Hot Desk Extract: Reclaim
As part of the Wheeler Centre’s Hot Desk Fellowship programme, Dr Ahona Guha worked on edits for her debut non-fiction book Reclaim, understanding complex trauma and those who abuse. She also commenced work on her second work of nonfiction due to be published by Scribe Publications next year.
I started seeing Anna when she was 33. She was seeking therapy to
support her with the end of a difficult relationship. ‘I think I’m falling
apart,’ she said, tight-lipped. I looked at her carefully; she appeared
composed, but was twisting a tissue in white-knuckled hands. Rings
of old ridged scars ran up her arm, signalling intense difficulties
managing emotion and a history of self-harm as a way of soothing
herself. There was a single fresh, angry scar slicing across her arm.
Anna saw me looking at it.
‘I tried to stop myself, but I just couldn’t feel better. I wanted
to die.’ She started crying, softly at first and then furiously, sobs
wracking her body. Over time, Anna told me her story, and we started
to understand why the end of her relationship was so distressing that
her own life ceased to hold meaning or value in comparison.
She spoke of her distant, withholding mother who was
absorbed in her own pursuits and of being a young child left alone,
desperately alone — even as she begged and pleaded to be loved
and seen. She spoke of her angry father and the rages he would
fly into, where he screamed at Anna and told her that she was
disgusting and that no one would ever love her. She said that she
hears his voice and feels petrified each time she feels a partner
pulling away or rejecting her in any way. She said that she could
not shake her father’s voice from her internal landscape — that it
went away when things were calm, but re-emerged as soon as she
was wounded by a partner or close friend, and the small, shamed
self, who had once felt so hated, reared her head. Anna preferred
to be on her own, often refusing to connect with other people to
avoid rejection, but then feeling deeply alone.
The world of a trauma survivor can be one of some confusion and
It involves a set of deep defences built to shield oneself from
the knowledge of the trauma and the harms caused. These defences
protect against the trauma, but they also protect against positive
experiences — we cannot build a wall to keep out the sun without
also blocking the light and the view. Anna had intimate knowledge
of this — she hated feeling vulnerable and did her best to keep
people at arm’s length, preferring to have superficial relationships
instead. While this sometimes protected her from rejection, it also
meant that she had very limited social support to draw on, and often
felt isolated and ashamed of being isolated, further strengthening
the internalised, punitive voice of her father. When she did have
relationships, she found it difficult to be reliably close to people; she
yearned to merge with them, but also preferred to keep them at a
firm distance, and she did a number of things that appeared almost
self-sabotaging. She said it felt like there was an empty hole inside
her, and nothing that partners did was ever enough to fill it.
‘I would prefer to leave first; then at least I’m not waiting around
for them to leave,’ she once said.
This push-and-pull dynamic characterised our work together,
often rearing into the therapy room as Anna pulled me closer, and
then rebuilt her walls or abruptly cancelled sessions. Eventually, she
ended therapy by simply disappearing after our last session without
paying her outstanding fee and ignoring my attempts to contact her
to settle this fee, and to rebook sessions.
This was not dissimilar to the self-sabotaging pattern she
demonstrated in her other relationships.
Beyond the defences, the world of a trauma survivor involves a range
of socio-cognitive difficulties: painful thought patterns, overwhelming
feelings, intense anger, and a range of compensatory mechanisms
to help manage or numb these difficult feelings, including patterns
that appear self-defeating, such as deliberate self-harm or substance
use. Some trauma survivors prefer to block out emotion completely,
and often do so successfully for years by using a range of dissociative
mechanisms. However, it is difficult to operate in the world with its
attendant stressors without the guidance of one’s emotions, and trauma
survivors who resort to defensive emotional blocking often notice that
they somatise emotions instead or that the blocking catastrophically
breaks down, usually precipitated by stress. Other survivors have
little emotional control, lashing out when any strong emotion arises,
experiencing helplessness as they are flooded by difficult feelings.
People can punish themselves for not living up to the rigid standards
they hold, and they may punish others for the same sins.
The traumatised world is characterised by a deep sense of shame
and defectiveness and a range of overcompensations for this, or,
paradoxically, complete helpless surrender to that defectiveness.
Lifestyle disorganisation and health difficulties are very common,
underpinned by a range of complex biological mechanisms, as well
as distorted thinking, learned behaviours (e.g., throwing oneself
into work and ignoring bodily needs for rest and exercise), and
compounded behaviour patterns. Overall, the traumatised world
often feels overwhelming. There is little certainty and no apparent
structure; people remain unsafe, relationships are confusing, and
above all, many trauma survivors trust no one, least of all themselves.
Reclaim is out now. View more information about the book here.
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