The lived experience, Episode 12 – This week: Gita

Within five minutes of taking her seat on the couch with me the tears are already streaming down her cheeks. It is a relief for her to have taken the step to come to me, but it is also complicated. She has not talked to anyone yet about visiting me. And not only that: she has not talked to anyone about many of the things she wants to present to me. Difficult thoughts arise about what to say if she gets caught here, even though she knows there is nothing to caught on. She considers not discussing it at home for the time being, even though she knows that sooner or later this will be inevitable. She is already preparing herself for an argument about the choice to seek therapeutic support, even though she knows that this is the only way she will be able to find more peace within herself in the near future, because she can bear the burden on her own anymore. She feels how more and more things are starting to go wrong inside her, although on the outside it all looks nice. At the beginning of our conversation she tells me, somewhat cool and collected still, that most people cannot see from her appearance how she is really doing, how she is always able to be there for others, but that as soon as she is alone, she really just wants to cry, wants to crawl away from the claims of the world, becoming invisible, so that no one demands or desires anything from her anymore. The loneliness, the feeling of not belonging anywhere, the experience that everything in life is chaos… they slowly but surely become unbearable and she no longer wants to numb everything at the moments when she feels like she can no longer deal with it in any other way.

“I don’t really know who I am and what I want… I really have no idea… Other people have goals, but I wouldn’t know what to do with life… And if you ask me what makes me feel good, what I like to do to feel better when I feel really bad… then I can hardly answer that… In fact, I have never looked at it or thought about it that way. There was always so much chaos… I was merely surviving, but I don’t want that anymore. I realise that I can no longer avoid the pain. If I want to do something with my life, I have to face that pain and somehow learn to look at it and deal with it differently. I have been very helpful to others and I have the impression that they really see me as the go-to-person, for them to talk about all their difficult things, but lately that has also started to bother me. Why does it always have to be about them…? And why don’t they address their problems and do I have to hear them again and again? I’m tired. I do not want it anymore. It’s time for me to take better care of myself. Well…and that’s why I’m here. I hope you can help me with that…”

We end up working four hours together. I already turned up the heating earlier in the day, because experience shows that when people get emotional, they get shivery. In the winter months it usually feels nurturing when a room is comfortably warm. The physiological effect is a greater chance of oxytocin flowing: skin pores and blood vessels will open up. This often also promotes emotional and psychological openness, partly because the entire organism is calmed by oxytocin. There is tea, there is something sweet, there are candles burning, and to be on the safe side there are even two crocheted woollen blankets available and two or three times I am tempted to wrap one around her when she is sobbing and shaking her head, hands over her eyes, crawling into the corner of the couch and silently reflecting on what is going on and what she perceives in her body during the story she tells.

I invite her to really feel what her body has to say to her, but for anyone who has not really listened to their own body in a long time, this is not an easy task at all. We take our time; with me, someone does not have to leave after 45 minutes because the time is ‘up’. With me, clients are allowed to sit for hours, so that we have time to explore things deeply and to allow intense emotions to finally come to the surface without having to immediately be muted or shielded, brushed away or pushed aside. She says it several times: “It feels like something wants to come out, like something is about to burst…”

That is already a very beautiful insight, the sensation that something is reporting from the body that it wants to be seen. I am with her and I see it; I hear what she says and she is surprised to hear me give her own words back to her. “When you say it like that, it sounds so logical… Yes, I’m really such a stupid loser for not having done anything with it all this time…” That is a statement that regularly appears in other forms as well and I strongly bring it to her attention both at the beginning and at the end.

I ask her how she would feel if I told her that she is a loser because she has still not addressed and resolved certain issues. I ask her if she would stay and if in that case we would have a nice and safe conversation. She laughs: “Uh… no. Definitely not!” We conclude that if she did not run right away, she certainly would not come back. We also conclude that this is however the way she addresses herself. The relationship with her true Self therefore also becomes unpleasant and unsafe. That is why I say at the beginning, halfway and at the end that the greatest gift she can give herself with this and any possible follow-up session is that she becomes kinder and more compassionate to herself.

She lacked a lot of love and safety as a child and that fact cannot be undone. That influenced how her personality and beliefs developed. What she can do, in difficult situations or when things are not going well, is to look at that little girl within herself with soft eyes and wonder what she might need now. That is what she can give herself and what she can also allow herself to receive from loved ones. She can understand that intellectually, but emotionally it is not yet self-evident. After all, it also requires her to express what is going on. It is logical that this can feel scary: you usually cannot change decades-long patterns overnight, especially not if they were associated with unsafety for so long or if they were the only way to survive. Today, however, she has made a start and taken an important, courageous step. I promise her that I will prepare the report of our meeting as soon as possible. With her permission I give her a hug before she leaves. She looks less troubled, but the sadness and vulnerability are visible. That is beautiful; she was able to soften during our conversation and broke down her wall a bit. I hope that she can maintain that softness, especially towards herself, and that she will let me know if I can do anything for her.

The lived experience, Episode 11 – This week: Elize

This week we’re picking up the thread of blogging again after a long time! We have been able to do many other wonderful things in the past period, but we would really like to share beautiful stories with you again. The blog below is a guest blog by ‘Elize’, who approached ACE Aware NL and shared her story with us.

 

Knowledge surrounding ACEs – the missing piece of the puzzle?

When I drive to work in the car, I often listen to a podcast. Trained as a lifestyle coach, I am interested in everything that has to do with health and vitality. This time I listened to the OERsterk podcast by Richard de Leth, where Marianne Vanderveen was a guest. From start to finish I was fascinated by the topic: ACEs, adverse childhood experiences.

Being seen
I remember my childhood as a wonderful time, and yet I recognise a lot in the podcast. This is my story.
I am over 50 years old, born as the middle child of triplets. My eldest sister had mental problems from an early age, my youngest had physical problems. I skipped through life, but had to settle for much less attention from my parents. My sisters got their havodiploma. I did my very best to be seen and obtained my vwo-diploma a year later. However, the feeling of not mattering remained present.

Too different
My partner and I had three beautiful children. When they were a little older, our children had some major challenges in their lives: our eldest daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s, an autism spectrum disorder, at the age of eleven. Our second daughter developed an eating disorder. Our son developed depression, in addition to his ADD. At the time, I suspected that our son’s ADD and his depression were related to his sisters’ autism and anorexia. After listening to the podcast, reading the ACE Aware NL website and a conversation with Marianne, I have a different picture. The children showed behavioural patterns labelled as ‘autism’, ‘anorexia’ and ‘ADD’, but in fact these were largely ‘coping strategies’. This behaviour was a way for them to survive in an unfavourable environment.
With what I know now, I can see that it was almost inevitable that our marriage would end – the gap was too wide. At that time in our lives we could not support each other with everything that was going on. The events exposed our own traumas. And on an even deeper level, I now think that the underlying trauma for both of us influenced the development of the children’s problems. After the divorce, I started working on my personal development in several ways. The children are now 25, 23 and 20 years old, beautiful young adults who are doing well. I think the foundation for this was laid in their early lives.

Rat race
For the first ten years I was at home full time with the children. When the youngest went to school, I worked three mornings and after school, I looked after them at home. After the divorce, when the youngest was seven years old, I retrained for a different profession. After that, unfortunately, I had no choice but to work 32 hours, which meant I was less at home with the children. I had a lot of balls to keep in the air and I joined the rat race of life.
That changed with one phone call: “You have to come get your daughter now, because she wants to go to the railway tracks.” She was already seriously ill at the time. In that moment my world stood still. It was as if I woke up with a shock, as if I realised for the first time that I could actually lose her because of her illness. I completely panicked: what was I doing? The four of us live under one roof, but we each lead our own lives. How truly connected are we? I wanted to change that!

Being available
I made appointments at work and assisted my daughter where I could. We ate all meals together. We also largely visited doctors and therapists together. I could be there for her and that felt nice. However, I felt all the more how I had missed my mother in my own youth. Being able to do it differently than my own mother was healing for me and hopefully for my daughter as well. Just as I missed my mother at the time, she also had had to miss me. As parents, we had failed her in our search for an explanation for her eldest sister’s behaviour (autism). I was aware of it and yet at that moment I did not know how to do it differently. The anorexia forced us to interact in new ways. The result is an even better bond with each other.

Personal development
After a number of major life events, I took the path of personal development in 2004. At the beginning of 2018, the eating disorder appeared to be in remission. That same year I followed an annual program at ‘365 days successful’. For me this was life changing! I recently watched a webinar from them about unacknowledged grief, for example after trauma. When I thought of trauma, I always thought of big things like sexual or physical abuse. That turned out to be an incomplete picture; smaller events can also have an impact on someone’s life and can lead to trauma. An impressive list emerged in my head, including the emotional experiences that preceded and followed two car accidents, a miscarriage, divorce, and illness. After listening to the OERsterk podcast, I listened to Marianne’s own podcast: ‘Raising Resilience’. I now understand much better where the feeling of ‘I don’t matter’ comes from. I also now look at the consequences of the car accident differently. This took place at a time when the second child’s anorexia required a different treatment process. I simply didn’t feel the space to process the emotional and physical side of the accident. I prioritised what I saw as her best interests, forgetting that my own well-being (or lack thereof) is actually the foundation for the children’s happiness (or lack thereof).

Trauma therapy
After my car accident in 2016, I received targeted trauma therapy in the form of EMDR. It didn’t do anything for me. In 2019 I booked an EMI session, a variation on EMDR, which removed the charge from the event. I recently had a similar experience. I was triggered by my piece ‘I don’t feel seen’, which I now understand falls under the consequences of ACEs. My partner booked a treatment for me with a trauma therapist friend. After an extensive intake, he not only tackled the car accident, but all the trauma that I had unconsciously accumulated in my life, the trauma that limited my functioning and that made me tired. He looked at the bigger picture. Together we spent an afternoon working intensively on reprogramming the various events. The result is astonishing: the load has been removed!

Mirror
How are things now? I am a volunteer at the Leontienhuis, a drop-in center for people with eating disorders. I see many parents struggling with the issues that I have had myself. They tell me they feel powerless regarding their child’s eating disorder. Could it be that parents and/or their children are also dealing with the consequences of ACEs, without being aware of it? Could it be that children then lovingly mirror to us how we treat ourselves? Is it an invitation to us as parents to turn inward ourselves, to work on our own issues and thus heal together? In any case, I am much more aware of the impact of trauma on my life and therefore also on that of my children. My wish is to be able to assist parents who are in a similar situation. Is the knowledge surrounding ACEs the missing piece of the puzzle? That is what I want to delve into further in the near future!

The lived experience, Episode 10 – This week: Esther, Part 3 (final)

Last week we read about Esther’s painful experiences. In this last part we see cautious, brave steps towards a different approach.

We have been talking for a long time and after a short break, Esther’s partner has now joined us as she talks about this part of their life together. When the emotions arise and I invite her to close her eyes and feel what is happening in her body, she notices that she is distracted by her husband’s breathing. Something unusual happens; she says calmly, but with determination: “Hearing your breathing makes me very nervous. I realise that I would like to talk with just the two of us again.” It is wonderful to see how her partner picks up on this: he acknowledges her feeling, gets up from the couch, walks to the kitchen, gets something to drink and asks if his wife needs anything and then he disappears upstairs, where their son is now in bed for his nap. We look at each other: “You were right,” she says, “with him next to me, I do indeed take care of him and not myself.” I have two very brave people in front of me: one who speaks out and one who responds with understanding.

We resume the conversation about their relationship. She says that she felt all her security disappear due to the lack of support from her parents, as if she were becoming homeless. At my invitation, she imagines what it would mean for her son if he felt this way. The tears well up again: “I would never want to give him that feeling… That is why I am so angry with myself about letting him cry…” Again, together we look for some softening and more understanding towards this harsh judgment about herself.

We are slowly working towards a conclusion. I summarise a little what she has said, how she has drifted away from the deep connection with her Self in so many things, with who she really is, how she so often could not be herself, and how she now, in recognising the nervousness resulting from the presence of her partner, listened to her inner knowledge. “But it is a deep conviction that if I don’t take care of the other person, then I have failed. I feel I cannot betray that loyalty.” Intellectually she knows that it is not her responsibility to care for the other person’s feelings, but the pattern is deeply ingrained and when she continues to explain it, it turns out that there is also a lot of intergenerational pain that offers an explanation for this. There is a lot of threat in the family history, a lot of social unrest, and the tendency towards overprotection by her parents is very likely related to this. However, this was counterproductive, because the freedom they tried to secure was no longer there: Esther felt like a prisoner, someone who could not and was not allowed to take care of herself.

She is silent for a bit and suddenly she says: “Yes, that’s right… and I am passing that on when I don’t let my partner take care of our son, because I want to do all of it myself… When something happened again recently, I felt that I could tone down a bit, so I called and said: ‘Do it the way you want.’ Indeed: that is not necessarily ‘less well’, but just ‘different’ and that is fine.” I recognise her feeling from when our own children were young: I also thought that they would be best off with my approach. She is certainly not alone in that experience and she is invited to forgive herself for that. She does the best she can with what she has available; no one can do more than their best. However, it may be that with more awareness about her behavioural patterns she comes to different choices, choices that also make things easier and lighter for her.

She can also try to let go of the judgments that she does not appreciate from her parents. Then a feeling can arise that she can simple *be*, that she does not just matter when she is seen in what she *does* in her work or in whatever else. If she can have a sweeter ‘inner dialogue’, if she can reduce speaking so sternly to herself, but can view her actions with compassion, everything can become more calm. “You just did it with your husband – you can do it, it is in you!”, I say as encouragement, while she looks at me with wide eyes. I ask if I can hold her. That is okay and I put my arms around her. She leans against me and I feel her muscles relax, feel how she curls up in my embrace like a young girl. We sit like this for minutes, in silence, without moving. After a while she says in tears: “This is what I would have liked to receive from my mother, a hug and the outspoken confidence that everything will work out.”

We wrap up and I ask her what she got out of it. She thinks for a moment and says: “I feel relief. I expressed certain things and it was the first time that I really listened to my emotions. I gave them attention and looked at them, as if I said to myself: ‘I see you now!’ and that made the intensity of what I felt disappear. That was really the first time, despite years of therapy.” We remain silent and reflect together on this victory she has achieved over herself, on this giant step she has taken on her healing journey.

Not everything is finished and resolved, but she has made a brave breakthrough and she can give herself time and space to keep that process going. She can ask for help if she needs it, from her partner, friends, family, whoever she really trusts as a traveling companion. I have felt her power and am confident that beautiful vistas will be revealed!

The lived experience, Episode 10 – This week: Esther, Part 2

In the previous blog we met Esther, who told us how lonely and excluded she often felt and how she fell into depression shortly after the birth of her son.

During our entire conversation I see how her brain is working at full speed and busy making connections between physical sensations and emotional experiences of things: “Jesus, I can feel it in my throat… another lump in my throat , which is now burning… And now that I think about it… was that why I had the heartburn during pregnancy? When I think about all this, I feel tingling all over my body…” I ask what the message could be. “I feel like something inside wants to get out. Maybe I want more territory! I want to take up space, find my place. That I noticed so often that they did not take time for me… I know they were busy, but still… it gave rise to the conviction that I did not matter…” She cries again, but also sounds like a warrior: “And that is not right, because over the years I have proven what I am capable of.” She now sits up straighter and I ask her what emotion she feels: “Pride! I am proud of my choices and what I have accomplished!”

However, currently, with the care for her young child, there is too much that requires energy and pride has disappeared into the background. She is in tears again when I ask what support has recently disappeared: “My mother’s; she was not there when I needed her after giving birth…” She sobs. “I feel like she did not prepare me for childbirth… for life, actually…” I ask if it was the first time she felt like she was on her own and then something special happens. She says that until then it was all manageable, but not anymore with the arrival of her child: “Now I was not strong enough…” I cringe a little, I notice, because she judges herself so harshly. She did that manageing herself. She could count on herself until then; she had enough strength to do it by herself, but even then she was often alone with it. So it is not that she is not strong enough now; what is going on is that now she had more to carry than her (tense) shoulders could manage. It is a completely new perspective, that it was not the first time that she did not receive support, but that it was the first time that she could not do it alone.

I propose a more compassionate formulation: “Even before, you needed support that you did not receive, but now you are fully aware that without that support you really cannot move forward. As a result, you can now slowly but surely start to see other times, in which you lacked that support, in a different light.” This formulation also places her depressive feelings in a different light. People are ‘wired for connection’, focused on the relational connection and co-regulation plays an extremely important role in this: are our closest loved ones able to empathise with what we need and how we feel? And are they able to fulfil that need?

We sometimes forget that even if we cannot identify the intellectual recollection of events with our cognitive brain, our body has stored a physical, emotional memory of them. That can make it complicated to understand what is happening. If something is preverbal (because you were too small) or nonverbal (because you could not put words to it), it can be difficult to put your finger on painful events. You did feel it at the time and even now older feelings stored in the body can be touched. In other words: feelings can be triggered. That means that they are not caused by what is happening in the present moment, but that they are awakened. They were already there.

There is, for example, the fact that Esther’s father actually thought two children were enough, something of which Esther of course has no verbal, conscious memory from when she was little. That does not mean, however, that she did not feel it, that she did not experience the tension from her mother during the pregnancy (‘what will happen with this new baby that my husband does not necessarily want…?’) in the form of stress hormones flowing through the umbilical cord. This means that her doubts about who she is can be seen from a different perspective. How visible is she to herself and others? How much space does she dare to take up? How powerfully does she dare to speak out…? How can she get rid of that lump in her throat, so that her words can flow freely and she can let her own Wisdom speak?

We talk about how important it is to take good care of yourself, because otherwise it is virtually impossible to take care of someone else, especially a small baby who needs so much from you. Esther is concerned about the fact that she has made her son cry several times because she simply ran out of energy and could no longer do it. She is strict with herself: “I could kick myself. I’m afraid I’ve damaged our secure attachment relationship…”

We conclude that no child grows up without moments when their parents are unable to meet all their needs. That happens to all of us as parents and that is okay, as long as there are enough other moments when the ‘rupture’ (the temporary severing of the connection) finds ‘repair’ (the restoration of it with sensitivity, attention, nurturing). That is part of what makes it difficult now: the ‘repair’ she needs from her mother is missing and that hurts. That appeals to all the times she missed that connection as a little girl. Especially now that she is actively committed to offering her son what he needs in that regard, she is even more confronted with how painful it is if you miss out on that as a young baby.

There is also a very big elephant in the room that cannot be named within her family. She did not have a free choice of partner and the fact that she followed her heart in the man she wanted to marry created a lot of unrest in the family. She was still living at home when she said she had chosen someone out of love, and her father did not speak to her for a year and a half. He ignored her, did not look at her, did not exchange a word. He then gave her an ultimatum: choose for her partner or for her parents. She did not allow herself to be pressured; she chose her partner and did not reject her parents, but the lack of support from her mother hurt her deeply. It was again a situation in which her authentic Self was not respected, in which her freedom was taken away.

Next week we will read about Esther’s brave first steps towards a freer, more sparkling life.

The lived experience, Episode 10 – This week: Esther, Part 1

Esther came to me in a roundabout way because there were breastfeeding problems: overproduction, breast infections, a lot of pumping, endless feedings, a tongue tie… she got stuck and had help with that, but now there is another big hurdle: she has realised that the sadness that came over her a few weeks after birth was not just a ‘bad day’ or feeling a bit down, but postpartum depression, as it has been labelled. She lives far away from me, but another appointment nearby makes a combination possible, so that she does not have to make a long, stressful journey.

Once at Esther’s house I notice that she quickly becomes very open: she is ready for this process. She wants to leave the ‘mess’ of the past behind her, to break away from what she calls the toxic dynamics with people who are very close to her: the members of her family of origin. During the introduction, she does not say much at first about the impactful period that puberty was for her, but during our four-hour conversation she bravely and determinedly works towards talking about it. The systemic methodology with which we start immediately makes her tears well up. She feels a lump in her throat, a burning lump that she cannot swallow, almost taking her breath away.

When we evaluate together, she, like me, notices how positively she experiences the relationship with her partner. For quite a long time, he and his family were her refuge. She felt welcome and seen and they were happy with her as the wife of their son, their brother, their brother-in-law.

For a long time she did not want children, but now that her son has arrived, she is deeply moved by the amount of love he unleashes in her. However, he does not only unleash love, as we will see during our conversation – he also unleashes a lot of old sadness and her tears are the meltwater of everything that has become frozen within her and is stuck inside as a cold and inflexible mass.

She realises that she does not really know who she is, besides motherhood. Where does she stand now? How to go forward? How can she take up the space she did not have as a child? How can she powerfully claim her freedom and break loose from what hinders the development of her potential? These are big questions that are unavoidable, but at the same time they also frighten her and make her sad and silent and sometimes anxious. She regularly has the feeling that the walls are closing in on her, that she would like to leave and start a whole new life, in a place where no one knows her.

In her family, she was an afterthought; her two brothers were 11 and 8 when she was born. She would have liked to do something else in terms of work, but her parents would not allow her. To them, working for her brother seemed like the safest place for her. It reminds her of how, as a young girl, she was constantly protected and pampered, as she calls it, although it did not feel that way. It felt suffocating, like a lack of freedom that other children in her class were allowed to experience: walking to school themselves, choosing their own leisure activities, having space to just hang around and do nothing… For her, it was not like that: she was involved in so many extracurricular activities that her entire week was packed. She was brought and fetched everywhere; her parents did not allow her any independence in this regard. School was a particularly difficult situation: it was only a ten-minute walk, but she was taken by car at all times of the year. Her mother’s schedule caused her to be late every day. Esther repeats it a few times: ‘Every day, really every single day!’ Her classmates therefore thought she was strange. Esther felt like an outsider; she did not belong. “I could have walked or cycled that short distance, together with the others! I felt ridiculed. I experienced it as an enormous restriction of freedom.” It is therefore no wonder that she notices so much in her throat, so much that hinders the free flow of inhalation and speech…

After some time as an employee, her father started his own company and spent most of his time there. There was little attention for Esther. His companies flourished and there was always enough money, but Esther lacked attention and recognition for who she was and what she could do and what she dreamed of.

From the age of 55, her father no longer had any financial need to work and was usually at home, just like her mother, and she saw a dynamic between them that also lacked mutual interest, with little overlap between their activities. Her eldest brother lived on his own for a while, but is now in his early forties and lives with his parents again. He has taken up yet another study and started a company in which he collaborates with his younger brother.

Esther has seen all these developments and says: “I consider myself so stupid. I have much more to offer and I did not have to wait until this age to discover myself…” She cries again and we are silent together. I ask what it evokes in her body. She thinks with closed eyes and says: “Sadness… and also anger…” I ask her what that anger would say if it could talk. Now she does not have to think long: “Fuck off! I hate you for what you did!” She now also feels a tingling in her toes, tension in her lower back, and stiffness in her shoulders. We discuss all the sensations and what they might have to tell her.

“Since the day I can remember, I have never had freedom. That feeling is very old, really very old…” We talk about the emotions that must have arisen at the time as a result of her feeling of loneliness and we see if she can imagine a child of that age. If that does not work, we use her own son as an example, even though he is only little over a year old. I ask how he would feel if she and her partner treated him this way and what it would mean to her if he did not talk to her about it. Her tired eyes fill with tears again and she sobs as she says: “That would hurt me very much. It would mean that he thinks that I will not understand him, that I will not hear him or see him.” The fact that she did not talk to anyone about how she felt at school was for exactly the same reason: in the years before, she had already lost confidence that her mother would understand her. That was the child she was: sad, ashamed, alone with her pain.

I explain that she may not have expressed the emotions, but of course that did not make them go away; she was just ‘keeping them down’. I speak slowly, put a pause between ‘keeping’ and ‘down’. I catch her eyes and ask what could be another word for ‘keeping down’. She hesitates and shakes her head. I say: ‘de-pression’. She looks at me and says: “Ooooooh… woooow… Yes, that sounds very logical… but I have never made that connection myself…” We discuss that now she does seem to have space to express her feelings, that her own family offers her the security and listening ear that she used to miss.

That is a wonderful starting point for change. We will read more about that next week.