March 2011

Dear White Rabbit,


I came across your ad on Gumtree and was wondering whether or not you can help me. I am a 39-year old lesbian and my problem is that I don’t know how to feel anything emotionally or physically in my relationship and in life generally.

This has been going on for the last 10 years or so and all my relationships have suffered from it. I am currently in a relationship and I know deep down inside that my girlfriend is the one I have been waiting for, but because of the lack of anything from my side, our relationship is now suffering. Everything was great, wonderful, sexual for the first 3 months (as were all the other relationships), but then it’s like I start building a wall around myself and switch off physically.

My first gay relationship was an abusive one and I don’t know if all this is because of it. I think it could be…me protecting myself, I really don’t know. I am now at my wits’ end and I hope you, anybody, and somebody can truly help me.

Thanks for listening

Wits’ End

Dear Wits’ End,

Very often someone who lacks feeling, albeit emotional, physical, or about life in general, is living in a dissociated state. This means they are cut off and removed from what is happening, almost as if they have a sense of not being totally present, looking at what is happening from a distance or being wrapped in a cocoon that makes life slight fuzzy.

Dissociation is a protective mechanism that often occurs when a person has suffered a severe trauma or a series of traumatic events. This sometimes occurs in childhood or at a stage when we are still emotionally and physically vulnerable and/or naïve. This vulnerability/naivety is a condition we all experience. It arises from the way we see the world as a small child when all we know is that our parents or caregivers are loving and protective, so we experience the world as a safe place. Then one day something or a series of events/situations happens, it doesn’t have to be dramatic but in our world it shifts our perception from being loved, protected and safe to seeing our world and the people who live in it as being either dangerous or untrustworthy.

Because we are little or naïve we haven’t yet developed the skills, tools and/or techniques to recognise this, let alone deal with the fact that we have been hurt, confused, made to feel fearful or feel less than. So what happens next is our natural instincts kick in. We then do one of three things to protect ourselves. We turn and fight, we stand still and freeze or we retreat into flight. Dissociation is about flight. We create a distance between ourselves and the situation we are experiencing. The cost of this protection is that our emotions/feelings are also removed and/or distanced.

While we are little or naïve this protective response works well – every time we get into a situation that is traumatic, like abuse, we dissociate. The problem develops when we get older, when we want to share ourselves with someone we are attracted to, whom we could possibly have an intimate relationship with, someone in whom we would like to place our trust, faith, hopes and dreams.

If, as in your case, your first relationship turns out to be abusive, the chances of you forming intimacy with someone you can trust are small, as your instincts will protect you as they have in the past. Except now they are doubly wary, so any future relationships are also jeopardised. Why should “the little girl” within come out of hiding when there is the possibility that she will get a “snotklap”, metaphorically speaking?

As an adult we know intellectually that this is all “bollocks”, and that not every relationship will land up in abuse – but our instincts have been programmed. They don’t believe our mind.

The first step to healing and recovery from this conundrum is to admit that there is a problem and well done for writing to us. The fact that you have shared this problem with us is the beginning and shows that you are ready to take ownership of what is happening in your life.

Next comes the part that requires you to examine how this “pattern” of dissociation happened in your life, by naming all the incidents you can remember right back to the very beginning. This can be quite daunting because naming something brings up not only the memory of what happened but also the initial feelings just before they/you fled, so you might need professional help to support you through this process.

Then you need to do something even more radical. You need to “unpack” how not feeling anything has served you and finally what this protection mechanism has “cost” you in terms of time, energy, loss and whatever other cost you can remember.

Once you have thoroughly examined the “nature of your protection” we at Change Matters can support you and provide you with tools and techniques. For example, we can teach you what else you can use other than the old protective mechanism.

At Change Matters we believe that relationships are given to us as a chance to heal. We wrote an article called Love Is Enough all about this. Should you wish to receive a copy, please feel free to ask us and we will forward it to you.

Well done in having the courage to name this challenge.

With best wishes
The White Rabbit