The lime green light flashes on my computer, telling me that the camera is on, and I am visible within the mysterious confines of the virtual world. My lukewarm water sits next to me at my makeshift desk (a large plastic tub set upon the bed with me sitting in an adjacent chair). Crumpled Kleenex is held tightly in my hand.
This is therapy – at least for now.
Crying ten minutes before therapy is scheduled to begin is usually a strong sign that it’s a good day to have a session. My body must have known a release was coming; I have held tightly to the wide array of emotions that have visited me in the past few weeks and they were ready to be let out. I almost always get nervous before my therapy sessions anyway – but today’s session felt particularly nerve-wracking. Even though I’ve been doing virtual sessions with my own caseload at the community mental health agency I work at, I had yet to be on the other side of the screen.
Within minutes, the oddities of sharing emotions, fears, and realities slipped away, ever so gently. I was not sucked into the temptation of looking at myself on screen (something that has certainly been a distraction in other virtual meetings), and I was able to cocoon myself in one of my favorite forms of self-care: therapy.
Can I just be really real right now and say how strange it is to be a therapist-in-training in therapy? The skills and theories deeply lodged into my brain must take a back seat so I can access the authentic, raw, non-student parts of myself. This is no easy task – and my own therapy is not the only place I have to do this. I am a part of a weekly support group where again, I must bring my real issues and problems (not my temptations to systemically analyze how individuals are interacting with one another). On the flip side, when I have been doing practice sessions at school, I aim to seek a professional balance with real warmth and authenticity. I constantly must check how much of myself I am bringing into a session, how well I am listening, and if I am imposing my own worldview on a particular case. Truly, the emotional energy required feels a lot like emotional gymnastics – swinging, jumping, dancing, and flipping back and forth to make sure I am as present as possible in the space with the people across from me.
Today I was successfully able put my counselor brain to the side and focus on what I came to session to talk about. I think it helps that my therapist has years of experience and can usually get a good read on where my heart/brain/emotions/cognitions are on any given day. As we started talking, the tears that fell earlier came back. I cried some more.
While crying, I quickly recognized what I was experiencing: grief.
Slowly, we unpacked the experience of grief. Specifically, my therapist began to help me explore the juxtaposition of joy and suffering. With gentle curiosity, she asked, “is there a rule you have about suffering?” In all honesty, I thought it was a weird question. Rules about suffering? Um. No. Of course I don’t have any rules about that. Yet, as I sat there allowing this question to sit with me, I realized she was right. I do have a rule about suffering.
My rule (apparently) is this: when suffering and loss find us in our life’s journey, hold onto them. Don’t let go. If you let go, you might forget. And, if you forget, then it can’t still mean something to you.
My jaw dropped and my shoulders released when she reflected this back to me. That was true – I actually believed it. Like a movie on a super fast-forward setting, the different losses that have occurred in my life flashed before me. Nearly every time, I recall holding onto the actual moment of loss instead of the other important parts of the person or the memory – the moments of sweet times, the lessons I learned, the laughs I had. I hold onto the loss itself because that’s all that I feel I have left.
This understanding of getting stuck in grief is a tough paradigm to absorb from one therapy session. Still, I was grateful to encounter it and touch it, hopeful that it might help with the grief I have now (and the grief I have had, along with the grief to come). While I have come a long way in my own understanding of what it is to lose and what it is to gain, it can still be hard to embrace the actual experience of healing.
But, as I think about it some more, that is the heart of why I love therapy.
Healing – and the freedom, beauty, grace, love, passion, authenticity, and hope that this provides – is why I wanted to become a therapist in the first place. I have been fortunate to get the help I needed along the way. I found places where I could explore parts of myself that I wanted to keep hidden. Discovering who we are, reframing our own stories, and finding places of healing from experiences in our life is profoundly difficult (and beautiful) work. I wanted to share a little bit of my own journey – even just from today – as a reminder that therapy is for everyone. We all grieve. We all have wounds. We all have the right to be seen and to find our voice.
I needed this reminder this afternoon in my session. I found myself slipping into hopelessness, stress, and worst of all – apathy. Even though I left my virtual therapy session with a lot of emotional exhaustion, I left with a small chunk more of me.
Therapy is hard (on both sides). Yet, it’s had a profound impact on my life – from realizing how I process grief to understanding my own identity to working through pain and while growing and adapting to marriage. My hope for the future is that everyone has the access and the right to find their own space for recovery and restoration in the world.
It is more than okay to need help. In fact, I think seeking help in this deeply complex world is brave, empowering, and invaluable. If you’re reading this and don’t know where to start, I’m happy to share some ideas about how to begin the search for mental health support. You got this.