‘Does that feel too vulnerable?’ the therapist asks me.
Doh. Yes. Of course.
But I don’t say this, because it feels too vulnerable to admit to feeling vulnerable. Instead, I pull my armour tighter and try to figure out how to distract her.
I want to fight her, I really do. She’s just not rising to it.
‘I see your suffering,’ she says, the words melodic and gentle. Now she’s looking at me, and she’s evidently not scared of me. She’s wiping down the space between us with tenderness. ‘Tell me about your suffering.’ Something about her softness breaks my aggression and I look down, and sigh. There’s pain in that sigh. It burns to breathe in again.
‘How can I help you?’ the therapist asks me. ‘What do you need from me?’
I look at her closely, examining her features, whilst also looking through her, to make sure I don’t connect too closely.
First the fear: Is this a trick? What does she mean? What does she want? Why is she saying this?
Then the shame: What right have I to be helped?
And afterwards, the sadness: No-one has ever offered to help me.
Three emotions in three seconds.
‘Unshame?’ says the therapist, checking that she’s heard me correctly.
I nod. ‘I don’t know what else to call it. Because, what’s the opposite of shame? There isn’t one really, is there?
‘What are you going to do to keep yourself safe?’ It’s a subtle change of question, but an effective one, because I’m caught.
‘I have absolutely no idea,’ I say, deciding that honesty is the best policy.
‘I don’t fit in,’ I complain, earnestly, full of pain. ‘I don’t belong. I don’t belong anywhere.’
The therapist looks at me steadily, brimming with compassion for me and probably a little stuck about how to respond. If she contradicts me, she’ll risk being misattuned. If she agrees with me, she’ll reinforce my misery. So she sits and waits and eventually she says, ‘When did you first feel like this?’
The woman’s eyes flick around the floor. Her breath is caught up in her ribs, hardly exhaling. Her fists are clenched. Her shoulders shrug upwards around her neck, protectively. The agony of being is raw on her face. Terror and dread and shame and confusion.
But she’s not a substitute. She’s a prison guard.
That is the first conclusion I jump to even before our first session starts. But I am being driven by fear of the unknown; fear of attachment; fear of rejection; fear of being shamed. I’m aware, just about, that I’m not being entirely fair.
‘It’s just a terrible sense of guilt,’ I explain, ‘but I don’t even know where it comes from. I just know that it was my fault. That it was always my fault. So how can I sit here in therapy and complain that I was abused if I caused it?’
‘She said I was too much.’
There. I’ve said it. My shame is disclosed and I tighten reflexively, waiting for the words that will doom me to hopelessness: ‘Yes, you are too much.’
Instead the silence wafts gently between us, backwards and forwards, like a palm leaf.
‘Things aren’t getting any better,’ I whine miserably at the therapist. ‘If anything, they’re getting worse. I can’t sleep. I’m in constant pain. I’m up and down and all over the place. I can’t stay present. I can’t see a way forwards. I can’t stop the flashbacks. I can’t cope. I just … can’t … do it any more …’
I try to take a deep breath, but there’s only space for air in the uppermost part of my lungs. Really I want to run away. Or hide. Or cease to exist.
She bobs her head slightly forward, trying to find me because she knows I’m avoiding her.
Don’t look for me. Don’t find me.