Existential Freefall – Part II
This is the second part of a two part series, for part I, see Existential Freefall – Part I
So in my last post, I explained the background and issues I was taking into my session last Friday (and then evidently, left people hanging off a cliff. 😀 ). So here’s the rest of the story.
BN let me in and we exchanged our usual “how are you’s.” We both sat down and he asked how I was doing and I told him it had been a bit of a stressful week. And that I had two major topics but wasn’t sure which I needed to talk about and which one I was using to avoid the one I needed to talk about. (My mind is sometimes a confusing place. 🙂 ) We talked briefly about my losing my friend’s parents. I told BN that for all that I didn’t have the world’s best parents, I have been incredibly blessed in the parents who have adopted me.
I told him I wasn’t sure where to start, so I just picked a topic. I talked about how I felt the eating was slipping and I had stopped exercising. I really do not want to get bariatric surgery but it’s starting to feel like it might be necessary as I seem unable to deal with this on my own. That I felt a lot of shame and embarrassment over telling him about it as I really did feel like a failure since I was supposed to be focusing on it. Then I caught myself. 🙂 I recognized that I have been making changes. I had even gone for a massage that week. BN checked in with me to see what came up and we were able to talk about some feelings of shame. But I was proud of myself because I was open with the massage therapist about feeling like being overweight made me feel like I didn’t deserve to have a massage. She was very accepting, kind and reassuring. I then told BN that being present helped because I could see that often my shame really did come from me. There were times during the massage where I had to flip over and it can be difficult because of my weight and being on a small table. So feelings of shame arose, but then I realized that the masseuse wasn’t reacting like I was doing anything wrong or that she was judging me. It was a chance to see that the shame is my reaction not other people’s. Then I talked about realizing I was doing the perfection thing again. That unless everything was under control (and nothing ever went wrong again!), that I needed to be eating right, exercising, meditating and being in my body all the time, then I was failing. And life just doesn’t work like that.
And I cannot for the life of me remember what BN said next, but it provided the perfect segue into my other topic. So I brought up that I was struggling with our relationship again. BN asked if that was the other major topic? I told him yes and that it felt major because I feel so much shame about needing to talk about it again, that I felt embarrassed about how I was feeling. He encouraged me to talk about it anyway. So I told him about the conversation with the other client (adding that it was basically a meeting of his fan club, got a nice grin for that one. 🙂 ) and about my friend being contacted by her therapist. In both cases, I told him that I understood where he placed his boundary and why it was necessary, but that didn’t change the feelings and how pervasive and strong they were. And that I got that we can care deeply for more than one person, as obviously in my own life, I knew that loving one person didn’t prevent me from loving another, or their being important to me, but again the feelings, no matter how irrational, were very strong. So BN asked the obvious, in retrospect, question “What are the feelings that rise up?”
As soon as he asked, the intensity ramped up tenfold and I immediately knew the answer to his question. But saying it to him turned out to be a whole other ball game. I, quite literally, sat there struggling for minutes to just say how I was feeling. BN was encouraging me but every time I went to speak, the shame was incredible and I JUST COULD NOT OPEN MY MOUTH. Not a usual problem for me. I think I started and stopped about eight times. I finally said to BN that I couldn’t feel it and say it at the same time and started to disconnect from the feeling and go into what I think of as “reporter” mode. Just the facts, detached from emotion. BN stopped me and said to try and say it with the feeling. So I took a deep breath and just blurted it out.
I told BN that I wanted to feel special to him and like I mattered. That it really hurt knowing that he had deep, close relationships with other clients; I don’t want to share him. (I cannot begin to explain the level of shame around feeling this, let alone saying this to BN, although I suspect some of you will understand. I feel ashamed typing it. But when I read it and take myself out of the equation, it doesn’t sound all that shameful to feel that way. There was also a lot of fear of punishment.) I wanted to matter to him and it felt like if I really mattered, he would call to check in on me. That he doesn’t call, because really I’m just not that important. I feel like I am doing such an inadequate job of explaining what this felt like. I felt so incredibly vulnerable and exposed saying this to BN.
He responded very lovingly, with acceptance and compassion while normalizing the feelings. He told me that I am special and I do matter, all the time, but he understood how these feelings got evoked. That he thought this was (once again, it’s been a real theme lately as we have been going back to a lot of memories surrounding the abuse) related to the dynamic of approaching my father and then having it turn to abuse. That in the beginning of the abuse, it more than likely felt like I WAS special and I was going to get what I needed, only to have it turn to over stimulation and overwhelming feelings. Then when it was over, to be thrown away. We had dealt with my memories of just being tossed aside, or even scorned or humiliated, when my father was done. I was just totally cut off.
BTW, I should probably mention that at this point, my face was covered by my hands. I have been consciously working very hard in my last few sessions to try and look at BN more. Didn’t realize how hard it was for me to do until I started trying to do it. BN has never made an issue of the fact that I spend a lot of our sessions balled up with my face covered. But a month or so back, I had sent him another article on touch, but we ended up not being able to discuss the actual article. We hit a bit of rupture over the email in which I sent it to him. (He was on vacation, thought it was just a link based on the subject line, and didn’t open or read the email. Which actually expressed my anxiety about sending him the article and asking for a response reassuring me it was ok to send it. My reaction was not pretty when I found out. 😀 ). At the very end of the session, BN mentioned that we still needed to discuss the topic but that he found it a little ironic that we were discussing me touching him when I couldn’t even look at him. It was a very well-timed and well-aimed comment, which hit me right between the eyes (pardon the pun!).
BN kept discussing what it must have been like, while I sat and cried and listened to him. He talked about how important it was to have someone there, that you be reflected by them. That I was looking to see that I mattered to my father. But because my father was so far gone in his own needs and narcissism, that I was looking for my reflection and there was nothing there in my father’s eyes…. BAM! When BN said that, I finally remembered, all in a rush of comprehension. The abyss opened at my feet and the breathtaking terror came pounding back. I remembered, I felt, what it was like to disappear, to be annihilated. There was no reflection in my father, I had ceased to exist for him as my use was done. At that age, I had no sense of self to retain without being able to see myself mirrored. As I described it to BN, I went into existential freefall. Falling through an unbroken darkness with nothing in it, no bottom, nothing to hang on to, and no one to rescue me.
But this time, instead of dissociating, I had an anchor and so I stayed. My breathing got rapid, but I didn’t hyperventilate. And I had to fight really hard to stay, but stay I did through the flashbacks and feelings. I was sobbing and curled up around enormous pain and fear. BN was speaking very gently to me, and I remember gasping out “please (a very stuttered please in the voice of a three or four year old) keep talking.” So BN kept speaking gently, telling me it was over, and I was safe, and he was there.
It sounds so small, doesn’t it? Simply not being reflected or seen? I had always thought that my hyperventilating protected some horrible revelation, some terrible act of abuse by my father, especially as my grasp on details of the abuse is particularly vague. But instead it was the overwhelming, unspeakable terror of a child when their caregiver, for whom they depend on for their life, disappears taking any sense of self with them. It felt like in that moment, I was so utterly abandoned that I had ceased to exist.
I was able, barely, to stay in the room until the feelings moved through me. Which has been a point BN has been making to me over and over. That never before had I been able to stay long enough to have the feeling move through me, so that I could know I could survive feeling it. Always before, I had just left. I fled the feeling because it was so intimately connected to a sense of destruction. It truly was a moment of catharsis, because I was able to recognize that as a adult, I was capable of facing those feelings. I have a strong enough sense of self now internalized and someone there who could provide a reflection of that self. But it also allowed me to have compassion for the child I had been, because there was no way in the world a child could have faced that level of terror alone. Of course, crucially, the adult didn’t have to face it alone. BN was there. I felt wrung out and sad, but there was also relief. Relief to have reclaimed this part of myself.
I am reading Bessel van der Kolk’s book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score (amazing book by the way, I highly recommend it) and had run across a quote he used at the beginning of a chapter. It so perfectly described the work that BN and I have been doing that I had sent it to him.
The “night sea journey” is the journey into the parts of ourselves that are split off, disavowed, unknown, unwanted, cast out, and exiled to the various subterranean worlds of consciousness. . . . The goal of this journey is to reunite us with ourselves. Such a homecoming can be surprisingly painful, even brutal. In order to undertake it, we must first agree to exile nothing. —Stephen Cope
When I expressed that part of what I was feeling was relief, BN reminded me of the quote, that he thought it described exactly what we were doing. That he was sorry for the pain I had experienced, and what my father had done to me and even the pain the boundaries caused, but that it was the only way he knew to access these cut off parts of myself, to exile nothing, so I could become a whole person. I no longer need to fear that feeling, as I have experienced surviving it.
We ran over by fifteen minutes, which was a total shock to me when I realized it. I was still very shakey and told BN it was scary to leave as it felt like either of us could disappear. The memory was so strong that it felt like BN would burst like a soap bubble when I walked out the door. He was very understanding and urged me to contact him if I needed to, that the fear made total sense considering what I just remembered. He wrote out my appointment card and gave it to me, then he stopped and said “are you ok?” I gave a feeble smile and said I would be. And he just stopped and said “take a minute” and we just stood there together. It meant the world to me.
Walking out of his office was difficult but amazing. That kind of moment of catharsis, of feeling, leaves me almost in an altered state. I am very present and everything takes on this incredible quality of “realness.” I also find that I am very sensitive to the beauty around me. It’s as if for a short time, I become fully alive. I had made a point of trying to look at BN again as soon as I could manage it and I think it made a huge difference. I was looking at him when he talked about my being in pain and needing to heal, and his compassion for me was plain to see. I have carried that with me and so far haven’t called him. Although I’m not ruling it out. 😀 I am still processing the session, both consciously and unconsciously. In fact, this is the first I have been able to speak about it to anyone. I am not sure of all the ramifications but finally getting to this feels like a significant step in my healing.
One last note, as much as I can hate and be hurt by BN’s boundaries, as much as I can want to move beyond them, this work is what shows me how necessary they are. The pain evoked by them is the trail I follow to the forgotten parts of myself. How much easier for both of us if BN just folded, gave in and moved his boundaries to comfort me. But it would only last for a time and I would still be a house divided. And so he holds firm and steady and walks beside me so that I do not go into hell alone. There are no words to express my gratitude.