a harm has been done to you


I have been noticeably absent for a while, mainly because I have actually – wait for it – been coping well! I know; I’m as shocked as you are. Sooner or later in life, I really am going to have to develop the habit of writing at times when I’m not going through some sort of emotional turmoil.

That isn’t to say that I’m unhappy now, because I’m not. It is to say that on Tuesday I had my first therapy session, after having been on the waiting list since July (because fuck the Government). It drew some feelings that I usually keep tamped down right back up to the surface – the same way, I guess, that oil rises in your pores when steam collects – and I’m going to collect a few of them here.

First things first, I very much like my therapist. I’ve seen a fair few over the years and every one of them has been very different. My favourite to date has been the last one that I saw, when I was at university, because I felt that she engaged with my way of expressing things and was on the same wavelength, as opposed to benevolently administrating from up-high. This latest therapist reminded me of her in her style, and was also very clued in on mindfulness and self-compassion, which are both practices that resonate strongly with me.

Even though it was only one hour long session, I felt really safe and left feeling like I’d made headway and come to some realisations. This is unusual for me; it usually takes me three or four counselling appointments before I ‘break the ice’ and feel like I’m actually getting somewhere. I don’t know whether this difference is because of my therapist (I should give her a name – we’ll call her Jane) or simply because some time has passed since I last engaged in therapy and I’ve gained some self-awareness. Whatever the reason, it’s welcome.

Another reason that I feel this course of treatment might potentially prove useful to me is that for the first time in therapy I actually was able to talk about high school. I’ve been in counselling, on and off, since I was fourteen, and one would assume – especially since my first high school and things that happened there were the original incentive for me receiving therapy – that those experiences would have come up in detail before now. They haven’t. I always found a way to evade and deflect, or outright say that I didn’t want to talk about it. Some professionals pushed, but they all eventually left it.

This is the first time that I have felt an actual desire to discuss this part of my past in a counselling setting, and I think that’s a good sign. My instincts also tell me that Jane is a good person to talk to about this. The style of therapy that she specialises in is one that I hadn’t heard of before, known as Transactional Analysis. It is based on analysing everyday interactions through the lens of four principles, which are drawn from Buddhism. She told me all four, but the one that really stuck with me was this one: everybody deserves respect, regardless of their behaviour. I agree with this fiercely, yet I find it hard to practise at times, both in regards to myself and in relation to people whom I harbour anger at. So that is something that I’m keen to explore further.

The mention of anger brings me to what was, for me, the biggest revelation of the meeting. We had talked for a while, about my history of mental health, the bullying at school, the main triggers of my anxiety, and it was nearing the end of the hour, when Jane stood up and went to the whiteboard (most therapy rooms have whiteboards, for anyone who is unfamiliar with them). I can’t remember exactly what we had been talking about immediately prior to this, but I have a feeling that it was to do with how lonely I was during my early teens. All I know for certain is that at no point – not throughout the entire time we were talking, if my memory is right – had I felt angry, or even mentioned the word anger. Yet, that’s the word that she wrote on the board, slap-bang in the middle, with a circle around it.


Just like that.

Then she said, “Can you tell me what you think of when you see that word?” I began to think, but she said, “No, don’t consider it – just tell me your first thoughts.”

So I said, “Something to be repressed. Something that complicates things.”

“Why is that?”

“Because I’ll hurt other people, or myself.”

“How might you do that?”

“By saying things.”

“And why would that be a bad thing?”

“Because they wouldn’t like me.”

All of this wasn’t news to me – i.e. I’m aware that I’m not the greatest at expressing anger healthily; rather, it all builds up until I snap over something tiny and then feel awful and stupid. And I also already knew what she said next, which is that that particular attitude towards anger is a typical, socially-ingrained female response. Anger isn’t pretty, anger isn’t nurturing, anger isn’t becoming. Sure, we can cry when we’re angry – but we can’t shout. The convenient thing about tears, of course, is that they don’t verbally express anything; they have no power to move events in any direction. I was familiar with all of these interpretations.

But I was not expecting what came next. Which was that she drew another line from the word ‘ANGER’ and wrote, in capital letters:


She wrote that, and I read it. Then she said, “You know, anger actually serves a very important purpose. It’s an absolutely vital part of our survival as a species. Anger happens when we recognise that a harm has been done to us. Its function is to provide us with the drive to go out and right that wrong.”

Then she said, “Imagine if a friend of mine broke something that I loved, say an ornament of sentimental value. I’m angry and I tell them that I’m angry, so they apologise and replace the ornament. Issue resolved: I can let go of the anger. But what if they don’t apologise? What if they say, ‘I did nothing wrong and I’m not sorry?’ Well, then that get’s more complicated. It means that in order to let go of the anger I need to reach an acceptance of it.”

While she was talking I was listening to her and just reading and re-reading this phrase that she’d written: A HARM HAS BEEN DONE TO YOU. And I felt that prickly feeling in your eyes that you get when you want to cry. I didn’t cry; I don’t cry very often, which is something that I’m sure would surprise anyone who knew me as a child, because I was a real crybaby. But as I grew up the opposite happened and now I rarely cry, even if I want to. And never, ever in counselling sessions, even though I’ve had a lot of them over a period of nearly ten years.

I’m trying to take this as a good sign, even if it’s a bit of a scary one.

I wondered why Jane had focused on anger, despite my not showing or mentioning it, and she told me that she just thought it was to be expected that I was angry, given that I’d never really gained any closure from the bullying situation (read: I ran away. Though she didn’t say that). And she said that anger repressed enough can manifest as anxiety, or as a multitude of other unpleasant emotions, and eat away at you until you express it.

The idea of expressing it frightens me. But then, a lot of things frighten me and I do them anyway. Such is one of the few advantages of having an anxiety disorder: if I can leave the house, I can do anything.

Though, I can’t help but wonder – how can someone atone if what they broke was you? They can’t replace me with a shiny new version of myself, the person I might have been if they hadn’t decided to hurt me. I don’t think I even want them to. So what do I say to them? Nothing, I expect. I think I might as well bypass that part and move straight onto finding acceptance, both of their behaviour and of mine.

I don’t know how to do that, either.

I hope 2018 is the year that I learn.


birth pains

Lillie and I walk home from school together. In the past six months she has undergone a staggered transformation: she has grown breasts, her hair is highlighted with careful swathes of gold. Every so often she will press a hand to her stomach at break-time, face pulled taut in exaggerated discomfort. “Oh, it’s that time of the month!” And the others of our group will cluck in knowledgeable sympathy, proffering tampons like batons.

I have yet to experience any time of the month. Time as it is has taken on a strange quality for me. At school it seems to stretch out immeasurably, like the elongated earholes of women in African tribes. I look at the clock, it is five minutes to three; I look back to my workbook, write about the metaphors in Romeo and Juliet, breathe deeply and slowly through Emily and Blaise’s whispering, the way that midwives on TV tell mothers to breathe through birth pains; look at the clock again. One minute has passed. It is only once I am safely out of the front gates, away from the crowds, from Lillie, from all lingering remnants of the day, that time regains its normal speed and I feel like am moving through air instead of treacle.

Today it is raining, so we are huddled together under Lillie’s starry umbrella. She gets most of the room, as the umbrella is hers and her hair frizzes in moisture, but I don’t much mind; I like to feel the droplets on my face, passing down through the corners of my eyes and continuing their journey warm, like tears.

Lillie says, “You ought to be friendlier to people.”

She has always said things like this throughout the trajectory of our friendship; her instincts veer towards what needs improving, in herself, in an outfit, in me. Lately, though, these comments have started to hold a more anxious weight. She has begun to realise that I, like the red on her lips or the colour in her hair, am an extension of her reputation. Though she never says that I am bringing it down, she doesn’t need to.

Every day it is more than implied.

I chew my lip, a bad habit that I have picked up over the past year, in the same way that Lillie has taken up painting her face, and say, “If they don’t like me now, I have no interest in being friends with them.”

There is a beat in which I watch my feet stamp the ground in their sensible black loafers. Tides of water spray out from around their tread. Lillie draws a breath, and I expect it to precede agreement; reassurance of my validity, of the others’ bad behaviour, followed perhaps by a mitigating “but”, which I have the option to ignore.

This doesn’t come.

Instead, she says, “You can’t have that attitude.” She says it regretfully, chidingly, as you would to a wayward child. I tear a strip of skin from my lip with my front teeth, taste blood, swallow it. Say nothing. I know that she will read this as agreement.

We walk on in silence and I watch the puddles form on the tarmac, cradling water as grey and hard as the stone lodged in my stomach.