Trauma, triggers, and protecting your boundaries, Part 2

Last week I shared an incident with a drunk woman and how I reacted to her. This week I will tell about how I explored that reaction further.

“Shall we do a grounding first or do you want to start right away?” My colleague asked me with a laugh. We had already completed two sessions and now it was her turn to be the therapist, this time with me as the client. I had not quite figured out my intention for the session yet and which difficult situation I wanted to explore further through Compassionate Inquiry (CI). A grounding seemed like a good idea; the stillness of it had led to beautiful insights before.
I closed my eyes and surrendered to her voice. It only took two or three of her sentences and then I knew: the situation with the drunk lady hugging and kissing me – that was what my session would be about today. Gaining more insight into what actually happened there – that was my intention.

With CI, the goal is to quickly descend into our bodily experiences, but I needed some time and text to explain the context to my colleague. I told the story and how I was disgusted by the idea of her hugging me. She was right to pick up on that word – disgust is a powerful emotional experience. She asked me how that felt, disgust. I scanned my body with my mind, thinking back to the night in question. ‘It made me sick. Even if I tell you now, I would want to puke’, I replied. ‘Can we stay with that feeling for a moment?’ We are both CI-students; I too know the questions, and I know roughly when to expect them, but still… when you are in the client role, it is different. For the client, the questions that you can best ask as a therapist or that you would like to see come up as an observer sometimes come as a surprise. And sometimes the question itself is no surprise, but the feeling associated with perceiving the bodily sensation is. That perception is sometimes really intense, confronting, shocking. That was also the case now: I felt almost more disgust now than at the time itself, when I was caught off guard, feeling overwhelmed, and only thought about how I could ‘manage’ the situation optimally without turning it into a scene, thus taking a responsibility on my shoulders that did not belong there. After all, she forced herself on me, not the other way around.

We stayed with the disgust for a while and soon I realised that this disgust was not about this woman, but about another woman – about my mother. For many years she was a kind of hidden alcoholic. She lied to me about whether she had been drinking. Peppermint and cheap perfumes were used in an attempt to cover up the smell of alcohol and nicotine. Combined with clothing drenched in the stench of stale cigarette smoke this resulted in a bouquet of scents that I could no longer tolerate after a while and that years later, when I noticed it somewhere, evoked the whole palette of misery through association. If I thought I smelled alcohol with my mother, she usually denied it. Then she said it was the medication she had to take or she made up some other excuse.

During our CI session I also remembered a situation where we came back in the middle of the night from visiting acquaintances of my parents. The four of them had spent the night downstairs playing cards, while my sister and I and the couple’s two sons watched movies and ate chips and ice cream upstairs. If we played and kept silent, they would probably forget about us and let us stay up extra late, we figured. One such evening it had become late again. My sister and I were installed in the backseat of the car, comfortably in a sleeping bag, so we could sleep through the half hour drive home. My mother did not have a driver’s license, so my father always drove and acted responsibly. Once home, my father parked in his usual spot in front of the building. We woke up and had to get out of the car with our sleepy faces and shivering bodies (we must have been about 7 and 9 or 8 and 10). My father pushed his seat forward and let us out so we could walk up the stairs from the porch of our apartment. My mother also got out of the car, but just before she stepped into the porch, she vomited on the sidewalk in front of our flat: everything came out that had gone into it that night – in addition to the snacks probably a lot of sherry or vermouth, the drinks in those days, with enough alcohol to make you sick if you keep consuming a long, long evening.

I was ashamed; who would witness this in the morning, such a dirty spot on the sidewalk, right next to the car, right in front of the front door? That was inappropriate, I felt. Puking can happen in case of an emergency; you can’t always help that, but on the sidewalk in front of the front door, after a night out?! I did not understand everything, but as a young child I certainly did not think this was right. Thinking back, I have a feeling that my father was also ashamed and that he was angry, even though he did not say anything. I don’t know what happened that night, whether one of them went down to throw a bucket of water over it, for example. However, my father had stomach problems for years later on: I guess he had been swallowing too much that in fact he found indigestible.

So my mother’s drinking was not just a thing when I was an adult, married, and a mother in my own family. That drinking was certainly older, although I am not sure if it was an incident that specific evening, or an event visible to us in what may already have been a pattern even then. In any case, it had meant that for decades I would avoid anything that could possibly lead to an uncontrolled state of being: no excess of alcohol, no cigarettes, no drugs, no weed – more generally: no wild and crazy excesses. I would not let myself go free, go wild, and rash like an experimenting adolescent, but would restrain myself: no situations, no drama, no embarrassing displays.

Speaking of determination: I would not create a situation for myself and certainly later for the children in which, for example, shop staff in town would approach them with the remark: ‘Wow, I find it very embarrassing, but my staff members sometimes say to each other, look, here comes that drunk woman again, but that’s your mother…’ What could I do? Yes, she was my mother and no, I was not responsible for her behaviour and yes, I had tried to do something about it and no, that had totally failed and yes, I thought it totally sucked that I could not be proud of my mom, like other kids in my class. And ‘totally sucked’ was a complex concept: I was intensely sad, but I was also just very angry. Why did she make such a mess? Why was she not there for us? Why did she drink and smoke so much, even though it did not make her happy? There was a lot of confusion, sadness, disappointment, anger, and yes, in spite of everything, also a lot of determination and self-control, survival instinct and brave perseverance.

Next week I will share the further course of the session and my gained insight.

Posted in Interviews by experience experts.