I have launched a new blog called, “xo, O”. I will be pouring out my insides in pursuit of love. If you want to know what wonderful and messy things happen in this woman’s world, please subscribe!
Learn more about my new blog here.
I have launched a new blog called, “xo, O”. I will be pouring out my insides in pursuit of love. If you want to know what wonderful and messy things happen in this woman’s world, please subscribe!
Learn more about my new blog here.
In December, I decided to take a break from my counseling internship to focus on me, my health. I want to be a therapist. I want to be as present and supportive and attentive to people as possible. When meeting with clients last quarter (my first quarter of internship), I realized that I had so much going on personally. (And on top of everything, I have depression and anxiety, so those were being triggered big time). Too much going on. When my clients talked about their thoughts, emotions, frustrations, dreams, fears…I thought about mine.
With one client, I wanted to commiserate. “Yes! I feel that way too!” She would say, “I feel like I’m not worthy, like I don’t deserve what I’ve been given.” My intent ‘therapist’ self would counter with questions and reflections to assist in guiding her to see that she has earned, (and was not simply given), the admirable and hard-won things in her life. She is worthy. She doesn’t believe she does, but she has so much value.
All the while, my non-therapist voice would say, “Fraud. You know exactly what she’s feeling and you feel that way too.” I just wanted to talk to her as a friend. Share my struggles so she didn’t feel so alone. I wanted to vent and get things off my chest. Share a bottle of wine with her. But that’s not what therapists are trained to do. That’s not what therapists are paid to do.
So I chose to take a step back. Figure things out a bit more and build patterned behaviors and skills to better position myself to be the most effective and supportive therapist I can be. Because every person deserves that. Myself included. I deserve to treat myself well so that I can be with others when I am at my best, or at least, when I know I am more ready and capable than I was. Because I’m capable. I’m definitely capable. That’s not a question. I’m just human. And I have things to work on. And that takes time. And I’m taking it. For me. And for whomever else ends up on the other end of the sessions I can’t wait to have with people. They deserve the best of me. I deserve the best of me.
Well, 2015. This is it. It’s been a year, hasn’t it? I’m not gonna lie. You’ve been difficult. A real bitch at times. Cancelled wedding. Death of a friend. Moving away from Meowster Thumbs McGee. Endings of relationships in so many ways… and tumbled and tangled betwixt all of that, depression and anxiety visited. They’re good at that – visiting. Those loyal old friends.
2015, as you bid your farewells, I realize how suffocated I’ve felt throughout the year. Looking back, it seems like I spent the year gasping for air and grasping for respite in deep, calming breaths. Some days, it felt as though, with each step, I sank steadily into a sandpit sludge of shame, guilt, insecurity, disappointment, fear, and quadruple-guessing. (Though, this unsettling swirl of emotions also loomed on the many days I lay supine – taking actual steps not necessary.)
But, as time ticks on, 2015. I am thankful. Thank you for kicking my ass when I needed it. Thank you for encouraging me to continue to learn and to grow. Thank you for putting me first.
You never invited in hopelessness. You offered up pain as a platter of opportunity for gaining wisdom. You inspired me to seek alternate perspectives. You told me to trust my gut, especially when it felt ‘wrong’ (translation: unfamiliar or different, not wrong or right). You inspired me to seek out more of myself and to honor the process of seeking. You reminded me that you are a friend and that you want the best for me, as each year does. I trust your friendship. Thank you for trusting mine.
I’ll give 2016 your regards and we’ll talk about you fondly over a bubbly, sparkling flute of champagne. Thank you, 2015. And Happy New Year.
I fucked up. I made mistakes. I regret them. I am learning from them. I am losing from them. I am dying inside from them. Inside and inside out.
I thought I had figured out more about myself than I have. I thought I had figured out more about you than I have. All of you. But mostly you.
I look for the silver lining without getting carried away. There are shiny things to reach for and hold onto. Forgivenesses wrapped in all the things you don’t want done to you, all the things you don’t want to do to others.
I wade in the sludge of the black inside the silver lines. Before any changes can be made.
When I was little, I spent my weekday evenings in my parent’s room while my Dad lay on the bed reading. Usually his face was hiding behind a newspaper or magazine held up between his clutching hands. I tumbled around as he read, doing handstands at the foot of the bed and cartwheels across the room. I said silly things and asked questions every now and then to get his attention. This was how I spent most of my childhood with my Dad, desperately trying to get him to notice me and make a connection with him.
This yearning for his attention continued and has haunted me throughout my adulthood. As a child, I was able to playfully insert myself into his space, and I wasn’t developmentally aware enough to think to myself, “Hey, my dad’s not paying attention to me. That sucks. He’s my dad, he should be doing what parents are suppose to do!” As I grew into my teen years, my playfulness turned into an anger and frustration that my dad was neglectful and non-responsive. My mom was too, in a different way. Neither of my parents reflected back my feelings or asked what I thought or felt about something. Anything. It’s no wonder that, as a young adult, it was difficult to identify my emotions, much less describe or communicate them aloud.
Through years of therapy and learning Buddhist teachings, including mindfulness, I have explored my inner landscape. I have learned the language of emotion and learned to connect emotion to physical sensation and thought. I wonder how different my growth would have been if I had received therapy as a child. What if I had Cognitive Behavioral Therapy treatment? I would have started drawing my thoughts/emotions/physical sensations map at a much earlier age. In this way, I have been grieving my childhood. I developed a rage around what my life could have been.
I could have dealt with my depression and anxiety earlier in my life. I could have avoided the starts and stops in my life. It probably wouldn’t have taken me 10 years to earn my Bachelor’s degree. I would have applied to graduate school in my twenties instead of my thirties. I could have avoided all of those messy and painful relationships.
These are some thoughts that circled in my head for years. I held on to them, as I held on to my anger toward my parents for not connecting with me in the human way that every child needs from a parent or caregiver. Allowing these thoughts is fine, it’s good to let them flow, but, as Epstein (1998) wrote, “Isolated in our heads, we yearn for the kind of connection that our own thinking guards against” (p. 59). It’s the clinging to the thoughts and not working through the associated emotional and physical sensations bit that keeps us stuck in the mud. “This is…the heart of the Buddha’s teaching: that it is possible to cultivate a mind that neither clings nor rejects, and that in so doing we can alter the way in which we experience both time and our selves” (p. 62). This is also true of therapeutic work. By assisting clients with exploring, identifying, and describing their emotional experience, we guide them in literally changing their brain chemistry. We hold a space in which they can unfurl into themselves and feel more grounded in who they are.
This has been my experience. Through the combination of therapy and meditation and mindfulness practice, I have observed and felt my perspectives change. I have witnessed the growth I have made from emotional reactivity to an emotional regulation based on awareness. I have experienced the shift in relationships and how I view, understand, and connect with people, especially my parents.
I don’t talk with my parents very often and when I do, there is a specific purpose behind it, a question that needs to be answered. Also, I’m not a fan of talking on the phone but a couple of weeks ago I had the urge to call them just to say, “hi.” It was perhaps one of the best conversations I have had with them. I felt as though I talked to my parents for the first time as an adult and as myself. I didn’t trudge through the conversation distracted by the disappointment that my dad didn’t ask about me. I listened to him talk about his fishing and tennis playing. I really listened and I responded with curiosity and playfulness. And I interjected to tell him about my internship not because I was looking for a particular response from him or as a passive-aggressive way to tell him that he was a shitty dad for not asking about his daughter’s life. I told him because I was proud of myself. I am proud of myself. I know that I would not have gotten to this point if I had not tapped into and worked through the unpleasantness of my childhood. Getting in touch with that pain was difficult, torturous at times, but it also motivated me to work through it so that I could let it go. My pain was “an invitation to change” (C. Matsu-Pissot, personal communication, August 1, 2015). It’s an open invitation that I will continue to accept, as I know that this work is never done.
A few years ago I discovered Bikram hot yoga. It is a teacher-led 90 minute series of postures and breathing exercises that take place in a room set at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s intense, to say the least. After my first class, I recall texting my friend who had suggested it to me: “I felt like I was slowly dying.” The combination of the heat, discomfort of contorting and holding my body in ways that felt impossible, and my inside voice trying to talk me into leaving or giving up – wow.
I practiced Bikram yoga for a few years but it fell of my schedule when graduate school began two years ago. Eventually, I made excuses for why I couldn’t go – it’s too much money, I don’t have time. Really, I was scared. After falling out of the rhythm of the practice, I feared facing the discomfort, the discipline, and the internal and external work that the practice demands. Yet, these are exactly the reasons why I was drawn to it, which is why I have integrated it into my life again. I did so while taking this course, so I was especially keyed into the meditative aspect of the practice.
The experience of hot yoga is like the ‘extreme sports’ version of meditation. All realms of human experience – physical, emotional, mental – are pushed to the forefront of our attention and awareness. We willingly engage in the discomfort. We mindfully step into the pain and uncertainty of it. We accept that pain and discomfort are part of the process. Using language from Buddhism, we could say that we invite suffering, but we do so in a way that we become intimate with it. We get to know it and understand it in a way that our pain and our fear of the pain no longer hold us captive. Now, when I notice my mind starting to drum up excuses for why “I can’t make it to yoga today”, I remind myself of the benefits. After each class I feel tremendous relief and accomplishment. I feel in tune with myself on an intimate (and very sweaty) level. The feeling is not unlike when I leave sessions with my therapist. I experience a sense of freedom and grounded-ness.
From a therapeutic perspective, this is what we do with clients. We walk alongside them as they delve into their pain. We remind them of their innate strength and ability to free themselves from the suffering of holding on to their pain. Sometimes we help clients to recognize that there is any pain at all. People often don’t realize that they have been throwing salt on old emotional wounds for years, and in not tending to those wounds, they have been perpetuating their own suffering. Their minds act as a shield to ‘protect’ (more like, avoid) their emotional selves when, in fact, their emotional selves need to be unshielded so that they can get the much needed attention and care. As with meditation, therapy “provides a method of getting the mind out of the way so that [clients] can be at one with [their] experience” (Epstein, 1998, p. 53).
As a therapist-in-training, the meditation and yoga practices are irrefutable in terms of my developing sharper attention and a deeper sense of empathy. The calm and grounding that I receive from these practices, in conjunction with going to therapy regularly, will allow me to be more present with my clients as well as in my day-to-day life. “Like meditation, psychotherapy has the potential to reveal how much of our thinking is an artificial construction designed to help us cope with an unpredictable world” (Epstein, 1998, p. 170). Through meditation or therapy, we can begin to swing the wrecking ball at this artificial construction, and learn to step into the uncertainty of the world armed with the awareness that we can deal with whatever comes our way.
Like a Chinese finger cuff, the more we try to escape or run away from something that brings unpleasantness, the tighter our grip becomes and we end up holding on to it. The finger cuff is made of bamboo strips woven together into a tube, with openings on either end that are big enough to fit the tip of a finger. It is held by inserting the tips of both pointer fingers in each end by a person who is then challenged with removing their fingers, but the more they try to pull their fingers apart, the tighter the finger cuff gets around both fingers. I like to use this metaphor to describe the human tendency to grasp onto what feels uncomfortable, be it feelings, thoughts, or physical sensations. Of course, this grip we hold usually occurs on a subconscious level, which makes it difficult to stop and take the time to ‘loosen up’ and relax so that we can see and begin to work through the unpleasantness.
Much like intimacy or the human connection, the way to escape the finger cuff is to move the fingers inward and toward one another. This allows the finger cuff to ease and expand, allowing the wearer’s fingers to be free. In the same way, creating a human connection, which brings two people closer and allows one to tap into one’s inner world, frees one to identify and observe one’s feelings, emotions, or physical sensations. As writer Gregory Bateson (as cited in Epstein, 1998) pointed out, “It takes two to know one” (p. 102). I love the depth yet simplicity of this sentence. Gaining a mindfulness and appreciation of our inner experience requires the presence of another. Therapists serve as this presence for people. We remain present in people’s presence.
For a while now, I have been thinking of alternate words to describe therapy or counseling, as a way to explain the core purpose and benefit of therapy and alleviate the stigma around it. I have been wondering what other word or explanation to use to sidestep the common association people make between participating in therapy and there being something “wrong” with them. Perhaps this is a word? Presence. As therapists, we are present with our clients, and in a way that the modern world has driven us to forget. Per Epstein (2011), “mindfulness…requires the careful noting of everything that occurs in the mind-body spectrum as it unfolds” (p. 67). As therapists, we help people to “unfold”. As therapists, we assist people to be mindful during this unfolding process. We hold the space with clients in a way that allows them to hone in on their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations as they unfold. We allow people to be who they are. We reflect back who they are.
Modern society incessantly tries to tell us who we are, what we like, what we should or shouldn’t feel, who we should our shouldn’t associate with. The practice of mindfulness in Buddhism and the mindfulness practice inherent in psychotherapy help us to cut through the barrage of bullshit being shoved down our throats. In the documentary, “The Dhamma Brothers,” inmates in a maximum security prison in Alabama participate in a ten-day silent Vipassanna retreat held on prison grounds. One of the men who completed the retreat commented, “We’re not allowed to practice freedom,” when referring to cultural oppression. Societal and systemic oppression have a strong grip that fools and deludes us into unplugging from ourselves. Therapy and the therapeutic relationship counter this oppression and allows us to discover and be who we are.
A recent discovery: Being the linguistic minority is a meditative experience. When I was visiting family with my mom (Ina) in the Philippines, I spent much of my time listening. I have acquired tidbits of my Ina’s dialect since childhood so I can pick up words every now and then, but for the most part, the consonant-heavy percussive conversation sails through one ear and out the other. When I was younger, this experience was annoying. Trying. Bordering on insufferable.
I don’t know what anyone is saying. I feel left out.
(Again), I would think.
But this recent visit was different. The experience. It was meditative. Calm. Rife with lessons to be learned – if I listened.
Engaging in contemplative thought in class and reading the Epstein book constructed a contemplative vessel for the journey. I engaged by listening. I responded to others with looks and smiles. Gestures. Or, sometimes I stepped away to take pictures of pots in kitchens; the ceaseless afternoon rain from the second-story balcony. Silence. Not speaking while in the presence of others engaged with one another in speech, or not speaking while in another room snapping shots – those silences felt similar. It was OK to disengage. It was OK not to know what conversation was unfolding. It was OK to not interject with a comment here-and-there. It was OK. To be where I was. in each and every moment.
While on the trip, I stole 15 min here, 30 min there. To sit – meditate. At some point I made the connection between the two (sitting meditation and meditation while listening to conversation in a foreign language). I watched and listened but allowed the amorphous words to float by as they came and went – as I aim to do with my thoughts when they swirl and bubble up during sittings. Or not during sittings; in the grocery store. While engaged in conversation with an acquaintance. Hearing a song for the first time – the way it digs its hooks into my heart and wins me over before it ends.
Once a thought clutches our brains, our hearts. Sometimes we feel we have to arm-wrestle them away. Sometimes our natural response is to attack. Push. Assume evil or malfeasance. Sometimes silence can elicit these responses. Because silence is foreign, strange, uncommon, boring, uncomfortable, vacuous. This is what we know. But it’s not true.
“We must learn how to be with our feelings of emptiness without rushing to change them.”
“The problem with the Western experience of emptiness [is] that it [is] mixed with so much fear.”
Here’s the thing. I’ve been stumbling through the past couple of years of grad school in the unpredictable and impervious current of depression. I have managed my way through. I’ve stood upright at least once every day. I take my medication with food. I reach out to friends and family sometimes. sometimes. I see my therapist. On the days I want to hide away and bury my head in my cat’s soft, warm tummy, I push myself to walk the 20 feet to the mailbox across the driveway. Other days I run my 3.2 mile route to Meridian and bounce back on the Interurban Trail. Sometimes I force smiles at passersby. Sometimes the smiles are spontaneous. Surprises. they’re real. Felt.
This dichotomous existence of depressed and ‘un-depressed.’ It’s exhaustive. It’s distracting. Its splindle-y fingers like to play with my hair. and tie knots in my clothes. Some days I stick my tongue at depression. And then. again. I find myself at the edge of its undertow. Grabbing my tongue from choking my throat. Clenching my neck from tearing away. In my head, my mush-of-a-brain swirls and squishes out thoughts. black sticky thoughts that barely convince me that I’m not whole and I can’t be. that I’m broken and bruise easily. that I’m not worth the wait and it’s easier to cut loose. that I’m not meant for this world. and it’s not meant for me. it’s not my oyster. it’s not my playground. it’s not my anything.
And in my head, where these wicked mumblings meander through mush. I tap it on the shoulder. scream in its ear. and I say what I always say, “Shut the fuck up!Shut the fuck up!Shut the fuck up!” “You’re not winning.” We’ve had this conversation before.
I’ve been wanting to write about what’s been going on for me for a few weeks now, but have tended to talk myself out of it because (?) Whatever the reason, an unleashing must be unleashed before I can move on to the daunting amount of reading I have to do for school. (Or anything else resembling productivity.)
I’ve hit that point that doctor’s tell you about after you’ve found something that works for you, “Now, the medication may stop working at some point and we’ll have to try something else.”
Wellbutrin has been my magic bean. It has lifted me to life for years. After a while, I started taking Zoloft for anxiety, and the combination was just the potion I needed to manage my depression and anxiety. Over time, the highest dose of Zoloft was no longer effective, so my doctor prescribed Effexor. Voila! It gave me the kick I needed. But. That effect eventually wore away, as well.
Currently, I’m tapering off the Effexor and will slowly introduce Prozac. I have my fingers and toes crossed that this will help me cause this girl needs some relief! I haven’t been feeling terrible. I’m not bed-bound or voraciously eating whatever I can find that is not best for me – two symptoms that are part of my depressive episode experience. I’m functioning. Showering. I wear clean clothes. And ‘outside’ clothes, not just pj’s. I do my homework. And work-work. I read. Post funny things on FB. I play with my cat and call him silly names. I attend social gatherings with friends, sometimes.
I’m not in a melancholic paralysis. I’m not standing in the kitchen, staring at the knives. I’m managing. But I feel like depression’s talons are holding me hostage until I feed it just the right prescriptive concoction. I feel tired. And spacey. My excitement and motivation hit a low ceiling that isn’t there when I feel OK. It’s difficult to focus, to remember, to speak sometimes. Negativity and self-deprecating thoughts squirm in my brain. I question my abilities, my talents. I triple-guess my thoughts, my choices. I worry about my present, my future. Round and round they go:
Though I know these thoughts are poppycock, they’re rubbish. I still feel them. I know they are farce but they still affect me and my behavior. I’m not riding each day with the curiosity, vigor, and creativity in the way that I know I am capable of. And I know these are symptoms. I know this state is temporary. I know I’ll be OK. I know I am OK. I’m not forlorn about my situation. The joy and vitality will emerge.
But it saddens me, as it does from time-to-time, to know that while in-the-moment, I ‘could’ be appreciating this moment more fully. I could be holistically appreciating and taking advantage of these moments more completely, if it weren’t for depression. I know that depression isn’t a part of me, of who I am. It likes to parade around in costume that looks like me. It likes to mimic my voice, my gestures. Steal my thoughts, emotions. I know I’ll win this round, as I have each previous match.
I must be patient. Keep pushing. Keep waking up, taking showers, wearing clothes, clean clothes, clean ‘outside’ clothes, clothes other than pj’s. Keep reading and working. Stay in touch with friends. Play with my ridiculous cat. Water the plants. I haven’t gone anywhere, I’m here. For now, there’s a wicked snickering monkey on my back.