Everything all of the time
I thought that I wasn't afraid of anything but then I found out that I had been afraid of everything, all of the time.
I loved the lockdowns of the pandemic, I loved being inside, on my own. I would get constant requests from my family to sit with them in the garden. My mother said I had become insular. I didn't understand where she was coming from, I had always been in my room, on my own. I wasn't a child that you would worry about if it was quiet. With me, there was no such thing as “it's too quiet, let me see what she’s up to”. I spent my time during lockdown doing a lot of the same things I would do as a young girl; sewing, drawing, watching tv and playing on the computer. It was bliss, quiet. There was no sensation around unless I had created it myself. Going to the supermarket was the only permitted outside activity I was interested in, and that was to stock up on the essentials like tea, milk, sugar and biscuits. This was a relatively easy, familiar and somewhat enjoyable activity- as long as everyone stuck to the rules.
I didn't notice it at first. I thought I was being conscientious and correct when I got angry at the shoppers going the wrong way in the aisles. And if someone got too close I felt I was within my rights to ask them to move out the way, even though I don't think I ever did. And, sure enough, when I got home I would talk to my family about how absurd and stupid it was that a person didn't let me pass with my government-mandated 2 metres, and how they touched everything I wanted to touch but then they would put it back on the shelf. I was protecting them! Could they not see how selfish they were being? We were under attack from an enemy we knew little about and why oh why couldn't they be making the same effort I was? Then, I would go back to my room. I would stitch, draw, watch and play, just like I did over 25 years before. I felt good again.
At the end of the summer, I had to go back to work. The dream had ended. I had to sit on trains and be around people again. I had to touch other people's belongings, talk to them, and fix their things. The two meters became one. Each day it got harder and harder to navigate. My local supermarket suddenly magnified, it grew exponentially. It seemed to cover the whole of Yorkshire, and it did. I was locked into 10 hours a day where an internal static seemed to get louder and louder and louder. It travelled down my arms to my fingers, which felt like they had run themselves down an old tv after it was switched off. My spine shrank, my shoulders raised to my ears, my chest became a corset and my chin longed to touch my chest. I was smaller. I was Piglet- it was a very big world for such a small animal.
At some point, I couldn't put one tiny foot in front of the other. Government-mandated lockdown became a medically-mandated lockdown. This lockdown was different to the first. This one was like sleeping- necessary to function. This one was eating when I was reminded. This one was washing when I was told. The sound of my hopeful mother calling my name at regular intervals was added to the sensations that I created for myself. I was sure she was checking that I was still alive. I have been there before though, and usually, I know the way out.
This time was different somehow. This wasn't stress or exhaustion-triggered bipolar depression. This was fear. Pure fear. Any offer of venturing outside the home was met with aggression, a knee jerk, and a solid “No”. I cowered in comfort. I didn't recognise myself anymore, and I didn't know how to find myself or know where to look.
I needed help.
I asked for it.
I found Sue. I first spoke to her remotely, just a talking head on a computer screen. I wish that I remembered how we got to the place where I was doing Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing, but all I can remember is what I said to Sue. I just don't want to be frightened anymore.
I sat in her office. White walls and comfortable seats. Not like any therapist’s office I had been in before. There were blankets and cushions, and Sue. She was sitting over two meters away from me, looking directly into my eyes. I didn't feel intimidated by this, it wasn't a confrontational look. It was a look that had purpose and determination, but it also carried a softness and intrigue. She asked me what I was frightened of.
“I’m scared of people getting too close. I can’t understand why people don’t want to wear a mask, and I don’t know why they won't protect me as I protect them.” At least that is what I thought I was scared of.
We discussed my life as it was at that point. Growing up with absent fathers, and witnessing the breakdown of my parents’ marriage. Being in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. Making art but the stress and pressure making me ill. Living with a lifelong condition. My mother blaming herself that I have a mental illness. Single for 6 years. Never leaving my mother's attic. Never owning a house. Working the same job that I hate for the rest of my life. Not reaching my potential. Never being a mother. Never meeting someone and getting married. Never being capable of ‘normal’. My account of my life had organically slid into listing the things I realised I was scared of. And, the realisation that the pandemic was a physical manifestation of the thing I was scared of the most; being in danger of being hurt and having no control.
Every decision I had made up until that point was the result of that fear. It was this fear that had me trapped in my room. It was a space I couldn't be hurt, it was a space that I could control. It was this fear that had me trapped in my life; a job I could do with my eyes closed, friends whom I knew loved me, bars I knew where to sit, places whose route I knew to get home. A fear that left me static, like a song on repeat, for years and years. I was sleeping with the lights on.
I had memories of personal battlefields, that would appear in my waking life like a cut-scene. I was there in them, momentarily and deeply. The battle of the bedroom and the fist. The skirmish of getting almost 100% on my spelling test. The war of the divorce papers. The great migration from our home to “Dad’s” home, or from my home to another “Dad’s” home. The great fight of university year two, and then three. The internal melee between my ego and my self-esteem. These memories are filed under “fuck this”. That’s where I put them, in an overstuffed filing cabinet of things to deal with later. And, like any poorly organised filing system, the door would burst open and my brain would shout “HEY REMEMBER THIS? THIS WAS SHIT. YOU CANT DO (X) BECAUSE REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED WHEN YOU DID (Y). At the time when I was starting to see Sue it was saying, “remember when that man would scream at you when you left the house? If you leave the house now, you’re going to get screamed at again”; even though it was ten years since I has seen the bastard that screamed and this current situation was very different.
I have had therapy before, in various guises and forms. CBT, CAT, ACT, DAT; lots of letters in unusual formations had attempted to make things easier for me. Some were more successful than others, but they all succeeded in making me very aware that I had problems to solve. I know that people say this all the time, but “maybe this one will be different” was certainly true, for me, when it came to EMDR.
Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing is not the most inviting moniker for potentially life-changing therapy. It sounds like science fiction, and otherworldly, and in a way it kind of is. The idea is that you can reprocess traumatic memories by watching/hearing something move back and forth and focusing on those traumatic memories. The end result is that you have re-processed the event, discarding unhelpful responses and assumptions, and forming “appropriate” reactions. You throw away your trauma “jack-in-a-box”, and pick up building blocks.
Different practitioners use different devices. Some move their finger back and forth (like an old-timey TV hypnotist using a stopwatch), some use audio, and some use touch. Sue would use a light, a horizontal bar with LEDs on. If you have seen the film Independence Day, it's like the lights they use to try and communicate with the alien ship that hovers over Washington DC. The light moves like a progress bar from left to right, with the colour and the speed of the light being customisable. The idea is that this outside stimulus engages your left and right brain to behave as if in a sort of ‘awake’ REM sleep. Once in this state you focus on the memory, and all these other memories and feelings pop up, and you focus on those. You rarely speak to your therapist, they are just a spirit guide of sorts, leading you through the feelings, thoughts and reactions to reliving some of the worst things that ever happened to you.
Suddenly, there are things that you didn't even notice are associated with this one particular event, and how this event had spilt into other areas of your life, causing a negative impact that it didn't need to. This sounds horrible, I know. But, it isn't horrible at all. You're in a mental state where it is safe for you to re-experience and re-learn from these events. To continue the metaphor, you’re emptying out the filing cabinet, looking at the documented events from a calm point of view and deciding where to file them properly. Mental admin.
I arrived at my first session with all my muscles shrunk and tight, my head low and my back sweaty- the proverbial rabbit in the headlights. Fifty minutes went by, and I left. I walked down the stairs. I followed the hallway towards and then out of the double doors onto the street.
I didn't notice any difference at first. I felt “normal”. It was only when I crossed the road to get to my bus stop that I realised my shoulders weren't up by my ears- they were down and back. My posture was elongated and effortless. I didn't feel different, I just didn't feel bad. I could breathe normally and in a way I was free. Not free of all my cages, but free from one of them.
EMDR had done for me what no other therapy has done for me. EMDR gave me the opportunity to just let go, to learn that the things/people/situations/events that had kept me so afraid didn't deserve to have that hold on my life. They needed to stop bursting out of an overstuffed drawer and be placed in the part of my filing cabinet labelled “This was shit but I understand it and it's ok now”. EMDR gave me the opportunity to work things out for myself, to let my brain do what it does best and objectively process sensory information and create good core memories.
I had several sessions of EMDR during my treatment with Sue. It was the hardest thing that I have ever done, but also the most rewarding. The last time I saw Sue she told me to have a nice life. Which, I hated. So she said, “OK, have fun, then”. I had no reason to believe that I wouldn't be seeing her again soon. After all, I've had therapy quite frequently over the last twenty years. But things have changed.
I no longer live with my mum. I moved to a different country. I have a new job, with a different company. I told my biological father that I don’t want a relationship with him. I have a partner. I’m making art again. I get scared but I’m not scared of everything, all of the time.