Progress…I think

I left my session yesterday feeling like M was avoiding what I wanted to talk about because it involved my feelings about him.  As I thought about what happened over the last week I realized it wasn’t quite like that.  Instead I could see how this very familiar feeling that M wouldn’t discuss my feelings about him evolved.

It started with M telling me that he thought I had fortitude.  It wasn’t the main point of what he was saying and it was actually more off hand which made it clear to me that he believed what he said.  It is very unusual for M to express any kind of judgement or assessment of me; even things that could be construed as positive.  I’ve been angry about that often and I’ve accused him of refusing to give me any assurance of our working relationship.  When he said it, my almost instantaneous response was to feel very uncomfortable and I changed the subject immediately.

Later I thought about why I was uncomfortable.  Did I disagree with his belief? Definitely in some areas of my life I have no fortitude.  What do I think fortitude is?  Do I even know what he means by fortitude?  I wrote him a short email telling him I had been uncomfortable with his statement and that I wanted to discuss it further in our next session.  I felt like I was finally getting a handle on how to do “therapy” properly.  Guess what? I didn’t feel that way very long.

So we started to talk about fortitude; what it was and what it wasn’t.  He asked me why I didn’t think I had fortitude and I wouldn’t tell him.  Then he gave me an example of something that I did recently which showed fortitude.  I admitted that it could look like fortitude but it wasn’t really a very important things in my life.  I said he had given the one example that I couldn’t argue with and then he gave me another.  That is when I fell into a deep, dark pit.  M encouraged me to talk about what I was feeling but I was overwhelmed.  Eventually I asked him to stop talking to me and when the session was over I asked him to move to the other side of the office so I could pack up and leave without him looking at me.  It has been a long time since I was so ashamed that I couldn’t face him at all or even move while he was watching me.  I felt a desperate need to quit not just therapy but life.  I kept thinking of ways to kill myself.  I know I wasn’t actually going to kill myself but I was obsessed with thinking about doing it, like it is very important to have a plan in case things get to be too much.

I think I fell into the pit because in an instant I realized that even though M thought something positive about me (that I had fortitude) and expressed it to me freely; it didn’t have much impact on how I feel about myself.  I am sure that is obvious to most people and even I intellectually understand that you have to like and respect yourself most importantly.  But some part of me believed that if I could be sure M liked and respected me then I would finally be able to feel better about myself.  I spent my life wanting to be liked.  I grew up in a family where no really saw or liked me.  For example, my mother got up at her 75th birthday party and announced to about 125 party guests that she had never said anything good about her children while they were growing up because she didn’t want them to think too highly of themselves.  She wanted to say on that occasion for the first time that she was proud of us. My own memories would suggest she was consistently and actively critical of me often punishing me for doing things that she had never talked to me about.  There was no chance of me feeling conceited.  I was desperately trying to figure out what was fundamentally wrong with me and how I could hide it, but I digress.

The next part came when I realized that I’ve spent years feeling like if M would be more expressive, or more supportive, or more there for me it would make a huge difference.  I felt needy and vulnerable and desperate for his approval. And it didn’t matter to me anyway.  But I still want him to approve of me in some agonizingly childish way which feels even more f*** up than my actual childhood.  So I went to my next session (yesterday) to discuss it more and we couldn’t understand each other.  I felt like M was avoiding my feelings by cognitively analyzing why I felt like I didn’t have fortitude and why I might feel uncomfortable with him saying I did.  Like maybe I was afraid that he wouldn’t think I was in pain anymore and expect me to be better.  I’m afraid it is a blur and I left thinking it has happened again and M is avoiding this huge issue because it is about me being needy and wanting something from him.  I started to feel like I misunderstood what he said anyway and it probably wasn’t an expression of any positive feeling about me.

Here is the progress (if that is what it is called), I realized that M wasn’t avoiding the topic I was.   I wanted to talk about it but I am drowning in shame and self-loathing for feeling the way I do and wishing M would feel and express positive sentiments about me.  I feel like it is a pathetic thing to want from a therapist and it is even worse to want it even though I’m not going to believe or accept it.  It feels like my personal hell is to want to be cared for and to search endlessly for that caring and then not be able to accept it when it shows up anyway.

I’m not sure what happens next.  I’m clear that I’m ashamed of myself and don’t want to tell M how I feel about this but I desperately want him to know all the things I can’t say.  I think it would be progress if I could stop being so needy and wanting so much.  Instead it had taken less time for me to see the way my mind twists and turns to end up in the place where I’m angry at M and I start thinking if only he would (fill in the blank) then I would feel better.

I’m trying to keep from panicking

My job ends next week. It isn’t a surprise. I knew it was possible for over a year, probable for months, and I got my formal lay off notice 11 weeks ago. So I’ve been looking for work slowly. I’ve applied for a few jobs. The first job I applied for in May, I felt really good about the interview and was turned down very positively by the manager because I lacked experience. Since then I haven’t had any responses to my application.

Before I spent years in therapy discussing my life and getting in touch with my emotions I appeared to be a fairly competent and confident person. I might have been racked with anxiety and fear or sadness or I might have battled nightmares and flashbacks all night but when I got to work I was fine. I could count on the fact that when I needed to I could get things done. When I was in graduate school I had to give regular talks and presentations. I hated it. I couldn’t sleep or eat for days before and it didn’t matter how well prepared I was or how many successful talks I had given each one seemed impossible before I started. I used to pace in halls outside of the room I had to speak in because I couldn’t stand still and watch people sit down without feeling like I had to run or hide or be sick. When I started talking I was completely different. I was calm, and spoke calmly and clearly, I answered questions and interacted with people like I was having a great time (I often did). People who saw me prepare and anxious would comment on how I seemed like a different person.

That calm, competent person used to show up when I needed to get things done, or be in a job interview, or be entertaining in a group of people. That person was almost always there. I thought I was that person. The person who couldn’t sleep, was anxious or sad, who stayed home and hid from everyone seemed like an interloper. I thought when I grew up, or got married, or lost weight, or started therapy, or whatever magical thing I thought would fix me, happened then I would only be the confident, functional, successful person.

The problem is that I can’t count on the competent person showing up anymore. Sometimes she does show up, like she did in my interview in May. Other times I just can’t do what I should be doing. I learned how to say no to requests and how to judge myself less harshly when I need a break or to take a step back. That was a good thing in my life generally but now I feel like I need the person who could be “on” when she had to and I can’t find her all the time. I’m afraid I’m losing access to the competent me and will end up becoming only the person who hides from the world.

Exhausted and almost numb except for the ache in my chest

Tonight I had an 1.5 hour session with M. He asked me if I could come an hour earlier tonight because he had a cancellation and I agreed and asked if we could have a longer session. I was sure he would say no but he said we could. Instantly I felt anxious, what if it was one of those sessions where I couldn’t speak? How long would it feel? How much crying could I take? I had a lot to talk about.

I saw a webinar by Dr. Janina Fisher on Shame and Self-Loathing in the Treatment of Trauma last week that gave me lots to think about. I had tried to talk to M about it and eventually asked if he would watch it. He suggested we watch it together and then discuss it which felt too difficult. There was a lot of things she suggested in the video that are very different from how M does therapy. I think the approach she discussed would be helpful but it seems wrong to ask M to change how he does things so it felt difficult to watch the video with him. Even so I went tonight with my laptop which has the webinar stored on it in case we decided to watch it. I also spent a couple hours making notes from the 50 minute presentation and summarizing them in an easy to read format so we could discuss what I found interesting. I always prepare for my sessions which doesn’t seem to matter when I sit down and find myself confused and frozen, struggling to say anything at all.

After a difficult start in which I told him I didn’t know if I wanted to watch the video and I didn’t know what to talk about. Finally I asked M what he thought I should talk about which caused him to laugh out loud because there is no shortage of things to talk about and I know he won’t choose a topic for me. Eventually M told me that I have been stuck in the same place for awhile. I can’t seem to talk about anything that is important to me except to mention it. I am frequently frustrated with him, how he responds, or what he does. I keep telling him that therapy is too hard for me, that it is torturous and I need to find a way to make it more manageable. Finally he said what I’ve been dreading even while I’ve been marshaling the arguments to support it. He said if there was something about him, how he thought or spoke, or that he couldn’t give me the support I wanted and needed, then I should find someone else to work with because I shouldn’t be muzzled.

We kept talking. I asked if he had made a decision about stopping therapy and he said NO he hadn’t. I asked him why he asked to watch the video if he was going to talk about me finding a new therapist. He said that this was my agenda and he was talking about it because I had been talking about it or around it for months. He is right I have been but I kept hoping that he would be able to help me through this impasse and being angry at him that he couldn’t. We discussed how much I prepare because I’m trying to do therapy right so he won’t leave me and how scared I am that I’m failing. As gently as he could he told me that I couldn’t actually control what would happen in a session by preparing and planning for it. He said therapy, like life is something that can’t be controlled and that trying to control it and failing left me feeling more vulnerable.

We agreed that when we met next Monday we would talk more about how and why I try to control and contain things (him, my emotions, my speech, my reactions) in therapy. I don’t know if I can and what if I try, really try and still can’t?

Acceptance – is it active or passive?

I’ve continued to talk to M about my intense need for approval and it has been difficult and shame filled for me. When M has talked about the way everyone has needs and that it is part of being human I told him I felt like he is telling me that I’m making a big deal out of nothing and I shouldn’t find it so difficult. So then he told me that I was extremely emotionally neglected and so was taught that my needs were not okay. I said everyone was taught that as children and he said yes to some degree but I had it much worse. He has a way of phrasing things that don’t sound like he empathizing to me. Instead I feel like he is telling me I’m damaged or broken. I’m not sure what he means until we discuss things further usually in another session after I’ve struggled with feeling unsupported. He also has a way of asking questions that confuse and irritate me instead of making statements that I can follow. For example last week he started a session by asking me if there was a way we could continue the discussion without torturing me. At one point when I was struggling with talking freely, he asked if I would be further ahead if I left the session without talking. At the time I heard these questions has an indictment of how I do therapy which made it more difficult to talk. After I left I realized that he was trying to help me and I wrote him an email saying if he was trying to encourage me to talk maybe he could try reminding me that he was trying to help me. I’ve rephrased things before and it seems a futile and possibly insulting request. So I tried something different.

Before my second session last week, I emailed M and asked him if we could try a session where he wouldn’t ask me any questions and he could only make statements. I would try to talk but if I was silent he wouldn’t question me about it. The session felt very different. M realized very quickly that almost everything he wants to say is a question and so had to stop himself from talking often. I realized that if I stopped talking he wasn’t going to ask me the “right” question to allow me to say what I wanted to say. I also didn’t have think about what his “wrong” question really meant or implied so I just thought of what I wanted to say. I also looked at him more than ever before. I can rarely look M in the eyes while I am talking and that was still true but when I wasn’t talking I looked at him. I didn’t realize how much I avoided him because I didn’t want him to see my reaction when he asked me a question.

The main point I struggled to make was about our recent discussion where M pointed out that I spend a lot of time trying to discern his judgement of me and he tries not to hold judgments about me (or any of his clients) because he doesn’t think judging people is helpful. I told him that I understood what he was trying to do and I think it sounded amazing in theory but in practice I found it so difficult that we spent hours of time talking about what he meant/implied/thought of me or my feelings and very little time on the issues that I brought into therapy. I suggested, hesitantly, that maybe I wasn’t capable of functioning in a judgement-free place much like developmentally I don’t think small children can function without a person giving them positive feedback. I was afraid that when I finally expressed this incredible ly brilliant analysis of the impasse we continually reach in therapy (please read the intended sarcasm inherent in this idea) that he would immediately agree with me and talk about ending therapy and me finding a therapist whose personal style would provide more positive approval. It didn’t happen that way.

Instead M suggested that what I (as all people do) needed was an acceptance of where I was and how I was feeling. He agreed I spent a lot of time trying to discern his thoughts and feelings about me because I believe most of the time that he is judging me but is not expressing those judgments clearly and instead they were coming out in his communication style. He thought I spent a lot of time confused about how things were between us; was he angry? frustrated? thinking of quitting? and that I needed to ask him about his feelings so I could be sure of the state of our relationship. I told him I didn’t think I was capable of asking him what he meant by things immediately because I am frequently confused and feel out of sorts but don’t recognize that his question was the start of feeling misunderstood or indicted. I told him I understood that I needed to check my assumptions about his feelings when I realized it but that I thought his acceptance of me could be an active practice for him. That is where we left the discussion so what do you think: is acceptance active or passive for you? do you show people that you accept them or assume they know it unless they ask? how about the people who accept you? do you feel their actions show that acceptance?

….

I can’t imagine what the title of this post should be. I don’t have any idea how to summarize what I am feeling. I’ve got random phrases like my personal black hole, or I’m empty/hollow/, or there is nothing to me except the immense desire to be okay or for someone else to say/show me that they approve of me.

It has been weeks since I posted here and I haven’t managed to read M the list of things I wish he would do to comfort me. I’ve talked about why I am afraid to tell him what I want. In one session I even asked him if I could hold one of his stuffed animals and he gave it to me. I’ve also spent a lot of time during my sessions feeling how much I don’t want to talk to M at particular moments and the variety of reasons I can come up with for not talking. At the same time I don’t want to leave his office and I hate missing sessions. It is like I desperately want to go but I don’t know why or what to do when I get there.

I was sitting in my session today and M and I were dissecting last week’s session that left me feeling confused and frustrated because it seemed like all his questions were designed to prove I was an idiot who was completely illogical and quite possibly insane. I left thinking he must hate me a lot to keep torturing me like this. Since I’ve felt like this before and he has always told me that he didn’t hate me I was able to admit that probably wasn’t true. So I wrote him a long email (which he didn’t get until this morning) talking about how confused I was by what he said during the session.

We’ve had lots of sessions like this. I say when you asked me this I felt like you were judging me. He says I was actually trying to understand or comment. So he explained what he meant by his comments and questions and I listened. Every time he asked me if I had any comments I didn’t. I understood what he was saying. I knew that I interpreted the things he said differently than he intended but that was all there was for me. He tried to talk more about the issue (which I’m not going to get into here because this post is long enough). So he pointed out to me, again, that I seemed to spend a great deal of time trying to discern what he thought of me, if he was judging me or not and that he tried not to express any kind of opinion or judgement about me.

All of a sudden I realized that this is at the heart of what happens in my therapy. I don’t feel safe in a relationship unless there is nearly constant positive feedback. It doesn’t mean someone has to tell me I’m good constantly but it does mean they have to show me something that tells me they are okay with me. All my friends are people I see several times a week even if it is only for a short time. They are people I work with, or parents who pick up their children at the same school as I do, or parents whose kids are on the same team or activity as mine. When things change and I don’t interact with people regularly it takes very little time for me to “forget” them emotionally. I mean I remember them and that we were friends but I don’t miss them or think of calling them to talk or meet. If they call me or arrange a meeting I am happy to see them and immediately feel comfortable with them but that happens because they contact me and so I know they are okay with me.

Therapy is agonizing to me because M doesn’t give me any signals and I haven’t been able to adjust to that. I don’t feel like their is some kind of freedom in therapy because M isn’t judging me. Instead I feel like I have nothing to say until I feel like M is okay with me. I think there is nothing to me and I have nothing to say. The only thing I’m aware of when I am sitting in the silence is how much I want M to give me some positive feedback. Since I left his office I’ve felt hollow and shaky, like there is a painful vibration in my chest that is echoing in the nothingness. I’m afraid my rib cage is going to collapse because there is nothing to me at all. I keep looking for someone to show me that I’m okay.

Argh

Can I say I hate this month? I hate everything about it. I feel exhausted and wound up and alone and hopeless and angry and stupid. I hate myself more completely and overwhelmingly than I have in a long time. I can’t think of anything in my life that is going well right now. I am losing my job in 3 months (I have expected this for almost 2 years) because of a lack of funding. I’ve been worried about my eldest daughter and I’ve written about some of the things that have happened over the last few months. I haven’t written about the extreme anxiety my youngest, a boy, has started to experience. He is almost 10 and is having extreme reactions to his fears that start small and end up with him so worked up that he is completely irrational. Eventually he calms down usually with me or my husband holding him but sometimes it takes a long time for that to help. I’m starting to worry he is having problems outside of the range of typical 9-10 year boy ones and am thinking of having him assessed professionally.

I am being triggered and having problems with my relationship with my parents and FOO. Some relate to my daughter and her reaction to them. Last weekend I went on a weekend trip to Las Vegas with my 2 sisters and 6 of my first cousins, all women between 42-56 and related through my mother. The weekend was in parts amazing, fun, wild, and interesting. It was also triggering as we relayed stories of our mothers/father as parents and their shared dysfunction. It was remarkable to see how we reacted and adapted differently to the same events but for the most part none of these people have spent much time reflecting on their childhood, how it shaped them, and how they’ve defended themselves emotionally as a result. Everyone is clear that our parents were abusive in many ways but most people think that how they are dealing with it is the right way to deal with it so everyone else is wrong. This creates a lot of conflict considering some people think avoiding and denial of how they feel is the best solution while secretly hoping their parent dies soon and others want to talk about it with therapists, friends, relatives, and their children. The talkers believe that keeping secrets is what is damaging to us and the avoiders think that what is damaging is acknowledging or recognizing things. It culminated in a screaming and yelling match between five of us (me, my two sisters, and two cousins from the same family who grew up closest to us geographically). The most frustrating part is that I don’t think the fight helped resolve anything. I think everyone finished just as sure they were right about things as before and the other people are wrong. I know that is true for my 2 sisters because they both told me so. I learned some things from how my cousin has been working through her own sexual abuse and talking to her own children about it. But I’m tired.

Then I came back prepared to meet with M and having no shortage of topics to discuss. After a few minutes discussing the trip I told M I wanted to return to what we were discussing before the trip regarding therapy and caring/comforting, how therapy can work better between us, etc. He said okay what do you want to discuss and I couldn’t speak. At first I was trying to put my feelings/ideas into words and they didn’t sound right at all. They were all things I’ve said before and haven’t helped or they didn’t describe exactly what I wanted to say. Then the silence grew longer and M asked if I thought we were interacting during this silence. I said no the silence felt like waiting. He agreed and said that he was waiting for what I told him I wanted to say and he felt like if he said anything he would be interrupting me. I said I understood but still said nothing. As the silence extended I realized that I didn’t feel like I usually do when I can’t speak. I wasn’t upset at M leaving me alone, I wasn’t feeling misunderstood, instead there was an element of “f*** you” to my silence, like I have all this to talk about and I’m not sharing anything with you.

Eventually I told M that I felt like there was no point in discussing my family or my triggers or my children if we didn’t discuss how therapy could work moving forward. I also said that I was keeping quiet because I think the only outcome to discussing how therapy can work will be quitting therapy and so the silence is almost like a holding space cause I’m not sure I’m ready to quit. M said that he didn’t think that quitting was the only outcome of a conversation about how therapy works but he understood I felt that way. He suggested to me in that therapist way, that I was avoiding the end of therapy because I was afraid of it but as a defense I was disconnecting from the process of therapy. I admitted that was true but maybe it was for the best because I’m not sure about quitting and maybe I need to realize that therapy isn’t working and how awful it is before I can quit. He suggested that it wasn’t fair to evaluate if therapy could work by refusing to connect. He said it was a false proof because the conclusion was I couldn’t talk to M and the proof was I was refusing to talk to him. I said maybe I can’t talk to you because I’ve tried and failed so often I’m afraid of the feeling of hopelessness that accompanies those failures. He asked me if I thought the feeling of hopelessness I had during this session was any better.

Mercifully the session finished.

I left knowing that I’m so angry at him but I know my anger is completely irrational and unreasonable and that I can’t be angry at him in person. The only people I can be angry with in person are my husband and kids. Any other confrontation I have is over the phone much like sending M and angry email or leaving him an angry message. Over the last five years I’ve moved from never confronting my parents or siblings about things because I only felt really angry when I wasn’t with them to calling them on the phone to express my anger or disappointment about how they have treated me.

I hate feeling like I have no control over myself. I thought I’d spend the session talking to M about my trip and discussing therapy. I had no idea I would walk into session and just be silent while I had a million thoughts cross my mind and the slightest hints that I felt something other than extremely sad and hopeless. I am supposed to have a session with M tomorrow and I am sick to my stomach at the thought.

T and I hit the same wall again

I’ve been avoiding writing and responding to comments on my last post because I have been struggling in my relationship with my daughter. I love her and I’m scared for her and I’m hurt by her and I love her. It is tiring. I’ve been talking to M about it and that has helped.

Then two weeks ago something happened that triggered me badly. I was on a short trip to the French-speaking part of Canada and I only speak English. The first day while I was shopping an employee of the store asked me if I would like to get together with him while I was there. I said No but was upset by the whole thing. He was younger than I was (mid 30’s) and quite average/normal looking. He said I was attractive (I am actually morbidly obese in my mid 40s) and I realized that I completely believe I am unattractive, repulsive even. In my world no one should ever try to pick me up. I would be less surprised if gravity broke and things kept floating off ground. There are a lot of different things this experience triggered in me and one of the most difficult ones was that I immediately assumed that this man was completely messed up to find me attractive because I am so clearly not and pretty quickly that graduated to my husband must also be deeply mentally/emotionally disturbed as well. I felt ashamed and disgusting and was avoiding my husband.

After I came back from the trip I managed to tell M what happened and what had come up for me. We’ve discussed my feeling repulsive in the past and the worries I have about my safety if I lose weight. It was still difficult and incredibly painful and it took a couple of sessions. There was some relief in talking to M about it and it helped me talk to my husband as well so he knew what I was struggling with and could support me. Then the next session things got more difficult. I didn’t know what else to say and M clearly wanted me to talk more and asked me questions. I shut down and cried a lot. I tried to tell him I was starting to feel hopeless and I didn’t know what to do but it didn’t help. Then last night it reached the point where I was saying the same things, you might care but you can’t help me, all you say is “that is so painful” when I tell you things, therapy is hopeless. M responded with his go to answer, therapy works if you keep talking, therapy is like self-destructive, unhelpful ruminating when you shut down and won’t talk anymore. I said I can’t talk because I feel like there is no point and you can’t do anything anyway. He said there is a point and you need to talk, this is your fault if you kept talking eventually therapy would have worked. Okay I admit M didn’t say that exactly but that is what it sounded like to me.

So I came home and realized we were in the same place where he blames me because I shut down and stopped talking to him. I feel like it is hopeless and eventually he is going to give up so I want to quit right now before it gets really ugly. I even think the hope I have that therapy can help me is dangerous because it keeps me going to therapy.