When I first met A, in one of our first sessions, after I had finished my extensive “new therapist” inquisition, and after we had talked about and understood her boundaries, after we had talked about the work I wanted to do (attachment and trauma related – I cover a LOT of ground in the first few sessions) she said this:
“PD, I know you’ve had other therapists, but this is something I want to talk about. This is hard. It’s hard work. Therapy can hurt in all sorts of ways – healing can hurt in all sorts of ways. And it can often hurt a lot before it starts to get better, and when you think it’s over, it comes back. I’m not saying it will, and I’m not saying this to scare you. I’m saying this so if you ever get to that place, where it feels like there is no way out, and the work hurts, and you are in the thick of the waves of grief or the neverending emotion – whatever it is – that you know two things. One, that I understand. I remember what that feels like, and I am never going to let you drown as long as we are in relationship. And two, that you are allowed to feel and be however you are with me. It isn’t a mystery to me that the healing and hurt live together and that I will often be part of the trigger for whatever is coming up for you. And that is okay, and you should bring that to me. Always.”
I forgot about that conversation until today. When watching an innocent TV show with my husband had me in tears over family and grief and when it feels like I am doing everything I am supposed to but being bowled over by so much. And when A is on her second stretch of vacation and I am not going to see her for another 12 days, and this time she’s completely out of contact, and I’m angry. I remembered that conversation. That she knows how this hurts, and that my anger is a way of communicating – and how she would rather I tell her she’s upset me (regardless of how fair or not fair it is) because that’s me feeling safe enough to share. And how she will never let me drown, as long as I can hold on to this with everything I’ve got and remember that it ends. The wave ends. The grief ends.
There is a piece of writing about death and loved ones leaving from “an old guy” that I read yesterday. And it does not all apply to this kind of grief, but some of it does. I’ve put the parts that resonated below.
‘As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.
In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.
Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out… the waves never stop coming… but you learn that you’ll survive them. And other waves will come. And you’ll survive them too.”
I am dealing with so much. First, such crushing sadness from small parts inside of me. All I could do in my last session was cry. And I didn’t have words. And A kept saying I didn’t need to have words, that it’s okay, that I just needed to let it out. And she’d ask how old the sadness felt, and talk to that little girl, and then the teenager would step in because that’s too close. As soon as A gets too close to any young part of me, any memory, that teenager gets angry and blocks most attempts at connection. Usually.
And that’s second, dealing with my defence – dealing with her anger and underneath that the hurt, and the fear, the exhaustion, and the loneliness. The crushing hole that nobody can fill, at least not right now. The crushing hole that we have to fill ourselves because there is literally nobody in the world to do it for us. All I can think in those moments A is reaching for me is a combination of “shut up. I don’t want you. I don’t need your pity or empathy. Get away from me, and get away from them. I hate you” (which, I never usually say, and which always makes me feel guilty). I mentally run away, I think about leaving the room and just walking out on A. I get far away and then scoff when she asks where I am. I honestly don’t know what keeps me there – some portion of the adult that saves money and works hard for us to be there – or the connection (however small, however fraught) that A has formed with that petulant teenager. By relentlessly loving that part of me that doesn’t trust her, doesn’t like her, and sees her as a threat. By giving that part of me airtime and space and recognizing it’s importance. By not pushing it out. By reassuring me whenever I get brave enough to ask “are you leaving me” that no, she is not, and does not plan to. But that teenager part is so strong right now, and is running the show. I’m snappy, I’m stressed, I am not hungry and I am not eating, and when I’m alone, it all comes out. I cry. I’ve taken to holding my stuffed teddy like it’s a baby, and trying to sooth it, and apologizing to it, and then just crying. I’m crying a lot. And I’m pushing friends away. I don’t tell them what is happening. I don’t talk to my husband about it. What do I say? This all sounds crazy if you don’t understand it. “I’m sorry for snapping at you, but my inner teenager is sorting things out right now, and you came a little too close for my attachment trigger. I’m going to go cry in the work bathroom now, but don’t worry, I’m fine.”
And then there’s the grief. The whole body black sticky tar mess that doesn’t come off. That doesn’t wash away, and that can’t be soothed. The side effect of this awareness has been positive. I used to relentlessly pursue my husband for hugs and soothing touch because I thought that was what I needed. I don’t. I can identify the difference between when I need him, and when that grief needs soothing that I will never get. Which means we fight less, and our relationship is more what it should be. Adult to adult. So instead I get into bed, I hold my teddy, I rock it, and I cry.
Guys, I am drowning. I am hanging on for dear life, and being thrown around by relentless 100 foot waves.
And so I am remembering what A said that first month or two. That this is supposed to happen. That it is likely going to be hard sometimes, and hard for a while. That you can’t separate healing attachment injuries from grief – they live in the same parts of us. Everything A does that is reaching for me, her relentless pursuit that is healing (and somehow exactly balanced – she doesn’t move me too far) is also painful, because that pursuit is what I never got. That understanding and compassion and ‘bring all of you to the table, and I love all of you so much‘ will never happen for me from the person it was supposed to happen from. And that wound will never be closed. And the only person who can start to support myself that way, is me. And I’m not ready or willing. I’m angry, sad, grieving, afraid, and feeling incredible alone in it all.
So I’m hanging on, to my driftwood. To the husband who is still here after so much and who loves me. To the hot baths and gentle stretching that seem to ease the feelings. To my best friend and to the relationship I have with A, and Sal. I’m hanging on to the schedule. Wake up, go to work, come home. Wake up, go to work, come home. That schedule = success. I’m letting go of things that are dragging me down – fitness goals, eating goals, the house, the car, the baby. The checklist everyone else in my life is pursuing right now. I can’t pursue those things, at least not right now, and I’ve decided that’s okay. To the coping mechanisms and skills I have. I’m holding on to alcohol, when the crushing emotions are too fucking much, I’m still drinking them away. And as long as I’m not jeopardizing a relationship or work with that, it’s not the time to leave it behind. It’s protecting me from turning to darker things, which I have, once, about 9 days ago. But I’m choosing to let that go too, and not get upset about it.
I have no energy. I want to let go of my driftwood. And when I think about that, I think about the fact that A knows what this feels like. That she told me she knows what it feels like. That she said she would never let me drown.
Right now is not the time for change. I am not thinking or seeing clearly. Everything is coming through a traumatized lens, an attachment focus, the teenagers strength and resilience and determination (ironically the one thing we have in common with our mother) is getting us through it. But I have no energy. I don’t want to go out. I’m not going to hang out with friends, and if they don’t understand or know me well enough to understand my turtling, then fuck them.
I promised myself I’m in this until Christmas. I told myself that I am going to see A and sitting and showing up and not leaving, even if that means sobbing for an hour with no words. Showing up is painful. Going to session right now hurts – because the healing lives where the hurt is. And there is only so much A can do about that, and she already does what she can. She already keeps me as balanced as possible while moving me through this as quickly as possible. She already knows a lot of what she does or says – loving me, being empathetic, asking me to stay with feelings and describe emotion – she knows that hurts. She knows what she is asking. She knows when to pull back and let me resource, help me resource. She gives so much of herself to me every session (and even on vacation last time), and I’m angry and hurting and grieving, because we are getting to the centre of it all. And she understands. And isn’t defensive. And is kind. And there for me.
I want to quit. I won’t. I’ve promised myself I won’t. My mom did – because this healing was too much for her. The idea of it, was so painful. And if I want my children to have what I never did, I can’t quit.
But it fucking hurts. And knowing that this path keeps hurting, and will hurt, and that making the choice to heal is the equivalent of putting myself through this… it makes it hard to keep going and to see the other side.
But eventually, the waves will slow, they won’t hit me every day. They won’t hit me out of the blue. And then, they will get smaller. And if I can survive the onslaught, I’m going to get better. And I need to hang on to that right now.
It’s all I have.