Days without therapy sometimes feel like days without breathing. Even when I see J three times in a week, I still feel so full of everything I want to say to her on the days in between. My life feels like a constant bombardment of frustration, confusion, worry and hurt. The annoying thing is that I won’t talk to anyone else about what’s in my head. Instead, it all builds up pressure in my system until I become agitated and irritable. Eventually I withdraw into a blurry grey cloud of silence.
Today in therapy, J asked me why I withdraw. To start with I couldn’t think of an answer. It’s hard to explain why you do something when it is a habit, when it’s something you’ve always done. Retreating into myself is second nature to me.
I guess it is an old pattern. I grew up with a brother and sister who were always tempestuous, forever yelling and kicking off about one thing or another. I decided for myself at a young age that my parents had no more capacity to manage that. So I elected to be the easy one, the compliant child that never caused them any bother.
Probably in my earliest days I wasn’t like that. I don’t know. My mum tells me I never really cried much as a baby. I was happy to be passed around and cuddled by everyone. I didn’t have toddler tantrums. So perhaps it goes back even before I could sense that there was no room for my emotions. But I feel as though somehow I always knew that I couldn’t be like my siblings.
When my sister was 11 she took an overdose of Paracetamol. Nobody really asked why, they just took her to the hospital to get her stomach pumped. I was 13 and for two years had already been carrying the burden of all the fallout from my parents discovering my brother had been sexually abusing me. I was still behaving as the model daughter, fearing that if I showed any upset over that massive trauma my parents might not love me any more. It sounds irrational now, but it made sense at the time.
I can remember being furious with my sister. I didn’t for one moment worry about whether she would be OK or whether there was something awful going on for her too. I can recall as though it were yesterday the one thought that stuck in my head. I was jealous of her. And I was angry because I wanted to be dead. Having seen how distraught my parents were at what she’d done, I knew I couldn’t go ahead and do it myself and I hated her for taking that from me.
This is odd because I also know I didn’t consciously consider suicide before that point. I didn’t even class myself as feeling depressed. I cried alone in my bedroom most nights and was haunted by guilt and shame over the abuse, but in the daytime I put it all aside and got on with life. I went to school and made friends and got good grades, never for one moment stopping to think about my suffering. At the end of the day, I would often crawl into bed and cry as quietly as I could so nobody would know.
I would cry about not being innocent anymore, about how much pain my parents were feeling knowing this, and I would cry because I felt like it was all my fault. I couldn’t go to my parents for comfort, as it would have meant telling them I hated myself for hurting them and for doing those disgusting things. I didn’t want to speak about the abuse, I didn’t want to give words to my awful experiences and make them real. Most of all, I didn’t want to cause trouble.
In my effort to avoid becoming what I saw as yet another problem child for my parents, I developed the ability to shut myself down emotionally and disappear.When you’ve been doing it all your life, it’s a pretty tough habit to break.
Photo: Alias 0591, Creative Commons.