10 things Catholics (and others) should know about therapy

For World Mental Health Day, I’ve updated a thing I wrote a few years ago. It’s all still true! And since then, other members of my family have started seeing therapists, too. We’re so dang mentally healthy around here, I don’t even recognize us.  

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I’ve been seeing a therapist for several years now. I make a point of mentioning it because a lot of Catholics (and others!) are resistant to the idea of therapy. I understand much of that resistance, so I thought I’d share my experience. Here are some basic observations:

1. Therapy is not a replacement for confession or spiritual direction. You may end up addressing the same behaviors in both therapy and confession or spiritual direction, but you’ll learn different things about where they come from and how to deal with them. If you go to therapy, it doesn’t mean you think you’re not responsible for your actions. It means you’re serious about trying to change them.

2. At the same time, therapy is not incompatible with Catholicism – or it shouldn’t be. Ideally, they should dovetail. In my case, I’d made no progress trying to conquer certain behaviors through prayer and confession, so I turned to therapy to help me learn practical ways to do it.

3. It’s far better to see a good therapist who doesn’t know much about your Faith than it is to see a faithful Catholic who’s a second-rate therapist. I went in with the idea that I’d listen with an open mind to whatever my therapist could offer, and I’d do the job of filtering out whatever was incompatible with my faith, and I’d integrate whatever was compatible. Once I got to know and trust the fellow, I let him know that I felt defensive about my Faith, and that I was afraid that he’d see my religion as something to be cured – that he’d see my big family and my spiritual obligations as the things that were dragging me down.

He said that it’s true that some therapists see religion as an unhealthy thing, and they may or may not be aware that they have this prejudice; but he said that most of the good therapists he knows will want to treat the whole person, and that includes their spiritual life; so he encouraged me to be more open about matters touching on religion. I have done this, and it’s worked out well.

This makes sense, because I have made a deliberate effort to integrate my faith into every aspect of my life, so it’s not as if I can compartmentalize it anyway.

At the same time, occasionally bringing up matters of faith with someone who doesn’t share my religion has made me examine pretty closely what I really believe and why. It’s all been to the good, even if it was an uncomfortable and somewhat frightening experience. 

4. Therapy is not for losers. Knowing there’s a problem and not going for help is stupid. Knowing there’s a problem and going for help is what adults do, for their own sakes, and for the sakes of the people they live with. 

5. Of course it’s hard to get started. Important things usually are. It is hard to make the first phone call, especially if you have to make lots and lots of phone calls, and explain over and over again that you need help, until you find someone who is taking new patients and accepts your insurance. Just keep calling. Set a goal per day – say, six phone calls – and just keep plowing through. If possible, if you need it, ask someone to make the phone calls for you. Just get the ball rolling.

6. Don’t assume you can’t possibly afford it. Therapy might be covered by your insurance, or they might offer a sliding scale fee structure, so at least make some calls and find out. If you call an office that does not take your insurance, ask them if they can recommend someone who does. Also ask at your parish. There may possibly be some grant money available. 

7. You might not find the right therapist at first. Give it several sessions, and if things seem really off, it’s completely normal and useful to say so and try someone else. The whole point of this is to help you, and if it’s not helping, then what are you doing?

I was set to see a therapist for an introductory visit, and she didn’t return my phone calls, and then left a message saying she would call back, and then didn’t. So I fired her before I even met with her. If I want to get treated like crap, I can just hang out with my four-year-old at home for free.

8. Therapy isn’t magic. You have to actually do the things throughout the rest of the week. Just showing up for your appointments isn’t going to help anything.

9. Even when it’s working, it takes a while. Things often get harder before they get easier. It’s normal to have ups and downs, and it’s normal to regress at a certain point. You should be seeing some progress at some point, but don’t expect to be on a dazzling upward trajectory from day one.

10. Therapy is smarter than you think, smarty.  So give it a chance, even if your therapist uses words or ideas that sound goofy at first. If you have a decent therapist who seems intelligent, responsive, and respectful, then keep an open mind.

I had a hard time, for instance, getting over the word “mindfulness.” I was like, “But I do not balance crystals on my forehead when I get overwhelmed by yoga pants shopping, so get away from me with your mindfulness nonsense!” Well, it happens that I went in for help changing some behavior that I do out of habit, that I do without thinking, and that I do when I feel like I’m not in control of my responses. So guess what I’m working on? Mindfulness. La di dah.

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If you’ve had a good (or a bad) experience with therapy, what would you add? What would you like your fellow Catholics to know?

Image via MaxPixel (Creative Commons)

You are not dead. You are waiting.

One winter vacation when I was in college, I went with my mother to a charismatic healing Mass. You could say that I had been “struggling” with depression, but that’s not really the word. I lived there.  I was being swallowed whole by it, day after day, and I could not get out. Wherever people led me, I would go, whether they liked or loved me, hated me, or just found me useful. So I went with her to ask for healing, not with hope, but just because it couldn’t hurt.

The service was emotional—tacky, to be honest— and while the priest was fervid, the scattered congregation sounded sheepish and forced as they softly hooted and called “Amen!” into the chilly air of the church.

We lined up and the priest recited some words of healing—I forget them utterly—over each of us.  Then he gave every forehead a firm shove, to put us off balance in case the Holy Spirit wanted to overcome anyone.  A few people crumpled and passed out, snow melting quietly off their boots onto the tiled floor.  Most of us just staggered a bit under the pressure, recovered, stepped around the fallen, and went back to our seats.

Well, I thought, another dead encounter with dead people in a dead world.  I slid into my pew.  Nothing had changed because nothing could change.  I was dead, and everyone else was allowed to be alive.  Why?  Who knows?  Someone had been sent for help, but help would not come.  Help was not for me.

And then I heard these words in my head, “You made Me wait.  Now you can wait for a while.”  They were not my words.  The tone was warm, a little sad, with a small vein of humor.  I think I was being teased, chided for taking so long to send for help.  You like games, talitha?  All right, I will play.  Now, wait.

Then I went home. Nothing happened, that I could see.

Years later, I thought of that day as I read Tomie dePaola’s The Miracles of Jesus with my four-year-old daughter.  She listened attentively, but I could see that most of the wonders didn’t impress her much.  In these short narratives, some kind of grown-up problem is introduced—and then poof, God solves it, The End.

I think she saw Jesus acting more or less like all adults act:  making good things appear arbitrarily, making sick people feel better, occasionally being cranky and strange, and wishing people would say “thank you” more often.  It was cool, but it didn’t mean much to her. They were miracles, not the kind of thing that happen in real life.

Jairus’ daughter, however, really got her attention—probably because it was about a child, and also because it was a full story, with suspense, despair, and a happy ending, plus the hint of a full life to come.

Jesus hears the news that the girl was sick, but He isn’t teleported to her bed. He walks, one foot in front of the other, on His way to her.  And when He gets there, it’s too late. Her family is weeping; the girl, the poor little thing who wanted to be healed, is already dead.

My daughter got very quiet at this point.  We read on:

“But Jesus said, ‘Do not weep.  She is not dead.  She is asleep.’
And the people only laughed at him, knowing that she was dead.

She looked at me with big eyes.  They laughed at Jesus!

Jesus took her by the hand and said, ‘Child, arise.’
And her spirit returned and she got up at once.  Then Jesus told them to give her something to eat.”

At this point, my daughter hurled herself at me and gave me a big, squeezing hug. She got that part!  She knows about being sad, needing help, waiting far too long, being rescued, and then having something to eat, because all these ups and downs make you hungry.  And then life goes on, once you have been saved.  Here was a miracle she could appreciate—the kind that’s part of a story.

I got it, too, because I knew that story. I had been that girl. And I had heard that voice. It was a long time, and a lot of steps, before my slow rescue from the dead came up to the speed where it was recognizably healing, recognizably a wonder. But I never forgot the words I heard, telling me that help was on the way. That I wasn’t really dead; I was waiting.

If you have ever lived inside a black hole; if you have moved about the world enclosed in a dome of sound proof glass, with no voices but your own voice, which you hate above all other sounds in the world; if you have felt so bad for so long that you don’t even want life to get better, you just want it to be over—then you will understand that it was very, very good to hear this voice that simply said, “You are not dead. You are only sleeping. And I am on my way.”

I was not merely sitting in that cold pew, it told me. I was sitting and waiting.  Someone was with me; or at least, someone was on the way.  I was happy to wait.  I was happy!  This was new.

That was how I began to be healed, more than twenty years ago.  It was a long road of waiting, after I began to be healed.  It is a long road.  I’ve been in therapy for over three years, and now I’ve started spiritual direction. I don’t know what is next. The road keeps getting longer, to be honest, and every time I think I am finally healed, I see that I am not, not yet. But I can see Christ better and better as He approaches, step by step. My healing started when I asked Him, without hope, for healing.

That is what our breath is for: To call out for help. As long as we still have breath in us, we are not dead, we are only sleeping.  We are not alone; we are waiting for Christ to arrive.

Can you wait a little longer? You are not dead. You are waiting.

 

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Related reading: I thought good Catholics didn’t need therapy. Then I went.

Mindfulness, meet my bumper

Don’t shoot those helicopters down

Ten things about therapy

Passing through the moor

When you are sad, cry.

Don’t you realize comedy is a matter of life and death?

Faith, reason, depression, and help

A version of this essay originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2011.

 

 

 

Does Your Child Need Professional Help? You Can Do This.

All parents, sooner or later, come up against a problem they can’t solve. This is where we recall that parenting is about self-sacrifice, and sometimes it’s our pride that needs sacrificing. Your child is more important than your self-image. Your job is to fight for him or her, and that includes enlisting help.

Read the rest of my latest for Parable magazine.

Image by Alon via Flickr  (Creative Commons)

How to celebrate World Mental Health Day like the crazy bitch you are

On a bus? It’s only courteous to apologize to everyone for the noise your head is making.

Primal scream therapy has been largely debunked. Instead, try emptying your mind, relaxing your muscles, opening your throat, and then, for as long as you can sustain it, make a noise like a wabbit*. I think you’ll find it immensely liberating (for other people).

Throw glitter on people, so they will understand what a strong person you are! Or something! I don’t know, I saw it on a meme.

If you can’t find your pants, simply stand in the middle of the house and shout, “PANTS! PANTS! PANTS! PANTS! PANTS!” until someone comes running with your pants. I know you’ll think I’m just saying this because it was on a TV show, and you’re right; but on the other hand, it actually works. It sometimes takes a while, e.g.. when no one else is home, but this is when persistence counts.

Hey, why don’t you smoke a lot of pot? That will help! Smart smart smart!

Those “hippe-dippie” calming mantras are actually surprisingly effective, and can really ease anxiety and restore your sense of peace and proportion. Just be sure you have found one that is completely unique to you. If you accidentally use someone else’s mantra, they will know, and — you know what, nothing bad will happen, probably. It’s just something to keep in mind. You know what, it’s probably fine. Don’t worry about it.

Break into your therapist’s office after hours and hang up all his friggin’ pictures. The Ansel Adams and the generic tree landscape, and that dreadful framed inspirational poster with the kayak, that have all been leaning up against the wall since your intake visit, marking the spot where they are supposed to be hung. And also the clock that always shows 9:53, with the unopened package of batteries balanced on top of it. Seriously. Is this just to make you feel more sane in comparison, or what? Is this some kind of social experiment? Is that even ethical? Why 9:53???

When did you last eat something? Fingernails doesn’t count. Geez, go have a spoonful of peanut butter and then we can figure out if existence is really empty and meaningless or not. I’m not saying it’s not. I’m just saying, have some peanut butter.

Always remember: It’s okay to shoot your TV screen for saying “Flappity flippers!” one more time. You warned it.

*(“WABBIT!!! WABBIT! WABBIT!”)

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Image: Asiir at English Wikipedia (Asiir) [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Check out my segment on the Jesuitical podcast!

I chatted with the delightful Ashley McKinless and Olga Segura about Catholicism and mental health.

Talking about mental health isn’t easy. And when you throw faith into the mix it often becomes even harder. Many Catholics mistakenly think that needing mental health treatment amounts to a kind of spiritual failure. This week, we talk with writer Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, about how she learned to balance her Catholic faith and therapy.

You can hear and download the podcast that includes many other topics of interest to Catholics.

Marriage advice that’s great . . . for toddlers

Ah, June, when the internet is awash with advice about marriage — most of it lousy.

Either it assumes that men and women are puppets in a simple story, rather than complex human beings who are learning how to love each other; or else it applies to some marriages but by no means all; or else it’s really good advice . . . for parents dealing with toddlers.

Here are a few bits of marriage advice that work great for a toddler-parent relationship, but is awful advice for a marriage:

Never go to bed angry.

For little kids, sure. I believe in soft landings at bedtime. No child learns lessons when he’s exhausted — and most parents don’t teach good lessons when they’re exhausted, either. Bedtime is time for a hug and as much affirmation as you can muster. If your kid has been a louse all day long, bedtime is still time to say, “I love you,” and maybe remind yourself that your kids isn’t always an irrational demon. Tomorrow you really can start again.

But marriages are more complex. If you suffered a minor annoyance before bed, then yes, you can decide, “Meh, I’ll shake this off and give my love a kiss, because the major good in our marriage overrides the minor bad.” Sometimes the reason you’re angry is because it’s time to go to bed, and a good night’s sleep will set everything to rights.

But if there’s something actually worth being angry about, you’re not going to work through it after a long day when you’re both exhausted and not thinking clearly.

Most marriages go through rough spells, and going to bed angry isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, spouses will wake up in the morning, feel rested, and decide to apologize, or at least they feel more ready to address the problem in a constructive, loving way.

Or sometimes they will realize, “I’ve been angry for twelve years, and I don’t want to live like this anymore. Time to make some changes.” This can’t happen if you paste on a contented smile just because you now have pajamas on.

Just open up and express what’s bothering you if you want things to change.

For little guys? Oh lort, just tell me what is wrong and I will fix it. Or if I can’t fix it, I will read you Frog and Toad so you forget about it.  Here, have a bit of chocolate from my secret stash. I’m glad you told me what is wrong. I would be upset, too. I love you.

It’s not that simple between spouses, though. Oh, don’t suffer endlessly in silence. No one, husband or wife, should offer themselves up as an open sewer for whatever the other spouse wants to dump.

But it’s also not useful to allow an endless stream of complaint to flow from your lips. Listen to yourself. Do most of your words reflect the true nature of your experience of your marriage? Or are you super devoted to being “honest and open” when it comes to the bad, but suddenly stoic and self-contained when it comes to the good?

Expressing anger and frustration day in and day out is more likely to shut down communication than to open it, whether your unhappiness is justified or not. One of the reasons I finally started seeing a therapist was because I didn’t know how to tell the difference between big problems and little problems, and even when I could tell, I didn’t know how to adjust my response accordingly.

Being honest isn’t the same as opening the floodgates. Honesty is also about discernment. It’s less stream-of-consciousness blather and more poetry, in which words and ideas are carefully chosen and balanced to express something true.

Also, some bad spouses just don’t care. You may be doing your level best to express, in as truthful and balanced a way as possible, that your marriage has serious problems, and it may just not work. Communication is vital in marriage, but it’s not magic. It’s only useful when both spouses are willing to listen and willing to make changes.

Just submit to the head of the household and all will be well.

In most toddler-parent relationships? Absolutely. Dear child rolling around on the floor like a maniac, I am bigger and smarter, and I am in charge of you. Just obey. Put clothes on, because it is snowing. Do not put your head in the dentist’s aquarium. Forever forsake the idea of eating that lightbulb, ya little dummy. Submit, and all will be well.

But in most marriages, this crap advice leads to unhappiness, resentment, and even abuse — and it often expands to abuse of children, too, which the wife feels unable to stop, or unwilling to acknowledge. Unquestioning submission lets insecure, immature, un-self-controlled men to treat their families like garbage in the name of godliness, which is just as bad for men as it is for women and children.

Couples who obsess about wives obeying husbands tend to gloss over the extraordinarily heavier burden God lays on men, which is to love their wives as Christ loves the Church (and no, not even St. Paul says that men have to do their part after women do their part, but if she’s being a lippy dame, you are off the hook, being-Christ-wise.)

In loving, functional relationships, it’s not even on the radar, because husband and wife will both be focused on working out what’s best for the family and best for each other, rather than on who’s obeying whom.

Unpopular opinion: Wifely obedience is occasionally useful in loving relationships in times of some forms of extreme crisis. It’s like when the government declares a state of emergency and suspends habeas corpus. It’s not a long-term plan; it’s to get the union through until things can function the way they’re supposed to again; and it’s only a good idea if the leader isn’t a tyrant.

And then there are other forms of extreme crisis that call for the wife not to submit, but instead to extricate herself, at least temporarily, from the idea that she’s in a marriage. When the husband is being abusive or otherwise dangerous, obedience would be wrong; and she is required to simply protect herself and her children.

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Next time you hear some bit of marriage advice that’s popular but rubs you the wrong way, maybe this is the problem: It’s good advice for a parent-child relationship, but completely inappropriate for a marriage between equals who love each other.

What would you add to my list?

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Image: Kewpie bride and groom on Ebay

I thought Good Catholics didn’t need therapy. Then I went.

Sometimes, I have to take my therapist’s words with a grain of salt or filter them through a Catholic lens. More often, I discover that my lifelong spiritual failings are actually emotional wounds. And as they heal, it becomes easier to follow Christ.

Read the rest of my essay for America magazine.

We can’t just decide to stop being afraid, but we can manage it

Most of us realise we’re not supposed to live in a state of constant fear. It isn’t any fun, for one thing; and we can see it leads us to make bad decisions. Jesus came right out and told us, “Be not afraid!”

How, though? Much as we’d like to, we can’t just decide to stop being afraid.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Homemade cake with a side of red herring

 

When I was a new mom, I was the greatest. THE GREATEST. You could tell how great I was because of the ever-growing list of things I was too good of a mom to ever resort to.

I’m not talking about high standards; I’m talking about bonkers standards — things I rejected as lazy or third rate or tacky, for no reason at all. Mainly, it was time-savers and effort-savers that seemed like cheating to me. If something was easy, then that in itself was evidence that it was probably the crap way to do it, and people who take that route were crap moms.

When I had two kids, for instance, I used to sit in silent, scornful judgement of this other mom who would come to Mass five minutes late with her eight girls, and each one of those tragically undervalued waifs had a ponytail in her hair. A ponytail, can you imagine? How the heck do you manage to be late when you haven’t even spent any time at all doing their hair? This so-called “mother” never even reserved a small lock of hair to make into a tiny braid and wrap around the ponytail to hide the rubber band that is color-coordinated with their socks just in case it shows.

My kids, by the way, wanted their hair cut short so it was easy to brush. But they got tiny braids, because I loved them, unlike some moms.

Please visit my GoFundMe, where I’m currently raising funds toward the invention of a time machine. I need to go back twenty years and kick my own ass.

Here are a few things I allow in my house now, because guess what, you haughty, know-nothing, backwards, psychosnob former self? These things make life easier. Tah dah! Life is hard enough without putting extra hurdles in your own path just to prove that you can clamber over them with your martyred smile intact.

Box cakes. Oh yes. We have twelve birthday cakes every year, plus baptism cakes, confirmation cakes, First Communion cakes (first confession gets no cake. No cake!), not to mention “your actual birth date that we want to mark, and then we’ll have a separate cake when we can schedule a party with friends” cakes. No one expects them to taste like much. The important thing is making sure everyone gets their very own edible platform for a giant, flaming message saying, “Hey, we can currently remember your name and we think you’re swell!”

I do know how to bake a real cake. I’ve even baked two towering wedding cakes, one for my own wedding and one for my brother-in-law. You wanna get married, I’ll actually sift some flour for you. Otherwise: Betty Crocker, you’re coming home with me tonight.

Paper Plates. Lots of people use paper plates to get those tough weeks after giving birth, or they blushingly resort to them for a day or so while they’re moving to Finland or something. We use them most days, because they are paper, and you don’t have to wash them, and Fishers come in one size: Swarm.

Sometimes friends will share photos of their unspeakably messy kitchen, with a sink overflowing with dirty dishes. And I’m like, “Bitch, that’s us halfway through pre-breakfast snack.” If Gideon ever came to our house and watched my kids drink, none of them would make the cut, because the little creeps would rather lap out of the faucet than wash a cup, and all the cups are always dirty, and yes, I run the dishwasher twice a day. See: swarm.

If I’m serving soup or spaghetti or something drippy, then we drag out the china (and plastic), but paper plates are the standard. Sorry, environment. It’s just paper. I have faith in you.

Kiddie TV. Sometimes people will ask me, “How do you manage to get your writing done every morning with little kids in the house?” The answer is, “They watch TV.” Sorry. That is how it happens.I love the idea of children roaming wild through wooded dells, or spending idyllic hours mesmerized with nothing a spool of twine and their own imagination, but I don’t currently have the funds to hire an Idyllic Childhood Manager. Netflix, on the other hand, is quite cheap.

They have to get dressed and eat breakfast first, and then they can watch TV for a couple of hours. They don’t complain when it’s time to turn it off, because it’s part of the schedule. I sit in the room with them if possible, but if they’re bugging me, I go hide.

Mr. TV is not on nonstop. I do read to the kids most days (or I get someone else to read to them), and we squeeze in a craft maybe once a week, and they have active play every day, but for keeping the little shriekers occupied for chunk of time, there is nothing like TV. If I feel guilty about it, I toss a doll with a wooden head in their laps while they are watching Barbie: Life In the Dream House. That makes it Montessori.

Buspar. So, first, I had to get over the idea that you can just power your way through mental illness by trying harder. I needed to bite the bullet and start shopping for a therapist. Therapy is not for losers, or for people who don’t pray enough.
Then I had to get used to the idea that you really can tell your therapist anything, including, “I’ve made tons of progress with you, but I’ve hit a wall,” and I need to call my other doctor and see what kind of drugs are out there, to give me a leg up. Drugs are not for people too lazy to do the work of therapy.
Then I had to get used to the idea that all drugs have a trade-off, and if one particular one has outlived its usefulness, or the side effects are too ugly, you might have to try a different one; or, you might have to ask yourself if it makes sense to see how you do without any drugs, but not in the same way as you did before you got used to the idea that it was okay to take drugs.
Then, I had to get used to the idea that even people who have made tons of progress have bad days, and sometimes All The Things You’ve Learned aren’t making you calm the hell down so you can have a normal evening at home with your family. So you pop a couple of pills that settle down your brain, and make it possible for you to identify the walls of your life as not currently caving in around you.

And it works, and there is not a damn thing wrong with it, because the goal is to be able to live your life.

And that’s what it all boils down to. What makes it possible to live the life you want and need and ought to live?  I started this post out as a lighthearted “Bad moms unite! Whatcha gonna do!” kind of thing, but now I think I have something to say.

It’s a good thing to have standards. But it’s a bad thing to assume that “difficult” is the same as “virtuous.” Sometimes, we put obstacles in our own paths as way of proving our worth or our dedication. Difficulties, even unnecessary ones that we choose for ourselves, can make us stronger or keep us from sliding into apathy or mediocrity; but they can also be a wonderful red herring that distract us from pursuing our true vocations.

It’s not about lowering our standards. It’s about remembering that standards aren’t ends in themselves. They’re there to help us achieve our goals; and if they’re not doing that, then it’s time to discard them.

So it’s a good thing to have standards, but it’s also a good thing to step back and reassess our standards from time to time. What am I actually trying to achieve? Is it a worthy goal? Are my standards actually helping me do what I need to do, or am I keeping them around mainly out of vanity, or a desire to punish myself, or a desire to prove something that no one actually cares about? Or even just out of habit? Do my standards fit my current, actual life, or have I moved past them? If I choose to do some things the hard way, is it really a personal choice, or am I making life harder for the people around me, too?

And wouldn’t you rather have pie? Because I make a killer apple pie, with homemade crust with this special technique I learned. See, an hour earlier, you take the butter, and you put it . . . no? You really want Betty Crocker Red Velvet cake, decorated with frosting from a can? That’s what would make you feel happy?

Can do.

***
Image: By Lupo [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mindfulness, meet my bumper

road-meditation

This morning, I dropped off the high school kids and was slowly working my way around the building to get back on the road. I was headed to my therapy appointment next, so I mused as I coasted, plotting out what to say about the past week.

To my delight, I realized that I had mostly good things to report. Maybe it doesn’t look like it from the outside, but on the inside, I’m doing really well.  A year ago, I reminded myself, I would have done unhealthy and useless such-and-such, but now I’m more likely to do sensible and productive thus-and-so. A year ago, I would have been all bogged down in nonsense X, but now I’m working my way steadily through manageable plan Z. Why! I marvelled in my head, I’m even getting better at that mindfulness stuff!

“BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAPPPPP-GGGNNNNNAAAAAAAAA-guhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguh-guhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguh,” said the van.

A horrible, scraping, flapping, grinding sound from the front end, the kind of sound that makes your heart drop right out of your chest.

My initial diagnosis was that the engine had broken into two halves which were angrily trying to crush each other into rubble. Or possibly the transmission had fused and was fixing to explode. Not a healthy sound. I pulled over as quickly as I could, parked, and dragged myself out of my seat, cold with dread, preparing my eyeballs to find that the front end had spontaneously crumpled itself into a smoking, oily ruin.

I . . . had hit a pylon.

A big old fluorescent orange traffic pylon, about three feet high, and it was wedged under the front bumper, and was dragging on the pavement. That’s it. I have no idea where it came from because, duh, I didn’t see it. I was too busy thinking about how good I was at mindfulness.

I tried to pull the pylon it out, but it was pretty stuck. So I got back in the van, backed up a bit, got out, and yanked it out. I sheepishly threw it into the passenger seat, drove around front of the building, punched on the hazards, tossed the pylon out onto the grass, and got the hell out of there before anyone recognized me.

(Because no one recognizes the dented white 15-passenger van with the peeling blue racing stripes and the raggedy pro-life bumper stickers on it, no sir. Completely anonymous. No one will harass my kids about it, definitely not.)

Yeah. So. Mindfulness! I’m ever so good at it, on the inside.

I wasn’t really wrong. It has been a very productive year. I have lots of hope and even some confidence about the future, I feel at peace most of the time, and I have much more interior freedom than I’ve ever had.

Therapy has been literally a game-changer for me. So much of my life has been taken up with all-consuming mental and emotional games that I didn’t really want to play, but which I didn’t know how to quit. I knew I wasn’t happy, and I knew I was making other people unhappy, but I was afraid that getting healthier would mean losing my identity. I wasn’t crazy about my personality, but, well, it was me. It was what I had, all I knew. Even if the ground I was travelling was unpleasant and rocky, I didn’t really fancy jumping off a cliff into the blind mist.

Well, it hasn’t been like that. I’m still myself. I’m more myself than I used to be. The mental illness of lifelong anxiety and depression were not, are not the real me. I’m closer now to being the real me than I used to be. I still have ups and downs, and I still have plenty of work to do. I don’t always act the way I want to; but at least I feel like I have a choice in how I respond to the world.I’m not on any drugs, because I don’t need them right now. It’s been a very good year.

Does it seem this way from the outside, to people who know me and live with me? I have no idea. For all I know, the rest of the world still sees me driving around like an idiot with an orange pylon wedged under my bumper, and it’s only by good luck that it is just a pylon, and not a puppy dog or a crossing guard. I hope that my work with therapy has made life easier or better for people who have to live and work with me, but I am not sure.

Either way, it’s been worth it.

I’m telling you in case you need the encouragement to make that phone call (or several phone calls). Get a good therapist, be honest, do the work, be persistent, and your ride through life will get a lot smoother in the best possible way. You’ll still be in the driver’s seat, and even if you do have to drive off a cliff at some point, you won’t be in free fall forever, I promise. If you stick with it, you will still be yourself. More yourself.

On the inside, anyway. On the outside? Just keep an eye open for crossing guards, I guess. But you can do it! And it will be worth it.

Here’s more of what I’ve written about going to therapy and about taking an SSRI.

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Image: “Road Meditation” by Nickolai Kashirin via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A note about the photo: I am not saying that I would have hit this chick with my van on purpose, but I am saying that if I did hit her, it definitely would have been on purpose. That’s the magic of mindfulness!