Some of the work I’m doing in therapy right now is around an uncovered memory that seems ready to reveal itself.
As I’ve mentioned previously, my memories generally come in pieces that gradually begin to make more sense over time. I’ve learned that it tends to go a little better for me if I actively work to put those pieces together. It seems to help me be more prepared for when the pieces collide and I get the more complete memory. Sort of.
In an effort to get ahead of this particular memory, I’ve been doing just that: I’ve created a diagram that has a big question mark in the center. The question mark represents what is missing – in this case, I believe it is either a specific memory, an alter I’m not familiar with (either new or previously dormant), or a combination of both.
I showed this diagram to my therapist at the end of Monday’s session and she immediately said that she wanted a copy. So I scanned and printed the page from my journal and brought it with me yesterday, along with a photograph that I felt very drawn to of myself at about age 3 or 4 with my grandmother’s dog.
She asked if I wanted to talk about the diagram and I nodded my head yes. She said that was okay and that she also wanted to talk about it, but then added that she’d like us to also talk about how to create a safe space for me while we work on this type of stuff. I’d mentioned before how terrifying and painful this can be for me; I often go into extreme flashbacks, body memories, or lose time. It’s very hard to recover from such moments.
I have no idea how to even begin to feel safe. It was as if she’d asked me a question in a foreign language. I truly didn’t understand what she was talking about. Safety, specifically around trauma processing, is a foreign concept to me, particularly in the therapeutic setting.
I’d used a silver paperclip to fasten the copy of the diagram and the photo together. I pulled it off before handing them to her and then, as I went to set the paperclip down on the side table, I felt a flashback coming on. I took a breathe, but it smacked me right in the face so quickly I didn’t have enough time to react.
I just sat there, holding that damn paperclip as various sensations and emotions swept over me. I curled into myself and looked down, waiting for everything to work itself out.
*Content warning: self-harm, suicide, psychiatric hospitals*
After a few minutes of running the paperclip under my fingers and trying to connect with the memories that were coming back, I said, “You know, I very nearly killed myself with a paper clip just like this one.”
She asked me when that happened and what the circumstances were at the time.
“October 1999. I was in a hospital. I was put on room restriction for something stupid and it made me mad. I felt trapped. I was looking around my room for something to cut myself with. My tutor had given me school papers and he left a silver paperclip on them by accident.”
“What did you do with it?”
“I slit my wrist. It was half my lifetime ago, but there’s still this scar…”
I took off my watch and showed her the angry four inch vertical scar that runs along the inside of my left wrist. She frowned.
Then she asked me what I was feeling while holding that paperclip.
“I’m just thinking about how much self-hatred, anger, and willpower it would take to do that much damage to yourself with a paperclip. It’s not a very sturdy or sharp object – you’d have to work at it; you’d have to really want it. It’s not like a razor that cuts easily and neatly; you’d need to really dig at your skin with a paperclip….It’s quite violent, really.”
“Yes, towards both yourself and others. I imagine that you felt trapped…trapped in abject horror with absolutely nowhere to go.”
I paused for a moment. She was right, but I didn’t want to let that sink in, so I just kept talking:
“I remember the nurse who found me. Her name was Jen. She had a blackbelt in Karate and had really bad acne. She was kneeling over me while waiting for assistance to come and as she was tending to my arm, she said, ‘Oh, what an idiot.'”
The therapist looked down in disgust and shook her head. Then she asked me what happened after that.
“They got me appropriate medical care. Then, the next day, they discharged me.”
“They discharged you?”
“Yes.They called my parents and told them I’d ‘scratched myself’. They said this kind of behavior is disruptive to the unit and thus I was being discharged. They asked my parents to come pick me up the next day.”
Almost as if she was speaking to herself, she said, “They didn’t want to deal with you…”
“No, they didn’t. Neither did my parents. I never made it home that time. My parents took me right to my grandparents’ house. When I got there, all of my personal stuff was already there, set up all nice and neat in my mother’s former bedroom, as if I’d been living there all along.”
“And how was it to be living at your grandparents’?”
“I don’t really know. I overdosed on a bottle of Paxil less than a week later.”
“So not good, then.”
“No. Not good.”
She pointed out that I’d just described a situation in which I was very unsafe, despite being in a facility whose sole purpose was to do just that. She alluded to all of the ways I’ve been abandoned, neglected, and betrayed by people who were supposed to keep me safe and wondered if the feelings brought up by seeing the paper clip weren’t perhaps a representation of how I felt about her question around keeping the therapeutic space safe for me.
“Yeah, probably. I mean, I don’t even know what that means: ‘safe’? What is that? To me, that sounds like another name for putting parameters around my reactions to my trauma and if so, I promise you I will fail.”
“There is nothing for you to fail; this is not a test. And that’s something we can keep talking about: what ‘safe’ means and what else you need to feel safe in this space.”
I just sat there.
“And I’m wondering if the paper clip and reliving that memory is bringing up reminders of how awful things were?”
“Yes. It was so long ago, which makes it seem far away. I know I’m very different and my life is very different now, but once you’ve been in that place, you’re always aware of the possibility of going back. And that reality – that intense fear – makes it seem very close to me at all times.”
“It may get awful again. But we’re in this together and we can figure it out together.”
“What if it gets really ugly…or messy? Because it could…”
“Do you though?”
I grabbed my bag and left without waiting for her to respond.
I knew I wouldn’t believe her answer anyway.