Yesterday I had the most painful therapy session of my life.
This session directly followed my realisation that family photos trigger me. I wrote about it here, but the summary is that while looking through old family photos, I realised that I was scanning each face trying to jog my memory — I wanted to discover who had sexually assaulted me as a child.
I expressed to my therapist my dismay at the unknown nature of the assault.
I do know that something terrible happened to me. I don’t remember exactly what, or who, or when. The unknown nature is really quite distressing. It has left me in a state of constant mistrust.
Did this person from my past assault me? Were they capable of such a thing? If not, did they notice my suffering? If so, why didn’t they act? If not, why not?
So many unanswered questions.
Attempting to help me determine the truth, my therapist lead me though a recall of the event. She got me to focus on the specifics: the colours of the furniture, the smells of the bed sheets, the size of the hand on my back that was holding me down.
We realised that whilst powerful, the memory that I have is only partial. That is, I remember things up to a certain point, and then I remember nothing.
My therapist asked me to ‘finish the memory’. As in fill in the gaps, with what I thought could have happened. I didn’t want to, and I said as much. I was on the verge of breaking down then and there.
She guessed correctly that I had filled the memory in with ‘the worst ending imaginable’. I had.
She suggested that since I don’t remember the ending, and because the who, where and when of the memory is still up in the air, that theoretically anything could have happened. I agreed.
She suggested that I instead change the ending. Choose to end that memory a better way. In a way that wasn’t the worst ending possible. A way that would help me to move on, to let go, and forgive. One that would enable me to look at old family photos in a better light.
This approach has some appeal. If I can truly choose a different ending, one that fits the memories, is consistent, and that improves my mental state and functioning, why not?
I know that is in effect an almost Orwellian act of rewriting the past, to benefit the future, but why not? It is my memory and my future after all. If this works and it sticks, than I am willing to give it a shot.
This session was very hard. Focusing on trauma, attempting to relive it and then recounting it was painful.
But I know from experience that it will be worth it. Although sessions like these open up the wounds, I know that I will heal stronger.
What has therapy been like for you?
~ Zachary Phillips
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