It is as if the corners of my mouth are fatigued. My cheeks have atrophied. The dreary gray of October has drained the life out of my face, like Winifred drains the souls of the children.
I am not quite sad, but less interested. The contrast of colors are muted, blurring one into the next; their vividness passing through the doorway of dull.
Anxiety in the dismal is worse than the frenetic angst. It calls forth demons of the past without warning. Does the smell not exist when the sun is warm or does the sun provide hope and reassurance, its absence known in the bleak fall?
Turn on all the lights.
I referenced the mirror in a previous poem and it is with regret I admit I continue to be harassed by it. Certainly progress has been made, but I still suffer the endless committee meeting in my head discussing all the things wrong with my body.
Strangely (or perhaps not) aging while bringing its own difficulties has lessened the battle somewhat. I am nearing 40 and I have 2 teenagers. I workout 5 days a week and walk my 10000 steps everyday. I eat generally whole, clean foods with mostly balanced macros for my activity level. There’s really nothing more I can do that does not fall into eating disorder land. It is easier to accept my imperfections as I’m not supposed to look 20 anymore – not without plastic surgery anyway. So, acceptance is the answer to my problems today. Courage to accept what I cannot change.
The mental battle is fatiguing though, I will admit. I do slip into old patterns particularly when I’m very stressed but very quickly my cognitive functioning is impacted and it makes working difficult. As a therapist, I cannot be mentally tuned out during session. It’s very interesting indeed how important nutrition is to cognitive functioning. Consider that the next time you skip breakfast ☺️
As I looked upon her in her final hours, something began nagging at me. This same, strong woman, this same month 11 years ago suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. The same week of that year my then 3 y/o daughter was hospitalized. And not for the first time, I began losing my mind.
Looking back, it’s really not surprising I developed post traumatic grief when my dad killed himself 3 months later. I was already well entrenched in complex post traumatic stress from years of various forms of abuse and his death – no how he left – zapped my rather tenuous remaining grip on reality.
I didn’t actually lose my mind though certain people in my life at the time would say otherwise in attempts to cover up their own antisocial behavior. It is but an act of God I was an assistant in my university’s counseling department at the time of his death. Days after that New Year’s Eve 2009 I made a call to see a counselor. The journey out of abuse and untreated Bipolar Disorder would commence.
As I sit at her bedside, I begin to realize why September has been a source of somatic cues insisting dissociation and depersonalization is required for survival. My body has been trying to protect me from feeling the magnitude of fall 2009. I hold the recognized traumaversary trifecta in the present. I am able for the first time to be fully embodied in the present year of September, no longer held hostage by the past. Over a decade of therapy later, my cognitive self and my physical being are in sync. I am safe. The monster is no longer under the bed.
That, my friends, is the power of psychotherapy within the confines of a well established, structured therapeutic relationship.
I often forget the general population isn’t well versed in mental wellness, never mind mental illness. I am well versed on either end of the spectrum, both professionally and personally. In fact, during college and graduate school where many of my cohort were learning things for the first time, my response was more along the lines of “oh that has a name?!”
In medical school as well as training to be a therapist, there is the tendency to diagnose oneself with every disorder learned. I had already had a moderate handful of diagnoses before studying them academically so I skipped right into imposter syndrome by my second semester of graduate school. The critical voices in my head had a new sneer, “how can you help others when you’re a mess yourself?”
Indeed, in my third semester of grad school I found myself reluctantly agreeing with my therapist to enter treatment for my eating disorder following a collapse in dance class. I felt ashamed but also incredibly grateful to my dance professor who required clearance from treatment before she would allow me to dance again. Bless her everyday for setting that boundary.
So I forget that the whole world isn’t constantly engaged in coping with and studying mental illness. When my instinct with friends or family discussing their bad day is to use words like processing, stabilizing, grounding and phrases like “ask yourself if” or “what are you aware of in your body right now?” And they look at me as if I have a grown a second head. Granted they know I’m a therapist so maybe they chalk it up to “psychobabble” but I hate that term because it implies lack of sincerity on my part and I can assure you, I couldn’t be more genuine.
I wouldn’t know how to be any other way at this point. It is my job but it is also why I have a job and a family and a home.
I do not wish to philosophize about the possibilities that exist, but my intellectual capabilities make it impossible for my brain not to fire in that way. My anxiety ensures these unwanted mental meanderings cause me great discomfort – for anxiety does not like to float freely; it prefers an anchor. And what better an anchor than the rabbit hole that is philosophy?
We are raised with certain belief systems, borne out of our caregivers’ bestowing. At some point, we have the option to choose a different value structure. If it does not align with our family traditions it can cause angst. This is where I often find myself. Sitting in the middle of historic teachings, my own experience, and the ability to see multiple perspectives. I joke that things were simpler when I had the checklist of religion and the prescribed wife and mother role from the 50s that I readily adopted. “Married with 2 under 2 by 22.” Life was neat and organized by childcare, housecleaning, and meal prep.
Now my kids are teens, I rarely cook, prefer to call myself a partner rather than a wife, and the only codified activity I participate in regularly is Pilates. Despite my existential angst, how I function in the world today is far more congruent to my authentic self than the identity I put on in my twenties. Important people in my life experience a bit of confusion, however, when I act in ways that seem to contradict their concept of me. It would be simpler for them if I retreated to a more predictable identity.
I can’t retrace my steps. I can’t unring the bell. I can’t pretend I don’t know what I do know. If I do, I betray myself.
I find myself wandering the halls of my mind, aimless. I have a sense I am searching for a book. A collection of somethings. Perhaps a how to manual?
There are times the shelves of my mind are neatly organized, categorized, even alphabetized. Other times it is more fluid, malleable, flexible. Presently, my surroundings are like clouds; they appear to have shape and texture, but my grasp returns nothing. Indeed, my hands shape shift. Like wisps of smoke, diffusing into abyss.
It’s almost beautiful. An improvisation of a well-known melody; recognition just out of reach.
An unlikely composition juxtaposing peace and urgency. I am calmly terrified.
I do not accept. I refuse.
Can’t you see it? Look. It’s too much.
It follows you. Glittering sneer, waiting to devour me. You have to go.
I can’t go. You are me.
For some reason it’s been easier to write poetry here than anything else. Which is quite odd because before this blog, I hadn’t written poetry in 20+ years. Amateur hour right here.
Writing painful and complex experiences through poetry is a way to distance myself from the raw vulnerability to an audience. Oh the vulnerability is there – plain to see. But the vulnerability exists as a work of art rather than I am standing naked in front of you, sharing my heart. Although both are true. Maybe it’s an illusion.
I return to work tomorrow as the therapist. What started as a vacation ended in bereavement so I don’t feel refreshed going back. Indeed, I feel weary. It can be quite helpful, however, to “get out of your own head.” Many people use this as their number one coping skill. That friend who never talks about her life, but is always by your side while you cry – she might be avoiding her own feelings. I’m not that person. I avoid my feelings in other ways 😏 but when I am faced with the raw emotion of another, it does trigger my own particularly if my self care game is not on point. (Which was the reason for the vacation in the first place).
I am confident I will be present for my clients as the warm therapist they are used to. My confidence wanes, however when I imagine how I will feel emotionally at the end of the day. I worry I will feel depleted. It is already a rough time of year for me, now compounded by fresh grief.
Mindfulness is a good tool here and the old adage of not getting ahead of oneself. We’re going to put one foot in front of the other, moment by moment, holding steadfast to years of experience telling me everything is always eventually ok. The world will not collapse. I will be successful as a clinician and I will take extra care of me in the moments I’m not actively a therapist.
Psst. You don’t have to be a therapist to use the above tools to cope during your workday. Or your family gathering. Or your doctor’s appointment. Or your long commute. Take good care of yourself, one moment at a time. Don’t know how? Ask a friend, a mentor, or ya know.. find a therapist. ☺️
She smiles sweetly. A bit seductive. Slithering in as security takes a smoke break. She whispers in my ear, “Hello honey. Having a hard time, huh?”
I am lost in the melody of her musing. She promises poise and perfection. A played-out song endlessly mesmerizing.
No. Music breathes life, even on repeat. She is the damsel of destruction. Coy in her captivating charm, she is a siren.
Almost erotic. Almost ethereal.
“I am Panacea.”
My ribs are straining under the weight of breath.
For a full inhale draws awareness to the storm in my belly.
Spouting funnels of agony to the crown of my head.
I am alive.
No, no, no mustn’t be still.
To be still is to acknowledge. To permit. To accept.
Awareness of the storm
I am alive.
They are dead.