What has therapy been about for me?
What I wanted to get out of therapy
My therapist asked me what I wanted to get out of our sessions in week one, but I left without telling her what I really wanted to gain from our time together. I was so anxious about being there, at the appointment, consumed with a fear of what could happen and embarrassed by the fact that I needed the help in the first place, that my mind went completely blank. I took my therapist’s advice and started to journal after that first appointment and I wrote down all the things I wish I had said, but was unable to. I took it to the next appointment, where it was read out loud and we spoke about it.
For many years, I did not feel that my parents deserved to know anything about me, but it got to a stage where the weight of dealing with the deep, dark secret, alone, became too heavy. I found my parents in a few spare hours using the internet (you can pretty much find anything on the internet!). I found out as much as I could about them, in a slightly stalker-ish manner; their full address (because they had moved); when they had purchased their house; how much they paid for it; how much they sold the family home I remember, for; the layout and floor plans of the new property; as well as looking at estate agent type photographs .
I sent my mum a birthday card, in February 2015 and I heard nothing back from her, which did not surprise me; I did not make things easy for her and did not include any return contact details. Deep down, if I am honest, I wanted my mum to put the same effort in to finding me, as I had her. Slightly defeated and disappointedly and with more bravery, in 2016 I added my email address to another birthday card. My mum emailed me, on her birthday after us having had, no contact for 19 years.
I initiated this contact with the view to disclose to my mum, the sexual abuse I had suffered, at the hands of her husband, my father. I thought back then, that in order to heal, I needed to tell the people who were actually there, what exactly had happened. I entered in to small talk with my mum, at her request, because we did not know each other, but it was not what I wanted. 600 emails later, I began pushing my mum (a little) to meet me, as my need to disclose grew. My mum told me how she was arranging to meet her life long friend, but she seemed to have so many reasons, why she could not meet with me and I felt like she was fobbing me off.
The email contact did not end well and I never did tell my mum what I set out to. I discovered that my mum was not open to the idea of building a relationship with me and she was not really interested. The impact of being rejected and unheard all over again saw my world implode. The tiny bit of hope that I had, for us to have a normal mother daughter relationship, was dashed. It was the crash I experienced following this email exchange, which saw me seeking professional help.
I went to the doctors and asked for some help in mid 2016. I was able to tell the G.P. that I had almost 20 years of trapped emotion and that I needed to get it out. I needed to cry. I needed to let go. I explained that I was able to talk about the events and details of the abuse I had endured, but I didn’t think that I had felt any of the emotion attached to it, and it was toxic and eating away at me. I explained about the things I had tried, as methods of self help (writing unsent letters). I told the G.P. that I felt I needed to disclose to my mother, about finding her online and about our email exchange. I told the G.P. that I had not seen my mother in 20 years due to being removed from the family home at the age of 15, I went to live with my grandparents and have not seen my nuclear family since.
I told the G.P. that I had previously entered into a downward spiral of depression and self harm, some of which was not legal. I explained that the risky behaviours I started indulging in at University, were because I did not know how to deal with the emotion that threatened and also because I wanted to block it. They are not behaviours I could indulge in, since becoming a mother.
I finally felt ready to tap into that emotion in order to release it. I wanted to get to a place where everyday triggers did not effect me, in such a big way. I could be anywhere, doing anything, with anyone and the smallest thing, would send my mind into overdrive, accompanied by a massive, debilitating wave of anxiety. I wanted to stop the nightmares and the surface level flashbacks, which had been playing out for 20 years. It was time to tackle my history head on, in order to move on with my future. I owed it to myself and my children.
I had been avoiding and adding plasters for years, although I had asked for help before. I had suffered quite severe depression, which had been medicated with anti-depressants, but these made me numb and unfeeling and I was very clear with the G.P. that this was not going to be an option. I had previously suffered a breakdown and I had been suicidal (8 years ago), which led to me receiving CBT, but this therapist was not trained to deal with the issues I was unravelling and so, I was referred on. The organisation that received me, was not the right place for me, at that time. I reached out to the G.P again (4 years ago), who referred me to Mind for counselling, which never actually happened, due to scheduling issues.
I had only ever really skirted around my issues and only really dealt with the everyday life stuff, which compounded and exacerbated them. I had run out of energy, trying to contain it all and I had a real desire to have a general feeling of settled. The G.P. made a referral for me to engage with the local well-being team. Together with them, it was decided that, the organisation who had received me before I was ready, was now, definitely the best place for me to be.
Asking for and relying on anybody’s help, has never come easy to me. My experience had inbuilt and ingrained in me, that neediness and dependence lead to disappointment and heart ache. I knew I had to face everything properly, fully, honestly and openly, but I had an irrational fear of the direction this course would take. I had fear that therapy would not work, I had a fear of the pain I felt and a fear of releasing it.
I had a desire to settle my inner turmoil, but I also had huge trust issues. I have always carried the shame of what happened to me, but I had a longing to be fixed and I really thought that this was possible, because now, I was ready for it. I have always seen my ‘shit’ as like a glass ball; I will only show you, pass to you or share with you, if I trust you. Having been so badly betrayed my both my parents, trust has always been a big issue for me: I always manage to keep people, only just slightly closer, than at full arm’s length.
After a lengthy initial assessment, I was offered a 26 week course of therapy. I was placed on a waiting list and told I would be matched to a professional, who would be a good fit for me and experienced in supporting my kind of issues. When I met my therapist, I felt instantly connected to her. I trusted her implicitly. She was warm and astute and perceptive and I felt so over-overwhelmingly comfortable with her, it was scary. It took a few weeks for me to accept the fact that she was there to help me. I had a vague plan for the first few sessions, but the real valuable work was done in sessions, there was no plan for. I had to open my heart and let down my guard and stop trying to control the process.
My sessions were held in a room, named “the Butterfly room”. I think this is a very aptly named room, because it sums up exactly how I feel about the process now: it was a safe, quiet place where I could be supported unravelling my wings (and my head from my heart). There was an unspoken, soothing acknowledgement of the fact, things were going to get a whole lot worse, before they got better, but I felt safe. Having someone to listen and validate, that my pain was real, made everything more realistic. Sessions were very intense and the twists and pulls of emotion were very powerful. Through out the whole process, I was made to feel like it was OK to show, express and embrace my vulnerability. I felt comfortable enough to cry and although I did not do this often, it did happen.
These sessions became a comfort blanket of warm acceptance, where I was heard and never judged. It became a place where I realised, nothing I said, shocked. Having 3 children at home, I valued this space so much. It was a chance to stop and take a really focused look at myself and explore memories and feelings, where I was nobody to no-one. I was nobody’s friend, no-one’s mummy: I could just be me. I did not have to hold it together; I did not have to pretend to be OK. I did not have to worry about the impact of my ugly reality, on anyone else (especially my children).
The depth of the flashbacks changed while I was encompassed and cocooned in this safe space; they were no longer surface level, and much more graphic and distressing. I think this is a reflection of the safety I felt, both in the room and with my therapist. Having someone there to ensure my safety, meant I allowed myself to go to a deeper level. I knew and trusted in the fact, that my therapist would bring me back to the here and now, before letting me return to the world outside.
What I have learnt in therapy
I started to discover a lot about myself, but I think one of the most important things was, that no-one else is an expert on me: nobody knows me better than I do. I feel like I have spent a large part of my life, looking for something: looking for some sort of guidance; some kind of answers; a mother figure with caring and nurturing qualities. There have been many occasions when I have thought about my mum and I thought I needed her (receiving GCSE and A-Level results; moving to University; embarking on consensual sexual relationships with significant others; immediately following heart breaks; getting engaged; planning my wedding; my wedding day; falling pregnant and the whole of pregnancy; giving birth; raising children), but to a large extent I did all of these things, and coped with a lot of these situations, alone. I held the answers, I just had to unlock them, but I did not have to do this alone. I have had unmet emotional needs and it is OK to acknowledge that.
I think I learnt that there is nothing wrong with me. I may have been subconsciously repeating unhealthy thought patterns, behaviours and processes, but I am actually alright. Despite the fact my parents ‘fucked me up’ and I am a product of things I experienced, I have not turned out that bad. I do have value. I am allowed to feel how I do (and it is OK). I don’t have to present as a strong independent women, while hiding the fact I am a mess underneath. The whole process has been about building up my strength, as well as reconnection and belief with/in myself.
I learnt that it is perfectly fine, to not be OK. I needed to accept what had happened to me, but I think I got confused with what this meant. Acceptance is not blindly saying that something is OK. (How can you be accept what is unacceptable?) I am not OK with what my dad did to me: (I will never be OK with that) but, those things happened, they are real and they happened to me. I had already started to write about and to share my story, when the idea of acceptance came up in therapy. Surely I had already accepted my reality by writing about it and sharing it? These things are a part of me and they always will be.
I identified the fact that I had built a wall, but it was now redundant. I built it to protect myself, but I don’t live with the same level of fear, I once did. Part of therapy was about feeling comfortable with letting down the wall. I had to learn how to be vulnerable again, after fighting against it and hiding it for so long. I wanted to be able to let go and be in the moment and in order to do that effectively, I did not need this wall any more. I can see that I have not crumbled, taking down a few of the bricks, although it has been hard going. The restriction the wall posed made me feel like I was only existing and not really living. The wall became part of the self sabotaging problem that prevented my healing.
I stopped to identify things I consider triggers. Making myself more aware of triggers meant that I could understand my reactions better. I found that some of my reactions were the reactions of the trapped inner child and some were my adult self. I acknowledged the presence of my inner child and allowed her to come forward. She had things to show me and I had lots to learn from her. It was my therapist that made me see that this child is me, and her appearance was just me, re-connecting with me, but above all, I was not crazy.
I realised that I have developed several coping mechanisms over the last twenty years. I have separated out the various roles I play and I put on different heads to switch between each role and to keep each contained. I have an ability to be physically in the room but completely disconnected and emotionally distant. These things have helped me to survive but changing heads is tiring and less effective than I thought it was. Being disconnected has enabled those roles to remain so separated, but therapy helped me to see that, what I really needed, was to be one connected joined up soul. I think I am moving towards this.
Music started to effect me differently very early on in therapy, I think reaching me on a deeper level. I had an envy of the artist’s ability to put themselves ‘out there’, to share with the world, to be that honest and that brave in the public arena. The therapy process saw me start writing and I became aware that I found a purpose. I could reach others. I could make a difference, I was here for something. I was still here for something. I started to share, as the shame I felt disintegrated. I learnt that the shame I feel should not sit with me. I feel very strongly that I need to finish my book and get it published. I need to tell the whole world what my dad did to me, because he needs to take ownership of the shame.
The lasting impact of therapy
I hoped to leave therapy as a normal happy functioning person. However, I have learnt that there will always be triggers and things that knock me off balance: it is my reaction that will (hopefully) be different following therapy. There is no such thing as recovered and healed, only recovering and healing. I now know, that this is an ongoing process, and this part of my life will effect me forever, but it is more bearable, and I have many more tools I can draw on to help me.
In week 15, I wrote in my journal, “Maybe I should join one of the forums. Maybe I could do with a survivor friend”. I did reach out and I did join the forum at HAVOCA and I found a whole community of people who just “get it”. At the start of this process I thought that everyone else, had their ‘shit’ more figured out that me. Since finding this forum, I realise I am not alone, and I am not the only one, struggling with the effects of sexual abuse, on a daily basis. It is massively powerful to have the connections I have made here.
I will continue to journal because it helps me to process things, as they happen. It also is a time where I can do a daily little ‘check in’ on myself. I have written about a lot of my journey and shared it at HAVOCA and I will continue to do so, because to have someone say that they can relate, is the most wonderful validation. I am writing my book and poetry and articles (it is all coming out) and I will continue, because it definitely helps with my clarity. After each therapy session my head is mashed, but I think about things when I can (usually a few hours later) and I write about them. I find that if I did not have the answer at the time, I can sometimes find it later and if not, the process of writing and thinking some more, takes me closer.
In week 23, towards the end of this course of therapy, I started a mindfulness course that will run concurrently. At the end of the first mindfulness session, this poem by Portia Nelson was read out:
“I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.
walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.”
I disagreed intently with this poem and I was able to verbalise what I was thinking. I don’t want to walk a different path. The path I am on, IS my path. I think I am now walking the path properly: noticing more; closing the gates; pruning the weeds; smelling the flowers. I am no longer avoiding or diverting. I don’t mind falling in the holes any more, because each time I learn something new about myself and that is important. What I would like, is to be able to get myself out of the holes quicker and with less effects and wobbles. I think this clarifies to me, how far I have come and the progress I have made.
I am going to try and remember that I have choices. I can chose what I allow in to my day, because I am the one that has to manage the fallout. I need to move towards being able to do boundaried thinking and processing, but also being able to step away from it all, when it is too much. I have to learn how to manage the process so that it feels less all consuming and overwhelming. I am getting better at listening to the feelings, but I also need to remind myself of the need to look after myself.
I think we run the risk of moving forward and leaving the rest of the world behind, when we go through therapy and that is OK. I am who I am because of everything I have endured. I would not be me, if I had not experienced everything I have. But it is therapy that has shown me who I really am. I am immensely proud of me and everyone who decides that they want better for their lives and those who refuse to be a victims.
I have written this towards the end of my therapy for a reason. I have no idea if and how I will cope without therapy (and maybe I will write about that too). I wrote this piece, to remind myself, on the bad days, how far I have come. I have made so much progress, but I am not done yet! Therapy is soothing and calm and comfortable, but it will not be a way of life. I will have to be without it at some point and right now, that scares me. This piece of writing is another tool in my box.