“Courage doesn’t happen when you have all the answers. It happens when you are ready to face the questions you have been avoiding your whole life.” ~ Shannon L. Alder
I am sitting in a social worker’s office, waiting for the therapist to show up. It’s my first session ever, and I have no idea what to expect. I know why I am here, ostensibly — for therapy — but I am not clear on what that’s going to entail. People say you’re supposed to tell them everything. And while I must admit there’s quite a bit I’d like to get off my chest — everything?
Whenever I hear others speak of therapy, the impression I always get is the same as the one from movies and television: “You will go to therapy and you will get ‘fixed'” All of those broken and tangled threads inside of you will be neatly mended and woven back together. That’s what a therapist does. They “fix” you.
Really? Just how, tell me, can any amount of talking actually ‘fix’ me? And what does that even mean? Don’t get me wrong, I can spill my diary to an online journal without so much as a second thought — as if I am in a circle of a gossip primps — but telling a doctor how I feel is utterly foreign to me. I’ve never opened up to someone in this position before, someone with years of official training who is meant to pinpoint, through the things I communicate to them, just what exactly my ‘problems’ are– whether or not I myself am even aware of them.
A few more minutes pass like this. Finally, he arrives, entering the office quietly and introducing himself. Chris. He sits down opposite me — calm, relaxed in his movements and smiling slightly — a total juxtaposition to the visible state of anxiety I embody. All I can think is that I really want some chocolate, because chocolate, of any size, makes everything and anything better.
“So,” Chris says, “thank you for coming in!”
“Thank you for having me!” I spout back, and, to kick things off: “I’m just going to be frank, because, well, I don’t know where to begin, but I want to tell you about a feeling I am having regarding, well, all of the stuff that’s been happening these past few days.”
Chris leans forward, immediately intent on what I have to say, so I continue, unsure where this will lead.
As he listens, I take careful stock of him.
When you’re a survivor of abuse, it allows you a certain insight. It has to. A hard skill-set develops in order to aid you in predicting what may be coming next.
Whenever my mom’s mood would shift, and I would feel the onset of victimhood again — no matter the time of night or day she chose to be the hero of the bottle once more — I would climb behind self-erected walls where I could hide. There I was safe, numb, unable to truly be hurt by her, or anyone.
These walls have never left me. I still use them frequently as an adult–for distance, for proper judgment, proper discernment. I listen carefully to the language they use, their tone and inflection, and their reactions–especially their reactions. Because I’ve been beaten, cursed at, cut, burnt, scratched, and left screaming into the night more times than I can count, I’ve learned to predict how others will react to what I say or do. And most of the time, I am right.
Today, however, I am so nervous that whole mechanism feels slightly off, and I wonder if I’m going to be as sharp as I need to be.
“There’s a resident here… And, well, I want to tell you something.”
“I’m here to listen,” he urges.
I lean in closer, my hands twitching on the table. “Well, there’s this resident here who I love, but it’s not a gay love or whatever. It’s a ‘father’ kind of love. His name is John. Do you know John?” He nods, his look having grown quite intense. I keep on. “I feel like I shouldn’t have these feelings, like I am too old to have these feelings for someone who isn’t even gay, and someone who is three times my age.”
“Well, how did the connection start between you guys?”
“One day, my eye was really hurting, bleeding, in fact, and I called him because I was very scared and I didn’t know what else to do, because the CNA’s [Certified Nursing Assistants] didn’t answer the emergency call right away. When he arrived to look after me and comfort me, and to make sure I was OK, he told me something I’ll never forget. He told me that I was like a son to him. I’ve never had a mom. I’ve never had a dad. Shit, I’ve never had a home…
“But his behavior and what he said struck a cord inside of me, and since then my feelings have changed. I want to show him my accomplishments, get advice from him, even though I know it’s not always going to be good advice. I want to have him say he’s proud of me… and, well, I do like his company. Outside of certain things like the Resident Board, he’s a really nice guy. We don’t agree on everything, but now I just want to have what I’ve never had. A dad.”
Chris and I speculate about some of these feelings and why I feel the way I do. He tells me that my need for a father figure isn’t wrong at all, that I am free to need whatever it is I need. He explains it as if it were just something I had been lacking — love, in any form. He then went on to tell me a LOT about himself.
I listen as he talks about his relationship with his brothers, being Latino, and growing up in a part of Chicago that’s considered the ghetto. It wasn’t an easy life. But he touches on relationships, family bonds, what friendship really is. “In John’s case,” he says, “have you ever considered that you may be helping him just as much as he’s helping you?”
This genuinely shocks me. I shake my head, and he leans in closer, speaking with an even softer tone, as if I am made of glass and will shatter if he speaks above a certain octave.
“Sometimes, when people get old, their kids abandon them. They dump their elders here and think, I don’t have to see them again. ‘Sure, we still love him, but, grandpa is old. He’s blind. Now he’s in this place. We don’t have to pay him as much attention anymore.’ Then, here you come, this survivor, who’s just brimming with love to give, and an openness to receive it. Even though he may not say it, you are healing him, slowly.
“Military types learn to hide their emotions, which is not healthy,” he continues. “You are changing him for the better. Because you have so much healthy love to give, it is refreshing, and something he needs to explore. He may not understand why you feel so strongly about spending time with him, and the like, but he needs to do some exploring and opening up of his own.”
We talk for a good while longer, and I feel the walls relaxing a bit, my tension easing up. I reveal quite a bit about myself. About how, even now, I worry how people will react if I were to say a certain thing– most things, actually. And how, sometimes, I avoid doing something because I fear the possibility of ‘setting the other person off’. I tell him that whenever I hear shouting, I want to hide in a corner, curl up in a ball and sink into the floor.
“A reaction like that, I think, means you feel sorry about asking for help,” he says.
“Yeah, but why?”
He goes on to explain that, deep down, validation is something all humans need in order to feel whole, whether it comes from themselves or the outside world. Most tend to need it from the outside world. I need some validation, he says, that people really do want to help me for who I am.
I don’t understand, so I continue to push. Chris remains patient.
And then, a few minutes into it, I get it. It’s happening right now. I’m doing it right now, with him. Without even saying it, Chris showed me that I had taken us to the exact place we were speaking about, even as we were speaking about it. And suddenly I’m dropped directly into the machinery as it’s working — the feeling of it, the emotional push of it, the thoughts it uses for fuel.
So this is what therapy is, I think. It is not a ‘fixing’ of myself, but an exploration of it.
Sure, I’ve explored these thoughts and feelings before, inside my own head, but it’s different when you’re doing it aloud, posing questions to someone who’s there to guide you along their stream — someone who’s trained in how to navigate those waters. Therapy, it seems, is the ultimate mirror.
Chris points at the clock — two hours have passed. It’s time for dinner.
We say our goodbyes and shake hands, my feeling upon leaving quite different than it was on arriving– there’s more levity, more awareness, more understanding. With each step I take to the dining room, I’m able to ‘flow’, aware both of what I’m thinking and feeling with a clarity that is foreign to me.
People say the first step in therapy is to accept, and even after one session I can see that this is true. I’m able to approach certain thoughts that I previously couldn’t, and I feel much better afterwards, knowing I’ve conjured the strength to do so. Ideas are already filling my mind of what to bring up at the next meeting.
So no, there’s no quick fix here — nor possibly any ‘fix’ at all. The TV and movies got it wrong. But I do feel as if I am closer to something. I don’t know what that is quite yet, but I am on the path. And just as with any path, you begin by taking steps, however small. You begin by putting one foot in front of the other. And while I can’t speak for others, I’ve started taking mine. It’s OK if you want to take yours.
Trust me, it really does feel good.