Here’s a small story I wrote to try and explain how my life and therapy seem to me. If you’re dissociative, maybe you can relate a bit to this.
A woman has a fire raging inside. She’s had this going on as long as she can remember. But no one else sees the fire, and she’s always been told that she is making it up. It is not real. She feels the pain of being burned though. It seems real. But if no one else thinks it’s real, then it can’t be real, can it? She decides she is bad and crazy, and tries very hard to do better. To cope with the fire, she bundles it up well behind fire walls. She can feel the heat still, but she forgets what the heat is from. Then she decides that really, she is not feeling the heat. Her feelings don’t make much sense to her, so she tries her best to fit into the world without paying much attention to her feelings which are crazy anyway.
But. The stress of keeping up the walls exhausts her. Sometimes bits of the fire break through anyway, and make her feel ill, until she can get the walls working well again. She thinks she should not be tired and sad and confused all the time. So she goes off to seek help from a healer.
The healer has had lots of experience and training. Most of the people he has helped do not have fires behind walls though. They have problems expressing their feelings. Sometimes their feelings are hidden and need to be found. Sometimes they do things that hurt themselves, and need to find new ways to help themselves instead. The healer does lots of good work with these people.
The woman with the fire inside likes the healer. He is kind, he is soft spoken, he listens. He speaks with part of her she’d had to hide to survive. She has lots of hope that he will be able to help her with the fire and the walls. And for a while, he does.
But then, they get stuck. The woman still has the fire burning, and the walls. The healer knows now the walls are there. He tries beating them down. He wants her to feel better, and other people he has helped have felt better when their feelings came up, when they stopped being scared of them and expressed them. He tells the woman she must try harder to beat the walls down. His efforts make some holes in the walls, and fire comes rushing through. He mostly doesn’t notice the holes or the fire though, because the way the woman tries to tell him about them don’t make sense to him. Sometimes the woman doesn’t feel the fire right away anyway. She’s used to putting things off to feel later when she’s alone. Fire really comes rushing through once the woman goes home, and she becomes burned and ill. By the time she goes back to see the healer again, she’s somehow patched the wall, and they start over again. She trusts him and likes seeing him, and she keeps going back. She’s always been told how she sees the world is wrong and crazy. Maybe it’s true. Maybe the healer knows better than she does what is going to help her. This happens over and over.
Sometimes, the healer tells the woman she is afraid of the pain of her feelings, but that the pain is how she will change. So she tries to feel all the pain. There is lots of it, and it feels like she will die sometimes, it is so bad, and it never does seem to end. Other times though, when the healer pounds at the walls, trying to help her feel her pain, emergency alarms go off instead. She doesn’t mean for this to happen, but it does. The fire alarm sounds, sprinkler systems are activated, and everything shuts down. She goes home and everything is soggy and wet, and she feels frozen. Slowly, everything dries out again, the alarm stops sounding so she can think, the walls dry out and the fire crackles away again. She goes back again and tries to explain about the sprinklers but it’s hard to explain.
The woman starts to think about things. About how she is already exhausted from keeping up the walls and keeping the fire contained. How beating at the walls scares her and makes her try to fix them faster and faster. She remembers more about the fire now. She no longer thinks she is so crazy. She knows she is so tired, and it all hurts so much, that she cannot pay that much attention to the healer’s opinions. When you have fire and you have walls, she thinks, is there another way, besides pounding at the walls? Is there another way, that doesn’t put her into an emergency? Is there some gentler way of lowering the heat of the flames maybe, or of trying to put out one corner of the fire at a time?
Unfortunately, the woman has been quite busy with the fire and the walls most of her life, so she did not learn how to express what she feels and thinks very well. She’s mostly had to pretend there was no fire and there were no feelings. The way she tries to tell the healer how she feels, and what she thinks she needs, is not very skilled. He has theories, and she doesn’t fit in that well with the theories, and he decides she is avoiding big issues and not working hard at healing. A lot of his patients do this, so he doesn’t take it personally. But he tries his best to get her to see that she must try harder to beat down the walls. And she gets more angry and also just burned from the healer’s attempts at helping her not have walls anymore.
The woman is now burned and exhausted and losing hope that this healer, or anyone, can help. He is frustrated that the woman isn’t trying harder, isn’t making the progress he wants her to make and isn’t feeling better despite all his help. This is where they’ve arrived after years of work. What should they do?
  1. Ashana M said:

    Yes, it makes a lot of sense. Both of your posts make a lot of sense to me. The three sweaters and a hat is exactly me. Over the years, I have learned to somehow work with this instead of trying to force myself through things and winding myself up into a worse state. I have learned when I get that shut-down feeling inside that I should do something that makes me feel better for a while–something that will make me feel safer. I think for years I did avoid things that were too stressful for me, but I had absolutely no way to make myself feel safer, so I just avoided and some things never got done that actually really needed to get done. Now, I recognize it and I can feel safer, and “later” is a real point in time, when I can do that thing. In the old way of doing things, “later” did not always exist. I knew only how to avoid things or how to force myself to do them. I didn’t know how to make them doable.

    Some things never do get done, but they are things that can slide. i have, for example, never worked out exactly what to do with my garbage. There is a dustbun downstairs that seems as though it could be used for everyone in the building–all of the buildings are supposed to have them. There is a tractor that comes every morning to take the garbage, but I am not home at that time. So I put my garbage in the dustbun downstairs for my landlord to deal with first thing in the morning, when there is no one actually watching me in my moment of shame about the garbage. It has been 3 years, and i have never worked out what I am meant to do. I did not have the courage to ask 3 years ago when it made sense to ask, and now it seems rather late. However, this has not been terribly important as far as I can see.

    It is embarrassing all of the grown up things I am not able to do, and yet that point when your brain is just paranoid and verging on delusional has to be avoided–like when you feel afraid of the phone. i think that was one piece in therapy that really got missed. It is not just that the feelings are painful, but that feelings and thinking are connected and they are connected even when I shut down and lose the sensation of feeling. So I absolutely lose my ability to think rationally under situations of stress. I don’t just fear I will “go crazy.” To me, it now makes sense this happens, but I don’t think it made sense to me before, and I don’t think it made sense to therapists.

    I hope you can find some ways to feel safe again.

    • Brilliant reply. Finding ways to feel safe is the first thing to work on when coming out of trauma. This makes so much sense.

    • Ellen said:

      This is how it is for me also Ash. I relate to either forcing myself to do things, or avoiding entirely. It’s a problem other people don’t seem to have, and I’ve never worked out why I have it. Saying I’m lazy just doesn’t seem to cover the difficulty. Maybe it is that feelings and thoughts are connected, and when I shut down feeling, thoughts are also shut down. Especially procedural type thoughts. I hadn’t thought of that before. Glad you are now able to help yourself to feel safer. Thanks!

  2. Wow

    Such a descriptive story. And from experience I can say, gently, that there are other ways of bringing those walls down. Em, my last therapist, could only get me so far. I remember when I realized we had met our end and we still kept going for months. I have great love for her – she helped me understand my fire. But she wasn’t meant to put it out.

    Beating on the walls doesn’t work for me. Patience, silence, someone who lets me have control but challenges my age old assumptions – but who is also willing to take cues from me when necessary – that’s what I needed. And I didn’t know that until I found it.

    Listen to your gut, really, really listen. Maybe you two have gone as far as you will together – and that isn’t a bad thing if it’s true – maybe it’s time for someone else to take the lantern and help lead you through the darkness. Or, maybe it’s changeable. Only you can know. And it’s not easy.

    My love and luck to you, friend.

    • Ellen said:

      I’m so pleased you can relate PD. Beating down the walls just doesn’t work, it harms. Interesting about your experience with Em.

      I’m trying to listen to my gut but it’s sending contradictory messages. 😦 Thank you PD

  3. Ashana M said:

    Also, I was thinking what I used to do was (all unconsciously) do something else to calm down, and then feel very bad for doing that thing–whatever it was, avoiding, distracting,soothing. I didn’t know what I was doing was intended to help me calm down,and then after I did it, I wound myself up again criticizing myself for having done it. So there were these things that might have helped me where I basically tore down all of my hard work as soon as it was done, because I didn’t understand the purpose of it. I thought I was wasting time or resources. And then there was just an endless loop, where I continually tried to calm down and never actually felt better.

    • Ellen said:

      Trying to help yourself and then beating yourself up. That would feel bad for sure. Interesting – thanks.

  4. I am thinking that maybe part of you is so scared that if the fire comes out it will burn the therapist to ashes. I had three attempts where my anger started to come out and therapist couldn’t deal with it. The last one before this one kept making all these comments alerting me to the fact she wouldn’t be able to cope with it. There is so much grief under anger too and sometimes grief masquerades as anger which is confusing. But the fire is also your vital life energy and so necessary to recovery. Its still dam scary and its true you have to work to build safety first. As the fire is also about fear.

    • Ellen said:

      Interesting. I’m not sure I’m afraid Ron can’t handle it – he’s actually very good in that way, in that he’s not scared of my feelings. It might be anger – for me it’s stuff I’ve locked away and dissociated. Fear is a big part of that. Thanks!

      • Only you can know how you feel Ellen, even though I know in my own case certain feelings may hide other feelings. I am often off base with things. I am seeing more and more that I myself have a lot of fear. I guess though it is a part of the human condition and dates way back. ❤

  5. e.Nice said:

    I am sorry he didn’t get it. I am so impressed that you shared your story with him. It makes a lot of sense written this way. You write really well and clear. How come he doesn’t get it? I am angry for you. I am also so so sad that you are burned and exhausted. If I could I would offer you cool cloths and a safe place to lay. I would make up a magic aloe vera salve for you

    • Ellen said:

      Actually, I’m not sure he didn’t get it. I’m so focused on criticizing him and feeling he doesn’t understand, that’s all I can see sometimes. It’s at least partly my own craziness. He actually wrote back that he sees our work as opening doors in the walls, rather than battering them down. Which is reasonable. And then also that he is not at all frustrated. Which is fine – I felt he was, but maybe not then. So I am exaggerating everything about Ron. Thank you for the magic salve and cool cloths. 🙂 Hope you are well.

  6. The way you’ve described it makes it sound so clear what it feels like for you. If you take your allegory further, it seems obvious that demolishing those walls is a big risk and not a great first step. Maybe the first step is simply to feel the wall, feel the heat behind it, think about what the fire is like, and what the wall is like.

    • Ellen said:

      I like your first step.

  7. Ashana M said:

    I was thinking more about this (we had a meeting today–lots of down time for me), and I wondered if how Ron responds to you is an indication about how ok it is for the fire to be real. If he is talking in a grownup kind of way while you feel overwhelmed, then maybe it isn’t okay to feel the sticky blackness overwhelming you and the focus goes back to patchin the walls.

    • Ellen said:

      Yes, if the focus is on an adult way of being, it doesn’t seem OK to feel these other types of things. That makes sense.

  8. Rachel said:

    I see you working so hard to find relief, Ellen. My heart really goes out to you, and I am really glad that you keep processing and writing, and are trying to find all kinds of ways to communicate your distress. If anything, the adult part of you refusing to let the fire completely consume you, is going to serve you. Regardless of Ron or what happens with therapy, you are fighting and advocating and seeing that your suffering matters. And is worth fighting for.

    • Ellen said:

      Yes, I am trying to see my suffering matters. Interesting perspective. Thank Rachel

  9. This story is very powerful. It’s sad that the healer 1)pounds on the walls 2)doesn’t realize that what he’s doing isn’t bringing about the change that YOU want 3)doesn’t see and hear your pain 4)meet you where YOU are in this journey. I am thinking about you.

  10. Very vivid and powerful story. Thank you for sharing this. I really relate to “A woman has a fire raging inside. She’s had this going on as long as she can remember. But no one else sees the fire, and she’s always been told that she is making it up. It is not real. She feels the pain of being burned though. It seems real. But if no one else thinks it’s real, then it can’t be real, can it? She decides she is bad and crazy, and tries very hard to do better.”

    I understand how a therapist who is kind and soft-spoken and listens is so appealing. You are working so hard. I wish you felt like you were communicating with him and he understood you. That’s so frustrating because you like him and he’s not getting it.

    • Ellen said:

      It is frustrating. That was a horrible week for me when I wrote this, and I feel differently now. Some things he doesn’t get, some things he does get. It’s pretty painful that’s for sure. Thank you Sophia

  11. Laura said:

    If you had a child who was terrified of something – spiders, men with beards, dogs, sirens – and was afraid to leave the house and was living barricaded by her fears, what would you do? Anything you did to try to relieve that fear would feel threatening to her solution to the problem – avoidance. Any lessening of the (safe) distance between her Executive and the thing she fears will feel destabilizing and possibly annihilating. If you suggest that [sirens] aren’t dangerous, she thinks you don’t understand the nature of [sirens]. You call it an allegorical story, but you’re afraid of your internal feelings and memories as if they were external, and life-threatening. It’s like you can feel in control only at a very specific distance from these feelings and memories, and as Ron says, the feelings and memories aren’t considerate or well-behaved or come in manageable pieces – they blow up in your mind; they don’t go meekly back into the closet after the session. This makes a lot of extra work for your Executive!

    What was it that came up in the session, that set off a terrible week of trying to scramble back to safety? That must be the key to this.
    That’s the view from here, I mean to be helpful. hugs to you, I hope you’re feeling better.

    • Ellen said:

      I actually don’t know what set it off, and Ron couldn’t figure it out either. There were quite a few painful things that happened, but my reaction was just so unexpectedly severe, with basically complete shut-down.

      I can understand how you’re seeing this. Thank you, I am doing better again. Not great, but a lot better.

  12. Your description is spot on. That was how it felt for me. My counselor encouraged me to address the heat a little at a time. He even encouraged me to only work on healing for one hour a day, no more. Sometimes with a big wall we work at it until we are exhausted and no time for anything else. The fire is devouring and real cause for concern but like all fires treated correctly it can bring light, energy and warmth when used safely. I agree that you are at the stage that it doesn’t feel safe at all. Cheering for you.

  13. chainbreakercorporation said:

    I can totally relate, thanks for sharing.

  14. I really relate to this. very powerful ellen. Thanks for sharing. xxx

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: