The Genie and the Process: Having Faith in Yourself During Therapy
She asks me what my therapy goals are. I want to be able to sit through the extreme discomfort and anxiety I feel whenever my partner desires emotional or physical intimacy. I know it’s only right; he should be able to have these things, he should be able to have love. She tells me that I should be able to have them too. I’m surprised when she says this; it hasn’t occurred to me that I would want them, much less that I deserve them. When he reaches for me, I become the coldest part of winter. I snatch away the warmth in every part of the room. When he says, “I’m sorry,” I melt a little, but remain unmoved. We have a mid-century sectional and somehow he understands that his place is on the furthest end, eight feet from where I perch each evening in a tight ball, arms wrapped around my knees. Nothing gets in.
Elizabeth wants to try something called trauma incident reduction (TIR). We will play a past trauma like a movie, repeating the event like scenes over and over until it’s released of its charge. She asks me to choose one, to look back and select an especially painful event. I scan over my childhood but my mind leapfrogs to yesterday. I have 11 voicemails that came in rapid succession—all from my mother. When I didn’t answer after the first two—I was in the dentist’s chair—she decided that I was deliberately avoiding her in order to either terrify her (I could be dead!) or to enrage her.
She said, “You are MY child! I OWN you!” (I’m 37.)
Then, “You are the most selfish human being on the planet! All you think about is you, you, you!”
I stopped listening after that.
My mother has borderline personality disorder and bipolar I disorder with psychotic features. I was 12 years old when I first understood that my mother’s rages, crying jags, inability to get dressed or out of bed for weeks, violent outbursts, bizarre spending sprees, drug abuse and dramatic suicide attempts, all the reasons she could not love me well, were because of something physically wrong in her brain. That knowledge was the best gift I’d ever been given—it meant something might not be wrong with me. For years, anyone who knew my mother would ask me how I turned out to be so well adjusted. And for a few years early on I wondered the same thing. I even searched high and low for research on the subject: could abused children of mentally ill mothers turn out OK? The answer is rarely. I turn out not to be so rare.
In the memoir inspired by her mother, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson discusses the story of Sinbad and the Genie. Sinbad tricked the looming, monstrous Genie back into the bottle by appealing to his vanity (my mother has always been very vain), and then stoppered it until the Genie could learn some manners. She goes on to say, “…it is about finding a container. In therapy, the therapist acts as a container for what we daren’t let out, because it is so scary, or what lets itself out every so often, and lays waste to our lives.” It has always been the part of my mother that is in me, or the part of her she forced onto me until what was my own was forced out, that I have been struggling to stop. I can’t let anyone too close or that part may raze both of us.
Sitting across from Elizabeth I begin to speak life into the images of a memory, as though it were a movie I am watching from a seat 20 yards away. A little girl on chubby limber legs is walking to her mother. The mother is tall and beautiful and leaning into a mirror in which she is putting on makeup. The little girl is blonde and lonely and she wants her mother to hold her. The mother ignores the little girl and finally tells her to go away. The little girl who is me starts to cry. The beautiful cruel mother picks up the toilet brush out of its yellow plastic container. It is shaped like a flower, a daisy. She swings the daisy-shaped toilet brush and hits the little girl, me, in the face, which surprises her and knocks her down. A man who is the father of the little girl comes into the room and there is yelling and screaming. The mother is hitting the father.
I start again at the beginning. The movie replays.
Elizabeth offers me tissues but I’m not crying because I’m sad. I’m crying because the bottle has opened and what is getting out is not a terrible genie, but something necessary, some pressure that needed to release. When I stand up to go I pass the plaque that says, “Have Faith,” and for the first time I don’t question “In what?” In the process, maybe. In myself, probably. In love, I think—as cliché as it is. It’s what heals even those of us who believe we are beyond its reach.