Dillon’s Story - Why Therapy Can Make Things Feel Worse Before They Feel Better (Part 2).
Updated: Apr 1, 2020
Dillon called me a little over two years after his breakup. He was dating someone new and they were beginning to talk about getting married.
When we first spoke on the phone he described having mild depression and anxiety, lots of frustration with his family and friends, lots of struggles at work, and that for the last year and a half he’d been binging and purging food.
During our in person consult Dillon made it clear he really wanted to “get his head straightened out” before he got married. He told me how very excited he was to be in love, how grateful he was his partner wasn’t such a jerk like his last one, but that his pattern of binging and purging was filling him with shame.
The picture gets clearer.
Over the next couple weeks trust grew in our therapeutic alliance. He went from sitting up perfectly straight and on the edge of my couch to relaxed and leaning back while we talked.
When I asked Dillon if he’d be willing to talk about his old relationship his body would get tense again. He would make a comment about how overall shitty the relationship was, then begin talking about his current partner. It was clear how awful it was to think back to those dark times.
Happily, Dillon’s current partner was kind, caring, encouraging, and got along with his friends and family. Which, for Dillon, was a part of his frustration.
Dillon didn’t understand how he could be struggling so much while being so excited for his future.
Fortunately there is a whole system of therapy called Internal Family Systems that helps people to navigate through polarities.
During our first full session Dillon let me know that on top of his other symptoms he was also having panic attacks and nightmares, felt really uncomfortable having sex, and had a nagging fear that his partner would abandon him. He desperately wanted these things to stop.
Though I didn’t know all the details yet, it was clear to me that Dillon was a survivor of domestic abuse. He’d experienced some really terrible things that felt too big to handle, and he was trying really hard to forget about it all.*
Over the next couple of months I helped Dillon develop some strong coping skills.
He learned to recognize the ways his thoughts, actions, beliefs, and feelings all played off one another. He learned different ways to stay grounded in the present moment when he was experiencing intense emotions, and began asking for support and boundaries from his loved ones. The frequency of his binging and purging, panic attacks and agitation dropped significantly, and he learned how to notice what he was experiencing in his body.
I asked Dillon if he was ready to look at his trauma history.
By this point I’d taught Dillon about trauma and the role of defensive parts. He came to understand and accept that the impacts of his abusive relationship weren’t over. Given all he’d been through, knowing that it was traumatic and not just a couple bad days, and that it wasn’t his fault helped Dillon to break his cycle of shame.
We made a plan to begin looking more intentionally at his history of abuse during our next session.
The next time I saw Dillon he let me know that he had been binging and purging almost daily (something he hadn’t been doing with regularity for months). “I feel like I’m going backwards.”
Dillon was stepping closer to his trauma story, and his defensive parts were ringing the alarm bell trying to halt the process. Things were feeling worse.
Our defensive parts are always on alert for anything that could remind us of the terrible past. They step in to try and help as best they can to keep us from being overwhelmed, but they just don’t have the right tools for the job. In Dillon’s case it was binging and purging, panic attacks, and agitation. For some it might be addiction, depression, isolation, gambling, sex, etc…
I reminded Dillon how normal it is for things to feel worse before they feel better. I also reminded him (and his defensive parts) that I don’t want him to be overwhelmed either. I want to make sure that he stays within his window of tolerance and feels in control of his process.
Slowing things down and making sure Dillon felt in control of his process was key.
To push things along is to deny Dillon his agency** in his healing process (and to try and kick his defensive parts to the curb instead of respecting them). Dillon didn’t feel empowered when he was being abused, and I damn sure wasn’t go to take anymore power away from him.
(No therapist should ever encourage you to look at or “deal with” something that you don’t feel ready and willing to step closer to. Being pushed outside your window of tolerance is a surefire way to be retraumatized. If this happens to you it’s probably time to practice holding boundaries with your therapist, and/or find a new one.)
Making it work
Dillon and I are currently still working together and he’s making great progress in moving through his trauma. There are some important things that are keeping this process moving and safe:
There is a lot of rapport in Dillon and I’s therapeutic alliance.
Dillon wants to be doing the work and feels supported.
Dillon and his defensive parts trust in me to never push them or hurry them.
Dillon’s has learned to work with his defensive parts - not against them.
If you or a loved one is struggling to heal from something terrible please remember that resources exist in you community. There are likely some great support groups, activist organizations, therapists, and spiritual communities that can support your healing process.
Today is the perfect day to begin reaching out for support.
Always remember two things: Healing Is Possible, And It’s When We’re In Connection With Others That We Thrive.
* I came to learn that while in his previous relationship Dillon had been sexually, emotionally, physically, financially, and socially abused (being kept from friends and family) by his partner.
** To have agency is to have access to choices, control over your own actions, and to believe that you can choose to act in ways that are right for you.
Hudson Wilkins, MA, LPCC, EMDR, IFS. Hudson is a nature and mindfulness based trauma therapist inFort Collins, CO. He operates a private practice with a specialty in supporting folks who have experienced sexual violence first hand, and those that love them to heal and rebalance their lives.