Gratitude as a Trigger

This is something I wrote after I found myself talking relentlessly at the opening of a session to avoid feeling/saying/thinking something. I wasn’t sure what that something was, but this letter helped me realize that I become very triggered by feeling and especially expressing gratitude.

Dear Therapist,

Lately I find myself becoming overwhelmed with emotions when I think of you. I suppose that’s nothing new because most of the time I’ve known you has left me struggling to regulate and understand the feelings I have around you and our relationship.

But I think maybe the juxtaposition of how shitty my mother is against how good you are is making me feel a little chaotic inside my head.

I just watched the film “Lady Bird”. The mother is a lot like mine:

There’s this scene where she clearly feels hurt, angry, betrayed, whatever by the daughter, Lady Bird. She’s storming around the house, very aggressively doing chores while Lady Bird begs her to talk to her. She tells her mother that she’s sorry and she knows she’s bad, she knows she lied. Yet still, she so desperately needs her mother to see her, to acknowledge her presence, and HER pain. Even at 17 years old she desperately needs her mother to help her regulate all the BIG feelings she’s having and her mother refuses. Seemingly because she is unable. She cannot regulate herself, so how could she possibly model that for her child?

I once heard a podcast where someone said,

“We can only take someone as far as we have gone ourselves.”

And I think about that all the time  – how my mom and dad are so limited in what they could ever really do for me. I’m not sure I understand how much of that is because they simply cannot go further, versus what very often seems like an absolute unwillingness to be a better fucking person. I may never know, and maybe it’s not important. But it really pisses me off because it is so deeply disappointing.

And I’ll be honest – I’m so tired of being disappointed.

Which isn’t to say that you aren’t disappointing because you are, regularly. Sometimes because you do shit that pisses me off, by which I mostly mean that I create a story in which you’ve hurt and betrayed me yet again.

I mean, regardless, you’re human and I’m still learning to be okay with that. And how to be okay with all the ways you will continue to disappoint me because you cannot ever be everything I want and need you to be. I hate that so much.

Even this letter! I haven’t really tried to write like this since I created a little ceremony to commemorate two years of therapy with you. My knee-jerk reaction to that hour is always a jolt of humiliation. I tell myself it was embarrassing to be so sentimental and demonstrative with my emotions.

But it wasn’t. Not really.

It was vulnerable as fuck to do and I was heartbroken with disappointment, but that’s not inherently humiliating. I just felt so ashamed at how desperate I was to connect with you over this moment that felt so important. It didn’t happen the way I suppose I’d imagined or hoped so I automatically assumed it was shit and you didn’t care.

But you did care, probably. In your own way.

My point is – this is hard! I’m always nervous to tell you the ways you hurt me or frustrate me, but it is terrifying to try and explain or even simply acknowledge how important and transformative and special this relationship is to me.

Maybe “special” isn’t the right word, it’s kind of creepy. But I guess “unique” or even “unexpected”.

I could carry on about how you’re kind to me and you don’t actively harm me, but I don’t even think that’s it.

It’s like:

I don’t know your story. I don’t know what pain or loss or traumas you’ve had to overcome. I don’t know the work you’ve done, but I know you’ve done it. And I know that because I don’t think I would be here if you hadn’t already been here. How could you take me further than you’ve been yourself?

(And this is imperfect, but I think the overall point is right.)

Which I think – and this is one of those things that’s scary to say to you – but in the moments that I start to question the process or why I’m even doing this or if it’s worth it…when I feel lonely and like no one else would ever get what it’s like to engage in this work, it often helps to remind myself that it’s NOT work I do alone.

And I don’t have to scream or cry or throw things or desperately beg for you to see me and hear me and acknowledge my pain.

I keep telling myself that I’m afraid to feel close to you, to be connected to you, to feel good with you. I think I really mean that I’m afraid you won’t care or respond to that closeness or good feelings in the right way.

And, mostly, you won’t.

But, I don’t know, I guess it would be nice if I could stop telling myself that I’m a garbage person because you don’t respond perfectly to each moment I’m wanting you to get it right.

Though sometimes you do get it right, whatever that means.

(Also, I’m not a garbage person because there are no garbage people.)

The other day it occurred to me that I am legitimately fat right now. It made me sad and angry, but then I thought,

“I wonder what it would mean if I were allowed to be fat?”

Meaning, what if I’m fat and that’s okay?

Anyway it seemed like a fucking revelation and I thought of you. Of the space you give me to just exist and I guess the idea of being allowed to be fat sounds a lot like being allowed to exist.

This is all very vulnerable and I’m concerned you’ll think it’s corny, but maybe I’m allowed to be corny, too.

So, yeah, I think of you a lot and how even though you didn’t and you don’t do it for me, I’m really grateful that you’ve done the work. I’m grateful you found this work and I found you and here we are, working together. Both apart and parallel to each other.

Whatever. You’re great and it means a lot that I get to have you as my therapist.

Sometimes I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I think that’s a new one for me!

Scheduled Phone Check-In

Yesterday, my therapist and I had our scheduled afternoon phone check-in.

We’d agreed beforehand that I would call her, so I did. She picked up and said, “Hello?” and I said, “Hi, it’s Andi. Whoa, this is weird.”

“What’s weird?”

“I’ve just…I’ve never called a therapist and had them actually pick up the phone before. Usually I just leave a voicemail or speak with an answering service, so it’s a little strange that you just picked up and said hello.”

She validated my weird feelings and that prompted a discussion about talking on the phone outside of sessions. I told her it felt strange to just call to simply talk, not because there was some pressing crisis or emergency. I didn’t need her to intervene, I just needed to connect with her.

She told me that I’m allowed to just check in when things feel important or when I feel like I need to connect with her. She also reminded me that I’m allowed to be seen outside of crisis and I don’t need to require emergent care in order for her to want to help me.

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Today’s session was a hot mess.

It didn’t start out that way. I had my first shift of clinical affiliation today, so I went to session right afterwards in my scrubs. The therapist opened the hour by saying, “Nice scrubs!” and I told her I had a funny story about that:

When I found out I needed scrubs for clinic, I asked my classmate where to get them. She said to just order online, so I found a company I liked and ordered them from Amazon. My wife suggested a certain size, but once she left the room, I decided to get the larger size instead.

When the scrubs arrived the next day, I pulled them out of the box and held them up to myself. Wife said, “Do you think those will fit you?” and I said, “Yeah, probably.”

“Okay. Try them on.”

I did. They were admittedly way too big on me. My wife asked me if I’d genuinely believed those scrubs would have fit me and I said that yes, I really did believe that.

At this point she took a photo of me in said scrubs and we jokingly posted it on Instagram.

I relayed this story to my therapist and showed her the picture. I explained that in the photo I am wearing size large scrubs and the scrubs I was currently wearing were a size small. I also added that Wife and I felt that taking a photo of me in these huge clothes would be a good way to demonstrate the severity of my body dysmorphia.

She agreed.

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90 Minutes

Friday’s (extra) session ended up being 90 minutes long.

I walked in and sat down, immediately curling into myself and pulling my hoodie up over my head. I asked her if she was mad at me.

“No. But…are you okay?”

I just started firing off random and incoherent thoughts, explaining that I was most certainly not okay. I explained that a series of upsetting things had happened that were building up and I needed to just talk.

She told me to go for it and she’d just listen for a while.

I talked about how my sister (cousin) contacted me about my niece. Apparently my niece’s behavior has become very regressive since school restarted earlier this month. She’s been displaying very emotional and labile behavior and has stated that she hates school and hates riding the bus.

Upon further investigation, my sister learned that a boy on the bus has been harassing my niece – insisting that she kiss him, hold his hand, etc. She believes he has touched her as well, but can’t quite determine the nature of physical contact.

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Talking About Her Comment

Going into Thursday’s session, I knew I wanted to talk about the comment my therapist made on Monday in response to my fears around our growing attachment (“Well that’s kind of hard when you’re coming three times a week!”). I re-capped that part of the conversation and I explained that it felt like she was making fun of me or mocking me somehow.

“How so?”

“It’s like you were saying: ‘Well what did you think was going to happen if you came here so often?!’…as if I am stupid or something.”

“I don’t think that. In fact, I have no expectation that you should know what to feel or expect about coming here three times a week. I’m sure you feel a lot of complicated things about it.”

She continued…

“And I can see how my comment might not have sat well with you…”

She paused a bit to reflect on the conversation and her own intentions.

“I think what I was doing was responding to the double-bind you were in: that you want so much to have support and to feel safe and secure in this space, but at the same time, that intimacy scares you and pulls you out of the safety. So as I was listening to you speak on Monday, I realized how difficult this situation is for you and I wanted to speak to that.”

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Working Through Some Attachment Fears

I eased into yesterday’s session before reading the “special” email to the therapist. I knew I wanted to read it to her. Well, I didn’t want to, but I had a sense it would be important to share and discuss.

Before bringing it up, I mentioned feeling as though I’d been triggered by a lot of different things lately. I said, “It just feels like I’m trying to work through this thing and right when I think I’m at a better place with it, something else triggers me and I start to spiral again…”

She let me carry on with being vague for a while before asking me what that thing might be. I told her it was somehow related to our relationship, but that I was struggling to verbalize my thoughts and emotions. She reminded me that I didn’t need to have it all figured out in order to talk about it.

I reiterated the feelings I’d first mentioned on Friday when I said that the relationship felt both threatening to me and as though it was somehow in danger itself. I told her it feels like I’m in a place I didn’t want to be and I’m both angry and ashamed that I’ve arrived here. I also feel guilt over having put myself into this place again and I feel both stupid and irresponsible for doing so.

Naturally, she asked what I meant by the “place” I’m in.

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Mixed Emotions

I’ve been thinking a lot about the emotions that came up at the end of my last session. It’s hard to really pull apart what happened because I experienced a mixture of different thoughts and feelings.

My initial thought is that I felt ashamed of my dream. It was extraordinarily difficult for me to share that with the therapist. She’s quite interested in dream interpretation and has much more knowledge about this topic than I do. I was worried she would see something in the dream that revealed more about me than I wanted her to know (or that I want to know about myself).

As far as I can tell, she interpreted the dream as a subconscious reaction to our increased intimacy. Yet I still worry that the dream is perhaps more literal and reveals something terrible about me.

So the sexual nature of the dream was particularly agonizing to reveal. I worry so much about how my trauma has affected me. I often wonder if it has irreversibly contaminated or perverted my worldview. I worry about being an abuser myself in some ways, or the implications of the link between abuse and pleasure that I sometimes experience.

I also felt ashamed of needing to ask her to not harm me in the way the dream version of her hurt me.

But this is so complex.

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Fact Checking

As I mentioned in my last post, the end of Tuesday’s session was very difficult for me.

Although I’d found the courage to tell the therapist about my dream and ask her specifically to never hurt me in that manner, I also felt rejected and ashamed. As I walked out of her office, I felt myself begin to panic. I felt heat rising to my face and my heart was racing. I couldn’t quite figure out what I was even panicking about. There was just this sense that I’d done something wrong; that I’d fucked this up somehow.

I walked to the train as composed as possible and grabbed a seat as soon as one was available. I closed my eyes and tried to just breathe. Once we were above ground and I had cell service again, I seriously considered calling the therapist to leave a message. And I probably would have called if I wasn’t in the middle of a crowded rush-hour train.

Instead, I waited until I walked in my front door and then called. I didn’t even pre-script what I would say (which is extremely rare for me), so my voicemail went something like this:

Hi, it’s Andi. I’m just calling to apologize: I’m sorry for being such a spaz. I’m sorry I was so dramatic. I’m sorry I wouldn’t speak and then when I did say something, it didn’t make any sense. I’m sorry I just sat there. I’m sorry I didn’t get up from the chair when I was supposed to. I’m sorry I thought such awful things about you. I’m sorry I’m such a fuck up. I don’t know what’s wrong with me and I never mean to be that way. This is just such a mess and that sucks. And now I’m panicking, so can you please call me back so we can talk about this?

Yeah. Not my best moment. But at least it was honest.

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Ready to get Back

Alright. So at this point I’ve missed three normal sessions due to vacation. Today would have been my third and final session for the week. Which means I now only have to wait as long as I would usually wait from a Friday to a Monday session.

No big deal. I can do that.

I am totally over this break, though. I’m still feeling (mostly) emotionally neutral about being away from the therapist. But there’s a reason why I’m in therapy thrice weekly and although that reason has always seemed abstract, I’m beginning to feel the very real side-effects of not having treatment. It’s hard to explain, but there’s an overall sense that things are beginning to pile up.

I do a lot of talking and processing in those three hours. Beyond that, the therapist does a lot of helping me to contain the intensity of my life. When I share my thoughts and feelings with her, I also get to offload some of that onto her. Or, rather, onto the “space”. It’s as if there’s a box (or jars) that we use to store particularly difficult stuff between sessions so that I don’t have to hold onto it alone. Which is nice because having a place to keep the extra hard stuff allows me to go through life without utilizing a ton of energy on containing and managing it. I have more mental and physical energy to do normal, everyday things.

However, part of why the therapist suggested an increase in session fequency is because new things come up so often for me. So although the previous material is safely stored away, there’s nowhere for me to put the new stuff that has started coming up since last week. I can feel tension building up in my body; my headaches are becoming more frequent and persistent; time is slipping away from me; it’s becoming more and more difficult to sleep – I was up until 6am last night this morning. 

I don’t even know why. I can’t remember why. All I know is that my brain and body refused to sleep. It’s possible that another Part was agitated or simply wanted to watch Netflix. Regardless, this is what happens when I can’t contain things – I lose strength and the System falls into chaos because I cannot be the leader I need to be. Then it creates this cycle where I become more and more vulnerable and thus less and less able to function the way I need to. 

It is not fun. 

So although this break has been an emotionally stable experience as far as the relationship is concerned (which has also been quite enlightening), I am very much ready to get back in treatment. 

Therapy Breaks

The therapist is going on vacation next week. *Gasp*.

Folks, let me tell you something: I HATE therapy breaks. For every and any reason. My vacation, their vacation, national holiday, illness, whatever. I hate them all. Any shift in my routine makes me feel completely out of control. I’ve been avoiding having any conversation with the therapist about said vacation because it makes me so uncomfortable. But last session, she brought it up and I realized I probably shouldn’t wait until the last minute to discuss this with her.

I asked her if she remembered what I said happened the last time Zooey had gone on vacation. I also reminded her that this time last year (literally, this exact week) I was locked in a psychiatric hospital. She smiled and said, “Well! What a difference a year makes!” which was kinda nice to hear, but I also snapped back, “The week is not over yet” in typical doomsday fashion. Life with PTSD, amiright?

She said she has a basic idea of what happened with Zooey, but she isn’t entirely sure of the time frame. Then she asked if I thought it would be helpful to talk about last year; to give a timeline from before the hospital to when we first met back in December, right after Zooey terminated. I thought that was reasonable, so I explained how the tension and chaos with Zooey and I started in mid-summer.

Then I went on vacation once school let out in August. The day after I returned, I had session with Zooey. I don’t remember going. I don’t remember much of that day at all. I just remember a doctor waking me up at 2am and thinking, “Where the fuck am I?!”

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