Feeling somewhat stuck, I started my first course of therapy at the beginning of lockdown in 2020, working remotely. Unfortunately, the sense of safety I derived from the apparent detachment of working online, combined with my ambitious nature, caused me to go at therapy too fast. A few months later, I found myself in my GP’s surgery, underweight, exhausted and depleted. The previous night, on my son’s fifth birthday, I had felt as though something was ripping through my body, causing me to grimace and grip onto my bedframe, white-knuckled, for what felt like dear life. I’d been petrified that something terrible was going to happen either to me or to my son. I had felt possessed. The time had come, I decided, to find a more suitable therapist.
In our first Zoom session, my new therapist introduced me to safety and pacing. Together, these were to form the cornerstone of my journey. Luke* is a trauma specialist, and by this time I’d worked out that this was what I needed, although I was still at a loss as to what my terrifying visceral symptoms were about. In our first session, Luke confirmed my suspicion (gleaned from Google) that the unnerving ‘floating away’ feeling I experienced with my first therapist was dissociation.
The next few months focused on developing a safe relationship. Under Luke’s gentle guidance, I learned that I needed to develop my emotional regulation skills. By this point, I was very accepting of my need for help – quite an achievement for a stubbornly self-sufficient, former high-achieving lawyer. I was still seeing Luke via Zoom but now I was taking the sessions sitting on my yoga mat, with my iPad secured in a flexible ‘gooseneck’. I could move around and no longer felt a bit like a stressed lawyer, hunched over a screen at my desk, battling an overwhelming workload.
As the weeks rolled by, I was able to be drip-fed difficult feelings from childhood. I could also dip into scary body sensations briefly but repeatedly, with Luke carefully managing the swing of the pendulum. I learned how to open and close what I have come to think of as my feelings valve, and I gradually regained a sense of safety in my body. At times I felt truly held, almost in a physical sense, despite the distance and pixels between us. I was amazed that, by learning to surrender to intolerable feelings, I could ward off panic and let the feelings pass through me. The source of my most visceral symptoms, however, remained a mystery and this was still terrifying.
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Then one day, several weeks into our therapy, I felt my anxiety levels rising drastically. My head was spinning, and I felt like a car tyre being pumped harder and harder until it threatened to burst. I arranged an emergency appointment with Luke. The next few hours were unbearably long but as soon as Luke’s face appeared on my iPad, I felt my body let go. I surrendered to the familiar gripping, rolling, pushing and squeezing in my body that I had experienced on the night of my son’s fifth birthday, months earlier. A great reconciliation, unfolding dramatically as if in slow motion, commenced between my body and my mind.
Immediately, I knew. I knew, finally, what the terror I had been experiencing intermittently during the nine months since first starting therapy had been about. I lay on my yoga mat and, through tears of relief, was able to let what was happening in my body run its course. All the while, Luke metaphorically held me. He was gentle, encouraging, seemingly unfazed, asking me softly to try to put words to my experience. I told him that I was feeling sensations from labour and childbirth. Sobbing, grief-stricken and amazed all at once, I repeated, between sensations that felt like contractions, that I hadn’t known. ‘Now you know. Now you know,’ Luke repeated kindly, as I rolled exhaustedly onto my side, knees hugged into my chest, about an hour later.
On paper, I’d had a normal, natural birth, but this was not how my body and my mind had responded to the excruciating experience, during which I had felt a complete loss of dignity and control. The night my mind finally reunited with my body, and I could know and feel in unison, marked the real beginning, rather than the end, of my ongoing therapy journey. However, nearly every day since then, I have had the joy of experiencing life in all its colours. It’s only with hindsight that I realise how dark the shadow cast by my unrecognised trauma and anxiety had become. Needless to say, I now have a fascination with trauma and complex trauma, and I hope in due course to make my own contribution to the field.
*Name has been changed