August 05, 2015

Living With the Terror

Until a couple of weeks ago, I would have described myself as fearless.

I mean, here I am—afraid of heights but jumping out of planes, trying to learn trapeze, climbing mountains, and ziplining. I'm afraid of bee stings, but I pick lavender amidst a swarm of the fuzzy little demons. Inexperienced with stick shift, I learned it in the driver's seat of a Formula One racer.

I don't even fear death. I don't fear the end of my life—it's the rest of my life I worry about.

While others cower from snakes or spiders or storms, my biggest fears are those of an interpersonal nature. After all, the greatest pain of my life has come at the hands of other people.

My mother who screamed at me, deprecated me, misunderstood me, beat me, and rejected me. The druggie who punched me on the NYC subway. The guy who rear-ended me. The weirdo who grabbed me in the park.

The man who sexually objectified me publicly (and, event worse, privately) in my workplace, and the company that enabled him and retaliated against me. The men who took what they wanted from me by force and coercion. The online dates that went wrong, the names I was called, and the body parts groped. The help I asked for and never received.

Those who blamed me, because I must've done something to deserve it.

Those who betrayed my trust, broke my heart, promised to protect me, and left me without a word.

When you're in this firestorm of abuse and violence, swirling around the drain but not quite going down it, you start to think you can cope with what's going on, because how could what happens next possibly be any worse than what's already happened? You're beaten raw, till you're numb. What's another hit, when you're already down?

But if you give yourself some time to heal, and you take a break from the punches, the next hit is like the first one all over again. You thought the world was a better place. You thought you'd found a better path. You thought you'd stopped doing all the things that other people said you did to bring this upon yourself. You thought you were vigilant enough to see it coming.

I've had my share of social anxiety in life, especially in the year after my car accident, when I had a hard time conjuring words and couldn't improvise unscripted dialogue. And I've been afraid of strangers, especially those that persistently try to put their arms around me and threaten me with unwanted physical contact, as though my body were public property to lean upon and rub against. But I have never, ever in my life been scared of a therapist—until last week.

I've seen a variety of therapists and counselors in my life, and although most of them didn't really help me, none of them did any harm. In just the year since my car accident, I've torn through four therapists—the first three, relatively innocuous.

And then the fourth.

And then the fourth brought such a deep terror out of me, there was nothing I could do but quit after our third session.

I'd switched therapists because the pre-doctorate therapists I'd been seeing on the cheap were in way over their heads with me. They couldn't hide the horrified expressions on their faces when I recounted the narrative of my life.

Unfortunately, in switching, I pushed the pendulum to the other extreme. In my second session with the new guy, I felt attacked, and I didn't know why. I was scared to open my mouth and say anything because everything I said was wrong, and was promptly criticized. I would make broad generalizations about life—as patients do—and he would turn my words back on me and make broad generalizations about me and my life and what I do and what I think and how I cope. He scolded me for joking when I wasn't. He identified my every behavior and statement as a defense mechanism, which should be stripped away so I could be in touch with my feelings.

It was shocking. At this point, my therapist hadn't even read all of my intake forms yet. He didn't know me at all, and he certainly didn't know the entire story. He was so focused on telling that he didn't bother listening to me.

Then again, my mother had the same problem. My mother made the same kind of snap judgments about me, the same "should" statements that most therapists would advise you to stay away from.

He manhandled me emotionally, the same way so many people have manhandled me physically. And he did it all with a smile and a smirk, a smugness that absolutely terrified me.

We tried to end the session on common ground, but through my tears, all I could say was, "You have to be nice."

"Have I not been nice?" he asked, with that crooked smile and those glassy eyes.

And then I realized, the worst abuse comes from those who veil it under the ruse of doing it for your own good. My mother justified the beatings by saying it was corporal punishment to correct our behaviors, not an expression of anger that her cursing and name-calling seemed to indicate. Men tell you to relax and not be so uptight, they're just being friendly, what's the problem? Why do you have to be so defensive? You were dressed so sexy, you made me get carried away. Trust me. Do you trust me?

No, I don't. Not anymore. Never again.

By the time I walked out of his office, I was a cornered animal that didn't know whether to tear apart the next person I saw with my teeth, or retreat from society entirely to lick my wounds and wait to die. I could not imagine how a professional in this field could (intentionally?) trigger a person with PTSD like that, without warning, and without compassion or care. How could he be so careless with me? Even a therapist embarking on exposure treatment for phobias would do so gradually, with full transparency.

A multi-alarm fire was raging in my heart, and burning its way out of my body through the hot tears that were stinging my eyes, cheeks, chin, neck, and chest. I couldn't stop crying the rest of the day, into the night. I burst into tears sporadically the next day. I spent the rest of the week terrified of the world, waking up with nightmares and night terrors, and ready to run away and never look back.

When my next appointment came up, I considered just calling in to cancel, or ghosting on my therapist the way so many people have dumped me. I was scared of what would happen if I was in that room again. I was scared of whatever had made me stay for the full session the week before. I was scared of not only what the therapist would do or say if given the chance, but also of him and everything he embodied.

How could I possibly go back for more and have any self-respect? I am not a masochist. If given the choice, I would like to rest comfortably.

But I somehow shored up my courage, and returned, albeit in a state of high anxiety. I finally had the chance to confront my attacker, and tell him exactly what I thought of what he did to me. I never had closure with my boss who created a hostile environment, or the guys that wouldn't take no for an answer, or the guy who didn't bother to ask and just stuck it in while I was sleeping.

At first, when my therapist heard how much he'd traumatized me, he blamed me for not warning him early enough—for not articulating how he was triggering me and why. Why didn't I tell him? Because he didn't give me the chance. And that is an unreasonable expectation of someone who is being triggered and retraumatized.

I know. I told him that. When I told him he didn't know anything about me, he said he knew everything he needed to know. He was wrong, and yet he reprimanded me.

In the end, he apologized. He finally realized what he'd done, and he praised my bravery for confronting him. His attack hadn't been malicious—it was just very foolish and terribly misguided. As amicably as possible, we agreed to part ways.

Clearly, this is not the guy for me. Going there was like putting a massively injured person into surgery before their vitals could stabilize. Some patients are too sick for treatment. It doesn't mean they don't want to get better. It's not that they won't get better. And just because they can't right now doesn't mean they can't ever.

I know I'm probably never going to see him again, but there's always another him or her. There's always someone out there who's going to poke you with a stick and then beat you when you bite them. I may not have met them yet. But they always seem to find me. And that's the terror I have to live with every day.

How can you be expected to trust someone who has not earned your trust? How can you trust anyone when those who are supposed to love you and take care of you are the ones that betray you the worst?

Related Posts:
Driving Through the Fear
Dancing With the Fear
Reaching My Limit
Plunging My Hand into a Field of Terror at the Lavender Farm

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