Morning team! I’m off to give a talk about mental health and academia at the Roles conference at Birmingham Uni this morning but I just have time to share this guest post with me. I cannot comment today’s author enough for their bravery in sharing their story with us. The author has asked to remain anonymous and I know that you will treat this sensitively. I’m not ashamed that I had a little cry at my desk on reading this and it was a timely reminder never to assume anything about your co-students experiences and pasts. They can be so much braver and stronger than you realise.
During the final year of my undergraduate degree I experienced a searing pain in my jaw. Too afraid to see the dentist alone, my lab partner witnessed the dentist telling me that he could find nothing wrong. A very competent GP found nothing wrong either, but kindly advised on painkillers. The pain intermittently returns and it has taken me years to understand it.
That was 10 years ago and had a counsellor or other therapist asked me for a history during most of this time, I would have painted a picture of a somewhat nondescript childhood, albeit it interrupted by a not-as-bad-as-it-could-have-been-but-still-difficult divorce.
At some point between then and now, a part of me grew strong enough to acknowledge that I was sexually abused over a number of years when I was a child (and again as an adult) and recognised that in order to confront my anxieties, I needed to explore this in at least some of its painful detail.
The pain in my jaw is, I believe, my body’s way of telling me that what happened was painful, damaging. Its intermittent nature follows, or perhaps leads, the ebbs and flows of fear, of panic, of that sense that I am fundamentally flawed, bad, dirty.
I have begun to make sense of the nauseating terror and sense of disgust I feel when my husband kisses me. To lie with someone you love, to feel their warmth, their comfort and their deep and sincere love is a privilege. To have that sense of security interrupted when that person’s love extends to a kiss is painful. To have an overwhelming sense of panic, of fear, a seeping away of reality as the past veers towards the present and takes away your ability to discern the person you love most in the world from those who hurt you in the past is, at times, unbearable. To see a look of hurt and rejection and to recognise those feelings so deeply cuts deep.
Therapists have told me I have ‘flashbacks’, that what I have been through is ‘traumatic’. Flashforward seems more appropriate. If, during these episodes of terror, I went back to the past and were able to return to the present I might find some solace in the comfort of my surroundings. But the past comes to the here and now, invades it and robs me of the sense of safety that those aroud me, and my physical environment could and should provide.
When supervision is traumatic
Without being consciously aware of it, my body to a large extent, has never felt like it was my own. I have become detached from it, mistrusted it, felt betrayed by it and felt that it is largely there for others to manipulate and violate.
My mind, however, has always felt like a place of retreat – a place that no one can force their way into. Though people could penetrate my body, they could not penetrate my mind. And so I became ‘stubborn’ and ‘strongwilled’.
Understanding and recognising this has become prescient as I attempt to complete a PhD. The process of writing down ones ideas, those things that are in ones own mind, of committing to paper some sense of myself, my inner self, my retreated and untouchable self is fraught with terror. Supervisors, however gentle, need to challenge my ideas, my thoughts. Good supervisors read between the lines of my thinking and are able to recognise patterns within my mind. That is helpful, it is essential. Yet for me, it is also deeply unsettling, it feels intrusive and violating – it creates a space in which the past once again veers into the present and strips me bare before leaving me feeling abused and ashamed.
And it leaves me with a deep lack of trust in my supervisory team. For them too, I imagine they are left battling with an unsettling experience and unsurprisingly have struggled to understand how to help me at times.
There are of course no easy answers. I have had the good fortune to have seen two excellent therapists who have slowly and gently allowed me to open up a space for my deep anxieties about the safety of the world and other people to be shared. Too often I have been overwhelmed by this and have retreated far into myself only to be given further space to re-emerge in my own time.
I also have the good fortune to have incredible friends and family, to be supported by my supervisory team and to have carved some small, wavering, threadbare, but nonetheless present sense of belief in myself which I hope will grow.
My courage, though growing, does not extend so far as to write this anything other than anonymously. Perhaps one day that will change. For now I hope it is enough to share.