Or What I’ve Learned from a Decade+ in Therapy
My world as I’ve known it for the past eleven-ish years is about to change dramatically. I have only one session left with E, my long-time therapist. Next Wednesday we’ll have our goodbye.
I am really not even sure how I feel about it. Sometimes I think I don’t feel anything at all. We had a session two days ago, and it was entirely head, no heart. I don’t know if that’s some kind of self-protection kicking in. I felt quite disconnected from her. But that’s okay, right? Think how heart-broken I might feel if I felt deeply connected but was saying goodbye.
We spent a little bit of time on Wednesday talking about my son and all the upheaval and changes that have occurred with him over the past month or so. But really, what is there to say? This isn’t something she’s ever been able to help me with. My son is sweet and difficult and stubborn and impulsive and not very rational, and I will be frustrated by him and also protect him for as long as I live. The fact that the last few months have been chaotic is not a surprise. I’ve gone through chaotic times with him before, and I’m sure I will again.
So after I caught her up a little, we decided to set that topic aside and turn to our plan for our last two sessions: to identify some of the key learnings (“the gems”) that I have learned and deeply integrated over our years of working together. My plan is to make myself a little book of them, something I can look back on when I miss E or when I feel myself backsliding.
Curious about some of what the gems were? I’m happy to share–I know so many of you have been traveling your own path, different from mine, but with your own opportunities to learn the same kinds of lessons.
It’s okay to reach for help. For the longest time, I believed that I didn’t really deserve help. My problems weren’t that bad. Others had it worse. I should quit making a fuss. I would just be bothering people. I think I had been seeing E for about six years before I ever, ever reached out to her between sessions. Since then I have learned not only that I could ask her for support, but that I can talk to others–my husband, my friends (some friends, about some things), my sisters (not about everything, but about a lot)–and be met with compassion and a genuine desire to be supportive, just as I also want to support the people I love.
I can tolerate distress. Early on, when I was telling E stories about early traumas, I was absolutely flooded with emotions, body sensations, confusion, and fear. I felt desperate and was convinced that I couldn’t’ stand it. I had to make it stop. It was to much. Over time, I experience less distress, but even when I do get triggered again, I recognize it. Oh, it’s that old panic, that feeling of being trapped, that sense of helplessness. I know what this is. I don’t like it, but I can tolerate it. It won’t last forever. And I know some of the things I can do to soothe myself, including reaching out for help.
It’s honestly fine to take a long, long time. I used to be ashamed of how long I’d been in therapy, how “slow” I was to really learn what E was trying to teach me. I must be especially stupid; I must be doing it wrong. I don’t believe that anymore. I think it takes however long it takes. Would I have liked to suffer a shorter amount of time? To stop hating myself sooner? Yes, of course. Do some people heal faster? Yes, it seems like it. But for whatever reason, whether the kind of trauma I’d experienced or the way I had integrated negative images of myself into the core of my being, or the height of my protective walls, it took many years. However, once I let in the changes, they have gone deep. And now I’m here.
I am open to a wide range of approaches to healing. Things I might once have dismissed as too weird, not scientific enough, are now approaches I might consider. This is because I have learned to stop THINKING about everything and sometimes pay more attention to how I FEEL. Sometimes imagination, art, touch, movement, breath, and maybe a little ritual and hocus pocus might be the best way into the emotions and body sensations that must, must, must be addressed as part of healing from trauma.
It takes a village. Not a real village, exactly, okay. But for me, it has taken a team of professionals who can offer me different tools. E has been at the center of it all, but she has the tools of talk therapy, and a fairly cognitive-focused approach at that. By itself, that wasn’t enough. But together with a very caring psychiatric nurse, a cranio-sacral therapist who taught me what it feels like to be truly centered, a yoga teacher, a nutritionist, a year with a sex therapist, an art therapy group… you get the idea. It’s all interconnected with being open to a range of approaches and allowing myself to reach for help.
I needed to focus intensely. I couldn’t do this while I was raising my sons and managing an office full of researchers. All that time I was just treading water, surviving while I did what I needed to do. I only started to make progress when my boys moved out (at least much of the year) and especially after I quit my job and left all that work stress behind. I started going to see E twice a week, which made a huge difference, because I could risk telling her big scary things, if I didn’t then have to go away and hold all that emotion by myself for a whole week before I would see her again. For several years, we developed a pattern where I tended to go deep and scary on Mondays, and then on Wednesday, we would do additional processing and close things up a bit, so I could survive until the following Monday. Meanwhile, I was also seeing the psych nurse every two or three weeks, and the cranio-sacral therapist… you can see why I couldn’t manage working full-time. I am incredibly fortunate that my husband was working, and that we could get by on less money when my income dropped.
Risking vulnerability opens the door to connection. Besides being incredibly depressed and hopeless for a long time, I was starved for connection. I had isolated myself emotionally. I pretended to be okay, so no one knew what all was going on inside, not even my very dear husband. Honestly, for a number of years, E didn’t even know how badly I was doing. I remember when I made some kind of chart with my own personal scale measuring how often I had thoughts of suicide or self-harm, and she looked at me, surprised, “Why didn’t you tell me you were feeling so bad?” Over time, I told her more. Then she kept nudging me to open up a little more to my husband, who has only been patient and kind and supportive. Then I risked a bit here on the blog, writing what the truth of what I felt (even though no one knew my name, so the risk wasn’t THAT big). Then E convinced me to come to a retreat she held, and later her women’s group. Last year I joined the group for women survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and I found it incredibly validating and shame-reducing. In safe places, with safe people, opening up and being seen with compassionate eyes is like being handed a big glass of cool, clear water when you’ve been thirsty for, well, for ever.
Being whole doesn’t mean there are no wounds; it means you accept all parts of yourself, even the wounded ones. This is probably the biggest shift in who I am. I used to be so afraid to let people see me make mistakes. I used to hide a lot of the uncertain, awkward parts of myself. And I will probably always hide them, at least to some degree, from some people. Not all people are safe. But I won’t hide them to myself anymore, nor to the people who are truly close to me. I am a human being. Humans are clumsy sometimes. They mess up. They are sometimes brave and noble, and sometimes selfish. I’m like that, too. And even though I made mistakes, even huge mistakes like not protecting myself from that horrible, nightmarish assault by Stephen that will haunt me the rest of my life, even though I have done shit like that, I am not disgusting. I am still worthy of love. I still deserve the happiness I can find in life. I do not have to keep punishing myself the rest of my life for that. And for the record, let me tell you that you too, even if did things you are ashamed of, even if people did things to you that make you feel terrible, even if you have big regrets, you are also not disgusting. You are simply part of the messiness of humanity.
There are more gems, I’m sure, but it’s late, and I’m tired, and that’s a good starting point for my list. If you feel like it, I’d love to have you share some of your own gens, the really important things you have learned from therapy. xxoo