My Life as a Client

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I only have one clear memory of my first therapy session as a client, and it went something like:

"This woman needs to BACK her chair up, NOW."

I don't remember if I asked her to move—maybe she picked up on the fact that I had crawled out of my skin, and was psychologically scratching at the door. Whatever the case, she backed up until we found a distance I was comfortable with, and thus began a long series of relational acts of mindfulness that would change my life forever.

I'm not sure what I expected to happen in that little office on Spruce Street in Boulder, CO all those years ago—certainly not the musical chairs situation I found myself in. I think my unacknowledged expectation was that therapy would be a series of business-like transactions; it would be her job to point out all of the mistakes I was making, and it would be my job to fix them.

You see, I had come from a spiritual tradition that's predicated on the belief that the whole of human suffering is caused by a simple misperception. I didn't have another reference point for why or how people feel the way they do in the world. Now I was circling the drain, and those same spiritual teachings had started to feel like the water. 

If I'm honest, I've always been aware that something was not quite right. From a very young age it was obvious that the other kids, my sister and our friends, didn't react to things in the same way I did—always with an inflated sense of tragedy, as if something beautiful was dying forever and I wouldn't survive the loss. I didn't have those words at the time, but no one else seemed to be going to pieces in the same circumstances. I spent weeks dreading my aunt's departure back to Philadelphia after Christmas. (My fixation on her departure predated her arrival.) From the age of six I lay in bed planning which of my possessions was the most special, so I could grab it if the house caught fire during the night. I wasn't as worried about my house bursting into flames as I was about the prospect of being separated from my little doll forever. I responded to things like saying goodbye to friends for the summer with something that resembled sadness, but was actually a strange cocktail of feeling out of control, strangely removed, and grief stricken.

I remember my high school friend Lindsey looking at me as we packed up our dorm rooms on the last day of school, tears streaming down my face, and saying, "It's ok. I'm going to see you in two months." And I understood that rationally, but it's very hard to explain the disconnect between reality and what was happening inside. Time wasn't the same for me; I didn't have a sense that I, or our relationship, existed in the future.

It's a long winding story that probably goes back into infanthood, and then forward through terrible experiences that compounded my struggles with each passing year.  But for our purposes, let's pick up the story about thirteen years ago.

I had just gotten out of a one hundred day, almost entirely solitary, meditation retreat which followed five years of both monastic living and practicing meditation intensely as a layperson.  I had supposedly studied the human condition with the most revered teachers in the world, and while some things were better, I was left with zero helpful insight as to why I was profoundly failing to thrive.  I was increasingly anxious and depressed, and if one more person told me to stop resisting the pain I was going to absolutely flip my shit. About six months and two stalled casual relationships later, the bottom fell out. I couldn't stop crying, it was hard to leave the house, and I felt a kind of vulnerability in the world that somehow seemed irrationally, yet inextricably, linked to my personal safety. 

I brought this to people in my spiritual community and got variations on the same answer: Give up all hope of fruition, they told me. Examine the expectation that you should feel good, they insisted. It wasn't until one of my most trusted teachers unexpectedly called me into her retreat that I received different instructions. 

We walked on a long country road together, and she listened intently to what I was experiencing. "Stop doing your practice and just go to therapy," she said.  I think it was evident that nothing I had learned from her thus far was going to touch this kind of falling apart. It wasn't the kind of self-dissolution the yogis of the past, and most of my friends, were gunning for. I don't know if I actually trusted her advice that day, but I trusted it to the degree that it was different. So I put all of my practice materials away, and traded my cushion for a couch.

The particular couch I landed on belonged to someone named Kate. Her office was speckled with items from nature, and she was clearly at home among them. She was very soft, and if she had been even one iota less smart than I was, I could've more easily dismissed her gentle care as a distraction from the real issues. And believe me I tried, for years

In those early months, I shuffled around the process in the pitch black. I had no idea what Kate was doing to help me, only that she was encouraging me to reach out to her for support. I resisted until a particularly bad bout of terror hit in between our sessions, and I picked up the phone and called for help. I wanted to tell her about what was happening, tell her how unbearable this was, and that I had no idea how I was going to get through it. I wanted to know what was happening to me.

Instead, she very gently stopped me and said, "Andrea, can you take a moment to recognize that you needed me, and I picked up the phone?"

It disorganized me. I went completely blank for a moment and then launched into a line about needing to strengthen my mind, because impermanence means that someone won't be available every time I have some little problem. What I really needed was to steel my mind against that reality. Having expectations of others is a setup for more pain, I argued.

"Yes, I know that's been your experience," she said. Then she repeated, "Can you take in, that just in this moment, you had a need and I picked up the phone?"

As her words sunk in a deeply human part of me started to wake up for the first time. I understood (roughly) why I had to do this work, and that it was going to be very, very hard. Harder than the years of silence at the monastery. Harder than a thousand sore knees. Harder than the isolation of retreat. As much as it shocks me to look back on that time from where I sit now, the fact remains, that the answer to the question she asked me on the phone that day was an unequivocal no—I couldn't use human interaction to help me feel better. I simply hadn't built the mechanism to be calmed by others, and I couldn't do it for myself as a result.  

It's more than fair to say that Kate and I had different agendas. I wanted to talk theoretically about "people"; she wanted to talk about how our relationship was developing. I wanted to get feedback on the pressing matter of the day or week; she wanted me to notice that I looked like a frozen deer in the headlights as I told my story. I wanted her to be brutal, which just made her softer with me. During the worst times, I begged her for something tangible. (WHAT are we doing?) She would simply say, "We are doing this," slowly gesturing with one finger, back and forth between her and me.  

Time passed and I got incrementally better. I noticed my ability to make movements in relationships that would have been unthinkably risky in the past. The endless list of fears shrunk little by little. (Did I just eat something without scrubbing my hands first?) On the one hand I knew exactly what Kate and I had done together, and on the other, these changes in me seemed like magic. Apparently, I had slowly internalized something completely intangible: the safety of my relationship with Kate. There were a lot of specific ways that she facilitated that result, but mostly I just showed up for my appointments, and she showed up for me. The safety I experienced in that process was now mine to keep. 

For years I organized my life around these interactions and paying for them, then grad school, then specializing in trauma and moving toward certification in somatic psychology. I spent every dollar that I had—and over a hundred thousand that I didn't—on learning what in the Sam Hill happens to people as they grow. I also learned why those beloved Buddhist teachings and practices were a terrible prescription for my pain. I'll share why in an upcoming post. 

So what was it that landed me in therapy? I've got stories. Most are pretty sad. But what they all boil down to, really, is that the human nervous system is on a quest for safety. From infanthood, we perceive safety each time we have a bodily and emotionally attuned social interaction with our caregivers. If those interactions aren't available (or are wildly inconsistent) our neural alarm systems that signal danger continually turn on and we don't develop a secure sense of ourselves in the world. My personal experience of this was compounded by a lot of extremely sudden loss, and as a result, I spent the better part of thirty years in a state of alarm and shut down. I was deeply traumatized. 

That cocktail of distorted emotions I felt?  In psychobiological speak, it's called dysregulation, and it doesn't go away on its own. 

I had relationships with others in my adult life, and yet I had a very limited sense of how these negotiations worked. Due to the fact that I was wired to perceive danger and loss, my body was organized to both seek proximity (the inborn attachment instinct) and to experience human contact not as soothing but profoundly disruptive. And the thing is, without these proximity-seeking behaviors and a body that was organized to create them, I couldn't grow and access wellness. Humans are complicated, but this is a simple fact.

And let me ring this trauma-truth bell: Nobody ever laid a finger on me as a kid or as an adult. No one hit me, sexually assaulted me, withheld food from me, or put me in obvious situations of physical danger. Yet without a safe attachment bond that worked for me on some level, my young nervous system perceived massive amounts of danger. 

Sometimes when I'm working with someone in therapy I simply ask them to reach their arm out towards me. We come to understand together what happens in that moment of reaching, and what is needed to organize a reach that would feel satisfying. Is it less eye contact? Is it me leaving the room? Is it simultaneously creating a "no" motion with the other hand? What wants to happen? We create experiments such as this in order to understand how one organizes their experience, and how that can change on the deepest levels. All of this work happens while mindfully tending to those alarm systems in the brain, and using very specific interventions to turn them off for good. 

Nothing is forced. Everything is welcome.  

I know how to reach out now, and I can access wellness on my own and in relationship. I learned it from my therapist, and I practiced it with my closest, safest people in those first rough years. I live in a profoundly different world as a result.

My experience as a therapy client forms the foundation of what I know to be true, and extraordinarily special, about the therapy relationship. I'm not a therapist because it's a meal ticket or because I think I can save people. I don't continue to go to therapy because it's cheap and fun—it's rarely the former, but surprisingly often the latter. I continue to do both because I now belong to a proud lineage of people who were, and continue to be, humans before professionals.

I wish I could say that I'm a good therapist because I've mastered what it means to be on this planet with others. I went into therapy wanting to become perfect and came out with the ability (gulp) to love and be loved. There's still some small part of me that resists mixing therapy with that word.  

I received a lot of training to do what I do, because effective trauma therapy isn't traditional talk therapy. Yet despite all of the years of study and preparation to do this work, it was really Kate who inducted me into that lineage of people who simply know how to show up, back up their chairs, and trust the process. 

 

Photo used with permission / {Mitosis}, Simone Bramante, 2012 / Instagram @brahmhino / www.brahmino.com