Monday, February 06, 2012

Memoir Monday: All from Five Words

The Indigo Girls once asserted that the hardest lessons to learn were the least complicated. I'd say the same is true of questions. The most difficult question I ever had to answer was posed by a stranger and was composed of exactly five words.

The stranger was a psychologist, the very person to whom my doctor had sent me. She was exactly what you'd expect a psychologist to be: middle-aged, serious-looking, and possessed of intense intelligence and unnerving patience. After the formalities of meeting had been exchanged, she looked at me and asked simply, "So what brings you here?"

I am not a person used to sharing intimate feelings or experiences and I was far more closed then, so we sat in that office for a long moment while I struggled to reply. Two minutes is not a long time unless someone's waiting for you to share the most painful thing you have to share, in which case it's a geological age. I've made some hard choices in my life, but answering that woman's question was the single most difficult thing I ever had to do. But I did it.

After hearing me out, she very calmly explained that in her opinion I was dangerously depressed, and she asked if I would consent to hospitalization. I tensed right up as my mind filled with images of every dirty, abusive asylum I'd ever seen in a movie, and she read that as my answer. She then asked if I would take medication. I had to think longer about that, but in the end I refused. I didn't know much about depression then, but I figured that dealing would be easier if my brain weren't clouded by drugs. I'm not sure medication would have clouded my mind – lots of people take it to good effect – but I wasn't in a trusting place then and I refused. She nodded and told me she would assign me a therapist who'd work with me, then looked at me levelly and asked me to solemnly promise that in the interim I would not attempt to hurt myself. I gave my word, meaning it. I was completely fucked up with depression, but I've always known how to work hard. So I treated depression as a problem to solve or a foe to fight.

And fight I did, although for this battle I had to keep my armor off. I met my therapist a few days later, who was most definitely NOT what you'd expect from a therapist. He was an older gentleman who looked like a little Santa Claus, complete with white beard and round belly. Every Wednesday morning Santa and I delved into my life. It was the first time I got to talk so much about myself, and after some initial reluctance I was surprised how good it felt. He didn't match my vision of a therapist, true, but he sure acted like one. Santa was always asking stuff like, "Can you talk about the guilt?", or "What do you think?" and all of those other questions therapists ask. He wasn't shy about pressing me when necessary though; I remember one exchange...

Santa: "So you were angry about what she said. Did you say that you felt angry?"
Me: "I would feel really guilty about saying that."
Santa: "So you didn't say anything?"
Me: "No, but now I feel guilty because she doesn't know I was angry about what she said."
Santa: "So you would feel guilty about saying something, but now that you didn't say anything, you still feel guilty." [cocks head] "Does that make sense to you."
Me: "No. It doesn't make any goddamn sense at all."

Or another:

Santa: "So how do you feel about him having a boyfriend and you being single?"
Me: "Jealous. Intensely jealous. I know that makes me a bad person..."
Santa: "Why?"
Me: "You're not supposed to be jealous of your best friend."
Santa: "Why not?"
Me: "'re just not!"
Santa: "Do you want him to lose his boyfriend?"
Me: "No."
Santa: "Do you want to take his boyfriend?"
Me: "No!"
Santa: "So you want him to have a boyfriend and for you to have one too?"
Me: "Yes."
Santa: "What's wrong with that?"
Me: "I guess nothing. So why should I feel guilty about it? That doesn't make any goddamn sense."

One nice side effect of depression is a willingness to admit when you're not making sense, which comes in handy when Santa Claus has you in a rhetorical corner.

Now in the movies, at some point during treatment there is a moment in which the patient understands the truth for himself, and then there is a dramatic explosion of tears and hugs and anguish, blah blah. Didn't work that way for me. After months of meetings, my therapist finally said, "Here's what I see." And he clearly detailed his observations, referring to my own comments when necessary to illuminate his insights. He wasn't mean or cold, but he didn't hold back, either, which is just what I needed. I gaped like an idiot through the whole thing, not from shock but from stunned agreement. After all the emotional ground we'd covered I was like a sponge, and this frank summation fell like water. The feeling of years of guilt and uncertainty slipping away was nearly physical, and it felt like breathing with two lungs instead of one. It was perhaps the sweetest sensation I can recall, and I've eaten chocolate-covered Nutter Butters.

After that, everything was different. I had gained the ability to analyze my emotions and determine exactly what I was feeling at a given time. Once I was able to realize I was feeling guilt, anger, resentment, or what have you, I could cope with that feeling and not just spiral down into an emotional hole in which I felt nothing but Bad®. In contrast to the bleak numbness that had been most of my twenty-seven years, I experienced an incredible surge of self-confidence. With my emotions no longer a dreaded enemy, for the first time in my life I felt that it was my life, and not a prison sentence. I took stock of myself: fat, largely friendless, lonely, and often bored, but no longer living in a toxic cloud of depression. As I came out of the haze, I decided that some changes were in order.

First on the list was my weight, which had ballooned to an unacceptable 190 pounds. (That's at 5'8.) Dieting isn't fun, but compared to battling depression it's a breeze. Within nine months I had lost forty pounds, gone down two waist sizes and looked like a million bucks. All the new clothes I had to buy were a burden on my then-modest income, but it was a burden I was delighted to bear. Part of that weight loss was due to Ultimate, which I had taken up that spring. Five years before I would never have considered taking up an unfamiliar sport with a bunch of strangers but those days of fear were gone.

Second on my list was my social life. I began volunteering around the community – art auctions, gay pride events, public radio, and whatever else required only enthusiasm and a willingness to make a fool of myself – and between those and Ultimate I made more friends than I ever thought possible. My calendar was always full, and I remember that my Saturday nights were regularly booked four or five weeks in advance. I also began dating, but this time I did it without either casual sex or making myself a punching bag. You see, along with self-confidence came the ability to perceive what was my problem, and what was the problem of some immature zero with control issues. And since my better spirits were accompanied by better shape, I resolved that the next guy who popped me one was going to get a surprise. A big, eye-punching surprise.

My brother, who witnessed this transformation, joked that I was now New Neil, which made me laugh without thinking too much about the remark. It must have been more apparent to others. About a year after I finished therapy, I was on a date with a sweet and attentive fellow, who after asking me about my various activities, said that he was worried he wasn't good enough for me. I had such a rich, full life, he said, while he was rather boring. I thought back to that night in the car, feeling bruised and doomed, and I thought, "Great Mother...if you only knew." Later, when I got home I took a good, long look at myself in a full-length mirror I'd purchased while I was dieting. Although New Neil looked much the same as the old one – minus some weight, of course – at the same time he looked reborn. And that seemed about right to me.

Five more words: Those five words fucking rocked.


Blogger Debra b. said...

Thank you for sharing. I related completely to your experience with therapy. I went a few years ago, initially to deal with a specific issue, but part of what kept me going back was that permission to have an hour a week of my life that was all about me. It sounds fucked up, even now when I say that, but it really was illuminating how powerful that permission was for me. You are an inspiration for sharing your life so openly.

1:16 PM  
Blogger greengreyeyes said...

Very powerful, and beautifully told. I saw a therapist a few times in marriage counseling years ago. I was shocked that by the end of the first visit I was crying about my father, who had nothing to do with my marriage, or so I thought. Everything is connected to everything. In She's Come Undone, by Wally Lamb, our heroine comes to understand her food addiction/ abuse and fixes it for life. That would be amazing.

9:32 PM  
Blogger TrackerNeil said...

Thanks for the comments. Depression is a terrible thing, because, as GGE points out, everything really is connected. I know that others have been through far worse and come through just as well. I never thought of myself as an inspiration - I was just trying to get through as best I could - but if my story helps anyone, then I consider myself amply compensated. However, it means a lot that you would say so.

I used to think talking about yourself once a week sounded fucked up, too, until I did it. There is a difference between self-awareness, which is healthy and enlightening, as opposed to self-absorption, which is arrogant and indulgent. Therapy induces the former; obsessive mobile phone use, the latter.

9:49 PM  

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