CW: I talk about having suicidal thoughts
Last week I had my final phone session with my therapist of four years. I call her my Life Therapist. I don't mind saying that when we hung up I had a good cry.
Lots of things change when you move to a new province, and, sadly, therapists are one of them. When I moved, I decided it was time to seek a therapist specializing in sex therapy. Through the magic of the internet and a colleague of my therapist's I've found a Sex Therapist who is helping me understand and reframe a lot of my attitudes toward all things sex. No pressure on her, but after many years of feeling broken, confused, and frustrated, and a lot of hard work attempting to overcome those things, I feel like I am finally understanding what I'm looking at.
Anyway. This post isn't about my Sex Therapist, this is an ode to my Life Therapist. In one of my early sessions with Sex Therapist, I mentioned my Life Therapist. Sex Therapist asked what I'd taken away from my time with Life Therapist. I stumbled through an answer that did not do the matter justice, and I've been thinking about it ever since.
Therapy has changed my entire life. So changed that it's hard for me to piece out what parts of my life came from therapy because it's so well integrated into the fabric of who I am now.
When I first went to Life Therapist four years ago, nothing huge was the matter. I'd just started my doctorate in music and quickly realized the immense pressure of that degree was going to require serious intervention before a breakdown occurred. But there was also something else. You see, my then-husband used to ask "Beth, how are you feeling?" A very natural and kind question, and one that I realized I did not know how to answer. At first I knew I had feelings, but I just didn't know what they were... sort of like you know you have a spleen, but you don't know what it is. But eventually I rolled over one day and realized that when asked "How are you feeling?" I didn't feel anything. And that seemed wrong. Wrong enough that I thought I should look into it.
So my opening reasons for going to therapy were: stress management and learn (or re-learn?) to feel my feelings.
And we did talk about those things. Life Therapist did an amazing job. I have tools out the wazoo for stress management. You need self-care? I've got you covered. I am so much better at giving myself breaks, at setting boundaries, at accepting the moment, at recognizing my stress and anxious feelings. These tools were amassed slowly over time, and it's funny because looking back I'm not sure exactly when they started to work or become part of how I just live my life.
But Life Therapist didn't stop there. I remember one session where I decided to talk about all the negative sexual experiences I'd ever had. Things that happened when I was a teenager, a young adult, a married woman. Things I had never told anyone. And when we started she put down her pad of paper and said that she just wanted to listen and be with me in this moment as I was speaking. I fought back tears, but eventually cried my heart out, so sad at all these terrible memories and so relieved to share them with someone whom I trusted. She let me cry and didn't try to comfort me, but just allowed me to feel my feelings. It was very healing.
I'd never cried in therapy before, at least, not willingly. I told Life Therapist how, in previous short-term therapy, I felt like my therapist was trying to make me cry even though I hated crying in front of people. Eventually, this therapist wrung some tears out of me in a session and I felt kind of taken advantage of, like I'd been forced into it. Life Therapist and I had a conversation about why I might not like crying in front of others, and how I need to feel safe with someone to cry in front of them. We talked about how there just aren't that many people who I feel safe expressing sadness or anger - or any emotion that makes you want to cry - with. Life Therapist said something about crying being your body's response to emotional tension that builds up, and it's why we cry for all kinds of things. It doesn't mean anything emergent is happening, just that the body is releasing tension. You don't have to fix it, you don't have to hide it, you just let your body release the tension so you can feel better.
So that's how I learned to cry and not panic when other people cry.
Another memorable - in fact, the most memorable - realization I had was not actually in therapy, but after a session. I was walking home and I remember seeing the autumn leaves on the ground when suddenly I thought "What if you don't have to try to be better than you are. What if you are already good enough? What if therapy and self-improvement is just realizing that you're already great and you don't need to do anything else to be great."
Guys. It's so simple, but it marked a huge change in my life. I talked about it with Life Therapist in our next session, and maaaybe she was happy crying, but maybe it was just allergies.
So that's how I started not needing to focus my life on being a better person. I try to enjoy and embrace who I am right now, warts and all.
In December, I wrote a blog post I didn't publish. It was long and very dark and personal, and it was more for me to get things out than for other people to read. Plus, deep down I knew that if someone read it they would be worried about me. And I didn't want people to worry about me. I wasn't actually going to hurt myself. I just thought about it a lot. I didn't tell my therapist I thought about suicide pretty much every day. We had many things to talk about just then and somehow it never seemed to come up.
But then one night I found myself reassuring a friend that although I had frequent suicidal thoughts they were "No big deal." And hearing those words come out of my mouth set off an alarm in the back of my head - If I heard me saying what I just said, I would encourage me to seek help. So I went to my therapist, told her about my suicidal thoughts, and presented a long list of reasons why I might be depressed. I remember the surprised look in her eyes when I mentioned the suicidal ideation and the exchange with my friend. I realized then that I'm very good at being vulnerable when I want to, but even for me, even in therapy which I love, there are things I'm too scared to talk about. Things that are too real and frightening for even me, oh so honest Beth, to talk to my therapist about because deep down I know that they mean.
I sent her the blog post after we talked about being depressed. I just wanted someone else to read it and understand how I was really feeling. I wanted her to understand exactly how bad things had gotten while I was doing a song-and-dance around other, more comfortable problems in therapy. In that moment I just appreciated being known in a small, scared place by someone who I trusted and who could help me.
The last thing I want to tell you about is the biggest change. Feeling the feelings.
Learning to accept feelings as morally neutral has been hard work. It's been hard to work out how to be angry or sad. But if my feelings were colours, they would've been grayscale when I first started going to therapy. I would have flashes of eye-searing colour when an emotion (usually anger) bubbled up to the surface in a violent and un-ignorable way, but most of the time the waters seethed quietly. Yes, my metaphors are getting mixed up. It's art.
Now, if my feelings were colours, they would be brilliant and varied! I am a kaleidoscope of feelings flashing like Christmas lights after an energy drink. I have lots of feelings all the time! And I love it so much. Sometimes I feel bad about having so many feelings, I get overwhelmed and I know I overwhelm other people sometimes. I used to be really concerned about being nice, about cushioning other people's feelings at the clear expense of my own, about being the quiet, self-sacrificing, gentle helpmeet espoused by the flavour of Christianity I grew up with. Thinking about that now makes me want to barf. Not because it's wrong to be that way, but because it's wrong to expect all women to be that way. Some people are sweet and nice and quiet naturally, and I am so happy to see the quiet folx embracing who they are without apology. But that is not me. Trying to be that way made me very miserable for far too long. I occasionally still have feelings I can't (or am too anxious and distracted to) identify, just like all those years ago. But now I have tools to help identify them, and I get better with practice. Having all these feelings is a thing about me I've worked hard to love and recognize. There's no way I could have had this growth without therapy.
So that's how I started on the path to feeling my feelings.
My relationship with Life Therapist was very special, and not the kind of therapeutic relationship that happens every day. I've recommended her to everyone I know, and several of my friends have not found her as helpful as I have. She isn't magic, but she was the person I needed at the time. When Zach and I divorced in January, I texted her (which I rarely did) so that she would know what had happened before my next session. When we got together and debriefed all that had happened she looked at me and said "You know, I think all of our work has kinda been leading to this point." And I think it's true.
If you decide to spend your hard-earned dollas on therapy, I hope you get half as lucky as I did.