Trauma and therapy
Contains Descriptions Of :
Thoughts of suicide and symptoms of PTSD stemming from Sexual abuse and bullying
I’m Felicity Douglas and I live in a beautiful part of Scotland where I share my garden with a wonderfully playful family of red squirrels. I spend my time writing, researching, and volunteering.
From May 2018 to May 2020, I worked with a therapist to help tackle my social anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, low self-esteem, disordered patterns of eating, and the impact of childhood sexual abuse. Therapy was a humbling experience. I didn’t know how to connect with someone, or indeed how to be part of a conversation. I gradually learnt the importance of communication for connection. I’d always aimed to keep any interactions with others to a bare minimum. Isolation was my way of protecting others from being infected by my all-pervading badness.
"I didn’t know how to connect with someone, or indeed how to be part of a conversation. I gradually learnt the importance of communication for connection."
I was sexually abused over a period of years as a young girl. I was also bullied throughout my school years, and as such, I rarely felt safe anywhere. I coped with life as an adult the only way I knew, and that was to keep busy and bury myself in work. I had a fear of being abandoned and would enter into one abusive relationship after another. Abusive relationships were my normal. My brain and my entire body told me I deserved the abuse, because I was bad, to my absolute core.
Up until my mid-40’s, I carried the secrets, the shame, guilt, self-hatred & loathing until I found a person I could tell. They listened, they didn’t judge or dismiss me, or look shocked or disbelieving. They sat with me and they walked alongside me to the very edge of my horror, and they helped me find my way forward, to find my hope, and ultimately to heal.
I was encouraged to approach myself with compassion. And that was difficult. I didn’t have a clue what compassion was. I was accustomed to bullying myself, punishing myself and in fact trying to hurt myself better. Hurting myself was my normal. Over the course of therapy, I ever so gradually transitioned from ‘I am totally worthless’ to ‘I am a woman and I matter to me’, and little by little I learnt to adopt a softer, kinder and more compassionate approach to myself.
I had the classic symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, although up until 2018, I had no clue that’s what they were. I’d always blamed how I felt on a stressful job. I was always just ‘tired’. However, my response to feeling tired was to push myself even harder. I liked to keep busy. Keeping busy kept my mind from straying into the painful territory of my childhood. I had a black belt in avoidance.
"I had the classic symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, although up until 2018, I had no clue that’s what they were"
I was perpetually hypervigilant, experienced intrusive thoughts, nightmares, sleep paralysis, flashbacks, suicidal ideation, and panic attacks. Up until the age of 46 I was afraid of the dark, I would always sleep with a small lamp switched on. As a young girl I would try to avoid falling asleep, I’d prop myself up in bed with the beam of my torch focused on the handle of my bedroom door.
Working with a therapy dog called Fluxo in session taught me how to self-soothe. My go-to response to overwhelm had been to think about ending my life. And overwhelm could be triggered by feelings of shame, vulnerability, fear, safety even. How ironic is it, that a felt sense of safety could be triggering? I experienced a felt sense of true safety for the first time ever in therapy, and it was both a wonderful and yet initially, alarming sensation. I had to learn that connecting with someone could be safe, and that being vulnerable could be safe provided it was done within the boundaries of trust. I had so much to learn.
Part of my recovery involved the use of imagery. Perfect nurturer imagery helped me to go back and not only reconnect with but soothe my wounded inner child. The child I couldn’t even bear to think about because thinking about her triggered feelings of shame, disgust, vulnerability and self-loathing. There was guilt too because for a great proportion of my life, I had abandoned her.
I’ve recently asked myself what would have helped me to address my history of trauma sooner in life? Why leave it until the age of 48? The answer to the latter is easier than the former: avoidance, shame and denial. To the first question, I still don’t have an answer. Maybe I simply wasn’t ready to address it any sooner, to commit to the challenging work of recovery.
I believe prevention is better than cure. And I know that’s stating the obvious, but as a trauma survivor, there are so many layers of shame, guilt and self-loathing, that it can make helping us very difficult. Only now can I appreciate how hard I was to help. My resistance wasn’t born out of wilful defiance, I was simply repeating patterns of maladaptive behaviour that enabled me to survive as a child. Yet I had no awareness of my poor behaviour, nor the fact that it alienated me from making those all too vital connections we need as humans.
What helped me in my journey of recovery, first and foremost, was the presence of a compassionate witness. I love Babette Rothschild’s quote: “for some clients all of the time, and all clients some of the time, the best therapy is unadulterated human contact”. However, I pushed back against the attempts at connection and compassion. I can now see that I was willing my therapist to tell me I was bad. I wanted them to reject me, to confirm the thoughts I had about myself. But they didn’t. I had to change my thinking, and I had to change myself. And for someone who was change-averse, that in itself speak volumes for the transformative power of therapy.
Therapy was without doubt the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. But at the same time, the most vital and the most worthwhile. Recovery and healing involved developing self-awareness; a mindful awareness as opposed to a threat-based hypervigilance which had simply exhausted me. I had to face the fact that others had wilfully hurt me. And that was a difficult conundrum to wrap my head around, because I didn’t want to think it, let alone accept it.
I now see two very distinct parts of my life, the life before therapy, and the life after. Before 2018, I was drifting through life on autopilot. My only goal was to get through each day, I didn’t think beyond that because to do so would involve reflecting on my life as a whole. There’s a line from a song by the Pet Shop Boys that I would have said up until 2018 defined me: “when I look back upon my life, it’s always with a sense of shame”. For so much of my life I felt totally worthless, I believed I was inherently bad, and in part I believed I was beyond help.
"Therapy was without doubt the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. But at the same time, the most vital and the most worthwhile."
And now? Now I have hope, I have purpose, I want to be alive, and that’s a significant shift from the 40+ years of my life leading up to 2018. My journey of recovery was not a solitary one, it included amongst others, a therapist and Fluxo who joined in many of my therapy sessions. Had you previously suggested to me that I could be healed with the help of dog, I would have been sceptical. And now, I’m a passionate advocate for the role of emotional support animals. I have experienced first-hand how they can become powerful catalysts for healing.
Throughout my journey of recovery, I sought out stories of people who had walked a similar path to my own. I wanted to find out what helped them as well as the pitfalls they encountered. In part, reading helped to normalise my experiences, to show me that I was (unfortunately) far from alone. Equally as important, they demonstrated that recovery was possible. That gave me hope.
My focus now is on leading a life that encompasses authenticity, honours my core values and includes self-reflection, mindful awareness, cultivating gratitude and seeking out opportunities to flex my ‘compassion muscle’.
"And now? Now I have hope, I have purpose, I want to be alive, and that’s a significant shift from the 40+ years of my life leading up to 2018."
If you are in a position to access therapy, go for it, do it for yourself. Find your own compassionate witness and unburden yourself. Keeping secrets is hard work and only adds to the sense of internal self-alienation and shame. With the right help and support, I believe it is possible to find peace, to find purpose in life, and to discover joy.
Felicity is a self-published indie-author. Her book charts her journey of recovery & healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse with the help of psychotherapy. You can buy her book here