My session yesterday went very well. I’m a little surprised because I was so anxious going into it, but I think all of the writing and talking I did throughout the weekend helped me feel more confident.
Before heading into session, I started to regret not making an exhaustive bulleted list of everything I wanted to cover (which is my usual routine). But then I remembered my posts here and all of the important dialogue I had with my lovely readers, and I started to calm down. I reassured myself that I knew what was important to me and found some confidence that I didn’t even know I had.
I opened the hour by saying,
“I feel like it’s been forever since I was here…I’m like ‘wait, what were we even working on?’ But it also seems like I never left. It kinda feels the exact same…like we’re just hitting the replay button or something.”
She asked what in particular I was feeling.
“Anger, I guess. Like…I feel okay-ish outside of here. More optimistic, to be sure. But then I come in here and sit down and I just feel so pissed!”
She speculated that my anger comes from all of the tension and difficult emotions surrounding our latest discussion about boundaries. This is when I felt my throat start to tighten. I was so worried I would say the wrong thing and lead us back into an argument. But I also didn’t want to just surrender, so I said:
“Well, yeah. So…I mean, I heard you and I see your point or perspective or whatever. But, also, I feel like I still want to fight for my perspective. Just because I wasn’t able to say it right or clearly or in a way that brings us to the same page doesn’t mean it’s not still important to me.”
“I agree! So let’s try to start there. Tell me more about your perspective…”
“Um. So it’s just…I wish you would speak to me differently.”
“When I’m having an attitude – being nasty, or sarcastic, or pissing you off. I know you don’t like it and I don’t either. I don’t like it when I get like that, but it’s like…I don’t know how else to be! But I wish in those moments, you would just be…”
I trailed off, scared to finish my sentence. She caught onto that and asked me to try and finish it.
“Ugh. Like…I know I use the word ‘nice’ or ‘kind’ and maybe that doesn’t resonate with you because you’re not really being mean or unkind. It’s something else though…I wish that instead of mirroring my intensity or anger that you’d just be……….tender.”
At this point I dropped my head and felt my heart racing. I didn’t know how she would respond. She said,
“So when you’re speaking with an ‘attitude’, as you called it, you’d like me to respond with tenderness?”
I took a breath and looked at her and said, “Yeah. I really would.”
She just sorta nodded and we sat there in the emotion for a moment. It was so incredibly vulnerable for me. I felt an urge to flee or pick a fight with her, but I just let us exist together, trying to ride out the discomfort.
Eventually, we started to talk about Thursday’s session. She asked if it’s possible that I perceive her as particularly mean or cruel or harsh during the moments when I’m the most upset or defensive. She feels like she is mirroring my experience, but she also suspects that I tend to be extra sensitive to shifts in her tone or body language during such moments, and then react accordingly.
Which is true. And I used her comments as a chance to emphasize why it’s important to react to me with tenderness, rather than doubling down on holding me accountable. I AM responding to a historical relational trauma, rather than her current responses, and that is very scary already. So if she’s then reacting to me from a more stern place, it’s easy for me to believe she’s attacking me or rejecting me. Which makes it all the harder for me to stop things from escalating further. Then I said,
“I mean, maybe even more than tenderness, I just need us to disengage – to take a time out and pull out of the conversation long enough to breathe and calm down a bit.”
She said she liked that idea overall, but she’s hesitant to encourage me to disengage because this material is so important for me to face. I said,
“Not disengage entirely. I’ll come back to the conversation and keep being curious about it. But I just don’t want to fight with you. My family would always argue just to hear themselves make sounds. There was no intent to gain understanding, or reach a place of commonality. They fought just to fight. And when we get into that space where it feels like we’re both being really stubborn and sorta ‘locking in’ to our respective positions…that feels useless. It seems more like a power struggle than a discussion. And I think it is my tendency to stay in that cycle and keep speaking just to make sounds, because that’s what I was taught. So maybe if we can break that pattern right as it’s happening, we won’t have to get to that place where our conversation is no longer productive.”
She agreed and we talked a bit about how to interrupt the escalation in a practical sense. Then I talked about feeling as though my mother always resented my needs, and having to tend to them. I think my mother struggles a lot with regulating her emotions and she especially struggled to respond to my needs.
“My mom created this absolute enmeshment between us to serve her own needs. But it went both ways. So as much as I had to take on her emotions and swallow them whole, she was also very impacted by my emotions. Not because I was important or valuable, but because I was an extension of her. So seeing me hurt, sad, disappointed, scared, etc. made her just completely unravel. She didn’t know how to comfort herself, so she certainly didn’t know how to comfort me. And I don’t thinks she would have even if she did…”
“That’s a good point.”
“Right. And so I think that when I know I’m trying to ask for something I need (or want), I assume that you’ll respond similarly – by becoming agitated and then lashing out at me. I’m responding to you, as her, as you. So it’s like…I’m transferring all this energy into this space and onto you, and you’re reacting to that transferential energy, and then I’m reacting to your energy, and it’s a mess.”
Then she noted that in the stories I’d told her earlier (one of which was the ordeal with my elementary school art teacher that I wrote about here), my mother seemed to respond by being violent and overpowering in her responses.
“Omg yes! That woman is like a fucking tsunami, threatening to drown us all at any moment! She just…I can’t even explain it. She just takes over everything. She overpowers everything. Even when I WANT to be calm and remain in an adult, rational headspace, I can’t if I’m around her. She is in this constant state of internal chaos that spills out and destroys anything within striking distance.
And that’s how she’s always been, I think. So that’s what I always saw. That’s what I learned. But then when I became a teenager and struggled with my own difficult emotions…well, I kinda did the same thing. And my mom was just like ‘What is this?! Why are you acting this way?!!!’ and I’m sitting there wondering what fucking alternate universe I just fell into…
So, okay, I got to the psych ward and I’m taught all of these new skills: how to disengage during an escalating conversation, how to speak assertively, how to use “I” statements, etc. And I go home and try them out, but it just doesn’t fucking work! So we end up screaming and physically fighting all over again and my treatment team is like ‘What happened, Andi? We went over this.’ But like, no. No we didn’t. Because there are no ‘communication skills’ or ‘strategies’ or whatever else that will work when you’re dropped into a pit of crazy.”
My therapist jumped in,
“Exactly! So this is a perfect example of adaptation. Those skills you learned in the hospital are all very valuable in most circumstances. But not with your parents, not in that house. So the skills you did learn at home – the screaming, yelling, outbursts – those were actually quite adaptive in your mother’s house. You needed those to survive. And of course nothing would change just because you went to counseling. You never had a chance.”
“Hmm. True that.”
“So I think sometimes what happens in here is that you’re trying to be the loudest. You want to overpower and make the most noise, because that’s the only way anyone had a chance to be seen or heard in your house.”
“Well, yeah. I mean, that’s more insight into what I was trying to explain last week when I said that sometimes I act provocatively because part of the message is IN the provocation.”
“Right. It’s like you don’t know how to get what you need without provocation, so you slip back into old learned behaviors because you literally don’t know any other way to get what you need.”
This was a really important place for us to reach. I think it helped us get on the same page and have a deeper understanding of the patterns that emerge to return us to this place of tension and frustration.
Then she brought up phone contact and noted that this is place where we always seem to run into a brick wall. She noted that it’s something that activates a lot of very painful emotions for me. She mentioned our conversation from Thursday, where she said that I put her in a difficult space by asking her to tell me whether or not she was “banning” phone calls. I responded,
“Okay, but I want to say something about that: You were asking me to imagine being you, to imagine how I’d answer that question. But I didn’t, I couldn’t, because you were speaking in this abstract way that suggested there was some other option. For me, however, it seemed really simple – either yes, I can keep calling you if I need to, or no, I can’t. The fact that you kept hinting at some other answer just made me feel like you were fucking with my head and I really didn’t like that!”
Much to my relief, she didn’t reiterate what she said on Thursday. Instead, she tried a different approach. She said,
“Hmm. I can see what you’re saying here. But, to me, I can’t answer that question because phone calls are not mine to take. I know that you want me to give you a definitive answer because it will relieve your anxiety, but I can’t do that. I won’t. Because it takes the power away from you and makes me this ogre who enforces these punitive rules. I don’t want to be that ogre and I don’t want you to be powerless. I think that’s a place you’ve so often been and I don’t want that…”
It took me a while to even understand what she was saying to me, and then I just started to giggle. I was blown away by how differently we’d interpreted her intentions. I said,
“Wow. So okay…it never would have EVER occurred to me that this was what you were thinking. To me, it seemed like the obvious answer was either yes or no, based on what YOU wanted. There is no reality that has ever existed where what I wanted, what I thought would be helpful, what I needed, or what I imagined for myself would be part of the consideration. So I imagined that the answer was as simple as: what are your boundaries in this? There’s never been a world for me where the rules around the relationship or interactions were influenced by anything except the arbitrary rules put in place by people, or institutions.”
“I know. And that’s due to your parents…and your history with our mental health system.”
I felt stunned. It was like the entire world had just shifted. I still don’t quite understand the implication of this conversation, but I know that it’s broad and powerful.
At this point we were just about out of time, but I asked if I could say one more thing:
“I am almost out of space in my current journal, so I was looking through old entries. This one actually goes back to last October because I’ve done so little writing over the past year. I noticed that until recently, I was mostly writing about my eating disorder – calorie intakes, weights, BMI, etc. There are short entries about self-control or anxiety around a social event, but mostly it’s just numbers and charts. But if I go back further, I can see where my writing started to trail off…it loses its energy. So up until that point, I was writing with much more vibrancy and enthusiasm.”
“Okay. Do you know when that was?”
“No, I’m not entirely sure off-hand. But what’s interesting about it, is that when I look back on those last entries before the ED got really bad again…when I was writing more often and with more energy…the place we were then is exactly where we are now: I was writing about phone calls and boundaries and locking heads and wanting you to counter my anger with something besides more anger…”
“Wow! That IS interesting!!”
“Right?! So I’m looking at these journal entries and I’m thinking, ‘Holy shit, is this what I was starving myself to avoid dealing with?!'”
“I mean, I think there’s a lot to talk about there, yeah? I think that your restricting did kinda move up a notch when we got to this place. And that is definitely something I hope we can continue to explore together.”
“Yeah. Me too, I think.”
“This is great! Such good insight!”
I laughed nervously.
“Okay, well maybe ‘great’ isn’t the best word, but it’s just exciting…”
“I know. I know what you mean…” I look up and smile. “But you’re a dork.”
She laughs knowingly. One of those throw-your-head-back-and-close-your-eyes laughs. Then she opens the door and I walk out, still smiling.
I’d even say I was beaming.