Therapy, the Past and Present

Pieces of cloth are strewn over my bed. Here is broderie anglaise from my christening gown. There is my favourite blue shirt I wore at fourteen;  a square from the white jumper I wore the night of my fall… Blood and mud-stained fabric, some pierced with bark chips. Strewn across my bed in no decipherable order. For twenty-five  years, I’ve attempted to sort through them. I had been wanting to make a patchwork quilt, to offer warmth and comfort. Trouble is, I hadn’t been taught how to sew, so had no hope of constructing it by myself.

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After years of stagnation, suddenly the lights turned green. I am studying for two degrees. A pain specialist with a fabulous reputation opened a practice in my town, and by a miracle, I was booked in to see a psychologist specialising in trauma. I turned up to her office with trepidation, afraid that by picking at the scab, I would bleed all over the place, and not heal. Perhaps, I would be left with a bigger scar. A Chilean lady came out to greet me, and my fears were cast aside. She admitted that she was puzzled at how I came to get an appointment, as her books had been closed for a while. She was taking no new patients on. I explained that a local support service had recommended her, and she laughed and said that gremlins must have gotten into her computer, opening up a space. I gave her a run-down on my life, checking off trauma as though I were reciting a shopping list.

She in turn asked about my digestion, if my mind raced, if I found it hard to concentrate on one thing at a time, if I was late to the party, having delayed emotional responses? Does my heart race? Do I breathe so quickly that I feel faint? I asked her how she knew? My digestion has always been a fragile flower.  My mind is always racing. I told her that sitting in her office for fifteen minutes, I had planned meals for the next week, my daughter’s schedule, done my budget and planned the next three chapters of a book I am writing. In fact, I am writing four at the same time. My bed has a pile of books on the floor, and I read a chapter then discard the book, perusing the next book in the pile. I even find it difficult waiting at a red pedestrian crossing, sitting through a movie, sitting still at all. As for emotional responses… I am commended for my calm at times when others fall apart. I have lost many dear friends, and can endure my grief, then a year or so later, I will be inconsolable when I see a photo of them. I am late to the party when it comes to boundaries too. Others will see things before I do, and back away from a person. When I went for an assessment earlier this year, so as to obtain a report for NDIS funding for trauma counselling, these traits were commended and cited as proof that I was coping splendidly. This lady was incredulous when I stated that NDIS had knocked me back because of the report, stating that I was a high-achiever who was coping very well indeed! My new psychologist sent me the following article on the Vagus nerve. It is the tenth cranial nerve, and interfaces with the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract. It controls several muscles of the throat and voice box, and carries sensory information from the internal organs back to the brain.

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As you can see, it’s tendrils are long and reach deep. She noted that I squirm a lot and when talking or answering questions, my eyes dart upwards and side to side. It is a common response, when you have PTSD. She could see the little girl I was come out at times. I told her that now my daughter is reaching the age I had been when the most horrid of experiences started occurring, my mind is reminding me of what happened to me. I need to reach deep, as though unplugging a clogged sink, so that generational pain won’t besmirch her wondrous life. Eating disorders, alcohol misuse, utilising prescription medications to quell emotional pain, I had already dealt with it all. Now here I was, wanting to up my game plan. I want to do it for my daughter, so I can be the best mum I can be, for my friends so I can be present and healthy, for future employers and for myself.  The battle had begun.

As she emailed me the article on the Vagus nerve, I caught a glimpse of the ring emblazoned by a ruby on her finger. My mind was suddenly back inside a bathroom when I was fourteen. A man of unparalleled evil had been introduced into my world, and a woman I had known for only a short while gifted me a ruby ring. She insisted that I wear it, assuring me that it would keep me strong. “You will need to be,” she said, glancing at the man hovering over my shoulder. Always hovering… I took the ring off to wash my hands, and forgot to put it back on. When I went to retrieve it later, it was gone. “What will keep me strong now?” I asked in dismay. This memory led to others, too numerous to mention to the therapist, though she noted that I had drifted away. “You disassociate often, don’t you?” she smiled. She told me that it was quite a clever ploy of my brain, in order to protect me from horror and terror as it happened. It has also meant that I have put up with intolerable situations as an adult, for longer than I should, without further damage being done.

I was instructed on how to breathe, so I could transcend the flight response I was caught in. “We need to start from the basics, and that for you is learning how to simply breathe.” It took forty minutes until I was able to breathe deeply and slowly. Of course, my mind dove deep into the past, to the moment I first heard anything about “the horrors,” as PTSD was formerly known. I was fourteen and had met a gentle soul called Dennis. He couldn’t sit still, and his arms shook, and he tapped his foot involuntarily. “I’m like this because I’m a vet,” he whispered. “Oh, I love animals!” I exclaimed in my naivety.  Dennis smiled bemusedly. I didn’t know what he was talking about then. Now I know.

(To be continued)

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