A Therapist’s Journey to Heal Herself
I had an ‘inner voice’ which spoke to me in dreams and in my work. This inner voice was my lifeline, and I trusted it more than my own life, although it did not make life any easier for me. It even disrupted my personal life, requiring me to make decisions that were often very painful to bear.
Still I listened to it. I had to. This voice was as dear to me as my own heartbeat. It would not let me rest until I came face-to-face with freedom.
Then, at last, a mirror shone with undeniable clarity in my face, reflecting back to me the deepest ground of my being.
The loneliness disappeared.
— Chloe Goodchild
During her session, a patient tells me of her participation in the 100 Days Project—a global activity for anyone and everyone who wants to participate. The idea is to choose a creative project, do it every day for 100 days, and share your process. It’s had a powerful effect on her; I’m immediately excited.
Several months ago, when Josh had just left, my therapist asked me if I wanted to do some kind of a creative project to explore the theme of being on my own. I took a bunch of photographs, but at the time I was myopic in my grief—they all ended up reflecting the absence of Josh. I couldn’t manage to photograph anything but the hole where he used to be: a bed too big, dinner with an empty chair, my ringless left hand, my body untouched, a family portrait with a member missing. After a few weeks, I hung up the project—there was just too much grief in the way of exploring what might grow in the new space.
Today, after hearing about the 100 Days Project, I feel a little more hopeful that I can actually explore not only what’s painful, but also what’s wonderful about this new place of being alone. That I can engage in a daily practice of exploration and capturing of what it means to be truly solitary.
I decide to use both writing and photographs to record my thoughts as I’m learning and growing and integrating, but I also want to capture that which can’t be addressed in words. Photography has always been a visceral, powerful medium for me, starting back in high school when I would spend hours in the darkroom, focused on ushering my inner vision into the world in a concrete way. Together, I decide, the words and pictures will help me chart my journey for the next 100 days.
I call it: 100 Days of Solitude.
Part 1: Focus
Developing a picture in a darkroom is a timeless experience. The feeling that you get when you first see an image appear on a once blank sheet of paper is magical.
The first step is to place the negative of your chosen image into the enlarger. Sharpen the focus of the image and frame it.
The Journey Begins
You are not a drop in the ocean.
You are the entire ocean in a drop.
It’s as if it’s raining and I have no idea where the hell I’m going, but I’m driving forward anyway. I have no choice.
I’ve been on a certain trajectory for a long time. I met Josh and finished college and got married and went to graduate school and had babies and pursued a career. We raised our four kids, including the teen we adopted, and I’d felt a mixture of sadness and excitement when pondering their pending departure to college.
I’d miss them deeply, no doubt, but Josh and I had our best times when it was just the two of us, so there was retirement and travel to look forward to. Josh always said: when we’re old and retired we can rent a Winnebago and drive all over the U.S. together. Gum each other’s genitals in the bed in back, he’d say. We’d laugh, imagining.
But evidently that wasn’t to be. Instead, I’m now companionless. My life is no longer on that trajectory; any trajectory for that matter, with the exception of launching my kids. Now life seems to be about realizing the permanence of instability. It’s painful but it’s a real gift—it invites all possibilities. I think maybe being in relationship with myself, my life and, ultimately, “God” (Higher Power, the Great Mystery of the Universe, Nature, whatever you want to call it) may be fundamentally about not knowing anything. This is disorienting and scary, but profoundly liberating.
In this new place, the act of tending to me, and living life with integrity to myself, is most important. I’m committed to this, but I don’t have a lot of practice doing it. In fact, as I learn how, it all feels pretty awkward. Eventually I would like to do it with grace and ease.
In the meantime, my therapist says I have to do it anyway. To practice. That eventually it will become second nature—as I grow in courage to live my own life fully, I will be able to navigate the world with more and more ease.
I have plenty of role models—people in my life who have chosen to live a unique life. My mother’s art is dissimilar to any other art I’ve seen. My brother Zachary has lived in India for the past 20 years, 15 of them in an ashram in the Himalayas. My lifelong friend Isabelle has chosen to be a single mother by choice. I aspire to that kind of courage.
I’m disoriented. It’s only been a few months that I’ve been unpartnered, and a mere year and a half since my mental health crisis, but it feels good to be stepping into my life differently. I don’t need anyone to have an amazing life. I’ve always known this. Yet I’ve always been partnered—I met Josh when I was 19 and had barely left home, so how could I know if I could be deeply fulfilled and happy, partner or not?
So here I am, today. Figuring it out. If I want lovers, I can get lovers. If I desire to remarry, I can marry again. If I desire to go out dancing or spend hours alone or start a new career or write 10 books or take a stunning photograph or be there for my kids, I can. Intimate connection or great conversation or whatever I need in order to fully manifest in this world as myself, I can have and do. I own all possibilities.
I’m curious and excited to explore how that will look and feel. To not have a partner as central to my being. To be uncoupled. To be solo and yet invite play and sensuality, and to trust it won’t interfere with my solitude. And what exactly does it mean to be in solitude, to be alone? Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours—that is what you must be able to attain.” It’s a little scary, but I’m excited to get to know this solitude—me, fully, in interconnection with myself. To know my fullest creative potential in this life.
I’m ready to find that. To dive inside and open out to the world all at once. To stand alone in the rain in the middle of the street, arms outstretched, mouth wide open, catching the drops on my tongue.
It’s only day two, but I already feel the excitement within the slow start of progress. Still, the past has a way of coming back to haunt us—I only pray that, in remembering, it will heal me instead.
18 months prior
It’s a Tuesday morning. I’m at the gym when I begin to cry. Sitting on a mat in the stretching room—eye level with the yoga balls and resistance bands, the empty exercise bikes standing at attention nearby—the tears start suddenly for no apparent reason. So strange; I’m not a crier. At all.
Even in the midst of this crying, my years working as a psychologist means I can’t turn off my diagnostic mind. Uh oh, this is what mental illness looks like. There are too many mirrors in this room. I pull out my phone and search contacts for my friend Michael. He and his wife are good friends of mine; his family is my family and vice versa. Michael is also an excellent physician and super smart. He is an internist, not a psychologist, but I feel he will know what I’m going through—he is recently on the other side of a very deep and serious depression. I think about texting him but a conversation feels too much. I think to email him, but I’m afraid to impose.
I decide to email him anyway because if anyone would understand, he would.
I’m thinking maybe I’m not doing so well. Do you think maybe we could go for a walk sometime? Like maybe this weekend?
I go home and ask my husband Josh to come into the bedroom with me, out of earshot of the kids getting ready for school. Between the three teens we gave birth to and the one we adopted earlier this year (a friend of my daughter’s who needed a stable, loving home), mornings can be a little hectic. He leaves the bustle of the kitchen where he was making coffee and follows me down the hall. We sit down, side-by-side on the edge of our giant bed, which takes up most of our small bedroom.
I take a deep breath. “I think I may be suffering from Clinical Depression,” I say.
“That doesn’t sound good, Sam,” he says with warmth and concern, his typical understatedness makes me smile, a little.
“No,” I say, “it’s not good.”
His eyes meet mine and I can see his concern, his furrowed brow. He puts his hand on my knee. “Is there anything I can do?”
Because I’m a therapist, I’ve gone through the diagnostic checklist in my head: depressed mood, diminished interest and pleasure in activities, insomnia, diminished ability to think, thoughts of death. Yup, I meet five of the criteria.
I look at his strong, athletic, and graceful form for a moment. “Can I have a hug?” I ask.
I have no memory of the next day, except that it was a Wednesday. My journal entry simply says: “Came undone in therapy room with Aaron.”
I assume that there was nothing unprofessional about my conduct—that the unraveling was internal. It’s rare that anyone would notice if I’m having a hard time. I’m typically so high functioning. However, since I also wrote: “Barely made it through rest of sessions. Barely.” I’m guessing that I was not the most effective therapist that day. After 20-plus years of practice, I was probably passable. But passable isn’t great.
When I get home, I cancel all my Thursday sessions via email. I can’t breathe. I am alone and drowning and I can’t swim and the water is dark and vast and there is no bottom.
I won’t be in on Thursday, I’m not feeling well.
I email Michael again. I make myself. It’s so hard for me to ask for help, I’m afraid to be a burden. But he hasn’t responded at all and that seems strange.
I could totally understand if you don’t want to see me, if it would be too much. I just was thinking maybe you didn’t get my email? I’m still not doing so well.
He writes back immediately.
What email? Why would you think I don’t want to see you? I’m coming over tomorrow. What time works?
It’s Friday. Somehow between Josh and I, the kids get to school in the morning. It helps that they are teens and can largely take care of themselves, but it’s still similar to herding cats. In truth, I cannot face the day. I want to crawl out of my skin. I’m filled with anxiety; even now I can’t help but give it a clinical label, even though it doesn’t help, doesn’t describe it well—the truth is, I can’t breathe. I’m sitting in the living room staring into space.
Michael comes over to the house. Josh answers the door and lets him in, then goes back to his office to work.
“It’s a beautiful day,” Michael says. “Let’s go for a walk.” He is slightly taller than me, —with medium length curly hair and an athletic build—exercise is always a recommended remedy from him.
“Can we just sit?” I ask. “I’m not feeling well.”
He has brought me flowers, and a book. I can recognize the flowers are supposed to be beautiful, but I can’t see the beauty. I offer him tea. I make some for both of us. We sit facing each other on the couch in my living room. The sun streams in through the windows next to us, making the steam from our cups visible. My sweet little dog Muppet jumps up on the couch with me. I pet her absentmindedly.
“What’s going on?” he asks.
“I’m not doing so well, Michael.” I begin to cry. I’m afraid I might not stop. I feel I don’t belong in my own body, but I can’t get out. I set the tea down and cradle my face in my hands. “In my head I know I have a beautiful life— good marriage, three wonderful kids plus an awesome bonus kid, a successful career, a home. But instead of feeling grateful, I have a powerful urge to run away and not come back.”
“Are you feeling suicidal?”
“I don’t feel like harming myself, but for months I’ve been hoping that I’ll be diagnosed with cancer. I’m not desiring death, I just want to be too sick to do anything.”
He asks me about my symptoms, then says, “How is it to get out of bed in the morning?”
“I get out of bed in the morning.” You’re a psychologist, you know what he’s asking. Tell him the whole story. “I get out of bed, but the truth is, I’m not sleeping so great. I have actually been up since 3am, every day. For months.”
“Why are you waking up?”
To answer truthfully feels scary and relieving all at once; I haven’t spoken with anyone about any of this. I’ve just soldiered on, in my usual way, quietly and without anyone noticing. “Well, some of it is hot flashes. They’re killing me. But then I can’t go back to sleep. I’m thinking about my patient, over and over.” I’m ruminating. There’s that clinical voice again; wish I could turn it off.
“I have been a daily support person for him as we work through his trauma— sometimes just a check-in, sometimes a session that’s several hours.”
“Every day?” he asks in disbelief. “Are you insane?”
“He has very serious trauma and huge trust issues…I’ve been working with him a long time and lately we’ve been working intensively. For a number of months. I wanted to have a team do this intensive work but he didn’t trust anyone else. Maybe it’s getting to me.”
The truth is it’s become toxic. The work with Aaron is crushing me.
Michael asks more questions. He’s my friend, but I’ve also asked him to come over because he’s a doctor and has studied mental illness, and lived it. I love Josh and he loves me, but he wouldn’t know what to ask; what to do.
I tell Michael I had to stop practicing yoga six months ago due to a shoulder injury. Yoga had been my almost-daily sanctuary; my exercise, my source of endorphins, my release. This has affected my mood profoundly. But also, I am stuck in place professionally. My work has started to feel meaningless.
He takes notes. He asks more questions. I try to answer each one honestly.
“You need to stop working every day,” he says, looking me straight in the eyes with deep concern.
“I don’t know if I can. We are still in the middle of some powerful trauma work. My patient is very dependent on me right now.”
“This is serious, Sam. This is not about this one patient; you may need to stop working completely for a while.”
“Michael, my family is dependent on my income. I’m the main breadwinner. And there’s no pay for time off.”
“I believe you have major depression with suicidal thoughts and anxiety. I’m going to lay out with you what I think needs to happen.”