YOU HAD ME AT “GOODBYE”

Watching romantic comedies and dramas through a feminist lens* is a deeply concerning experience. The notion that romantic relationships are acceptable, in the ways they’re typically depicted, teeters on a familiar, vertiginous premise of “true love,” orchestrated by blocking and lighting and wardrobe and makeup and cameras and score, all of which recruit and coach our attention. Those are the things that tell us that the person frantically ringing the buzzer to the apartment, waiting outside the workplace, showing up unannounced with a gift, running to catch the same train, or declaring the night is young, is the hero(ine), and not someone overbearing, unbalanced, or even dangerous. As for gaslighting? Rampant. “You don’t mean that.” “You’re scared to let yourself be loved.” Etc. Such things slip past our censors precisely because they’re so familiar, and because we’ve decided in advance—that is, it’s been decided for us—that in the case of the chosen couple, such presumptuous statements are perceptive and accurate. I used to be a projectionist and had big plans to write about the occupational hazards of so much exposure to culture through film, all the dramatic speeches thrown around (not to mention the overt violence and interpersonal ugliness). But the truth is that the average American in most walks of life has been exposed to as much as I was, if not much more—occupational hazards of being alive here and now. We are collectively gaslighted by culture, and that shows up in therapy offices. Certainly there are gestures, small and grand, that are, in fact, romantic—that do, in fact, show love. There may be someone you’d be glad to see hoisting a boombox beyond your window to play your song. Ultimately, it’s your body that knows the most about who’s safe and welcome for you, and who’s not. If you feel you lack such discernment because of past trauma, which can certainly happen, there are ways to cultivate it. Notice your preferences and bodily responses to foods, beverages, volumes, scents, textures, temperatures, times of day. Honor your senses. Someone who’s not right for you isn’t ipso facto a villain; being clear with yourself and others isn’t about vilification. Nor are our emotions necessarily simple and straightforward, I get that. But resistance—for example, feeling uncomfortable if someone offers to walk you to your car, or suggests you meet on purpose if you’ve met by chance—is a powerful instinct. It warrants attention.

*I’m not a scholar and can’t speak in a scholarly way about the history and current meaning(s) of feminism, which I perceive as signifying different things to different people. My use of “feminist” is meant to imply the endeavor to think critically with care for the well-being of all persons; as such, for me, it is related to environmentalism and to good therapy.

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NEVER HAVE YOU EVER?

Felt exuberant. Felt defeated. Felt physical or emotional pain. Felt confused. Forgot a name. Wondered if someone liked you, if someone hated you. Wondered if someone was thinking of you. Hoped. Felt repulsed. Felt betrayed. Felt disgust. Have you ever? Shivered in response to an unexplained sound. Felt someone’s eyes on you. Thought of someone lost to you through death or departure. Missed him/her/them. Grieved. Wondered about the universe, the meaning of life. The possibility of a hereafter—what it might be like. Felt empty; felt like a cliche. Had a ritual. Had a good luck charm. Felt mistrust; felt superstitious. Couldn’t get a song out of your head. Have you never? Cherished something. Cherished someone. Felt lonely. Felt loved. Experienced self-loathing, however brief. Saw a shape in a cloud, in the frost, in peeling paint. Anthropomorphized. Struggled to get out of bed. Felt different from other people. Felt transparent. Isolated, wept, couldn’t weep. Sought comfort, rejected it. Waxed nostalgic. Held one position so long that you couldn’t tell where one part of your body ended and another began. Felt that with a lover. Felt aroused. Climaxed. Obsessed. Pledged fidelity; changed. Felt rejected. Felt foolish. Felt your thoughts swirl, your heart race. Felt shamed by an internal critic. Struggled to draw breath. Saw or heard or felt something so beautiful, it hurt. So beautiful, it was almost intolerable. Been seized by fear. Said the wrong thing; spoke in anger. Struggled to find words. All these common experiences, these ordinary workings of the brain, differ from what we call “mental illness” not in substance, but in amplitude and harmonic impact. By that I mean: the brain is the organiest organ—synapses firing together form chords. Press the wrong keys, or too many at once, you get dissonance, cacophony—and deafening, at that. Even silence, in a compromised state, can roar. If you think you’re immune, think again. Be compassionate.

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Text and image copyrights held by me. In a world overabundant with content, you landed here and read this far. Thank you. I’m contemplating adding a donation button; stay tuned. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.

HIE THEE HOMEWARD

Walking home just now, I overheard two couples talking. I’m a brisk walker and was overtaking them. One was saying to the others, “They were very tender tonight.” Par for the course with me, I assumed they were talking about people. Tender people–it was such a warming thought. It turns out they were talking about scallops.

The environmentalist in me would like to send you directly to The New Yorker, the March 8 issue, to read about the disaster that is the worldwide fishing industry, devastating ecosystems and traditional fishing communities both. That’s not to mention the state of the waters themselves, the plastic, the chemicals. However, this bit of writing is about therapy.

A client’s boyfriend was depressed and using substances. She was afraid he might be suicidal, and his reassurance wasn’t much comfort–only because of her, he wouldn’t hurt himself. She asked him to see a therapist, and his response was that he didn’t want to pay someone to listen to him.

I feel sympathy for that sentiment. To me it says less about my profession than it does about the widespread and entirely comprehensible hunger people have for real intimacy and support. I do think there are some misconceptions in that statement, though, as well. Good therapy is about much more than just being “listened to” in some timed and compensated way. Among other things, it’s an opportunity to know and speak our truths more clearly, to shape our preferred narratives.

Many people in our lives–good, bad, or indifferent–lack the skills or insight to meet our needs, or their own needs conflict with ours in ways that don’t result in satisfactory compromise. We can walk through the world in a state of confusion, our powers of reason working overtime to sort through the cognitive dissonance: If we really deserved consideration, we would get it, so working backwards, the fact that we don’t get it must mean we don’t deserve it.

Good therapy holds open a sacred space, yes, but the goal is for clients ultimately not to need it because they’ve reached a point of getting what they need within their personal spheres–with family, with partners, at work, among friends. It’s a transformation I’ve been privileged to witness many times. I don’t mean that last statement to ring of false humility or passive enabling of change; I take an active role in my work. But transformation is something greater, irreducible to input and output, “evidence-based practices” notwithstanding.

I’m not talking about “evidence-based practices,” however well-studied they may be, however nicely their results can be graphed. I’m talking about corrective experiences, the back-filling of holes, the healing of wounds. I’m talking about tenderness, joy, logic, laughter. Present-moment learning. To quote Ted Lasso–any excuse!–“I’m talking about practice.”

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Text and image copyrights held by me. In a world overabundant with content, you landed here and read this far. Thank you. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.