Reflecting the year in therapy

Just over a year ago, on 3rd January 2019, I started seeing a therapist again. Here are my thoughts on the past year. 

I’m glad I decided to seek help through therapy and the sessions have really helped me. However, because my issues have been going on for so long, I think that there’s still some way to go yet. 

It has been good for me (and probably for my husband) for me to have had someone to express my feelings and talk to. I think that sometimes I just needed another outlet, other than him. I think it’s helped me to not be angry all the time. It’s also helped me to be more aware of my temper and to be able to manage my response to people. I’m not where I want to be yet, but I think I’m going in the right direction, although lately I’ve been rather stressed and also a bit downtrodden with respect to what’s going on in the world. The shittiness of what’s going on around the world are making me feel rather despondent and somewhat lose hope in humanity.  

On the issue of social anxiety and awkwardness, I sometimes felt that some of my therapist’s comments or suggestions weren’t very helpful to me and actually made me more anxious. For example, when I expressed feelings of awkwardness and apprehension in social settings or when meeting new people, I remember several times when she suggested something along the lines of “just do it” or “what’s the worst that could happen?”, which to me personally doesn’t really help. I feel that the word “just” makes it worse for me. The thing is, my problem is that I can’t “just” do it, so suggesting that I do feels counterproductive for me. It makes me feel like if I can’t just do it then I’m a failure. I know that I have a tendency to overthink pretty much everything but telling me to just not think doesn’t make me not think. If anything, it makes me think about them even more.  

On the issue of my sister: I’m of two minds about what I want my relationship with her to be, or whether to have one at all. Right now, it seems nice not thinking about her but perhaps that’s just avoidance rather than getting at the root of the problem and trying to solve it. I do know though that I will have to face it – and her – again before too long as she is due to move back into town in the middle of this year, so I won’t be able to avoid her, and how she makes me feel, forever. So, I guess leading up to her coming back, I should probably try to work on some coping mechanisms with my therapist? And possibly how to go about untangling the mess that is my relationship with her? I think that one of the hardest things for me is standing up to her, being more assertive, not letting her get her way just to make it stop, and creating healthy boundaries. I guess I’m afraid of the backlash, and because I’ve used the avoidance method for so long, actually confronting her seems like a really daunting prospect. I remember my therapist saying before that when someone (like a small child) is screaming and shouting, or having a tantrum, it’s not always worth arguing back, and if you keep responding to or giving in to the child then they’ll know that their tantrums have worked and they’ll keep using the same methods to get their way. But then, how would I draw the line, create the boundary? When does ignoring become avoiding conflict or giving in? Actually, I have been reading up a bit on that, and they mostly seem to make sense, but putting it into practice is much more difficult than “in theory”. 

What I would perhaps like to work on more, as well, are how not to overthink everything, my anger issues and social anxiety. I’ve done a lot of reading on the issue of social anxiety, and it turns out that there are a lot of people like me. So, it’s not uncommon to be socially anxious or awkward, nor to overthink things. While I don’t want to change myself completely (I actually like that I reflect on things and consider things I and other people do rather than just go through the world blindly without caring or thought), but I could do with scaling it back a bit sometimes. Are there “exercises” I could do to help with this, I wonder? I find that I am quite often unable to let go of the simplest things and tend to dwell on them unnecessarily.  

Chronic self-doubt has also hindered both my academic and social developments, so I would also like to address that. I’d also like to be more assertive, whilst avoiding being aggressive. I appreciate that these issues probably stemmed from the issues with my family, especially my sister, but I would like to somehow separate them from each other if at all possible. I’d like to try to make the most of living here and not be cripplingly unhappy here, constantly pining for some other unattainable place, because it’s not helping me nor my husband. So, I think that working on some of these underlying issues would help me to be more equipped to cope with living and working in a place I hadn’t originally chosen for myself.  

One of the things I realise now (after having written all of the above) is that I don’t think I want to change myself completely. When I started out on this journey, there were many things about myself that I desperately wanted to change so that I would be a “better” person, or a happier person, or so that I could “fit in”. But at the end of the day, I don’t think I want to change the core of who I am. I’m someone who is forever conflicted within myself, oftentimes awkward and anxious around people, an overthinker and constantly doubting myself. I quite often find myself on the edge of groups rather than in the middle, constantly at odds with people (even myself). I would perhaps like to be more confident and assertive, more easy-going around people, able to set boundaries with my sister, and less quick to anger at the “smallest” things. But I also like that I’m complicated, and a lot of the so-called “negative” things are what make me who I am. I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I would like to make some improvements, I don’t want to strive for something I think I *should* strive for. I would like to be more comfortable with who and how I am, flaws and all, and not constantly beat myself up about it.  

These are some of the things I have been reflecting on. 

Snow-cold, hot blood

Blood is thicker than water, but it is also more slippery.

Looking back at that previous post got me wondering the same thing my therapist asked me: Where were my parents in all of this? I mean, how could they not have heard the screaming and shouting? But they did … I think … sometimes. Trying to remember. When they did catch us (yes, catch is the right term) they would sit us both down and give us a stern talking to. I don’t remember ever being asked for our side of the story. I don’t remember ever being encouraged to open up. Being caught arguing was just that: It led to us being punished without any real attempts to hear us out. The punishments ranged from having to sit passively for hours (no joke – I remember occasions where we sat for five or six hours without moving, and that includes going to the bathroom and eating) while they lectured (well, actually, just he – while he lectured) at us, to being made to sit by myself in a dark room (er … solitary confinement, anyone?). From stern talkings-to like Don’t point the finger, Don’t deflect blame, Don’t argue, to things like You’ve only got one sister, you shouldn’t argue to … oh, I don’t even remember the half of it. It’s kinda hard for a child to focus on words being spoken at them non-stop for many many hours. I zoned out a lot, or I tried to anyway. He would even go into his own shitty childhood, comparing it to our privileged one, and how we should be so lucky to have a loving and reasonable father, a loving family, a loving sister. A lot of it was all about himself! He did all the talking, lecturing, scolding, setting the rules. Even mum had to sit and listen passively most of the time. He lectured us on how to behave, how not to behave, what to think, how to feel! How we need to love each other, not argue with each other. But they never tried to get to the bottom of why we were arguing (or rather, why my sister was screaming at me) or what the disagreement was about, or how either of us felt. Then they would tell my sister off for shouting, for how she was the older sister and needed to be a good example to her younger sister, how she needs to be the responsible one, which of course made her resent me even more. And then they would tell me off for being stubborn, how I need to be a good little sister and listen to my responsible big sister, which of course made me resent her even more.

So when I said earlier about being caught arguing, I guess we also somehow learned to argue out of their earshot. We somehow mastered the art of conflict without being caught. It didn’t always work, of course. It’s not as if we were criminal masterminds. We were children. But the more we kept it “underground”, as it were, the more toxic it became. My sister started telling me how I should feel – like the way my dad told us how we should feel. Despite her resentment at being made the responsible one, she took it to heart. If we had a disagreement or an argument, she would alternate between shouting at me and lecturing me on how I was to feel. She would make me apologise, but if I didn’t sound like I meant it (which I usually didn’t) she would go off on another round of verbal eruption. She had to be right, and I had to be wrong. Not only did I have to be wrong, I had to admit it … and mean it. But she was never satisfied, because I never meant it!

Oh … remember in the previous post when I said I wouldn’t let her see me cry? Well, she didn’t seem to have any problems letting me see her cry. In fact, that was part of her strategy. In addition to the shouts, she would also usually cry at the same time. You see, I was always being painted as the cold-hearted little bitch that was cruel and selfish. Her crying made her the victim. My stone-faced silence made me the villain. She was good. I was bad. That was what I was to believe too, and if I felt any guilt at all or any sense of decency at all then I would atone by letting her have her way. But often I would let her have her way just to make it stop – the seemingly endless cycle of verbal hacking and slashing. If it ended up with her not getting her way, somehow, we would spend days not talking to each other. And then my parents would sometimes notice. And then if they noticed we weren’t speaking to each other for whatever reason, that was us getting caught. And it was back to the punishments.

The thing is, though, I wasn’t an emotionless cold-hearted bitch devoid of feeling. I started to question my worth. Maybe I was truly a horrible person. Maybe I was a damaged fruit. So much confusion and feelings were starting to build up. Did my not crying in front of her make me cold? But I wasn’t gonna give her the satisfaction. She wants to accuse me of being cold? Fine. I will be.

At one point, I guess because she couldn’t force me to willingly admit to being wrong, she made me write it down! No, not just some pen on some paper … oh no, that would be too kind, wouldn’t it? She made me use the fountain pen my parents gave me to write it down in the leather diary my parents gave me. My fancy pen in my personal diary. She dictated the words for me to write down in my diary, using I sentences for me to copy out her dictation, as if I actually felt that way. Stuff like I was wrong. I am sorry I was stubborn. How fucking fucked up is that? She was violating my private, personal space (diaries were a sacred thing, you know), forcing me to accede to her demand. She was demonstrating her ultimate power over me, she was showing me that she could control not only my actions but my thoughts. The act of my writing her words into my diary was the very representative of thought control. But even though she bullied me into writing down her words as though they were my own feelings, they were not my feelings. I wrote them, mentally resisting every step of the way. She was trying to control my thoughts and feelings, but I would not let her. It was totally messed up. I was so angry – still am. How could she do this to me? How could I let her? Quite!

Why did you let her? Another thing my therapist asked. I don’t know! I don’t fucking know! I was a bloody child! I don’t know why I let her make me. But I did. I did and it still pisses me off to this day. It pisses me off on so many levels. It was the ultimate power stamp. And it would happen over and over again. I would “agree” to something or let her have her way just to shut her up. But that was it, wasn’t it? It would lead to her getting her way. But she would still be pissed off because even though she managed to get her way through force, deep down she new I didn’t mean it. She knew I didn’t willingly give it to her. Because that’s what she really wanted: her way and for me to have given in to her willingly. But she would never get it because she used screams and verbal torrents to get it. So she would never be truly satisfied. And I would be dissatisfied. I would be left wondering why the fuck I let her … again. But it happened. As children. She learned to scream and shout at me. I learned to stay silent. If she kept on screaming and shouting, I would keep on staying silent. But then she would demand something of me. If I refused, she would start screaming and shouting at me again. Then she would go off on the many many reasons I was wrong, and selfish, and stubborn. Then she would demand of me again. If I continued to refuse, she would start at the beginning of the cycle of screaming and shouting. If I tried to argue back, she would alternate between the screaming and shouting, and listing all my horrible faults and qualities of being a selfish and horrible person, or all of those at the same time. She never seemed to tire. More often than not, eventually she got her way. It happened. When we were children. But then it happened again. We were still children. Then it happened again. We were teenagers. And again. Teenagers. And again. Adults. It was a cycle that started somewhere in the long past when we were children and suddenly, we were adults. And it was still happening. But we didn’t live in the same house anymore. I am an adult now, have been for more than half my life now. I can’t let her have power over me. But it’s been happening for so long. I still don’t know how to deal with it. You’d think it would be easier to deal with as an adult, but no. If anything, it’s harder. It’s so entrenched, fossilised.

There were no boundaries. Our parents had no idea what was happening between us. When I was a child, I didn’t have any power. Nobody told me how to set boundaries. Now as adults, because boundaries were never set, when we have serious disagreements we seem to revert back to being children. She still thinks she can use the same strategies as when we were children, and sometimes it even works. But she can’t sit me down and dictate words for me to write in my diary anymore. But I still don’t know how to fight back. She still tries the same scream tactics, and I default to silence. But now adays, I mostly just avoid her and have as few interactions with her as I can. I’m trying to work through it with my therapist, but it’s hard. It’s really fucking hard, and most of the time I feel like I just don’t have the time or the energy to put up with her. When I don’t interact with her, my life seems so much more peaceful.

Keeping it hidden

Those who build walls are their own prisoners.

Ursula K. Le Guin, from “The Dispossessed”

So after that first cut there of course came more. It was my coping mechanism, somehow. And it was pretty addictive. I didn’t have any intentions of escalating it. I didn’t actually want to properly maim or incapacitate myself. I just wanted to feel the sting on my skin. I didn’t want it to stop me from going to school or doing stuff. So, that first cut at the tip of my finger. Well, it was getting in the way. I didn’t have a computer then, so it wasn’t like I had to use my fingers to type. But it got in the way of playing guitar. You see, I was learning to play the guitar. And the cut was at the tip of my left index finger. I needed that finger to press the guitar strings. That wouldn’t do. It had to be somewhere else that didn’t interfere with my everyday life. So I found other places to cut. First, the palm of my hand, but that turned out to get in the way too. So then my forearm: the inside of my forearm. That was pretty good. I wore lots of bangles at the time (it was the eighties), so that served to both hide my cuts but also every time I moved my arms around the bangles would rub against the cuts, hurting me, reminding me they were there but not getting in the way of my actually doing stuff. Just a constant refreshing of pain, without having to reapply the incisions, until they eventually healed. Perfect. That became my location of choice for quite some time.

So, they weren’t particularly well-hidden. I mean, I didn’t show them to anyone, but I didn’t go out of my way to hide them either. Like, I didn’t do them on my legs ‘coz, well, I couldn’t see them all the time. I wanted that visual reminder, as well as the physical feeling. I didn’t want to hide them from myself. Bizarrely, no one noticed. Actually, I think my sister saw them once and asked what had happened. I lied and said I got scratched by the cats that were taking refuge in our garden. That seemed to satisfy her. Or if it didn’t, she didn’t raise any alarms or anything. Fine by me. It was my personal secret. It had nothing to do with her. Oh, but it did. It’s not like I did it for fun. The sting on my arm was the physical representation of the pain she was causing me inside – the pain I didn’t know how to cope with, the pain I couldn’t see.

Where were my parents in all of this? My therapist asked me this. They were around. They were physically present. But they knew nothing of this. They had no idea the power dynamics between my sister and me. They didn’t exactly encourage us to speak out, remember. Don’t point fingers. Don’t make a fuss. Listen when your elders are speaking. Sit still and pay attention. I don’t remember them ever asking us questions like How are you feeling or What are you thinking? They never seemed to want to know how we actually felt. It was more like This is how you should think or It doesn’t matter how you feel, you shouldn’t show it or make a fuss.

I became really good at keeping things to myself. I learned to become an obstinate little child, then teenager, then adult. I learned not to argue back but I also would not concede. When my sister and I had disagreements, she would scream at me and demand all sorts of things from me. But she was also expecting a response. I didn’t give it to her. I would sit there, tight lipped, silent. That really infuriated her and made her scream at me even more. It could go on for hours. She would screech and scream, repeating the same things over and over, trying to get a response. But I would not give it to her. It was my way of fighting back. Little did I know that it wasn’t actually fighting. Or was it? I don’t know. My therapist said that when people are screaming at you like that, it’s often not worth talking back. I’ve also read that people who do that want a response, they want you to talk or shout back so that they could have the last word. I couldn’t analyse my reasons at the time, but that was my resistance: staying silent, refusing to respond. She got to have the last word … over and over and over again. But it didn’t satisfy her. And it didn’t help me. My obstinacy pissed her off, which was somehow satisfying to me. But at the same time, every stroke of her voice, every note, every word she flung at me hit me. It cut, and scraped, and bruised and wounded. I was only a child. I wasn’t some hardened old crone toughened by years of cynicism. I didn’t have to means to protect myself. I was not made of diamond. I was a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood child who was constantly being verbally shred to pieces. Even so, I would not cry in front of her. I did not cry in front of her. I just sat there, stone-faced, resisting. She would not have the pleasure of making me cry, of seeing me cry. That would be for later, for when I was in the shower, by myself. That was the only place I could be by myself away from their words. Away from them all. It was my only haven. No, that’s not true. It was my only physical haven. My mind was my true haven. The only place I could keep hidden away from them. The only place that was truly mine, that they could not share. They could not touch me there … or so I thought. But of course they could touch my mind. Keeping it hidden from them didn’t prevent it from being untouched, unblemished. They just couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see it. The pain, the hurt that was being thrown around. It has had far-reaching effects on my psyche and has left some lasting impressions. I was building a wall around my mind, but all the while a trench was being carved by an invisible blade. Deeper, deeper, deeper. My mental wall kept them out, but it didn’t protect me. I got stuck inside in my own head, falling further and further down the pit of my mind. They could not get in, but I too could not get out.

The first cut

Self-harm, they call it these days. But back in the day, I didn’t know what it was called. Was it called self-harm? If it was, I didn’t know. There was no internet then. I couldn’t look it up. I didn’t even know that it happened to other people. I was eleven. That was the first time. You never forget the first time. If I close my eyes, or even if I don’t, but I take a moment to remember, I can still remember the feeling. The physical feeling, the mental feeling. The trepidation. The allure. The fear. The anticipation.

I’m in the shower. I’m gonna use the Swiss army knife my dad gave me (yeah, he gave an eleven-year-old a Swiss army knife) to make an incision in my skin. But where? It’s gonna hurt like hell. Or will it? Surely it can’t hurt more than what I feel inside. I’ve had bruises and scrapes on my knees before from playing. It wasn’t that bad. It doesn’t take that long to heal. Just a little cut. OK, my finger tip. The tip of my left index finger. OK here goes. No, I’m too scared. I can’t do it. I stare at the fingertip for ages, water from the shower running down my face, my hands, pocket knife in the other hand. How hard can it be? It’s just gonna be a small cut. One that I can control. One that I can do to myself, not something that is done to me. I am in control of this pain. I am in control, not them. OK here goes. Slice. Er … nothing. Not even a scratch. My skin is tougher than I thought. OK, again. Slice. Ouch. An electric current speeding through my finger to my brain. Blood seeping through from inside the damaged leather, washing down my hands and forearm by the shower. That hurt. Of course it did. Did I think it wouldn’t hurt? No, of course not. I knew full well it would hurt. Does it hurt as much as I do inside? No. It doesn’t. And I can see this pain, well the manifestation of the pain on my skin. I understand this pain. In a few days it will close up and heal. But I don’t understand what’s inside. What I can’t see. And I don’t know how it can heal. But this. This is superficial. I can see it. I can live with this. I will do it again.

Expressing my thoughts

I’ve always thought of myself to be good with words, a competent writer, erudite. I used to write poems as a kid, and kept a diary. But this is harder than I realised. This being starting a blog, writing down my feelings and thoughts, and releasing it into the labyrinthine world that is the internet. I don’t imagine anyone would ever read this, and I’m not sure I even want to interact with whoever that does. I guess I’m kinda old school that way. You know, when keeping a diary meant it was private, for my eyes only. And in a way, this is … kinda private? Only it’s not. It’s a really strange feeling, to know that anyone anywhere in the world could read this. I know, I could set the options to private, so no one could read it, but that would be too safe, wouldn’t it? I always play things safe. This is just that little bit more dangerous. Scary. Not knowing who is reading my words, not knowing what anyone thinks or is saying about them. But I remember that in the early days of the internet, one didn’t know anyway. There was barely any interaction between the person writing the blog or creating the website and the readers. You had a website, you put words on it, maybe some shitty gifs or whatever, and that was that. There wasn’t really a need or expectation for the rest of the world to be able to comment, scrutinise or get back in touch. I think I prefer it that way. I’m more-or-less safe in my little corner of cyberspace. Whoever happens to pass by can read what I write. If they find it interesting, or can relate, they can stick around or come back for more. If they don’t like what I have to say, well frankly, they can just piss off and leave me alone to my little domain.

Since I was a kid, I’ve usually tried to keep my thoughts to myself. I think it was some sort of safety mechanism I used to protect myself from put-downs, especially from my sister, but it was possibly also that my parents didn’t really encourage us to speak up or express ourselves. Especially being the youngest in the family, it was as if I were at the bottom of the pecking order. Us kids (my sister and I) had to listen to the adults talk without questioning or interruption. And the little sister (me) was expected to listen to the older ones (my parents and my sister). So I wasn’t expected to voice my opinions at all! Not that I always played by the rules. But I guess when you’re little, you don’t really have the means to fight back. So I kept my thoughts to myself. And I guess that was where it came from. But I wasn’t just gonna let them control me with me being the dutiful listener and follower. So I guess I somehow turned that forced silence into some sort of fighting back strategy? Meaning, I guess I just learned to be tight lipped, even when they did expect me to speak up. I’m not saying it was a good thing. I’m just saying that it was something I did as a child and well … all the way to adulthood, I suppose. And it somehow shaped me. But it hasn’t always served me well. Of course it hasn’t. Enforced silence never leads to good things. And I am living through the consequences even now in my middle years. And the power dynamics between my sister and I from when we were young is still giving me gripe now in adulthood. Shitey sibling dynamics don’t just go away when you grow up.

So anyway, why now? Why am I expressing myself now? Well, you know, if I never start it will keep eating me up inside until the fabric of my core has all disintegrated and I’m left with nothing but a hollow shell. Also, I started seeing a therapist again and she suggested I put my words out there. So here I am, trying to untangle the emotional and psychological mess that’s been coiled up inside me for so many decades. I’m trying to heal some of the hurt I’ve experienced over the years, and trying to let go of the things I cannot change. Even writing this just now, without all of the specifics and details, is hard and is making me remember all the times that I was struck down. No, not physically. Never physically. That’s something, at least. But verbally. Always verbally. The words, the tone of voice, the look. There are no visible scars, no visible bruises, no broken bones. But the unseen things hurt all the same. Not in the same way, of course, but hurt they do. And they cut deep. Deep deep into the chasm of my being, the very fabric of who I am. All my insecurities, my low self-esteem, my chronic depression, my lack of self-worth. They have had nearly half a century to take hold and fester. Healing won’t be easy, if it is even possible. But I should at least try.

Writing this has really taken it out of me, reaching in to the places I don’t want to go. I guess that’ll do for a first post. Maybe I’ll come back soon, maybe not. Who knows. Still, this is a start.