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Prolonged Exposure Therapy: Session 4

during my third and fourth sessions of Prolonged Exposure Therapy, my therapist and I took some time to talk about my in vivo exposure assignments. my third session was to spend some time in my yard, gardening, landscaping, pulling weeds. spending time in my yard is an activity I used to enjoy but interacting with my neighbor over the past two years has made me feel more like a scurrying rodent who waits until there is no human presence then darts out into the open on high alert in case she needs to run for safety, hurries through the necessary tasks then runs for safety at the slightest hint of danger.

with in vivo exposure, I'm to place myself in mildly stressful circumstances, stay through the anxiety spike, then allow myself to leave once I've relaxed. so, I spent time in my yard, working in areas that were the most likely to attract my neighbor's notice. he's unable to refrain from commenting on whatever I'm working on, so interaction is virtually guaranteed. he didn't disappoint, and I survived the anxiety spike and stayed at my task until I regained the relaxed feeling that working in my yard used to give me.

the third interaction with him was the worst, because I'd given him permission to take a pile of dirt I hadn't been able to deal with, but I made the mistake of telling him there was more dirt in my back yard he could have but I'd have to show him because I'm digging up several areas. he didn't talk to me first, but simply informed me afterward that he'd taken the dirt. when I looked he'd taken the pile I'd been conditioning for over a year for a garden bed, not the fill dirt pile. my anxiety level spiked. what should I say to him? I wanted to tell him to stay the fuck out of my back yard unless I told him he could come back there, but instead I said "I wish you'd talked to me first because you took my garden dirt, not the dirt I told you that you could have." I resisted the urge to retreat into my house. instead I stayed outside and I told him he could dig up some dirt where I needed a trench anyway, then I got a broom and stayed outside sweeping and chatting with him until I felt better.

I also decided to put a lock on my back gate.

during my fourth session, I again went through the imaginal exposure exercise. I again recounted the event that had been the subject of the third session. as I spoke in present tense, with eyes closed, I found my memories were much richer. I remembered details beyond the most emotionally charged events of the several days leading up to the closed-door session with cult leaders. I remembered peripheral conversations, feelings. I remembered the point when a friend turned from kind, understanding person into judgmental and cruel accuser, and realized he'd been subjected to the same manipulation that I, in this past event, was about to experience. in the session, I even talked a bit about the systematization of the wooden spoon as the one cult-endorsed method of disciplining children and how much it had hurt so many kids growing up in the cult.

as I listened to the recording in the subsequent days, I was struck by how different was my tone of voice. in session three's recording, my voice was flat, monotonous, halting. I was often overcome with tears. my voice in session four's recording was conversational. I never felt like crying although I clearly recalled how much pain I was in, how devastated I was by being forced into a room and verbally torn apart by a group of people who preached about "love in the household", how disconnected I felt when I shut down emotionally. those feelings were all still very real, but I was not experiencing them in the present.

as I reached the point in the story where the region coordinator's assistant informed me and the people sitting with me that I was dangerous and that my brain was full of holes, I got very angry and I stated: "I hate her. I really, really hate her. how dare she judge me? she wasn't there. she wasn't involved in the situation at all. she had no right to judge me."

the likely reality is that the busy-body puppet-master region coordinator, once he'd turned a friend against me, had told her with that I was a problem and tasked her to sort it out. she had no psychology training, no training as a counselor. what they orchestrated is called gaslighting and is a tool in the kit of all emotional and psychological abusers.

as I went through the event a second time for the session, my account became even more factual as I pieced together how the event cascaded through a group of people, picking up emotional momentum as it went; how control over the outcome was effectively taken away from the few people who should have had the control; how the endgame was played out as punishment to me for embarrassing "the ministry". by making one small mistake, I had presented myself as a bad witness, which was in reality of paramount important to only one person... a person who was unwilling to forgive a small mistake: the region coordinator. because our spiritual fates rested in his hands, all the players in this tragedy aligned themselves with him and laid waste to my soul. everyone, including the man I was married to, although I had told him everything that happened, in detail. the blame with which they conspired to burden me wasn't mine, yet I was forced to bear it.

as I talked, I unraveled the logic they had used to condemn me and followed the threads out to pieces of the puzzle that had floated in my mind as separate events. my cult experience started to fit together as a pattern and it became very clear that my life in the cult was doomed. I would suffer abuse, or I would suffer silent misery, or both. shame was used to control. infractions were punished with verbal abuse. independent thinkers were subjected to gaslighting to force them into compliance. the charismatic rose in the ranks and were required to verbally abuse the flock to keep them in line.

context... the cult was cruel. they said they loved, but their actions sprung from hate, fear, control, greed. having Asperger's and having a degree of social blindness, it was virtually inevitable that I would be abused, and that I would be unable to process what had happened because the context of cultish cruelty was impossible for me to grasp.

after we all left, the two people who alone had the right to forgive me my mistake not only forgave, but apologized for letting the region coordinator get involved. they were sorry I had been hurt. my pain had caused them pain. I never knew that until we all escaped.

on a somewhat anti-climactic note (but equally important to my recovery)...

during my fourth session, I was also given my next in vivo assignment: to go to a large chain store. I hate large chain stores so much. parking makes me anxious. the crowds make me anxious. I went and the parking lot was filled with vehicles circling like hawks for parking spots, so my anxiety level spiked immediately. then I thought, "so what? I'm not in a hurry." I found a spot at the edge of the lot and the rest of the expedition was uneventful and barely registered on my SUDs scale.


I became thrilled

I became thrilled and inspired as I read this entry Mia.

How you described your experience of relating to the past events in the present via the exercises you are doing with the therapist is similar to what happens for me when I write memoir. I've described the process like being a fly on the wall watching a play, but at the same time being part of the play. I enter the scene and also watch the scene. (If that makes any sense at all.)

Sometimes I become agitated, mainly from doubting myself and a niggling that I might be making stuff up. Yet, I'm not making stuff up. At those times I stop, breathe, often close my eyes, go inward and ask myself, "Is this what happened? Simply state what happened." It has an amazing effect on me. The self-doubt decreases and I'm able to recall more clearly.

Anyhoo...I love reading your journey. And again...I so relate!! Which I know you know and I hope you don't get too tired of me saying that phrase. ;-)

Yay for gate locks!!
~carol :-)

I'll never get tired of you

I'll never get tired of you saying you relate. it's very healing to know that there are other people out there who've struggled to overcome the self-doubt that cult life or any other abusive system traps us in.

it's sometimes shocking that I'm not making up the stuff I remember, too. but no, I lived through it. sometimes it seems surreal, but I was there. weird, huh?