stepping stones

Resolutions & Stepping Stones

The leap year of 2016 is also the year of the Fire Monkey on the Chinese calendar. Mercury makes a rare transit between the sun and the earth, and many have already sailed through the first week of their New Year resolutions.

Many of the New Year resolutions we pledge each year can be a little on the ambitious side. Nevertheless, we press ahead with sword and shield, eager to prove they can survive beyond the average four-week lifespan. It’s not long before our Christmas inspiration encounters the cold, procrastinating winter months, and we begin to question just how realistic our goals were.

I sound like the New Year Scrooge, casting a shadow of doubt over the resolution party. But, as with the festive alcohol, naughty nibbles, and gut-busting meals, we need to apply equal amounts of moderation to our plans for improvement.

Many countries across the globe have conducted research into the success of New Year resolutions. Some of the more optimistic findings come from a University in Pennsylvania, where 77% of their participants made it through the first week. 55% stuck with it for one month, and 40% squeezed their way through six months.

Introducing healthy changes is hard enough, but breaking bad habits can be extraordinarily difficult, sometimes impossible. An old Therapist used to say, “Change is a process, not an event, and each stage of that process is preparation for the next.” Unfortunately, I’ve never been very good at self-discipline. Add depression to the challenge and it’s not long before the mix becomes toxic with failure and self-doubt.

Battling with mental health problems can be a destructive journey for anyone. My own self-esteem tumbles to an all-time low and faith in any prospect of change becomes distant and weakened with time. Even though I plan and exercise different steps to recovery, it’s hard to maintain motivation, when depression zaps every ounce of strength to function on the bad days.

The advice offered by millions of google articles on how to stick to New Year resolutions, sound similar to the strategies I learned during the therapy programme. Be realistic. Be specific and be prepared to divide each target into smaller goals.

I used to make the same annual resolution of enrolling on a full-time Diploma or Degree course. Somehow, studying became a gauge to recovery. But, I would lose a little more faith at the start of each term time, when my name failed to appear on a college register.

The ‘college’ word hasn’t come up on this year’s ‘to–do’ list, although the smaller goals aspire to the same objective. Weekly support groups, trauma therapy, and short vocational courses, comprise a set of sub-goals that feel more solid and doable. This doesn’t mean the process won’t escape the usual apathy, or the prospect of failure. It doesn’t seem to matter how small the goal, most of us fear any kind of failure, even though we should be embracing it the most.

Failure forms a necessary part of the human experience. They encompass a wide array of wonders, from the miracle of a child’s conception, to every invention witnessed by humankind. Yet, despite witnessing a solid record of success, we still regard failure as the enemy.

Whenever plans take an unexpected nose-dive, I’m soon berating my good-for-nothing-abilities and interpret the minor setback as major defeat. I’m guilty of one-track thinking and fail to see that there are other options, sub-goals… stepping stones.
Sometimes it’s better to hold off on some of our aspirations, until we acquire a better position. This doesn’t necessarily signify procrastination. We’re still moving forward, advancing on the same objective, only from a different angle. One of the group Therapists once said, “We need to step back and ask ourselves what can be done differently… what will help to conquer the hurdles?”

One of the most intriguing articles on New Year resolutions appeared in last week’s Independent newspaper in the UK. Scientists behind a study claim that people were more likely to stick to their goals if they discard the statements and present them as questions instead. Apparently, a question creates a psychological response beneficial to willpower and self-discipline.

Wishing everyone a very Happy and Healthy New Year and many answered Questions!

Ouch… Depression

I am not sure what is happening to me this week. I was feeling good on Sunday, probably the best in years, but I woke on Monday morning to that familiar gut wrenching depression. I’ve been here many times before, but experience does little to cushion the blow, or ease the fear of the unknown. No matter how acquainted we are with our own personal monster, there is always an element of uncertainty whenever ‘it’ comes to visit. How long will it stay… how grumpy will it be… will it rip my throat out… can I do anything to improve it. I’ve barely enough energy to function… barely the enthusiasm to get through the day.

I’ve asked myself many times if there’s an element of loss running through this. Paul made a sudden departure and group therapy ended. Even though I feel relieved for escaping the uncertainty, the disappointment is bound to cast a shadow over the closure. But, there’s not a lot I can do about Paul’s sickness and maybe this is a valuable lesson in acceptance.

The group Therapist emailed today. Even though I officially finished last Friday, she’s encouraging me to attend the last group before the Christmas holiday, which is this Friday. I don’t want to. I’m not sure what I can achieve by attending one last group, but I’ll certainly consider it.

There’s not a lot more I can say. Writing is extraordinary difficult, but I thought it’s important to try to connect.

The end of Therapy

I often contemplated the end of therapy, anticipating a time of fear and doubt. Now that I’m here, the experience isn’t the Armageddon I imagined. This might be due to exhaustion, or it could be the wobbly relationship with my Therapist, Paul.

I would say that our therapeutic relationship has been a comfortable one. His calm, laid-back character oozed an impartiality and empathy that only encouraged conversation to flow effortlessly. The initial months of therapy were testament to a life that had wadded through its fair share of trauma. I don’t know whether to cringe or laugh at some of the dysfunctional beliefs and statements from those earlier days, but it’s comforting to realise that I’ve come a long way.

It will take some time to appreciate the finer details of the therapeutic journey, but one important element missing, is my Therapist Paul. His absences have littered our therapy space since the beginning of the programme. The first few didn’t mean too much, but the strain intensified slowly, as we climbed through six, eight, and then twelve cancellations.

I wrote about most of this in my last post, so I won’t go over old ground. By the time he returned to work last week, I had managed to plough through most of the transference and the anger dissolved into a minor irritation. His absences haven’t ruin therapy, but the constant dripping of disappointment, could corrode the trust within any therapeutic alliance.

When Paul and I met two weeks ago, it was obvious that he had been talking to the Psychiatrist of the therapy team. He knew already that I had seen him on his knees. Perhaps she asked him to justify praying during work time… on my therapy time. I pretended not to notice how our accounts seem to have different timescales. I’m not stupid and know exactly what happened that day.

He would’ve looked for me in the reception area at 2pm. I’m typically a couple of minutes early, but seldom do I run late. On this particular day, I imagine how he seized the opportunity for a quickie – a prayer that is – before returning to fetch me from the waiting room five minutes later.

I wasn’t expecting him to sit in a chair and wait indefinitely, but I arrived at the therapy room approximately three to four minutes late… this is hardly enough time to apparently form a conclusion that I wasn’t coming.

We had a frank conversation two weeks ago, but it can’t be easy for a Therapist to get an earful of transference, especially if they’re not okay within themselves. It would be so easy to assume that his unreliable history demonstrates a lack of investment in my therapy. I don’t believe he’s irresponsible. Some of his clients from the distant past, are as surprised as I am.

Paul said the therapy service is offering to extend my time, but my indecisiveness changed the subject quickly. Rather than leave on the 9th December, I can stay until the end of January. I was probably being flippant and bitchy when I doubted his ability to fulfil the commitment.

Two days later, Paul phoned to change the time of our next session. He called back five minutes later to say, “Thank you.” When our appointment day arrived, I received an email from his boss.

“Dear Cat,

Apologies, but your appointment today with Paul is cancelled. Please contact re any concerns

I should’ve been annoyed, but my time with Paul is over and that feels strangely satisfying. It’s not all negative. The value of our time together far outweighs his absences.

I replied to his manager’s email. My leaving dates are Wednesday 9th Dec with Paul and Friday 11th for the group. Paul’s still off sick and won’t be available for my last session tomorrow, but it makes little difference. The end is disappointing, but it has been a wonderful experience.


Transference with my Therapist

Wow, this feels weird to be back in the comfort of my own blog. I’ve been on the missing list while I battled with technical issues for a few weeks. Luckily the PC is insured, but why are insurers ultra-efficient at collecting the cash and then so slow to deliver the goods.

Taking a break from writing about my therapeutic journey wasn’t such a bad thing. I didn’t have much choice because my therapist, Paul, went off sick… again. He must have cancelled between 10 & 12 sessions, which make up a significant chunk of time within an eighteen-month programme.

I last saw Paul about four or five weeks ago, but he didn’t see me. I had arrived a minute late for therapy and was dreading the wait at reception, which is a long, narrow corridor situated between three busy mental health units. Paul’s already aware of how my PTSD and agoraphobia struggle to deal with this area, but I didn’t feel confident in his attentiveness.

On this particular day, the reception was crowded with an impending drama unfolding. My first reaction was to hide in the toilet where I stood in the silence, listening to voices escalate on the other side of the door. It was four minutes into my therapy time and I had two options; leave the building or go straight to the therapy room. I chose the latter, which transpired as one of my biggest mistakes.

I approached the closed therapy room door with caution and peered through the small window. To my relief, Paul was alone, fixing something on the floor. I gently tapped on the door. His head half-turned in my direction before turning back to face the wall. I didn’t twig that he was in the middle of some kind of ritual, so I tapped on the window again.

It felt like something had just smacked me hard between the eyes. I stumbled backwards, dumfounded. Paul was bopping up and down on his knees. I returned to the reception corridor feeling humiliated, like a naughty pupil who had just witnessed his teacher in a very private moment. I couldn’t understand why Paul was doing his own thing in our therapy space, while I was on meltdown in an environment that we both know is unsafe.

I sat staring at the reception wall for eternity, but in reality, it was probably only for a minute or two. In those moments, all the previous cancellations came crashing down, one disappointment after another. I thought about Paul on his knees, while I questioned his commitment and his investment in my therapy. I walked slowly towards the exit, looking back one more time.

Over the next couple of days, I couldn’t understand why memories of childhood abuse were streaming through my mind. It became one of the most challenging times of my therapy, but it was about to get a whole lot worse. Two days later, I arrived for group therapy, hoping I might see Paul in the building. Instead, someone handed me a letter to say he was off sick for the next week, which turned into three.

Even though I am vaguely aware of transference in therapy, it took a while to realise this is what was playing out between Paul and I. At first, I was just flat_out_furious and with a raging war imploding deep within, I stomped around ruminating for days.

Transference isn’t isolated to therapy, but it can happen to each of us in different situations. It’s when a person reminds us of someone or something from the past. This might be in a positive way, or it can develop into a very distressing experience.

I blamed myself for his unreliable schedule and felt guilty for sharing my anger in group therapy, as though I had somehow deceived him. It was my fault for going to the therapy room and I was completely responsible for reacting so badly to a catalogue of events that was rocking our otherwise good relationship.

When we experience abuse in childhood, it’s difficult to understand why our caregivers would cause us so much harm. The only way a child makes sense of abuse and trauma is to shift the focus of blame from the abusers onto themselves. We internalise the belief that we are fundamentally bad and the words of our abusers become the sand and cement of our self-blame, “You deserved it… You had it coming… You brought it all on yourself…” Unfortunately, the self-blame doesn’t stay behind in childhood, but progresses into our adult lives.

In my rational mind, I know this is not my fault, but it’s difficult to unravel and dissolve a lifetime of believing I am solely to blame for just about everything. Not so long ago, I would’ve dumped Paul. Why would I want to stick with a Therapist who conjures memories of an abusive past?

Paul certainly didn’t let me down intentionally and his behaviour is not of an abusive nature. I’m quite sure he’s already aware of the impact these absences have on clients, but there are obviously some medical issues. This part of the therapeutic journey has been the hardest, but I realise that it’s also an opportunity to work with the transference. I guess self-blame doesn’t go away overnight, but one of the first steps is awareness.

It’s Time to Stop Running

runningI’ve sat through group and individual therapy each week for the last eighteen months, and during that time, we touched on every aspect of my life. My presence is no stranger to the therapy room, but this is the first time I was ever able to untangle childhood trauma. I thought we were making excellent progress, but I was aware of bouncing from one topic to another, which eventually led to disorientation and feeling very lost.

It felt as if something fundamental was missing from the therapeutic journey and it took me all this time to understand what that might be. I may well have dutifully conjured up challenging memories in therapy and identified all the right feelings, but I didn’t sit with them long enough to form any kind of conclusion or attain healing

It’s devastating to reach this stage in therapy and I even wondered if the entire experience has been one big avoidance trip. The thought of having to go back to the beginning and trawl through the feelings all over again is a daunting prospect and there’s something very shameful in admitting that this is where I’m stuck…. at my age… a prisoner within the same past trauma.

When I first started this blog, the tagline read, “A tale too tragic to tell.” I was trying to convey how it almost sounds tragic to recount so many traumatic experiences in one short life. I find it difficult to hear pity and the last thing I ever want to do is sit around licking old wounds until they’re raw. What I do need to do during my final months of therapy is to stop bouncing around and learn to sit with certain emotions long enough to hopefully generate a solid state of recovery.

Shame. Humiliation. Fear. Anger. Those may well be some of the hardest emotions to admit but they are much more painful to sit with. They are the fuel to my avoidance and the catalyst to a lifetime of mental health problems.

Something happened in group therapy on Friday that seemed a benign interaction at first, but it inadvertently made me aware of something I’ve not quite grasped before now. The only other male member of the group asked if I have a problem with him. “You always seem to look straight through me,” he said.

I don’t have any particular issue with him, but our small interaction did feel slightly uncomfortable. I thought about his comment for some time afterwards and I reckon that he probably does detect subtle hints of something uncomfortable. I realised last weekend that the issue is not with him, but rather what his gender came to represent in my own life.

When I was a little boy, people would easily mistake me for a girl. Everything about me felt feminine and this played out in how I walked, talked, and the toys I liked to play with. I was only ever comfortable playing around girls and the boys found my lack of interest in football distasteful.

Maybe the gender confusion infuriated dad or he may just be carrying baggage from his own childhood. Those reasons bare little importance to the healing today, but he was always an angry bully who terrified me from an early age. His loyal-family-man principles worked hard to put food on the table and clothes on our back, but I was still unable to trust his apparent goodness. I’ve never hated anyone as much as I did my own father and his obsessively strict parenting instilled an incredible – sometimes inappropriate – fear of aggression and violence.

Unfortunately, a fear of violence mixed with feminine characteristics didn’t go down well in a deprived housing estate where violence was an everyday part of life. Fortunately, I wasn’t often a victim of physical attacks, but the verbal abuse felt every bit as bad. “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you,” is a load of old baloney.

It was the older boys on the estate who would spout a tirade of derogatory names while threatening all manners of violence. My close group of friends – made up of both boys and girls – would say, “Take no notice,” but the shame and humiliation was devastating to live with. The gauntlet of abuse contributed to my refusal to attend school and all because I was not your “average” boy.

I’m not blaming myself, but those characteristics became an easy target by two separate paedophiles. The first lasted from the age of about five to eight, and the second from nine until I turned thirteen. At the time, I seem to have been a willing participant in our “games,” but of course, it was still abuse and the experiences had a significant influence in my overall trust of adults, especially men.

When I shared my gender confusion with the group months ago, everyone looked genuinely surprised, as there are no traces of femininity today. It took many years to rid myself of those very natural characteristics, although I do still harness a female part deep within.

I watched a programme on female to male transgender. One person said that one of the hardest things was to change some of her feminine characteristics into more masculine ones. He had to learn how to walk, talk, and sit like a man and be constantly aware of his demeanour in public.

I identify with that experience and even remember having to lower my voice to a tone that sounded more masculine. The world was very different back in the 70’s and if I wanted to avoid further persecution, there didn’t seem to be any other option. Through the years, all of these experiences came with a painful price of shame and humiliation, which harnessed the intense fear and anger.

I often wonder where the inner strength came from back then, but the desire to bounce back was always much stronger than the destruction. There was an element of self-blame and my narcissistic mother’s critical voice would ring out in my ears, “You brought it all on yourself.” The guilt soon became the mortar for shame and humiliation.

The ultimate betrayal came as a young adult when I became the victim of an attempted murder and my assailant was another male that I liked and trusted. It was never just about my attack, but the experience opened the door to a world of extreme violence and psychotic killers. I had never even spoken to a police officer in my life and now I was interacting with the judicial system and High courts. The reality became more traumatic than I ever imagined possible and it destroyed the last bit of faith I had in my fellow man.

I am very comfortable and happy with my sexuality and gender today, but I don’t understand why I’m unable to heal from the shame and humiliation, and the fear and anger. I do get along with men in my day-to-day life, but there’s always an underlying discomfort and this particular interaction in the therapy room has connected me with something I spent years avoiding.

It’s time to stop running

stop running

Secrets in Big Sky Country Review

FINAL SBSC front cover 44-17-15jpgIt was a great honour to be one of the first to read Mandy Smith’s new book, “Secrets in Big Sky Country.” I’ve looked forward to the release date and the opportunity to share this tragic and courageous memoir, which I highly recommend.

Mandy and Cliff’s childhood changed long before they understood the consequences of their mother’s decisions to divorce their father and then embark on a relationship with his brother. This would affect the siblings for the rest of their lives, but it was never about the children, only the narcissistic mother’s needs were important.

From the age of three years old, Mandy came to know her uncle as daddy, who quickly replaced the attention that was severely lacking from her self-absorbed mother. Mandy was his special little girl, but while her innocence soaked up his apparent attentiveness, he had other depraved ideas of his own. His manipulative grooming techniques and subsequent abuse roamed freely through childhood and into her teens, but Mandy’s most heart breaking experience was yet to come.

I’ve read a few memoirs about abuse in childhood, but Mandy presents a very different story, which is not too graphic or difficult to read. Without a doubt, she is an amazing storyteller of the facts and her book is a real page-turner. Mandy’s ability to dust herself down repeatedly and then move forward in the face of so much adversity is truly inspirational.

Whether you are a survivor looking for validation and healing, or a professional seeking a better understanding of child abuse, Mandy’s book will take you on that journey and stay with you for a very long time to come.

The book is now available on Amazon here and includes a wonderful review by Brad Hutchinson Executive Director of The Gatehouse

This is Mandy’s blog, ‘Healing beyond Survival.’

A Daunting Prospect

guiltyI was only just writing in my last post about the significant improvement in mood and then I woke two days later, with a severe dose of the blues.

While I’m struggling to understand the therapeutic process – or fully believe in the healing – positive changes are undoubtedly underway. The sudden turnaround in mood wasn’t immediately obvious until I reread my therapy journal from the night before. The words were bold and clear, adorned with question marks, “My attempted murder.”

When Wednesday came along, I really didn’t want to go to my session with Paul. I wasn’t consciously avoiding any connection with the memories of my attack, but I did feel suffocating apathy. I know from experience that something very powerful takes place whenever we choose to a sit with the feelings in therapy, even if they are only resentments for being there.

Paul sensed my unease, “It looks as though you’re finding it difficult to be here today.”

This took me by surprise. He’s one of the most passive Therapists I’ve ever met and not usually forthright with his own observations. We talked for a while about trivialities and then I eventually told him about my journal entry and the change of mood.

“It’s the only issue I haven’t yet focussed on in therapy, but I don’t know how to even begin talking about such a traumatic event. I can easily run through the details, but they always feel more like describing a movie, completely absent of any personal connection. I’ve never even thought about the impact it had on my life, never mind the feelings.”

“This reminds me of the issue you had during the initial months of therapy when you were experiencing dissociation from feeling anything in the moment.”

“I know this is a form of dissociation but awareness does not seem to help, it only adds to the frustration. Whenever I go in search of the feelings, there is only an empty space… nothing. If there are no emotions, what is there to talk about?”

“Do you feel anything right now?”

With great relief, I noticed the clock was approaching the end of our time, “The only thing I feel right now is intense fear, as though a black hole is opening at my feet… and I am slowly backtracking.”

Two days later, it was time for the weekly group therapy and once again, I desperately didn’t want to go. I can see how this was purely avoidance, but my mind was playing tricks at the time. I scrambled to find every possible reason not to go, even sabotaging the journey to keep me late.

I shared with the group how confusing it felt not to be able to talk about the feelings. One of the other members said something so simple that I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it myself.

“Sometimes it’s easier to identify the feelings, but quite another to feel them.”

That statement’s so true. I can identify the terror and helplessness, the fear and anger, the violation and intense hurt, or I can tell you about how it was the final straw to a lifetime of violence and injustice. The missing ingredient, crucial to healing, is the ability to feel any one of those emotions.

At the start of therapy, I had this general plan of the things I needed to talk about and, morebottling importantly, the emotions I should feel. I couldn’t bear to think about certain childhood memories and the thought of willingly analysing them in therapy was a daunting prospect, but I knew exactly what to expect.

The experience of almost losing my life to a psychotic murderer feels entirely different. Even though I lived with the aftermath all these years, the depth of emotion is completely new territory and any thought of digging up the trauma is terrifying. But, I will be disappointed if I reach the end of this therapy programme in January without a reasonable attempt to connect with the feelings.