“How was therapy?” my partner asked me shortly after I sat down in the pub where we’d met for lunch.
“Good,” I laughed, pretty sure I knew what was coming.
“And? Any illuminating insights? Are you fixed?” he teased, leaning in for a kiss.
“Nope, still broken,” I replied cheerily. “But yup, some good insights as always–you know, nothing new–just more of the same.”
I’ve been in therapy for almost a year and a half now. I took the step initially after a particularly destabilizing breakup with a man I had cared deeply for, who also happened to be struggling with alcoholism and bipolar disorder. He had been on the edge of crisis when we met and just a few months into the new relationship, I found myself in and out of the emergency room, visiting him in psychiatric units after dissociative psychotic episodes, and helping him enroll in inpatient detox programs. I put my life on hold for six months while I did my best to help him navigate a nightmarish new reality as he confronted demons he’d spent a lifetime trying to deny or work around. Once he was finally in a stable place, I encouraged him to move back home to Oregon, where he is from, and finally allowed myself to take a step back. And it wasn’t until then, until he was out of the state and I was finally free to pick up my life again, that I started to fall apart.
To be clear, I’ve never been of the opinion that therapy is only for those with “problems.” It’s always seemed to me that this whole “living thing,” this human condition we all find ourselves in, is enough to merit enlisting the help of a therapist to help sort through the chaos. We each of us have our fair share of confusing/painful/traumatic experiences, even if they’re not extremes or so very different from what anyone else in this world has had to handle. In fact, I would argue that this is precisely why therapy should be for everyone–it’s a chance to open up to another person and find that everything one feels is so specific to them is actually so common that a psychologist can translate the inchoate feelings or habits into clinical language and confirm that these experiences are an observable phenomenon featured in the literature of the discipline.
However, having said all of that, it wasn’t until I had “a problem” that I sought help. In fact, just a few days before taking the leap, a dear friend had urged me to see someone to help work through all that had happened, and I said, “Thanks, but I’m really okay. The hard stuff is over.” The thing was…I’d been feeling great, on a high of relief that my now ex-boyfriend was halfway across the country and in the care of his family–I could finally relax, get back to living my life. And then, about a week after his departure, I went for a run and realized halfway through that I was having trouble breathing. I pushed harder, tried to breathe more deeply, but then found myself experiencing a choking sensation. Finally, I had to stop: my hand went to my chest, detecting a tight, sharp pain, and I did a bewildered inventory of what could possibly be wrong with me. Finally, the tickle of a tear sliding down my face snapped me out of my confusion as I became aware that I was sobbing, so intensely that my body was shaking with the effort of it. Maybe I’m not okay, intoned a fearful inner voice.
At first, there was a lot to wade through in my sessions. My therapist put no particular time limits on our meetings, instead allowing me to spin my ever evolving narrative until I either wore myself out or arrived at something resembling a bookmark for the week. He listened with compassion but was also completely frank when I asked for his opinions and insights. Slowly, I began to trust him not just with my pain and fears but also with my shame and anger, my unmentionables, the things that I had not dared share with friends and loved ones for fear of judgment. Each admission was met with matter-of-fact acceptance along with gentle observations regarding the harshness of my own judgement against myself. I began to feel less self-conscious, more sure that nothing I could say would shock him, and the more that I disclosed, the more I realized how much I’ve been holding back my entire life.
After six months or so, we were no longer spending much time on my initial motivation for seeking treatment but, rather, were exploring all the little big things that dealing with this particular crisis has unearthed. It turns out, I maybe did need to talk about my mother’s own struggle with alcoholism and premature death, maybe I did need to examine the patterns that have repeated throughout most of my romantic relationships, maybe the overarching struggle is not with others but with my own desire to be loved unconditionally, while fundamentally doubting that I deserve such a thing…but that’s another post (or fifty).
As I have relaxed into the commitment to longer term therapy, my sessions don’t tend to be particularly dramatic, and some weeks I walk in with little to report. Things are good; the waters are calm; my dreams are untroubled. Family members and even my partner have mentioned that they are surprised I still see my therapist. In their minds, it makes perfect sense that I might have needed a little help sorting through a stressful life event , but now, over a year later, I seem happy and well, more emotionally stable than many. “Oh, hun, you’re doing just fine–do you really think you need to continue?” my partner has said on occasion.
I don’t tend to say much to these questions except that I still find my sessions helpful. It’s true the urgency of the early sessions has dissolved, but I have come to think that it’s these more mundane ones that have been and continue to be the richest in terms of insight and growth. I am both stronger than I thought and more of a mess than I’d like to think. I both deserve compassion for what I have been through in my life and can recognize that I am by no means the only one who carries similar burdens. I am simultaneously unique and just like everyone else. These are things we all intellectually “know,” but, for me, there is something about the slow, steady pace of the weekly reflection provided in therapy which creates a space for these subtle truths to take root and actually enter my lived experience. For in this expansive, open space, I find the dark corners where I have been hiding ever since I can remember are becoming fewer and fewer. And it turns out, this is at once terrifying and liberating but, also, manageable.