Last week was my birthday.
I told my therapist in the session leading up to it that I’d need her support. I wasn’t able to articulate exactly how or what she could do to help, but I knew it would be a difficult week. My birthday is always hard for me, for us, as a system. There are difficult memories and emotions that come up in a seemingly unavoidable way each year.
But things have also been very difficult for River lately. She’s been showing up in session more, talking in a really open and honest way that makes me, my wife, and my therapist very happy. It has made it kinda worse in terms of having an eating disorder, but my therapist is convinced this is all part of the recovery process.
So on Wednesday, River went to session. I’m not entirely sure what was discussed, but I know she ended the session by asking my therapist if we could call her the next day to check in. Apparently my therapist hesitated just long enough for River to feel something that was upsetting. My therapist told me she said, “Ugh, never mind” before more or less storming out of the office.
And then she didn’t call our therapist. No one did. Which sucks because I know I could have certainly used the added support.
This prompted some sort of reaction in my therapist, which she brought up in the following session (also the same day as my birthday). She said she felt like River’s reaction did not allow for her to have boundaries. She said she hesitated because Thursday was a weird day, schedule wise, and she wasn’t sure off-hand if she could fit in a call. I think she tried to explain this to River, but the trauma-response was already in full swing and I doubt there was room to hear anything but the noise in our head.
I tried explaining this, but it was hard to talk about when I wasn’t present for session. I was more or less speculating and it felt bizarre to talk about River in the third person when we were actually talking about me, in some sense. But I shared my opinions on what I imagined happened. Then I asked her why she didn’t say something else to River instead of hesitating and stumbling over her words.
She said, “Like what? That I’m available to you 24 hours a day and you can call anytime and I’ll be waiting for your call?”
It felt like I’d been slapped across the face.
“Why did you just say that? Why those words? Why like that? Is that what you think? Do you imagine that I expect you to sit around waiting for my call 24 hours a day?”
“Yes. I do. I think part of you wants that.”
I could not even deal with that moment; with those words. I started crying and I told her she really hurt me. I explained that she knows me well enough to know that those words and the implication that I want some boundary-less relationship with her would hurt me. She knew that would hit on the most vulnerable part of me and play up my biggest fears about how she perceives me.
She said she certainly didn’t mean to hurt me and that she absolutely sees how hard I work to maintain boundaries and not be “too much” for her. But she also said that she thinks my efforts end up having the opposite impact on our relationship:
“You end up depriving yourself. You won’t let me in or let me help you when you need me. And, no, I can’t be there all the time but I want to try and be there when I’m able. But if you shut me down when I hesitate or can’t meet a need, then you ultimately get nothing. And that’s not what I want.”
I appreciated what she was saying and I could see her point, but I was so hurt. I said,
“Yeah I get it. But I just think this conversation is hard to have because I’m trying to navigate a conversation that I can’t really reference.”
“Why can’t you reference it?”
I just threw my hands up and fought back the urge to scream. I said,
“Wow, I feel so attacked right now!”
But, really, I felt scared. Why was she asking me this question? Was she suggesting I’m lying or faking? I started trembling and I felt myself fading away. I looked at the clock and realized we were only halfway through the session. I had no idea how I would make it through the other half and I kept glancing at the door, wondering if I should just leave.
After a moment, my therapist took a breath and said, “Okay. I can see how much I hurt you. I know this is upsetting and really really hard. But you asked me last week to support you. You knew today would be hard and you asked for support. So is there anything I can do right now that would help?”
I thought about it for a moment. I thought about how sad and bereft I felt. I thought about the birthday calls I wouldn’t get. I realized that what I wanted most was just a simple birthday wish. I said,
“You could wish me a Happy Birthday?”
I said thanks and we sat there awkwardly. She told me that wishing Happy Birthday is not a given in her practice and so it’s not always clear whether or not that will happen. I realized she thought I was upset that she hadn’t already wished me a Happy Birthday and I got so frustrated because that just wasn’t true.
“I don’t care that you didn’t already wish me a Happy Birthday!”
“There was a definitely a tone in the way you asked for it.”
“Uhh okay maybe, but the tone wasn’t irritation…it was FEAR.”
“I don’t know, it seemed more than that to me.”
I just lost it. “Oh my GOD. NO. I didn’t even think about it until that moment. I was just sitting here, thinking about what would honestly be helpful and I realized that it would be really nice to have you wish me a Happy Birthday. That’s literally what happened and it’s so annoying that you’re making this into something else.”
She didn’t respond. We just sat there and I was shaking my head, wondering how this was going so wrong. I just kept taking deep breaths and darting my eyes around the room, trying to make sense out of what the hell was happening.
Finally she spoke, with probably the softest tone I’ve ever heard her use. She said,
“Okay. Happy birthday. Can we start again? This has gotten really intense and messy and I don’t want it to end this way. So can we just take a breath and try this again? I really do want to be here for you. I know this day is hard and I want to be mindful of that. I want to be present with you, with whatever is happening for you right now.”
I wanted to be a brat and just ignore her or shoot back some nasty response, but I knew that would just hurt me more than her so I said, “Okay.”
Then I told her about how my Mother-in-law sent me this beautiful sparkly pink birthday card with a lovely message about how she loves me like a daughter and is so proud of me. The woman I call Mom sent a weird humorous card that she barely wrote in – a card that felt thoughtless and disconnected. But she’s weird with cards and writing so I tried not to look into it too much. Then I just stopped talking mid-sentence.
“What’s going on for you right now.”
“I just…this is so stupid and I feel so dumb even saying this, but…”
“But I really miss my Mom…my real Mom.”
I started sobbing. It felt like my heart was clawing it’s way out of my chest. And then I talked about my Mom for the next twenty minutes. I talked about the things I loved about her. There weren’t any distinct memories coming to mind, just snippets:
“I see her hair, her blonde curls. I see the silhouette of her glasses on her profile. I can feel her skin, the skin on her arms had such a distinct softness to it…I loved it. I can see the shadow of her as she does her makeup. I can smell her hairspray. And all of these things feel so safe.”
“Is there a physical connection? Are you two touching in any of these moments? Is it a physical safety?”
“No…no touch. It’s just this sense that if she’s around…if my Mom is there, everything will be okay. I will be okay. She’ll take care of me.”
Then I told some random anecdotes – short, funny stories from childhood – moments that felt cherished somehow.
“I don’t know. I don’t miss her. I hate her, really. And I don’t long for her now. But for some reason my birthday is always this day that hurts so much. I just…my birthday…I always miss her. I miss my Mom so much. And there are these moments that I can talk about and I remember them with genuine joy and safety and nostalgia. And it’s so confusing! Because really nothing has changed except my perception of her. She’s exactly who she’s always been. I just see it differently now. So you’d think I would stop feeling this way, but…”
“But this is why her abuse and your trauma is so complex and painful. Because she was all of those things. She gave you loving, cherished memories and she did profound damage to you. Which is so confusing and awful and it’s no wonder you can’t ever trust that people aren’t going to hurt you, even when the love you so very much.”
She let me just sit and cry. I needed that. I also think I needed to argue with her today, to be in this battle where I felt hurt and betrayed. Then I thought back to earlier in the session when I felt attacked. I knew I needed to ask her about it.
“So earlier, when you asked me why I couldn’t reference the previous conversation…why did you ask me that?”
She looked genuinely confused.
“Because I was sitting here, after you said that, wondering if the world wasn’t falling down around me. The conversation we were referencing happened on Wednesday and you know you spoke with River on Wednesday and not me. So you KNOW why I can’t reference it. But yet you asked me. So then I started to wonder…”
She leaned forward, “What? What did you wonder?”
“I wondered if perhaps you are just so fed up with my shit right now that you couldn’t even bring yourself to pretend that any of this ‘multiple’ stuff is real; you just couldn’t play along with my lies anymore. I thought you were calling me out. I thought you thought…”
“…that all of this is a lie.”
“Yes! And that’s why I felt so scared and attacked!”
“Of course you did…that must have been so scary. Especially because that has happened for you before, right? Where the rug has been pulled out from underneath you out of nowhere and you’re left very hurt and confused.”
She knew the answer. I didn’t need to say anything, so I just nodded and kept crying until the session ended.