I spent last weekend at a women’s retreat run by my therapist, and it was a very big deal to me. It’s only this afternoon (Tuesday) that I have started to have room for thoughts about anything but the emotional impact of the past few days.
How can I describe what it’s meant to me? I’ve turned that over and over and can’t find any way to convey what it meant to me, except to lead you through it.
Deciding to go. Perhaps two months ago E first tells me she is organizing a women’s retreat at the beach. She’s renting a big beautiful house, and there will be delicious, healthy food, and we will focus on self-care. She is inviting a few of her women clients, just a small group.
Initially, I think “no way.” First, I can’t afford it. Second, it’s hard enough to talk about shameful secrets to E, without sharing them with other people. Third, I don’t want to admit that E has any other clients, especially any she might care about.
(I know, I know! I can be such a small child, longing for E’s attention, for confirmation of her care and affection.)
In the intervening weeks, my husband gets a job, giving us a little more room in our budget. Maybe not really enough to justify the retreat, but enough to let me think about it. Enough to cross the first reason off the list.
Two weeks before the retreat, I attend a mindful writing workshop. I am astonished to find how much I not only love the chance to spend hours meditating and writing, but how much I appreciate the opportunity to spend time with a small group of women who are, through their writing, showing their authentic selves. A few hours after the workshop, I text E and ask her, “is there still space for me at the retreat?”
So I’m going. Yikes.
I have lots of qualms about it ahead of time. Will I like the other women? Will they like me? Will it be too weird to be around E for a whole weekend (especially given the conversation about transference in most recent therapy session)? I’m nervous, but I tell myself I will go and do my best to keep my heart open.
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It turns out that the weekend is essentially organized around four group therapy sessions: Friday night, Saturday morning, Saturday evening, and Sunday morning, with some assignments to complete between sessions 1 and 2 and between 2 and 3. There are six women attending, and all of them have worked with E in group or individual therapy (or both).
We arrive in late afternoon and have a little time to settle in before dinner. E has an assistant, Carina, who cooks, cleans up, and keeps a lot of things running smoothly. Carina’s prepared a dinner that smells wonderful: pita bread, grilled chicken, cucumbers in yogurt, peppers, various Middle Eastern accompaniments. There is wine, if we want. We eat off white plates at a long white table in a room with high white ceilings, everything designed to take advantage of the coastal light. From the dining room window, we can see the waves.
Session 1. After dinner, we settle in the living room, with its big, comfortable couches. We talk a little bit about why we are here (and how we are all a little nervous). Then E starts to talk about mindfulness. Some of us already have a meditation practice, and she asks us to talk about what we gain from it. Others say they have maybe tried but feel like they “are doing it wrong” or just don’t know how to get it started.
E leads a guided meditation, focusing us first on our breath. I do this regularly and so it’s familiar, which helps me feel better about being in such an unfamiliar setting. Then she has us take a short tour of our lives, looking at our younger selves starting at about age five, progressing through elementary school, reaching puberty, becoming a teenager, a young woman… at all different ages. We see our younger selves and identify a part that wants some attention and care.
After the meditation, E give us our assignment, essentially a repeat of a practice she’s had me do many times in therapy: have our wise inner guide (the one I call the “wise woman”) invite that younger self to come and sit with us, to talk with us–if she feels comfortable. Maybe at first the girl won’t trust that we really want to attend to her and listen to her, because she’s been ignored for so long. Or she’d be excited but scared. For me, personally, when I started doing this practice, I felt the child self was eager for attention and the teen self was suspicious. I imagine that kind of reaction is not uncommon.
E asks us to write a short version of the girl’s story, but told from a third-person narrator. It’s crucial, she explains, for us to take the perspective of the wise inner guide, not the girl. Retelling the story over and over from the perspective of the one who experienced it can be a recipe for re-traumatization. (And in fact, I experienced this to some degree when I was first in therapy with a different therapist.) E says we need to take a step back from the wounded girl. This is something that mindfulness helps us do, because we learn to notice our thoughts and then let go of them, rather than identify with them.
She sends us off that evening with the charge to write up a story about the girl being wounded. We can pick any story and make it more or less detailed, but it should focus on one specific incident, not “she was in a bad marriage for 10 years.”
Doing the assignment. So then I have to think about what story I will write. I know that most women there were at the early stages of doing this work, so I think maybe I should pick something on the lighter end, not too big or intense. I don’t want to overwhelm someone. I don’t want to trigger someone. Who knows what stories they haven’t even allowed themselves to remember yet?
Then I think some more and realize: wait, I spent money to come here for myself. I am not here for them. I am going to work on what I need to work on. E knows where I’m at, and she invited me. If I shake someone up, it will be her job to take care of them, not mine.
So I decide to write about the story with Lee, the one I have been talking about with her recently. It’s a story in which I go along with that friend of my father’s when I was 21 and he just barges into my bedroom one night. I write it up without actually naming body parts or specifying exactly he did this, she did that. But it is clear from my story that I have sex that I didn’t intend or want to have with this man.
And it’s time to get ready for bed. I go to run a bath. I have looked forward to this. A bath at night is a new addition to my nightly routine, designed to help with my horrendous insomnia. The part of the house I am in has a deep, beautiful tub–but tonight, there is no hot water. It’s late, so I give up and crawl into bed.
I toss and turn and sigh. I try to meditate and my mind wanders off. Hours go by. By morning, I have had maybe three hours of interrupted sleep all together. I get up, dress, get a cup of tea.
I am irritated. Why can’t I ever sleep properly? I bet Tabitha still has me on the wrong meds. Why am I here working on a process I have already been using for several years? Why am I going to share a story E already knows about? Why have I even come? This is too expensive, and I can’t really afford it. And the hot water doesn’t even work! And it is weird to have E around so much, I decide. I am afraid I shouldn’t really be here at all.