Trauma and dissociation
‘I’m not seeing a doctor!’ I insisted with a look on my face that was intended to end the debate once and for all. As far as I was concerned, it was simple: I wasn’t going to the hospital, walk-in centre or GP surgery, because I couldn’t go. I couldn’t cope with going. Such was my abject terror that, unless it was a matter of life or death, I avoided all things medical.
The problem? This was rapidly becoming a matter of life and death.
PODS ran a survey in 2016 in association with One in Four (www.oneinfour.org.uk) with the aim of assessing the degree to which counsellors and psychotherapists have received training to work with survivors of child sexual abuse (CSA) and child sexual exploitation (CSE). We also wanted to see the extent to which the topics of trauma, dissociation and shame were included in that training.
Ancedotally, many therapists had said to us that they had not received any significant training in CSA, CSE, trauma or dissociation during their initial training.
I had worked as a counsellor for about twelve years before I went on my first PODS training course on dissociation. I had so many lightbulb moments that day, it felt like my brain was burning.
The issue of boundaries had always been a non-issue for me: I saw my clients for 50 minutes; there was no contact between sessions (no need for contact between sessions, surely?); it was a purely professional relationship. No dramas, no big deal. And then I started work with my first really traumatised client, and everything was called into question
Many survivors get in touch with us simply because they need to talk to someone who understands what they’re going through, and to reassure them that they are not going ‘mad’.
I used to think that one day, maybe one day (a long time in the future), I’d be ‘normal’ and then I wouldn’t have these thoughts any more.
Sometimes I would sit in bed, unable to move, unable to get up and get dressed and get on, because I felt so demoralised at the incessant torrent in my head. I was paralysed with the overwhelm of my self-hate. Ironically, the one thing I thought I was good at was finding fault with myself.
What if shame is nothing to be ashamed of … but instead is the hero in our story?
Even as I write it, my head is twisting inside-out, upside-down to get used to the idea. But it’s something I’ve come to firmly believe is true, no matter how counter-intuitive it may feel.
For a very long time, I didn’t ‘do’ anger.
In the family I grew up in, the adults were allowed to be angry, and even my sister was, but for some reason I wasn’t.
When bad things happen, what do our thoughts do? Self-blame, paranoia, overwhelm, meaning-making, catastrophising? These thought patterns were my loyal companions until well into my thirties.
Real hope isn’t cheap. Real hope is born out of a bloody struggle. Hope has guts. Hope is what you’re left with when you’ve stared down the despair. So how did I get from hopelessness to hope?
Years ago, when I first started therapy, I was invited to imagine a safe place. I didn’t understand the concept at all. First off, I didn’t understand how powerful positive visualisations can be. Secondly, I didn’t know how to feel safe. And thirdly, I didn’t have anywhere that I could summon to mind and feel positive about. Bummer.
Self-care is entirely counter-intuitive to survivors of abuse. To me as an abused child it is obvious that I am bad. I am being hurt because I am bad. And I am bad because I hurt. It’s a never-ending cycle of self-evident obviousness.