Grief swept over Riley as she recounted the very first day and then the countless days after over the last almost four years that she sat in Tracy’s office. Sometimes looking back brings rose-colored glasses to the memories that make it through but the fact is, this journey has been taxing on Riley’s system and the memories came with a burning pang as each one entered her mind.
The moment she made the decision to begin therapy with Tracy, she held onto a new sense of hope. Hope that she wouldn’t hate herself so much that she wanted to die, because life had almost lost purpose. Three reasons to live remained: her husband, her 10-month-old, and her 2-year-old and she couldn’t keep living like this, feeling constantly like they deserved someone better.
Riley’s eyes filled with tears as the struggle with the eating disorder from those days—years—felt just as real today as ever.
In the fight to end her eating disorder behaviors, Riley latched on to Tracy. She wasn’t ready or even able to let anyone else into all of the parts of her that needed healing—the parts that began to show themselves when the eating disorder began to loosen its reign. But she began to trust Tracy, allowing her to care for each part, sorted out in Riley’s mind by ages, marked by significant traumas: 3, 5, 10, 13, 15, 19. The times when she needed her mom, Tracy began to fill the need for love and care over the course of an entire childhood and beyond. In Riley’s mind, Tracy became her mom.
And then, an incident inside the therapy office timed just perfectly with a childhood memory, ruptured some of the safety. Over the last year, Riley struggled with safety and regulating emotions, along with her nervous system, when safety felt threatened, taking all of it out on Tracy who remained steadfastly supportive.
But this wore both Riley and Tracy down.
In an unconscious effort to heal herself and her inner child wounds, Riley got lost in an imaginary world she’d created. A world she frequently went to survive pain. A world where Tracy’s relationship to Riley was akin to mom-daughter, like the kind where an aunt or church member might become someone’s “adopted” mother. Riley never believed she was actually Tracy’s daughter, but she did believe somehow there could be a way where the relationship could survive beyond the therapeutic relationship, in the same way an aunt would continue to be in their neices life, as a supportive older female.
Riley’s reliance on this belief allowed her to trust Tracy to the extent of letting in the love and care Riley needed to heal her trauma. That healing wouldn’t have happened without that piece. Riley knew she began to feel truly and deeply connected, as well as safe, with Tracy correlated to feeling like there was mutual mother-daughter love. Riley tested it over and over to make sure it felt mutual, some parts needing extensive reassurance, and in the end, Riley felt incredibly loved and ready to let Tracy hold her so she could move through complex trauma healing.
Last week, Tracy reminded Riley her world wasn’t real. While Tracy maintained she loved Riley, she emphasized the goal to end eventually. The goal of a healthy therapeutic relationship, and the goal of Riley not needing Tracy anymore.
Riley could feel her inner child retreating as the words “therapeutic relationship” “boundaries” and “negotiation” crushed her idea of her relationship with her mom and cemented that what she had dreamed up to survive and heal was fabricated and not possible.
How could she keep going now?
Riley’s stomach turned every day over the last week, agonizing over the emotional interpersonal struggle she created. How did she manage to do this to herself? Riley had been so afraid of the “moving forward” Tracy continued to refer to, panic attacks had been consistent parts of Riley’s days. Moving forward, the words pierced Riley’s intestines as acid made it’s way to her throat. She means we are not allowed to continue in my world, she means we can only continue within clear bounds of how Tracy wants to move forward. She means no more mom. No more little-me, no more surviving intense emotions through the kind of love only a mom can give.
Riley nodded, tears streaming. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” Tracy insisted. But Riley knew where she went wrong. She knew it was wrong to let herself drop so many walls and show so much of herself. She knew she was wrong to love Tracy like her mom and believe she’d always be her mom. That there would always be a supportive relationship.
Now, the grief spilling out and the panic ensuing from feeling as though she had lost her mom was making Riley sick. Hope seemed to be lost in the struggle—Riley fighting to find it but not able to fully hold on to it.
I’ve lost my way to survive, Riley thought as acid churned in her stomach and tears filled her eyes as she tried to go to sleep.