One technique for the management of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is making yourself revisit traumatic events. This is called Action Replay. The idea is that you situate yourself in the traumatic experience once again – you remember what happened, how you felt, what was said and done and then you try to find out the point at which you say “stop.” In psychiatry, the term “healthy adult” is used for describing someone who knows and acknowledges their wants and needs and knows when to remove themselves from abusive or traumatic experiences. Finding the healthy adult response isn’t a punitive action – it’s not a matter of condemning yourself, feeling that you should have done this or should have done that. It’s more a method for dealing with flashbacks – knowing the healthy adult response means you know that when you suddenly find yourself back in that moment, you know when to pause the flashback, to say stop, to say, no I did not deserve that treatment.
What I’m going to try and do below is revisit a recent traumatic event and try to locate my own healthy adult. Why I’m doing so publicly is more complex matter. There is certainly an egocentric element to most of the personal stuff I write on this blog, in particular that which refers to my own psychological state. There are 17,000 people who read what I write each month. The vast majority I have never met, probably never will, and they know a lot of personal details about me. However, my other motivation here is that I’ve found the method helpful as a way of processing trauma. It hasn’t cured me. I still barely sleep at night, and very rarely leave my house, I find it hard to trust people and have to drink heavily and take morphine to calm down, and get scared of physical and sexual intimacy about seventy percent of the time, but locating the healthy adult has, at least, taken the edge of what I experience.
It was a friend’s birthday party in early 2015. I’d spent the whole day at work, and then most of the late afternoon and early evening in a rehearsal. My first play was opening in a matter of days and we’d been grinding through the script, blocking scenes, rejigging dialogue, discussing set and putting in places the preparations for our three day run at the Corpus Playrooms. I’d left and begun to navigate my way across Cambridge to a house near Addenbrookes Hospital. I was between phone contracts at the time and had only an old brick phone. I got lost – not something I normally did. I texted my then partner for directions, as I meandered on my rickety old bike through featureless back streets and residential areas. The temperature had dropped suddenly, and with only a leather jacket over my T-shirt, no gloves and jeans that were more hole than anything else, I was cold.
Eventually I reached the house. I greeted my partner with a warm hug and kiss. She asked me about my rehearsal and I filled her in. Together with the birthday girl, and a few mutual friends, we made pizza, and joked about old times, discussed video games, the TV shows we liked, our experiences at the same undergraduate college. I felt relaxed. Nothing felt wrong.
When it became clear it was just the five of us. we headed upstairs and watched Adventure Time. We had more booze than we needed, and someone suggested we play a drinking game, since the whole evening felt like a teenage sleepover. We began to play Never Have I Ever, using that age old strategy to embarrass one another by posing statements that would make others drink. Everything was fine up until the point that someone said:
“Never have I ever slept with someone I just met.”
My partner drank.
A little bit of background. A few weeks before, my partner had asked me if we could consider having a polyamorous relationship. This wasn’t something I was adverse to. However, after discussing it, we agreed to a few ground rules. We would remain one another’s primary partners; we would not veto other people that our partner was seeing, but we would raise concerns if we felt uncomfortable with them; and most importantly, we could communicate and discuss everything: what we did with others, our feelings, and so on.
The following week, my partner went up to Sheffield to visit a mutual friend. A few days into the visit she called me, and said she’d met someone. I, admittedly, felt a little odd about this. Not from jealousy but from the newness of the situation. I asked my partner if anything had happened between her and this person. She replied no, they had just talked.
I now saw that she had lied.
I was also the first person to sleep with her.
As she drank, my partner held my gaze. It was almost a glare. She wasn’t drunk (it was her first drink of the evening). I suddenly felt cold. I stared back at her with a look of disbelief. She continued to hold my gaze. Sensing something was off, a friend said “Oh, good way to find that out,” and laughed awkwardly.
I excused myself for a cigarette. My partner followed me.
“Are we okay?” she asked.
I didn’t reply. I didn’t know what to say. Eventually, I told her we weren’t. I told her I was upset, and I wanted to leave. She could stay but when she got home we needed to have a serious discussion. Then I left. On the way home, I stopped off at a corner shop and bought a large bottle of whiskey, and a 50 gram pack of Golden Virginia. I finished both, sitting in my garden at 2am, numb.
My partner didn’t come home that night. I got a text from a friend saying she’d fallen asleep at the party and wanted to stay over. I replied with a simple “okay” and tried to sleep. I failed. I suddenly felt very unsafe in the home my partner and I shared. My feelings, the trust I had, the bond we’d built up, seemed to be quivering, as if its foundations were rotten and it might fall at any moment.
When my partner did return, it was around 4pm the next day. I had not slept a wink. I had been trying to rationalise what had happened and get a hold on my feelings. When she returned, she was nervous. I was as well. We agreed, before talking, we’d try to deal with this civilly and in a loving way. I opened my mouth to express my feelings when my partner suddenly went on the attack.
My mental health was very difficult for her. I was depressed all the time, unable to look after myself. I was a burden on her. I made her life difficult. I refused to look after myself.
My being depressed was true. We both struggled with our mental health problems, and it was a credit to our relationship thus far that we supported one another. However, the not looking after myself was not true. I had been on anti-depressants for years and had come off them due to side effects. I had, until recently, been seeing a therapist, with whom I’d had a falling out and thus couldn’t continue seeing. I was, at that time, on no medication and not seeing a therapist, but it wasn’t like I wasn’t looking. I was juggling a full time job with a fatigue disorder and my comedy work and it was taking a lot out of me. My partner knew all of this. This was the first time she’d ever criticised my mental health, and done so quite so cruelly.
It put me on the backfoot. I felt overwhelmed with shame at who I was; I felt sick at myself for being such a negative presence in my partner’s life. I suddenly felt that my partner’s deception was my fault. I had driven her to it. I was culpable.
It isn’t until I locate my healthy adult that I see that she was most likely gaslighting. She was aware that she’d done something that made me, for the first time in our relationship, angry, and I rarely, if ever, get angry. That probably made her afraid. And the best way to confront that fear was to put the blame on me.
It’s understandable behaviour in some ways.
It’s also a form of emotional abuse.
When we finally got onto talking about what my partner had done, I was emotionally exhausted. All I could say was that she had hurt me, and I could forgive her but that she needed to appreciate how much she had damaged my trust and think about what she’d done.
I’d needed to say a lot more. But after the sudden attack on my health, I was out of energy.
Finding the healthy adult
It’s only looking back that I can see how my response was not that of a healthy adult. And its important because that incident damaged the relationship.
In the following months, more and more regularly my partner criticised my mental health. I was called a burden so many times I saw myself as one. She didn’t listen to how hurt I was about her actions; there were at least two other occasions where she slept with other people, and then lied by omission. I would find out from other people. Most hurtfully, she later fell in love with someone else and didn’t tell me. I found out through third parties. The communicative part of our polyamorous relationship became effectively one sided. I talked to her about every thought and feeling I had for other people, but never dated another person (due to my issues with trust) until near the end of our relationship. Once that happened, my partner then decided to disappear for two weeks, and then break up with me.
I’m not saying that my failure to be the healthy adult in this situation makes me responsible for the actions of my partner. She was the one who lied, who kept things from me we’d agreed to share, who, consciously or unconsciously, was emotionally abusive. But in failing to say what I felt, I let her feel that she could get away with treating me like dirt.
This is perhaps what I should have said.
“I am sorry you find my mental health conditions to be such a burden, but firstly, that’s not relevant to what happened, and secondly, the way you’ve spoken about them is very cruel. You know I am trying the best I can to get help. But that’s not the issue now.
The issue is you cheated on me. We had an agreement and you broke it. You treated my feelings with contempt. There was nothing to stop you telling me in a way that wouldn’t have hurt me so deeply.
This doesn’t change the fact that I love you. But it does damage my trust in you.”
There’s a reason that this is important to say, that this whole incident is important really. It’s from this point on that my mental state started to deteriorate. I began to have more frequent nightmares; flashbacks of traumatic experiences became more regular. I found myself becoming more and more frightened of leaving my house. I had suffered these things before, but they had been once in a blue moon incidents. Following this traumatic experience, I became very aware of all the other traumas I had buried. This experience wasn’t the cause of my PTSD but the feelings of betrayal and hurt it caused did open up a door in my mind I had kept locked for a reason. It seems rather fitting to use it as a demonstration of finding the healthy adult for that reason.