“On the Couch” (But She Really Just Has Chairs . . .)

I decided to give therapy a whirl, once again. This morning was my second appointment with an on-campus therapist. Since I’m nearly finished school, this will be a short-lived relationship that will, if she determines it would be helpful, end with a referral to continue elsewhere.

After the initial intake, which essentially involves determining if you’re an imminent threat to yourself or others or safe to speak with, the first question is always this: what are you goals for therapy? I have no idea. To not feel fucking crazy, maybe? I essentially said a goal of gaining the tools to manage my anxiety enough to stop the endless spiraling into an untenable state of near disaster that inevitably crumbles into crippling depression at the slightest nudge. (Except in less flowery language because every word out of my mouth is generally awkward.)

So far, I feel like the therapist is confused by the amount of work I’m doing for her. She mostly stares at me while I explain, in the usual therapist terms, where I am. All the tools I’ve already applied. The steady march through the field of facts and logic to keep things grounded, in perspective, and manageable. The steps to realizing the root of the problem, isolating it, and tackling it like “you’re supposed to” instead of hiding it behind everything else forever. I may be a total disaster with little control, but one thing I do not lack is self-awareness. With some pause and effort, I know why I react how I do. I know where I go wrong. The problem is that I theoretically know what to do about these things, but they’re not working—the level of anxiety and depression is exceeding the level of management those tools provide. I know when my thoughts aren’t logical or rooted in reality—but I can’t stop them anyway. I can fight back, but it’s an unceasing war and it’s fucking exhausting. Sometimes, I just don’t have it left in me.

Based on her reactions, the only tools she’s accustomed to providing are the ones I already possess. I’m at an advanced level of fuckup schooling and she’s only prepared for an introductory class. She doesn’t have a lesson plan for this.

My actual goal? To explain well enough that I know all the tools and the problem is that, even with applying them, I’m still struggling, and to make someone understand that I’m at the point I need a boost. Talking isn’t going to help much, unless someone suddenly comes up with something I’ve never heard or read before. It has its helpful moments, certainly, but it’s not enough.

For what it’s worth, there’s some entertainment value to watching a stranger’s face after they ask, “how does that make you feel?” It starts as professional empathy—that look of, “I care . . . but mostly because I’m paid to,” while you begin to explain your initial reaction. As you move on to explaining how you understand why this is not a logical response, the connection to your past baggage and understanding of why you reacted that way, how you connected to the reality of the situation, the tools you engaged to talk yourself out of it, the ways you addressed it with the other people involved and your assessment of their reactions and/or handling of expressing the need for correction to their behaviors, the reactions of people with a healthier approach and why that approach is healthier, and what you needed and took away from the situation, their expression shifts. Sometimes, it changes to a genuine curiosity. Usually, there’s a hint of annoyance that creeps in when you make certain statements that is quickly replaced with satisfaction as you elaborate. For me, there’s always a look of I’m-trying-to-suppress-it-but-cannot shock at the moment I tie it to past baggage. It’s followed by a look of confusion as they try to figure out just how much therapy I’ve had to not only get past those moments, but be able to look at them in a logical fashion and talk about them in factual terms.

Sometimes, I catch glimpses of their own fears of inadequacy. Those are the people I connect with. Those are the ones I go back to. Those are the ones who aren’t under the ego-driven impression that just talking to them will serve as a miracle fix. Those are the realists who don’t see you as just a paycheck and a chart of checkboxes, but as a human who is there because you’re trying and they can maybe help.

This therapist and I connected, but I got the impression she wasn’t going to be able to tell me anything I didn’t already know or lead me to any conclusions much sooner than I would come to them organically. Today, though, she did.

We spent most of the last session and most of today discussing The Ex and the surprisingly lasting effects the relationship has had in its aftermath. So much of the anxiety and stress came so long after it was already over. It made no sense. It’s been hard to grapple with because there is no logic to it. Why would I have emotional reactions when I don’t care anymore? How can all the pain come so long after the damage has been done?

I’m used to being the type of person who doesn’t panic under extreme pressure. I jump into survival mode, engage solely logic, and when the danger is over and it doesn’t matter anymore, I panic and melt down to the extent necessary. The therapist pointed out today that this is not always just a short-term solution—sometimes, we can engage this for years at a time when in an abusive setting, without realizing we’re doing it. At some point after we leave, we deem it “safe,” and it’s then that we allow ourselves to feel it all. When we’re no longer exposing ourselves to extra danger, we can then be vulnerable and admit to how bad things were. Sometimes, it’s a lot to realize at once. The first helpful thing she did today was to point out that it actually made perfect sense that I was feeling everything on such a delayed basis—I had been in survival mode for so long, it took a while to turn it off.

She then asked how I felt about the realizations I had come to since leaving. I told her about a conversation with Patty a while back where I described it as utterly depressing with simultaneous optimism to realize that I had spent a decade thinking I was in love, only to discover it wasn’t that at all. The Ex never loved me as a person—I merely satiated his narcissistic appetite. That’s not love. There’s a subtle difference between loving someone for who they are and, in turn, leaning on them for your needs because they’re the person you want on your team, and “loving” someone solely because they satisfy your needs. One is love. The other is use. It’s utterly depressing to realize you were never more than a drug to satisfy a strange addiction.

Sometimes, you learn you dislike someone or something because of misinformation about the situation. That ranges from mildly embarrassing to mortifying, sometimes mixed with uncertainty of what else you’ve reacted negatively to, based on bad information. Ultimately, the worst case scenario is that you acted like a turd, but it’s fixable and in the end, you have negative feelings replaced with positive ones (or at the very least, neutral ones.) But to learn that positive feelings were based on misinformation? It’s utterly fucking devastating. The backlash is wondering what else you’ve misinterpreted to feel good. How many times were your smiles based on lies? But then there’s the optimism—it comes in when you realize that not having it before doesn’t mean you never will. If you can feel that good when it’s fake, how better will it be if it’s real? And, of course, there’s the eventually realization that you can stop blaming yourself when you were the one who loved, the one who supported, the one who tried. You can’t change people. You can only love them and hope for the best.

This conversation, of course, led to discussing the problem of paranoia The Ex left with me. If it took me ten years to realize that he did not love me, how long can I be fooled? While I know that it’s theoretically possible that I can be loved, how will I know it’s not a lie?

I talked about the occasional tension in my head when Ben does things like invalidate my feelings. I know he doesn’t have the same malicious, self-serving intent as The Ex. He doesn’t try to manipulate my feelings into what they are not or attempt to force me to incorrectly recalling the details on which they were based. He simply doesn’t see things the same way that I do, and I have to remind myself that’s very, very different. He’s not always great at wording things in a way that expresses his point well—when he means (I think), “I view this situation differently than you, and your reaction doesn’t make sense to me because it’s not how I would react,” he says, “No, sometimes, feelings are just invalid.” He is far, far from the same person, but it sometimes requires Herculean effort to force myself to pause and consider that before allowing my baggage to take over and react as if he were. I have to attach it to the logic that he does not react the same way. He does not treat me the same way. He is not that person and does not deserve a response as if he were.

The one thing I cannot ground to logic is the feelings I have for Ben. There is no logic to the fact he came back into my life, seemingly by fate. There is no logic to having fallen for him, despite my best efforts not to, well before anything between us was an option. There is no logic to the fact I could not, try as I might, talk myself out of it. There is absolutely no logic to the fact that he kept pushing me away and telling me not to love him and I just couldn’t help it and still can’t. It just . . . is. I also can’t find logic in him loving me. I can’t grasp the reasons things went as they did in the beginning and I constantly worry that I just serve some purpose. I’m terrified I’m just the hopeless romantic, once again. But at the same time, it’s clearly so very, very different.

That’s where the therapist pointed out the second helpful thing of today: The logical and illogical are not mutually exclusive—they can very well exist in the same time and place. Both can be equally true and pure emotion can exist without a logical grounding. Somehow, I had forgotten this.

That’s when she pointed out the third helpful thing: I so strongly need things to be grounded in logic because I am still in survival mode. I may have thought it was over, but it’s not. In all my self-awareness, that was the underlying problem I somehow missed.

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