‘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.
‘If I could just get over it, I would,’ I say, and I’m trying not to sound irritated or hurt but I’m not quite sure what emotion my face is displaying and my throat is tight and my fists are clenched and really I’d rather not be here, and neither am I convinced that I’m a good enough actor to hide all of this.
Shame. It’s a familiar word and yet the more I think about it, the stranger it becomes. What does it mean? Where does it come from? How does it go? What is the point of it? Why does it even exist?
I’d never even considered it before therapy. It was just a run-of-the-mill emotion: one that I’d heard about, but never (so I thought) really experienced.
‘But if I accept that this is real, that this stuff really happened to me, then I don’t think I’ll be able to cope.’
The therapist looks at me as I splutter out my confession. I have used denial all my life to cope with my abuse. Now, a couple of years into therapy, I sit perched on the edge of a precipice. Will I free-fall into life without dissociation?
‘Christmas is optional!’ I announce, loudly and excitedly and with an uncharacteristic degree of gusto, at the beginning of my session. We haven’t even sat down yet. Mostly sessions begin with a tense stand-off as I battle within myself to be present.
The therapist’s eyes widen. I can tell she’s wondering if I’ve switched to another part. In particular I have one whom I call ‘Play’ who is larger-than-life and copes with social occasions for me. She is skilled at banter, although not so skilled at reading social cues and divining if its recipients are edified by it. But this isn’t ‘Play’. This – surprisingly – is me.
‘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.
I shrug helplessly because the words have dried up and suddenly I feel like I’ve stepped partway into Narnia, into a deep place of unreality in my head. Part of me is with her in the room. Part of me is somewhere else. I’m not sure which world to choose. I’m not sure if I can choose.
We’re stuck because I’m perpetually in danger mode, convinced of her hatred of me.
Like a slow leak, drip-drip-drip, things changed. Trauma leaves you with a brain dedicated to danger. Fear isn’t a choice – it’s an inbuilt survival mechanism. And I used to berate myself for it. What is wrong with you?! Get a grip! Just let it go! But my survival-based back brain wasn’t listening. It’s not safe here, it would whisper back at me. We’re going to get hurt. When I heard it, I got annoyed: We’re perfectly safe. There’s nothing the matter. Stop overreacting!
‘You just need to forgive.’
I hang my head as shame courses through me again. I wish I hadn’t said anything. I wish I hadn’t asked for help. Because this is where it always lands: that it’s my fault. I’m only traumatised, Irene says, because I haven’t forgiven my abusers. If I would just forgive them, her theory goes, the flashbacks and dissociation would simply melt away.
Stigma is the double-whammy of life after trauma. Not only do we suffer abuse in childhood, perhaps resulting in a post traumatic or dissociative disorder in adulthood, but then we are stigmatised, shunned and shamed for it too. How can that be right?
Everybody has mental health. The question is how good it is, and how we manage it. We need strategies for managing our emotions and feelings. Here’s how.
‘If I start crying, I’ll never stop.’ I hadn’t even realised that I believed this. It sounds silly once I say it out loud, but so much of my behaviour, so many of the ways that I approach each and every situation in life, have revolved around this silent, odourless belief: that feelings are overwhelming and that feelings are out of my control.