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Q&A blog by a person with lived experience of Adverse Childhood Experiences

For this week's blog, we have something different. Michael Davitt, who has lived experience of childhood trauma, answered our questions about what what it is like going through therapy and gives us advice on how to engage our clients in this difficult type of treatment.

We have also included some of Michael's evocative drawings, which he has found an important part of his recovery, as you'll read below.

Michael was born in Cardiff. He is currently working in the diplomatic field in Vienna, Austria where he has been based for a number of years. He has a daughter, 17 and son, 14. Michael took a career break in 2017 to deal with his childhood trauma during which time he wrote and self-published a number of books detailing his experiences under his author pseudonym, Luke Pemberton. He is 52 years old. His Instagram profile is @lostandfoundvienna

What it is like to be on the receiving end of treatment?

It can be bewildering, disappointing but then wonderfully redemptive, rewarding and satisfying, as long as one is in the right frame of mind and finds a therapist one clicks with.

What helped you to ‘click’ with your therapist?

I click with my therapist because he makes me feel very much at ease and in safe hands. He has a very calm, relaxed, and informal demeanour (I imagine him as someone who is unflappable in a crisis); he has an attentive and engaged manner – he is relaxed in his chair, he looks at me very attentively, he is a very good listener (he is never distracted by the odd outside noise, never looks at the clock or his watch, never looks at anything but me, and I can see his brain working while he is listening to me); he strikes me as being someone who is very unimpressionable, who sees through nonsense and bravado and is uninterested in societal praise and superficial success that our wider culture often promotes. The effect is to put me at ease – he is not trying to impress me and nothing I say will impress him so let us just get to the point and start talking.

He is very comfortable with silences. He notices when I am in distress and suggests I take a moment or two to gather my thoughts. In sessions he intervenes seldom but when he does it’s gentle, attentive, and insightful offering a clear description and analysis of the topic, experience, emotion, dream, memory or whatever that is being discussed which builds on his previous comments. What he says reflects my inner thoughts accurately and consistently. He occasionally poses carefully considered direct questions which often make me jolt in reaction (he clearly knows where he is leading me and then makes me arrive at insights that I feel have been brewing inside me unrecognised for some time).

Very rarely he compliments me directly and simply in what I regard as a heartfelt manner which helps me hugely. Occasionally I joke about my life and psychological predicaments and he seems to share my sense of humour which helps with the connection. His English is impeccable (he is a native German speaker) and his choice of words is carefully considered and fluently delivered. In short, he listens to me like my idealised view of a father that I never had.

The previous two therapists I tried seemed to either try too hard to force the session or offered analyses which just didn’t chime with what I was feeling.

What can we as therapists do to help people with cPTSD feel able to work with us?

I think if a therapist can show that they grasp how far a cPTSD sufferer’s sense of self has fallen then a significant connection can be quickly forged. I felt emotionally very unsafe in childhood, from infancy onwards, on a regular basis (despite growing up in a financially wealthy family setting). I am still shocked at how far my sense of self-esteem fell, as if it was a large, granite boulder falling down a bottomless well.

So therapists could create a more trusting connection quicker if they show that they understand the depth of the often visceral self-hatred being harboured by sufferers. This would involve appreciating that fears from childhood often feel genuinely terrifying, without end and chronic (e.g. that the sense of rejection in childhood leads to long-lasting, repressed, existential fears of possible, imminent death at the hands of others); that toxic shame corrupts a person completely from the inside out and that the person undoubtedly feels worth less than Pol Port, the devil and Adolf Hitler combined; that the self-hatred the sufferer / patient / client feels is lacerating; that this self-hatred is frightening because the bearer doesn’t trust his/herself fully to look after themselves; and that a way out often feels impossible.

What do you wish therapists knew about the experience of seeking treatment?

That simple kindness and an authentic interest in the wellbeing of a patient can be redemptive.

To reverse the question, I have the sense that some patients expect therapists to provide all the insight and answers when it’s an unavoidable reality in my view that most of the ‘heavy lifting’ has to be done by the person with lived experience themselves.

What should we do more or less of?

Encourage your patients to write down regularly what is going through their minds (see next question and answer) and encourage them to use analogies to describe them.

What did you found helpful in treatment?

Three things work for me, mixed with the realisation that only I can make the recovery process a success, regardless of how much support from professionals I receive.

The first thing for me is introspection – introspection with candour and courage combined with a preparedness to seek, connect with, re-experience, feel and withstand very uncomfortable and upsetting negative feelings from childhood. I am therefore always on the lookout for anything that’s troubling me, such as any of the following: a distant memory from the past; an innocent remark from someone that has somehow caused me unwarranted upset; a recurring dream; an intense feeling of shame, insecurity or anxiety; a pang of hate or deep frustration; any overblown, irrational fears that occur to me; trying to understand why I feel so anxious about an upcoming event, such as a school reunion or meeting a friend from the past; reliving past traumatic experiences and seeking alternative ways to interpret what happened and how I reacted at the time; what I am yearning for emotionally at any given time; why certain types of people make me feel insecure; the origin of some seemingly dark or distorted desires (including sexual ones); exploring my seemingly bottomless sense of personal, toxic shame; any secret desires to inflict harm on myself or others; the impact of many years of rather strict religious teaching in childhood; what would make me feel better about myself; my strange behavioural traits.

The second thing is journaling. For introspection to take place, I needed to get my thousands upon thousands of repressed feelings, memories and experiences out of my head and onto paper whenever they appeared in my conscious mind. For this, I very much advocate daily note taking or journaling. Whenever such thoughts cross my mind I take my phone out, open the Notes app, and type them in. I have been doing this for ten years now and I still do it regularly – as soon as I get up in the morning and whenever a thought occurs to me during the day. These thoughts include anything from uncomfortable memories or feelings, moments of anxiety, dread, confusion, shame, dreams etc. I can then reflect on these thoughts more objectively once I see them in black and white and on paper. I then use these notes as discussion topics for my therapy sessions and also for my drawings, which I will come onto soon.

The third things is drawing. Expressing ones thoughts in writing is one thing. However, I found that for extra clarity it was more beneficial to draw what I was feeling. These drawings started off as very simple stick figures and then I started to use analogies and metaphors to crystalize and clarify exactly what I was feeling and why. To begin with I gathered a range of facial expressions and drew my moods/feelings, then I added a basic stick figure and some handwriting, followed by adding some basic symbols and objects, then extra characters and dialogue, then drew childhood scenes, then moved onto drawing my emotional states of mind, and then I focused on drawing what key emotions felt like, notably shame.

My drawings now cluster around certain concepts:

  1. describing my painful experiences to myself

  2. story-boarding emotional experiences from my childhood

  3. applying basic psychology and self-help concepts

  4. more positive, forward looking drawings

Anyone who has gone through some form of traumatic experience, particularly in childhood, will have at their disposal a wealth of material waiting to be expressed in some form or other. It is likely to be bursting to get out, if you can find the courage to release it. In addition, if someone is unconfident in their drawing abilities, then that is what they should draw to begin with – them as a stick figure with a pen saying in a speech bubble “I can’t draw”.

So it’s a combination of therapy, introspection, note taking and drawing my increasing understanding of my emotional and psychological past in a rather painstaking manner, all taking place in parallel and overlapping with each other.

To my mind, it’s about achieving every day small insights - mini epiphanies - and building explanations and an understanding of what happened to create a full and proper and true picture of my self-worth and account of my psychological experiences. I then try and convert these mini-epiphanies into analogies and metaphors. One analogy is imaging me as an electrical plug but I seem to have the incorrect pins and I can’t plug myself emotionally into anyone nearby, although all my friends seem to be able to plug in effortlessly into the emotional sockets of their parents.

For introspection and then drawing to occur, I needed to connect with myself. This was a slow, frightening but rewarding process. I had to take time to myself, somewhere quiet, a long walk, awake at night, or wherever, and just try and explore my memories, feelings and experiences a bit like a cave explorer or underwater diver looking for a shipwreck. It takes time, thousands of hours of patience, and ‘getting in the zone’ but I found myself discovering some valuable treasure. This treasure was in the form of abandoned parts of myself that I felt I had come across which initially appeared to me as fears.

Central to my recover is fixing my childhood relationship with my parents (I think the average child spends approximately 20,000 hours in the company of their parents). Working through thousands of hours of traumatic experiences during the most formative and vulnerable period of one’s life when the brain is being wired together is fundamental to me dealing with my past.

This involves painstakingly connecting with the emotions I felt at the time in childhood. This is the core of my recovery. Everything flows through this task of connecting with and facing and processing these long buried emotions and experiences regarding interaction with my parents. I cannot remember the experiences themselves – they are lost to history – but the emotions connected with them are very much present. The image of my mother shaming me is branded into my brain. All I repeatedly see in my mind is my mother’s face and mannerisms showing extreme hostility, disappointment and disgust at me. This scenario / image reappears time and time again to this day and it’s this image I work on confronting and overcoming the most.

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