A week or so after walking away from Susan I had a counselling session in which I spent the best part of an hour curled up on the floor with my fist in my mouth and wailing; tears, snot and saliva soaking the carpet beneath me. I’d certainly heard of people going back this far but could hardly believe that I was in that position myself.
At some point in this period I attended a one day counselling workshop. A couple of people I had been working with on a fairly regular basis were survivors of incestuous abuse in early childhood. The workshop was to be on the topic of counselling on early sexual memories, and a very experienced and well respected woman from America was to give a talk and demonstrations of counselling in this particular field.
At the time I wasn’t too sure whether I had any other motives for attending this workshop. Most of the early sexual memories that I could actually remember seemed fairly clear to me and centred around fantasies that I had indulged in in fairly late childhood to either comfort myself or to give myself some form of pleasure that I didn’t really understand. I’d long felt though, that there was much about my early infancy that I couldn’t remember and had begun to speculate that the key to conquering my depression might lie in these early years.
The workshop was more than just informative. A handful of individuals took the courageous step of volunteering for demonstrations in full view of other workshop participants. I was moved to tears by much that I heard and some of it was difficult to stomach. One description of abuse could have been lifted from the pages of a horror novel. The difference here was that the look of sheer terror and grief in this person’s face told me that this particular story had not been lifted out of a novel. Whether it was true or not was not for me to judge. What mattered was that this person had experienced something traumatic enough to leave emotional and psychological scars for the rest of their life, and here they were, trying their damnedest to recover.
As I’ve said, I wasn’t sure about my motives for attending this workshop other than feeling that I wanted more information about this field of work in order to function better as a counsellor for a couple of people I was working with. I felt that the pain I was working through at this time was connected with some sort of early trauma, but I wasn’t linking it to anything sexual. This was something that was to crop up later.
Meanwhile, I was finding it increasingly difficult to keep my head above water on a daily basis. In the past I had worked through various painful and difficult periods, but in general I had usually managed to carry on with the daily routines of life. Less than a week after walking away from Susan I walked into work and after struggling to get on with things for about an hour I burst into tears and excused myself.
I’m sure many people have opened a Champagne bottle. Some people simply push with their thumbs just under the cork and allow the pressure inside the bottle to do the rest of the work. However, others prefer the much more controlled method of firmly gripping the cork and easing it out by hand, resisting the pressure slightly as they feel it beginning to build up. This is a much less dramatic method of opening Champagne though many consider it to be the most professional way. I’d liken my experience at the time to starting off with the latter method, gradually realising at the point of no return that there was more pressure inside the bottle than I could manage, and the whole bottle then exploding in my face.
My biggest problem seemed to lie in managing the whole thing. For months I walked round in a mental fog: at work, at home and pretty well anywhere else I would suddenly be hit by waves of what I can only describe as utter terror. To describe them as panic attacks seemed at the time to be an understatement. At work, when they became too much to handle, I would disappear to the toilets or the rest room and try to sit them out. More often than not I would end up sobbing heavily or hitting the wall with clenched fists. Occasionally, I either didn’t make it that far or simply felt that there was no point in hiding the whole thing, and my workmates were witness to me sobbing quietly to myself at my bench while desperately trying to get on with my work.
In general I think my workmates handled the situation by leaving me to it. It wasn’t that they lacked compassion so much as it was a fairly traditional working class male environment. Feelings were rarely talked about let alone openly expressed. I think they held the view that the best way to deal with it was to just carry on as normal. We were there to do a specific job of work and one just got on with it. Anything else simply wasn’t part of that process. There may also have been some of the “big boys don’t cry” mentality in the way, and just occasionally I would pick up some of their own discomfort and embarrassment if they witnessed my being ‘upset’.
A couple of them were born again Christians, and they were so concerned about everything I was going through that they tried to persuade me to let them perform a ceremony of exorcism. They were convinced that I was possessed by devils. In a sense this was as valid a viewpoint as any other, but at the time I figured that their motive was simply to stop me feeling uncomfortable because it was making them uncomfortable. I simply saw this as misguided compassion aimed at blocking what I considered to be a natural process, so I declined this particular offer of help. They asked me if they could at least pray for me in their church and I felt more comfortable about giving permission for this.
I worked for a fairly large national organisation run by central government, and while we were fairly well catered for in most ways, the only in-house counselling available took the form of one young woman in the welfare department who had done a basic course in counselling skills. The first time she saw me I think she realised she was out of her depth.
I needed to find some legitimate way of surviving this experience that was going to be acceptable to my employers. I went to see my doctor and was lucky enough to find someone who had at least some basic understanding of the whole thing. I insisted that I didn’t want drugs of any form and luckily she agreed that it would be best if I could avoid them, though later she changed her view on this. Thus began a cycle of alternating periods in work and out of work as my doctor began to sign me off virtually on request.
From within the network of counsellors that I knew, I selected three key individuals as my main assistants. Quite significantly I think, all of them were women. I didn’t feel safe enough with men at this point, although I did choose a couple of male counsellors occasionally: usually when none of the women were available for one reason or another, or if I specifically needed to work on something that I felt required the assistance of another male.
The telephone became an important medium, a means of reaching a counsellor more or less whenever I needed to. I developed a strict code of practice which mainly centred around taking as much pressure and responsibility off my counsellors as I could. I always asked if they were able to counsel me at that point. They always had the option of saying no without giving any reason as to why they couldn’t. In practice it was very rare that they would turn me down, though sometimes they would need to put a time limit on the whole thing. On some days I found it necessary to ring them probably about half a dozen times, spending anything from ten minutes to an hour grieving or raging while they patiently counselled me through.
Occasionally one of my counsellors offered to ring me, but, apart from a couple of times that I allowed it, I generally resisted this since I didn’t want them to be burdened financially. My own phone bill virtually tripled at that time, but I considered it was a small price to pay if I wanted to get through the whole thing.
I purchased a cheap and simple device that, when attached to the side of the telephone hand-set, enabled the recording of both sides of a conversation. This proved a useful exercise because I was able to pick up on information from my counsellors that I sometimes missed or simply didn’t understand because of the state I was in. I was also able to listen to myself more objectively on the occasions when I was in a more relaxed and receptive frame of mind. One of the difficulties here was that sometimes I was so desperate for attention that I simply forgot to switch on the tape recorder. But surprisingly most of the time I did have this presence of mind.
“God help me! I can’t get a clear picture of this hell
hole. I’m like a lost child, running panic-stricken from one door
to another. What happened that death seems a preferable
alternative? How could they do it, how could they hurt a child
so badly as to turn it into an emotional cripple? To break it’s
spirit so thoroughly?”
I wrote this two days after Christmas day, roughly three months after beginning the painful journey back to my infancy. If my memory serves me well enough. I think it was only a week or so after this that I woke up one morning feeling fairly fresh and alert. I don’t really know why, but at that point I took a decision. I decided that if I hadn’t worked my way through the whole thing by my birthday I would kill myself. There had been many occasions in the recent past when I had wished myself dead. What was different this time was that the decision was taken at a time when I felt reasonably stable and clear-minded. It felt like a definite decision. I think I just decided that because I had spent such a large proportion of my life reaching for some form of stable state of ‘happiness’ as opposed to the deadness that I seemed to feel most of the time, I didn’t want to continue with what I was currently working through in an open-ended sense. One way or another I wanted a definite ending to it rather than a continuation of suffering.
Something else that occurred to me later was that the date I had set was almost exactly nine months ahead. I’ve speculated whether the decision was taken at a time that correlated with the time of my conception. Quite what the significance of this could be is something I’m still guessing at, although I’m prepared to accept it may have no significance at all.
In the early stages, self destruction was never far from my mind. I didn’t have so much voices as impulses, as if someone or something were chasing me and driving me to “jump off here” or “in front of this bus”. I planned scenarios of self-destruction, one example of which was to place bowls of petrol around the house linked to some form of ignition and then proceeding to hang myself. The idea obviously being to not only destroy myself but also any trace of my existence.
There was also a fair amount of physical self abuse (as if the mental and emotional wasn’t enough). Such as Hitting myself on the head with my fists and punching or banging my head against a wall. During one telephone counselling session I even hit myself on the head with the hand-set, raising a couple of lumps. Strangely this seemed to provide some relief from the torment. I’ve heard of, and counselled, women survivors of abuse who have taken to cutting themselves as a release from awful feelings and I wondered if I was doing something similar.
I seemed to be convinced that I was evil and needed my counsellors’ constant reassurance that I was good and wholesome and that all that had happened was that as an infant I hadn’t received the degree of loving attention that I needed from the people around me, so that I had ended up convinced that I must be bad if the people I depended on wanted nothing to do with me.
For some considerable time I remained in the grip of powerful emotions that I struggled to contain. Although intellectually I knew that the bulk of these strong feelings had nothing to do with Susan and in fact probably had little to do with current events at all, she remained the focus of them for quite a while, both inside and outside of my counselling. So much so that my entire social life virtually collapsed. I tried on a couple of occasions to carry on as normal, but by this time I had succeeded in breaking down enough emotional armour to make me feel very vulnerable indeed. I could not bring myself to face Susan for fear that she could quite literally kill me with a word. I felt as though I was utterly powerless to prevent her from doing this. That if I attempted to debate or remonstrate with her in any way she would always come back with a word or phrase that would kill me or drive me to kill myself. In retrospect I suppose there was a logic to this. While I was working at breaking down my defences, and had the resources and support to do that, she had no option but to keep her own firmly in place.
Friends I had at that time simply could not handle what I was going through. I became increasingly unkempt and scruffy in my appearance. To them my behaviour became increasingly irrational. One or two felt compelled to rescue me from what they perceived to be an obvious illness, suggesting that I needed a course of anti-depressants. They couldn’t understand my view that the whole thing was necessary work and as much a natural part of life as eating or breathing.
I was also concerned about the prejudices that other people might have regarding Susan. Curiously, despite the extreme and powerful feelings I had attached to Susan, I felt quite protective towards her. I picked up that one or two people disliked her and I was worried that if I attempted to draw anyone into my confidence about what I was working through, they would simply focus on the connection with Susan and sink into the easy option of character assassination, rather than taking the more challenging viewpoint that she had nothing to do with it other than contributing to some of the thumb pressure under the cork of the bottle.