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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FLOWERS UPON FLOWERS

A smart, artsy teen client once described her math homework as “more flowers than numbers.” Such moments in therapy visits abound, arresting in their unexpected turns of phrase, their poetry.

Poetry has been on my mind because my writing adviser from grad school just retired. (I have two degrees; writing came first.) She was a magnificent teacher in many respects, most notably for me this one: she never, ever imposed her aesthetic values on her students, but instead had the insight to see what each and every poem was trying to become, and how to help it along.

As someone with pronounced aesthetic preferences, her gift was like the higher math to my clumsy arithmetic. I’ve known for years that I could never be a teacher, in part for that reason. But I had the gratifying realization recently that I get to live by her example in my work as a therapist.

Progress notes are more numbers than flowers, and the bane of my existence, but therapy appointments are veritable gardens of perennials, annuals, and ectoplasmic chalk drawings that brighten my path and sweeten the air I breathe. I’m grateful to my clients for sharing them. I’m grateful to you for reading.

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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.

RADICAL ACCEPTANCE

You may have heard the phrase “radical acceptance.” It’s a term in DBT for the recognition that, echoing the Serenity Prayer in AA, there are things in life we cannot change. Faced with the immutable, we have only our responses. An accepting response hurts less, the way a childhood friend emerged from a car accident with only a bruise, because her sleeping body had been relaxed at impact. If anyone reading this feels that radical acceptance of certain biographical facts is an impossibility, I understand. The losses in this life can be enormous. Abuse, neglect, betrayal. The failures of one’s own mind, a loss I know all too well. I could be haunted by the most grotesque and terrifying memories, from when the veins in my brain leaked blood and irritated the surrounding tissues. Still, as I walked through a light rain this weekend, I reflected on my good fortune. When I thought I was plummeting in an abyss, throughout most of 2019, I was actually falling backward into arms that caught and held me. Love can accomplish amazing things, just as March accomplishes the miracle of crocuses, gathered in shy regiments, silken petals at attention, violet and white. Life can be so fucking awful, it’s hard to imagine a worse punishment than breathing. Please hold on. Believe in spring. Believe in love.

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Text and image copyrights held by me. My posts have gotten shorter as I deal with other things. As ever, I’m grateful for your reading. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.