Monday afternoon, and E is back from her training on self-care. I’ve forewarned her that I’ve lost my enthusiasm for exploring the bat caves, that is, the darker recesses of my psyche. And she in turn has indicated she has every confidence we can get back in there.

So there we are, smiling at each other, sitting on the floor with markers, paper, and coloring books, as we’ve been doing for a couple of months now. This, by the way, has moved us along in therapy. I’ve found it so much easier to say what I think when we are sitting closer together and on the floor. It feels relaxed, intimate and safe.

Once we’ve done a little catch up on our time apart, E asks me, “Would it be useful for me to remind you why we were exploring that cave in the first place?” She grabs her notes from our sessions at the start of the month, but then, without looking at them, she is able to tell me what we talked about earlier.

“You said that you are not present during sex with your husband,” she tells me. “And that’s okay. You can certainly live like that. You have lived like that, and you have a good relationship with your husband. It’s not ruining your life or your marriage. But you’d like to explore whether it’s possible to do things differently, for several reasons. It might offer you an even deeper connection to the man you love. You want to know what that is like, to be present in your own sexuality…”

And more in that vein. I’m surprised, a little, at just how well she remembers this discussion. And it’s all framed as something that might enrich my life, but no pressure. It’s not required. It’s just something to explore. I appreciate how lightly she talks about this. Perhaps it’s because in the past I’ve told her “I’ll never be able to talk to you about this,” and “sex is the part of my life that I don’t think will ever be fixable.”

Before I know it, we are back on the topic that I thought I wasn’t going to be able to return to. We’re looking at the way I, as my core self, disappear once I experience arousal. Instead, it seems as if there is someone else there. This is incredibly hard to admit, but E doesn’t look at me. She just keeps coloring in her mandala. She chooses warm colors, so it looks like it is glowing.

“I wonder what useful function it serves for you,” she muses, “for this other part to show up for you in those moments?”

“I don’t know. I guess it gives me space from all the uncomfortable feelings connected to sexuality.”

“Uh hm,” she nods, selecting another color marker. “I think we can probe into that a little more. I was wondering if it might have something to do with freeing you from having to give or withhold consent.”

Almost as soon as she mentions consent, something there feels right to me, even though I can’t quite articulate it. “Well, I learned to just go along, so I don’t really know how to give consent; it wasn’t asked for…”

But then I think, no that’s not right. It’s not that I don’t know how to say yes. What I don’t know how to do is say no. I’ve said yes to everything. I let things happen. I think of times I might have stopped something but didn’t. Those memories come flying at me, all of them at once.

E must see it on my face, because soon she says, “Something is changing for you about this conversation.”

I just nod at her. I am not playing silent, but I just don’t know what to say.

“Is it shame?” she asks me. I nod again. Yes, it’s that same old bat shit, dripping from the cave walls, landing on my head and running down my face. Yuck.

So she backtracks, taking us back to an easier place. I think we start talking about shame, but from a more distant place, just remarking a bit on how it works, what we know about shame. She reminds me that I can put my hand over my own heart, in a caring gesture. I am still here for myself. I can breathe. I can sense my physical presence in the room.

Staying away from the emotional side of everything, E returns to her “wondering.” She speculates on the possibility of asking this other part of myself if she might give me room to experiment with being a little more present during sexual play with my husband. “What if you were to say to that part, I’m so grateful that you’ve covered for me when I haven’t been able to be present. I don’t want you to go away. But maybe we can play around the edges a bit. We can just observe when I leave and when you take over. Or maybe I can try to stay a bit longer, if I want…”

By the time I leave, I’m feeling calm and even imagine I might be able to do this. And I feel connected to E, grateful that she hasn’t thought me too weird or too disgusting. She sends me off warmly, “I’ll see you on Wednesday.” We’ve met twice a week for four or five weeks now, and it’s such a relief to have time to think a bit between sessions but come back to a topic before it’s faded away too much.

There’s a piece of me that even feels hopeful, eager even. So without a plan or any idea of how anything will be different, I go home that night and I provoke, initiate, seduce… whatever I get the sexual play going with my husband. I don’t know what I expect, but naturally, without a plan to make anything different, everything happens as usual. At a certain point, I’m gone. This other part takes my place. And afterwards, she  feels dirty, and I wonder how this is supposed to change.

In the morning, I wake up feeling terrible about myself. My head is filled with the same old mental images of self-harm. What a tangled mess it all is. It scares me how quickly I can land back in this place of self-loathing.

Yet something is different this time. I’m able to remember to be kind to myself. I tell myself, in the warm voice of someone leading a guided meditation:

I’m feeling overwhelmed by therapy and by sex. Emotional healing can be like that sometimes. May I be gentle with myself in the midst of this difficulty.

On this day at least, I choose not to burn myself. I turn away from the contemplation of methods for hanging myself. Instead, I meditate on lovingkindness. I take the dogs out for a walk. I let myself take a nap.