Process recovery: Coming to terms with my *survival*.

I had a counselling appointment today, and I went in knowing I’d reached a different stage in my recovery since seeing her, and that I was both curious about what this stage was and what it meant in terms of progress/recovery, but both afraid and uncertain of this stranger. I have gone through a period of being intensely suicidal, and overwhelmed with feelings of pain and hurt…and I’m now in a place of acknowledging that hurt, not fighting it, and trying to understand it. I am reeling. I feel shell-shocked. I am hurting but not scared of the pain anymore. I’m more bewildered and overwhelmed by the source of the pain. The attention has shifted. When I sat down, the counsellor asked me how I was. I replied with ‘exhausted…’ and looked outside, to the sunshine, took a deep breath, and sank back into the comfy seat. I thought back to the days where each session began with pointless small talk, whilst I was still learning to trust the staff and they were coming to know me and my story. Every conversation began with the weather. Now the weather was actually decent enough to talk about, but we didn’t. We were straight to the task in hand – my spaghetti head. I no longer tiptoe around the reality of how I’m feeling, I no longer wait to be nudged into saying ‘I feel crap.’ I just say it now. I guess that’s progress, of sorts.

This stage is no longer simply about accepting I was abused. I’ve done that now. It’s not even about coming to terms with what happened – that will take years. This current stage is about coming to terms with the fact I survived. Processing, understanding, and accepting my survival.

But wait, I’m jumping ahead…apologies. Normally I don’t write about my sessions, but this one in particular I think might be helpful for others. So for that reason, I shall.

Gently, she asked me what’s exhausted me. Normally I’d smile wearily at this, and we’d both chuckle at a silent dark joke hanging in the air between us. But I didn’t smile. I carried on staring out of the window, and then slowly turned to her, and murmured “my eyes are full…” (for more on what I mean by this, see yesterday’s blog post – I paused, then repeated “my eyes are full. I’ve seen too much pain and horror, my eyes are stuck, they want to close. They need a break, a pause. I want to stand still and close my eyes and everything just stop whilst I just… breathe… think about what I’ve seen and been through…” I paused again, then concluded with “my eyes are just full. I think I’m in shock, somehow…”

The counsellor nodded, and smiled at me, and told me this was quite a normal feeling. I said I guess it was some PTSD related thing. She smiled and said “I guess so…”

And then, a whole load of emotions came tumbling out. Suddenly I not only felt okay having several emotions swimming around at once, I could voice them, and analyse their purpose and belonging and work with her to undo the strands. It wasn’t until after the session that I realised: that was probably the first time I’d verbally vomited so many different emotions, and not panicked or felt anxious about having so many mixed feelings. There was no anxiety whatsoever. I just talked and talked until they all came out, like ghosts, one by one… and the whole time I sat back into the chair, like I’d half-collapsed onto it (except I hadn’t), just exhausted… not scared, not anxious, not even feeling stress at that moment… just exhausted, and full of emotions that needed putting into words… it was one of the most incoherent conversations I think I’ve ever had!! I just jumped  from one feeling to the next – never knowing which the next would be, from memory to memory, emotion to emotion, looking back on years and present time… jump jump jump, sometimes the counsellor gently stepping in and finding me in the emotion fog, steering me back into coherent land…

I said to her, ‘yesterday it hit me that I’m lucky to be alive.’ She said, ‘how did that feel?’ I shook my head, ‘overwhelming somehow…questioning also whether I’m lucky or unlucky in fact…angry…guilty…sad…’ I trailed off, silent in my thoughts  for a moment, and grateful for the space in the room for me to think.

I murmured ‘do you know, one of the worst things about abuse? That one single event, to the abusers is lasting for that time frame, but actually it never ends. The pain never really goes. The fear never really leaves me. Stuff which happened to me 16 years ago still hurts me now. They rob so much of my life. Abusers steal lives. That’s what they do.’ I showed her my hands, ‘an event which lasts this long [I held my thumb and index finger at a distance] ends up lasting this long, in fact, [I held my hands at a fair distance away from each other.] And if I want to recover, I have to let that happen, and work with it.’ The counsellor said ‘that must be…hard… it makes me angry just to listen to, so I guess for you…it…?’ She was nudging to see if I could bring myself to say the words ‘I am angry.’ (I’ve been terrified of becoming angry). I looked at her and said ‘It makes me furious. They’ve killed the person I was supposed to be, they then killed the person I started becoming, and a few years later they killed her. Last autumn they killed the latest ‘version’ of me. I will never know who or where I’d be if they hadn’t abused and hurt me so much.’ The counsellor said ‘That’s a great sense of loss…’

I nodded, surprising myself at the sensation of hot angry tears filling my eyes. ‘Sometimes, I want to ring them, and scream at them…scream at them to look what they’ve done to me. But I don’t, because it won’t make a difference. They won’t care. And I think it would put me in so much more danger than I’m already in…’ The counsellor agreed, but said she understood. I paused and said ‘I guess it’s good I can feel angry…?’ She smiled and nodded at me.

I looked down and said ‘I feel guilty…’ she asked me why. I felt the tears building again. ‘I don’t…understand…I made it…what gives me the right…’ I trailed off again, looking for words. Comprehension dawned on her face, and she wrote something down. I carried on ‘I did some horrific things. Some of the children didn’t but they didn’t make it. Why…I don’t understand why I survived. I feel guilty that I’m here… I feel guilty that I survived and others didn’t…why was I registered and allowed to live, and not others? Why?’ I paused again, swallowing. She said nothing, let me breathe and pause as needed. My eyes flashed, their fullness pushing memories closer to my conscious, away from distraction. I closed them. Gave them some relief. ‘Why was I any different? Why did my body hold out when others’ didn’t, even though they went through the same? Did I do something?’ I paused again, the guilt clawing at my throat. I clenched my hands. ‘I shouldn’t…I shouldn’t know what it’s like to watch a child die. To know that if a child can’t scream, then that’s frightening. Screaming is communication, to ourselves and others. If I can scream I know I’m still strong enough to live, and so do the others…. I shouldn’t know that cold panic when the little one said she couldn’t feel me anymore…that I knew she had…not long…’ tears stuck me, never quite falling out but filling my already full eyes, and clogging up my throat. I opened my eyes and looked at the counsellor, who quietly said ‘it’s no wonder you’re exhausted…’ I nodded. I was silent for a moment and then said ‘it’s hard. A silent war is going on under everyone’s noses…’ she nodded and agreed, and said ‘and it is a war, you know. What you describe, soldiers sometimes struggle with survivor’s guilt…when they come back from war, with eyes full of harrowing and horrific images, and they came back but some of their friends didn’t…and society has carried on regardless and – ‘ I interrupted her, and said ‘and they want to scream? I want to scream sometimes. I can’t revise. I can’t stare at a piece of paper about some sociologist when all I can hear is children screaming and my arms feel heavy from carrying them as their breathing slowed…my body aches with guilt… I never stop crying, I just cry in different ways. My arms ache rather than there be tears, or my heart aches. Why did I survive and not them? Why?!’

She gently steered me back to what the soldiers do when coming back from war. That it’s okay to feel that but that they – and I – have nothing to feel guilty for. That it’s okay to seek comfort and society keeps going because what else can society do, really? I whispered ‘I feel so alone…’ choked again, breathed, carried on ‘it’s like I was kidnapped for 18 years and now I’m here, trying to settle into normal society but it’s an alien society, and I’m terrified of it being too good to be true. I read an account of a girl kidnapped and what it was like after being rescued. I could empathise, is that wrong?’ She shook her head, ‘not at all…the world you grew up in is wrong, not you…’ I nodded slowly and said ‘I feel so alone with this. People try to understand, and I’m grateful really that they can’t fully understand. But it’s so hard…you know…trying to live a normal life, with memories of little ones’ losing the fight…of such horror… the horror is just… it’s freezing me now…the horror, the reality, the accepted norm as I grew up…it’s freezing me…’ She reassured me this was okay. ‘I’m glad I was ignorant, in a way. That I believed I had choices even though I now know I never did. That I believed that was norm and didn’t know better. I think the despair would have killed me if I’d known the absolute truth. Ignorance, in that sense, was bliss. Enough ignorance to keep me alive, but not so much that I accepted what was happening…’

The counsellor gently said to me ‘yes, I think ignorance can be  bliss sometimes…’

I looked at her and said ‘I guess it’s good I can be frozen and horrified by it all?’ She nodded, and said that sometimes it’s useful to look back through recovery to see how much progress has been made, because when a new stage begins (such as now) it can be so easy to feel overwhelmed and that everything’s an utter mess and no progress had been made. She said ‘can you remember when you first moved down here? And you first started seeking help? What were you like then?’ I thought back, and said ‘a little girl…I felt so vulnerable…I was so scared of speaking to professionals, but I did, but I was terrified any of you would  turn out to be an abuser and betray me. I had so few memories then, too… and I completely believed it was all my fault…when it just wasn’t…’

She smiled at me and said ‘well, some pretty profound changes since then!’ I smiled and said ‘yeah, I guess so…’

Then I jumped into relief mode, ‘I survived, didn’t I?’ She nodded, ‘yes…you did…’ I frowned and said ‘should I have?’ She laughed and said ‘and how could I answer that? I don’t believe you should have gone through all of that in the first place…’ I lowered my head and said ‘it’s not over, I’m still not safe…’ she replied quietly, ‘I know… but look back again, at least we know. In your first year we didn’t, for a fair few months, the magnitude, did we? At least we know, and you know, and so you’re not wandering around memory-less and able to go missing…that’s progress, no?’ I said ‘guess so…’ She smiled at me, ‘you have survived…’ I nodded again, trying to get the words clear in my head, to get the reality clear in my head. Jesus Christ I made it. I survived. Flashes of memories took over my eyes, being chained to a wall…traumatic births…raped with objects…tortured…beaten…barely able to breathe…my chest being thumped…nearly drowned…Jesus fuck I made it. I survived.

I gasped, as the realisation kicked me in the stomach, for the second time in as many days, and a ripple ran through my body. There’s been a pretty constant weak feeling in my knees all day, as though at any point, my legs might give way…

And the guilt shortly followed, again. I would have swapped places with so many of the others. ‘I feel so guilty…’ hot tears prickled again. ‘And so lucky…’ I whispered, guiltily, what right have I to feel lucky?! But I do. I have friends. I have a safe home. I have support. I have music. I have horse riding. I have compassion and can still feel. They haven’t cut me to pieces yet. I survived and I’m here.

And I feel so guilty.

Again she said ‘it’s just no wonder you’re exhausted!’ she asked me what hobbies I have that work well as a distraction, and I talked her through a couple.

‘It’s going to take a long time to come to terms with what happened, isn’t it?’ I asked, not sadly, and not desperately. Just acceptance. She nodded, and said ‘yes…it’s a long time, and extreme, as you say. But you will heal, with time, and with support. And during that time, you are allowed to and able to live whichever life you please…as much as is possible, for you, which is up to you…’ I looked at her and said something about being really definitely alive, and she confirmed I definitely was. I asked ‘is that where this is now? Coming to terms not only with what happened, but with the fact I’m here at all?’ She said that was quite probably the case, and she could imagine a normal stage in the process recovery, but that I should speak to my therapist more about that.

I did some quick reading later this afternoon, and apparently there is such a stage, of simply coming to terms with the fact I survived. Hell. I survived Hell. Whether rightly or wrongly, I still did. Now I need to work through the survivor’s guilt. I need to understand my survival and my right – or not? – to it. I need to process, gently, that I made it. And that’s okay. How did I make it?

I’m just frozen…. and my eyes are still full…and I’m still alive…










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