Happy Father Figure’s Day

Holidays can be tough for many reasons, we all know that.  For me, Father’s Day was painful for many years following the death of my father.  I was only 17 when a brain tumor took his life, so I missed some of the typical teenage experiences.  In human development, if I’m correct, a child forms an attachment to her parents, depending on them for all physical and emotional needs.  Safety, acceptance, love, worth- all these things are a function of one’s parents as we grow.  But we also have to rebel- if secure enough in the above qualities to risk challenging mom and dad.  For whatever reason, I never felt the urge to rebel as a teen.  Quite the opposite- I wanted to be the best, make my parents proud, to be good and to never get in trouble.  Can’t explain why, other than that was my inner nature.  So I never experienced that period of teenage rebellion.

Fast-forward ten years.  I’d been in and out of therapy (mostly in) since college, and while initially my issues were attributed to delayed grief from my father’s death, by this point I was exploring other ideas, feeling I’d mostly made peace with his passing.  I’d had a rough year marked by psychiatric hospitalizations and ECT, and a sense of aimlessness as to my future.  In the midst of another breakdown, I met “Sigmund,” as the newest admit to the psych unit he chaired at the local hospital.  From the get-go, I knew he was different, as psychiatrists go (at least, the ones I’d seen).  He saw beyond my helplessness and said to me: “Well, you can take it easy and relax while you’re in here, or you can write me an autobiography.”  Challenge accepted.  We met again that weekend and I handed him three pages of tiny script, detailing my life and psychiatric history.  After reading it, he made an offer: if I would commit to the work, he would take me on as a private client.  In a modified form of psychoanalysis, Sigmund would help me untangle the inner knots keeping me from leading a productive adult life.

I took a minute to think about it.  I’d never worked in therapy with a man before, but maybe it was time for a change.  Plus, Sigmund shared the same name as my father, and was close to the age my father had been when he passed, so maybe that was a sign.  I said “yes.”

And so began our nearly five-year relationship.  We met twice a week for therapy, a therapy where I was encouraged to say anything and everything on my mind, with little input from Sigmund.  As he told me, he was there to be a blank mirror, reflecting back myself.  The therapist can then become others in the client’s life, including, for instance, one’s father.   Even though Sigmund told me he wanted us to be partners in exploring my psyche, like a detective team, the young girl in me saw him as an authority figure and wanted him to lead, to tell me what to do.  He had the MD and so had to be the more knowledgeable one, right?  So I deferred to him, letting his words hold greater meaning and value than my own.  I fell into the comfortable roles of student, of daughter.  And I wanted to please Sigmund, to make him proud of me.  Just like I did my own dad.

One of my favorite bands, ABBA, sings a song called  “The Name of the Game”.  Only as an adult did I discover that the song is about being in therapy- no wonder it’s one of my favorites.  Part of the song goes: “If I trust in you, will you let me down? Would you laugh at me, if I said I cared for you?  Would you feel the same way too?”  Bjorn and/or Benny must have been in analysis, to have written these words, because they truly capture the experience of that analytic relationship.  I had never felt that way about any other person I worked in therapy with.  I didn’t have that longing to know they cared for me, that they were there for me and were proud of me.  I believe this is part of transference, which was pretty much new territory for me.  And it’s awkward trying to explain it to anyone who hasn’t been in that kind of therapeutic relationship.  In fact, I’m expecting some flak for this in the form of “you’re still thinking about that guy?”  Yes.  The analytic relationship gets pretty deep and intimate when you’re sharing everything- you meaning me, the person in therapy.

Anyhow, back to the father-figure stuff.  I remember talking about hospitalization, and how we’d met, and Sigmund told me that if he had to come to the hospital bc I was there as a suicidal patient, he’d “take a pillow and finish the job.”  My first thought was, “WTF?!.” Until I realized he was saying, in his way, that he cared about me, or at least the work we were doing together, enough that he’d lose it himself if I tried anything like self-medicating again.  That touched and reassured me, that I was more than just a client.

Sigmund worked with me on my fear of motherhood, of giving up myself to become “Mommy,” and with his help, I weaned off my medications so that I could become pregnant  Things were pretty much ok until my second trimester, when anxiety reared its head.  Sigmund firmly believed any psych meds during pregnancy to be a great risk, and although my OB assured me of the relative safety of certain meds, I decided to tough it out, bc I didn’t want to contradict- and therefore, piss off and lose my relationship with- Sigmund.

The anxiety passed, thankfully, and I went on to deliver Boopie, a bit early but healthy.  I was supposed to be in therapy that day, so I had to send Sigmund a message that I would not be making it as I was in labor.  He texted me back and I remember being touched by what he said, again showing he cared about me.

We resumed our work shortly after Boopie’s delivery, and things were fine for a while.  But as anxiety descended upon me once again, leaving me awake in the early hours of the morning with a racing mind, I asked for help.  Sigmund agreed to prescribe a sleeping pill, but no more, as I was attempting to breastfeed.  That didn’t work, and one day I called him in hysterics for an emergency phone session.  During the call I begged for meds to stop my panic.  He agreed on the condition that I stop breastfeeding, that he would not condone meds while breastfeeding.  In my desperation, I agreed.  The very act of filling the prescriptions gave me a bit of a boost, enough so that I felt I could try to slog through and hang on without taking them.  I still hoped to be able to breastfeed, too.  So I held off.  When I saw Sigmund that Monday, and told him I’d tried to tough it out and be strong, he got angry with me.  I thought he would be proud of my attempt to work through my intense anxiety on my own, but he didn’t see it that way.  Instead, he reminded me the meds were my idea, that he’d held an emergency phone session with me and agreed to prescribe them for me, with the intent that I would take them immediately.  I feebly tried to support my argument, but in the end gave in and apologized for not doing what he expected me to.

The final straw came shortly after.  I left each session in tears, feeling worse than at the start, and had begun to look for therapists who specialized in postpartum mental health.  I told Sigmund I had found a therapist who worked with postpartum women to see until my anxiety subsided.  I would then be in a better place, mentally, to continue the challenging work of analytic therapy.   But I still wanted to remain Sigmund’s client, specifically for medication.  Well, he didn’t see it my way.  Sigmund told me he didn’t co-treat, and that it was my choice: continue working with him in therapy and with meds, or see this new therapist and find a different psychiatrist.  I faced a very important decision, choosing between what I felt was right for me given my fragile mental state, and what my father-figure, Sigmund, told me was his only way.  If I chose to stay with him, facing more tears each week, I might never stop feeling so anxious.  But if I chose to move on, it seemed he would be rejecting me.

In the end, I decided I needed to work with another therapist, one who had more sympathy towards my postpartum mental state.  I explained that in an email to Sigmund, and added that I hoped to be able to continue my work with him once I was stable again and ready for the challenge.  His three word reply to me was “If time permits.”

What happened to his caring about me?  Why would he slam the door in my face like that?  It stung, for a long time.  I felt hurt and betrayed, abandoned once again- this time not by the cruelty of a fatal brain tumor but by the choice of a professional who stuck to his principles.  As I worked through this later on with my current therapist, I came to think that maybe I’d abandoned Sigmund and our work, at least, in his eyes- that I didn’t care enough about it to stick with him and work through the pain.  I went through some of the stages of grief, notably, anger and depression, to come to a sort of acceptance.  I’m in a much better place now, and reached out to Sigmund via email.  This came after numerous drafts of a letter that went from angry and accusatory to sympathetic and apologetic.  I wrote to share some pictures of myself and my son, and to let Sigmund know I was doing well, and that I thanked him for his role in my journey.  He responded graciously, saying he was glad to hear this, and that he thanked me for letting him be part of my journey.  And I breathed a sigh of relief.

But did I stop thinking of Sigmund?  No.  Just as I will never stop thinking of my father.  Both men played significant roles in my life, seeing me through growth during times of uncertainty.  I never had a chance to rebel against my father, but I tested those waters with Sigmund, a gamble that maybe cost our relationship at the time.  But I survived, and am stronger now, knowing I did what I felt I needed to at the time.  Right or wrong, I made that decision for myself.  And I want to say “Happy Father-Figure’s Day” to Sigmund, for helping me become an adult on the inside.

The “P” Word

It’s like a Band-Aid- the slower you are about removing it, the more it hurts.

No, not the one that is five letters long, ends in “s,” and is Boopie’s latest obsession.  Get your mind out of the gutter!  Just kidding- my mind’s there a lot.  I don’t blame you for going there, either.  But I’m actually talking about the word that has been a companion of mine since somewhere back in middle, if not elementary, school: PROCRASTINATION.  Ahh, my friend, who whispers in my ear of all the cool things I’d rather be doing than my latest assignment or dreaded task (like making phone calls).  When I think of this word, I hear songs- “Pro-pro-pro-crastination” (“Punctuation” from The Electric Company) or “Procrastination” (a la “Anticipation”- “Procrastination, procrastin-ay-ay-tion, is making me late…”).  These songs in my head only further my avoidance of whatever it is I don’t want to do.  Sneaky!

Anyhow, I tell you this because procrastination is behind the absence of my very new blog.  After my first two posts, I froze.  I had ideas, but didn’t want to write, and time slipped by.  Then I went on vacation (to “The Happiest Place on Earth”- more on that in another post), and as anyone who’s ever been on vacation knows, it can be quite difficult to return to one’s normal routine.  I’d spent nearly a week at a resort where all I had to do was wake up, get ready, and go- jump on a bus with my family and head off to explore.  No cooking, no (ahem) cleaning, no grocery shopping… no Facebook, no blog posts… only a world carefully designed for fun and magical memories.  That’s a world that’s hard to leave, I tell you.  If it weren’t for the fact that Bigfoot couldn’t come with us and was therefore waiting at home, I would’ve jumped at any chance to extend my stay in this fantasy land.  (Am I infringing on any copyrights here?!).  So home I came, a bit sad, and grateful for Bigfoot’s staying home the following day as Boopie and I adjusted to being home.  I think he adjusted a lot better, since he had his Kindle.  I had a decent therapy session the day after that, and left feeling better, until the next day.  After dropping Boopie off at school and having my breakfast, I went back into bed, feeling exhausted and wanting a nap.  I set my alarm, but when it went off, all I wanted to do was stay in bed, so I hit snooze.  Next time, I reset my alarm.  Each time I awoke, I felt more anxious, knowing I had things to do but wanting to stay in the safety and comfort of my bed.  Eventually, I had to get up so I could pick Boopie up.  This happened the following day, and I worried that I was headed back to the land of benzos.  Thankfully, the slide down the slippery slope of anxiety didn’t happen, but I made sure to hang out with friends to get myself out of my own head.  The anxiety passed, but procrastination remained.

It’s been almost a month now since I’ve been on Facebook, and almost two months (yikes!) since my last blog post.  And why?  Procrastination.  It’s something that, once it sets in, gets harder and harder to get out of, because my mind will do anything else to keep me from whatever it is that’s hanging over me.  It’s like a Band-Aid- the slower you are about removing it, the more it hurts.  I’ve realized over and over again in my life that I have to just rip it off, just get it done. But I rarely do. Often, my desire for perfection is the mastermind behind my procrastination, wanting to get everything right before actually doing a task or a project.  In college, I loved to sit for hours in the library, doing research, organizing my notes by topic, etc. – I would even do that early in the game.  But the actual writing of any essay or paper?  I’d wait until the last minute- many times, the night before something was due.  I’d tell myself I wanted to find more info, or that I had everything organized mentally and all I needed to do was follow my outline and write, but I’d avoid the writing.  This was in the days before auto-save, so when my computer crashed, I was screwed, since it was usually within hours of having to turn in my paper.  Not fun.  As an adult, I don’t have to write papers anymore, but I have other responsibilities that I want to get just right.  Like parenting.  Yeah, I know that’s not humanly possible, but I’m the one who wants to read all the books before I decide how to handle an issue.  Of course, issues don’t wait, so often I’m pulling off that Band-Aid and diving in with the words “fuck it,” knowing I’ve taken too long and just have to go with my instincts (which I need to trust more).

One other thing about procrastination and perfection- the combination tends to result, for me, in too much information gathered, too many words written.  As it is with this post.  It’s overdue, and I realize it’s long, but I want to get it out there and make sure I’ve said all I wanted to, so I haven’t cut it down.  I understand if you’ve skimmed it, or read only a few paragraphs.  Then again, maybe you’re procrastinating yourself, and this blog has been a diversion from whatever you don’t want to do.  In that case, I’m glad to be of service!

A Resurrection Story

Let me make one thing clear: I’m in no way claiming to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  That said, I do have my own resurrection story. The world was darkness, as if I were in a tomb, physically alive but wanting the relief of death.

Let me make one thing clear: I’m in no way claiming to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  That said, I do have my own resurrection story.

Journey with me back to September 2006. I had seen a well-known reproductive psychiatrist for a consultation, as Bigfoot and I were talking kids and knew I’d probably need to stay on meds.  This doctor, during my one appointment, decided I actually had Bipolar II- with periods of anxiety replacing the mania common to the more extreme poles of Bipolar I- and not major depressive disorder, as I’d previously been diagnosed. After convincing my (then) psychiatrist that I must, in fact, have Bipolar II, because “Dr. Famous said so,” I began taking different medications.  Meds that messed with my body, causing me to move robotically (I am told- like, turning my whole entire body to speak to someone instead of just my head).  And my anxiety, rather than subsiding, mounted.

Anxiety.  That can be a catch-all kind of word, right?  Sure, we’ve all felt anxious from time to time- worrying about that upcoming calc exam, or performance review at work, or visit to the doctor.    And that can, in actuality, be productive anxiety- we study harder, we review our work, we make sure our symptoms have been tracked.  In most cases, once the source of that anxiety passes, the feeling fades.  Not so with my anxiety.  I had no idea why I felt that way.  You know when you’re watching a horror film- or at a haunted house attraction- and you know something is going to jump out from behind a wall, out of the darkness, but you don’t know when?  So you’re on the edge of your seat, body tense, breath held, nervous energy coursing through your veins?  Feeling it now?  That’s how I felt.  All. The. Time.

I could not run, I could not escape this feeling of panic.  My doctor prescribed Klonopin, a benzodiazepine, to calm me, but my body built up a tolerance to it.  By November, I was taking 4mg a day- enough to knock a person out, I’d say- with no effect.  All I wanted was to escape this anxiety that felt like a death threat.  I clung to my bed like it was a sinking life raft, my blanket becoming my burial shroud.  The world was darkness, as if I were in a tomb, physically alive but wanting the welcome relief of death.

Well, I’m writing this blog, so obviously, I didn’t die.  At least, not physically.  But inside, my Self was six feet under, hidden by the foot-shaking, mind-numbing dread I felt every waking moment, by the meds I was taking.  Before I could do anything to translate that to my physical self, Bigfoot and fam made the painful decision to have me admitted to a residential psych facility.  And slowly, I was raised up.

It took a lot longer than three days.  It took medicine, electroconvulsive therapy, and TIME.  It took group and individual therapy, and TIME.  It took the love and support of my family, friends, and faith community, and TIME.  Seeing a pattern here?  Even after I was released and headed home, I had a long journey back into the light of the living.  My Self died again five months after Boopie was born, and once again, I entered inpatient treatment- twice.  And, like before, it took a lot of time until I felt truly alive.

This post began as a reflection on Easter, and then I learned that this past Monday, April 16th, was Project Semicolon Day.  For those who aren’t familiar with it, Project Semicolon is an organization dedicated to preventing suicide, founded by Amy Bleuel.  Amy noted that a semicolon is used to indicate there’s more to a story, that one’s “story isn’t over yet.”  People are encouraged to tattoo or draw a semicolon on their skin to indicate that they have survived to continue their stories.  Sadly, Amy lost her struggle with depression earlier this Spring, but her legacy lives on through her organization.  I for one am grateful that I am able to wear a hand-drawn semicolon in honor of my own resurrections.  And to those who also wear semicolons, welcome back to life.

 

***If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

In honor of my journey back to life, I made the song “I’m Alive” (by the Electric Light Orchestra and from my guilty pleasure, Xanadu) my ringtone.  Each time I heard it, I was reminded of how far I’d come.    What song(s) have you used in honor of your own journeys?

 

 

It’s (A)Live… Welcome to My Blog!

My self-esteem still wavers, but is strong enough that I can honor my struggles and trust that my words here are … of value to someone, even if that someone is me.

So… after years of procrastination, mental breakdowns, and raising a baby, I’ve finally made good on my intention to create my own blog.  Of course, this is one of many drops in a sea of blogs, competing on the Internet for your attention and praise.  Well, hopefully, praise.  Of course, one of the things I am slowly learning after all my years in therapy is that external praise means nothing when it comes to self-image, as it’s a fickle thing, dependent on achievement or some other quality that could be determined unworthy at some point.  I need to nourish my own self-worth via internal praise, taking pride in myself without looking for that reassurance from others that yes, what I’m doing in my life is worthy, that I’m worthy.  Not an easy thing for me, yet I have no problem telling everyone else in my life (especially my kid) that it’s not what you do, but who you are, that makes you worthy in my eyes.  Sadly, I don’t quite accept this truth for myself.

I’ve often reflected on my favorite teaching of Jesus, to “love one another as yourself.”  I always thought it meant I had to love everyone, and treat them as I would want to be treated.  But I’ve come to see that self-love is a part of that equation- the “as yourself.”  You mean, I’m not supposed to put everybody else first and act like a doormat?  Or to shrink back from compliments and shrug them off with a “thanks, but…” (you can fill in your own blank here)?  Being able to love others stems from a healthy relationship with one’s self, or else we find ourselves depleted and bitter from having given so much that it feels we’re being taken advantage of.  As the saying goes, “you can’t pour from an empty pitcher.”  And mine has been pretty empty over the years.  Which leads me back to this blog.

I’ve spent almost all of my adult life in therapy, untangling the threads of my psyche, including the thread of low self-esteem.  I haven’t had a career to speak of, studying various areas of interest but bailing when my self-doubt and anxiety skyrocketed.  While I’m still not entirely sure what I want to be when I grow up, I know sharing my journey is a part of that.  My self-esteem still wavers, but is strong enough that I can honor my struggles and trust that my words here are not blowing hot air, but are of value to someone, even if that someone is me.  Little by little, I’m learning that I matter– not for what I’ve done or haven’t done, but for who I am, refined through the fire of mental illness and recovery.

So, as the Monkees sang, “take a giant step outside your mind”- and into mine.  You might find a kindred spirit, a partner in the pain or the progress.