On “trauma”, and therapy
For the past few weeks I have been trying a new therapy with my long-suffering psychologist. I’ve been seeing her since 2009, hoping she could pop my heart back into place, then looking for some direction in life, then having a mental breakdown, then just general crying and whatever.
She is an excellent therapist. I am a person who is frustrated by platitudes and who cannot abide spouting them in favour of actual tactics. Telling me to “let it go” or “live authentically” will send me into a spiral of despair so dire that I may end up just binging on Gilmore Girls for several weeks, because that’s what my authentic self would do. What I like about my counsellor is that she says, “Try doing this actual thing. And if that doesn’t work, we can try this literal technique, or this set of tasks that really exists.”
The other reason she is an excellent therapist is that she doesn’t let me get away with any bullshit. And I mean, I have a lot of it. I go in there and I collect my tissues and I look at her with my eyes full of sadness, but she doesn’t buy into it. She doesn’t let me wallow in my various miseries. She is fix it fix it fix it. Like a brain carpenter. And if I were to perpetuate that poor analogy, she builds the scaffolding and then I have to hammer the nails. She doesn’t do it for me, but she props me up so I can see over the fence.
About a month ago, we were chatting about how sad I was feeling because of one poor excuse or another. This was after I had called her from the car park of her clinic so that she could walk me up the stairs because I was too afraid. I was sitting in a pink chair and she was trying to convince me to put my handbag on the floor. And she said, Anna, you’re safe with me. Which is true, because how much safer can a mental person be than with the person who helps them to feel less mental? So I put my handbag on the floor, and she said,
“Anna, you have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
At first I said to her, but I haven’t been to war, or been sexually abused, or lost my parents in a murder-suicide. Those are the people who are allowed to have PTSD. I am not comfortable proclaiming to have a trauma disorder because my mum didn’t give me an extra piece of chocolate cake or because she made me late for school for a few years.
I mean, leaving aside the actual traumas of having a drug psychosis, isolated in the bush. Or having a baby extracted without being sedated.
What she was talking about were early childhood traumas. There are memories that I have held on to since I was a very small child. When I think about how I felt then, I imagine having the same emotions as I would now. I have attributed adult emotions to them. Apparently this happens when a memory is not processed properly. While my memories of going to the shops and hanging with my nanna are happily stored in my long-term memory, these others, the ones that make my chest tight, are still flopping about in my short-term memory, as though they happened days or weeks ago.
My clearest early memory is being three years old and sitting in front of a painting of my dad. I’ve written about it before. He commuted from Adelaide to Sydney every week, leaving on Monday morning and not coming home until Friday night. I was profoundly, acutely sad about it. He had abandoned me. I was unloved. He would never come back. He would never come back. Every week, in my memory, I would sit in front of that painting and cry because my dad was never coming back.
So, my therapist and I tackled that memory. We were like the memory mafia. We grabbed that memory and put a bag over its head and did something called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. Which isn’t as tough as cutting off its fingers and sending them to its mother, granted.
We have mafiaed four memories now. It has been tough. After the first session, I came home and slept for three hours. I have been revisiting things I have felt bad about for 25+ years: feeling the feelings anew, speaking openly to the Little Girl Who Was. Ugly crying, slobbering in my therapist’s house (where she’ll see me because she’s amazing and I am afraid) and unwinding into hysteria, don’t leave me, don’t leave me, and feeling it in my chest, in my arms, in my shoulders. Feeling sad as a little girl, but with all of the adult experience I have had since.
But the crazy thing about EMDR is, the memory changes. When we worked on my three-year-old self sobbing in front of the painting of dad, the image I had of it shifted. I wasn’t alone in the room. My mum was standing in the doorway. The sun was warm.
And it was brief. In the memory I had created over a period of 28 years, I had devolved into a shell of a child who cried from Monday to Friday, and whose dad was never coming back and didn’t love her. But that wasn’t how it was at all. I spoke to him every day on the phone. I went to kindergarten and blew bubbles into coloured water to make paintings. I made cakes with my nanna. And on Friday nights, he came home and we watched TV on the brown couch and I couldn’t have been further from unloved.
Now, when I think of that memory, I don’t have to carry around a roll of loo paper for all the crying. It is comfortably in my long-term brain pockets. Not a little girl with big adult feelings about the futility of life and abandonment and existentialism, but a regular three-year-old missing her dad, just in the normal way, in the appropriate, regular way. It is physically gone from my person.
I don’t feel it anymore in my chest or my arms or my shoulders. Just in my head, as a thing that happened once.