What is therapy when there is no situation to address?
I have had formal therapy five times in my life, though two of the five lasted a total of two sessions. The first time I found myself in a therapist’s office was when I was 22 years old; perhaps a month or two after my mom had died suddenly in a car accident. I was in college and was “strongly encouraged” to pay a visit to the student counseling center. I remember an overstuffed couch, a box of tissues, and some dolt of a therapist telling me that it was time to recognize some of the shortcomings of my mom and begin to move on in life. In fairness, I wasn’t myself at the time and she may have said something completely different and maybe even helpful, but I didn’t hear it. And I never went back.
My second attempt occurred about 3 years later. I was in seminary now and looking back on it, probably experiencing a pretty significant bout of depression. I got the name of a therapist from the student health center and made an appointment to see him. After about 20 minutes of talking, he pronounced that I wasn’t clinically depressed, didn’t need any medication, but needed to work through the sadness of the series of losses I’d experienced over the preceding few years. I remember being upset that he didn’t just give me a prescription. I was much more interested in drugs than personal growth work at the time. But I agreed to do some work with him. The next week I got a call that he’d had a heart attack and all future appointments would be postponed for now. I took this to be a sign that I really didn’t need any help. I was okay.
The third turn turned out to be one that would yield a much different outcome. In February 1993 I turned 30 years old. I had a party at the home of my college roommate’s parents, parents that had generously stepped in to serve as surrogates for me since my mom had died. My brother and sister-in-law were there. Friends from college and seminary came too, along with some coworkers from my current workplace. I had wanted to celebrate the different periods of my life. Turning 30 seemed a big deal. But a couple hours into it, I found myself lying on the floor of a spare bedroom upstairs, staring at the ceiling, crying. All I could think was that this really wasn’t where I thought I’d be at this point in life. I’d expected more of myself. I thought my mom did, too. I believed I’d let us both down.
The next week, I tracked down the number of a pastoral counselor and made an appointment. I was ready to do some work. I was, to use an overused phrase, sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. I went to her office on a Thursday evening. I remember a wicker chair with pillows and a box of tissues in the corner. I remember a lot of tears and again some talk about my mom not being perfect and the need to see this. We scheduled a series of weekly appointments for the next few months and I left. This time there were no acts of God to intervene in the process. I kept the appointments.
I also got sober. The week after this first session, through the invitation of a friend celebrating a year of sobriety, I found myself at an AA meeting. I’d had lunch with Roger the day before. I told him that I was really wondering if I had a problem with alcohol. Of course, I wasn’t really wondering that at all. I was drinking heavily, drinking daily, and had been doing so for years. The question of whether or not I had a problem with alcohol wasn’t really that hard to figure. I was wondering though, about what would happened if I quit drinking. Somewhere in the series of events between my birthday party, my visit to the therapist, and this lunch date, I’d come to wonder if I could do any justice to figuring out my sadness if I kept blinding myself to it. So I sat in the folding chair in the basement of a church, listened to Roger celebrate, and when walking out got a hug from some big bear of a guy with a beard and black leather who, when he shook my hand, put a 24-hour chip in it. I’d been sober for 24 hours. Like a lot of things that had happened, I didn’t ask for the chip. It was given to me.
I remained sober for the months that followed. I went to therapy, first individually and later as part of a group. I began to feel better. I moved out of a very unhealthy living situation and back into my aunt and uncle’s home for a couple of months, and then in with another good friend. I got the very good advice from someone to simply “do the next right thing” and I followed it.
The summer came and I went to New Hampshire to officiate at the wedding of one of my closest college friends. I loved New Hampshire, I loved the affirmation I received from people at the wedding that I was very good in the ministerial role, that I could do it sober. I also loved the idea of a fresh start. I went back to Northern Virginia and told my boss and my therapy group and my family that I was moving to New England. A couple of months later I packed my Nissan hatchback with my things and my dog, Murphy, and did just that.
What followed were several years of wonderful growth. I found work in a church, made a living at an office, and fell in love with my life partner in Portland, Maine. We lived in a tiny apartment overtop of a three-car garage in Freeport, surrounded on three sides by woods and in front by the Casco Bay. It was beautiful and peaceful. Life was simple and allowed me to focus on things one at a time.
Eventually though, one of those things became my calling to the ministry. I found myself struggling with it, feeling again like I was trying to fit into a place where there was no place for me. I grew weary of the pious, cerebral debates over sex and gender. I was tired of trying to argue topics that could never be won on any rational grounds. I was frustrated with budgets and committee meetings and so much business of the church that seemed to have no more of a purpose than self-preservation of the institution itself. When the annual business meeting came and a vote was called for on the proposed budget and my raised hand was the lone “nay” vote, I knew it was time for a change.
Leaving a ministerial calling, though, isn’t quite like leaving a job at the bank. At least it wasn’t for me. There was a lot of reconciliation to be done both internally and externally. I also had to figure out what the heck I was going to do next. I still had my day job at the stainless steel manufacturing office, but it was just that – a job. I’m not one who can do a job. I need work. Purposeful work. And now I had no idea what that was going to be.
So I gave myself a year to figure it out. Enter therapist #4. Michael was an Episcopalian priest with a reputation for helping people transition through periods of spiritual questioning and vocational calling. He was also a really big guy. We met in the tiny office in the back of his house in Cape Elizabeth, me squished in the corner while he swiveled in his desk chair. It was way too big a desk for such a small space, but we sat and talked and he spoke frankly about the church and about the senior minister I’d been working with, a fellow with a well-known reputation of both charmer and ass. Over the year, he helped me to see that there are lots of different kinds of callings and lots of different ways to answer them. It’s a lesson that I struggle with still, but one that I try to at least remember.
The same year that I had therapy with Michael, I also decided to run a marathon. I’d started running a couple of years before and thought this would be a good exercise, literally speaking, to physically focus on while I simultaneously worked on all of the non-physical stuff. I ran through the long, cold winter, the “don’t blink or you’ll miss it” spring, and the beautiful summer that vacationers flock to Maine every year to enjoy. When fall came around, I was ready for both the marathon and a return to school. I registered for the Clarence DeMar Marathon in Keene, NH and for classes in the sports medicine program at the University of Southern Maine. And I thanked Michael for all of his help. It was time to move on to the next thing.
The next thing, from 1998 until 2009, turned out to be many. I earned two degrees in exercise physiology, only to discover that I wasn’t all that keen on actually being an exercise physiologist, and I didn’t think I had it in me to continue on for a doctoral degree, something I was going to need in order to do what I really wanted to do in the field. Now I had four degrees and no direction. I deduced, however, that I would become a librarian. I believed it’s what I was truly meant to be. I loved the library, loved spending my days there. In what was a rare moment of logical sense, I realized that if I worked in a library, I’d get paid for being somewhere that I enjoyed. Nine months later I had degree number five, a graduate degree in library science. Two months later I had a full-time job as a professional librarian at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. We moved to Worcester and settled into what I thought was, for the first time in my adulthood, a grown-up life.
Being a librarian felt like both a job and work. It paid me a living, but it also felt fulfilling. My partner Lynn returned to school at this time – it’s only fair that she got her turn in the academic playground – and she earned an MFA degree. Being an artist, she resigned herself to the fact that she’d never have that “one job”, but put together a nice fabric of teaching at local colleges and the art museum, while maintaining her studio work.
So in the summer of 2009, I was in a healthy, well-established, loving relationship. I lived in a nice apartment, had nice neighbors, a dog and a cat, and interests both in and outside of work. I’d been sober for years. I dabbled in writing. I learned to play the mandolin. I reconciled with my brother, a relationship that had been damaged for a decade. I finally got to know my nieces and nephew, and the chance to start being an aunt to them. They wanted both Lynn and me to be in their lives. Things with my dad were so-so. We didn’t see each other very often, but I don’t see any of my family very often. Still, we were all okay. Everything was okay.
But every day, from late May through September, I cried. At some point, every day, I found it impossible to stop the tears from falling. I’d turn to the wall in my cubicle to hide my face, grabbing tissues and hoping no one noticed. I’d be in my car, driving to or from work, and start sobbing. I started to wonder if I was going a bit mad.
I knew that I was lonely for some of my old friends and so I decided to make a trip to Louisville to reconnect with some of them. I ordered my plane tickets and started to think about sitting at a patio table outside of a coffee shop, talking for hours with one of my closest confidantes, Dina. I thought about catching up with my good friend Kevin. I thought of taking Dina’s kids trick or treating. I looked forward to some time on my own, some time for myself. It would be a good, well-needed and well-deserved long weekend.
A few weeks before my planned trip, I was walking from the parking lot to the library, to work, when the thought crossed my mind that it might not be a bad thing if the plane I took from Providence to Louisville crashed. I had no plans to make it crash and I didn’t exactly wish for it to crash, but the thought of it crashing gave me a feeling of relief. It would finally be over.
It scared the hell out of me.
I got to my cube and I called my family doctor. I made an appointment for a couple of days later, telling the nurse that I simply didn’t feel quite right. I was having headaches and feeling tired, something along those lines.
I was sitting in the chair in the examining room when my doctor came in. We know each other from work, so he is not just my doctor, but someone I know beyond my health. He asked, “So how are you?” and I started to cry. He handed me the box of tissues that I have now deemed a requisite for any health care professional’s working space, and began to reassure me that I was not, in fact, going crazy.
We talked about my age (mid-40s), my general health history (pretty darned good), and my home life. He offered to try some things with me along the lines of an anti-depressant, to see if it would help. He told me he was really sorry about hormones and what they can do to women (we laughed) and he gave me a mild prescription for Prozac.
I left his office and immediately drove across town to my drug store. I bought the pills and a Vitamin Water, ran back to my car, and promptly popped the prescribed two. Then I sat for about three minutes, waiting to feel better. When I felt nothing, I remembered being told that it takes days, even weeks, for these things to kick in, so I drove back to work, all the while thinking that I was now was one of the many in society relying upon daily medication to get through life.
I was now diagnosed as clinically depressed. This alone made me feel better. It wasn’t “me”. It was me, of course, but it was the physiological me that was messed up. It wasn’t emotional, it was physical. And it was a better relief to know that than to think of planes crashing.
A year passed and I took my medication. I called it “Vitamin P” and tried to think of it as common as a “One-a-Day Flintstone”. I would check in with my doctor regularly, sometimes feeling better, sometimes feeling the same. Everything else continued on the same. I resigned myself to believing that until menopause visited, wreaked havoc on my body, and then left, I’d have to take this pill. It was all hormonal, these feelings of sadness, lack of fulfillment, disappointment with myself and disappointment with life. I could hear Jessica Tandy laughing, saying, “Oh honey, it’s just the change.” The fact that I had no other indication that I was anywhere near menopause was irrelevant. That’s what was going on.
When I returned for an annual check-up the following November, a little more than a year past the initial prescription visit, he told me that he was wondering if I wouldn’t benefit from talking with someone about whatever was going on.
“What do you mean? Nothing’s going on.”
“Well, that’s the point. You should feel better. You really should be happy. I want you to feel better, to feel happy, to be yourself again. I don’t want to medicate you so that you simply feel a manageable state of sadness. That’s not normal.”
So there went the hormonal theory. I was sad for no good reason. I was just sad. I had nothing else to claim. No one had died suddenly. I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t in need of figuring out my vocational calling. I was simply sad. And this wasn’t normal.
He gave me the names of three people to call. The first two were not taking any new patients. “Oooh,” I thought, more divine intervention. I didn’t really need help after all. I dialed the third number, got an answering machine and left a message that I’d been referred for an appointment. No one returned my call that afternoon. No one returned my call that evening. Yes! Spared again.
The next morning the phone rang in my cubicle. A woman identified herself as the therapist I’d tried to reach the day before and apologized for the delay in getting back to me. She asked me some questions about insurance or something along those lines. She told me her schedule was very full, but she could fit me in on Monday morning, first thing.
“Are you okay to wait that long?”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“Then I’ll see you then. If you need me before, call.”
I hung up the phone thinking that she sounded quite cold, thinking, “This is never going to work.”