You are in the waiting room anxiously filling out paperwork. You avoid eye contact with the man in the corner reading magazines because you’re worried you might see all of the judgments you’re having about yourself reflected in his eyes. Maybe it IS pathetic to ask for help. You read questions like “Do you have a history of sexual abuse?” and you check yes or no and you wonder whether scheduling an appointment for psychotherapy was really such a great idea.
I open the door and call your name quietly. You look up with a combination of relief and terror. We walk through hallways into a small room with a couch and two chairs and pillows you can cradle or toss aside. I tell you that it’s all confidential unless you’re going to kill yourself or someone else or kids are being harmed. I tell you that this session will be different from a lot of sessions because there will be a lot of questions. There won’t always be so many questions. I ask “what brings you here today?” and you take a deep breath and you start. You begin at the very place you need to begin. At the place or the thought you’ve been sitting on and going over and holding. You look at my face for judgment or scrutinize my posture to see if I may hold a different world view from your own. You keep telling your story --about the pain you’re in now and when it all started.
I ask you to tell me about your family and you wrinkle your forehead and then close your eyes as you try to decide how you can begin to answer a question so sprawling. Sometimes you talk about how you love your parents and they tried their best, but they left you with some wounds. You say that you developed ways of being and relating and adapting that you had to at the time but now those ways seem to leave you feeling more alone because things are different now and you might not need all those defenses and walls you needed back then. Sometimes you get nervous and you say that your family was loving and fine and likely have nothing to do with any of this. I say that your family sounds loving and fine and absolutely has multitudes to do with who you are and who you were in beautiful and joyful and painful ways. You remark that it’s not their fault and it’s not their responsibility and you’re right because you’re the one who will change or not change and you’re already changing because you’re here.
I ask you what you want from this whole “therapy thing” and you say that you want to feel better. I tell you that some acceptance might help and some mindfulness might help and looking at all the mean shit you’re saying to yourself might help and sometimes I say that diving deep into what you learned about emotions before you even had words for them might help. I try to say that things that happen now are kind of about what’s happening now and also about what’s already happened and sometimes it can all get very muddled—the old reactions and the new ones. Sometimes some unmuddling is in order. I ask you how all of that sounds and you say it sounds fine because I’m the expert and all and you fumble for the check you brought and hesitate as to whether we’re supposed to shake hands after this strange exchange.
You arrive the following week and you’re a little more comfortable in the waiting room looking at magazines, but you still avoid eye contact with that same man who’s now on his cell phone because you still aren’t sure what you might see in his eyes. I open the door and you’re already standing up as I say “Come on back” and we walk past familiar walls and corners. I remind you that we just scratched the surface when we last met and ask if you have any further thoughts on where you want to dive in to this ocean that is your life. You bring up the anxiety or the depression that’s present, and I tell you that anxiety and depression are often like bubbles on the top of the water when there are deeper and harder emotions submerged. You pause at this idea and if you are the bravest and fiercest you let yourself feel— the grief of your losses, the anger of your injustices, the loneliness of being human, and love so inextricably linked to those feelings. You take off the protection you put on every day to get by and exist and it’s raw, and vulnerable and intense. And sometimes you apologize for crying and using up tissues and sometimes you apologize for being such a downer and sometimes you apologize for yelling. I try to say that this is the process of therapy and extricating rocks buried deep within and allowing yourself to walk away from them and free yourself from their weight. I try to say that I have also sat on a couch feeling old things and new things and cried and usually and hopefully grown and that I will sit on a couch again when life is shaken or I am shaken or worse yet stuck. We schedule another appointment and you hand me the check and we exchange passing comments about the weather as we transition from the sacred space of the therapy room to the hallway.
The weeks pass and you stop reading the magazines because they haven’t changed since your first week. You scroll through old text messages and send some new ones and hope Verizon doesn’t accidentally disclose your location to the recipients. You glance briefly at the man in the corner who’s now just sitting with his thoughts and he nods ever so slightly as if to say “it’s ok that you’re here”.
I ask where you want to start today and you say that things are going a little better. You felt like hell when you left but then a little lighter and that was nice. You say you don’t know what to talk about today with things being better and all and you begin to catalogue the highs and lows of the week and suddenly water comes to your eyes and like archeologists we stumble on another emotion and its deeper and older and your surprised because you thought we were done with that whole emotions business. We look at it together and try to hear any message it’s trying to share and we marvel at the thoughts it brings with it and where it takes up residence in your body. We ask if there’s anything else the emotion needs to tell us and sometimes we let the emotion know that it’s really quite a beautiful emotion and we honor its beauty, but it doesn’t get to tell us archeologists what to do because we’re on an important mission and in the end it’s just a rock.
Sessions later you find yourself in the waiting room gathering your thoughts. You ignore the magazines and your cell phone because you finally have a chance to be with yourself and you like yourself. You smile at this thought as you see an anxious woman enter the waiting room and search desperately through magazines and avoid eye contact. You sink into the couch in my office and I ask “where do you want to start today” and you really don’t know. It’s not clear to you or me. You catch me up on the highs and lows of your week. You relate them to past highs and lows like the expert on yourself that you are. You feel all kinds of things but the feelings are lighter like leaves drifting down a stream. You wonder what’s the next step in this whole “therapy” thing and there isn’t one. We have conversations that are easier and less penetrating and it all means that you are finished and it’s time to end the work for now. We say goodbye—what’s been accomplished and what’s left over and how we feel about each other. Because by now there aren’t just feelings in the room but between us. We care about each other and it’s another loss and another love and for once we get to talk about it. When we’re all done with words, we sit for a moment lingering in the therapy room, enjoying a quiet appreciation for each other and a moment of reverence for this journey of therapy. We embrace with handshakes or hugs or words.
As you walk past the waiting room you slip a note that you scrolled into a magazine. It reads “It’s ok that you’re here.”