Hello, friends! This is an awesome Q&A episode where I take three great listener questions and try my best to offer some helpful advice. These cover a range of topics including bringing your parents into therapy, recalling trauma, and overcoming an affair.
The Hardcore Self Help Facebook group
Just before we get into the questions, I wanted to let you know that we do have a Facebook Group. If you aren’t a member yet, you should definitely consider requesting access. It’s a closed, private group, meaning that your family and friends can’t see what you post there unless they are also a member. I have a few screening questions for you to answer when you join, which I do take seriously in order to help keep the group safe. I do weekly challenges and frequent live streams. It’s also a place to ask questions and get feedback from other people who are also trying to improve their lives and mental health. If you aren’t yet a member, you can request access at http://facebook.com/groups/hardcoreselfhelp.
I was addicted to injecting heroin at the age of 15 and put myself into some very traumatic situations where I was raped or molested. I got clean at the age 19 and have been in therapy ever since. In my sessions I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder, borderline personality disorder, generalized anxiety, depression and sleep paralysis. I have been in therapy for about 8 years now and am mostly working today on DBT training skills and the daily struggles of motherhood and having a full time job. When I was in my addiction I had very very bad episodes with my vivid and lucid nightmares and especially my sleep paralysis where I couldn’t even tell what was real and what was a dream. Being on such an extreme drug that influenced my reality it made it difficult to determine whether or not what had happened to me was in fact just a nightmare or it actually happened in real life. Within my sessions it is hard for me to open up about these issues because I don’t want to throw myself into a manic episode or a deep depression. Every time I try bringing these issues up I am left with no answers, guilt and shame of the choices I once made.
My question is, how important is it to remember traumatic situations and really get to the truth of what happened in order to recover without the fear of spiraling into such a dark place? Or are there some instances where forgetting and letting go of traumas is just as healthy?
You are doing a lot of hard work maintaining your sobriety and continuing to go to therapy. I’m glad you’re still around to be writing in this email.
All providers have a somewhat different approach to working with issues – I use a sort of downward arrow approach. I feel like you need to address the most immediate stuff first, build some skills, and then when you’re ready, you start to dig into the deeper insights. To be clear, you can have little bits of insight or random breakthroughs that happen at any point, but you really can’t force it.
It reminds me a bit of this quote from Carl Rogers:
“Insight comes gradually, bit by bit, as the individual develops sufficient psychological strength to endure new perspectives.”
So there may be some wisdom in you being cautious about simply opening up pandora’s box without a good plan or skills to cope with what might happen.
Backing up a bit, ever since my interview with Laura Copley, her words “trauma is not the event, it’s your body’s reaction to the event” have been stuck in my head. This is important to keep in mind here. It’s important to not jump to the conclusion that you are traumatized. You certainly could be – it would make a lot of sense if you were. BUT you are also allowed to go through horrific things and not be traumatized by them. That doesn’t mean that you feel fine about what happened, it just means that you don’t have flash backs, hypervigilance, and avoidance of triggers that comes with it. I’m not sure what the case is for you, but either situation is okay. You are where you are.
Starting small with exposure
Either way, you are basically telling me that you don’t feel safe enough to dive deep into what you’ve been through. That’s perfectly alright and you know yourself better than anybody else. So what can you do? Maybe there is a small element that you can start with and build up from there. I talk about exposure a lot on this podcast, and it’s definitely an important element of moving past trauma. That means exposure to the memories, but also exposure to the feelings that are brought about by talking about them. For you, you might need to start small.
Since the events are somewhat abstract and unclear, you may want to focus on the feelings you have about that period of time rather than specific instances that may have been traumatizing for you. You can talk broadly about that period of time. The feelings and thoughts that you can remember from that period of time. If there is a specific instance you remember and want to bring up, that’s fine, but you don’t necessarily have to. By talking about in a more abstract way, you may still be able to access some of the feelings you had back then, which are likely feelings that you have been trying to avoid. The point being to take away their power. They are just feelings. They aren’t going to hurt you.
DBT is definitely a good type of therapy for you to be doing so you can work on distress tolerance and catching problematic behavior patterns that you may tend to fall into. Part of this is going to be learning to stand up to some of your fears and not avoiding them due to being scared of mania, depression, etc. You have support right now, that’s the best time to start branching out a bit – though it doesn’t have to be all at once.
The point of DBT is to help you with coping skills, developing a network, etc. to make you feel confident that you have options for getting through reactions that might come up as you approach these memories rather than avoid them. In general thoughts and even vivid flashbacks are not dangerous, but for your situation, we do need to approach this process with a bit more care. It’s probably unlikely, but if you tend to struggle with your sobriety when you are manic, a manic episode could certainly lead to a heroin bender, which has the potential to kill you. But this is all part of what I’m talking about. If you have the structures in place to support you and help you maintain your sobriety even if you do become manic, then you will feel more confident to approach and tackle some of those lingering experiences that you are currently avoiding.
Answer the scary questions
Rather than asking yourself big scary “what if” questions like “what if I get manic?” or “what if this makes me feel more depressed?”. Actually answer those questions. Defuse them and make them less scary. So what if you become manic? You do the same things you’ve previously done to compensate when manic. You engage your support system. You focus on the basics like hygiene, getting your bills paid, getting your kid to school, and stuff like that. You schedule an urgent appointment with your psychiatrist. You weather the storm. Nothing different here. By walking through the scenario and realizing that you have options, suddenly it’s not the end of the world scenario that you’ve been imagining.
Either way, you are on a great track. It’s a super hard road that you’ve walked, but the fact that you are alive, that you are caring for your child, doing what needs to be done by working full time, AND working on yourself through therapy is completely badass.
My overall answer to you is to do what works. If you are functioning well, then let that be the case. If it’s clear that these unanswered questions are holding you back, keep cracking away at them bit by bit. There is no rule that you MUST dig up boxes of memories and experiences that are too much for you to handle right now. If it’s clear that there are things that will need to be addressed at some point, keep that in mind and work toward it. But you don’t have to dive in with both feet if you don’t feel that you can do so safely.
I’m proud of you for what you’re doing and I think you’ve got this.
Dear Dr. Duff, For over a year now I am in therapy for anxiety, panic attacks, grief after losing my dad when I was a teenager and self hate. Last session my therapist proposed to invite my mother, because he believes it could really help me. I am so scared… and also blaming myself; why do I need this, why can’t I recover on my own. I am not a child anymore and I don’t want to make my mum concerned. Do you have thoughts about this? How can I lower my anxiety about it? And why is my psychologist proposing this intervention?
First off, congratulations on investing in yourself and trying to make some progress through therapy. That’s not always easy to do. Let me answer your last question first. Why is your psychologist proposing this intervention?
I’m forced to take some guesses here, but I imagine that your psychologist feels that issues related to your upbringing or family of origin are contributing to your current situation and that bringing her in might help to shed light on these issues or even help to work toward a resolution. It could be that they have a family systems or psychodynamic approach. Family systems meaning looking at relationships and structure within the family and their networks which contribute to how they’re doing. A psychodynamic approach meaning a lot of what they look at is early childhood experiences, upbringing, things that you’ve learned in terms of how relationships work from a very young age.
Talk about it with your Psychologist
Either way, you don’t NEED to do anything. If you don’t feel comfortable with that, then don’t do it. I would encourage you to ask your psychologist about why they think it would be helpful. If you understand their logic/rationale, but still don’t want to bring your Mom in, maybe you could think of another way together that you could gain some of the same benefits. For instance, you could roleplay what you might say if your Mom were there.
If you were to bring your Mom in, that’s not an indicator that you can’t recover on your own. It’s not like you are not doing a good job, so they need to bring in an “adult” to help. This is part of the intervention. You are recovering on your own. As part of your recovery process, you decided to put your trust in a therapist to help. That’s you making that decision. Professional help is self-help. As part of the therapy that you invested in, your psychologist feels that it could be a beneficial technique to bring your mother in for one or more sessions. Again this is your choice.
To answer your question about what you can do to lower your anxiety about it – approach it rather than avoid. Rather than hoping they don’t bring it up again, like I said, ask your psychologist about their rationale. Talk about the topics that they would hope that you talk about with your mother in session. This could be addressing some conflict or topic between the two of you that has not been resolved. Or it could be to give each of you the chance to clarify why you have behaved the way you have or said the things you have said. It could be that your therapist wants to give you a safe platform to communicate some things that have been on your chest. It could even be that your therapist wants to get your family members more on board with your recovery so that they can be better supports for you. Really there could be a variety of reasons for bringing a parent into session. None of those have to do with your inability to fix this on your own.
Take time to prepare
If you want to bring her in, then prepare for that. Make some rules of engagement and allow your therapist to help you reduce your anxiety about the potential meeting. Move at your pace. If she does come in, it may or may not be the perfect strategy, but it’s something that you will later process and talk about with your therapist. In later sessions, you will talk about the session with your mother and discuss how you felt about the encounter. That in itself can be rich stuff to dig into with your therapist. Sometimes therapists do this as a one or two time “collateral session” and other times they will suggest that you do sessions with your Mother more often, potentially suggesting you see a family therapist.
So overall, I just want to reassure you that this is not an unusual thing for a psychologist to want to do. You are the consumer here and you have the right to refuse or say that you aren’t ready yet. You go at your pace…and nothing about this scenario implies a failure on your part.
I am so ashamed right now.
About 6 years ago I had an affair and my husband found out shortly after. We worked through it and have since created a beautiful life and had a child together.
Last month someone I used to “talk to” text me saying he missed our talks and my husband had my phone and saw the text. Since then he is right back to when he first found out about my affair and no longer believes me about anything and is accusing me of basically sleeping with every man I ever met. He is pressing me for more information but I don’t want to hurt him further and no matter what I say he won’t believe me anyway.
I was so unhappy when the affair happened and looking back I don’t even know who I was at the time. We were in a very rough place for a long time and I made a huge mistake.
I’m afraid our marriage is over for good and I fear for how this will effect my 2 yr old daughter. I love my husband so much and the remorse I feel daily sickens me. It is something I have struggled with daily since it happened and I have a huge amount of self hate because of it.
What do I do to make this better? How can my husband ever forgive me and if he can’t, how do I help my daughter to know she is loved by both parents even though we aren’t together anymore.
This is a tough situation and the answer isn’t going to be some easy sunshine and rainbows stuff. This is going to be work. You did something that was outside the bounds of your relationship agreement in the past and paid for it. I’m sure that was a rough time and you weren’t able to just simply pretend like it never happened. I imagine it took a lot of effort and work to get to the point that you were able to build this life together. I’m glad that you were able to and that’s something you need to remember. This was something you were able to overcome in the past, and hopefully will be able to overcome now.
Clearly, this is something that you are going to need to talk about. First, you need to clarify if this is representative of dissatisfaction in the relationship. If you have one foot out the door, the story here is a little different. You need to think long and hard about whether this is the relationship and life that you want. It sounds like he is interested in a committed, monogamous marriage with clear boundaries about what kinds of interactions are reasonable. If you want to move on from that, you are going to have to think that through and do something about it. But you don’t get to have it both ways.
Your actions ruptured the trust in the relationship and as a result, he is reacting stronger than usual to the contact that you got from this person that you used to “hang out” with. His reaction may be inflated and not representative of the present situation, but you have to realize that he is working with limited data. He can only guess about what you do behind the scenes. To him, this is a confirmation of his fears, even if it’s not the truth…and that’s something you need to recognize.
Rules, boundaries and therapy
If he does have reason to be concerned, you need to talk about that. If he does not have continued reason to be concerned, you need to reassure him of that and work to repair the damage. This might mean giving up some of your privacy and independence. Having some specific rules can be helpful here. This isn’t giving him license to be controlling and abusive, but some small things like setting a specific bedtime so you are not staying up a lot later than he is and doing your own thing, having some rules regarding phone use or app use, or certain changes to the way that you engage with friends and other non-mutual connections, can go a long way toward proving yourself.
You also have to accept the fact that this is an insecurity and a conversation that will come up over time. If you are truly behaving in a more appropriate way now, you basically need to stick to reassuring him and staying consistent. But it might come up again, in ways that aren’t totally related to infidelity itself. That sucks, but it’s something that you are going to need to take in your stride and not get mad about. Therapy is a great option as well. Going to some couples counseling can give you some tools and tips to use to help things run more smoothly in your relationship. It may also be helpful to buy two copies of a book about relationships and/or infidelity and read through it together, making a point to talk about what you have read during the week.
So understand that there is going to be a dip in the trust and quality of the relationship. You’ve proven to yourself that you guys can move past really troubling ruptures in the relationship before. This doesn’t have to be any different, but it’s going to take work and persistence. It’s important that you are not on uneven standing forever, but for now there is going to be a temporary inequity in the relationship such that you are going to have to sacrifice a bit more of your privacy, time, etc. as a gesture and an investment into the relationship.
It sounds like you have a good heart and you mean what you say. So I believe you and I believe in you. This is the shitty kind of thing that you wish you could just go back in time and erase/undo, but unfortunately, you can’t. So you’re going to have to work at this and it is what it is.
While you’re going through this, make sure you are supported as well because it is easy to internalize all of this guilt and turn it into depression. We don’t want that to happen, that’s not going to serve the relationship and your family experience well, so take good care of yourself even in the context of this all going on.
Thank you for your question and for your honesty.
This episode of Hardcore Self Help is sponsored by MycoMeditations Psilocybin-Assisted Retreats. If you have not yet heard it yet, I interviewed Eric Osborne from MycoMeditations on episode 171 of the podcast. We dive deep into the therapeutic benefits of the mushroom and all about how MycoMeditations is maximizing those benefits in a legal way through therapeutic retreats in Jamaica. Stop by their site to learn more!
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