***TRIGGER WARNINGS – SEXUAL ABUSE, DISSOCIATING, TRAUMA***
After my last (ie. this) session with Paul, I reported sensationally on Twitter that the meeting had been “…simultaneously the most horrible and most fascinating therapy session of my entire life…” Perhaps that sounds hyperbolic – I can certainly see why it would – but if anything it was actually an understatement. As I reported briefly in my account of the previous session, misanthropy aside, the human mind is such a remarkable device. I would love to understand it better, but what I do comprehend amazes me. In particular, I am referring to the mind’s ability to dissociate as a measure of psychological protection.
The session started in a completely innocuous fashion. If anything, it was a little forced to begin with, and I began to worry that it would not be remotely useful. I’ve found myself comparing to C to Paul in each of these review posts to date – the latter emerging rather more favourably than his predecessor, as my readers appear to concur – but this was the first time where I feared that we would have one of those pointlessly and irritatingly vacuous encounters that so frequently characterised my time in NHS therapy.
I reminded him that I wouldn’t be around on Monday 1 November (due to being dead / in Newcastle-upon-Tyne), and we engaged in a bit of time-filling smalltalk pertaining to same. To be honest, it was slightly awkward – I didn’t know what to say to him, and I (mistakenly) felt that it was a mutual feeling. Of course, starting the conversation that you’re there to have is by its very nature difficult. It’s not exactly frivolous or light-hearted subject matter, now is it?!
We talked for a few minutes about the guided imagery exercise of the previous week, and agreed that it had been useful. I admitted to having had a certain measure of cynicism to start with, but told him that I had reflected upon it, and was especially intrigued by the issues he’d brought up at the end – namely the locked door and the lack of boundaries around the imaginary house.
Paul said, “I was also really interested to note the maze of rooms.”
“Yes,” I nodded, adding, almost as a murmured afterthought, “it was a bit of a labyrinth.”
“Labyrinth!” he repeated, excitedly. “That’s the perfect word. Because, of course, the purpose of a labyrinth was to prevent entry to an inner sanctum.” He looked at me enigmatically, his grey eyebrow slightly arched in curious query.
Even now, nearly two years after having been in some sort of constant-ish therapy of some type or another, I am horribly uncomfortable with people looking straight into my head like that. If C was Derren Brown (and he was…he really was), then Paul is…um…an older, stouter, beardless, non-suited version of Derren Brown…Yeah. That. [No, I'm not happy with that. I am a prosaic failure. In fact, I just skimmed the entirety of DB's Wikipedia article looking for a older contemporary with whom I could compare Paul, but there is no one. Paul is not a magician, and that's all to which it seems to allude. If you can help out a pathetic writer and popular culture failure, please name mind-readers in their 40s or 50s who are bald and...er...not thin in the comments of this post. Preferably English people, but I can live with other nationalities. Winner gets a random Pandora-created drawing].
I looked away, eventually making some non-committal guttural sound of reluctant acquiescence.
A brief silence ensued wherein I desperately searched my head for something to say to this good man who a mere few weeks after our first acquaintance knows some of my darkest secrets. Eventually I said that the ‘labyrinth’ worried me because, “I recall some pretty horrible stuff. What more don’t I know? What all lurks behind those closed doors?”
He replied, “possibly quite a bit, but it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing state of affairs. For example, you can watch a vicious horror film without feeling like it happens to you. You can watch what’s behind those doors in the same way.”
“Like it’s in the third person?”
For the first time I nearly laughed in his face (something I bitterly did to C nearly every week). Me, have the capability to experience stuff in the third person? Yeah fucking right mate. I could do it well when I was a child, evidently, but I can’t do it now; that’s why I’m such a fuck-up. Every speck of every trauma memory terrorises my psyche with a profundity I never imagined possible (or rather did, because it perpetually haunts me, but you know what I mean). I am the most neurotic person in history, and I feel it so acutely that if it weren’t so fucking nasty it’d be amusing. I’m pathetic, in the truest sense of the word.
Rather than respond thus bitchily though, I shifted the agenda and said, “yeah, the human mind’s fascinating, isn’t it? That it copes with this stuff in that sort of way. It’s kind of remarkable, in a way.”
“One thing that has stuck with me about you,” Paul said, “is that when I once rhetorically asked you how you, a little girl, had coped with something as serious as systematic abuse, you answered, ‘surprisingly well’. How? How does a tiny child cope with something like that ‘surprisingly well’?”
I shrugged. How the fuck was I meant to know? I’m not a child psychologist. “I don’t remember much minutiae of my childhood,” I muttered. “I was precocious and popular though, so I must have put it all out of my head in the aforementioned way.”
“Have you ever heard yourself described as ‘remarkable’ before?” he asked, referring to my earlier comment on the brain’s means of psychological protection.
“We’re not talking about me,” I responded definitely.
“We are. We are.”
“Well, I think that these psychological devices are capacities that probably all humans have; it’s not unique to me. Fortunately it’s only a small minority of us that are ever put in the kind of situation where they need to be used. But I think in the ‘right’ circumstances everyone can probably do it. Whether it’s God-created or whether it’s evolutionary, it’s…well, it’s interesting. But it’s not just me.”
I was later to see just how ‘interesting’ dissociative coping mechanisms can be, but in the meantime, Paul changed the subject slightly, posing the question, “how do you think our work together is going?”
“Well,” I responded, with no need for consideration of the query. “I’m happy with things so far. I think I can make progress through this.” After all, ever since I first met him, I had felt the relationship we shared was likely to be a positive one.
“How do you think it’s going?” I returned.
He smiled his broad grin and said, “I’m really enjoying myself!”
We laughed; although there is obviously a very serious side to what we’re doing, I find it comforting to know that at least he doesn’t find my company completely repellent.
I told him that I don’t believe in complete cures to mental health problems or trauma-related illnesses, but that I do believe in one’s ability to – with the requisite help – manage their symptoms and/or experiences. “I feel that I can maybe begin to start that management through this process,” I went on. “I feel positive about it, and it’s very rare for me to feel that – so I suppose you can feel rather complimented by it!”
“Wow,” he said, blushing slightly but smiling warmly and, I believe, genuinely.
Thus ensued a discussion on how progress and, indeed, sanity itself was measured. He asked, “when we come to the end of this, how will you measure how far you’ve come? Do you have some sort of mythical – or, indeed, real – role model to whom you aspire, or is it just a case of survival? Are you happy to go on surviving – just, hopefully, doing a slightly better job of surviving?”
“Given that this is rape counselling, I’m not sure how much of it we can address here,” I began, “but I have this horrible yardstick by which I measure psychotherapeutic success, and that’s how able I feel to go back to work without going doolally.”
Paul said, enthusiastically, “I love this term ‘doolally’. If you were to go ‘doolally’ here, what kind of thing would I see?”
“Probably something not very nice! I would probably expect the belligerent voices to come out; perhaps I would hallucinate my uncle again. There were also times at home where I’d go around banging my head off the wall and screaming [see almost any post between June and September last year], so you might see that here…”
“What about communication between you and I?” he interrupted. “Would that be able to take place?”
“Yeah. I think so. I remember one occasion with my NHS psychologist where I was having a conversation with the voices as well as him. Also, I got particularly annoyed with the same bloke one day, and screamed a barrage of abuse at him, including calling him a ‘sadistic headfucker‘. A terrible thing to say, but that’s what I mean by ‘doolally’. So. Wrap up your furniture and yourself!”
He laughed lightly. “This sounds horrible, but it is a part of you that’s represented in these situations, isn’t it? It sounds like a very hurt, very painful part of you.”
We spent a few minutes discussing my anger issues, and how this blog – plus the aforementioned incidents – were really the only times I exhibited that side of myself. As I told him, I’m normally a remarkably submissive, mind-numbingly ‘nice’ person, which makes me feel almost as sick about myself as my inner cauldron of blind rage does.
All this led to the same discussion I’d had with C a thousand times, namely that I end up intellectualising matters, and analysing them with the therapist. Both C, and now Paul, admitted that they were easily inclined towards that kind of conversation, and that in the process, sometimes being in touch with ‘feelings’ was something that got lost amongst the mire.
I said that I had been perpetually guilty of seducing C into intellectual discourse and that I apologised if I had (or would) do the same with Paul, but he waved his hand dismissively at me, and said, “we go where we go. It’s not my job to say, ‘don’t go there’; it’s my job to enquire as to why that’s where we’re going.”
He went on, “that’s what we’re doing now, isn’t it? Dissociation from feelings. That’s really interesting – the thing that you experienced in the past – dissociation – is playing out in here, right now.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I admitted. I considered it for a silent few minutes, and then asked him was my behaviour – ie. avoidance by way of apparently intellectual analysis – ‘normal’ in the course of his job.
“Yes. I’m a very specific type of therapist,” he told me. “I’m into object relations, how you coped in the past, how you’ve built relationships. What you did to survive in the past, you are now doing here. 95% of my clients do it, but in different ways. Some say, ‘right, how can I please Paul? How can I make Paul feel good?’ They’re trying to avoid the hurt or danger of their feelings – just like they tried to avoid the actual hurt or danger of their abuse. And I admit it; it sometimes works. Sometimes I feel like the greatest bloke on Earth, and it’s all down to this countertransference. In your case, you seek reasons and analysis. Let’s avoid the dangerous stuff by talking psychology. And I feel like bloody Einstein!”
I laughed, sincerely, but his point was a serious one. “It’s a balancing act, isn’t it?” I mused. “Between that need for safety, but the need to confront that which needs to be confronted.”
“Yes. The balancing act for you now is how much can you deal with leaning towards that anxiety?”
We sat silently for several minutes before I said, “I can cope. I think I can cope.”
“We need to go inside that labyrinth again – but you need a safe space as well.”
This sounded as new-agey as the guided imagery stuff had originally done for me, but after a bit of querying of the suggestion, I agreed to employ a particular memory from my holiday to Turkey last year as a ‘safe space’.
And so commenced the latest guided imagery exercise. I’m going to leave a chunk of this part of the session out (“thank God”, I can almost hear you say), as it essentially mirrors the early part of the previous week’s meeting (the discovery of the house, its downstairs rooms, stairs etc).
Eventually I again ended up in the second landing of the ‘labyrinth’. He asked me how I felt there.
“Do you know when you walk past an industrial estate late at night,” I began, “…well, not that I make a habit of walking past industrial estates late at night, but you know what I mean. There are signs up about trespassing, guard dogs, how you must keep out. I get a distinct air of that kind of place here.”
He asked about the layout, and I told him that there was a door to the right but that it was “vacuous” and that I didn’t get any particular type of vibe from it. The storage area to my left felt vaguely sinister, but not crippling so. The door immediately opposite me, however, felt distinctly hostile.
“Not that a door can be classed as ‘hostile’,” I remarked, but he told me to forget practical issues like that for the time being, and asked about the doors I couldn’t see around the corner – was I sure that they were there?
I was. I said I wasn’t sure how many there were but that they were certainly there alright, and to that end Paul suggested I take a ‘stroll’ around the corner to see what was there.
I ‘proceeded’ with caution, but did as I was told. There were two doors – I had suspected this, but hadn’t been certain on the point. One was directly ahead of me, the other one on the right, actually going into the slope in the roof, as if it were a loft or something. I told him Paul that there was, again, ‘an air of hostility’ emanating from these inanimate wooden objects.
Gah. This all sounds so ridiculous in review, doesn’t it?
“If I asked you to open a door right now, which one would you choose?” he queried.
I thought about it intensely for a few minutes, before telling him that “my sense of masochism” was still gravitating towards the most belligerent room – namely the one that had been directly opposite me when I entered this imaginary house’s second landing.
“Wander into it then,” he said, annoyingly nonchalantly.
I felt deeply uncomfortable about doing so. In an instant, I was reminded of an occurrence at my grandfather’s house when I was about seven or so; I’d gone out exploring some of the buildings and had come across a door somewhere or other, the details of what lay beyond it completely unknown to me. I remember staring at it for what felt like hours, though in reality it was maybe about 10 minutes, willing myself the strength to open it. For some reason, the prospect of doing so intimidated me greatly, despite its discovery being the result of my own curiosity.
Eventually, I flung it open, rather dramatically – only to stand there for another eon, frozen with terror at the blackness that greeted me.
Fast forward back to the future, specifically to this session with Paul. My ‘encounter’ with this similar door was exactly like the real one of my childhood. After summoning up all my courage, I opened the ethereal entryway, and found my gaze fixed upon a menacing, but sinisterly beguiling nothing of darkness.
And so, eventually, begins the ‘fascinating’ part.
“I feel something…something bad…it’s a really weird idea that doesn’t particularly exist in adulthood. Fear – proper fear – terror. Of…of monsters, of evil monsters, childhood monster figures.”
“How old are you?” he asked.
“There’s a kid. She looks like me, I suppose she must be me…”
“No,” Paul interrupted gently but authoritatively. “How old are you?”
I paused. “Four, maybe five? Certainly no more than six.”
“Are you scared of the dark?”
“Ordinarily, no – but I’m scared of it here, yeah.”
Soon-to-be 27-year-old me stared intensely at the heat gauge on the radiator. It was a real, tangible object, but also a completely random one that my mind was not likely to simply create. I fixated on it to remind myself that I wasn’t in that house, wasn’t in that room – I was there, in a room at Nexus, in 2010, with Paul. I also caught myself pulling my hair quite viciously at times. Trich is still often my first line of defence against greater instances of self-harm.
“What do you imagine is in that dark?” Paul went on.
“There’s a load of nebulous images going through my mind. Shapes. Belligerent ones. Plus faces, but they’re sort of pixellated – I can’t see them properly.”
“All consuming horror and dread. I’m like a deer in the headlights.”
“Are you inside the room?”
“Only about a foot in.”
“Is there a lightswitch?”
After some thought, I replied that I couldn’t find one.
“You’re stuck in the dark, with no way to lighten it. With all those things - in the dark.”
I think it was at about this time that I felt it. It was the single weirdest and in some ways most disturbing sensation and experience of my whole life, and whilst thinking about it intellectually delights me, it also brings with it yet another sense of horror. Nausea and butterflies, a bitter, metallic taste on my tongue, a mental whirlwind of denial and failed reasoning.
I felt ‘me’ lift out of my mind. It was physical as well as psychological – I know that sounds utterly asinine, but I cant think of how else to describe it. My body was not my own – I was an observer of it, and I had ‘left’ it. If I were to put the somatic nature of it into words, the closest I could come was that it was like a pressure of an unknown something rising from the top of my beck, right up through the back of my skull – then…’out’. Gone. That doesn’t grasp the reality of it at all, like, but it’s the best I can do.
But my body wasn’t devoid of an owner. I was actually still in it – but unfortunately I was five. I was a child, a Child-Me, a younger, weaker version of the real, now Me.
“What do you want to happen?” Paul asked ‘me’.
“I want to go to sleep,” ‘I’ replied. I sounded like the Now-Me, but there were one or two audible inflections that would not be in keeping with my normal now-voice. As this strangeness continued, I noticed how relatively basic and unrefined my spoken vocabulary was too. (This disgusts me. I was meant to be a fucking intelligent child. My speech 20 years ago shouldn’t have been that different from my speech now. Fuck’s sake!).
“You just want to close your eyes, and drift off to sleep, make it all go away,” Paul re-iterated, somewhat to Child-Me’s irritation. She/I had already said that was what she/I wanted. You shouldn’t be wasting time repeating me.
“…and that’s just what you did, isn’t it?”
“I guess so.” [An interesting idiomatic construction; I hate the word 'guess' in this context, and would almost always use 'suppose' in its stead.]
For the purposes of clarity, I shall henceforth refer to my adult self as ‘Pandora’, and the child as ‘Aurora’. There’s no meaning to the latter the way there is with the former, nor did ‘she’ self-identify as such – it’s simply a name that I have always liked.
Pandora popped up in the psyche from which she was partly dissociated and said, “OK, the weird thing is that I actually feel really sleepy right now.” My eyes continued to apparently stare at the heating gauge, but I was staring past it now. My eyelids weighed heaving on my brows. I had to rest them a few times and had to will myself not to give in to this soporific strangeness. There was an ensuing several minutes of silence whilst I tried to fight it.
“Dissociation in action,” someone who was mostly Pandora eventually mused. Then: “…floaty.”
“Comfortably numb,” Paul offered, which worked for me.
“You were in that room, with all these bad things -terrified,” he went on, “and you survived by going to sleep.”
Aurora rolled her eyes at the second instance of Paul’s repetition. This childish indignation reminds me of something important, which I must bring up with Paul in due course. I was about four or so, and Paedo had asked me to do something (innocuous – I don’t remember what), a request that I adamantly refused for whatever reason. When Paedo told me that I had to do whatever it was, I responded by saying, “no. It’s my life!”
I shouldn’t have said that. It pissed him off and he went on to punish me for my impudence. I shouldn’t have been surprised by it really.
Anyway, back in 2010 – or not, depending on the particular moment of the session – Paul spoke up again.
“You have just witnessed, in the here and now, what you did then.”
“Yep. Strange.” Pause. “The shape things – not so much recently, but I used to see them all the time. I thought it was normal until she…” – I raised an eyebrow in confused self-directed horror – “…until I started reading about mental health issues. They were just normal to me. I didn’t know they would be connected to that…to that room.”
I listened to the sound of my own voice from afar. It was still fairly deep, as it is in reality, but that subtle inflected oddity was nauseatingly audible.
“Did they remind you of anything?” he asked.
I/she/it said that they didn’t, but then went on a long monologue of description. I noted with interest that she/it/I/blah blah once referred to them as ‘blobs’. Very much, very notably, not ‘my’ word at all. (For your reference, a description of the shapes can be found in the latter half of this post).
I ended my little soliloquy by saying that I associated the shapes with downright, abject terror.
“And now I want to beat myself about the head for being so bloody histrionic!” Pandora whinged, pushing Aurora out of the mental way.
“‘Histrionic’,” Paul repeated, noting some sort of transitional occurrence. “It’s an odd word to be using.”
“It does seem somewhat incongruous, I suppose,” said (I presume) Pandora.
Paul chuckled lightly. “‘Incongruous’? Can you see that you’re moving away from her…”
“…that you’re coming out with some brilliantly descriptive words, but that they’re too brilliant; you’ve evidently moved away from the little child that was speaking a few minutes ago.
“What was it like,” he went on, “coming that close to the power of that fear? I think that’s the first time we’ve really ‘got’ to it so closely.”
“Some meteor hitting the Earth notwithstanding, I know I’m safe in this room – but it doesn’t make it any less real; it feels genuine and…well, quite indistinct, to be honest. It doesn’t feel related to one person or one thing – basically, I don’t know what I’m scared of.”
“Something in the dark,” he suggested. “It’s easier to fill the room with ‘fantasy’ monsters, isn’t it, rather than see the real monsters. It’s like psychosis. I suppose the shapes could actually be considered psychotic. What you described there – shapes, pixellated faces – they don’t exist. You’ve created them based on a reality too hard to deal with. It must have been very painful indeed.”
“Must have been,” a sad voice, laced with several inches of regret and raw hurt, finally replied. An Aurora-hangover. “This is the first time since I’ve come here that I feel really, really horrible. And then practical matters hit you head on – for example, right now I’m in too much of a state to drive home, how will I do that?”
He took the question as rhetorical, which was perhaps a good thing because then she (Aurora) answered it in her apparently co-conscious brain-share.
What are you talking about? You can’t drive, you’re five years old!
This amused me/Pandora – even though it simultaneously terrified me – and I relayed the information in question to Paul. “That’s just ridiculous,” I laughed.
After a long pause, he said, “wouldn’t it be lovely if you could keep that contact with [Aurora]? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could say, ‘OK, you’re safe, you can tell me what happened to you’. You’re not battling her; you’re listening to her.”
I sighed deeply, exhausted by the whole thing, but on he went about Aurora telling me her experiences. Utilising the brain-share, I tried to ask her.
“Even a kid as smart as she is doesn’t have a full vocabulary to describe some of it,” I told Paul. “‘Pain’ and ‘terror’ are the two words that continually come up. People. Men. I think they’re men. Something around her wrists [I demonstrated by wrapping my right thumb and index finger around my left wrist, and tightening]. [Long pause] Sorry, communication has been interrupted…”
It was too much. Too raw, too visceral, too real, too there. Not then, now. Now now now. NOW! I/Pandora was suddenly gasping for breath, speechless except for incomprehensible but urgent gibberish.
He guided me away.
Several minutes of ‘recovery’ followed, before we briefly reviewed the frankly bizarre and disturbing events of the previous 45-ish minutes.
Pandora was now firmly in control again. Where Aurora went, I still don’t know. I’m slightly scared of meeting her again tomorrow, but she’s been elusive for the last fortnight.
“I know I dissociate, and not-inconsiderably at that,” I analysed. “There’s stuff like derealisation right up to full-blown amnesia or fugue states. But that just happens. There isn’t some sort of transition from ‘me’ to a dissociated ego state. Just now, though – well, there was. I felt it all, I saw it all.”
I kept tumbling over my words in my attempts to explain it. “Something was lifting out of my head,” I explained through a haze of ums-and-ahs, “which is just ridiculous. So now I’m off home to panic that I have dissociative identity disorder.”
“It was really interesting when [Aurora] stopped you driving away,” Paul told me. “I know you were thinking in practical terms, but I think it’s also demonstrative of your desire to mentally drive away – and she wouldn’t let you. That was brilliant. You tried to dissociate, and she made you stay.
“But all those things she dissociates,” he went on, “they’re still there somewhere. It’s not about you having a disorder. This is about you coping. It’s something positive that you did. Words like ‘disorder’ intellectualise it. They cloud that positivity.”
Eventually, after much reflection, I said, almost in a state of ruminative awe, “what a strange experience.”
“You referenced a lot of people. A touch on the girl’s experience, perhaps?”
“Yeah. I have some very rudimentary, flashback-y awareness of that. My vocal chords refuse to utter the words.”
“You struggled with that last time,” he recalled.
And I had done – but ultimately I had said it. This time, I just couldn’t. “There was him, there was always him, for years and years and years” I tried desperately. “It’s bad enough to throw accusations at him, but now I’m doing it for a number of other personnel. What if I’m wrong? That’s unspeakable.”
“It’s the lesser of two evils,” Paul said. “Believe yourself to be a fantasist and a liar, and them to be guiltless. Easier to think that than to believe yourself to have gone through a, in your own words, gang rapes.”
I winced, and he duly apologised.
“We aren’t intellectualising now,” he noted. “We’re sitting here with feelings, and you keep fishing around for explanations, because connecting with this is so hard.
I couldn’t speak. I tried, desperately, over and over and over again, but I stammered and stumbled and ultimately completely fucking failed to utter an understandable statement of any kind.
Eventually, though, I managed to say that if ‘that thing’ had happened, that it was mystifying because ‘it’ was normally ‘just him’.
“Where did those words that you can’t say just come from?” he asked, rhetorically. “They don’t come from the adult you. It’s [Aurora].”
Indeed so. It was. I wouldn’t have known those words as a child, and when Aurora was trying to say them, naturally enough, she could not.
However, on this note, the session ended. Paul had already allowed it to overrun by over 10 minutes so I apologised (“why are you sorry?! It’s me that’s sitting here with the watch!) and left. I walked back to my car, and simply sat in it for a very long time.
So I have an “alter”, whether co-conscious or otherwise, whether she is or is not a normal, regular part of my life.
This is disturbing, exciting, horrific, intellectually awesome and unbelievably dreadful – all rolled into one.