Unrepentant

Other people’s words about … life after therapy

It’s an odd sensation to be done with therapy, to believe it is no longer available to me as a recourse. I watch as people around me flow in and out of therapy, and as therapy flows in and out of them. I feel a familiar sense of alienation, and sometimes I’m also troubled by an obscure sense of uncleanliness, as if my resolution to abjure therapy were a perverse abstention from universally accepted hygienic practices — as if I’d taken a vow never to wash again. Therapy is an ablution, a Ganges in which everyone bathes.

From ‘Mockingbird Years’
by Emily Fox Gordon

There are two things I experimented with to excess in the years before I turned forty: restricting my eating and, like Emily Fox Gordon, consulting therapists.

So many different eating plans.

So many damn therapists!

I thought they would make me a better, healthier, happier person, but I was wrong on both counts.

Things that make me happy that don’t involve therapy or dieting (1):
A bunch of flowers planted in the dune, which I happened upon on a recent run

But in my early forties I came to a turning point, and now, nearing fifty, I know there’s no turning back. I am done with diets and therapists forever.

So here is my promise, to myself and to you: I will grow old therapy-free, no matter how unenlightened that may leave me.

And I will grow old (joyfully, unrepentantly) eating cake!

Things that make me happy that don’t involve therapy or dieting (2):
Views like this on my walk to work in the morning

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Betrayed

Other people’s words about … anxiety

It took me years to work out that what the experts tell you isn’t always right, no matter how expert they may be, nor how much you may have paid them to tell you what they’ve told you. Fiona Wright explores this theme in the passage below, in relation to her own experience of searching for a cure for her anxiety — a cure that the experts she has consulted have not, despite their expertise, as yet been able to help her find.

This was not supposed to be the lesson that I learnt, she writes. And that, right there, is the power that those so-called experts can hold over us: that they can make us feel that way; that we can come to believe, from them, that there is a lesson — one particular lesson and no other — that we are supposed to learn.

It’s enough, I think, to struggle with poor health, mental or physical or both, without also coming to feel a failure for not responding to the treatment or advice that the experts offer us. Betrayal is the word Wright uses — a strong word, but it is apt.

This feeling, I was right to be nervous, is to me the worst of all the things I think and feel out of anxiety, at least in part because it feels like a cruel joke. Clinical psychologists insist that the problem with anxiety is that the anxiousness — that tension in the gut and shoulders, the clamped jaw and cramping rib cage, the wildly circulating thinking and breathless panic — is always disproportionate, always misplaced; that the fear itself, that is, is always worse than the thing that makes us afraid. And so the treatment focuses on exposure, on deliberately coming into contact with the things we fear and then coming out the other side unscathed in order to learn the hollowness of the focus (and locus) of our fear. So when I get this feeling — I was right to be nervous — it always feels like a betrayal: this was not supposed to be the lesson that I learnt.

From ‘A Regular Choreography
in ‘The World was Whole’
by Fiona Wright

Wildly circulating

Note:
Fiona Wright is an Australian poet and writer. In her essays, she writes with candid, almost forensic insight into her experience of living with chronic physical and mental illness. You can read more of her work here.

Observation

Other people’s words about … sadness

Why was she so sad? The unspoken question had dangled over the [therapist’s] beige couch and the framed degrees and the economy of Kleenex. He commanded a cache of Ohs and I sees in varying grades of volume and texture, knew when to prod and when to sink with her. Why was she so sad?

Ada was sad because she was sad because she was sad. She experienced extreme difficulty in reaching past the tautological.

From ‘Infinite Home
by Kathleen Alcott

Some time ago, for much the same reason as Ada in the passage above, I quit therapy. I had come to my therapist feeling sad; but years of therapy later, I still felt sad. It seemed to me at last that, whether my sadness was unique or universal or — like Ada’s — purely tautological, the time for exploring it was over.

In the years that have passed since then, I’ve learned that I feel better when I try to make peace with sadness than I do when I try to overcome it. There is much to be said for acceptance and for patience. And for seeing things through.

I took the pictures in today’s post on a day when I had just heard that I will be losing my job at the end of this year. I felt, that day, as though I had been cheated of something — of an income, yes, but also of something less tangible, some essential part of me that I couldn’t actually name. I felt anxious and old and vulnerable and as though I had failed. Most of all, I just felt sad.

What I saw

I couldn’t sit still with my sadness that day; I couldn’t see it through. So I did the only thing that seemed manageable to me in the moment: I took myself off for a run by the beach. I ran what seemed to me a long way, the furthest I’d ever run, in fact — although the distance didn’t matter, really. What mattered was that I was outside: moving, breathing deeply, looking around. Seeing. Sadness, I’ve found, stops me from seeing. But stepping outside returns my vision to me, at least for a while.

Losing a job — especially a job that you love, especially when you are nearing fifty — entails a specific kind of sadness, one that is wrapped up in grief and fear. Still, I’m curious. What do you do when you are sad?

Tangled

Other people’s words about … writing a journal

She put the card carefully on her knee under the journal, which she opened at the middle to a sprawl of furious and barely legible writing. There were circles and boxes and in some places the pen had been pressed so hard against the paper that it had torn. Clare snapped the journal shut and for the second time in as many days she put her head in her hands and cried.

There wasn’t, she thought, a single page in all the [boxes of journals] that was worth keeping. For twenty-seven years she had written the same things over and over.

from ‘Closing Down’
by Sally Abbott

Like the character Clare in the passage above, I was an avid journal writer for many years — from the age of about twelve years old, in fact. I began writing a journal because my Year 7 English teacher made the activity a part of our curriculum for the year: she gave us ten minutes at the beginning of each class to write in our journals. She saw journal writing as a way of encouraging us to learn to write fluently, spell correctly, express ourselves clearly and perhaps — as a corollary of the writing — to read widely.

Like Clare, I still have all my old journals, stored away in a plastic crate in the house at Aldinga. Those old childhood ones are filled with pages of neat handwriting in blue fountain-pen ink, drawings, doodles, comic strips I cut out from the newspaper and pasted in, pictures from old magazines, stickers, and notes other people wrote to me (on the odd occasion when I allowed someone access to my journal). They are bright and colourful and their tone is, mostly, chatty and cheerful.

But the later journals, which were written during my move from childhood to adolescence through to early adulthood and beyond, are filled with more handwriting and less colour. The writing takes over. It fills the pages. There is page after page after page of it.

It was a grief counsellor who had recommended Clare start keeping a journal … It was a way of beginning to articulate her feelings, the woman had explained, and Clare remembered her sad, earnest face and the huge weight she gave to the word ‘feelings’, as if they were something Clare could take out of herself and put on a table and carefully untangle and separate and tidy up. And perhaps, for a little while, it had helped. But what had she been thinking … to write over and over and over that she was sad or angry or okay? I only wrote what I felt, she thought. I never wrote what I saw. I never wrote what I did. I never wrote that I’ve made it this far.

In my early adulthood, like Clare, I was encouraged by various health professionals to continue keeping a journal as a part of my therapy; indeed, I was told I could see journal writing as a kind of therapy in itself.

And it was, I guess. For many years, it was.

Or at least I thought it was. I only wrote what I felt, Abbott’s character Clare realises in the passage above (my emphasis): I never wrote what I saw. These are wise words. There came a time, in my own journal writing, when I looked back over all those handwritten pages and was dismayed to see that what I had thought of as a process of therapy and healing was more like a process of emotional purging, repeated over and over and over again.

Reading (or rather, trying to read) those passages felt oppressive, overwhelming. Why did I always have the same feelings? Why did I always write about those feelings? Why didn’t writing change the feelings? Why couldn’t I find a cure?

I’ve talked before about my scepticism when it comes to dubious concepts like recovery and healing and cure. That’s part of my theme today (again), but what interests me more here is the way Abbott, using the character Clare, focuses on another dubious concept: the huge weight we place these days on our feelings, and therefore on our need to untangle them and tidy them up.

Meditators often talk about the practice of watching their thoughts and feelings arise and then letting them pass by without becoming ‘attached’ to them. Though, intellectually, I’ve understood the reasoning behind this for years, it wasn’t until I saw it expressed through Clare’s character that I actually got it.

Feelings are repetitive, yes: I hadn’t been wrong about that, in re-reading my journals. What I had been wrong about was letting this bother me. And measuring myself by it.

I never wrote that I’ve made it this far. Here, Clare realises that feelings, as measuring-tools of ourselves and of our worth, will always fail. They do not mark where we are in our lives. They do not necessarily affect what we see, what we do, where we go. (Or they don’t have to, anyway.) In this sense they are, ultimately, irrelevant. Our feelings accompany us on our passage through life, but they don’t determine the actual passage itself.

And they don’t have to be cured.

Interestingly, given the recurrent out & about theme of some of my posts on this blog, the character Clare in Abbott’s book is a great walker. She walks at night when she can’t sleep: she walks, and walks, and walks. And, in contrast to when she’s writing her journal, when she walks, she sees. When she sees, she learns. Her feelings, as she walks, are a backdrop. They are not the main event.

As for me? I took the pictures in today’s post on one of my recent walks through the Scrub, a day in late October when the Scrub was filled with flowers that were purple and blue and pink and white. I was feeling fairly gloomy at the time of that walk — unwell; stressed about being unwell; stressed about my jobs; stressed about feeling stressed about all of these things — but the pictures don’t convey that stress.

And that is as it should be. The feelings were a backdrop to the walk. What I saw was real and lasting. That’s what matters.

What, then, is this?

Other people’s words about … therapy

Sometimes I wonder why I come here [to see my psychoanalyst] when the coming is so iterative, so forced. Having to come here sometimes feels like the biggest problem I have. I feel like a lonely man visiting a brothel, the money changing hands, paying for understanding as some people pay for love. And just as that is not love, so this cannot be understanding. What, then, is it?

from ‘Aftermath
by Rachel Cusk

As I’ve mentioned here before, I spent several years in and out of therapy, being treated for anorexia and its aftermath. I will be forever grateful to the therapists I saw during those years. They treated me with respect, patience, warmth and compassion. And they listened. Oh, they listened.

But I stayed in therapy too long, I think. I believed at the time that I was seeking a cure for my constant sense of malaise. That cure seemed terribly elusive. Now I think it was elusive because, subconsciously, I knew there wasn’t one. What I was really reaching out for was understanding, and that is not something I found in therapy sessions.

Therapy is a strange process. It is, as Rachel Cusk says in the passage above, a transaction of sorts. When that transaction starts to make you feel worse rather than better, when you feel lonelier leaving the therapist’s office than you did on arriving, it’s time to stop. It really is as simple as that, though it took me some time to figure this out.

Post-therapy, am I still seeking understanding? Yes, of course — just like everyone else. Have I found it? Not really. Perhaps no-one ever does. What I have found, though, is solace. I find solace in pots of tea, and walks along the beach, and wanders in the Scrub. I find it in cakes I bake, and books I’m reading, and camping trips I plan to go on. I find it in birdsong, and in leisurely bike rides, and in the company of my partner and my dog.

And I find solace in other people’s stories.

Tell me, then, where do you find solace?