-Potential trigger warning: This post contains content that deal with childhood sexual trauma and self-harming thoughts. Note that this is also going to be a really long post.-
It is a strange thing that I feel that I deserve more compassion when I see myself as someone else than when I see myself in the first person. In the midst of raging thoughts of self-harm, my person, SH, messaged me on Facebook with two simple words, “You ok?”. I contemplated how to answer him.
I wanted to lie. I wanted so badly to lie so that I could go and hurt myself.
But I didn’t. Instead I typed back, “Well… I’ve been thinking about hurting myself” – It took me two tries before I managed to type that out instead of a simple lie; “Yeah I’m fine”.
What followed is SH talking some sense into me and telling me some things I needed to hear. The timing was ironic because when he asked me how I was doing, I was just about to find me a knife.
“What got you thinking that?” SH asked.
“What S and I talked about today. We almost always seem to land on a huge thing at the end of session or near the end of session and today was the start of me talking about my childhood trauma – a memory came back to me that was related to the sexual abuse I experienced as a child. And it was hard to deal with it…” I’d answered.
For the first time in my life, I told someone about a traumatizing event that had happened to me when I was about 5 or 6. It was caused by the trauma that I had previously experienced a little earlier – I might have been 4 or 5 when the first trauma had happened. I don’t quite remember.
This particular memory was brought on by the fact that S and I had started today’s session talking about how the hangout session that I had with a couple of friends and a new friend on Saturday at the gay club had triggered my protective instinct which had then resulted in me feeling like I didn’t do a good enough job as a protector.
Halfway through our session, I said, “And I wonder if me protecting other people is just compensating. Maybe like almost like an overcompensation…”
“What do you mean?” S had asked.
“Cuz I never protected myself!” I said. So because I never protected myself, I feel like I need to redeem myself by doing so for others.
“You never protected yourself?” S asked.
“Yeah I mean, I think it goes back to just how I could’ve said no. Or… Somehow stopped things. Um… I think about that incident at the party when I was 20… And…”
“With the young boy?” [This goes back to an incident where I was molested at a party and I was paralyzed with fear and didn’t say anything for a good while. I was so afraid. And I didn’t want to create a scene. I didn’t want to be the one that everyone looks at, that everyone points at, that everyone laughs at. So I let the boy feel me up. I fidgeted and showed my discomfort but I didn’t say anything. It took me a while to muster up the courage to tell an older adult at the party.]
“Yeah… Um… I feel like I didn’t protect myself then. I feel like I didn’t protect myself when I was a child. I could’ve told my parents…” I said, tears streaming from my face.
“You feel guilty for not telling your parents?” S said, saying the unspoken.
“I felt so ashamed you know? And it’s like, Hubster says that I never stand up for myself. And he says that he always feels like I never say anything. So in that way, I feel like he’s right, I don’t… I don’t say anything you know? I just let people say whatever they want to say to me, and do whatever they want to do with me, and I just deal with the consequences of that. And you know, just… Cuz I’m too afraid to say anything, so afraid of people not liking me…”
“It also sounds like you’re afraid of hurting them…” S said, referring to my protective nature. I always feel the need to protect people from feeling pain or discomfort.
“You said you feel… You still feel shame when you think about not telling your parents?”
“Yeah… I don’t think… I don’t think they understood why I was freaking out at the doctor’s, you know? When I was in kindergarten. I think I had some infection and they were taking me to the doctor… And the doctor had to see what… What it was… And I wouldn’t let them take my pants off. And I was screaming and struggling. They didn’t understand… And… And… And I think… I think it was because I felt so ashamed you know?” I said, choking out my words. I was feeling distressed as I related this memory to S. He is the first person to have ever heard it. And I’m rewriting it now just so I can face it again in a more controlled setting – behind a mask of semi-anonymity.
“And it didn’t help that my pediatrician was a male…”
“Yeah I bet it didn’t…” S said compassionately.
“So I kinda felt violated, you know?” I said, as I cried.
“Yeah! I bet you did!” S said. He was very empathetic. He even looked sad. “What did you feel ashamed about?”
“Um… Somehow I knew that this was a part of my body that nobody else should see…”
“And I think I felt… So ashamed that the doctor was gonna see it, you know? And I guess… I probably felt afraid too…”
“I’m always afraid to go to the gynecologist… And that’s why I’ve only probably been twice in my life, you know?” I said. I had miscalculated. I think I’ve been to the gynecologist at least 4 times now. Not twice. I always mess up my numbers and dates when I talk to S.
“Okay…” S said, “Shame and fear are very powerful emotions…”
“Yeah. And um… That memory, with… With the doctor… I’ve had that for a long time. And I think about it from time to time and it’s… I don’t remember a lot about my childhood but that’s a memory I have and that… Doesn’t feel it’ll ever go away, you know?”
“How’s it feel like to think about it right now?” S asked.
“Um… It’s hard to talk about… It feels… Like I still feel that shame… I tried… I mean, I’ve never told anybody this at all… Um… ‘Cuz I feel like… It’s so… It’s so shameful to even bring it up… Um… Like somehow people are going to be like, ‘Don’t be silly… You know, it’s just the doctor. They see this all the time’, you know?”
“You’re ashamed that you were so scared and that you didn’t want the doctor to take your pants off…”
“Yeah… And I remember feeling really bad when I went back to school because my parents had taken me out of school in the middle of the day, and told my teachers that I needed to see the doctor and I think I felt ashamed for that too. ‘Cuz you know, all my classmates were looking at me… Wondering where I was going, you know? And coming back, everybody asking, where I went and… Just… I don’t know… It just… It felt like a trauma too…”
“Yeah… You were being forced to… To go through that again… I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, didn’t you say that’s what the neighbor boy would call it? Like playing doctor or something?” S asked.
“Yeah I think so…” I said, suddenly remembering that I had forgotten that. “Yeah… I think I kinda forgot that part…”
“Mmhmm… Of course you were scared. Of course you were ashamed…” S said, sounding like a compassionate father. I cried – I couldn’t control it. I wanted to sob but I tried hard to control it. I didn’t want S to see me ugly-cry.
“Just… Just hearing you say that hurts a lot…” I said. It was the most emotional pain I’ve ever felt. Just hearing him be so kind to me was so painful. It reminded me of the fact that I’ve never heard that tone before. The kind of tone a good father would use on their young child when they’ve fallen down and scraped their knee and the father just wants to comfort their child.
“What’s hurtful about it?” S asked.
“Um… I think it hurts because it’s true…”
“Just thinking about being scared and ashamed?” S asked.
“Yeah… Feeling like um… I don’t know. I just… On one hand, it was… I guess very validating. Um… And on the other hand, it’s like… Why did I have to go through this all by myself?”
“Mmm!” S said with realization, “There’s that piece of being alone. Feeling very alone…”
“Yeah…” I said, crying more, “I guess… I’ve felt alone… For a very long time. Maybe… Maybe I thought that if I could protect other people that I wouldn’t feel so alone… And… I don’t think it works that way…”
“No… No, as long as we’ve been talking, it seems like feeling alone or being alone is very threatening for you…. And that’s one of the really hard parts about remembering that time… Just how alone, and it sounds like how vulnerable you felt…”
“Yeah… And I think… I think it’s also like, I don’t know how to… How to deal with all that emotion. I guess it makes sense why I can’t cope with stuff now, you know? As an adult. ‘Cuz I don’t think I’ve ever learned how to cope with things by myself…”
“It all ties back to that…” S said.
“Yeah it seems like it,” I agreed.
“It’s that trauma, when you start feeling alone, or you feel ashamed… It brings up all that stuff again… You feel like you need protection and you don’t want to be alone…”
“Yeah… I think that’s why even though we only see each other maybe 50 minutes a week, that 50 minutes here is so valuable. Because I think when I’m in here… I feel safer… And I don’t feel that way anywhere else…” I said.
“This is the one place that you feel safe?”
“Yeah… Um… This is the one place that I feel like people actually care and… Even when they don’t really know me…”
“They do… You do feel protected…”
“Yeah… ‘Cuz every time I’ve ever come in and talked about how I want to hurt myself, or how I want to kill myself, there’s always someone who cares enough to say, ‘You shouldn’t do that’ or in whatever way they say that… Someone helping me deal with all these overwhelming emotions and thoughts. And I know ultimately I need to do this for myself…”
“But that’s okay… This is how it starts. Having one place where you feel safe. And gradually kind of expand that…” S said, reassuring me that I needn’t feel so guilty about needing help.
“Jules, I mean we’re really… We’re really coming down to it. I mean we’ve followed the trail of your emotions and how it all kinda links back to all this stuff, from your childhood. I think I was sensing that a few weeks ago, when I mentioned processing that early trauma a bit more… And I think it’s better this way almost, that we’ve kind of gotten there on your own without just saying, ‘OK let’s just gonna jump back there, let’s do it right now’…” S said.
I actually felt a twinge of pride when he said that because I dug deep and I allowed myself to tell him the memory. I allowed myself to feel that awful feeling again, all so that I could process it.
“I think identifying these other times where you even though, it wasn’t the same, you felt pretty traumatized is important,” S said.
“Yeah… I think… Back when you first mentioned it, I was really scared…” I said. “And I was like, do we have to… Do we have to do this?”
“And um… I don’t know. I just… I just don’t want to deal with it…” I said, being as truthful as I could. I really didn’t want to process this pain. It felt too raw a nerve to touch.
“Definitely understand that…” S said emphatically.
“Yeah… Although sometimes I feel like… Instead of… Instead of veering off, I’m just turning straight into that… Into the obstacles… And crashing into them…” I said, imagining my recovery process with the metaphor of driving a car down a bumpy road.
“Do you mean in here? Or out there?”
“You know when we’re processing stuff…”
“I could very well avoid it. Just say I don’t remember. But… For some reason, I’m not you know? Every time I come here… We’re working on something…” I said.
“Yeah… And it might just go back to this being a safe place for you where you actually can veer into it. You don’t have to avoid it…” S said gently. “It’s ok. If we need to just keep it all in here… That’s just fine…”
“I mean and again like I said the last time, or a few weeks ago, I don’t want to force you to move faster than you want to. I mean this is… We could just kind of talk about it more next week. If, again, only if you feel comfortable. You could write a detailed… Or maybe not so detailed narrative of what happened, or we could talk about it next time… But maybe you’re not ready for that…”
“I… I don’t know… I just… I’m… I’m not sure what’s driving this part of me that’s working so hard through therapy… Um… Not sure, whether it’s the part of me that wants to be better… Or the part of me that doesn’t because what if the part of me doesn’t knows that by pushing so hard I’m going to crash and burn, you know?”
“So you’re afraid that it’s the self-destructive part?” S asked.
“Yeah, because I think like we’re moving really fast…”
“Mm… Okay…” S said in a very understanding way.
“Um… And I mean, it’s… It’s my own fault because I’m bringing it up. I don’t have to bring it up…”
“Well… I’m not exactly shying away from it either. I mean, yeah you are…I only work with what you give me… But I’m not putting the brakes on either,” S said, taking on the responsibility too. It was good of him to shoulder some of the burden that I was carrying.
“I don’t know, I don’t know if that part of me that’s just like, let’s get it over and done with… You know? Let’s deal with it already…”
“Mmhmm… Well, I think… I mean, what I’m seeing is kinda like when you were, this weekend at the club, it does sound like you felt very vulnerable, and it seems like the issue is, you feel like you need to protect everyone. And so, whenever anyone else is feeling bad… Like you feel like you screwed up, and you feel vulnerable. Whether it’s Hubster, or C, or BB… I mean, you did your best to make sure Hubster that he was gonna feel better. You got your license, you tried not to wake him up… And you know, it could be that if you’d woken him up, he would’ve been upset too. You were trying… C really wanted to meet you… You did your best to say, ‘Hey I just want to be friends’. And it could be if you said, I don’t think this is a good idea, he probably still would’ve been hurt. And I guess, it goes back to that protective instinct that you have, which is then connected to the trauma that you’d experienced…” S said at length.
“You know what I’m trying to say?”
“And… It’s not like, it’s not like it’s an all bad thing either… I think it’s a very… That the compassion that you have for other people is a real strength. And I don’t want to take that away from you. I just want to get you to the point where you don’t, you can say, ‘Yeah I feel bad for BB. I feel bad for C. And I feel bad for Hubster but it doesn’t make me feel horrible about myself or vulnerable that I do, you know?”
“Yeah… Yeah… I know what you mean…”
“I want you to be at the point where even if you feel bad about it, you know that you can say that and not, and not be devastated or feel like you’re hurting someone, you know?” S continued.
“I’m talking a lot now but…” S said, kinda sounding a little guilty for doing so. I like to hear his thoughts. So I didn’t mind it at all.
“No, you make sense…” I said, assuring him that I really did like to hear him talk.
“So maybe we just wanna kinda revisit the trauma processing next time?” S asked, his tone tentative.
“Oh, and I guess I feel like I need to add just the idea of like, talking about it more in depth is just so, understandably something that’s very natural to avoid and not thinking about it, but talking about it is kinda like a desensitization kinda process so when it’s… Those feeling are triggered by something in your life, it’s not going to be as raw… You know what I mean? That’s the theoretical underpinnings, so to speak…” S said, explaining the motive of us talking about this awful time in my life.
“Yeah… I see that. All the stuff we’ve ever talked about, I do realize they don’t hurt as much. Or I’m not as scared of some things anymore”
“And the part of me that doesn’t want to get better hates that… I think it has less things now to hurt me with… Yeah…”
“I have a feeling that part is very connected to all this too…”
“Yeah. Just as you said that, I started wanted to cry again, so I guess yeah…” I said, feeling tears form in my eyes again.
“Okay. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that this late in the session…” S said apologetically, “Um… You feel like, it sounds like most of the suicidal thoughts were on Saturday um… Do you feel, safety wise, are you going to be ok?”
“Um… Well, you know as we were talking, um, I was feeling kinda raw and stuff… I had a thought… And I was like, you know, as soon as we get out of here, we’re gonna do something to hurt myself. I think to take away this emotional pain I guess… I mean…” I said, thinking about how I wanted to ram myself against walls or something like that. Anything to hurt myself with.
“I don’t think at this point at least, not as serious as um… Killing myself but… But there is that…”
“Okay… Anything in particular?” S asked.
“Um… Um… I know I don’t have my knife, so not that…” I said, looking at S. He had taken my knife away from me weeks ago. As I said that, he glanced over at the drawer that he kept the knife.
“Well, we’ve talked about more pleasurable and positive things you can do. Anything along those lines that you can do just to enjoy yourself or take care of yourself?” S asked, switching gears.
“Um… Well, I have tutoring at 1. So at least I have an end goal. Um… And, I brought a book so… Maybe I should go find a spot and read.”
“Okay, I like that…”
“I mean I have my sketchbook in my bag too… Maybe I could do something…”
“You’re gonna draw something?”
“Yeah… It’s been a while…” I said, thinking wistfully how all the time I have nowadays are spent on either sleeping (to catch up on my sleep debt) or just playing mindless games because I’m so exhausted.
“I know you draw a lot of different things, but… I don’t wanna try and direct your creative process or anything like that, given like that architecture and buildings are (your passion)… Are there any buildings that you feel inspired by and going out next to?”
“Um… I don’t know… Um…” I said, my mind drawing a blank.
“I think of the walk the other day…” S said, reminding me of the fact that I had walked around downtown a few Sundays ago and felt a lot better after I did so.
“Yeah. Um… I don’t know. Maybe I’ll take a walk around campus…”
“Yeah… I like all those things. Reading your book, or sketching something, or taking a walk… You think, does that sound good? Do you think that’ll be enough?”
“I think so… I need to get out of my head…”
“Yeah… I guess you can’t take too much of a walk, if you have tutoring at 1 huh?”
I looked at my watch and realized that we’re 7 minutes over time as S said that.
“Oh yea, I’m sorry we’re over time!” I said frantically.
“Oh that’s okay… Alright, you feel like you’re good until next week. I know you’ve got group on Friday too”
“Oh not this Friday. T and JS have to go somewhere this Friday…” I said, thinking about how much I’m going to miss group and how I wish we did have group this week because of how shitty I was feeling.
“Oh, maybe they have a continuing ed thing or something…”
“Probably. I mean, I don’t know whether they’re going together or whether each of them have something to do at the same time… Or…”
“Yeah it’s vacation season. Our licenses are up in August and everyone might need to get some more CEUs…” S explained.
“Everyone’s scrambling? Ah gotcha… And speaking of vacations… Are you going on vacation?” I asked, bringing up one of my deepest fears – of losing my psychologist – the safety net that I have currently to catch me. The last time he went for vacation, I was all torn up about it. It was painful.
“Yes I’m glad that you brought that up. So I’m actually going a little earlier this year. So the last two weeks of July, I’ll be gone. It’ll be a little over a month…”
“I thought I better ask…” I said.
“Yeah, I’m glad you did… I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh… I’m gone for the next two weeks! See ya!’”
We laughed at that.
“Yeah I mean. I think the last time, I didn’t really have much time to prepare…” I admitted. It was hard to admit that. But I felt like I needed him to know just how important he is to me.
“Yeah… So we can be more aware of that, we can talk more as it gets closer. I mean, since you have relationship with a number of folks here, we could potentially set up meeting during the times when I’m gone if you feel the need to. But we’ll think about that too…”
I nodded. Then we bid farewell and I’ll see him again next Wednesday for our next session where we’re going to delve a lot deeper into the darkest time of my life.
So when SH had asked me about why I was feeling self-destructive, it was easy to identify the culprit. I felt so lost and alone after our session that I decided to go to my workplace which was 3 minutes away from my campus by car so that I could see some familiar faces and not feel so alone. It worked for that period of time because I was able to feel a little calmer when I was there. I was glad that I went as well because all my coworkers came up to say hi and I got a few hugs that I really needed.
I don’t think I’m going to hurt myself tonight. I just chugged a 12-oz bottle of hard soda and the 5.5% alcohol is threatening to take me to dreamland for the rest of tonight, which I suppose is just as well because without it, I might not be able to sleep without getting nightmares.
I know that the childhood trauma is definitely hard to deal with but I think perhaps my mind is ready for me to deal with it. I didn’t even consciously intend to bring it up this morning and yet it still came up. It’s like I’ve said before, whenever I am in therapy, I let my unconscious take over my mouth and I just let it speak. So I’m genuinely surprised by myself, that yes, I went there. Maybe this is a start of my healing process. Like S said, we are now at the crux of my life’s sufferings.
Update: I spoke too soon. I made a mistake. I found a small rotary blade and I cut myself. I am disappointed in myself.