Insert Pithy Title Here: Therapy Diary, Feb. 18-27, 2021

Last week’s therapy session was very intense. I wanted to write about it that very evening, but I worked late, and by the time we finished supper I was too tired to write. I also felt that I had to write something impressive for my friend L, and since I couldn’t picture what I’d write that would be impressive, I couldn’t seem to start. So, Thursday night passed, and Friday was another hard day at work and Friday night passed. The weekend came and I got sucked into my current micro-obsession of trying to fill in blanks on my family tree. I know that spending hours researching people’s marriage records from the 18th century is most likely another variation of my avoidance pattern, but knowing that doesn’t me stop doing it.

Anyway, as the hours and days went by, the details of why that therapy session seemed so intense and potentially important slipped away, uncaptured. My memory is so bad these days that if I don’t jot down notes right away, most fade, with only the barest bones left.

Here’s what I do remember.

The Monday before the Feb. 18 session was a holiday for me, and I ended up talking with my friend L. for over an hour. I don’t talk on the phone much outside of work, so that was a very unusual hour for me. L. told me that she really liked my last blog post, which made me feel great. She also said something that I heard but didn’t really notice during the conversation. I was explaining how frustrated I have been about how I just stopped exercising last month, after almost five months of consistent workouts and jogging. She gently suggested that I need not be upset, because over the years we’ve known each other, she’s seen me go through a pattern of exercising, then not exercising, and it was likely that in a while I’d start again. Looking back at the conversation, I think that I heard her comment as a kind of generic encouragement, along the lines of the ‘oh, don’t worry, you’ll be back on your feet in no time’ comments friends say. After a couple of days, though, some things started clicking together in new ways, and her comment took on new meanings for me. The perspective shift happened when I realized that over the last two years of therapy, my focus has been at the nearly microscopic level. I’ve been looking at things that I do that last a few seconds or a few minutes or hours or days. I have been looking at things like my road rage, or my twitchy perfectionistic tendencies, or my difficulties getting housework done when I’m feeling down. I’ve been learning to see these not as character flaws but as less-than-optimal coping strategies that I have adopted over the years. I’ve been learning to forgive myself for them, or at times even recognize that there is nothing there to forgive.

But as the import of L.’s observation became clearer, it was as if I was panning back out, like in those drone-filmed scenes in a movie, where the point of view retreats 300 feet into the sky & you can see the characters in their broader environment. I started to get a hint that my less-optimal strategies aren’t restricted to momentary rages or three-day mood slumps. This might sound depressing on the surface; ‘oh look, I’m actually dysfunctional in all these grander ways as well,‘ but that wasn’t how I felt it. It was more like ‘hey, maybe I don’t have to see this (long trend/whatever thing) as a catastrophe.‘ If I can understand and forgive myself for losing my temper in traffic (and, hey, maybe find different ways of coping with traffic that reduce my opportunities for escalation), then perhaps I can also understand and forgive myself for going through long swings of over-the-top enthusiasm followed by weeks or months of dark moods.

When I noticed that the patterns of recognition and forgiveness that I’ve been learning for dealing with tiny, short-term issues can be applied for longer-term patterns in my life, I came up with a cutesy title for my imagined blog post: As Above, So Below. Neat, huh? I even thought of a variation: Fractal Neurosis. I was so impressed with these potential blog post titles that I couldn’t think of what to write in the actual post to live up to the assumed awesomeness of those titles. Naturally, I ended up not being able to write anything. (Note to self: write about how I love getting praise, but how praise makes me feel like I can’t live up to the expectations, but I must live up to the expectations!)

The weekend crept by. I spent hours on Twitter or on Ancestry. The workweek started and we are so busy at work that I was worn out at the end of every day, and so I continued to not write. Not-writing is something I’m at least consistent about. Bright side and all that.

This week my therapy session was on Friday morning. It was kind of interesting not meeting on Thursday at noon, as we have most weeks for lo, these many months. All I had prepared for Friday was a partial journal entry I scribbled on Wednesday evening in a small panic, thinking that I had therapy the next day. When we started the video session, I could tell I was still wound up from the morning’s work. I have a hovering deadline for Monday that I haven’t started work on, and my procrastination anxiety is high (marvel at the fact that the anxiety never, ever helps, but I keep on being anxious).

I chattered a bit about work, then caught my breath and got focused.

I reviewed the stuff I wrote about here, then I shifted to talk about an article I read earlier this week about bullying. Entitled ‘I Tracked Down the Girls Who Bullied Me as a Kid. Here’s What They Had to Say,’ it’s a brief and relatively light piece (‘light’ for the topic) by a woman who suffered for years with anxiety and depression. She interviewed fellow students from the years she was subjected to bullying; not only the bullies but others who had been bullied and several women who seemed to have been able to avoid being in either camp. I think it is worth a read, of course with the usual content warnings.

One of her points really hit home for me. She said that talking with her tormentors had not only allowed her to start feeling some relief from her decades of trauma response but had helped her recognize that she had also bullied others on several occasions. Reading that got me thinking about how I’d been anywhere from ‘less than nice’ to outright vicious at various times, particularly in my twenties. This is far from the first time I’ve recognized that I had been a jerk. Previously, though, I just felt horrible about it. Knowing there’s nothing I can do to apologize for how I acted, I just stewed in the feelings of guilt. This time the recognition was different. I saw an angle I’d missed before: why I lashed out. I think I’ve found a pattern, and it’s not flattering but it is possibly the start of more work I can do to be a better person.

Looking back on when I bullied others, the apparent thread is that those incidents happened when I felt that I was part of the cool kids’ clique. All through my childhood and teen years, I was always the outsider. In my mid-twenties I finally was part of the inner circle of a social group I hung around. Example incident: a woman who was not part of our group criticized the leader, and I lashed out at her instantly. I can see now that I was defending my position & the clique that had finally accepted me.

This insight seems useful to me in at least two ways. First, it gives me something to watch for. I’m apparently at risk of not living up to my ideals when my social status is threatened. Knowing this, I can watch for this pattern and perhaps avoid it. 35+ years on, I’m also less vulnerable to such perceived slights. Secondly, it lets me start understanding what may have been driving my own bullies. My instinctive understanding as a kid, ground into me at the level that my breathing happens, is that I was a target because I was a failure. Later, without giving it much thought, I assumed that they were monsters. My new perspective is that they were human, and weak in the same ways that I am weak.

Lots here to think about, and I imagine I’ll be writing more about this at some point.

As the therapy session was wrapping up, I mentioned a poem I’d read (and which I urge you to read!), in which the poet talks about how all the poems that he’d thought of but never written were still there in his body, like hidden messages that might be discovered after his death. I loved the poem partly because I have so many thoughts that float to the surface of my mind, like the fish in Escher’s Three Worlds and, not being caught and written down, vanish again. The poem speaks to the idea that those thoughts are still part of me, whether or not I write & share them. Either way, those thoughts are part of my ongoing creation & growth.

I tried to read the poem to my therapist, and as so often happens, I had the hardest time. When I read something to myself, I feel slight tugs of meaning & emotion, but when I read the same thing out loud, the emotions stab me, and take my breath away.

My therapist asked me to stay with that emotion, not dismiss it. I closed my eyes and kept talking, not trying to be coherent, and I found myself talking about how my cold, nihilistic, brittle self, the me that suppresses emotions, that is self-destructive, may be covering an organic, lonely, caring person that has been hurt so many times, and how threatened the brittle parts of me are by this other part.

The inner struggle is at least partly between that brittle shield, trying to protect me from harm, and a damaged but achingly lonely person inside who misses his few friends who are all so far away. By then I was just weeping steadily.

Then it was time to wash my face and log back in to work. All I wanted to do was curl up on my bed with the covers pulled up.

A pond is shown on a foggy day. The surface of the water is reflective, and a stone wall on the left holds back an embankment with shrubs growing above the water.
Two worlds