I can’t, I couldn’t, and I can
‘But I can’t.’
Why, just at that moment, did the therapist not understand? Of course I couldn’t: it was impossible. I felt ashamed to have to say it. They could be obtuse sometimes, these therapists. Downright unempathic. Cold. Harsh. Uncaring. Was she even human?
She said nothing, obviously hating me. Her silence sat like a pool of disgust around my feet.
‘I can’t,’ I said again, trying not to say it too firmly, worrying that my throat would swallow back the defiance before my breath could expel it.
The silence hurt, full of contempt.
I was convinced I would see hatred. I was convinced her lips were upturned in a snarl, despising me, goading me, willing me away. I was convinced for that moment that she hated me every bit as much as my mother had hated me, at times in the past when I’d pleaded, futilely, with her that I couldn’t.
Eventually I dared look at her. I sucked my courage deep into my belly, seeking the strength for it. Meeting her eye felt like abseiling rope-less, into the dark.
But even in my transference, even in this triggered, not-quite-me state, even I could see the softness in her gaze.
‘I can’t’ – for a third time, but something about that softness had disarmed me, and melted my rage.
In the space of seconds, I had descended into a four-year-old’s transference of therapist as ‘bad mummy’, convinced of my hopeless, despairing, un-agency, and then ascended somehow back with one look of softness to tenuous reality. This therapist didn’t hate me, right here, right now. I just thought she did. And her softness betrayed it.
‘Why can’t you?’ she asked me, at last, closing the silence.
‘Because I … ‘ But I trail off and frown at myself, sensing a trap. ‘Because I …’
I sigh, exasperated. ‘I can’t because I can’t. Because I don’t think I can. Because I couldn’t. So I still think I can’t.’
I’ve answered myself with what I think she’ll say and I can see it myself now, even if only for a moment.
It’s my default response: ‘I can’t.’ It’s an emotion, not a fact. I feel that I can’t, and therefore I can’t.
This time, she surprises me. She speaks: a rare event, if only because she holds silence so well.
‘It’s the freeze response,’ she says, and nothing more. She’s coaxing me to think.
I root around in my brain to finish the meaning. There’s a faint stirring of something, but I don’t know of what and it might need a shake as well as a stir.
The freeze response. I know this, but only as fact. I haven’t grasped it fully, not yet seen its relevance to me.
‘What about it?’
I feel all quivery inside, like in the gap between lightening and thunder. This is what therapy is like: my mind popping open, little balloons of insight bursting wet upon my thoughts.
‘You know about the freeze response,’ she says and she doesn’t mean to cause it but I feel a shivering of shame. ‘First there’s fight, then there’s flight. If that doesn’t work, then freeze.’
My front brain grinds into gear. ‘It’s natural, automatic,’ I say. ‘It’s instinctive. It’s an evolutionary thing, for survival. We don’t choose to go into flight or fight, or freeze. It just happens.’
She nods slowly, like she’s teasing mackerel on the end of the line, afraid to spill them. ‘Go on.’
Suddenly my brain hurts, like I’m resisting some knowledge. This is normal, for me: I know stuff, and I don’t know it. I know the theory. I know the facts. But I can’t push them over into being. I can’t get the knowledge to dissolve into my within-ness. It just sits on the surface of my mind, not impacting me. It’s frustrating. It’s dissociation.
My frustration erupts: ‘Why is this relevant?’
She’s used to me reacting. She stays calm. ‘Go on,’she says, softness upon softness. ‘Think it through.’
I push boulders in my mind. There are emotions, big ones, dancing right behind them. I’m afraid they’ll crush me. But the softness is still there, in her eyes, in the bent of her back, leaning towards me, inviting me to trust. It will be okay for me to know this.
‘So when we’re faced with danger, with threat to our life, we don’t respond rationally. We respond primitively. It’s not our front brain, but our back brain. It’s instinctive and automatic.’
Aaargh! screams some emotion quietly, warning me. It flutters a bit and I remember to breathe, to settle it. Then I go on: because it is okay for me to know this.
‘When we’re in freeze, we become immobile. Immobilised. Frozen. Stuck. We play dead.’
Nods, even more slowly.
‘And so …’
‘And so …?’
‘We can’t do anything. We can’t move. We can’t …’
This is it.
‘We can’t …’ she says and I don’t know whether it’s a question or a statement. It sounds like both.
‘I can’t …’
For a moment I am still blind, although I know that it’s there, this glimpse. ‘I can’t …’ Maybe by repeating it, it will take shape in the gloom. ‘I can’t …’
Gently, oh so gently, she helps me.
‘And ‘I can’t’ is what you always say …’
I look at her, astonished.
‘I can’t …’
Surely it’s not that simple?
‘When I get stuck, when I feel like I can’t … it’s the freeze response?’
‘Maybe an outworking of it,’ she agrees. ‘A habit. A way of thinking. A belief.’
‘A belief is an habitual way of thinking …’ Something is quickening on the inside of me, like I’m about to flick a switch. ‘I’ve had so many experiences where I went into the freeze response …’
‘… which wasn’t your fault. There was nothing you could do to stop it. It was natural, instinctive …’
‘… so the freeze response itself became a habit. And when you’re frozen, you literally can’t. You can’t do a thing. You can’t lift a finger. You can’t move. You can’t think. You can’t act. Your biology is stopping you. You have to be still, to try to survive. You can’t move. You simply can’t. You can’t act. You just cannot do a thing. Not a thing. When you’re in freeze, you can’t …’
The words are tumbling out now like a slinky down the stairs.
‘So I ended up always believing that I can’t. Because I couldn’t. At the time, I couldn’t. I couldn’t do a thing. I couldn’t do a thing to help myself. I couldn’t protect myself, defend myself, save myself.’
I pause, suspended in mid-thought like that scene from The Matrix. I look around at myself, wondering.
‘But it was okay that I couldn’t. That was the best thing I could do at the time to survive. I was supposed to ‘couldn’t’.’
I feel triumphant, like I’ve had the thought of the decade. But on she pushes, relentlessly.
‘And so …’
‘And so …?’
‘Make the connection,’ she prompts, like she always does, but gently. ‘Bring it into now.’
‘And so …’ I’m suddenly very tired. I take a deep breath and force my brain through the fog. ‘And so … I couldn’t then but it doesn’t mean I can’t now. I couldn’t then was adaptive. It helped me survive. But I can’t now isn’t adaptive. It’s not helping. It’s keeping me stuck. It’s a belief that fits that world, but it doesn’t fit this world.’
‘That’s right.’ She’s talking to let me breathe. ‘It helped you then, but it doesn’t help you now. It was a good belief then, but it’s not so good now. Every time things get tough, your brain wheels out this old belief of I can’t. It’s its best attempt to help you. But it doesn’t help now, because your circumstances have changed.’
‘I’m not a child any more,’ I interject, eager to finish my own thought. Damn these talkative therapists. ‘It helped me when I really was powerless and had to freeze. It was an effective strategy then. It’s not an effective strategy now. But it’s not wrong that I think it. It’s my brain offering solutions that worked in the past. But I need to find better options for what will work now.’
The near-scream emotion has retreated back within itself. The alarm is over. This thought, this feeling, this glimpse hasn’t been as scary as I’d feared. That too, is a habit: the way my brain resists anything new, any insight, in case it’s dangerous. Better the devil we know, it says. So it warns me, screams quietly, not to go there, not to think, not to make the connection. It wants us to stay as we are, because we’ve survived as we are.
‘I’ve survived but I want more,’ I say out loud, forgetting she wasn’t on board this train of thought in my head. ‘When you’re under attack, all you can do is survive. But I’m not under attack any more. It just feels like it. But I’m not. So I can do more than survive. But to do that, I need new strategies. Not the same old, same old ones. They helped me survive then, but they don’t help me thrive now.’
She’s used to my tangents so says nothing. Often, one glimpse leads to three or five or ten. It’s as if my brain has to get into a certain mode and then the whole pack of cards comes tumbling down. It’s magical when it happens. So I waft my arms around expansively, tumbling every last card.
‘I can’t is a belief, like a memory. It’s a strategy I had to survive. It was a good strategy. But it’s outdated.’
I’m feeling smug now, like I’m not so bad at this therapy malarkey after all. I’ve forgotten, for a moment, how evil the therapist really is. Even shame has retreated. It all seems so obvious now: from this vantage point I can see the blight on my life of the instinctive, freeze-response reflex of I can’t. In this moment, now, I can see its genesis. And for this moment, now, it is hard to remember how physical it is, how it grabs me in the guts, how the thoughts fall out of my head in freeze and how I can’t. But for this moment, now, I see through it.
‘I can,’ I say, and suddenly the clock exists again and time unfreezes too and I know we’re nearing the end of the session. And that sudden inrush of fear – that we’re nearing the end of the session – for once is quiet because I can. ‘The freeze response,’ I say, with all the gravitas I can muster. ‘The freeze response … it’s everywhere.’
And she nods, her eyes narrowing, because I’ve got it.
‘It’s not just a thing that happened back then. It’s a thing that happens. It keeps on happening. It tells me I can’t. Because my brain thinks it’s safer not to. My brain thinks it safer not to act, not to try, not to do, not to move.’
And she nods in the ‘end of session’ way. I need to consolidate my thought quickly.
‘But it’s not safer now. When I feel I can’t now, it’s not necessarily true. It’s a strategy for staying safe, to believe that. That’s all. There will always be some things that I can’t. But I need to figure out what they really are. Not just believe them by default. I need to open my eyes.’
And I look up, and the gentleness is there still and it’s smiling. And I smile too because today has been one of those days, in amongst wasted sessions and rupture sessions and stuck-in-freeze sessions, when therapy works. When it really, actually works. When I can.
A word of explanation
I had therapy mainly between 2006 and 2015. These blog posts are not verbatim accounts of sessions, but rather the client equivalent of ‘case studies’ - amalgamations of various sessions, ‘narratively true’ rather than ‘historically true’. Although often written for stylistic purposes in the present tense, they are very much from a past period of my life. Ideally they should be read within the wider context of other blog posts, articles and my book, to give a more integrated and rounded sense of where I was at, where I’m at now, and the process that took place between those two points. I have been on a journey of recovery, and the difference in me from when I was in therapy (especially at the beginning) to now is testament to the brain’s ability to recover from even the most appalling suffering.
My primary work now is writing, followed closely by training therapists, counsellors and other professionals to support survivors of trauma. Regrettably I cannot provide one-to-one support but our charity framework PODS (Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors) provides a helpline and a range of other services: please go to www.pods-online.org.uk for more information, and https://support.pods-online.org.uk/start-here if you are looking for support.
For training, please see our range of live courses at www.carolynspring.com/live-training, and our online courses at www.carolynspring.com/online-training. We also publish a range of resources to support recovery from trauma, which you can see at www.carolynspring.com/shop. My first book, Recovery is my best revenge, is available to buy at https://www.carolynspring.com/shop/recovery-is-my-best-revenge-paperback/