I wasn’t going to write about this, but I thought perhaps I might in an effort to show what continued work looks like.
As I’ve said, I decided to go back to therapy to make sure that I was contained. After my mother’s repeated attempts at contact, I felt latent symptoms of PTSD come to the surface again. I viewed this as an opportunity to achieve deeper healing. When I’m honest with myself, I must recognize that there are most likely issues lurking about that I simply haven’t remembered or felt ready to confront.
During my last session, my therapist wanted me to practice containment. I know how to do this. I’ve been doing this for years. This is all in preparation for EMDR. She makes the point that even though we may target a certain memory or event, something else may get dredged up with it. I understand this. My brain is currently primed to do this work. So, if something really troubling comes forward during session, I need to be able to contain my emotions, affect, and whatever else comes forward so that I can leave her office and return to my life integrated. Containment is an important skill, and this is why it’s vital to use a tool like The Box with intention. It helps to form new neural pathways in place of perseveration.
So, how does this work in life? It all sounds so easy in theory.
Here’s a scenario. Last week I was making a quick bread that involved a crumble topping. I loathe getting my hands dirty when cooking. I always have. This makes no sense when cooking because your hands are your best tools in the kitchen. I, however, have always had an aversion to having sticky, greasy hands. I don’t like to lick my fingers when eating. I don’t even like to have lotion on my hands. I will always have numerous napkins on hand when eating or cooking to keep my hands clean. I decided, however, that I would use my hands to make the crumble topping. This resulted in my hands being covered in butter and sugary goodness. I stared at my hands, trying to figure out the best way to clean them. I thought to myself that perhaps I could lick the topping off. I never lick my fingers so that seemed like a weird option. Why not lick my fingers? That’s not bad, right? It felt like a strange thing to do. I opted to “live a little” and lick my fingers. As I was licking the sugar and butter off my fingers, I remembered something that my mother would do.
When I was a young girl, I loved to lick the beaters that were used to mix cookie doughs. I think this is typical. My daughters stand in line to lick the beaters, and arguments often ensue over who will lick what beater, who will go first, etc. My mother, however, had a game. I couldn’t lick the beaters until I had licked her finger. She would scoop up some dough with her index finger, hold it in front of my face, and say, “You have to lick my finger first, and then I’ll give you a beater.” I remember not liking this. I didn’t want to lick her finger. I remember feeling strangely in my stomach. I also remember clamping my mouth shut and shaking my head to indicate a no. My mother was not one to take no for an answer so she would force her finger into my mouth. The game didn’t stop there. She would then take one of my fingers, dip it into the dough, and lick it. I remember very clearly how it felt to have my finger in her mouth, her tongue swirling around the tip of my little index finger. I looked at the floor and bit down on the inside of my cheek. I did not want to lick the cookie dough off the beaters anymore. In that moment, I hated her, and I just wanted to run away. After the game was over, she gave me a beater to lick. If I didn’t lick a beater, then I was scolded–“I thought you wanted to lick one of the beaters. Why are you standing there looking so upset?” So, I had to look happy. Always look happy.
This all came to the forefront of my mind as I stood in the kitchen licking my fingers. Well, no wonder I don’t like to lick my fingers or get my hands dirty! Oh, to have self-awareness. In that moment, I told my husband, “I’m remembering something. Just now. i’m making connections. You may not like this, but I need to tell someone. I need to speak it aloud.” So, I told him, and he shuddered. “I gotta tell you, your mother is never stepping foot in this house again. That’s just more than I can stand. That is so disgusting. I can’t believe she did that to you!” I watched him gag and shudder some more. I started laughing because I was shuddering, too. I felt a surge of pain and betrayal rise to the surface, and I wanted to cry. I could not, however, because it wasn’t the time. I had to contain the memories and the attached emotions. Into The Box it went.
And, it has stayed there. This is how containment works. I have discussed the memory, but I have not made any effort to connect emotions to it. I’ll do that at a later point when it’s safe to do it. The good thing about this memory is that it explains present behaviors, and I can now go about changing. I can practice getting my hands dirty when I cook and garden. I can practice licking my fingers when I eat. I need to attach different body memories to the act of licking my fingers. As odd as this sounds, I need to ask my husband to lick my fingers particularly in the bedroom. I need to override the memory of my mother licking my fingers. What she did was sexually abusive because there was an element of sexual abuse in her actions. It was far too intimate an action done to my body against my will. I need stronger and new events encoded to memory that will override everything else associated with finger licking.
This is an example of how I’ve chosen to deal with one traumatic memory that has surfaced in terms of basic DBT. I practiced emotional regulation. I utilized containment by using the tool called The Box. I also tolerated the distress that came with the emergence of the memory. I did not attempt to escape the distress. I practiced mindfulness by staying aware of my emotions and deciding which ones needed containment and which ones could be shared. I talked with my husband, and, by observing his responses, I saw that I, too, had a reason to have an intense response to the memory. Watching how other people react to our stories can be helpful. We often don’t know if what we experienced is bad because our experiences have often been normalized. We are allowed to feel and respond with intensity even if the people in our spheres of influence have told us otherwise. Our perception matters. How we feel in our body is indeed important and relevant.
I will bring this memory to my therapist’s attention in our next session, and that is when I will bring it out of The Box in full.
Incidentally, an experience like this can be very problematic if there is a history of other kinds of sexual abuse particularly if the abuse was oral in nature. The act of a person forcefully pushing something into your mouth will no doubt hook into other experiences and body memories wherein a person attempted to forcefully push something into your mouth against your will. This is exactly how triggered responses develop. Then, one day, you suddenly can’t endure going to the dentist for a simple exam. Your amygdala begins to view the oral invasion as the same experience, and you are on alert and triggered whether you like it or not. So, it is vitally important to take extra steps in your process to practice self-care. Be kind to yourself. Practice mindfulness, and don’t judge yourself. Healing is one of the most important works of your life. It takes courage and perseverance. Any step that you take to pursue a better life is to be applauded.
For further exploration of DBT refer to The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook.