‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
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!
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?