‘Have you tried mindfulness meditation?’
The therapist is asking the question without humour or irony and yet I laugh explosively in response. I imagine a cross-legged hippy and am only vaguely aware of my stereotyping. I really do think that is what she means.
‘Not my kind of thing,’ I say curtly, suddenly realising that she is being serious.
And then there is silence between us. It becomes uncomfortable. In normal conversation, we would turn to something else. ‘Did you see The Apprentice last night?’ But this isn’t normal conversation. This is therapy. There’s a reason for this silence, although at this moment I can’t fathom it. It starts to itch. I want to make eye contact, and at the same time I have an urge to run away.
Eventually I give in.
‘How would it help?’ I ask, realising that she’s been waiting a long time to suggest this.
She pauses as if to assess my seriousness. Will I continue to be flippant, and if so why?
’A lot of people think it’s effective in reducing the symptoms of trauma,’ she says carefully, picking each word as if from a slow-moving conveyor belt.
I’m not sure why I feel so resistant on the inside. Perhaps I’m just scared, because it’s new, and new things are scary, and so by default I avoid them. Perhaps I’m just being adolescent, rebelling simply because she’s suggesting it and it’s my kick-back against her power.
‘Isn’t it dangerous for people who dissociate?’ I ask and I’m being half-serious with the question, because I read it somewhere.
She exhales. I feel like she senses my ambivalence, of fear plus bloody-mindedness. ‘Like most things it depends how you go about it,’ she says, but then doesn’t expound and I succeed in switching tracks.
’I tried it,’ I announce at the beginning of the following session, a little more loudly than I intended. As the words sit in the air between us I realise that they sound provocative. My unspoken message: ‘I tried it and it didn’t work. So now you can drop it. You were wrong.’
She’s so inscrutable. I feel sudden panic because I struggle at the best of times to read others’ thoughts and intentions, and right now I have absolutely no idea what that sound means.
So I stare back at her, defiant within myself, because I feel scared and lost and I’m being triggered into fight. Panic is stretching up within my gullet to gag me.
‘I couldn’t do it,’ I admit. There, I’ve said it. Now can we change the subject?
What I always forget, with this therapist, is that everything – literally everything – is grist for the mill. She feeds on scraps. And she never fails to uncover the reactions, the overreactions, the underrreactions, the non-reactions, that trauma evokes in me.
Trauma therapy doesn’t involve talking endlessly about ‘what happened’. For me, in this period at least of the work, it involves talking endlessly about the imprint trauma has left on my automatic reactions. It’s about noticing them, drawing attention to them, being curious about them, and seeing if these reactions are still helping me or if they get in the way. It’s both liberating and intensely annoying. Because the muddy footprints of trauma are everywhere.
I remind myself that the therapist is not the enemy. She’s here to help me. I stop fighting her.
‘It terrified me,’ I say, and then the words dry up again.
‘All I had to do was focus on my breath – in, out – and I couldn’t do it.’ Suddenly I feel overwhelmed at how far I still have to go to be free of trauma. ‘I should be able to breathe. It shouldn’t be that difficult.’
‘But it’s not about just breathing, is it? You do that all the time. It’s about noticing your breath – bringing your attention to it.’
‘Yes, but why is that so hard? Why can’t I do it?’
‘What do you think?’
I really have no idea. And I haven’t actually stopped to think why. This is why therapy is so helpful – because it provides the space, and the imperative, both to ask these questions and to stop long enough to answer them.
Suddenly I see it. ‘I don’t know where my body is,’ I explain. ‘So focusing attention on it is hard. I’ve trained myself, all my life, not to notice my body, not to pay attention to it. That’s normal when you’re being abused, isn’t it?’
‘Not just normal, but smart too. Adaptive.’
‘So maybe that part of my brain just doesn’t work very well. Maybe it’s underdeveloped.’
‘Maybe it is.’
I come back several weeks later. This one insight poked alive my curiosity. I still couldn’t engage, but at least I was edging up to it. I started to read about it. As always, with me, intellect first: I’ll engage once I understand.
‘I’ve been reading about mindfulness,’ I say and I detect a wry smile at the corner of her lips.
‘It’s my insula,’ I announce and the therapist looks blank but invites me to explain.
‘It’s a part of the brain. It operates a bit like an internal CCTV system. It relays images and data from the body up to the brain. It tells the brain, basically, what’s going on in the body. Abuse survivors often have an underdeveloped insula. In brain scans, it even appears smaller than people who haven’t been abused.’
‘It doesn’t make sense to receive data and images from your body when you’re being abused. It makes more sense to switch off your internal CCTV, to shield yourself from what’s going on. So our insula doesn’t develop properly. Hence we don’t know where our body is, or we have out-of-body experiences. It’s what makes us feel that we’re ‘dead’: the lack of emotion, the sense of nothingness and disconnect.’
‘How do you turn it back on again?’ she asks, and I think she’s genuinely interested. Brain science doesn’t normally excite her.
‘Through mindfulness meditation,’ I say, a bit too keenly, and immediately I regret showing my feelings.
‘Even after just six weeks of mindfulness meditation, one study showed that the insula was thicker.’ I’m quoting Daniel Siegel, one of my new heroes. ‘And with a better functioning insula, you have a better sense of what’s going on in your body. And as well …’ – my excitement is increasing and I’m not even trying to hide it – ‘… it improves your empathy. You can see what’s going on inside yourself, and you can see what’s going on inside others.’
I’m triumphant. I’ve forgotten, for a moment, that all I’ve done is read about the insula. I’ve done nothing yet to improve its functioning.
‘Sounds like you’d better give mindfulness another go then.’
Ah yes. That.
I come back to it the following month. In the meantime, we’ve covered a lot of ground in our sessions, with no time to discuss it. But for several weeks I’ve been practising with an app called Headspace. It takes all the whooshy-whooshy geekery out of it. It’s just normal.
Every morning I meditate. Twenty minutes of breathing deep into my belly, sucking the fullness of the air into my body then blowing it out like I’m squeezing the air through a straw. A million times my mind is distracted. A million times I draw it back to the sound of air in my lungs. In, out. In, out. Slowly, deeply, gladly.
It’s hard work. To start with, I am like a ferret on a fire. My mind dances everywhere. What I need to do today. What happened last night. Pins and needles in my foot. A memory of school. The house I walked by yesterday. What I need to order from Amazon.
Back to my breath. In, out. The sound. It’s all I can focus on. I try to feel the air expanding my chest, but it’s only the sound I can concentrate on. The neighbour slamming a car door. In, out. Did I put my phone on to charge? In, out.
I fail and fail and fail again. But it doesn’t matter. In, out.
At the end of twenty minutes, there’s a deep stillness. I don’t know where it came from. The ferret has gone to sleep. The fire has gone out. I feel like my insides have been wiped out with a clean cloth. I failed and failed for twenty minutes but in the end I succeeded, simply because I didn’t quit.
The calmness calms me. I don’t want to stop. The day is reaching for me, trying to shake me into action, but now I’m here I want to linger a moment more. It’s a good feeling. I feel clear and steady. There’s an undercurrent fizzling through me: fuel for the day. Just a moment more. In, out. There’s the relief, too, that it’s over, that I don’t have to focus any more. In, out. Just one more. And stop.
But before this, I have a dozen false-starts. The stillness evokes panic. The focus on my breath leaves me derealised. My smoke alarm sounds because it’s not safe to close my eyes. I can’t locate my breath. I can’t feel my body. The torrent of self-doubt in my head. The smacking, cynical, distasteful self-hatred that I can’t go more than three seconds without losing focus. I fail and fail and fail.
‘How’s it going?’ the therapist asks, in the middle of my learning, and I tighten, because she has found me out. She knows I’m useless. She knows I’ll never be any good at it.
I shrug. ‘Okay.’
‘What are you struggling with?’
I don’t want to admit to it. Because it shouldn’t be this difficult. All I’m doing is breathing and counting, I tell myself. What’s so hard about that?!
I jiggle my head slightly from side to side, because part of me wants to tell her, and another part doesn’t. It’s like throwing a coin and seeing which side lands up.
‘It’s okay. But it’s not. I can’t do it. But I’m trying. I get distracted too easily. I’m getting better though. I can’t even sit still for ten seconds. I’m better than I was. It’s really hard and I don’t know how to keep my focus on my breath. Everyone says the same to start with. I’m no good at it.’
I harrumph at my conflict. Suddenly, in this moment, is a shaft of grief piercing through me, a sharp glimpse into my brokenness. It shouldn’t be this hard to focus on my breath for a few seconds, but it is this hard, and this too is the legacy of trauma. I wish I were not so defective, so damaged. I wish myself different. I wish for effortless success. I wish for the ideal that no-one is. And self-loathing washes through me like bleach, sterilising all emotion. Utterly, and totally, I hate myself.
‘You’re doing well,’ she says, and I assume she has heard the scream in my head of self-fury and is trying to reassure me.
‘But it shouldn’t be this hard!’ I whine. ‘Sometimes, I sit down to do it, and I panic. Sometimes I drift off. Sometimes I switch. I know the theory, that mindfulness will help. But it’s not helping yet. And I don’t know if it ever will. Maybe it helps other people. But maybe it won’t help me.’
A long droop of empathic silence.
‘You’re not unique,’ she says softly. ‘You’re ‘other people’ too. What works for other people will work for you. It just hasn’t worked yet. You explained to me the brain science yourself. Just stick with it. Don’t give up. Have some confidence in yourself, that you can learn, and that you will learn. And just keep going. That’s the difference between success and failure: just keep going.’
Her words sit like tissue paper on my feelings, crinkly but light and protective. I needed to hear that.
‘I know,’ I say, and the tension starts to slough off me.
I go home and try again. And the next day and the day after. Each day, all week.
‘I’ve realised what the problem is,’ I say before I’ve even sat down in my next session. She’s not quite ready for me and it helps to have the courage to say it, while she’s still off-guard. ‘It’s not doing the mindfulness and finding it difficult that’s the problem,’ I say. ‘It’s me beating myself up for it when I fail. It’s me expecting to fail. It’s me feeling damaged and defective. It’s me being afraid to try something new. It’s my impatience with myself. It’s the way that in that silence all my feelings come out of hiding. It’s the way it’s diametrically opposed to dissociation. Because being present – really being present, focusing and noticing and observing what’s going on in me – is the direct opposite of dissociating.’
She’s caught up with me and her eyes laser into my head.
‘It’s good,’ I say, unironically. ‘Mindfulness is a skill. I’ve never had the chance to learn it before, so of course I’m rubbish at it. Instead, all my life, I’ve practised the opposite skill, of dissociating … That’s a tough habit to undo. But it’s the right thing to do. It’s the way forwards.’
She nods, surprised and pleased and curious.
‘I can’t be good at something I’m not good at, without effort. I need to put the effort in. I’m good at dissociating. That’s the skill I needed as a child to survive. But I need other skills now, to thrive. I need to live, not just not die. I need a brain that’s able to be present in the here and now. So I’ve got to put the effort in.’
I can see she’s both trying to remain neutral and also wanting to break out in applause.
‘Is it still hard?’ she asks and I know she’s trying to keep me balanced, to stop me going all gung-ho on my new-found confidence and then fall flat.
‘Yes.’ And I want to tell her that some mornings, even the thought of meditating makes me want to panic. Sometimes it fills me with nausea. Sometimes I can’t stay present long enough even to start.
‘It’s like a mental space, like the living room of my head,’ I explain, ‘and I’m used to dissociating when I’m in it. Like turning the telly on. And I’m trying to train myself instead to read. But it’s this automatic thing I do, when I walk into the room, to grab the remote. My brain defaults to dissociation, to drifting away from the here-and-now. It’s an effort to stop it.’
‘It’s a habit that has served you well. It helped you survive.’
‘Yes.’ And a new thought occurs to me. ‘So letting go of it, stopping doing it – it feels sometimes like I might die.’
‘Mmmm.’ I think it’s a new thought to her too.
‘That’s the resistance I felt to it. Taking control of your mind, telling it what to focus on, directing it, bossing it … it doesn’t feel right. It feels alien. I’m so used to my mind going off and doing its own thing. I’m used to not being able to control it. It’s strange …’
I trail off, because I have a sudden pang of wishing that she really understood, and knowing that she doesn’t. But she is with me, and she is trying, and I decide that that is enough.
‘It’s a new experience for you …’
I hate the way that therapy is full of new experiences. And I love it too. I’m learning, but the learning involves lots of failing. And the learning shows me what I’ve failed to learn, what I missed out on. I shouldn’t have had to learn dissociation as a habit in the first place. I certainly shouldn’t have to be putting so much effort into unlearning it, and replacing it with ‘presence’.
‘But it is what it is,’ I say, echoing back to the therapist her favourite phrase. And then it occurs to me, like a shock of cold water. ‘And that’s mindfulness too,’ I say hurriedly, before the thought evaporates. ‘Mindfulness is about what is.’ I tumble the idea around in my head for a bit. ‘It’s about noticing what is. Dissociation is about pretending that what is, isn’t.’
Once again, the rush of self-loathing unfurls through my spine. Once again, reflexively, I hate myself for having dissociated for so long.
‘But it kept you alive,’ she says, as if she can see my self-hatred strumming along the surface of my mind. ‘It kept you sane …’
I’m confused. ‘How can something be good, and yet it’s not good now? If dissociation kept me alive and sane, then why am I trying to stop doing it now?’
I suspect I know the answer, but it’s eluding me, like it’s hiding under the rim of my mind.
‘What do you think?’
She knows I know. But sometimes it’s such an effort even to think.
I grumble an out-breath and track the answer down, rooting it out from a dark corner of my mind. ‘Dissociation is what you want to do when you’re in danger,’ I say, taking my turn on the slow conveyor-belt of words. ‘But it’s not a good strategy for when you’re safe, when you’re doing daily life. It stops you connecting, being present, feeling your feelings, relating to others. It makes things numb and empty.’
I pause and listen back to what I’ve just said, to make sure I’ve understood it.
‘It’s context, then, isn’t it?’ I say. ‘A raincoat is great when it’s raining but uncomfortable on a hot sunny day. Dissociation is great when you’re in danger, but not so great when you’re safe. That’s the difference.’
‘Yes, that’s the difference,’ she says, and I think we’re both willing for this information to enter my brain this time and stay there, because it could make all the difference.
‘So you don’t need to beat yourself up for dissociating,’ she adds, giving me one of those looks, like I’m being reminded to pack my calculator in my school bag.
’No,’ I say, pensive, and something settles on the inside of me. The self-hatred has boiled off. For a moment – even if it’s just for a moment – it feels okay to be me. And suddenly I become aware of my breath, rising and falling, in, out. It is. And I am.
‘No,’ I say again. ‘I don’t need to beat myself up for dissociating.’