This is part 2 from a chapter in my book Delving Deeper where I explain working with a phobia, and how the working style is not deeply psychotherapy. I use this example in an attempt to help people understand the differing professions in emotional and mental.
In an attempt to describe a contrast to the previous blog post in What is a Phobia Part 1, here I describe another client who had an almost reverse experience with a phobia. The crucial point here is that it did not permeate the infinitesimal aspects of her life. It was floridly around a particular form of phobia. Even deep, archaically driven phobias can play out behaviourally as an aversion to a particular, or singular, fixation in a person’s environment.
This client presented with a dog phobia. Fortunately for her I was a little further along in my career but still not a ‘real’ psychotherapist.
Her story could have been laughable, if it were not so sad and serious. She recalled most of her life with an aversion to dogs, avoiding them at every opportunity. This had never really created a problem for her as she found it relatively easy to avoid dog contact. This all changed when, in her early twenties, she began dating a dog lover. She didn’t know he was dog lover until she herself was in love with him.
He had been transferred to Sydney from Perth for work.
In accepting the promotion he knew it was most unlikely he would be able to have his beloved dogs in Sydney with him. His dogs were a large breed requiring lots of space to run and be free. In the move he decided to leave his dogs with his parents.
He never got around to saying he loved dogs and she, not being exposed to them, never said she was terrified of dogs.
Later, they both reflected on that omission. Her lack of admission I did understand; she felt great shame about her phobia.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics has found that over 12 million Australians are associated with pets. With a population of just over 23 million, that is a very high proportion. They found that 63 per cent of Australian households own pets, one of the highest percentages of pet ownership in the world, and that pets are a normal part of childhood for more than 83 per cent of Australians. Around 3 million Australian households have dogs (38 per cent of total pet ownership, the highest category).
Based on these facts, it is not difficult to imagine how someone with an aversion to dogs might feel an outcast in a world placing such high value on pets, and in particular dogs.
She found her way to my consulting rooms as a result of a vastly shaming event.
She and her new beau had been at a girlfriend’s house, where many friends were milling about the pool. At some time during the party, as a smoker, she stepped into another area off the garden to have a quiet cigarette. As she stepped onto the verge that created a walkway, away from the house and pool area, a dog ran across the path towards her.
Dog attacks are not uncommon in Australia and elsewhere, and can have terrible consequences: children and adults have been mauled even killed in some extreme attacks. A dog pelting towards a person is a serious issue, even without ferocious intent.
As she tells the story, it’s terrifying: ‘This white thing is virtually hurtling towards me, like a single dog stampede. I have nowhere to run but I run. I trip. I stumble. I fall. I know the dog is going to get me. I can’t get to my feet. I’m dragging myself away from it, before it can get me. I put my hands, my arms up to protect my face …’
She trails off, sobbing. I wait.
She looks up at me with as much dignity as she can muster and says, ‘The owner came and scooped the dog up, but not before it had licked my face, my hands, my arms … to be truthful I was waiting for it to sink its teeth into me, savage me …’
She stops, as if it is a burden to go on, shoulders hunched, head down, sobbing again for what is an inordinate amount of time. I know she is back there. Raw, unprocessed trauma.
We are heading towards the end of the session and I want to debrief this event before she leaves. She is deeply in that traumatic event and enormously shaken by the additional trauma of having to relive it.
This is referred to as retraumatisation and it is often unavoidable in an effort to understand the story, to repair the wounding. It is where the client must revisit the original traumatic event to process it for recovery. No one likes this part of the work, client or practitioner. Regardless, it needs to be contained.
I have heard too many clients report occasions where they have shared such events in session and been left in the trauma to go home. Or left feeling discounted at the level of their experience in reliving the story.
Reliving a trauma, with or without an historical regression, needs to be processed adequately to allow the client to leave the room safely.
This is important in terms of timekeeping as well. The practitioner must make sure there is enough time left in any session to debrief and end. This way the client leaves the session in a more Adult ego state. It is also a critical aspect in terms of boundaries.
In this session, I give that event such time now. I allow her to find her own way back to this room, in this time, not cutting her off.
Eventually she looks up and slowly says, ‘By now everyone is there. It seems I was screaming. Screaming loudly … I don’t remember, really I don’t. When they all knew what had happened they collapsed in laughter. They thought it was hilarious that a tiny white pup licked me and wanted to play and I was terrified.’
Her shame and humiliation are palpable. Somewhere she knew a little dog licking her ‘should not’ be a scary event, but it was.
I see something else far more concerning to me …..
Join me next week to read part three where I begin working with interventions and strategies around her phobia.