I’ve been having the nightmare again.
In it, I could be seventeen or twenty-nine. In it, I am standing in my childhood bedroom, looking out the window at the front lawn. There’s a weird unstuck-in-time feeling; it could be morning or late at night, but the sky is a flat indistinct expanse over the rooftops and trees. The lighting is confusing, too–is it dusk? Dawn? Just a cloudy afternoon?
His old, beat-up white Buick rolls up to the curb and my stomach twists in on itself, the knots fluttering like anxious birds.
What did I do this time?
He could be in a good mood, or a bad mood, or both, or neither. He could be smiling while walking up to my front door but then want to talk to me, right up close (as Stephen King wrote in my favorite novel of his, Rose Madder).
Or maybe it’s fine. Maybe he’s just going to pick me up and we’ll go hang out with friends or sit in his car down by the river, just talking for hours.
But I know damn well it’s not fine.
I am all ages, all the time. My therapist says that I need to nurture my wounded inner child, which I thought sounded stupid and New Age-y until I actually started trying it out. It’s effective–when I get anxious or depressed, I look at my younger self and pull her close.
You didn’t do anything this time, or any time. It’s going to be okay.
I wish believing was as easy as speaking.
On Thursday, the anxious snakes took up residence in my belly as I cleaned the apartment. My fiance had had a rough day on Wednesday and I knew he was feeling crappy, and also that it had nothing to do with me. He wasn’t rude or snappy with me, but he wasn’t really in the mood to spend much time talking during our nightly phone call. I knew this wasn’t my fault.
But the ghosts, the echoes, they spun a different story. As I swept and cleaned the kitchen floor (which, with two cats, is a neverending chore), the words kept flowing into my mind.
I have to do this right or he’ll be upset.
My fella? He never gets upset with me, ever. I think we’ve had maybe one argument in the entire three years we’ve been together. He is sweet and gentle and kind. We coo over the cats together, make a game out of going grocery shopping, laugh at hideously dark things that we know aren’t supposed to be funny.
But the trauma said,
Do it right, or else. Or else he’ll be mad. Or else no one will love you.
I paused many times during my cleaning spree to speak aloud to myself, to that wounded, younger part.
He is not like X. You were a baby. It was not your fault.
Sometimes, it works, but I’m pretty sure it’s just me handing a squalling child a piece of candy to shut it up. I don’t actually deal with the feelings. I invalidate and suppress and push, push, push until they go away.
My therapist and I have done three EMDR sessions now, and it seems to be a magic bullet for me. The first two sessions dealt with my childhood and centered around two specific disturbing memories and the phrase, “My mother’s anger is not my fault.”
Today, we dealt with X and the nightmare, which has been occurring with alarming frequency. I recently took an elective on domestic violence, and I know that’s what’s stirred all of this up again.
The ghosts are not happy when you call them out. They want to stay hidden and rattle the windowpanes, throw a few dishes when you’re not watching too closely.
And they expect to get away with it.
Today, we embarked on a grand journey of the hell I lived from ages 17 to 19. We worked on the phrase, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” I’m mostly believing it now, but only as it pertains to that one image. I know we have more work, so much more work, to do before I’m healed.
But the most upsetting part isn’t the actual image or the memory. The worst part is how young I was, how vulnerable. X saw that. He latched onto it. He told me his tales of woe and wept insincerity, and I bought it. He took my kindness, my urge to nurture and pacify, as weakness.
I don’t often cry in therapy, but when I do, it’s because that girl back then was so young. She was a baby, even at 17, and I feel overwhelmingly protective of her, this past-me. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m more self-aware now or if it’s some sort of misplaced maternal instinct, but when we’re focusing on a memory in EMDR, I see myself standing beside her. By round three of EMDR*, I have my arms around her and I am holding her close. I am telling her that it’s okay, that she didn’t do anything wrong, that she is good and lovable and so much more than what the trauma says.
And as the session progresses, the frightened, anxious self–the part that believes she did something wrong–becomes defiant. It was amusing the first time it happened in our first session, when the five-year-old self in the memory we used actually kind of yelled back at my mother.
This time, the wounded self snapped, “If he’s pissy, it’s because he’s an asshole. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
This defiance, my therapist says, is a good sign. I think it is, too. Also, it makes me chuckle–I’ve always been pretty stubborn, and time and time again, I’ve seen that if I’m pushed and threatened enough, I will gain the strength and courage to fight back.
As much as I hate that I’m going to be in therapy for a while (my insurance is awesome, but the co-pays add up), as much as I hate that other people dealt enough damage to put me there, I recognize that I am fighting back. That is so much. That is everything.
I am fighting the ghosts. One day, I will drive the last of them from my house and I will finally feel the peace most people take for granted. Right now, I’m actually feeling pretty peaceful–I went into therapy feeling very tense, and as I drove home, every muscle in my body felt loose and relaxed in a way I don’t often get to experience while I’m awake.
I’m going to leave you with this thought, readers. People may have done damage to you, but you are not damaged. You can fight. And I’ll fight right alongside you.
We’ve got this.
* We typically do three or four rounds with the same memory and the same phrases. Your mileage may vary, but my sessions go like this:
- On a scale of 1-10, how distressing is the phrase (for example, “What did I do this time?”) to you now?
- On a scale of 0-7, how believable is the phrase you’d like to replace it with? (For example, “His anger is not my fault.”)
I use the hand buzzers because I’m migraine-prone so the blinking light isn’t great (and I find that closing my eyes helps me visualize the memory we’re using). Headphones with alternating sounds between the left and right side can also be used, but since unexpected or loud sounds in my left ear makes the dissociation spike for some reason, we ruled that out.
Bilateral brain stimulation is awesome! The brain is so amazing, how it can bend into impossible shapes, at impossible angles, and not break.
Love your brain, your beautiful “broken” brain, readers.