Working backwards

This week has been quite difficult. We’re going on holiday for two weeks starting tomorrow, and about ten of those days will be spent at my parents’ house. My partner, my therapist, and I have all questioned whether this is a particularly sensible idea given what I’m trying to work through at the moment, but there are extenuating circumstances. My parents are trying to sell their house; once that happens they and most of my siblings will have to find other places to live, and it seems likely that most of them will end up in different houses to each other. My dad is even talking about moving to another country, on his own. The house they’re in now is the last home I had before moving away from them – I lived there from the age of 17-25. I want to see the house, the surrounding countryside, the dogs, and yes, I do want to see the people before they scatter. There won’t be an old home to visit next year, and I think it would hurt more not to go at this point.

I’ve been trying to mentally prepare myself for all of this at the same time as making practical arrangements. It was downright weird talking to mum on the phone yesterday after spending so much time talking about her in therapy recently. It’s so hard to hang on to the knowledge of how cruel and neglectful she was when I was younger when I’m faced with the older, softer version now. That’s not to say that she’s completely different – she was a nightmare last year during my graduation and wedding, the tendency to make everything about her and what is convenient for her kept popping back up. But now she has things in her life that make her happy (volunteer work in particular has made a huge difference over the last decade), she is easier to be around. This is good, because if she was still as angry and resentful with me now as she was then I don’t think we would be able to have any sort of relationship, but it also creates a fair amount of cognitive dissonance. Like I said, it’s hard to hold the two truths together in my head that yes, she was abusive but also no, she isn’t actively abusive now, and the latter does not negate the former. It can also be hard to hang on to the acceptance that she’s never going to be the mother I needed, and she’s never going to apologise. When she’s kind to me or shows some interest a little part of me perks up and starts hoping to feel loved and validated, and when her mood or behaviour changes again (five minutes later, an hour later, the next day – it always does), that part is devastated all over again.

Another thing that made this week difficult was starting to read a book about maternal narcissism. The book has been enlightening (i.e. my life! How did it get in this book?!) but upsetting. One of the main things I took away from reading the first couple of chapters was just how desperate for approval and love I am, and how that affects my behaviour. I had a really vivid and surreal dream the same day (well, that night) I started reading it as well. The specifics were just weird – aliens, popping a melting wall with a biro, as you do – but the main theme was that I was frantically trying to get to an appointment with an old therapist of mine who I was very attached to, and I kept being thwarted. I needed to see her because she was supposed to help me, and I woke up feeling devastated that I hadn’t managed to get to the appointment. The emotion rather than the detail was the important part – ever since then I’ve felt really vulnerable and little and clingy. It’s frightening and unsettling.

Tracing the feeling back a little further, there were some upsetting things going on last week as well. At a medical appointment, a doctor botched an examination in a really strange and obvious way, leaving me so disorientated I agreed to a procedure that isn’t really appropriate for my circumstances at the moment. Instead of complaining, asking to see someone else and arguing my point about the procedure, I went home confused, convinced I had imagined what had happened, and playing over and over again in my head how angry I thought they would be if I did complain. I ended up compromising: a few days later I phoned the clinic to explain that I got a bit flustered and needed another appointment to go through alternative options. Likewise, I was assessed by a psychological therapies team a couple of weeks ago, and agreed to a group I privately thought was totally unsuitable because I felt intimidated by the assessor, and then had to phone up and get my name taken off the waiting list later. I’m beginning to notice all of these examples of the extreme lengths I go to avoid any sort of confrontation, and it’s really distressing, because now I understand where that need came from. When it happens, my mind plays back all the times mum treated me like I was so mad and bad I was below contempt, and I feel so upset that this has left me unable to stand up for something as basic as competent medical treatment.

My wife and I have been reading a lot of books about abuse, neglect, attachment etc recently, and in another one a few months ago we came across the concept of emotional flashbacks: when a trigger sets off not intrusive memories or sensory phenomena, but a specific emotional state associated with the trigger. For example, when someone uses a tone of voice or a facial expression I associate with my mum in attack mode, I often start to feel this sense of incredible dread, hopelessness and desperation I remember feeling as a teenager when she was in the middle of one of her regular assassinations of my character. If I don’t work out what’s going on fairly quickly, I’ll start cringing into the surroundings (the sofa, the wall, hiding in a loo, just generally going into rabbit-in-the-headlights mode), dissociating, and being bombarded by intense urges to self harm – which is the exact way I used to react to her attacking me. And this isn’t limited to times when someone is angry with me for some reason, it can be a person walking past me on a street, or two other people arguing, if one is being particularly contemptuous or invalidating. This is different to the flashbacks I used to get of being raped: they usually involved vivid, intrusive memories of the rape itself, whereas my experience of emotional flashbacks has never had memories attached to it until very recently. Until recently, it was only the end result of acting on the urges to self harm that alerted me to the fact that anything was wrong. Then I started noticing a particular emotion that preceded the self harm. Then I started realising that there really were triggers for that emotion, it hadn’t just appeared out of nowhere. Then I made the connection that the triggers were all related to emotional abuse.

Having to work backwards is really confusing, but I think I am slowly beginning to notice earlier on in the chain. I haven’t had any thoughts of harming myself for a few weeks, after a particularly serious incident a bit less than a month ago. This week the thoughts came back. This was scary and frustrating, because I don’t WANT to be doing this for the rest of my life, and I get angry with myself for not being ‘better’. But instead of taking it for granted that I wanted to hurt myself because I wanted to hurt myself, I asked myself why the thoughts were there, and managed to find direct links to the book, the dream, and the fact that the last injury is healing now, which starts up a chorus of “well it wasn’t that serious then!” in my head. And all of that helped a little bit, because now I don’t feel so crazy, I feel like the thoughts are an understandable reaction to triggers that sent me into painful emotional states I experienced in the past.

I am an intelligent person who has spent half her life in and out of therapy, so insight was never a huge problem. It’s not as straightforward as having insight, though. Taking my feelings, experiences and memories seriously, and naming others’ treatment of me as unacceptable, is difficult when I’ve been programmed to take up invalidating myself where others left off. It’s also hard for me – even when I have noticed that I’m stuck in a flashback – to find the motivation to work through the feelings and not DO something quick and self destructive to dull the pain temporarily. That temptation to give in scares me. This is progress, at least: there have been times in my life when carrying on as I was felt far more terrifying than the alternative.

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