hashtag feelings

A few months before I moved to Switzerland (in 2000), I enlisted the help of a therapist to assist me in navigating that completely horrible transition between "dependent adolescent" and "[theoretically] independent young adult". It was becoming increasingly clear to me that a completely empty motivation reserve coupled with constant crying and arguments with my parents, with whom I still lived, were not really propelling me forward into the life I had imagined for myself. When I sat down in the therapist's office, onto an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable settee, I burst into tears. We talked for a few minutes about why I was there, and she seemed optimistic about my potential for recovery. Or whatever it is that therapists are supposed to help you with, really.

A few sessions in, it became abundantly clear she was not what I needed. In the most aggressive and unhelpful way, she urged me to "cut the cord" and disconnect from my "controlling parents", offering a number of self-help books as reading material and being just generally too forceful for my fragile and emotional self. It seemed contradictory to me that a therapist, who was helping me manage this very complicated cord-cutting transition, was being so tough on me. In the end, the therapeutic relationship didn't survive and I stopped seeing her. She was confrontation and forcefulness when I needed a hug. Shortly after, at my aunt's urging, I moved to Switzerland. The yodeling and cheese and Alpine air seemed to be precisely what I needed, and I returned to the States braced for my new and invigorated life.

About 18 months later, after coming out to my parents in a profoundly unhealthy and aggressive way, and shouldering a significant burden for a relationship failing after six months AND my significant other's suicide attempt, I signed myself up for therapy again. This time a slight and almost meek man sat before me at the sliding-scale clinic I chose to use for my recovery. He was a graduate student working on his counseling hours; when I talked to him, he usually just nodded and hummed some vaguely grateful "I see". I went to about 10 sessions with him before it became abundantly clear that he, too, was not a good fit for me. I needed confrontation and forcefulness -- my life was crumbling before me -- and he was a soft and gentle hug. I chose to suspend our therapeutic relationship and just started living instead.

Ten years later, I am here. My ex told me for years and years that I needed to be in therapy. I would often check in with my closest confidantes and ask "do you really think so?" and was always met with a "not really, but it couldn't hurt". Shrugs of indifference; I didn't seem depressed. But my ex always pushed, and I assume that in the end it was some kind of warped passive aggression. Some need for me to go through a reparative process because that's what they went through**. Little did my ex know that pushing me into therapy years ago would've probably lifted the curtain of my denial much sooner. It would've probably ended our relationship, if I'm being honest. And I don't think that's what either of us really wanted, in the end.

The first question my new therapist asked me, as I settled into her very comfortable chair-and-a-half, was "what do you want from me, as your therapist?" I explained my previous experiences with therapy (she agreed to be a middle-ground until I needed her to be otherwise), I asked her about her comfort/familiarity with some more complicated topics relating to sexuality and gender identity (she is very familiar, thank goodness), and I asked her to, at some point, provide me with some kind of assessment of my mental health for no one's edification other than my own...at this point, anyway. I needed to feel like I was sane after being thrust out of this really long and complicated relationship without my consent. Ten sessions later...

The verdict: I'm just fine.

This doesn't necessarily feel like a triumph for me, in that I'm not afraid of having a mental health diagnosis and subsequently managing it. I've managed other health conditions before, and I have a pretty tremendous support system established to help me navigate a new one. What it does feel like is VALIDATION. It also makes me feel like I know myself better than I ever gave myself credit for, and that projection is a pretty nasty beast. And finally, it helps me foster this sense of resiliency that has manifested inside of me since my ex left me. I had a long list of attributes to choose from when I was abandoned, and I chose the ones that fit best with my sense of who I was and where I wanted to go -- resiliency, perseverance, self-awareness, and confidence.

With the help of my completely amazing therapist, I'm on the right track. My confidence is being restored. I feel a gigantic storm cloud lifted off my shoulders. I feel freer than I ever expected I could after losing the person I planned on being with forever, and I feel optimistic about my future. I feel capable. I feel like I can say the things that rested on my heart for weeks and months before, and I'm challenging my fear of abandonment in my interpersonal relationships NOW so that I don't allow them to unhealthily manifest in whatever future relationship(s) I enter into LATER. I'm crying less. I feel confused and overwhelmed less often. I'm laughing, I'm reaching out for support, I'm asserting boundaries, I'm asking for what I need. I look forward to visiting my therapist every week, downloading all of the experiences and feelings from the week before, gaining perspective, checking in about expectation (specifically related to the grieving process), and charting a clearer path. I'm still on a road, and I suspect I always will be, but at least I'm moving forward.

I told a friend of a friend the other day that they should consider therapy to help with managing some life issues and balancing stress. Based on their reaction, it was made clear to me that there continues to be a stigma attached to therapy -- one that I even carried within myself until recently -- that therapy isn't for "healthy" people. It's not for "normal" people. Unless you haven't scraped yourself out of bed for a week or attempted to throw yourself off a bridge, you really don't *need* therapy. I'm not exactly clear where these "normal" people are, or who they might be. It seems to me that we're all moving back-and-forth along the spectrum of emotionally wounded and psychologically healthy, mostly because we're humans and we interact with humans and life is sometimes really fucking hard; sometimes our place on that spectrum is biological, other times it's circumstantial. Life is complex and a large percentage of what happens to us is outside of our control. So therapy helps. It helps everyone. My divorce was devastating. But I deserve to take care of myself, and this is but one way of accomplishing that.

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[photo credit: Martin Creed, Work No. 287 (Feelings), 2003]

** Let's just say I'm pretty damn skeptical about the effectiveness of this "process", given the results that I'm currently managing as a single woman eight months after my wedding day.

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All content © Meaghan O'Malley, 2009-2012. Header image by Rebekka Seale.