Therapy Retreat, Part IV

Continued from Part III.

I get about 20 minutes sleep, and it’s time for the group to meet again. We all bring our collages, which are about as different as they can be. E has us put a piece of blank paper with our collage and pass it to the right. We look at the collage that has landed in our laps, and on the paper we write a few adjectives or descriptive phrases that fit the collage: tender, strong, intense, gentle, complicated, fierce… Then we pass it again, until all the collages have gone all the way around the circle.

There’s a break for dinner–wild salmon, middle eastern rice, and roasted asparagus. It’s delicious. Then we head over to the beach as a group and settle on a big log. E tells us to stand up and show our collage, and then to read out the adjectives. The catch is that the collage is about our wise inner guide, which is inside ourselves. So we are to read the adjectives out saying “I am…” This means we find ourselves saying things we would never normally say: I am beautiful, I am loving, I am gentle and protective… Sometimes it is funny or awkward, but it’s also sweet.

We watch the sunset over the ocean. Bright beams of light cut through the clouds in the final moments before the sun escapes to the west.

We wander back to the house and settle into the living room. It’s time for us to share the dialogue between our wounded girl and our wise inner guides. I let the others go first. Some are new to this way of working, and they feel awkward, or they report that their girl is unsure whether she can trust the wise woman.

“That’s normal,” E reassures us all. “After all, this girl has been hurt and hasn’t felt there was someone there for her. Of course she doubts whether there is really going to be someone there now.”

“But so how do I make her trust?” one of the women asks.

The answer, of course, is to just keep showing up. It’s just like meditation; it’s a practice. You keep coming back to this. You write in your journal about it, you talk out loud to yourself about it. You carry it into therapy. You meditate on the emotions.

“Forever?” someone asks.

“No, not forever. For as long as she needs. In some ways, yes, you have to take care of yourself for your whole life. But you don’t have to work on a single wound for ever. There is a point at which it will feel like enough. And you don’t have to work on every single wound.”

I can see from the skeptical looks that it sounds like a lot, to some of the women. For me, I have already learned that healing the deep-seated wounds requires a big commitment. I have been doing it, in a deep and serious way, for two and a half years. I’ve been in therapy far longer than that, but I either worked on other things and/or resisted a lot of this work.

Some of the women have some experience doing this work. They are comfortable with the process, and their girl will talk to their wise inner guide. One woman envisioned her girl crawling into her lap and snuggling close.

Then it’s my turn, and although I’ve done this work before, I haven’t done this assignment; I never managed to pull it together that afternoon. I apologize for that (even though we aren’t required to do any assignments). I also explain that although I feel this work has helped me be much kinder to myself, I often feel I can’t access the emotions of the girl. I talk about what happened, but I’m numb.

“I don’t feel anything a lot of the time,” I say. “That’s why I worry that my heart has turned into a hard, cold stone.”

Somehow, in the next few moments, the mood shifts. E says to me, “Is that your truth then? Turn to Tami, then, and tell her you don’t want to know what your emotions are. Look her right in the eyes, and tell her you don’t want to go any further.”

I look at Tami, and she looks at me. I am at a loss. It’s not true that I don’t want to know what my emotions are. “I do want to know my emotions,” I say, “but I don’t know what to do.”

She keeps my gaze, not saying anything, but clearly sympathetic. I fumble on for a while, saying I don’t know what to do; I’m stuck.

“Look at Ellen,” E says. “Tell her you don’t want to identify your feelings.”

Ellen has a very intense gaze. I’ve already learned that she’s very strong and determined. I tell her, “I can’t find them. Maybe I don’t have any. Maybe I’ve killed them all.”

“They are there,” Ellen tells me. “There’s a treasure chest, and they are locked inside. You just have to take it out and open it up.”

“How can I do this? I don’t have any tools…”

She keeps looking at me, intently. “Your hands. If you have to, you dig with your hands. It’s there.”

“Where though? How do I even know where to start looking?”

“I don’t know, exactly,” Ellen says, “but wherever you see an uneven spot, where the sands are slipping. That’s a sign there is something under there.”

After a while, E says to me, “Turn to Lisa, and tell her you don’t want to dig for those feelings.”

I turn to Lisa, who is raw and tender from discussing her own situation. She looks at me and has tears in her eyes. We do more of the same. Bit by bit, I go around the circle, doing the same with Astrid and Tina. I am not sure what I am supposed to be doing, exactly. This is confusing. But when I finish the circle, I take a breath.

Too soon. E has me go around the circle again. She pushes me to say my truth. What is true? Do I not want to look at my emotional life?

I’m more and more uncomfortable. Is E expecting me to discover something I’m not seeing? Am I supposed to start crying? What is the expectation? How does this end? I am stuck, stuck, stuck. And why are we spending so much time on me? What exactly is going on?

The second time around the circle, Astrid tells me, “I think I see you differently than you see yourself. Can I tell you how I see you?”

“Yes,” I say, looking directly in her eyes.

“I don’t believe you don’t have emotions. You are very caring, very empathic when the rest of us tell our stories. You have a mindfulness practice and know how to pay attention to yourself,” she says.

“Yet I can’t feel anything…”

“Maybe you can,” she says. “Pay attention to your body. What is going on inside your body? What are you feeling?”

This is helpful. She has reminded me that noticing what is going on in my body helps me reconnect to myself. “Um, my arms are tingling. My heart feels like it’s beating faster. I’m kind of agitated.”

“You’re upset,” E says. “Tell her you’re upset.”

“I feel wound up,” I say, continuing to reject the words E supplies. We keep going. I can’t remember exactly what else she proposes to me, as I continue to move around the circle of women. But my words are changing. “I don’t know how to deal with this situation. I feel I’ve been left alone…”

“Tell Tina you feel alone,” E says. I am not used to her like this, pushing and pushing.

I look to Tina again. She’s on the couch next to me, “I feel I’ve been abandoned.”

“I’m so sorry,” she says.

E asks, “Why don’t you want to say you feel alone, that you feel deeply lonely?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I guess I think if I show this, it will be too much. People will be repulsed by what they see.”

“Turn to Tami again. Ask her, ‘do you feel repulsed by my loneliness?'” E doesn’t stop.

I ask Tami,  “Do you feel repulsed by my loneliness?”

Tami shakes her head, her round eyes serious, “No, no, I don’t.”

We look at each other for a long time. I don’t know if I am shaking outside, but inside I am.

“Ask Ellen if she feels repulsed by your deep loneliness.”

Back to Ellen, with her same warm, intense gaze. “Do you feel repulsed by my loneliness?”

“Not at all,” she says. Maybe she says other things; I can’t quite remember it all.

“Now Lisa,” says E. “Ask Lisa if she is repulsed by your deep loneliness.”

I look at Lisa. Her story was about feeling rejected and unloved by her family. I say, “You know what loneliness is.”

Her tears spill over, and I even feel tears start at the back of my eyes. I feel very connected to this woman; we recognize something in each other.

And so it goes: Astrid is not repulsed. Tina is not repulsed. “What can I do for you?” Tina asks.

“Give me a hug,” I say, and she does.

“Now thank each woman,” E says. So I go around the circle one more time, eyes burning into eyes, vulnerability and compassion passing between us.

And somehow, we are soon done. It is midnight, far later than we were meant to run. E thanks everyone and says we’ll meet again for breakfast at nine; no assignments for tomorrow.

The others get up and start to head off to bed. I stay on the couch for a minute, unable to move. E moves over to me. “My brave woman!” she says, hugging me tight. I am still stunned, but her embrace feels wonderful. Even though I feel I was confused and stumbling, not even knowing where I was going, she tells me I did really well.

“I don’t think loneliness is all that’s in that treasure chest,” she tells me. “But I do think it’s part of it.”

I agree with her. I feel like there is a lot to say, but we are all too tired. I pull together my things–my journal, my cup of tea, my little bag of cards, my shawl. Feeling raw, but also relieved, I drop the stuff off in my room. Then I run a hot bubble bath in the shiny, deep bathtub. I lean back in the tub and let myself sway, half-floating, in the lavender-smelling water.







  1. Yipes , Q! How you hung in! I think I would have run away. So strong you are! I tell myself I want intimate relationships but actually I feel they might kill me.
    Thank you SO much for sharing this. I am going to try to keep these feelings close. I am looking into your eyes. TS

    Liked by 1 person

    • Intimacy is a very tricky thing. I wonder if it was more bearable because, in a way, I didn’t have pre-existing relationships with these women. I don’t know if we will stay connected. I did meet one of them (Lisa) for a drink on Saturday, so maybe…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You are so brave. And I know that you have emotions. Otherwise, you would not be able to respond go my stories in the caring way you do. Your E is a smart woman. And that retreat sounds like an amazing experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, that was powerful. I’ve been reading all along and so impressed and interested in this retreat. But this one is tough and powerful, I could feel the intensity. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. I wasn’t sure if I was writing too much about it, but I decided that I wanted to remember it all for myself, even if it was too much detail for others.

      It was a tough night. Part way through it, I didn’t know how I could keep going. but I am glad I did.


  4. I am amazed reading this. I can identify with how you felt in this situation and how hard it must have been to keep going with it. I am full of admiration.


  5. I’ve been on and off WordPress recently – it was a wise choice for a variety of reasons – but I’ve been sometimes following along, other times filling in the gaps. This retreat sounds really, really powerful. I’m so glad that you chose to go. You write so well. I’m seeing a lot of progress in you even during the month I’ve been away from writing!
    One thing, don’t remember what post it was, about not being able to cry – what meds have you been on other than effexor for all this time? Antidepressants? You probably already know this, but antidepressants can have an “emotional blunting” effect. For the seven years that I was on antidepressants, I could barely cry. After going off of my Prozac in March, the effect was almost immediate. I was able to cry again! Now I’ve been crying too much, sometimes finding it difficult to hold it together (such as when hearing about world news), sometimes enjoying it on an emotional level because it’s cathartic (as I wrote about with my friend M).
    Of course, this could be a combination of coming off of antidepressants and being a little more willing to access my emotions after a year of working with T. I still find it incredibly hard to cry with her (too vulnerable!!) but in other situations, the change was almost immediate with stopping the Prozac, so I see a direct correlation there – not just from therapy, in other words. Just food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have wondered about this too. Besides the Effexor (I am STILL tapering), I am on Wellbutrin and a low dose of Lorzapam at bedtime. That used to be a larger dose of Klonopin, so I have come down a lot. I also used to take Trazodone to help me sleep but it also made me groggy in the morning. So at one point I took a lot. But I’m taking less now than I used to. Oh, and also I am now on a low dose of Zoloft which is supposed to help me transition off the Effexor without brain zaps. Also although I’ve been on meds for ages, there were several years in the early 2000s when I didn’t take anything, and I still wasn’t crying then. That’s the part that makes me worry about the stony heart. I guess we’ll see what happens when I’m entirely off the Effexor.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have so much compassion for your body in the sense that it has been through the wringer with meds! I’m glad you’re getting them all figured out with Tabitha. Maybe this is something you could Mention to her? You don’t have a stony heart, Q. I worry about that myself, so I know it’s not that easy to convince you. But know that your heart is warm and vibrant because of how you treat me and so many others on here. ❤️


  6. Even if you aren’t able to cry, others will cry for you.
    It was almost as if I could see you standing there talking to each girl. I could feel the loss, frustration and maybe even the impulse to yell, “what is the point of this?” or something similar. I even picked up a little bit of your feelings towards crying and responding the way people expect you to respond.

    When I was younger it was all about the response. My mother needed to see the response…so I refused to give her one. I didn’t jump for joy when given gifts. She was thanked, period. I didn’t jump out of my skin when she sneaked up behind me or stood silently in the dark doorway. I just asked flatly, “What are you doing?” or didn’t respond at all. She couldn’t beat an authentic response from me and she knew it. Even to this day I don’t like giving an emotional response to others. It feels expected, forced. It feels as if I’ve been put on stage for them. That was true with my mother and her family but it no longer applies to other areas of my life, but I still withhold responses. It was a way to keep a sense of dignity during war with my mother.

    What an incredible retreat.


  7. I was in tears reading this final post (as I’ve been following your retreat experience), as I can relate to how vulnerable you must have felt with a group of strangers, sharing what’s inside that is emotionally painful. I would have loved to attend a treat like that, and I am so glad you participated enough to learn more about yourself. You are so strong, pat yourself on the back. Great writing! Hugs to you, Deb 🙂


    • Thank you Deb! It was an incredible experience, intense and very moving.

      I wish opportunities like this were more common. This was the first time my therapist ran something like this for clients. She was excited about doing it again, but then her attorney told her he didn’t recommend it–he thought that the intensity of it and spending the night at the same house as six clients opened her up to too much legal risks. She’s giving serious thought to ways she might restructure it so she can repeat it, because she recognizes how powerful it can be.


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