Negative Benefits; One-Way Portals; Everything is Transitory: Therapy Diary, Feb. 11-13

I don’t think I’ve ever asked for advice on the blog before, but I could use some this week. If you can help me understand what this mood/mode/mental state is that I’ve been locked in for a month, I’d appreciate your insight.


This week’s therapy session was as chaotic as most of them have been the last few weeks. Last fall I was writing in my therapy diary after sessions & frequently had notes prepared before each session, or at least some idea of what I wanted to address. Since the end of December, at least, I get to Thursday noon and have no clear idea what to say. In some ways, this is okay with me, because I recognized that I was trying so hard to be ‘the good client,’ and show my therapist that I am worthy of her attention. But I also feel as if I need to use this hour as skillfully as I can, as if I’m making up for all the years I didn’t have access to a therapist. But there’s another one of my traps: the idea of ‘productivity’ and ‘skill’ as ways to prove my worth, give me permission to keep breathing, to take up space here. Anyway, I rambled a lot, and even these rambling notes will give an impression of a more orderly hour of thought than it was.

At one point I mentioned a recent thought that I keep having; that I don’t want to be sober. I don’t want to be clear-minded and sensible. Part of me misses being three beers in. I probably couldn’t be trusted around some coke or acid right now. It’s as if I’m nostalgic for the days when I was more mentally & emotionally unstable. I told her that I suspected part of this was that I lived that way for so long, it became part of my identity, and losing the intoxication is like losing a (not great) part of who I was. My therapist brought up the idea of ‘negative benefits,’ something we’ve touched on in the past. She asked me to think about what benefits I got out of alcohol & uppers. Beer is an easy one to answer. I got to relax. Most of the time in my life I’m wound up, strung tight like a guitar string. After work I’d have a couple of beers and often could feel my shoulders & neck relax, not even having been aware that they were tense & hunched. Beer also makes me more sociable. I become able to have a chat with people. Coke made me feel confident & powerful. High doses of caffeine help me power through work and chores. I feel productive and energetic. None of that is particularly healthy as a strategy for changing yourself, of course, which is where the ‘negative’ part of ‘negative benefits’ comes in. Unsustainable coping strategies. Unsustainable because my body won’t withstand being drunk for years, or I might end up killing myself or someone else while driving after a few drinks. Coke leads to unhealthy relationships with law enforcement.

During the session I tried to explain this weird kind-of-depressed state I’ve been in for a couple months, but particularly in the last three weeks.

Here’s what it’s like. I’m not feeling down, although I’ve been emotionally raw. Videos of people in distress have had me weeping in seconds. Most of the time I am just feeling ‘flat.’ I’m doing well at work, not missing deadlines, not making more mistakes than usual, having plenty of energy. But as soon as work is over, I sit down in front of the TV and watch hours of old TV shows or movies. Or I sit and read twitter for many hours. Our house is always a mess, but I’ve stopped doing all but the bare minimum. I’ve kept up with the laundry and dishes but not much else. I shower when I can’t stand how I smell. I haven’t been reading, or drawing, or writing in my blogs or my therapy journal. I have all the signs of my depressive episodes, but I don’t feel depressed. I feel brittle.

One of the most dramatic parts of this lethargy is the way in which I stopped exercising. Back in August I started jogging & doing daily stretching and strength exercises. I had to back off on the upper-body work because of my elbow injuries, but I kept right on with the other stuff and was feeling strong & unusually motivated. I built up to 2 miles a day or more. I took a couple weeks off around the new year to let my calves recover from a developing overuse injury but got back to it with little trouble. Then on January 19 I just stopped. I ran that evening & the next day was suddenly… not exercising.

I’ve been trying to figure out whether to continue my break from martial arts, go back to training, or quit for good. I was thinking back to the weeks in November when I carefully reviewed in therapy my reasons for wanting to take this break, when I felt conscientious about making such a considered decision. But now I suspect that I had already made the decision at that point and was just looking for ways to justify it after the fact by pretending to consider the pros and cons. There’s a scene in the TV version of The Magicians (S1 E1) where Quentin chases a page of text into an alleyway & over a fence. He struggles through a patch of shrubs & finds himself on the lawn at Brakebills College. He looks back, but of course there’s no way back. It’s impossible to go back, but even more important, it’s impossible to even see where the transition happened. There’s no foreboding locked gate. That’s how my decisions feel. It is as if I don’t decide; I only realize after the fact that ‘a decision has been made.’ The passive language is required here because no ‘I’ made the decision. I described it once as walking through a wall of fog, and another time as if pushing through a stretchy membrane. It’s impossible to know when the change started or when it was done. This gives me a strong sense of being a fraud, that I pretend to be a thoughtful, awake person, but I am just as craven and weak as I ever was as a child, and my supposed progress is a sham.

When I wrote all that out in my therapy journal, it prompted a memory of a movie, The Circle of Iron, from 1978. There’s a scene in the movie where the teacher happens upon the seeker, who is standing on a riverbank and repeatedly stepping into the river and back out. The teacher laughs and calls out to the student “you can’t do it!” “What?” the student asks. “You can’t step in the same river twice!”

Thinking of that scene crystalized the thought that my decision to leave the dojo to think is irreversible. Even if I go back, I’ll not be the same person, nor will the dojo be the same place. Leaving may end up strengthening my self-awareness or my sense of agency, but it likely damaged my relationship (or perhaps even will turn out to have improved it in some cases) with my sensei and the other students. Even as I thought of that, I realized that all decisions are irreversible. Whether I make decisions thoughtfully or am unaware of making them, ‘change’ is the result. As I read recently in a book of Buddhist philosophy: all things are transitory. Accepting this, knowing it at a physical level, is far more difficult than recognizing it at an intellectual level.

During that same session, I mentioned an incident that happened at work the previous evening. I was working late and got an email from someone on a team I support that I check why a bunch of users had lost access to a site. I had a strong jolt of anxiety, feeling it in my chest. But unlike my usual pattern, I had part of me that was standing off to one side, a ‘meta-awareness’ or observer part that noticed the jolt of guilt and fear but said ‘no, that’s not your fault, you didn’t do anything wrong’ and I was able to calm myself down successfully. I still worked hard to fix the issue for the client, so in some ways still fed into my usual pattern of doing anything to fix problems and appear to be the hero, but not buying into the panic… really, feeding the panic, as I might have done a year ago, is something to note & celebrate a little. My therapist reminded me that this is progress. I can’t expect to have new skills entirely replace a lifetime of reaction patterns in a matter of weeks or months. She delicately pointed out that I always want to be perfect with new skills & get discouraged when I’m not perfect. So here I am, noticing and recognizing that I did okay that night.


And there’s my outline of my last session. So; what is this depressive mode I’m in, that looks like depression, but doesn’t feel like depression? Is this something like what people call dissociation?

6 thoughts on “Negative Benefits; One-Way Portals; Everything is Transitory: Therapy Diary, Feb. 11-13

  1. I think you need to give yourself permission to be unproductive & focused on nothing for an hour every day. I used to be doing several things at once and became stressed when things went wrong in my mind in many at once. You are stressed about your dojo/exercise, unexpected work issues, old lifestyles/habits, and laziness.

    As we get older, we can’t do as much physically. I don’t just mean strength/exercise-wise, but also mentally. It seems the physical energy required to mentally cope with many, many things decreases. Since we don’t necessarily notice this, we exhaust ourselves trying to keep up. This exhaustion makes it easy to drop into a chair and let ourselves be passively entertained. While not bad, we can overdo that.

    When I say take an hour to be unproductive I mean to do something like sit on your deck and watch birds. Really watch their behavior, the physicality and social interactions. Don’t study them, just focus on something in a non-productive manner for a while each day. Let your mind wander into unfamiliar places and recapture some of the wonder we saw the world with when we were young. This has helped me tremendously over the past few years.

    I never prepared for a therapy session beyond thinking, “I really need to talk about X today.” You cannot marshal your brain into OKness through a series of logical steps. You kind of have to let it flow, like a stream following the path of least resistance to its destination. You may say, “But this road will lead to the same destination if I follow the directions,” but the stream will meander, sometimes spin a whirlpool and waste time before flowing onward, and sometimes just settle into deep pools. It may even dry up enough to where it stops completely in places or become a mere trickle. At times it may rage with the force of storm waters. This is how you fix yourself; in unplanned, sporadic, unexplored moments. If your brain wanders off somewhere and feels relaxing, indulge it for a while. Enjoying the small moments of mental relaxation are just as good for our brain is a breather is between physical exercise.

    It took me quite a while to learn, accept, and follow these steps, but I can say that I am a much better person today than I was before. I can’t say I built a better Dave, but I became a better Dave and I wouldn’t go back to the old self for anything. Yes, I enjoyed my life and the things I did before, but now I’m simply on a different path that is allowing me to embrace myself today.

    1. Dave, I’m going to keep revisiting and rereading this note. There’s a lot here for me to process, and it feels like the right approach. I have finally figured out that I don’t get everything on first reading!

  2. I totally recognize this “flatness” which you describe. I wonder if it is not uncommon for people who have dealt with drugs and/ or manic-like episodes for a significant time in their life and then leveled out. When I went into CBT several years ago, simultaneous to the major life transition of retirement, I made great progress which really STIMULATE D me. Looking back on it, I was almost high during that time. Well we all know, if you deal with manic-like symptoms, with every high there is a low. And that was a long high for me. What came after? I call it “flat lining”. That state that you are describing…. symptoms are similar to yours. Free time spent booking out or similar dumbing down activities…
    It’s hard to make generalizations when we are dealing so intricately with the nuances of the mind, but I try to allow time and space for the pendulum to swing. It just seems to be part of my natural rhythm, to get involved and then unmotivated…. to be excited and then become dull…. I am learning to relax into it, allow it to happen and just accept it even if intellectually I would like to be different….
    I don’t know if that helps to answer your question
    We will be speaking later at which time I will like to speak to you about the martial arts…..

    1. Lorrie, this makes a lot of sense. I woke up in the middle of the night last night with something you said running through my mind. I’m going to try to write about it tonight.

  3. It sounds like it might be functional depression. Are you are using all your available resources to get stuff done at work, and there’s nothing left for your personal side?

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