A few weeks ago, on a Monday, I sent my therapist a brief email asking whether it would be okay to bring in some more photos to look at during one of our sessions that week. I had brought some in on the Friday before, and was keen to look through some others (of myself as a child) that I had recently found. However, as usual, I wanted to know what ‘the rules’ were – I wasn’t sure whether it was okay to bring in more photos, so soon after we had already spent time looking at some. It had been okay on one occasion – but what if it wasn’t okay again?
She replied very briefly, saying that we could talk about it in session, as she wasn’t quite sure why I was asking. My reaction, was, quite simply: “What the f**k”? Excuse my thinly disguised swearing – but its presence is as unavoidable as it was when it was going around my head almost constantly for the following twenty-four hours until my next session. I couldn’t believe her reply – and I was very angry. And behind the anger, though I couldn’t feel it for the red behind the eyes, was a great deal of hurt.
In my mind, it was a perfectly simple and straightforward question – why could she not just answer it? More importantly, why could she not just answer it, given the circumstances? I had had a very difficult weekend, and was still feeling vulnerable, having confided to her over email the details of some behaviour I was ashamed of. I was still feeling anxious about how she would view that behaviour, and in need of reassurance – how could she not realise that?
I was very much the angry and resentful teenager in my next session, and as usual it came out visually (in what I wore to session) perhaps even more than in my words. And just as I was taken by surprise by her comment, she was taken completely by surprise by my reaction and had no idea, initially, where it had come from. She had felt unsure why I thought I needed her permission to bring in some photos, particularly when it had clearly been okay the previous time we had looked at some. She also suspected that my desire to look at photos may have been a way of trying to ignore the events of the weekend, and jump right back in to where we had been before those events happened. And rather than begin that discussion over email, she suggested we talk about it during the next session.
Once the teenager had had her say, over the next couple of sessions we had some incredibly productive discussions both about my therapist’s email, and about the events of the previous weekend. It was one of those sequences of sessions that leaves you rather mind-blown, and which I have still not processed. It felt ‘so big’ that rather than letting it go round in my mind, or writing about it, I felt I had to put it ‘on ice’ for a while. The processing could occur subconsciously – but at that point I felt I needed a break, and to step back a bit. This is the first time I am coming back to just one small but important part of those discussions.
My therapist told me that given the series of emails we had had over the weekend, she believed I had thought through and at least partly rationalized the events of the weekend. What she had been trying to do with her reply was to challenge me to take my thinking further, and to consider for myself the reasons behind my question about the photos. She thought her email would encourage more thinking to take place. Instead, it shut thinking down all together. There was only one thought in my brain from that point on (yes, the WTF one), and my emotions (particularly anger and resentment) dominated completely.
I think it’s always difficult for a therapist to know who they are addressing at any one time. Is the adult or the child present? Or the teenager perhaps? And even if one appears to be dominant, how close to the surface is an ‘other’ lurking, waiting to be triggered? I’m not talking about distinct identities here, but about aspects of ourselves, and the experience that many people have, of feeling ‘different ages’ at different times in their therapy. I think my therapist thought that she was addressing ‘the adult’ in her email – and that I would respond as an adult to her encouragement to take responsibility for thinking through my motivations.
What I realised during that week, thanks to an insight that came from her, was that the requirement to be an adult and to behave like one, can in itself be very triggering for me. It can feel unfair, or like an imposition; like rejection or like a burden; like not being taken care of. It can make me feel resentful and angry; hurt and abandoned.
I think that the reason for this can best be described in an unfinished short story I wrote when I was a teenager, and which I posted here a few weeks ago. I think it’s because I’m only now uncovering (or, given the feelings described in that story, perhaps acknowledging rather than uncovering), the resentment and anger I felt, and still feel, at having to behave in some respects like an adult, when I wasn’t one. When there were deaths in the family, the adults sought reassurance from me, not the other way around. They talked about it in my presence – but they didn’t talk to me, other than to criticise how unemotional I seemed in comparison with everyone else. But being openly emotional was not an option – it was clear that others found it hard enough dealing with their own feelings, and I knew from experience that my own unhappiness just made them more anxious. That, in turn, would have exacerbated my own distress. Even before I hit double figures in age I had decided that as far as possible, I was not going to show any negative emotion around my family – extending that even to positive emotion, came later.
This meant that experiences of death (not grief, because I wouldn’t allow myself to feel it); panic; fear of death and going mad; bullying; heartbreak; depression – were never shared with anyone as I was growing up. At the time it was ‘just the way it was’, though my short story, written when I was around seventeen, shows that at least part of me was in touch with how resentful I really felt about having to take responsibility for looking after others’ emotional well-being and also my own, well before I was technically ready.
Understanding where this resentment comes from – where it came from in my response to my therapist – is helpful. But the potential for growth – which I still haven’t come to grips with and fully thought through – is in trying to apply it outside the therapy room. How often, for example, could my reaction to my husband’s requests, be at least partly a function of being triggered in this way? How often could my resentment be about ‘having to be a grown-up’ and ‘having to take responsibility’, rather than about the specific thing that he is asking, or the way in which he is asking it? And what about interactions with close friends? How are they affected? The knowledge that for me, the very idea of an adult interaction may be associated with hurt and resentment, seems like a very valuable and transformative piece of information to have.
Transformative – in the long run. Events even over this last weekend have shown that I still have a very long way to go. But I’m holding onto this golden nugget of information until I feel strong enough to start to make a little better use of it. Unlike the Las Vegas casino of the same name, I am hoping It will pay out abundantly, at ever diminishing costs (of courage and emotional energy), the longer time goes on!