Learning to control switching
‘I can’t help it though,’ I complain, with a mixture of forlornness and mild outrage. ‘I just … disappear. And other parts come. I don’t mean to switch. It just happens.’
The therapist looks at me and nods understandingly, but I can tell she’s not finished. I prefer things to be black-and-white, all-or-nothing. She seems to relish the grayscales.
‘Yes, I believe you,’ she says, but her eyes have narrowed determinedly. ‘But that doesn’t mean to say that you can’t learn to stay present and not switch, or that there isn’t an element of choice sometimes.’
I frown, bothered.
‘Sometimes,’ she reiterates, balancing sternness and sympathy.
I look away because I know she’s right but it feels important to hold to my position of ‘nothing’ in case that means I have to jump to ‘all’. I’m scared that ‘sometimes’ actually means ‘always’.
‘But why?’ I ask, a tad petulantly. ‘Why does it matter that I stay present? Why can’t I dissociate? Why can’t I switch during my session?’ – I’m not sure of the difference between the two words and we seem to use them interchangeably – ‘All of my parts are me, so what does it matter which part of me is ‘out’?’
She thinks for a moment. ‘I’m not saying you can’t switch during session. And you’re right: your parts are you.’ She knows that I don’t believe this all the time, but doesn’t remind me of this now, as that’s a different battle. ‘But what I’m wanting us to work on is the uncontrolled nature of your switching. I want you to be able to have more choice about when parts come, and when they don’t come: for you to have a sense of choice, rather than the choicelessness of trauma.’
She pauses, checking that I’m still with her.
‘Often what happens,’ she continues, ‘is that instead of processing something yourself – instead of you feeling a feeling – you switch. And so that emotion remains stuck, because it’s not being processed and felt by all of you. You’re delegating it, but in such a way that you have no knowledge or awareness of it.’
Hmm. She has a point.
‘Then why is it okay to switch at all?’ I ask. I genuinely want to figure this out, but I also want to argue, because, having grown up in a dictatorship, it feels delicious to ‘talk back’. And it also feels unsafe to agree with everything she says, in case I’m doing it just to be ‘good’.
‘Because those parts of you hold emotions and memories and beliefs that you don’t have access to. And we need them to be shared across all of you, so that they can be integrated and worked through. So while you stay just as ‘you’, then we don’t access them and they remain stuck. And stuck is a powerless place to be.’
I feel all the ouch-ness of this last statement, so I ignore it – for now.
‘But we don’t really have access to those feelings and memories, though, do we?’ I am, now, genuinely confused. ‘Because when I switch to those parts, I don’t remember anything.’
‘No, that information currently isn’t being shared. It’s being siloed. And hence is stuck.’
That word again. The ‘stuck’ feeling is what brings me most shame: a sense of incompetence, of hopelessness, of despair for the future. It makes me feel inadequate and less than other people. It makes me hate myself: that I am uselessly, endlessly ‘stuck’. But I can’t face that right now, so I edge around it.
‘Then how does it get to be shared rather than siloed – dissociated?’
‘That’s what we’re figuring out …’ She smiles a little wryly. ‘I think what we agreed on as our hypothesis was that if could get those parts to start to feel their feelings and think about their thoughts with me, then I could be a kind of network hub for sharing that with you, and vice versa.’
‘Aah.’ Now I remember. We had this conversation a few weeks back. I get frustrated with my frequent forgetting. It’s as if I can’t always hold information, even non-trauma-related factoids, across time. It’s not that I’ve forgotten it. It’s that I’ve mislaid that information in my head.
‘So …’ I’m trying to figure this out. ‘So why is it a problem then for me to switch to other parts, if you do want me switch to them too?’
This, to me, is my eternal confusion. Unlike many therapists, mine has never ‘banned’ me from dissociating, or switching, in session. She has reasoned – and, as I’ve since discovered, the clinical literature supports her perspective – that engaging with parts is more profitable than excluding them. Because by denying their existence and presence, it reinforces the dissociation.
But neither does she swing to the other extreme and allow sessions to be dominated by parts. It’s a precarious, middling stance which requires a great deal of attunement on her part, and frequent frustration on mine: at times I want to be dissociated, because it all gets too much, and at times I hate its inherent loss of control. I am in therapy to resolve the dissociation, and yet paradoxically I feel affronted if not ‘allowed’ to dissociate.
‘It’s about what we’re trying to achieve at that moment,’ she explains. ‘If we’re working on you processing something and you run away in your head by switching to another part, because the emotion becomes too much, then we’re not really getting anywhere.’
‘But if it’s processing information, then it’s okay to switch?’ I say this with a hint of challenge, because deep down I’m worried that she’s saying that my parts are unacceptable and so is rejecting me.
‘It’s all okay,’ she says, clarifying, because she can see that my shame and sense of failure is rising. ‘Whatever happens happens. You are you, and all of you is welcome. We always make progress somehow. We muddle through, don’t we? All I’m doing is pointing out a frequent pattern, and encouraging you to think about whether it’s a pattern you might want to challenge: the way that you automatically switch to a different part when there’s emotion in the room. The way you struggle to feel your feelings here, with me.’
She’s absolutely right and I’m close to admitting it out loud. And she’s also right that sometimes I could do something about it, if I wanted to. Sometimes I can’t – that’s a certainty. It just happens and the next thing I know it’s minutes or hours later and I feel like I’ve been a long, long way away, or waking from a dream. But sometimes I give into the pull, because it’s easier – so much easier – and I don’t do enough to resist it. It’s like the difference between a door slamming shut, caught in a gust of wind, and a door blowing gently to. The former I can do nothing to prevent, but the latter I could if I wanted to. And what she’s challenging in me is this latter scenario: and the fact that I don’t want to.
I feel sad and a bit disgruntled and I can’t tell if it’s with me or with her. I wish she wouldn’t challenge me so much, because it activates my shame. I feel crushed by it and that she just doesn’t get me, or get how hard it all is … And those are the times when I want to kick back at her and pout and sulk and argue. But I also, conversely, find it strangely exhilarating. It makes me feel believed in – that she thinks I’m up to the challenge of change – and it evokes in me a deeply satisfying sense of aliveness.
I realise I’m at that point right now, at the crossroads within myself of taking up the challenge or dismissing her help as too hard.
‘Some of the time I could stop it happening,’ I admit, and I feel like I ought to be whispering. ‘There’s an emotional black hole, and it starts pulling me in. I feel like things are distant and foggy, that I’m drifting away from everything. It’s like I stop being in my body, or really in the room. And sometimes, when that happens, I can just about dig my heels in and stop the slide, if I need to. I have to work really hard to do it though,’ I say, and I wonder if she believes me.
I wait for her wrath, but it doesn’t come. She just nods slightly. ‘And sometimes for me,’ she says instead, ‘I don’t know what the best thing to do is. Sometimes I help to ground you, and get you to come back. Sometimes I try it but you’re too far gone, or it’s happened too quickly. But sometimes too I don’t know if I should be pulling you back, or letting you go … because it’s important that parts get to talk to me too.’
She lets this point linger in the air, almost as a question. I had rather hoped that she would know the answer to it, but she seems to think that I might be the expert on me.
I don’t know what to say so I go on word strike and wait for her to speak. Eventually she does.
‘It’s a difficult balance,’ she says, ‘because I do believe it’s important for every part of you to have a voice and to have that connection with me. But …’ she pauses, and we both have a sense that it’s more than me that’s listening to what she’s about to say. ‘I guess the ideal would be for you to be in much more control of that process, and for parts to come through a process of collaboration and cooperation, rather than you being hijacked by them …’
The statement sits awkwardly between us, as if she’s not sure – and I’m not sure – if I want to halt the hijacking. I’m momentarily baffled, because the concept that I could control my switching feels alien and almost insulting.
‘So what do we do?’ I ask and I’m desperately hoping that she’ll just pronounce a definitive answer, because this grayscale is uncomfortable.
‘What do you think?’ she replies, predictably and yet infuriatingly.
I sit and think for a moment. What’s the real issue here? I wonder.
‘Sometimes when you try to ground me and bring ‘me’ back,’ I say eventually, cautiously, slowly, as if girding myself from violence, ‘it feels like you’re saying that my parts aren’t welcome here, that they aren’t acceptable.’ I dare a look direct into her eyes. ‘As if they’re wrong.’
She holds my gaze, softly. I think she can sense my simmering aggression, ready to defend myself, and she’s trying to dial it down with the gentleness of her response. Everything about her, in this moment, feels like a winter duvet, soft and saggy and inviting, compared to my brittle, jagged edges.
‘They’re not wrong,’ she says, quietly. ‘They’re you.’ She pauses, and then looks intently into me. ‘I don’t think they’re wrong, and never have done. Do you think they’re wrong?’
I look away sharply. Ouch. I feel suddenly naked and slightly drifty. I try to look at her but she’s become translucent.
‘Do you think they’re wrong?’ she asks again, and I don’t have any words with which to reply, so after a little while she continues. ‘I’m just wondering if that’s what’s going on,’ she says. ‘Because there’s a real reaction in you, isn’t there, when I try to hold a boundary with them? When I ask, sometimes, for them to stay back and for you to be present? On the one hand, when they come, afterwards you feel ashamed and out of control, so it’s something that you want to stop happening. But if I ever suggest learning to take control of your switching, you feel like it’s a personal rejection?’
Ouch, ouch, ouch.
I sigh semi-angrily. ‘What is the matter with me?’ I say, exasperated. ‘I don’t want to have parts, but unless I feel that you’re 100% accepting of them, I feel rejected …’
She swivels slightly in her chair, as if she’s trying to come closer without reducing the physical distance between us. ‘But I am 100% accepting of them,’ she says, ‘and that’s what’s strange …’
‘It’s shame,’ I say, suddenly, and my gaze immediately fixes on the roses outside the window, as if these words are only safe if I absent myself. ‘I’m ashamed of having parts. So it feels physically painful if you try to curtail them. Because that shows that I’m right to be ashamed of them …’
We sit quietly for a few moments.
‘I hear you. But you’re jumping to the wrong conclusion there. When I ‘curtail’ them, as you put it, it’s because I’m trying to do what’s right for all of you, therapeutically, in the session. Limiting them is not rejecting them. And that’s a typical shame response, to experience a boundary as hurtful.’
‘I know.’ My voice is full of agony, because I do know. I’ve seen this pattern before. Sometimes my emotional membrane feels so thin, as if the only filter through which I see life is one which interprets every action as an attack.
I look down, looking for the answer somewhere near my ankles. I push at the carpet with my shoes, trying to force it out.
‘It’s not you who doesn’t accept my parts, is it?’ I say at last. ‘It’s me. I’m just projecting onto you what I really feel and think. Because I am so ashamed of being this messed up, of having parts in the first place … and so the only answer to that is to defend them, to cede control to them whenever they want it, because if I don’t then it’s like I’m denying them. All-or-nothing. So when I think about controlling my switching – or at least learning to – it’s like there’s this eruption on the inside of me, that by saying ‘shush’ to them I’m silencing them, and by silencing them I’m …’
I don’t know what the right word is, so I look up at her for help.
‘Abusing them?’ she eventually offers.
I nod, and study the floor again. ‘Yes.’
We sit silently, with the weight and pressure of this confession between us. I feel smothered with a simultaneous sense of shame and relief.
She bends in towards me, seeking me out, because I’m closing down connection with her by huddling into my body and staring at my feet. ‘Your parts don’t feel accepted by you,’ she says, gently. ‘They don’t feel that you’re on their side. You don’t collaborate with them most of the time. You ‘curtail’ them. So they hijack you.’
I look up suddenly. ‘I hate them!’ I exclaim, with more emotion than I’d intended. ‘I don’t want them to exist. I don’t want to know them. I don’t want them to even be.’
‘And therein lies the rub …’
Again, sadly: ‘I know.’
I sigh. ‘It’s a paradox, isn’t it?’ I say. ‘I don’t want to have parts, and I hate them. But I insist that you allow them to come. I refuse to engage with them, and feel nothing but contempt and dislike for them, but I don’t want to learn to manage my switching. I’m a bag of contradictions!’
‘Yes,’ she says, softly. ‘You have dissociative identity disorder. Which means that you are a bag of contradictions.’
We both laugh a little.
‘So if I were to try to stay present a bit more, rather than switching when emotions come up … what if I couldn’t manage it?’
She looks at me quizzically. She’s not following my train of thought yet.
‘That’s my underlying fear,’ I explain. ‘That I can’t manage my feelings. I need the get-out clause of dissociating, or switching. I need to be able to opt out. By trying to learn to manage my switching, and staying present more, it feels like I’m closing off an escape route. It’s too scary.’
‘But it’s not all-or-nothing,’ she counters, as she frequently does. ‘We’re talking about you starting to make active, conscious choices to switch or to stay present, rather than it being an automatic habit. That’s all.’
‘But I can’t help it,’ I complain, and we’re back where we started. ‘I just … switch.’
She nods, again, apparently unsurprised that we have cycled back to the beginning. ‘Sometimes you can’t help it,’ she says. ‘How about we just work on the sometimes that you can? Because it’s not all-or-nothing?’
Doh. I’m momentarily amused at how easily I assume this perspective. And even as I think it, I go further into nothing. ‘But what if I can’t?’
She just smiles and says, ‘Okay, it’s up to you. When you’re ready …’ And that is how we leave it, but the seed is sown in my mind. I leave the session full of contradictions still, but at least a little more aware of the tiny glimmers of choice I have in tackling the dissociation that is both my greatest source of pain, and my greatest source of comfort.