Therapy in an Election Year

I’m personally of the opinion that every single person could benefit from therapy at just about any point in their life. The trouble is, we wait until we’re basically having an emotional heart attack before we decide our pain or difficulty is bad enough to try therapy, before we decide that understanding why we respond to stressful situations the way we do is a worthwhile pursuit, before we’re willing to be vulnerable with a trained professional in order to become a healthier person for the people we love and ourselves. 

In 2014, I lost 8 people in my life in one year. And I mean they died. They didn’t all leave me by a combination of moving and dying and ghosting. They died. I hadn’t seen some of them in years, but all of their deaths affected me, and because so many came in such a relatively short period of time, I didn’t really deal with them. This was on top of moving to a new city and starting a new job the year before. I pushed them all down, compacting my grief for each person until it was all one huge boulder. I didn’t feel like I could engage safely with any one person’s death without feeling the full, devastating effects of all of their deaths. I kept this up for about six additional months, until my aunt died suddenly. I learned of it an hour before I had to leave for the airport for a week-long work trip. This was the same week as the sentencing for the two men who murdered my childhood nemesis. It was, in short, one of the worst weeks of my life. 

I had to push down my grief to function. I remember crying late at night, pacing in the hotel  bathroom while my coworker, who I shared a room with, slept.  Also in that tiny bathroom, after a 13 hour day on my feet being nice and helpful to customers and connecting with potential authors and not crying, I couldn’t sleep. So I wrote draft after draft of letters to the sentencing judge, sharing beloved memories of my nemesis, until I dropped into bed, exhausted in every way. I felt like I would never be able to accept my aunt’s death if I didn’t get to see her casket, so I called and adjusted to have my flight home moved up a day so I could go to the burial. I missed her actual funeral, but on Saturday I managed to be there with my family for her burial. 

When I finally got back to town and my usual routine, I wasn’t okay. I lived inches from tears. I felt exhausted all the time. My grief was immutable and huge and impossible. And I felt like I was bleeding from a thousand pricks in my heart every day. In this highly alarming state, I looked up the number for the only counseling service I knew of, the one where a friend had gone to therapy after ending a bad relationship and where a couple I knew had gone to premarital counseling. Simply telling the receptionist that I needed grief counseling, and no, I didn’t have anyone specific in mind, and yes that day would work, knocked apart my composure. I cried throughout this short exchange, heartily embarrassed, and continued crying for another five minutes until I managed to pull myself back together enough to get out of my car and go back to work.

I scoured the counseling center’s website for instructions. I used Google maps’ street view to figure out exactly where I’d be going. A couple days before my appointment, I physically drove to the center and circled the parking lot so I’d see where I’d be, where I’d park, where the door was. And then I got off work early, citing a doctor’s appointment, and went inside.

I’d been to counseling before. As a child, I had one particularly hard and miserable year. My parents were worried there might be more to my pain than the bullying, and were concerned they weren’t doing enough to help me cope, so I had 4 sessions with a licensed child psychologist in a room at my pediatrician’s office. I remember one session where he let me just tell him all the things I was interested in and excited about, including Hua Mei, the panda recently born at the San Diego Zoo. A person who just listened the whole time and engaged with what I liked and didn’t judge or tease me was wonderful, and absolutely not what I was getting at school. 

I think, in these 4 sessions, my parents were getting a second opinion by a professional about how I was doing during a miserable year. And, perhaps because of that early introduction and how he’d reassured my mother that yes, I was well adjusted, and yes, she and my dad were supporting me in the ways I needed, as an adult I didn’t feel much of the stigma seeking out therapy that many others feel. Still, my grief was hemorrhaging before I admitted to myself that I needed counseling, and then made time for it. 

I’ve since described therapy as calling in the fire department. Maybe you just smell smoke, and you want to be sure things don’t get out of hand. More often, your house is on fire and you know it and you’ve been running the garden hose for hours already, thinking you can muscle through it by yourself without the neighbors noticing. But even if you could, why would you? Cost of therapy and access are real concerns, disproportionately limiting low-income people of color from health care services. But when the cost of a few sessions is not limiting, this is what fire fighters and therapists are trained to do. Why not go?

There’s no dishonor is needing some professional guidance to search out and put out any fires. Because really—and here’s where my metaphor breaks down—you’re doing all the work anyway. No therapist can change your life just by talking at you, or by listening. You do that. And if you’re doing all the work yourself anyway, why not get a professional to help point out the hot spots and help you adjust your grip on the hoses so your arms don’t grow too weak?

I friend recently tweeted that he’s gone ahead and scheduled his counseling sessions for the rest of 2020, including extra sessions around the election. He isn’t the only person who anticipates needing them, and I’m not waiting around to see if my social media boundaries will help preserve my mental health. I’m planning for regular mental health check-ups and check-ins right now.

2020 is a great year for us to do so together. 

If you’d like some more information on starting therapy, I liked this article from NPR, and it’s assorted links to resources.

Music and Talking to Myself

A counselor once told me that A + B = C, where A is what happens, B is what you tell yourself, and C is your emotion(s). From C comes D, which is your action(s)/response. This is a gross oversimplification, of course. Physiology, for example, plays a role (sometimes a large role) in this process. But for most people most of the time, the physiological (and other) effects are slight.

You can’t much affect A. A is what happens to you, the situations you find yourself in. Sure, you chose to take this flight or walk into that office, but you didn’t choose the thunderstorm at 5 o’clock or the traffic accident on your route home or your aunt passing away.

A lot of people, looking at their emotions, their C, think that C is nearly equal to A, so they repeat A‘s that lead to C‘s they like and avoid A‘s that lead to C‘s they don’t like. They like laughing with this person, so they go to their office to chat more often. They don’t like feeling embarrassed running to their car in the rain, so they make sure they keep an umbrella at work.

Of course, when you view A=C, or A being almost equal to C, people can resort to significant changes to try to eliminate C‘s they don’t like. For instance, they don’t like feeling anxious, so they try not to fly. They don’t like grieving and feeling helpless, so they distance themselves from elderly family members.

Sometimes people don’t mind the C‘s, but they loathe the resulting D‘s. For example, they don’t like feeling angry in the car because it prompted them to curse in front of their kids. They decide to change the A by taking a longer, slower, but less-busy way to and from work to try to avoid the C that led to the bad D.

But, there is also the B. Studies show that we can talk to ourselves an average of 1300 words a minute. That’s a lot of talking. You talk to yourself more than anyone else in your life does. (No, don’t make a crack about your spouse or sister or whatever. It’s not the same.) You talk to you a lot, so it stands to reason that it matters what you’re saying. If it makes you feel better to think of your B as being your thought process, that also works.

Which leads me to music. Music, studies show, can literally change your brain waves. We talk about not liking what a song says, but it’s so peppy or interesting that you find yourself listening and even humming along. If you’re like me, song lyrics and musical phrases regularly get “stuck”, repeating again and again in your mind. And those repetitions can easily come up when I’m talking to myself. Even just singing along to the songs stuck in my head is me repeating those words and messages to myself.

My great-aunt passed away at the end of 2014. After weeks in the hospital recovering from a broken hip, she’d been moved to an outpatient rehabilitation center and, it seems, a blood clot moved to her lungs and she died between three and five in the morning. My cousin called to tell me a few hours later, while I was scraping the ice off the windshield of my idling car.

I didn’t know what to do. So, after a minute or two, I started driving to work. I called and told my parents. And, about two miles from my house, I began to cry. While yielding at a busy intersection, my brain drew up the lyrics to David Crowder’s “All This Glory”. Not all of it, just these lines:

In the middle of the night,
all this light.
In the middle of the night,
after all this quiet.
Jesus, God with us.

I couldn’t remember any more. I couldn’t focus to try. I didn’t know what to say to myself about what had happened. I wanted to extrapolate, find meaning. So as I imagined my aunt lying in the bed in her darkened, borrowed room, exactly as I had left her mere hours before, my brain called up the lyrics to a song I hadn’t heard lately but I had listened to and sung often.

Singing these lines to myself, I realized that my great-aunt had passed through the veil of this life and into the very presence of God.

In the middle of the night,
all this light.
In the middle of the night,
after all this quiet.
Jesus, God with us.

And these words comforted me. That’s a good C.

The lyrics gave me perspective, which was a good D.

The A was bad, and I know how drastically I’m oversimplifying, but a helpful B led to a helpful C. Notice I didn’t say a “good” or “positive” B, because grief needs to be experienced but there is little good or positive about it. It’s pain. Pain like a current. And just when you feel you’ve got your footing, or you can handle this, it rushes with new fury.

Here’s the crux. Deciding what songs I should listen to matters. I’m putting language, messages into my brain and my brain only puts out what I put into it. That’s another gem from counseling: I put in, I get out.

A happens. (I often can’t control A.)
I think B. (I can learn to control B.)
I get C.
Based on C and my moral principles, I do D.

This doesn’t mean that I’m only going to listen to contemporary Christian music. (Have you heard some the nonsense in that category?) I’m not going to categorically cut out anything, either. But I am going to acknowledge that Bruno Mars’s “Locked Out of Heaven” isn’t what I want to be repeating to myself and Christina Perri’s “I Believe” probably is.

I don’t want Bieber’s “Love Yourself” or Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel” influencing my B thought processes, but I am good with “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles and Lukas Graham’s “Seven Years.”

“Photograph” by Ed Sheeran is a yes but his “Don’t” is a no.

And let’s not leave the Christians out: I don’t want “Above All” by Michael W. Smith and “God’s Great Dance Floor” by Chris Tomlin coming in or out of my head, but “Run Forward” by Audrey Assad and “Instrument” by Matt Maher are a-okay by me.

These are, of course, very personal choices. But they are choices, and I’m owning mine.