Retraumatising 

It’s been a tough couple of days. I still want to fill in the gaps of the last few months, so that I have a record of all the crazy shit I need to stop doing. But right now I need to write about this.

On Friday, the HR manager Carol came to pick me up from the hospital. She took me out for breakfast, went back with me to meet with the psychiatrist about how to support me, drove me home and came up to my apartment to confiscate my blades, my lighters and my rope. She offered to bake me anything I wanted, told me I could come to her place over the weekend if I wanted, and to just call her if I needed anything or if I felt like I was going to do something impulsive.

Walking in the front door of my building, I thought I was going to throw up. My whole body was shaking, and Carol made me stop and take some deep breaths, because I was in that panicky heart-racing can’t-breathe state. Going home was so fucking scary. Abruptly, I had to keep myself safe after five weeks in a contained little cocoon. Going home meant going back to normal life, back to work, back to grocery shopping, back to cleaning out the kitty litter.

My managers have given me so much support. They’ve been flexible about my complete inability to ever show up on time, they gave me two months off work without guilting me about all the extra work they had to take on, they reassured me that they cared and were there for me, they’re doing everything they can to make the transition back to work successful for me – even talking to my psychiatrist and psychologist.

And that is TERRIFYING, because now I have to prove that I’m worth it. That I can be a good employee, I can be stable and reliable, I can stop causing issues that take up staff time. To show them that all the effort they’ve put in has paid off.

And I don’t think I can. I’M NOT BETTER. I’m still depressed. I find it so hard to get out of bed in the morning, and to focus on anything. I’m afraid that when I keep on fucking up, they’re going to hate me. And I’m afraid that when they get frustrated and write me off as a lost cause, I’ll be so ashamed and alone that I’ll have to kill myself.

***

Huh. That’s not actually what I was intending to write about, and I didn’t really know those fears until I wrote them out. But that is what I’m so scared of. It’s not actually about work at all. It’s about losing my support system and the people who prop up my fragile self esteem.

***

So. My first night home was okay. I snuggled Everest, ate chocolate and binge-watched Supernanny. Carol had told me to call her to check in that night, but she didn’t pick up. That was fine, though. I didn’t actually need her – I just wanted to talk to her.

***

When my therapist Aisha and I talked about going back to work, we agreed it would be a good idea to do a walk-through of the office while none of the other staff were there. I’d hung myself a couple of times in the garage, and even though I’ve hurt myself much more frequently and severely in my apartment, going back to that space felt more traumatic.

I’d told Aisha that I’d do it with Sam, partly because I felt too guilty to burden Carol with doing yet another thing to support me, and partly because I thought going through that with Sam would help build the trust with her that I already have with Carol.

By the time I had breakfast with Carol the day I was discharged, I was rethinking that decision. Carol is very attuned. She reads me better than almost any therapist I’ve ever had, and she knows when I’m upset even before I do. She’s firm, but gentle, and I knew she’d push me to do it but sit with me through it. So I started trying to wriggle out of doing it with Sam.

I’d be happy to do it just by myself, but I figured you guys wouldn’t be keen on that.”

No. I’m not going to let you do that. It’s not about not trusting you – I think it’s a good thing to do with someone so you have moral support, and if you need soothing or calming then there’s someone with you to help you.”

That immediately elevated Carol from my top preference to The Best Ever First And Only Preference. What the mature, confident version of myself would have said is:

Carol, I know I said I’d like to do it with Sam, but now I think about it more, I think it would probably be better if you and I do it together. Would that be okay?

Instead, what the cowardly lion said was:

I don’t want to make Sam come in on her weekend just before she leaves on an interstate trip…

I ended up doing it with Sam.

***

On Sunday, two days after my discharge, I arrived at the office at 3pm, feeling shaky. When I got to the top of the stairs, Sam was waiting for me, and reached out for a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

What do you need from me?

Nothing.”

I guess I kind of expected her to argue, to say ‘No, I’m walking around with you‘. Instead, she said “Good – I haven’t had lunch yet.”

That was pretty crushing. If I’d asked, she absolutely would have come with me, but she was relieved she didn’t have to. That hot shame of being a burden started creeping up the back of my neck.

I went around the top level of the office, room by room. The Story Room, where I spent so many days lying on the couch, crying and feeling despairing. The stationery room, where I’d come up with so many different ways to hurt myself. (While I was sitting, thinking, crying a little, I picked up a pair of scissors and pressed it lightly against my wrist.) The bathroom, where I’d burnt myself with a lighter the last time I was there. The kitchen, where I’d tried to burn myself with hot water, and thought about overdosing on the pills in the first aid box.

Eventually, there was nothing left but the garage.

I went into Sam’s office, and asked her to come down with me. She started walking down the stairs, but I stayed standing at the top, looking over the railing, remembering the times I’d spent leaning over the edge and imagining my head splitting open on the concrete floor below. Usually it takes some conscious effort for me to cry, but the tears bubbled up on their own – reliving those feelings, and grieving for the pain I’d been in the last time I was there.

I was there for a few minutes, just quietly crying, and Sam was halfway down the stairs, looking up at me.

What do you want me to do?

Just be here with me.

Even then, I didn’t feel like she was there with me. She was observing me – she wasn’t with me. I wanted her to come back up the stairs and hold my hand, but I didn’t want to say that to her.

I could feel an impatient energy coming from her, and I felt rushed. I pulled myself away, and went down the stairs to the bottom. I wasn’t ready, but I was afraid that she was going to try to hurry me along if I didn’t.

In the corner at the bottom of the stairs, there are three brackets fixed into the concrete wall. They’d taken away the desk chair I’d climbed on to tie the noose around my neck, but everything else was still the same. I leaned against the opposite wall, reliving the desperate fear and overwhelm I’d felt those nights, clutching my arms across my body and trembling. I could almost see myself standing on that chair. Feel the texture of the rope in my hands. It took me right back.

And Sam…Sam was wandering around the rest of the garage. Flicking lights on and off, tidying things up, calling out to me to ‘come and look at this‘. She might have found it too uncomfortable to be present with the emotion I was experiencing. She might have been trying to normalise the situation, like ‘Oh it’s just a garage with a mop on the floor that should be in the broom cupboard and what are these things doing here no big deal it’s just a garage nothing to be afraid of‘. She might have just been completely oblivious. I don’t know.

I felt so angry at her. This was a big deal to me, and she was treating it like it was nothing. I’d trusted her to do this with me, I’d asked her to just be there with me, and she was leaving me alone and making me feel ashamed of being emotional.

Eventually, she came over, and leaned against the wall with me. She stayed quiet for maybe thirty seconds, then turned to me and said “Bad memories suck“.

I kind of wanted to bite her.

I kept crying quietly, and she asked “Do you want me to go back upstairs?

I nodded – I couldn’t speak. As she went back up the stairs, I sank down to the floor and started sobbing, pressing my mouth against my bare arm to muffle the noise. Being left there, alone, in this big dark empty space, was retraumatising. Those nights, I’d been on my own, desperately needing someone to lift me off the chair and hold me, and I hadn’t had anybody there to help me. I could have reached out, called Sam or Carol or Kim, but I didn’t feel like I could.

This time was even worse. This time I had reached out, and she’d minimised my experiences then walked away and left me.

I sat curled up for a few minutes, sobbing, and felt the emotion escalating higher and higher.

I want Carol,’ I thought. ‘I want to do this with Carol.’

I got the hell out of there. I ran away.

***

On the bus, I called Carol. I was hoping to go back there that night, get it over with rather than dreading it. I was triggered and upset and I felt betrayed and abandoned by Sam, and I wanted her to console me.

She didn’t pick up.

I thought she’d call me back later. I figured she was picking one of her boys up, or out in the garden, and she’d check in with me when she could. At 11.30 that night, I finally accepted that I wasn’t going to hear from her that day.

The next day I waited a couple of hours, then sent a slightly stroppy text message:

Being in the office was very distressing and I don’t know if I can come back to work on Wednesday. Definitely not without another visit beforehand. 

I was mad at her. It’s hard to admit that when she’s done so much for me, so much more than she could ever be expected to do. But I was mad that she’d told me I could call her and then she wasn’t there.

She texted me back, suggested we meet there at 7.30 on Wednesday, offered to bring tea and coconut slice, and told me it was ‘a good boulder to jump over‘.

I did not want to jump over the boulder. I wanted to kick it, hard, until it crumbled into pieces.

I felt wary and untrusting. I wasn’t prepared to be vulnerable again, and what was the point of doing it if I just shut down my emotion and didn’t process it? My guard was back up, and I wanted to push everyone away, even though it hurt to be alone.

I knew I didn’t really have a choice, other than quitting my job. I had to go back. But I still resisted. I felt so invalidated by Sam, but I doubted myself too much to openly say ‘This is a big deal and it’s a really hard, traumatic thing to go through‘. Part of me feels like I’m blowing it way out of proportion.

But I still want them to know it’s hard. I want to be heard. And if I meekly agreed to go back, they wouldn’t get it. So I’m kicking and screaming. ‘No! I don’t want to!

***

I ignored Carol all day, until she finally pinned me down tonight and asked me to confirm. So, I’m fucking going tomorrow. I feel something squeezing inside me just thinking about walking in that door, and there’s a wailing thing in my head bashing itself against the walls.

I don’t know what to do. I know the only way to process it is to let my guard down, but I feel like I can’t bear it. Whether she’s detached and unhelpful or present and supportive…both options feel equally untolerable to me.

I don’t know what to do.

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Retraumatising 

Therapeutic Reparenting

[28 March]

After the shitty session with Nikki, I walked around for a few hours, until almost 10pm. I was feeling numb, and desperately hopeless, both at the same time. I knew I was going to do something self-destructive.

Four days later, I walked into Nikki’s office almost a different person – the whispering and curling up and tearfulness had gone. When she asked me how I was feeling, I smiled.

Better.”

She stopped dead, and put a hand on her chest. “Oh. Oh! Can I hug you now? Seriously?” She paused for a second, then repeated it. “Seriously?

I froze. The last few sessions I’d been curled into myself and desperately wishing for a hug or a hand on my knee, some kind of physical comfort. And now she was offering it, and I couldn’t process it. My mind wouldn’t even go there – I just kept sifting through my bag looking for my phone, and completely blocked it out. But even if I’d had more time to think, I probably wouldn’t have wanted one – it would just seem weird and pointless, now that I was past the terrible despair.  Why didn’t you offer it then?

When I didn’t respond, she sat down on the floor close to me. “What happened?

Uh, that’s the part you’re not going to like.”

She winced. “Oh, god.  Can I just be in denial about whatever that is and just not talk about it?

That hit me right in the soft places. That’s exactly what my parents did when I took an overdose at 13 and was in the hospital for a week – stayed in denial, and never talked about it. I know what she really meant was ‘I care about you and I wish you weren’t inflicting so much pain on yourself’, but it still stung, and I retreated a bit.

Yep!  That works for me,” I said cheerfully, thinking ‘Don’t let her see you’re hurt. Don’t let her know that you want to talk to her about it’. In that moment, I actually wasn’t sure whether she was just going to change the topic or whether she was going to backtrack.

She backtracked. “No. We can’t do that. First of all, I’m really really glad you’re feeling better. Now what the hell happened?

I took about 60 pills and chased them with vodka.”

And you didn’t call me. Oh, Rea.”

She told me she wanted me to go to a doctor and get checked out, and I shrugged. “They’re just going to say I’m fine.”

I don’t care. I want to know that you’re fine.” We stared each other down. “Just humour me. It would be verging on neglect of you if I didn’t insist you go and get bloods taken after an overdose of 60.”

I was just testing her, of course. How much do you care? How much are you going to push me to make sure I’m okay? How much will you try before you throw your hands up and say ‘Okay, just die then’?

When she used the word ‘neglect’, I knew she’d won. I guess I associate ‘neglect’ with a parent-child context, and the implication that she had to care for me in that kind of way, however unintentional, was enough to make me stop pushing back. At the end of the session, she walked me to the door and said “You’re going to the GP right now, and I want you to text me when you get there,” and I pulled a face, but I didn’t fight her.

Even though the subject matter was objectively more serious than what we’d been discussing the previous week, the room felt so much lighter. I was speaking in a normal voice, not a whisper, and looking at her instead of staring at my knees. There was an easiness about it.

When she probed further into my symptoms during the session, she tried to take me down to her car so she could drive me straight to hospital, and I was giving her a kind of amused, whoa there look. She burst out laughing.

Stop it! It’s great that you’re feeling better, but I’m trying to be stern-faced here.”

***

I still pick everything apart, though. The session was positive and supportive and connected, but I still remember those tiny moments that hurt.

***

Did you even think about calling me [before the overdose]?

No. I mean, we’ve always said you’re not a crisis line.”

Yeah, I know, and then at the end of the session I’ve quite regularly said ‘Call me if you need anything’ – [then thought] Damn! I’m not supposed to be a crisis line, but, well, I said it!”

That stung the child part a bit, and irritated the adult part.

[You regret it when you offer to support me?]

[Get some better boundaries then, Nikki, and stop bouncing around all over the place!]

***

[Friend] wants me to tell her what’s going on, but whenever I tell her anything she gets really pissed off with me.”

Why does she get angry?

Because she’s scared.”

And you can understand someone getting mad at you?

Yeah.”

Well, I can certainly understand someone getting mad at you.”

It was said lightly, but it felt so passive-aggressive. If she’d said “I can understand that – sometimes I feel angry with you too because [insert reason],” it would have stung, but at least I wouldn’t have been left wondering what she was trying to say.

Maybe she meant ‘I’m scared for you too’. Maybe she meant ‘I wish you’d try harder to get better’. Maybe she meant ‘Sometimes you’re a pain in the ass and I get pissed off with you’. I don’t know, and I was afraid to ask.

***

Towards the end of the session, she had a breakthrough. She finally got everything I’ve been trying to explain to her, that I have difficulty with attachment and object permanence, and that that translates into issues with regulating my emotions.

There’s this disconnect, because even if you do that self-nurturing stuff it doesn’t get to the core of it anyway. Which is really frustrating and could potentially make you feel really hopeless.”

YES!  EXACTLY!  IT ONLY TOOK TEN FUCKING MONTHS…

And then she said “The words therapeutic re-parenting keep popping into my head.” She lowered her voice to a stage whisper. “That means a whole lot of hugging.”

My thinking brain went OH MY GOD NURTURING AND CARING AND HUGS YES! And the reflexive part of my brain immediately visualised jumping out of the window. Not to kill myself – just to escape. Disorganised attachment in action. Come closer/get away from me.

And I killed the moment. We could have had a real conversation about what that would look like, what I need and what I want. Instead, I told her I’d picturing jumping out the window, and she laughed and said “Oh, come on, I’m extra cuddly!”.

***

It’s like we spend the whole time in a crisis period, just going around and around. And I’m saying ‘we’ and I mean ‘you’, but, you know, I’m there with you.”

In a different context, that would have felt minimising. In reality, I have to deal with crisis 24/7, and she doesn’t. While I’m bleeding on the bathroom floor, she’s across town fast asleep. But I did feel that she’d been there with me. She’d consistently showed up with care and nurture whenever I reached out to her, and she hadn’t faltered, hadn’t panicked, at least in front of me. Never so much as hinted at termination.

I didn’t really realise how extreme things had got, didn’t even feel like they’d escalated, but when I look back now it’s like “…..fuuuuck”. Later when I was recounting this to my psychiatrist, including all the times I’d passed out choking myself, he said “Wasn’t your psychologist terrified?!”.

I was taken aback. Terrified? It hadn’t occurred to me that I could have that kind of impact, even though Nikki’s told me in crisis periods that she worried about me all weekend, that she woke up worrying about me. I don’t give her the credit she deserves because it just seems like no big deal to me. At any given moment, I know I’m not dead, and so I forget that other people don’t know I’m not dead.

It can’t have been easy, eight months pregnant and about to go on maternity leave. Sometimes she got it wrong. Sometimes she got it really wrong. But she hung in there with me.

Therapeutic Reparenting

Talk Me Off the Ledge

On Wednesday the next week, I texted Nikki at midday and told her I was feeling out of control.

We’d had a bad session on Tuesday. She was back to “You’re so logical so I don’t understand why you can’t talk yourself out of this” and I was like DO YOU HAVE NO UNDERSTANDING OF TRAUMA? She just can’t understand that it’s not about logic – when that intense full-body distress hits me and consumes me, I logically know that self-harm isn’t a helpful solution, but rationality is absolutely no defence to that kind of onslaught.

We’d had that conversation so many times I was starting to think she was never going to get it, and I was feeling frustrated and hopeless.

***

When I got to work the next day, there were builders working in the ceiling, and the rafters were exposed. I couldn’t stop thinking about hanging myself. It was going around and around in my head obsessively and I was starting to panic that I was actually going to do it and one of my colleagues would have to find my dead body. So I texted Nikki. I don’t want to go to hospital, but I need you to talk me off the ledge.

She sent me a text that started with Oh hon, that doesn’t sound good at all, and invited me to come in that afternoon.  When I hadn’t responded within two minutes, she called me four times, then left a voice message.

I’ve got someone waiting for me but I just wanted to chat for 5 minutes.  If you’re surrounded by triggers then get out of there. Come to the office.  I can’t see you until 4.30 but just come and hang out and I can see you for 5 minutes in between clients.”

It felt so containing. When I read it back now, I think: Is she rescuing me? In theory, I guess she could have said “If things are that bad, then you need to go to hospital”. There was definitely a protective dynamic there, and if she hadn’t stepped up and been consistently there for me during this awful spiral out of control, I probably would have felt so abandoned I would have left therapy. But I’m always questioning myself and second-guessing her: Is this healthy? Is this too much?

***

I left work, went home and smashed my cheekbone against the corner of a stair fifty-six times. An hour later, when I arrived at Nikki’s office, my face was grotesquely swollen, like a chipmunk with a cheek full of acorns.

As she walked ahead of me down the corridor to her office, she kept half-turning and reaching her arm out to me kind of helplessly, like she wanted to do something but wasn’t sure exactly what. She started fussing over me as soon as we got inside: “Sit down here. Do you want a cup of tea? Can I get you a glass of water? Can you breathe okay? Are you tasting blood or anything?”

I was tiny and tearful and shrunk into myself. Part of me was numb, part of me was a bit irritated about all the fuss over something I’ve done so many times, and part of me was going YES LOVE ME.

When she told me I had to go and get it checked out, I shook my head.

I’m not done yet.”

Yes, you are. You are! You’re losing your ability to judge when enough’s enough. That is huge and your eye’s swelling up. You see people coming out of fights and they’re not as beat up as that.”

That was kind of true, but not quite right – I can still judge, sort of. I knew it was bad, but it wasn’t worse than anything I’d done before, so a) I was obviously going to live, and b) it wasn’t enough, because if the harm didn’t escalate it wasn’t enough.

I was so overwhelmed, and everything was crashing down on me, and I was just totally crumbling. I was curled up with my knees to my chest, and I couldn’t speak above a whisper. There was a lot of pressure at work with Board meetings coming up, I was studying and had assignments due every week, I was volunteering twice a week, and I was travelling interstate every weekend for social obligations.

It was too much. I didn’t want to admit it, but it was too much for me to handle.

Nikki went into triage mode. She called my boss from my phone (who answered “Hello pumpkin!”) and told him I wasn’t coping with my workload and that I needed someone to stay with that night, and arranged for him to pick me up from the session. She insisted I get an extension on the assignment due that week, offered to write me a letter, and said “If you need me to talk to anyone, just hand over my number.

I still felt fuzzy and dissociated and like the sky was falling in on me, but there was some relief that someone was taking over. I’d been swimming around and around in muck getting more and more exhausted, and she was clearing some of it away so that I could try to crawl out. There was a faint niggly feeling – therapists are supposed to ask you about your childhood, not sort out your practical day-to-day issues, said a voice in the back of my head – but I pushed it aside.

I sat quietly while she pottered around packing up, and she was still fussing over me when it was time to leave.

Do you need to use the bathroom or anything?

I’m going to walk downstairs with you.”

Then she sighed, self-deprecatingly. “I’ve gone into mum mode again, haven’t I?

She had. And it was exactly what I wanted.

***

On Friday, we sat in dead silence for 45 minutes.

Her office is on the third floor, and I usually take the lift, because I’m usually running late. This time, I took the stairs, and at the top of the third flight, I stopped and bashed my cheek against the wall another thirty times. When I stopped, there was a brown smear of blood on the wall.

Nikki was right there. At one point, she walked out of the office to use the bathroom, and I could actually hear her voice. (I stopped for a moment, in case she heard the thudding.) I desperately didn’t want to do it, was so distressed I was almost crying about not wanting to do it, but I couldn’t hold out for the two minutes it would have taken to get to her, didn’t believe that she’d be able to soothe me anyway. I suppose in a way I was pre-empting it, so I didn’t have to be disappointed when she couldn’t help me feel better and I ended up doing it after the session instead.

I was feeling so sick. Every time I brought my head back to hit it again, I felt like my brain was moving inside my head, and I kept seeing dark spots in my vision. I’d hit it again the night before, and it was getting past my tolerance level.

When we got into her office, I was quiet and sullen. I think I was…mad at her? It’s totally irrational, and I don’t even know why I was mad, but thinking back to the session now, it suddenly just came to me. I was mad. Why? Because she didn’t save me? Because she didn’t somehow magically know it had happened, and comfort me?

So we sat in silence. She did some origami, and I just curled up in a ball.

A few minutes before the end of the session, she shifted to face me, an arms-length away, her elbow propped on the couch.

Do you feel like the new medication is helping at all?”

I don’t feel very well, but I don’t know if that’s the medication or…” I trailed off, not finishing the sentence: or because of all the head trauma.

In what way?” she asked, gently.

I just feel nauseous.”

Like, ‘I could puke at any second’ kind of nauseous?

I nodded.

I know what that’s like,” she said wryly, and I felt a flash of irritation. Do not compare creating the miracle of life to my chronic mental illness, please.

We talked a little bit more, then I gathered my stuff to leave, and she stayed sitting on the floor. “Do you need me to do anything for you tonight?” I shook my head.  “You’re absolutely sure?” I nodded.

You need to do just a little bit of work and go to bed,” she instructed, and I stared at her, stony-faced, angry: don’t pretend things are that simple.

Then I turned and walked out.

Talk Me Off the Ledge

It’s Total Bullshit! It’s Bullshit!

Back in March, three weeks after I had surgery, I tried to break my hand.

***

The previous session had been bad. I was tired and overwhelmed, and I couldn’t really talk much.

Nikki can’t handle silence. When I get quiet, I think she feels helpless and frustrated, and she goes into lecturing mode.

It’s just your perspective that we need to change.”

Have you ever thought that maybe you just see things exceptionally negatively?”

If I’m honest, I kind of wanted to punch her in the face. Whenever she starts on that, I feel like she’s blaming me – “all you have to do is change your perspective and none of this would be happening” – and minimising how much pain I’m in – “there’s nothing actually wrong, you just see things negatively”.

I closed off from her, and for most of the session, I just sat and cried, staring at the floor. At some point she got up, sat a box of tissues next to me, squeezed my knee and sat down on the floor at my feet, in my eyeline. She didn’t say anything, but it felt like she was communicating I know this isn’t helping and I don’t know what to do but I’m here with you, and I felt a little bit of trust start to come back.

Eventually, with a few minutes left, I said quietly:

“I thought I was going to die last night.”

What happened?” she asked, and I told her. Instead of choking myself with a rope, I’d used a belt, and wrapped it around and around and through the loops and the buckle. When I was on the verge of passing out, I suddenly realised that I couldn’t just let the belt go like I do with a rope; I had to unfasten it. My fingers were numb, and I didn’t think I could get it off in time.

Were you scared?”

I nodded, tears in my eyes.

This sounds awful, but I’m really glad you were scared.”

I didn’t know how to explain to her that I wasn’t scared because I didn’t want to die; I was scared because I hadn’t planned for it to happen, and I wasn’t in control.

***

I don’t know if that’s what prompted me to try to break my hand. All I remember is standing in my bedroom, punching the concrete wall over and over again. Stopping, pacing, gathering my courage, and punching it again.

Around 2am, I pulled on a hoodie and walked to the hand hospital, the same one I went to last year when I broke my own wrist. Not because I was in desperate agony and needed treatment, but because if it wasn’t broken, I wanted to know now so I could keep trying in the morning.

I told the nurse it was a boxing injury from class the night before. She felt each of my knuckles, called the doctor over, and they confirmed it was definitely broken. She put me in a temporary cast, and told me to come back the next morning for x-rays.

It wasn’t fucking broken.

***

I had an appointment with Nikki later that day, and we were both annoyed before it even started. The clinic had fucked up the scheduling again, and Nikki texted me an hour before our session to ask if we could move it back half an hour. She arrived ten minutes late, panting from rushing up the stairs.

I was running on less than two hours of sleep, and I was devastated that my hand wasn’t broken, and angry with the hospital staff for getting my hopes up, and scared but resigned to hurting it even more. My head was already back in my apartment, standing in front of that wall. I wanted to curl up in a ball, cradle my hand against my chest, and rock myself.

We walked to her office, and she tossed her shoes onto the floor, forcefully.

How are ya?” she said, brusquely, almost daring me to say something critical.

I had no idea how to respond. I wasn’t going to say “Crying on the inside, actually” with that kind of lead-in, but there wasn’t really much point saying “Fine”, either. So she answered her own question.

Pissed off,” she said, and there was no inflection – it was a statement, not a question.

No.” And I wasn’t – I was feeling bewildered and a little frightened of her, but not pissed off.

She softened immediately. “What happened to your hand?”

I tried to break it.”

She sighed. “Fucking hell.”

***

I told her what had happened, very matter-of-factly, police-report style, no emotions here, no thank you. And she cared. She actually really cared.

I can’t imagine how painful that is.  Punching twenty times, thirty times on the same place when it was probably broken after the first one.”

Perversely, that made me feel so much better. It feels very teenager-y nobody understands my pain! but I do believe that it’s hard to comprehend that level of physical and emotional pain unless you’ve actually experienced it, and it felt so validating to have her acknowledge that. I had this immediate, full-body sense of relief: yes.

Doesn’t [the injury] get in the way of work?” she said, and then she looked horrified. “God, that’s so not my first thought, that’s ridiculous. It’s just they’re the only thoughts that seem to stop you doing stuff, because ‘I’ve got work, I’ve got responsibilities’, and I can’t believe I’m colluding with that, because your hand is far more important than a stupid job.  I’m sorry I even said that.  It’s completely the wrong message.  You see what you’ve made me do?  You’ve got me thinking like you and that’s just fucked up!  Let me see it.”

Among the flood of words, she got up, crossed the room and dropped to her knees beside me. My hand was resting on my knee, and she looked at it for a long moment, then sat back on her heels and looked up at me.

You cannot possibly go home and punch the wall with that thing. It’s fucked, Rea.  It’s fucked. Most people would go ‘it really hurts, you need to do a CT scan’.”

But it doesn’t,” I said, in a very small voice. I was a little scared by her intensity.

I don’t give a shit.  You need a CT scan.  You need to find out once and for all whether it’s broken because it certainly looks broken to me.”

In your expert medical opinion.”

I’ve broken a lot of bones,” she said. “I did a lot of risky sport.”

Instant shame. Oh my god she’s broken heaps of bones and you’re sitting here being all dramatic about your not-even-broken hand like it’s a big deal, Rea, oh my god, why are you such a fucking pathetic loser you can’t even break your hand?

My internal monologue didn’t show on my face, or at least she didn’t catch it. She was still talking.

It makes me want to run you a really deep bath, with like oatmeal in, and a face pack with cucumber bits, and your favourite music, and sit next to you telling you how amazing you are.”  She paused, and took a deep breath, almost a sigh.

I feel like I’d probably just get that look anyway.”  And she pulled the exact face I make when I’m afraid to believe something and I want to create distance – one eyebrow raised, nose slightly wrinkled, lip pulled up into a sardonic half-smile.  I laughed, more out of surprise than anything else, and she forged on.

Rea, you’re really intelligent.  You’re really beautiful.  Really.  You’re very creative.  You’ve got so much to offer the world and you’ve got so much to offer yourself, and you’re just going to go” – and she pulled a face again – “shut the fuck up, Nikki”.

Part of me loved it, and part of me hated it. If ‘intelligent’ and ‘creative’ are the only two compliments you can come up with then I’m a pretty fucking basic person, aren’t I? I didn’t dwell on it long, though, because I was still snickering at her comment about the bath. I don’t think she’d thought through the fact that if she was sitting next to me while I was in the bath, I would be naked.

We kept on circling around and around. I wasn’t giving in and she wasn’t giving up.

I don’t want you to break your fucking hand.  I think it probably is already broken.  You’re in enough pain as it is, it’s smashed, you don’t need to do any more, you’ve done it and it didn’t help, you’ve proved it to yourself time and time again, it does not help.”

I have to,” I said, tearfully, and she pounded her hand on the ground in frustration.

It’s bullshit! You’re so powerful in your mind.  Why are you listening to that shit?  It’s just bullshit coming out of your head.  You don’t have to break your hand to feel better.  It doesn’t make you feel any better!  You’re on a loop that just makes it worse.  It’s total bullshit!  It’s bullshit!”

I’d reached that detached sort of space where other people’s emotions just seem kind of silly and amusing, and you can’t really connect with why they’re so upset, but deeper below the detachment, I loved that feistiness, that she was willing to fight for me, even if it meant fighting against me.

I don’t know if I can let you go home if you’re telling me you’re going to go smash your hand up.  It’s fucked already.  I can’t remove the walls in your house, but…” She trailed off.  “I know what it’s like to be in a pit, but my pit might be completely different to yours.  And I came out the other side of my pit, but you’re stuck in yours. And is that the thing that makes it awful?  Is it a problem with not being able to help yourself?”

I hated that. Viscerally hated it. Therapist self-disclosure does not work for me. I don’t want them to be people – I don’t want to know anything about them or their lives or their favourite brand of chocolate or what radio station they listen to while they’re driving to work. It’s much more than disinterest, it’s….well, it’s this:

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She was right, though. It is awful to be stuck, to stay stuck, to chew off your own arm trying to escape then realise you can’t climb out of the hole without it.

We were coming to the end of the session, and she pulled tissues out of the box and passed them to me.

If it wasn’t totally inappropriate I’d take you home to my house. Feed you fruit salad.”

I tried to play it cool, but there were fireworks going off inside my chest. Did I want her to actually take me home with her toddler and partner and weird retro kitchen cupboards? Nope. Did I want her to want to take care of me? More than I’ve probably ever wanted anything. Isn’t that what every attachment orphan wants – someone to take them home?

I started gathering my stuff, and she looked at me ruefully.

I couldn’t stop you going if I tried, could I?”

No,” I said, and smiled.

She could have. But she didn’t try.

It’s Total Bullshit! It’s Bullshit!

Scared. Trying.

So, I’m in a residential program. I’ve been here for two weeks, and people keep asking me “Is it helping? Are you making progress?”.

I have no idea how to answer that. How do you measure two weeks of progress after sixteen years of severe mental illness? I feel like what they’re asking is “Can you hurry up and get better? Are you fixed yet? Are you trying hard enough? Can you just be normal now, please?

I was terrified to come in here, and now I’m terrified to leave. I’m afraid I’m not ready and I’m going to crash out of control again, and I’m afraid I won’t crash. My life has been chaos and pain for as long as I can remember, and it’s overwhelming and awful, but it’s also comforting, because at least it’s familiar.

I have two more weeks in the program. So far the days have been split into two different types:

Child screaming

Image result for screaming toddler gif

I keep finding myself using coping skills that you guys have taught me. I’m painting and collaging and scribbling the frenzy inside me onto the page. I’m doing puzzles, going to the gym, reading textbooks. I’m using my non-dominant hand to clumsily scrawl my feelings and fears, and then I’m scrunching up the paper and throwing it across the room.

And when I’m sitting in the bottom of the shower sobbing, I don’t try to stop myself. I just let myself cry.

It makes me feel like I have you guys with me, in a way. I’m so grateful for all of you and everything I’ve learnt from you. You’re helping me save my own life.

Scared. Trying.

Mommy Transference at Work

It’s been almost two months since Nikki left. At first, I missed her intensely, thought about her constantly, was counting the hours and minutes and seconds until she’d be back, but I was stable. No self-harm, no suicidal ideation.

Then I crashed. Like a piano falling out a twenty-storey window. It was loud and dramatic and I ended up in pieces at the bottom. Without Nikki around to catch me and protect me and parent me, I glommed onto the first mother figures I could find, and I can’t make myself let go.

Unfortunately, those mother figures are my managers at work.

***

There’s Carol. Frighteningly competent, matter-of-fact but with a sharp sense of humour. Two teenage children, boys – she invited me to go camping with her family last year. I’m completely in awe of her, and I so badly want her to think well of me that I get tongue-tied whenever I talk to her. She’s the human resources manager, and she’s told me I’m precious, beautiful, intelligent, hard-working and good, but she was also the one who sat me down and told me I was coming across as arrogant and my colleagues were complaining about me.

There’s Sam. Only been with the organisation about a year, and I feel less intimidated by her. Has a teenage son with major mental illness, and is fascinated by brain plasticity and optimistic about healing. The level of detail I’ve shared about my issues is way out of proportion to the depth of our relationship. Over the last fortnight, she’s started calling me “dearest“, and “hon“.

And Kim. The manager of the internship program, the one who’s known me and believed in me since I was an undergrad law student with no work experience. Her brother killed himself in front of her – this stuff is re-traumatising for her, but she still sticks around. Calls me “love“, “bubba“, “my angel“. The first time I had surgery and she was visiting me in hospital, she said “I wouldn’t let one of my kids go home in this state, so why would I let you?“. Later, when she said she had too much on her plate and she could be my friend but she couldn’t be my mother, I was humiliated at the implication that I was expecting too much from her, and crushed.

***

It started with the overdose.

I’d been in a downward spiral for days. Not going to work, not even getting out of bed. I couldn’t make myself do anything, and that made me anxious, and that made me even less able to do anything. So, I texted Kim, and asked if she could pick me up on her way to work the next morning. That way I’d have to get up. Inconveniencing Kim by not showing up on time and making her late would be even more anxiety-provoking than getting up and going to work.

Except I impulsively decided to take thirty times my normal dose of anti-psychotic, (knowing it wouldn’t be fatal), and I did not show up on time. I slept through all fourteen of my alarms. And they panicked.

When I woke up, I had missed call after missed call, and a bunch of texts. The last one was from Sam, and it said I had half an hour to get in touch before they called the police.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

I felt so stupid. Why was I so fucking useless I couldn’t take myself to work? Why was I so fucking useless I couldn’t get out of bed on time? Why was I so fucking worthless? I called Sam and told her I was fine and I was about to start work on a report, but I felt so young and guilty I couldn’t put up my normal professional front, and I was slurring my words, and she worked out something was wrong.

It didn’t take much convincing for me to tell her how many pills I’d taken. I wanted to give her a better reason for scaring them than just I’m a useless cunt and I slept in.  I felt about four years old, and she was talking to me in the kind of tone you use with very young children.

Can you unlock your door? I’m sending someone around to check on you.

I heard Carol’s voice in the background, muffled, and then Sam came back on the line.

Rea, have you cut yourself at all?

Nooo.” I was disappointed with myself – I wished I could say yes.

Carol’s voice in the background again, then another question from Sam.

Have you done anything else at all?

It was one of those crazy frustrating moments where I just wanted to shake myself and yell at myself to snap out of it. Rationally I knew that I hadn’t, completely 100% knew, but the part that was running the show genuinely felt unsure.

Don’t think so.

You don’t think so?” A pause. “Can you have a check and see?

I thought for a second. “I’m fine.”

You’re fine,” she repeated in a cooing, baby-talk tone, presumably to pass my answer on to Carol. “What about your arm? Is your arm okay?

Yep.”

Yep. What about your legs, are your legs okay?

 

She kept running through and confirming different body parts, and part of me was going I’m a 26 year old woman with a law degree what the fuck is happening, and the rest of me wanted to be babied even while I found it ridiculous and embarrassing.

What about your neck? Is your neck okay?

While the rational part of me was saying internally ‘Yes, of course it is, it’s fine‘, I was standing in front of the mirror, examining it, leaning in close to check. Then the intercom rang.

Do you know what that noise is? That’s your door.”

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, no. I put her on mute, and started taking pills as fast as I could swallow them. The same thing I always do when help is on the way – make sure I’m really fucked up enough to need it. Things had gotten so out of control so fast, and this was the only thing I could control.

Rea? Rea? You have to let them in, hon. You need to let them in. Go and push the button for the intercom.”

“Rea? Rea? Rea?”

“Rea, it’ll be okay, just go push the buzzer and let them in.

I could hear Carol telling the police that I wasn’t responding, but I didn’t know what to do. My mind was running frantically, trying to come up with a way to undo it all. To go back to 8am and get in the car with Kim and drive to work and listen to her nag me about whether I’d eaten breakfast.

I’m fine, Sam,” was all I could come up with.

I could hear her brain working, trying to come up with a new angle to convince me. “Well, just let them in so they can see that you’re okay, and then it’ll all be okay. But if you don’t let them in then we don’t know you’re okay.”

I caved, but it didn’t matter – they’d gotten into the building anyway, and they were on their way up.

I’m going to stay on the phone, okay? Will you leave me on the phone so I can be here if you need me?

The whole conversation makes me cringe, and I want to block it out and hold it close, both at the same time. But that part – that part makes me feel warm. She wanted to stay with me.

***

That afternoon was beyond awful. The police called the paramedics, and they decided not to schedule me, and I was pitifully relieved. But the sedative effect of the pills took all control away from me.

I had a psychiatrist appointment in the city, and I woke up five minutes before it started. Getting up and walking downstairs was a struggle, and I kept gagging in the back of the Uber. By the time I walked into the building, I was staggering like I was drunk, and I crashed into the wall and then collapsed on the floor. I couldn’t get up. My face felt hot and my arms were tingling and I thought I was really going to die.

This is rock bottom, I thought. Oh my god.

Lawyers from the chambers in that building were walking past and stepping over me, but there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t sit up, I couldn’t keep my mouth closed, and I couldn’t think of anybody I could call. I just had to lie there.

After fifteen minutes or so, I managed to stagger the four steps into the lift, and once I reached the fourth floor, I stepped out and collapsed again, so close to my psychiatrist’s door I could have reached out and touched it. It was another ten minutes before I could get up again.

***

I didn’t go in to the office the next day, but I talked to Sam on the phone. She tells me she feels closer to me, and she feels like she got to talk to the real Rea for the first time.

I don’t want to dump this stuff on you, though.”

There was a moment on the phone where I just got this gut feeling that you’d gone – I thought you’d slipped away, and the way that felt…” She trailed off.  “Anything is better than that. I’d do anything to prevent that.”

***

Things kept getting worse.

It’s heartbreaking for me to see you like this,” Kim says, while I’m lying on the couch in the Story Room at work, unable to get up and sit at my desk.

We’re deeply worried about you,” Carol says, after pulling me into a private office to ask me why I have steri-strips holding together a cut on my face.

Everest isn’t the only one who loves you,” Sam says, holding me while I sob and tell her she has to keep Everest if I die.

One night, when there’s nobody else around, I take out the rope I bought specifically for this purpose, climb up onto a wobbly desk chair that’s missing a wheel, and hang myself from a bracket in the wall. The rope leaves friction burns on my neck, and even though I cover them with concealer the next day, people notice.

***

A couple of days ago, Carol and Sam left for a week-long visit to one of our remote program sites, and the childish intensity of my feelings was terrifying – I had to literally bite into my tongue to stop myself saying “I don’t want you to go“. When I found Sam had rushed to the airport without coming to say goodbye to me, I was crushed.

But I wanted her to check on me, the little parts whimpered. I wanted a hug goodbye. 

Yesterday morning I had to text them both to tell them I’d be working from home – that’s the deal. If I don’t show up and they haven’t heard from me, they call the crisis team.

Are you okay? Is there a particular reason for working at home today?” Carol texted back.

This is where I fucked up. I could have kept a balance between honesty and boundaries, and told her I wasn’t feeling great but I was able to work as long as I could stay in bed. But those baby parts have no fucking boundaries. They hurt, and they need mommy to know that they hurt.

Nope, not okay. Mostly working from home because I can’t get up, but also am not safe being in the office atm. I am being productive and have talked to [boss] about priorities for today and tomorrow.”

Reading that makes me want to kick myself in the face. I hadn’t told anyone about hanging myself in the office and the massive triggers I was facing there and I desperately needed someone to hear that things were really not okay, but I knew that sending that message was just feeding an unhealthy dynamic. I knew, and I sent it anyway, because I so desperately needed to not be alone.

She called me immediately, and tried to convince me to go to the emergency room. I didn’t want to, so she gave us both half an hour to think, and then she and Sam called me back on speaker, and spent twenty minutes coaxing me into a safety plan for the rest of the day. We agreed I’d work for an hour, then I’d go out for a walk, and I’d text Carol a photo so she knew I’d got up.

Okay, so that’s the plan – you do that, and then we’ll talk again later this afternoon, okay?

You really don’t have to do that.

Yeah, I know, but we want to do that,” Sam said firmly, and Carol chimed in over the top of her.

Yes, we want to.” And I felt held, and a little more stable. I showered, and I went out. I texted Carol a photo of the McDonalds sign [“This is what you meant when you said to go outside, right?“], and sent Sam a couple of photos of the kittens.

They didn’t call.

***

I cried on my bathroom floor for hours last night. I thought about taking myself to hospital, but the thought of going alone…I didn’t want to do it. I wanted Carol or Sam to take me. I thought about texting Kim, but it was late, and I was afraid she’d say no. Or say yes, even though she didn’t want to. A couple of weeks ago, on a really bad day, she’d offered to take me to the hospital, but made it clear that she’d just drop me off, she couldn’t stay – she had to work on a scholarship application with her daughter that night. And it stung. She’s not my mother, and her daughter comes first. But it stung.

I feel very alone. I know there are millions of people in the world who feel the same way I do. Who’ve hurt themselves the way I have, and worse. But in my therapy groups, in my friends who self-harm, I’ve never connected with anyone who understands what it’s like to spend hours breaking your own wrist. To burn yourself badly enough to need surgery. To smash your head against the wall hundreds of times until you’re bleeding from your eyes. To have done two of those things while you were still a child. I’ve hurt myself so, so much. It feels like too much.

I climbed into bed with Everest, and she curled into me with her head on my chest. I kissed her nose, and told her I loved her so much, and that everyone knew how much I loved her, and they’d make sure she was okay.

And then I took an overdose of Panadol.

(Which I almost immediately threw up. I’ve taken so many overdoses my body anticipates the nausea before it even comes. I can still feel the chalky taste of the pills in my mouth.)

***

There was no way I was going to the office this morning, but I didn’t want to tell Sam and Carol that. I wanted to be petulant and sulk. I’m not your friend any more. Making them chase me, though – no. I was grouchy with them, but I didn’t want them to be grouchy with me. So I sent a short text: “Staying home today“.

An hour or so later, Sam called me to check in, in a casual ‘I’m assuming everything is okay’ kind of way, and we chatted amiably for a couple of minutes. Until I threw another.fucking.dramabomb.

Is there anything you need from me before I go?” she asks.

It would be good if you or Carol could refer me to the crisis team,” I say off-handedly, and she’s startled.

What’s happened?

It doesn’t matter.

It does, it does! Okay. You’re very – well done, okay? Have you taken something?

 

We go back and forth – I’m cagey, trying not to over-share, and she’s insistent that I tell her what’s going on.

Don’t be shame with me,” she says firmly. The way Aboriginal people speak about shame really resonates with me – it’s not something I feel, it’s something I am. Every piece of me is consumed with it, wants to disappear into myself, hide. I’m so mad at myself for being so high maintenance. I’m not worth it; I’m a waste of space; they should just fire me for causing so many issues.

I tell her. Carol calls the crisis team multiple times, and they refuse to get involved.

***

I don’t know how to make myself stop.fucking.disclosing.everything. I have to have better boundaries, but it’s so hard to put that cat back in the bag. Especially when they’re actively encouraging me to reach out to them. I’ve made some feeble attempts to be more professional and take a step back, but:

I don’t want to keep holding you guys up. I know you’ve got lots of stuff you need to be doing.”

You’re not holding us up. I don’t want you to feel like that. We want to make sure that you’re safe. That’s the priority – us supporting you as best we can.”

How can I not crumble?

Mommy Transference at Work