As I have done over the last couple of therapy breaks, I used daily tweets as a way of ‘journaling’ and coping over the Easter break. I find it helpful as a way of ‘counting down the days’ and of recording both difficult moments and times of gratitude. I have also found it valuable to be able to look back on my experience during previous breaks. Creating a scrapbook of my tweets has been therapeutic in itself, as well as providing me with a treasure trove of memories. I put together the tweets from my Easter break using Storify, and you can see them here!
The first part of the Easter therapy break was, after all, okay. I was pleased that, after an unexpectedly difficult last session (described in Part 1 of this post), I ‘pulled it back’ and felt connected, secure, and held in mind, for the first week. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is not something I’m used to, relationship-wise. I tend to catastrophize if things don’t start out well, or as I expect them to be. The relationship with my therapist is my first in which things were rocky (understatement) at the start, and then blossomed over time. For many months it was difficult to believe that whatever might ultimately be gained, would not be weaker, or somehow permanently sullied, because of the fact it began in adversity. It shows how wrong I can be.
I was also wrong about needing to start the therapy break in a particular way (a supremely positive way, of course), in order to be able to feel connected. The first few days were difficult, and I was much more unmotivated than I have been at the beginning of the last few breaks. As with the last two breaks, I daily-tweeted my way through this one, despite my initial reluctance to do so. By Day 4 my #therapybreak tweets were showing a return to openness, vulnerability, security, and connection.
But as with all good stories, things had to get worse before they, um…..got even worse.
To cut a long story short, my therapist went away without telling me – which of course she has every right to do. That is, she went on holiday and was out of email contact for a week, and I had no idea. And when there was no reply to an email I sent, for several days, sadness and catastrophizing set in. Although the major part of me continued to believe in her caring and in our connection, I had to fend off the part of me that didn’t. For the first time in a long time, there was a physical dimension to my distress – I had difficulty falling asleep, and I had vivid and complex dreams. I know that the situation was intensified by a number of other factors I had been worrying about over the break, but in essence, I just didn’t understand my therapist’s thought process behind acting as she did.
It was another example of the unexpected throwing me for a loop. It happened at the start of the break, and it was happening at the end. It was not how I imagined my therapist would act – in the past she had told me (as far as I know) when she would be out of contact. But we had no explicit agreement that that would always happen, and in the absence of her telling me otherwise, I simply assumed she would be spending the break at home. I never thought to check my assumption. I told a wise friend, who thought my expectations of my therapist were unrealistically high – he put it more kindly than that – and though I hope that’s not as true as it used to be, perhaps I still fall into the trap of idealisation.
When I found out my therapist had been away, my mind came up with several possible options for why she might not have told me, and eventually settled into the firm belief that she had gone away to look for a house to buy for her retirement, in another part of the country. I was so fearfully convinced of it, that it was quite difficult not to go into my first session back and say “So, you bought a house then?”.
As far as I know, she hasn’t bought a house. Instead, it seems that she simply had confidence in me, and the progress that we have made over the past year. I think she thought that I would be okay, based on how the previous three breaks have gone. I’m very glad that she believes in me – though I did object that she ‘took the risk’ without my permission. She used the metaphor of a parent taking their hand off the bike seat to show their child that they can manage for themselves without stabilisers. I did the same to my own children, so I could understand that – is the decision wrong, and the confidence negated, if the child falls over and ends up in a heap? I don’t know….but they may well be scared of trying again.
At least the way the break ended meant that my first session back was a very different story to the versions of it that I imagined during the first part of the break. As you may be able to tell by now, I run scenarios in my head – a lot. And as a lucid dreamer, I’m used to stepping in and changing direction when things aren’t working out so well – in my daydreams, as well as in my night-time dreams.
“So, I brought a list of questions”, I said, as I handed over a sheet of paper. My therapist reached for her glasses, and I felt apprehensive; the last time I had a list to work through, she wasn’t that enthralled at the idea and felt it got in the way of the session. And as for asking her questions – on the whole that doesn’t tend to go too smoothly either.She started to read the questions silently to herself.
I said, “These are things I thought about a great deal over the break, and that I really need to talk about. They’re on my mind a lot, and I’m anxious about them, and it would help to have some answers….”.
I went over the first couple of questions in my mind: “is your daughter still living here?; how many years do you think it will be until you retire?”. Gulp. What was I thinking?
“What were you thinking?” she said.
No, hang on a second, she wouldn’t say that. And this is clearly a really bad idea…..
“So, I had a list of questions, but I decided it would be a bad idea to bring those and hand them over”. She looked at me quizzically, waiting for me to go on. “They were things I really wanted to have answers to, because I needed reassurance, I needed to feel better”. More waiting for me to go on. “But I didn’t bring them…..”.
“Why did you decide not to bring them?” .
“Um, because I didn’t think you’d answer them? And because it didn’t feel like the right thing to do – it would get in the way”.
“Get in the way of what?”
“Of speaking freely about what was on my mind, of seeing where the session takes us….”.
“What sort of questions had you wanted to ask?”.
I went over the first couple of questions in my mind: “is your daughter still living here?; how many years do you think it will be until you retire?”. Gulp. What was I thinking?
“What are you thinking?” she asked, as I went silent for a while.
HHmmm……not quite sure this version will go any better.
“So, I think she should take the questions in with her”.
“No, she won’t do that, she knows it’s a bad idea”.
“Still, I think she’ll do it. It’s what she wants to do, and she needs the answers, the reassurance”.
“As if your judgment can be trusted – you wanted to send her into session two weeks ago, with no underwear on”.
“I won – partly. No bra”.
“Not that therapist noticed….”.
“Well, I say she’ll take the list of questions in anyway – betcha”.
Oh, seriously, come on – are my ‘internal voices/parts’ really going to start taking bets on how much I can humiliate myself at my first session back?
After that, it was a strange sort of relief to spend the first session back, talking about why my therapist went away without telling me.
I didn’t know what I wanted to talk about – which, these days, is mostly okay. But it turns out it’s not okay if it happens just before a therapy break.
“We peaked too soon” – I heard myself say during the last session, cringing inside at the entirely intentional sexual innuendo. But it also felt true. My last two sessions before the break were preceded by my therapist going away on a residential conference – a temporary parting of sorts, which I had suspected for weeks I would find difficult because it would trigger feelings of exclusion. We parted well – the sort of parting I have become used to experiencing before a longer break. It was positive and connecting, and the adult part of me was at the fore. Which is all well and good, except that it turns out that I cannot keep that up on multiple occasions in a short space of time. The positive feelings started to ebb away, and I came down off my plateau. I knew at my penultimate session that I had run out of steam, and I left feeling anxious about how things would turn out the next day.
In the absence of a list of topics (or even one topic) to talk about, this is how the session started to take shape in my imagination. I guess you could say that this became my plan.
I walked upstairs to the therapy room, but instead of sitting straight down and taking off my shoes, as usual, I stayed standing, and started to look at my therapist’s bookshelves. She came in, shut the door, and sat down. I imagined her looking at me with curiosity, wondering what was in my mind, and what was in play. Why were things different today? I answered her wordless questions: “Could I have a look around? I haven’t really had a chance to do that yet. I don’t have anything in particular to talk about, and I’ve always wanted to just explore this space a little bit”.
She nodded, silently, and I turned back to scanning the shelves. What might the books tell me about the things she was interested in? About the different types of difficulties she had worked with? About the training she had had? Would she let me borrow any of them? But it wasn’t just books that filled her shelves – it was postcards, and ornaments, and objects of different kinds. I had joked a few days ago that I was developing my own little corner on a higher shelf – she had made a neat display of a postcard, a photo, and a couple of gifts I had given her. I wondered if she ever looked at them during our sessions. Or anyone else’s……
I said: “All these things….sometimes I wonder whether they are your memories, or symbols of someone else’s story. Are these keepsakes from other clients, on your shelves?”
She said: “And what would it mean, if they were?”
The night before the last session I was feeling restless, and went from room to room in my house. I was looking for something, but I didn’t know what. I had a strong sense that I wanted to find an object to give to my therapist, to remember me. At the same time, I wanted to find an object for me, to remember her. I wanted a chance discovery, to invest with meaning. At the start of the Christmas break I came across a book she had lent me more than two years ago. The subject matter connected powerfully with material we had been covering in session, and the book was a tangible reminder of her and our work together. I knew, wandering about the house, that there was no other such book to find – so what did it mean, that I continued to look?
The day came, and I walked upstairs to our therapy room. Instead of sitting straight down and taking off my shoes, as usual, I stayed standing, and started to look at your bookshelves. You came in, shut the door, and sat down. I imagined you looking at me with curiosity, wondering what was in my mind, and what was in play. Why were things different today? I answered your wordless questions: “I’m just looking at your books – I won’t touch anything. I don’t have anything in particular to talk about, could I just have a look at your shelves?”
You said: “I think we should start the session”.
You asked me why things were different today – why I was sitting in a completely different position. Usually, I curled my legs under me, with my back slightly towards the door, so that I could more easily look out of the window. The point my eyes usually fixed upon when I was thinking, or distressed, or dissociated, was a small dark wooden chest of drawers, next to your chair. This time, I had unthinkingly brought my knees up to my chest, with my back towards the window, facing the door of the room, which was behind your chair. The point my eyes were now fixed upon was the opaque glass in that door and the gap underneath it – both black with the darkness of the landing at the top of the stairs.
“It’s interesting having a different viewpoint”, I said.
“I asked if I could look around, and you cut me off”, I added.
I said: “I find it interesting, how you handled that. You were much more definitive in your reply, than usual. You said that we should start the session but you didn’t leave room for the possibility that looking at and talking about the bookshelves could be part of the session”.
“I thought it was a defence”, you said.
I always thought of this space as in some way ‘my space’, even though it’s your house; somewhere I could be free and explore – I didn’t say.
I was quiet. Somewhere in the distance – or was it just downstairs? – there was a swishing, faintly thumping sort of sound. There was movement, and some creaking, and a door opening or closing. I looked at the black line under the door, imagined the darkness of the stairs beyond.
You said, “Where are you”?
I said, “Is that a washing machine?”
And then, “What is that poem, the one about being on the stairs, and meeting a man who wasn’t there?”
You looked at me – was it curiously or with curiosity?
You said, “It feels unsettling, because you expect therapy breaks to start in a particular way, and that’s not what’s happening this time”.
You were right, and for the last fifteen minutes of the session my defences somehow fell away, and I managed to take that in – to take you in. You were right, and I was scared – how could I go into the break off the back of this difficult session? And how would I manage without a tangible ‘meaning-object’ to get me through? A therapy jacket, a stone, a book, a memory, a piece of music – what would it be this time? You asked why there had to be something, rather than nothing. I was quick to point out – was that your intention? – that I knew it wasn’t a case of having nothing. Some of those previous objects were still in my possession, and I had many memories, and more tools to get me through, than at any point previously. At the same time, I had nothing in particular – no object, memory or metaphor – to associate with this particular break. But that didn’t need to mean anything. It certainly didn’t mean that the break would be a disaster, or that I would lose connection with you.
“You are still connected even if you don’t feel connected”, you said. “You will still be kept in mind”.
When I got home, I googled ‘man on stairs who wasn’t there’, and found this poem, called ‘Antigonish’, by William Hughes Mearns:
“As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there!
He wasn’t there again today,
Oh how I wish he’d go away!”
When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door…
Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn’t there,
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…”
Sometimes both my therapist and I free-associate via poetry – it’s one of the things I love about her. Part of me finds it a little amusing that this poem came to me in our last session, and I wonder what it might mean, if anything. It felt as though the trigger was simply my mind wandering from seeing the black line under the door, to thinking about the darkness on the landing and the stairs. Is this the only poem I’ve read that connects darkness and stairs? Why think of a poem at all?
Was my therapist curious, wondering what was in my mind, what was in play? I hope she didn’t think that my subconscious was wishing her husband away! I remembered that when I’d written about his presence in the past, I light-heartedly spoke of him ‘haunting’ the house. I thought about the fact that a few months ago, it became clear to me that one of her daughters was back living with her for a while.
‘I thought it was a defence’, she’d said.
‘What do you want to ask? Sometimes, when you say you don’t have anything to talk about, there’s a question that you want to ask’. That’s what she’d said the day before.
I said I didn’t have a question, but perhaps, this was it:
“As I was going up the stair
I wish I knew who waited there.
Is she here again today?
Or has she left, and gone away?”
Sharing is difficult, isn’t it?
This weekend my therapist is at a residential conference – strangely enough at a conference centre I have stayed in myself. I have been dreading this weekend for months, remembering how I felt last time she went to a similar event. I have been dreading the feelings of exclusion, of jealousy, of knowing that she will be interacting with strangers who for these three days will have a greater insight into the minutiae of her life – what does she have for breakfast? – than I will ever have. They will be in company without the company of the clock; they will talk and laugh uninterruptedly; they will take a walk and talk – or not. They will capture the moment, in a picture. Oh to be a fly on the wall and to be able to observe her interacting in a carefree way with those around her. And yet, I know the irrationality of my fears and hopes. I have a very different – the opposite of care free – and more valuable kind of access to her than most of them will ever have ; and being a fly on the wall would be unbearable for precisely that reason. I’ve never had to ‘share her’ – I wouldn’t want to have to try.
After this, we only have two more sessions before a two-week Easter break, and I was worried we wouldn’t have time to process the fall-out from this weekend. Yet somehow, as always seems to happen, we have arrived at the point just before the break – despite my fears over this weekend – with a lovely sense of security and connection. It’s been an incredibly difficult few weeks, and I have found myself treating her in ways I have hated myself for. I have caused her to feel coerced, manipulated, and intruded upon; she’s had to wade through the mire of counter-transference and my resistance. But she is my therapist – and she continues to amaze me and to show me, through her example, what love really looks like.
What has struck me deeply, through all of this, is that she keeps on giving. She holds the space; she holds firm against the resistance; we work through the pain, the tears and the tantrums (all mine). But she keeps on giving, and she does not withhold. Yes, she withholds therapeutically, for the benefit of the work, but she does not withhold of herself in retaliation. I am so used to the tautology that misbehaviour equals punishment; that resistance leads to consequence; and that if I try and ‘win’, something will be taken away and lost. It’s why, each time she shows me her unwavering nature and her generosity, there is always the internalised voice that says ‘this time….this time, I have really blown it, she will never be the same with me again, a part of her is lost to me’.
But every time, I’m wrong; and I’m so thankful that I’m wrong. There is no retribution; and she doesn’t see herself as wronged. She knows me, and that whatever mess I bring from one week to the next is only part of me, and not the whole. She cares for the whole, and reminds me that it is there, even when I have forgotten. She responds to what I bring – without bringing up the past and without conditionality. She gives, as if I’d never tried to take what wasn’t mine to have; and that is both humbling and overwhelming.
The night before she left I sent her a brief email saying I would miss her, and I wished her an interesting time and an enjoyable walk around the gardens (replete with poems and quotes hidden amongst the trees). I also said that I hoped a poem or two might come out of this weekend – it’s been my way, recently, of trying to cope with difficult or intense emotions. I didn’t think I would receive a reply until after the weekend, but she wrote back saying she would think of me at the house and in the gardens; and she shared something (a poem and a picture) of the material she would be thinking about over the weekend. Her giving was a wonderful and deeply touching surprise. She included me, when she knew I would be feeling excluded; and she told me she would think of me, when she knew I would worry about being kept in mind, when she had so much on her mind.
And so I have drawn together my thoughts and feelings into a poem; grateful for her giving, trying not to dwell too deeply on the missing, but reminding myself of what I have. I have tried to capture a lessons in love – a moment of being together at a distance, in a picture of words, timelessly unhampered by the clock.
This is a day late – but I wanted to share again the post I wrote for Mother’s Day last year. Re-reading the post, where I quoted from two articles by psychologist and writer Terri Apter, her words on estranged families and difficult mothers struck me just as much now, as they did last year. I still feel as though they describe my own experience, very accurately indeed:
In the post I also talked about the fact that I was going through a particularly tough time in therapy – as is the case now as well. A few days ago I posted a poem that I wrote, trying to capture the impact that some words from my therapist (in the form of an email) had on me about ten days ago, when I felt worthless and hopeless and was struggling with suicidal ideation and with holding on to the therapy relationship. I would like to write about what led up to those feelings, but I think I need more distance from them first.
My therapist’s email provided reassurance at a time when I desperately needed it and my attempts to locate it deep within myself had been briefly successful, but then quickly faded. A couple of days before receiving that email, and a few hours after some very strong suicidal ideation, I wrote a mother’s day poem for my therapist. It poured out fairly quickly, and then I read it and re-read it multiple times. The act of writing it – of recalling how I feel about her, what she has done for me, and then putting it down on paper and reading it to myself – reconnected me to her and helped me to feel close. It gave me – at least temporarily – the reassurance I was craving, and a sense of her presence.
Since I wrote it (and gave it to her), I have repeated it to myself, internally, many times. But on Mother’s Day itself, though I thought of my therapist many times, it was hard to bring the poem to mind. Inevitably, as happens during other occasions which are ‘family’ celebrations, the joy of having a ‘therapy-mother’ has to be held alongside the painful acceptance of not being able to enjoy the same sort of physical and emotional space in those celebrations, inhabited by her daughters.
I had a yoga class tonight, and as I sat in stillness and in silence, and in the discomfort of holding seated poses for a few minutes at a time, I tried to will my body and my mind to find a way of working together to somehow try and ‘deal’ with that painful position. To let the discomfort in my body mirror to some degree the much more intense discomfort of accepting separation, and boundaries, and difference. I wasn’t sure what ‘dealing’ with things might mean, in that context; I wanted to feel the pain, rather than dull it, but perhaps in a way that felt more tangible and therefore more manageable. Perhaps I was hoping that the way one ‘breathes into’ the aching muscles in yoga, which helps with accepting and sitting with the discomfort of the pose, would also work for heart-ache, for emotional strain.
I’m not really sure if it worked – I think that idea is still a work in progress. But as I sat there hoping that it might work, I was also aware that I needed it to work, not just for now, but for later. It’s only a matter of time for me (and usually, very little time at all), before feelings around boundaries and exclusion turn into thoughts about the eventual end of therapy. And so as I sat there hoping that by some miracle, breathing into the discomfort in my muscles might bring acceptance and peace with the way in which my ‘daughterhood’ was circumscribed; I was also desperately hoping that one day it would be part of helping me to deal with one of the biggest losses I can imagine going through. I’m hoping I still have a good – long-ish – time to practice my ‘skills’, both in yoga, and in acceptance; but it’s very hard not to have an internal awareness (and hyper-vigilance) over that ‘ticking clock’ that is counting down, and to wonder – how many more ‘therapy-mother-days’ and ‘therapy- mother’s-days’ do I have left?