Seeing Myself Gently

Therapy was never what held me together, but I also never thought I'd leave it

After nearly 30 years of therapy — with a single, excellent, attentive, and intelligent therapist I was lucky to find straight out of the gates — I am retiring as a patient of hers. That seems like maybe it would be a big deal, but in the most logical way, it isn’t.

I am probably the most surprised I’m winding it down. For the last 15 years or so, I was completely at peace with the idea that seeing her every week, or every other week (or talking with her on the phone, after COVID’s arrival), was just good brain maintenance, in the same way getting my teeth cleaned twice a year is on the basic-adulting checklist.

I had started therapy in a crisis, as one often does, when I was launching a magazine, working 50-60 hours a week (no, really: try launching a weekly magazine — it’s bananas), hallucinating from lack of sleep, and then I got the news that my mother had colon cancer. I started having panic attacks, because I couldn’t head down to my childhood home in Philadelphia and take over my mother’s care. I had always been her caretaker; my father relied on it, my mother demanded it, and I accepted that role (only hindsight would show me, of course, that a child can’t accept that role — it’s an essential familial dysfunction).

When I had a regular check-up with my doctor a few weeks later, he told me all my health vitals looked good, then asked how I was doing. I think I sobbed for three full minutes before I could say, “I’m not sure.” (Spoiler alert: he was pretty sure how I was doing.) He gave me the number for the therapist I mentioned above, and I burst into tears and cried for another long spell before I could stop.

When I looked up, he said to me: “It’s just talking.” With such kind eyes.

But when you’re keeping secrets from yourself — and then going one further and keeping a it secret from yourself that you’re keeping a secret from yourself — the thought of being investigated in any way triggers panic.

I went to the first session and sat down, hands folded, and I believe that when she said, “So why are you here today?”, I replied, “It’s not my mother.” (What I was trying to say is that it wasn’t because my mother had cancer.)

Carol and I still laugh about that today.

We don’t want to know what we aren’t yet ready to know, you know?

But over time I sidled up to the things I didn’t want to know, and I spent years being angry — with myself, mostly — that I was hurting inside somehow, in a way I couldn’t really see clearly. I felt it was an epic failure on my part to have been impacted by my family. I had promised myself fervently when I was 11, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 23, 24, etc. that I could forgive my parents their mistakes and love their failings, and be untouched by it all — my mother’s deep and abiding depression and dependence on me to live my life for her, my father’s misdirected rage and frustration — except for being wiser.

I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you why this is neither logical, nor possible.

Part of being self-aware is knowing where you’re broken. It means carrying that vulnerability with you all the time.

But after about 8 years of therapy, I was able to see my family clearly, the good and the bad, the truly magical (my mother was magical, and also broken) and also the difficult, and accept all that.

However, denial is some strong shit.

So for the next 20 years, therapy was often just talking. But frequently it was this: Carol saying, “So you are saying XYZ?”, often repeating my exact words. And I would cringe. Or gasp. Or pause, dead. And just feel this enormous WOWWW sweep over me as I caught a good glimpse of that defiant girl who was goddamn not gonna be hurt by anyone around her (as she cowered somewhere deep inside).

That experience was like looking around a corner through a mirror. I could see myself briefly from outside myself and think, “Oh, yeah, that’s kind of fucked up.” (And I say that with deep, abiding love; learning to see that with love for myself was kind of the big-deal trick to master, in the end.)

My sins were minor and harmed only me. But that was the point and the problem. No more harming me, that was the goal. I didn’t need to fix me, or resolve my past, or become perfect and pure, or become the calm, level-headed person I will never be. (All those things I might have initially thought were the goal.) I merely had to see myself plainly, and become attuned to the ways in which I will still find a way tp tell myself a story about how everything difficult that shows up in my life is my fault, and if only I’d…. (The interesting part is it’s never that simple: that lie shows up in really strange places and is rarely spoken plainly.)

So I decided that I was just going to stay in therapy, to have that mirror held up for me.

Oh, and in the meantime lots of really major life stuff happened: marriage, baby, divorce, big career moves, getting fired a lot, my mother’s ongoing depression, a book contract and book, a new partner, my parents sudden grave illnesses, their deaths, the end of my publishing career, my young son’s crisis, a heartbreaking breakup, a move out of the city, confusion, loss, a crippling uncertainty.

Just the usual.

There was a lot of “context,” as the therapists call it.

And what the context does is makes it hard to see clearly, like someone keeps dropping pebbles into the pond in which you are trying to see yourself.

But somehow, this year during COVID, I found the quiet place inside me. And not the quiet place where there is peace and certainty. But the place where there is worry and confusion and uncertainty, but equilibrium, too. An “is-ness,” as I like to say. It just is. Life just is. This moment/problem/worry just is.

The equilibrium didn’t come from solving things. It came from trusting myself to be able to solve things. I mean, my friends and fans have always pointed out to me, quite insistently, that I just deal with what comes at me, all the time. I go underwater; I come up. I go back underwater; I come up. (And water follows me, to remind me of all my hard-won life lessons, as those of you who have read my book know.) And also, apparently I come across as an extremely self-aware person, which gives people more confidence in me than I sometimes have in myself. Because part of being self-aware is knowing where you’re broken. It means carrying that vulnerability with you all the time.

Ironically, though, it’s all the vulnerability and uncertainty I’ve been dealing with for the last ten years — not exactly sure what I’m doing professionally, downsizing, feeling doors of opportunity close — that allowed me to accept vulnerability and uncertainty as just being part of the deal. (That and a true companion, who sees me whole, fierce and flawed as I am, and through whose eyes I am given occasional clear, and loving, glimpses of myself. He sped me along the path to clarity.)

I’ve never much trusted people who don’t know pain, but I guess I thought I could become one of them. I can see now that as a young woman, I thought that being a huge success (we can argue about what that means later) — the big job, the big life — was going to build a fortress around me and then I would arrive at the destination of Safe. I’m safe. I’m protected. I have money and prestige and security and I’m all set.

How beautiful to learn, however, that gently and slowly losing everything stripped me of all my armor so that I had to stand alone in a field with no trees to hide behind and accept that I’m not in control of a damn thing except where I put my focus. And so I learned to focus gently, especially on myself.

And just like that — after nearly 30 years — I was ready to carry all the unanswered questions, and trust that I will riddle out my little hidden lies, on my own.