I would sit in therapy, when things were starting to go wrong with my ex (later my pimp), in silence. An hour would pass by and I’d be still as a statue. It wasn’t stubbornness on my part. It was simply that I couldn’t put words to what was happening to me. My head was a tangled mess of unidentified, partially formed emotions and disjointed fact that rendered vocabulary useless. The images and sounds of the increasing violence in my life replayed in my head and body, knotting and weaving together into a great unfathomable web with me trapped in the centre. My body, so overloaded, froze, like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
I continued to go to counselling though. I took comfort in the presence of this man. He was caring, he never shouted at me, and he was very, very patient. I wasn’t used to the gentleness and I needed it. So I’d sit for an hour with the stuffed bear he kept on the sofa held on my lap, mute but at least physically safe. It was my time, my hour, with somebody concerned with me. It contrasted sharply with my life outside of counselling, in which my partner's moods and fancies dictated everything from what I wore to what I ate to whether I got knocked about or 'made love to' (I use the term loosely - there was never any choice). In a world in which there were no rules to play by to stay safe and no consistency except insofar as my isolation and confusion increased, an hour with someone who gave a shit, who worked within boundaries, was a Godsend.
In early recovery I sat in therapy, a different town, a different therapist, and I found myself again too often in silence. I knew I needed to talk but found myself mute. Everything was still jumbled, everything still confused. Sobriety prevented the added confusion of daily blackouts but my past remained fragmented – images, sounds, smells, body memories – lacking in chronology and largely unspeakable. I still lacked the language. I didn’t know how I felt or what I thought and was trying to get my head around, to make sense of, what the hell had gone on. Fear and shame did little to aid my ability to articulate years of violence and degradation.
When something awful and traumatic happens, you go through phases: shock, numbness, sadness, anger, relief… When trauma occurs everyday, when you are subjected to daily violence, to daily taunts and threats, to being sold to man after man, reduced to scavenging for food, to crawling through, you don’t have the chance to process. There is no safety in which to process, in which to heal. To soften is to weaken, to acknowledge the pain is too much: it’s simply a case of survival, day by day, hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute. Alert to where the next danger is coming from, or else out on the other side of fear – detached, mind wandering nowhere in particular. You find yourself doing little things unconsciously – repeating mantras as a distraction, picking out the third letter of every word when he’s shouting in your face because you don’t want to hear what he’s saying: the words becoming simply a string of letters, something you observe. You try not to let things touch you – you don’t want things to touch you. You wouldn’t survive if you felt everything they said and did to you. The mind splits, to protect you, the mind detaches, the body takes the brunt of their actions. You exist in a nightmare because you have to, and this nightmare is your life.
Now I sit in therapy, some years later, and still I find myself tonight sitting in silence. My mouth simply won't open: something triggers me and it locks shut. Not safe here! Let nothing in and nothing out. So many things affect my ability to talk! Years of abuse, of having unpleasant things forced into my mouth. And my ability to trust, fragile at the best of times, evaporates as I find my past re-playing, head full, body hurting. Old threats about what would happen if I ever told anyone (and they’ll never believe a fuck up like you, anyway), resurface. I find myself still grasping for language to try to convey stuff that goes beyond words. What is it like to be raped and beaten and threatened on a daily basis? You use words like ‘fear’ and ‘pain’ and ‘horrific’ but they seem inadequate, fall woefully short. Language is all I have at my disposal to convey in therapy what was done to me, what it was like to be me, is still like to be me re-experiencing all this stuff through PTSD. Sometimes even an approximation feels futile. The old powerlessness courses through me and I sit, trapped and alone, my past my present.
Things are changing, though, even if it feels to me frustratingly at times like they’re not. I’m not always silent in therapy – these days it’s the exception rather than the rule. We both acknowledge the inadequacy of language in talking about this stuff, and acknowledging that makes talking possible. It's a tentative process - it's just finding a way. If one thing doesn't work maybe another will. And in recovery, I have time. If I can’t talk today, I may be able to talk tomorrow. 90% of communication may be non verbal, but when that 10% has been out of my reach for so long, much as I struggle with words and with opening my mouth to say them, I appreciate them all the more. Inadequate as they may be at times, there is a power in words.