evening when I got home how bizarre it is that I am seeking approval, still, from two people who I don’t even respect or like very much, one of whom I’ve come to see is so damaged and damaging that I can’t have them in my life at all. I do care though, I care not so much about what they think of me, but that they recognise what I have achieved, who I am, how hard I have worked to be where I now am. I hope that the first step in beginning to really, truly validate myself is that I am beginning to question why so desperately want two people I don’t even want to see to be the ones to validate me. I want to make myself real. I want to be the one who gives myself an internal sense of being real and enough, just because I am here rather than because I have done something noteworthy.

K asked how Nina responded and I said she text me straight back and wrote ‘yeeeeessssssssssssssss!’ and then ‘well done mummy’ (and then told a friend my income has doubled now – if only haha). And K said how lovely it was that Nina gets it. And she said ‘and I get it, I really truly do, and I am immensely proud of you. It is amazing’. And my heart filled a little bit, but not enough because I just can’t take it in and make it mean something for me. She gave me a big hug at the end of the session and said again how proud she is, and that she hopes that I start to feel it within myself soon, but that there is no hurry, no faking. And I really hope I can. I hope one day – soon – I can validate myself, tell myself how well I’ve done, that I’ve done enough now and it is time to soak it all in. I am enough. And I hope I can have a sense of myself, for myself, when something else happens, so I don’t have to go looking to the wrong people to tell me I am okay now. That place feels very far away though and right now I am still left with a sense of not being here at all, not existing in my own life, and that is just so bloody hard to live with.

Me

Over the weekend I was reflecting in my journal how long it has taken to have a true sense of who I am. I remember writing something around 5 years ago, when I was very actively trying to heal myself but wasn’t yet in therapy, about who I am as a person, but looking back I can see it was all about how I come across externally and how I fitted into the outside world. It was positive, it was about me being a good person, but reading it now it is clear that it wasn’t written from inside me. It wasn’t about what made me happy, what is and isn’t right for me, what brings me joy and peace and how I want to spend my time. I don’t think I had a sense of who I was at all back then. A huge amount of my time was spent doing things to escape the insatiable pit of need inside me. And I had no idea what I wanted or enjoyed because I was so busy twisting myself into all kinds of shapes to fit what other people wanted and expected of me. I was reading about the enneagram over the weekend, which is a fascinating addition in my journey of self-discovery, and I realised how much I like being at home and having cosy, quiet times with a blanket. I used to want to make the most of every minute I wasn’t being a mum – seeing friends, going out, getting things done. Turns out what I really needed was time to just be, at home, by myself. In a life that is often a whirlwind of things needing doing and places to go, over the past six months I’ve realised how precious time by myself at home is, and how much I love so many of the things that are already part of my life.

I love comfort – blankets, cuddlies, snuggling up, zoning out. I love nature and sunshine and being outside in wild places. I love deep, intense conversations and one-to-one time with special people. I love reading for fun and escapism. I love being on my bike. I love laughing at simple things and finding people to share my dark sense of humour with (not thinking of anyone in particular here #amber). I love my research and writing and imparting my knowledge and new ways of seeing the world to others. I love the bunnies and just being in the garden watching them. I love days when there is nothing to do and the possibilities are endless. I love when I make a new friend I really connect with and when they tell me they feel the same about me.

I hate making decisions. I hate conflict. I hate scary films and people arguing around me. I hate being in big groups of people I don’t know that well when my role is not clear and I don’t know what’s expected of me. I hate cramming too much into a day. I hate supermarkets and having to go into town. Right now in my life I hate cooking and preparing food because sometimes it feels like all I ever do.

I love making my home a clean, tidy, spacious place to be. I love calm and quiet time at home alone. I love cancelled plans and unexpectedly having time to myself. I love candles and incense and crystals and the moon. I love reggae and techno and house music and banging bass lines. I love dancing as the sun comes up. I love meeting new people, making new connections, and having conversations just for the sake of talking. I love it when all I can hear is silence. I love healthy comfort foods – dahl and soups and homemade bread. I love Cornwall and coastal paths and walking by the sea. I love tree tunnel lanes and paths by the river, stepping stones and picnics under trees. I love magic and fairy tales and glitter and the colour purple. I love flowers and trees, hearing running water and listening to the sea. I love playing cards in the pub with a bag of crisps. I love having meals cooked for me and trips to the cinema. I love finding common ground, people who are vegan for the animals and when someone tells me they are also a feminist.

I hate multi-tasking and too many competing demands on my time. I hate when the house is messy. I hate it when my views are undermined and people misunderstand me. I hate unexpected invitations and changing plans and clutter around me and feeling suffocated by too much stuff. I hate asking for help, admitting I’m struggling, feeling overlooked and left out, being minimised, people normalising my trauma. I hate washing up, traffic jams, wasting time, things taking longer than I expected. I hate seeing people unexpectedly when I’m out, uninvited visitors, loud noises and interruptions.

I love coming home to an empty house, having Friday nights to myself so I can hide from the world after a busy week. I love making my home clean and tidy on a Saturday morning. I love snuggling with a blanket to watch a familiar film, comfy clothes, putting my pyjamas on, early nights. I love skating, climbing, running, swimming in the sea. I love buying a whole pile of books in a second hand bookshop. I love fairy lights, twinkly things, sparklers and glitter. I love camping and starlit skies, watching the moon rise and paddling in the sea as the sun goes down. I love learning new things about ancient belief systems and how they apply to my life. I love having straightened hair and shaved legs and wearing dresses in summer. I love frosty mornings and seeing the pink streaks of sky as the sun rises when I am cycling to work. I love rollercoasters, people who make me laugh uncontrollably, and being able to share my growth and process and discover new things about myself through talking to those I am close to. I love rainbows and stormy seas and the smell of the woods when the sun comes out after it has rained.

I read this list to K earlier and she said it was really beautiful and that it is astonishing that I have so much that I love, and that it is perfect that so much of what I love contradicts. And she pointed out how when I’m in a very, very bad place I can’t see these things or feel them at all, but they are always there, and that there is so much I appreciate and that I truly, truly do love being part of this world. And she is right – I do, when I can hold onto all these beautiful, simple things that make me happy and feel alive then being me is really a wonderful thing. Everything I love is so uncomplicated, so attainable – it is all right there already. And seeing what I hate and knowing why and owning it instead of pretending I’m okay with it has been one of the hugest parts of all the healing I’ve done in the past few months. I honestly feel so amazed to look back on all the growth and healing of the past few years and how it is starting to give me a true sense of who I really am inside and what I want more of in my life. After years and years of having no sense of who I was beyond what I was moulded into and the societal norms I tried to fulfill, coming to life in this way feels so special and freeing.

Shame and survival

I survived yesterday. Hopefully things will start to even out now, although of course Christmas is approaching fast so maybe that is wishful thinking. It’s been very hard with young parts because I could feel them getting excited for ‘Jess Day’ when she might come back, when of course that’s not what the anniversary is at all. It was also my mum’s birthday yesterday. I didn’t think of her much, but it is all there somewhere. Yesterday was a rubbish day. I was so triggered I barely slept on Monday night so yesterday I was incredibly tired and carrying huge levels of dread and anxiety due to all the big feelings squashed up inside me that I don’t have space to feel and probably couldn’t access even if I wanted to. I had to come in for meetings in the morning but worked at home in the afternoon, though I didn’t achieve much. I struggled through parents’ evening at Nina’s school and spent some time trying to understand the new GCSE grading system as her target GCSE grades do not sound to me like they are anywhere near her capabilities, and then headed to bed as soon as Nina did at 9.30.

I am often aware of an internal pressure around difficult times to do things in a particular way – to write, ritual, find the lessons from the loss, do something special and sacred to mark the process and progress, and I know I feel like I failed somehow yesterday for not doing this. I am catching those thoughts though, and reminding myself that surviving is all that matters. I did cope better than last year – there were some tears, but it didn’t totally take me over this year. And K and I are meeting for an extra session after work tomorrow and doing some kind of ritual for Jess then so there will be some way of marking it and maybe closing down this difficult time for now. I identified her body on 17th and then the funeral was the 23rd, so there are a lot of reminders still to come, but after Friday life will be a little more spacious and I hope that will help me take better care of myself and begin to uncover and let go some of the shame that gets tangled up with the grief at this time of year. I text K yesterday morning and said something along the lines of how I wished I could just feel pure grief over Jess instead of it being so enmeshed with my childhood and trauma and this deadening shame which seems to eat me from the inside whenever I experience big feelings. And I find shame so hard in itself, but it also triggers complete and utter panic and dread in me because young parts are terrified of how bad they are. It’s a vicious cycle that it’s hard to step outside of.

K said on Monday that it seems that whenever I feel very bad, i.e. lots of negative emotions, it sends me into a very dark place where I am convinced I am bad. And I split and lose sight of everything good about me, so that all that exists about me is bad and evil and abusive. I’ve really descended into a place of horrific shame and complete panic over how bad I am the last few days. This has manifested as being convinced I am just like my Mum and have utterly destroyed Nina’s self-esteem. On Sunday evening I was in such a bad place that I had thoughts of killing both of us again, which I’ve not had for years. I can see that I do embody my mum in some ways some of the time, that I will have impacted Nina of course through my own unresolved trauma, but I can’t hold onto all the good I’ve done at the same time, all the ways I am different from my parents, all the ways I’ve healed myself and in turn healed her. My need for space is so powerful and it is so hard as she descends into teenage years and doesn’t go to bed until 9.30/10. K says it is so important that I express it as ‘needing quiet time upstairs to do X’ rather than needing time away from her. I try to do this, but there are inevitably times when I explode, when I am over-stimulated and completely at capacity with my own feelings, when I have no space for her inside my head, when I yell and say things I wish I hadn’t.

Monday’s session was consumed by my shame and fear over how bad I am, as a mother and person. I wanted to know when we would know if Nina was okay and K said we already do know. She tried to remind me of all the good I do, all the ways I’m not mum, but I’m too scared to voice most of the ways in which I feel I am the same so how could she really know? She said I’m not a narcissist, that I’m real and genuine and have an open heart, that I’ve done something my mum would never have done in going to therapy and looking at myself and changing what I could, bringing awareness and understanding myself. I said that 95% of the time I think I’m the mum I want to be,  but that 5% feels as though it totally eclipses all the good work I do, that it would be less confusing for Nina if I was just awful all the time. She disagreed. One of the struggles of course is that Nina and I have so much time together at home (this is also the lovely part of being just the two of us – we are very close) and there is so much time for her to observe me and how I am and what I do. I try incredibly hard, and always have, not to overshare my feelings and concerns. I think I’ve done a good job of that. I’ve definitely not parentified her and I’ve respected her growing autonomy and need for privacy. I’ve told her how much I value her as a person and not lived through her and her achievements. I’ve started a list of all the ways I am not my mum, but when I go to that dark place it’s like none of that stuff exists.

I spoke on Monday about how much Nina triggers me because she is just like my mum, not because Nina is abusive but because my mum is a child still – what Nina does is normal teenager stuff, but it triggers me because it is all so familiar from when I was growing up and it hits those old and unhealed wounds. K said the past few days I’ve been re-experiencing my childhood, that’s why it all feels so bad. And she said to assume that for a teenager their parent doesn’t exist beyond just being their mum, that Nina will have no empathy or ability to see me as a person or awareness that how she is being may hurt me. She said really I, as a person, am invisible, just there to fulfill Nina’s own needs, and that we just need to assume I will get nothing back from her for a while now on an emotional level (so it’s an added bonus if I do). And I sobbed ‘just like my mum’. And that is so true, it’s why it hurts, because I was ‘mothered’ by a person who couldn’t see me, who I didn’t exist for, who had no awareness of me as a person with my own needs and feelings. It is no wonder Nina’s behaviour hurts me. I am very apprehensive about the years ahead and what they will do to me. I don’t want to have child parts having to live with someone who hurts them without meaning to. I think it is very important to understand what is happening though, and to keep taking care of myself and making myself visible to myself, so that Nina has less of an impact on me.

I am really so glad that, all being well (or as okay as possible at least), K and I will be working in the years to come, as Nina enters teenage days. I do not want to be engulfed by shame. I don’t want to be triggered by her. And I certainly don’t want to behave how my mum did when I was a teenager and I would hate for Nina to ever experience feelings like I did then and continue to now. I am so frustrated that the anniversary of Jess’ suicide has left me dealing with such big stuff and feeling so much shame, but I can kind of understand it. I want to be able to believe K that Nina is okay, that K would know if she wasn’t, that I’m not like my mum (all the time at least), that I might behave like her at times under pressure, but I don’t see Nina as an extension of myself, but I feel so bad inside that I struggle to take in her words. K said she would have contacted social services about my mum had she known what was happening and I know she’s never had concerns about my parenting so I should be able to believe her, but it is so hard because everyone thought my mum was wonderful and I struggle to work out what even it was she did that was so bad some days.

I am working on writing out what happened after Jess died and trying to understand why I experienced such a huge storm of emotions that made me do things I’m not proud of, and I’m hoping if I’m brave enough to share it with K once it’s finished it will start the process of separating my big feelings of grief over Jess from this pervasive sense that I am a bad person for feeling that way, because I can see that it must be this that has triggered all this shame and terror over my parenting. I can sense huge feelings inside over Jess, but over the top of them are layer-upon-layer of shame and panic and despair and dread and so I can’t reach them or let them just be there, pure grief for someone who brought so much light and magic to my life.

Ripples

We just saw my brother as we were driving back from swimming training. He was walking with his head down, clearly sent on a late-night supermarket errand by my Mum, who he still lives with. My brother is 48, disabled, severely traumatised by our mum’s abuse and mental illness, and still experiencing abuse now, still trapped in that hell I grew up in. At least I am safe now even if I still live with the imprint of what she did to me, he is still stuck there going through what broke me so badly every single day. His life is fucking awful and I know being estranged from me and Nina, who he adored, has made it even worse. It’s now 2 years since we saw him because it’s impossible to see him without involving my Mum, and because she is likely to be so awful to him afterwards and cry so much that it’s not worth it for him. Seeing him breaks my heart. The way he walks hurts, a clear indication of how he feels about himself and his place in the world. I want to see him so much, but I also don’t. I can’t. It all hurts too much.

Today has been really hard. The pain over Zara, my student, rippling through me still and I kept crying at work. Yesterday we did a phone session with K and she validated it all, said what we needed to hear about not being dramatic or selfish or over-reacting. She said we could do a ritual or ceremony together for Zara, so I can tell her the things I wish I had said and find some kind of closure. I plan to go to the inquest as well – I had to write up all my dealings with her for the coroner on Tuesday and that was so hard, reading through her emails and also remembering how triggered and upset I was after her disclosures. I have so many questions about what happened and how she was this past year. And of course her death brings up so much about my own experiences – years of being suicidal, Jess, my maternal grandmother who committed suicide when my mum was 12, sexual abuse and rape and DID and not being believed. I told K how hard it is imagining Zara being in hospital with no one believing her about DID and repressed memories – I’ve experienced that lack of belief in a disorder I so clearly have, had parts yelling that no one thinks they are real but they are, but to be sectioned and experiencing that… I can’t even imagine. We’ve text K today as well and she was so kind and says she is here for us all through this shock, and it does at least feel as though that is true now. I want to text her now about my brother, because it just couldn’t have come at a worse time. I will wait until our Friday email tomorrow to tell her though, even though it is so hard not to reach out.

At bedtime Nina said she doesn’t miss my brother anymore, that it would be too hard to see him because of her grandma. I said I miss him but I don’t want to see him. She said you can’t miss someone and not want to see them. You can – she will learn this one day. You can miss someone every single day and still not want to see them because seeing them would hurt even more than not seeing them.

 

Over-exposed

Therapy was hard this evening. I am left feeling a little blurgh. A little hollow and bereft of meaning and substance. I’m fine. I’ve made dinner for myself and Nina and washed up and am now in my study with a cup of tea, knowing I did good work in therapy today and it will help to process and write about it and what came up, but I feel a bit grotty and untethered and would quite like a hug and someone to settle and soothe the disruption inside. It is also useful to reflect upon how things were and compare them with how they are now. A ‘little blurgh’ now is so incredibly manageable. It is uncomfortable, sure, and it is a reminder that trauma and dissociation still haunt me even after a stable, peaceful, and actually quite joyful week, but it is important to notice the contrasts and how far I’ve come, especially in the past year. Last year at this time K had recently told me she was taking 2019 off as a sabbatical from work and I was struggling in ways that I can barely believe were real now, looking back. I cannot imagine ever being back in quite such a desperate state again, but maybe I won’t make any grand declarations around that just yet…

This week I’ve felt relatively ‘normal’. I said to my friend yesterday I’ve mostly felt how I felt before I started therapy, before Jess died and the world I’d built around and inside myself completely fell apart. It was a relief because I’d been in a bad place over the ecological collapse and I couldn’t imagine ever feeling normal and stable again. I had reiki and a massive outpouring of grief at an Extinction Rebellion ‘resilient communities’ workshop 10 days ago and since then the terror has dissipated and I’ve felt much more grounded and at peace over what is happening to the planet and what is ahead of us here in England too. K and I have also been doing some work around ‘active hope’ and preparing for the grief work we will do together to help me open to the losses that are happening all around by doing lots of work around gratitude. The grief is always there, the awareness is with me nearly all the time, but it is beginning to be integrated into my life more, and the shock is beginning to subside I think. I’m sure it will come and go, but it is wonderful to be reminded that joy and peace and gratitude can co-exist with sadness and fear and loss. (Indeed they must – the grief is only so big because there is so much to love and therefore so much to lose).

Anyway, so I was expecting to have a good session today, and it was good, but it was good for therapy (i.e. hard) rather than nice and peaceful and connecting. I felt adult and self-contained when I arrived and then a young part came out as soon as K brought our cup of tea in and started playing with the new mini Russian dolls K got recently. This was a surprise as young parts have been very quiet and content this week and I’ve hardly known they’re there, and it left me a little suspicious haha! And as soon as we’d done our mindful breathing and check-in (breath, body, mind) I completely dissociated. I wanted to tell K the good things that have happened this week (meeting an amazing person who lives a 3 minute walk from the new house, joining up with other vegans who are part of Extinction Rebellion to form an affinity group for non-violent direct action, riding my bike to the forest on Friday evening for Solstice and walking and reflecting on what I wanted to open my heart to and bring into the light in the coming year, not feeling self-conscious and hyper-critical at a work colleague’s engagement party on Saturday afternoon, seeing friends yesterday and really enjoying being in our new house because it’s much nicer to have people in) and yet the minute I even thought about telling her about these things I felt like someone had peeled my skin off and judging eyes were piercing and boring into me. I felt completely over-exposed and had a desperate desire to hide – it took a lot of effort not to pull the big blanket over my head and wait for K to disappear.

I somehow managed to tell K what was happening and we spoke a bit about why this happens for me and why I can’t even think about sharing good things and positive emotions I experience without dissociating and feeling completely exposed and covered in black, sticky shame. I couldn’t even make eye contact when she suggested it so she offered to close her eyes so I could look at her and see if she was the same without it being scary. I said I felt as though she could see right inside me and was thinking I shouldn’t feel good things. And she said how interesting that was because that’s not where she’s coming from at all. She said all the things I already know but that it helped to hear again, about this being an emotional flashback where my body and mind are going through the process of something that has happened before, so that I feel as though people can see badness inside me but that’s not what she sees at all. She talked about the critical voice coming in and saying I don’t deserve good things, but I realise now as I am writing that the sense of shame and over-exposure I get when I try to share good things is pre-verbal, there is no cognitive process attached at all, just a feeling that someone can see right inside me and it’s not that there is badness inside me, but that it is bad to show any of me at all. We know why this happens, the legacy of an engulfing narcissistic mother I’ve written about before, but sometimes it just hits on another level why this happens to me, and it is sad that it isn’t just negative feelings I was shamed for, but just existing full stop. I was shamed as a baby for feeling positive emotions, for enjoying the feeling of connection to others, for showing who I was, for feeling as though I belonged. It was unsafe for me to feel and experience these things. This is heart-breaking really, isn’t it, and although I’m past the stage of therapy where I need to really feel this now (thank goodness) it still stings sometimes. Before I could talk I internalised badness and shame when I felt good or when I expressed myself. It was never safe to be me. It was never safe to be an authentic version of myself. And it is fucking infuriating because even now I am healed in so many ways, this legacy still makes the battle to absorb relational healing so tough. I am doing really well with connecting with new people through Extinction Rebellion without dissociating, and I feel I belong there, but I still feel shame afterwards for feeling connected and belonging. A work in progress…

Someone small asked ‘why did it happen?’ and K talked again about my Mum being seriously mentally ill and my Dad being hyper-critical and too young to be a parent so they had no parenting skills at all and went about it all wrong. And we talked about how she would laugh and ridicule me when good things happened and I said I get so scared of K thinking I am showing her too much of what’s inside me and then I just can’t show her anything at all. I cried quite a lot and it was getting foggy and thick in the room so K suggested we go outside into the garden and smell some of the flowers that have recently blossomed. It was beautiful out there – we saw a baby blackbird struggling as she learned to fly and smelt lots of gorgeous flowers and then her dog decided to go for a dip in the pond which was very funny. And then we had more tea and did some work on gratitude and I felt ashamed again about the headings we had chosen last week for the gratitude lists we are making before we create some spirals and decorate them. And it was such a contrast from last week because then I’d been excited about the lists we would make and today I just felt ashamed for ever having enjoyed anything. And it shows how shame builds on shame, how shame about one things permeates everything else and twists excitement and openness into something black and heavy and judgmental.

I also shared with K what I wrote after my session two weeks ago, about how feeling safe to be me is forever associated with her now so that when I am somewhere I feel accepted and, more importantly where I accept myself, it feels as though she is with me. And she said how peaceful she felt as she listened and absorbed it all and how this is exactly what we are aiming for in therapy – ‘you’ve taken in the safety, taken me in’. And I really have. I need more of it still to displace this shame and sense of over-exposure that still surfaces, but I have taken in so much and even though I feel like the same person in many ways I also feel completely different to the person I was 4 years ago. I don’t think I realised till today how that feeling of safety I never had wasn’t just because my external world was so unsafe and unpredictable while I was growing up that I had to be on alert all the time, but also because it was so unsafe inside me too, so unsafe to reveal what was inside me because my Mum is a narcissist with a huge borderline process and masses of unresolved feelings she projected all over me and used to eclipse me entirely. It’s crazy just how long it has taken of depth psychotherapy to get to this point of understanding and acceptance of how I am.

At the end of the session I said I felt as though I had my skin back on. And then I realised that it was only because I didn’t tell K the good things. She said I had done a lot of depth work nevertheless and that I am bringing things that are hard to bring and I’m tackling these big areas instead of running from them. And she said there is still a lot of work to do to unpick these damaging messages I internalised when I was so young. And this is okay. I like therapy now, mostly, and it doesn’t disrupt my life the way it used to. Even when it leaves me unsettled it’s still a million miles away from how it used to leave me. It used to feel like I was being tortured, now it mostly feels nice, with the occasional sense that someone has peeled back my skin and stirred things round with a wooden spoon. I look forward to my session but I don’t long for it now, counting down the days and hours and then feeling the pain of abandonment before the session has even ended. And my life outside therapy is growing and expanding so rapidly at the moment and I feel as though I am unfurling into it. And it feels good even though my brain and felt memories don’t always let me feel as though it is okay for this to be happening to me.

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