Trust the therapist, but won’t open up

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Ok… good job, educated, single parent of a special needs kiddo. Got good stable help from my family; grandma lives with us now. Yeah, so I had it rough with the ex years ago; left him the day our kiddo was born, haven’t been back. He had some anger issues, wasn’t so nice to me, violent, blah, blah, blah… Court was long, drawn out for divorce, custody, assault cases that lasted years. Been wayyyy too busy with life to deal with it all. I’m a first responder in public safety; working and volunteering (though disasters like Hurricane Katrina) kept me moving forward for years. When I promoted up to desk duty, that’s when I started to realize for my kiddo’s sake I needed to get healthy — everyone who knew me thought with my chronic jumpiness, sarcastic humor about disturbing personal/professional incidents, that I was a walking mental time bomb. (Heck, I’m the one that facilitates the department CISM groups for crying out loud!)

Anyways, found a great therapist; love her to death. Finally started to trust her too after two years of avoiding her questions, smiling, laughing though old ‘war stories’, and she’s been really great about guiding me towards seeing stress in my life in a difference light. Yeah, got trust issues — I have probably 1,000 great acquaintances, but no friends… not looking for any either. They just cause more stress.

A few weeks back therapist mentioned that she sees me as having many layers that are hard to get down to. I took it as a badge of honor thinking I do a good job in keeping ‘the real me’ concealed. If you don’t open up, you can’t get hurt, right? I didn’t stop to think until I got out to the car that her comment probably was not meant as a compliment.

She’s diagnosed me as PTSD (which I wanna think is a load of crap; I hate labels). But the thing is, I know she’s right. And I can’t open up about it. In therapy sessions, she asks me what’s wrong and I totally clam up; changing the subject, dodging and deflecting her questions, laughing off any attempt to get to the root of any issues. I’m scared (although, if I ever said that out loud, I’d melt into a puddle on the floor… I’m supposed to be strong dang it!)

I know she ‘knows’ (I’m sure she’s not an idiot and knows how to google someone; my life back then was on public display during my ex’s trials), but how do I tell her about all the physical trauma with my ex? How do I start the conversation? “Gee, ya’ know he beat the crap outta me years ago, stuck his army rifle up inside me, tormented me mentally for six years until I just about cracked, and I can’t seem to get it outta my mind lately” — yeah right, that would never come out of my mouth. Ever. And do I even need to talk about it? Will talking about the incidents take away my ghosts? Is verbalizing the magic cure all?

When I open my mouth to try to say something, I can’t. A joke comes out, a comment about the weather, I freeze up. I’m tired of hiding the panic attacks, the bad dreams, hypervigilence. Dang it, my kiddo is starting to notice. I am afraid I’m going to snap like everyone thinks, and I don’t know how to tell the therapist. She might be the world’s best therapist, but I know she’s only as good as the playdoh she’s got to work with here.

So, two questions: why is it helpful to talk about old traumas, and how can I start a conversation with my therapist that I think after two years I’m finally going looney tunes? Thank you. (sorry for all the TMI details)

A: No apologies necessary. You’ve been through a horrific time. It makes sense to me that you have issues with trust as well as concerns about recalling and talking about things you’d like to leave far behind. The problem is that the strategy you’re using isn’t working for you. You’ve been locking things down rather than working them through.

I don’t have a scientific answer to your question as to why talking helps. I do know from years of experience that the “talking cure” does seem to reduce the impact of trauma over people’s lives. By talking over a tregedy or trauma with a trusted and sympathetic person, we get the situation out of the shadows of shame and provide a safe place for anger and grief and eventually for more inner peace. I have every reason to believe that you will find it helpful.

You’ve done a great job laying the foundation for the work you now need to do. You’ve built a good relationship with your therapist that is based in trust. As you correctly point out, she can only work with what you give her. I think you’re more ready than maybe you think you are. By writing this letter, you’ve told me and yourself exactly what you need to tell your therspist. All you need to do is give her a copy of the letter at the beginning of your next session and ask her to use the information very, very slowly since you’re feeling quite anxious. Now gather your courage and bring your letter to her. Trust that the two of you will figure out what to do.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 16 Sep 2010

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2010). Trust the therapist, but won’t open up. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 25, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2010/09/16/trust-the-therapist-but-wont-open-up/