When safe feels unsafe
‘Are you going to keep yourself safe this evening?’ asks the therapist. It’s nearly the end of the session. And it’s been a tough one. We’ve done some good work – knowing what I’ve previously been unable to know, feeling what I’ve previously been unable to feel – but I’m quivering right at the edge of my window of tolerance. And after previous such sessions I haven’t coped well.
I don’t know how to answer. I don’t really know what she means. I don’t know what the right answer is. And I don’t want to get into trouble.
‘Yes,’ I say, looking away and down and wriggling slightly in my seat.
She knows I’m bluffing.
She bites her lip and her eyelids squeeze together a bit. A long pause. She’s seeking me out and I’m watching her without looking at her.
‘What are you going to do to keep yourself safe?’ It’s a subtle change of question, but an effective one, because I’m caught.
‘I have absolutely no idea,’ I say, deciding that honesty is the best policy.
She pushes her lips into a faint smile and with enough lightness that I don’t feel in trouble. But I can’t not notice her seriousness.
‘Well, you need a plan,’ she replies.
I have no idea how to formulate a plan for staying safe. I don’t understand the concept. I feel like she’s asking me to play chess blindfold. But I can also sense, from the way that she’s looking at me, that she’s not going to accept my excuses.
I sigh, angry at myself.
‘Let’s look at it the other way around, then,’ she offers, defusing me. ‘What would unsafe look like? Let’s identify that at least.’
This feels a bit easier. Breaking things down into steps for me is always effective. It is a skill that I have for other people, but never – so it would seem – for myself, or at least not here. Because I have never stopped to consider any of these issues before. Life has always just happened to me. It is a new idea that I can formulate plans to manage what life throws at me – what I throw at myself.
“Life has always just happened to me. It is a new idea that I can formulate plans to manage what life throws at me.”
‘Self-harm,’ I say, beginning the bullet-list in my head. ‘Driving dangerously. Going missing. Going back to where the abuse happened in a dissociated state. Taking an overdose. Drinking too much. Getting into a ‘state’ …’
The list sounds a little stark now I’ve verbalised it. For the first time, I glimpse it from the therapist’s perspective. Yes, I can see why she wants me to develop a plan to stay safe.
But as soon as I have that thought, I have another one to contradict it. But I don’t care if those things happen. I don’t care if I’m not safe.
Something must happen on my face to reveal my thoughts, because she leans in towards me, solemn and warm and investigative. ‘What are you thinking?’
I shoot my eyes up towards her for half a second and then look away, feeling that too-familiar feeling of shame wash through me like the flush of a toilet. I fold myself forwards and down, trying to go small and find some comfort in disappearing.
‘I’m thinking …’ I reply, but then I pause, as a new realisation hits me. ‘Part of me is thinking … that they don’t care if I’m not safe.’
I feel annoyed with myself, partly for saying it, admitting it, and partly because I hate this constant push-pull of conflict within myself. And, of course, because I hate having parts.
The therapist waits.
I want things to be different. I want to care about my own safety. I feel like I ought to. But I don’t know how.
‘Why do you think that part of you doesn’t care if you’re not safe?’ she asks at last.
I shrug. I’ve never thought about it. I reflexively distract myself from thinking about my parts. But the therapist wants an answer, so I start speaking and hope that the words will come.
‘I don’t know. I guess maybe they don’t feel that we’re worth keeping safe?’
The therapist’s face scrunches up into a look of acute sadness. ‘Ohhh!’ she says, as if she’s just trapped her finger in the door.
I look up at her, surprised. That wasn’t the sound I was expecting.
What does it mean? That I am worth keeping safe?
We sit for a few moments with the sound still echoing in my chest, and I’m shocked by the reflexive honesty of it. To me, it’s just a statement: I’m not worth keeping safe. Of course not. Never have been. That was my experience in childhood. What else are you supposed to believe when you grow up living with your abusers?
‘I think you know that I think you’re worth keeping safe,’ she says eventually, breaking up the confused sludge of thoughts in my head. Not until just now, I think, but I don’t say it. I just nod and stare at her shoes.
‘What else?’ she says. Somehow she knows there’s more. ‘Why else doesn’t that part care if you’re safe or not?’
I focus my attention inwards, effortfully, doggedly. I’m not used to seeking out what my parts think and feel. It’s like looking for a black object in a dark room.
“I’m not used to seeking out what my parts think and feel. It’s like looking for a black object in a dark room.”
‘I guess maybe they feel guilty at being safe.’
I shrug again. I don’t know why that word came out of my mouth, but it feels true and relevant and real.
‘Maybe guilty because we survived, and we shouldn’t have done. Other children didn’t. And maybe we don’t feel that we deserved to survive. So maybe we shouldn’t be safe now. And …’
The thoughts are coming thick and fast, like things that I’ve always known are pushing themselves into consciousness. Each one of these thoughts could be expounded in its own session.
‘And … that it’s a kind of betrayal to feel safe now. Because then I’ll forget the traumatised parts. I’ll ignore them again. They need to keep me feeling unsafe so that I don’t forget them.’
What I’ve just said sounds terribly, terribly crazy. I pinch a look upwards at her face, but she’s just looking steadily back at me, furrows in her brow.
I take a deep breath and press on. ‘And anyway, safe feels … safe feels … weird.’
‘Yes, like it’s too quiet. Scary quiet. When we’re agitated and distressed and feel unsafe, it’s as if all is well with the world. We know what to expect. We can handle it. But we can’t handle feeling good and peaceful and safe.’
‘Because … because that’s when the bad stuff will happen – when we’re safe. If we allow ourselves to feel safe, that’ll be our undoing. We won’t be on guard. We won’t be ready for the bad stuff. So we mustn’t feel safe – because it’s not safe to …’
“If we allow ourselves to feel safe, that’ll be our undoing. We won’t be on guard.”
She nods slowly, looking intentfully at me, like she’s trying to absorb it all and make sure she doesn’t miss a single beat of what I’m saying. I’m expecting her to laugh at me incredulously, like I’m insane and that I’m talking rubbish. But it glows warm on the inside that she’s taking me seriously. Maybe it’s okay to say this stuff, and acknowledge it.
‘So you’re actually trying to keep yourself safe, by making sure you don’t feel safe?’ she says.
I look at her like she’s just said something extraordinary. I turn it over in my mind. Could this be it? – Therefore what I’m doing, not wanting to feel safe, is actually a smart thing to do, rather than insane?
‘Yes,’ I say once I’ve fully grasped it. ‘Yes, I think that’s it.’ And I breathe out the tension I’ve been holding. I’m not mad. At least, not entirely.
She nods again. ‘That makes a lot of sense.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘But it’s not very helpful, is it?’
She bounces her head from side to side. ‘Yes and no. It’s helping and not helping at the same time. It’s your best attempt to manage the fall-out from trauma. And you’ve found a way to cope, so let’s not rubbish it. It’s been important. But, yes, it’s got some ‘side-effects’ too.’
‘Does it matter, though?’ I say, with sudden passion, as I switch sides within myself and take up the contrarian position.
‘Does what matter?’
‘Does it matter if I don’t keep myself safe? If I self-harm? If I go missing? If I …’ I wave my hands around to fill in the blanks that I don’t want to articulate.
She clasps her hands together and looks down, then says slowly, ‘It matters to me.’
I’d forgotten, as always, that I matter to anyone. I’d forgotten that my actions have an impact on others. I feel irrevocably broken – entirely incapable of mentalising and empathising – that it doesn’t even occur to me. My significance to others is constantly dissociated from conscious thought.
I sit sadly, not knowing what to say.
The therapist instead speaks. She looks up at me and burrows into my head with my eyes. ‘Recovery from trauma involves learning to feel safe again. So it does matter when you don’t keep yourself safe, because that just perpetuates the trauma. It reinforces your trauma responses.’
“Recovery from trauma involves learning to feel safe again.”
This is a new thought to me. I’m not sure I understand it.
‘How do you mean?’ Asking this, too, will give me time.
‘I mean that trauma has hyper-activated your nervous system, to prepare you for danger. Part of the work of therapy is to get your nervous system to calm back down to baseline,’ she explains, patiently, kindly, gently. ‘And every time you put yourself in danger, it ramps it back up again.’
I squiggle my face around to try to understand.
‘But I don’t intentionally put myself in danger,’ I counter, defensively. ‘It just happens. It’s not always me, it’s parts …’
She smiles, maybe laughs a little – I’m not sure which – like she was waiting for me to make this excuse. She looks at me earnestly. ‘I know,’ she says. ‘I get that. But nature abhors a vacuum.’ – Where is she going with this? – ‘And so if you don’t plan to keep yourself safe – if you don’t take charge and make a determined effort to self-soothe and manage your distress and put yourself into a safe setting, with safe activities which will help to lower your hyperarousal – then unsafe-feeling parts will come in and fill the vacuum. You will default back to coping strategies from the past.’
She pauses. I pause. Her words are like little thunderclaps of revelation on my mind. But I’m not sure I like them.
‘And I’m not saying that those coping strategies are wrong,’ she adds, remembering my shame-default which takes everything as criticism. ‘Like we just said, they were your best attempts to survive. But you’re here in therapy to develop better ways. And so I’m encouraging you to take charge of yourself – of your selves – and to come up with a plan to keep yourself safe. Because ultimately, learning to feel safe is the bedrock of recovery from trauma.’
“Learning to feel safe is the bedrock of recovery from trauma.”
I sit and let it sink in a little, and throw the thoughts from side to side in my brain, to see if I can rattle them into making sense.
‘So if I don’t plan to manage my distress,’ I say, slowly, concentrating really hard to try to understand it, ‘then that’s going to keep me traumatised?’
‘But what if I don’t know how to manage my distress?’ I say.
‘That’s what you’re here to learn. And you do know how to do it a little bit, at least in theory. You’re just not so great at putting the theory into practice – coming up with a plan, and then actually implementing it. That’s what I’m encouraging you to do.’
I shift uncomfortably on my seat. She’s right.
‘I guess it’s the conflict on the inside of me,’ I say, because I know that I can always think of at least one thing I could do to self-soothe, but I always fail to do it. ‘It’s the conflict between wanting to be safe and feel better – which is why I’m here – and the parts who want to keep the status quo of feeling unsafe.’
‘So how do I deal with that conflict?’
She seems to be about to say, ‘What do you think?’ but changes tack at the last moment. ‘How do you deal with any conflict?’ she says instead. ‘What are good principles for that?’
I shrug and want to laugh her question away, but I realise that the clock is ticking and I need to make the most of these last few minutes.
‘Understanding each other’s perspective? Finding common ground? Negotiating? Communicating? Making it a win-win?’
She nods. She’s doing a lot of nodding today. ‘How can you apply that to you and the parts you’re in conflict with?’
I wince. I hate this bit. ‘I need to understand what those parts are trying to achieve – that they’re trying to stay safe by making sure that we don’t feel safe. But then I need to help them understand that we are safe now – mostly – and that we don’t need to be on guard like we had to be as a child. So they don’t need to keep using that old strategy, because times have changed. I need to understand their perspective, and they need to understand mine.’
‘And how are you going to do that?’
This is the million-dollar question. How do you ‘talk’ to ‘parts of yourself’? It all feels so nebulous and vague, faintly ridiculous, maybe even a touch insane. When I’m ‘me’, I’m not ‘them’. When I’m ‘here’, they’re not. So how do I talk to someone who isn’t ‘here’?
And it makes me deeply uncomfortable. I have survived all my life by dissociating from these other parts of me. It feels counterintuitive, dangerous even, to communicate with them. If I talk to them, they might talk back. And then what will they say?
“I have survived all my life by dissociating from these other parts of me.”
I realise, with a gulping unease, that I know full well what they will say. Because I hear it. I just pretend that I don’t.
From some parts – the younger, terrified, traumatised parts – I hear their constant wail, their agony, their distress, their neediness, their fear. It is mostly inarticulate, but it is unmistakeable. And unbearable. It is the scream of a traumatised child, unremitting, unheard, unsoothed. Like living next door to a neglected baby whose screams of abandonment fill the night, the only response is to block it out with headphones.
From other parts – the critical ones – all day and all night I hear their rabid, frothing disgust towards me: utter disdain for who I am. Their angry, desultory shaming of me, pointing out my magnificent crapness as a human being, highlighting every error I make, pulling me apart, undermining me, running me down. I don’t want to tune into it.
And then there’s the fearful parts. I hear their anxieties like the constant screech of fingernails down a blackboard: everything is a source of concern. Everything is going to go wrong. Everyone is going to hurt us. We’re going to mess everything up. And we will be hated by all.
I look up and realise that some of this – I’m not sure entirely how much – has been vocalised out loud. Damn.
‘No wonder you don’t want to talk to them,’ the therapist says, sadly.
I’m off the hook. She understands.
‘It sounds like all of you needs to think about how you to talk yourselves,’ she adds.
I hang my head, ashamed, but also relieved. She has called me out on my self-abuse. She has called me out on the internal attitudes which are holding me in trauma. They are not the entirety of the problem, but they are at least the portion of the problem over which I have some control. I have to stop hating my parts. I have to stop being so discompassionate towards them, and blocking them out, and refusing to care. I have to accept that they are me, and I am them, and only together will we heal. That is the way forwards.
‘So, what are you going to do to stay safe?’ she asks again, shifting into the body position that says, ‘We’re finishing soon.’
It’s strange how I can feel both chastened and supported by her at the same time. She gets it. She gets me. But she also won’t let me make excuses. She demands change. She demands that I treat myself as she treats me. She refuses to be the only one who is responsible for compassion here.
“She gets it. She gets me. But she also won’t let me make excuses.”
I sigh and then pull myself upwards into a resolute, taking-action kind of posture. ‘I’m going to go to a coffee shop on the way home and journal,’ I say. ‘I’m going to write down what we’ve been talking about, and think about it. Then I’m going to potter around at home and do a few jobs and get on top of things a bit. And then I’m going to get myself some tea, have a shower, and watch a box set in my pyjamas.’
It sounds silly. It sounds mundane.
‘It sounds great,’ she says.
Is that really all it takes?
I realise, with alarm, that I’ve never planned even for these trivialities. I’ve left therapy every single week with no plan at all, feeling powerless at what might happen next. And then hours later I have been surprised to find myself somewhere else having done who-knows-what.
Walking out of the therapist’s door is the hardest part of the week. I move from the safety of containment and support back into the lawlessness of conflict within myself with no referee. I move from connection to aloneness. I move – too often – from hope to despair. These are the feelings which emanate from deep within me, from deep within the traumatised parts of myself, who feel this departure as abandonment and rejection. In my adult self I know that it is seven days, and I can cope, and I will be busy, and there is life to do. But these younger parts cannot envisage a future; they cannot imagine their return. To them it is the end, and they are stepping into the void. Shame overwhelms me every single time, at this hidden neediness within. And – I realise without saying – often I drive myself into unsafeness as revenge for the abandonment.
“Walking out of the therapist’s door is the hardest part of the week.”
But this final conversation in itself has been grounding. I realise that it doesn’t matter so much what I plan to do, as much as that I do plan. And that I commit within myself to taking care of myself. To staying safe. And that I resist the temptation to counteract the healing effects of therapy by returning to the status quo of agitation and unsafeness.
‘Be kind to yourself,’ she says as I leave. Easier said than done, I want to reply, but I don’t, because I know I’m making excuses and leaving the door open to myself to resort to abusiveness.
‘I will,’ I say, and once the words are out I accept it as a promise, and a determination, and a plan. My stomach crunches up inside me at the prospect of it – being kind! what a thought! – and there’s an immediate rush of panic, that it’s not safe. But I’ve said it. And so I’ll do it. At the very least, I’ll try.
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/