Why keep going back?
***Trigger warning: Religious content, I talk about my Christian faith in pretty specific terms late in the post.
A reader emailed to ask me a question whose answer I thought would make a good topic for a post. So with their kind permission, the question is below, followed by my answer.
I would like to ask how you got through it. I mean when the feelings became so intense with your therapist, how were you able to keep going back? What stopped you leaving?
This is a really good question. There were so many times I threatened to quit, or told BN I wanted to quit. I lost track of how many times I said (often out loud) “I cannot do this anymore, I can’t take it.” Sometimes on the way to therapy. I wish there were a simple answer to this question, but it was, as usual, a complex interplay of a number of factors. Experience, fear, attraction, desire, longing, faith, hope, determination and belief. One at a time, all at once, or some subset were what kept me going.
One factor was definitely my experience in therapy. BN was my second therapist; I had worked with my first therapist through several bouts of therapy over a span of 22 years. (I would go for a few years, then take a few years off). During that time I dealt with basic boundary issues and finding my voice, then recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of my father. Fought through the disbelief and processed the trauma. Through all this work, my life and my ability to function got slowly better. BN once told me that I used therapy very effectively to live my life until I could find someone with whom to heal. So by the time I got to BN, I had a pretty strong conviction about the efficacy of therapy. I had the experience of feeling like I was making no progress for a very long time, only to be able to look back and be shocked at how much I had moved. So when it felt like I was never going to get there, I would remember other times I felt that way and turned out to be wrong, so I kept going. In a very real sense, I built up my strength and resources over those years so that when I finally faced all my long buried feelings, I had more endurance and faith in the process.
Fear was another strong factor with me. The second time I went for therapy was driven by my fear (which took decades to work through) that I would become my parents, especially my father. It will come as no surprise that I carried a lot of repressed rage. Our daughters were 22 months apart and when my older daughter turned four (the age I later remembered as when the abuse started), I was really struggling with a lot of anger. I am very ashamed to say that one day I lost my temper with the children and literally kicked our dog in order to vent. That incident terrified me, both that I would hurt something innocent and the look of fear on my children’s faces at seeing mommy so out of control. My husband will tell you I never came close, but I was really scared I would start physically abusing my children. At that point in my recovery, I had conscious memories of my father’s rages and violence and was convinced I was following in his footsteps. So I went back to therapy to learn to handle my anger so that I would not hurt my children. Then I learned that there was so much I had to learn to be a good mother. Developmentally I have often been only a half step ahead of my children. I know that my own issues have affected and even hurt them, and I have asked forgiveness for that, but I also know that I am a much better parent for having done the work in therapy. Not least because I taught my children that it was a good thing to get help if you need it. It has always felt like my children’s well-being was worth any pain I faced. I sometimes thought I didn’t have the strength but I always saw the need. My children did not chose to be born, I had them. Their needs have to come first. I know, too intimately, what happens when a parent puts their own needs first; I didn’t want my children to experience that as fully as I did. (They have, of course, experienced it. I am human and subject to my own selfish moments when I do put my needs first, but I try not to be characterized by it.)
Never underestimate the power of positive transference. BN became my attachment figure, and so I idealized him the same way a small child idealizes their parents. He was the wiser, stronger other who could do no wrong, had an answer to every situation, was fearless and could fix anything and everything wrong. Yes, intellectually I knew this was not true, but I felt it emotionally. So strongly in fact that I had to pass through the adolescent phase of being angry at him when I realized he actually wasn’t perfect nor could he make all the bad stuff disappear. (BN told me early and often that emotions could often be irrational, but that shouldn’t stop us from expressing them.) So as damaged as I saw myself, I saw BN as an all wise and loving figure whose opinion should certainly carry more weight than mine. He told me with no equivocation, that I could heal, that I was capable of living a full life. He once actually said to me in a couples’ session that he refused to believe I was any less capable than he was to live a full life. I’m not sure there was anything that would have been more powerful for me than to be spoken of as his equal in any way. So for a long period, if I felt despair, I trusted in BN’s hope and belief. I knew he wouldn’t lie to me so if he told me I could heal, then I must be able to heal, I just had to keep going. That part was helped immensely by his patience in reassuring me over and over that it would take time and a lot of repetition to heal. I did eventually let go of the idealization (OK, most of it. What can I say, I don’t get to see him irritable or grumpy so its hard to let go of completely. :)) but it happened gradually as I came to see my own capabilities and strengths and did not need him to be perfect any more in order to feel safe.
The romantic/erotic component of my attraction also served its purpose. My feelings for BN, my longings and desire for his company were very strong. (Honestly, I often felt like a thirteen year old with that first giddy all-encompassing crush. I really am amazed at times that he didn’t just bust up laughing at my behavior. The man has great self-discipline. :D) I wanted so much to see him, to spend time with him, that I would go despite the very real terror of what I had to face. So as painful as those feelings of attraction could be, since the boundaries prevented them ever coming to fruition, they did keep me coming back. No matter how scared I was, or how much in pain, it was still good to see him and spend time with him. And every once in a great while I would have one of those delightful sessions where you look back and just celebrate the progress. At times like that, I would just be overflowing with gratitude and it felt as if I was almost glowing. I felt warm and accepted and loved. I would look at BN and think how very beautiful he was in every way. I could run a long time on a session like that and keep coming back in the hope it would happen again.
My fear of loss drove me towards therapy as much as it could drive me away. Seeing BN as my attachment figure awoke all my unfulfilled needs. Needs that were experienced as a matter of life and death, because they were a matter of life and death when I first experienced them as a child. So once again, although I knew intellectually and factually that I would NOT die if I lost BN, I very much felt that way. In some sense, I needed him more than I needed to not experience my pain. So when I really did want to run away and quit, the thought would quickly follow that doing that would mean I would lose BN which was too terrible to contemplate, let alone choose to do.
There were also times I ran on sheer will. I knew everything I felt, but chose to believe those feelings were not reality. The pain would not kill me, I was strong enough to heal, the process would work. So even when I didn’t feel that, I would ACT on those beliefs trusting that my feelings would catch up. I talked about this in Bass Ackwards.
Pain was another thing that pulled me towards therapy as much as it shoved me away. You hit a point in healing where you dismantle your maladaptive behavior, but you have not yet learned new, healthy ways to cope. You have become too self-aware and conscious of both your behavior and long denied feelings to bury it all again. So you are in a great deal of pain but the only way out is forward. I talked about this principle in Lake Loop Trail. If I am going to be in pain either way, and I was, I would rather be in pain moving forward, then stay in pain indefinitely. You can use your energy to maintain or use your energy to heal. Healing is better, because eventually that energy is freed up to use for other things. Freeing up that energy then gives you the strength to go even further and deeper. I remember once talking to BN about my wanting to run from the relationship again as getting closer felt too dangerous and how frustrated I was to be back in that place again, feeling these feelings again. His response was to say that once I felt this scared when I was this far away, holding his arms wide, while now I was this scared when I was this far away, holding his fingers open by a few inches. It is important to realize that we do not, nor can we, heal all at once. But the healing we do, each strength we gain, each skill we learn, is fuel to continue forward.
Another important factor was the support of family and friends. I have been very blessed in having a husband who is very encouraging about my going to therapy and has sacrificed a lot in helping me to heal. He was patient and understanding when I got sidelined by the stress of healing and was not available. And when I would want to give up, he was there to tell me to keep going. I also had friends come alongside of me in healing, that understood what it was I was facing, and could tell me to keep going when I wanted to give up, who would remind of my progress, or argue with me when I decided BN really hated me, or I had been going to therapy for too long. I do not know how my healing of the last five years would have happened without the support of the folks at the Psychcafe forum and the close friendships that have grown out of my membership there.
I also do not underestimate the effect of BN’s skills as a therapist. No matter what I talked about or how I felt, he was a steady presence who was right there with me helping me to face whatever I needed to face. And he had an amazing gift for normalizing everything I was feeling. So many times I expected to be met with ridicule and scorn, only to be met with acceptance and care. Every time I risked to expose more of myself and got something so much different from what I expected, made it just that scintilla easier the next time to open up. I kept coming back because BN patiently, and non-defensively, proved he was trustworthy.
Last, but certainly not least, was my faith. God promised that He can work all things to good for those who love Him and that nothing can snatch us from his hand. I did not believe that He would leave me in darkness. While I have certainly wrestled with the problem of pain, I believe He is a loving God and would bring healing. In the end, while I can tell you HOW the healing happened, I am not sure I can say I understand WHY the healing happens. BN and I have discussed it on numerous occasions, the mystery at the heart of healing. Somehow, for a human being, to sit with another human being and be heard and understood and accepted, heals. My own theory is that when we come together in that way, when we experience that connection, we create the space into which God and His love can flow. Ultimately, I believe that while BN and I both worked very hard to bring ourselves to that place, it was the power of God, the true source of love, that did the actual healing. I know not everyone would agree with what I am saying or how I am saying it, but I offer it as my truth, a truth that served to sustain me through my struggle to heal. BN does not see it in quite the same terms; he just recognized that there is an infinite source of love outside of himself. He has told me that the older he gets, the less he feels like he knows, but he is comfortable with not knowing. As I am experiencing that myself, that I am not as certain about a lot of things these days, I find it easy to live with. The truth is the truth, in some way this comes down to semantics Romans 8:38-39 says:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There was nothing that could separate me from the love of Christ, not even the abuse of my father.
This was a very personal list. In some ways, part of healing lies in our finding what it is that keeps us going, that gives us the strength to face the pain and do the grieving. Each of you will discover your own reasons, some of which I will share and some I will not. But I hope you take strength from knowing that there are reasons, that it is worthwhile going back and sticking with it. You are worth sticking with it.