So I Kind of Graduated From Therapy Last Week

Today's my first free Thursday afternoon in over 3 years, and it feels weird-good.

Mar 6, 2014 at 11:30am | Leave a comment

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I've never actually laid down on a couch like this in therapy.

Over three years ago, I left a message on my therapist's office voicemail.

It was about 11 pm on a Friday night. I had called specifically to get the voicemail, because I knew even in the moment that the desperation I was feeling was a temporary gift. In the morning light, it would be all too easy to dismiss the previous night's crying fit like I had for years dismissed my quiet late-night suspicions that I had a problem with drugs and alcohol.

Sober for 2 years already, I had been increasingly haunted by flashbacks and panic attacks and unexplained pains that awoke me in the middle of the night and left me crumpled and crying on my bedroom floor. Increasingly, I felt compelled to self-sabotage -- I fantasized about acting out with drugs, alcohol, anonymous sex, anything to numb out. I was scared, literally, for my life. 

I had an inkling that what I was experiencing were the effects of long-buried trauma bubbling up and demanding to be felt, but I had no idea how to go about dealing with what seemed to be an enourmous resorvoir of pain. The trauma was like a glacier with just the tip sticking out -- not only could I not fathom the size of the iceberg beneath, I wasn't sure I could survive a collision with it.

So I found the number of a therapist who specialized in sex trauma and addiction and left what I'm sure was an incredibly crazy message and on Monday I had my first conversation with the man I would proceed to spend 100 minutes a week with for the next several years.

What I remember most from that phone call, conducted in a whisper in an out-of-the-way corner of the office where I then worked, was a feeling of immense relief. John* understood what I was going through, and more importantly, he knew how to help me.

Working with John was more "treatment" than therapy, akin to an outpatient program. He quickly diagnosed me with PTSD, and  introduced me to group therapy in addition to our weekly individual sessions. (Since I was already seeing a more general therapist, that meant I was going 3 times a week, a true joy.)

We did a lot of experiental work -- I talked to chairs as if they were my father, I wrote angry letters to my perpetrators and read them aloud, I drew portraits of my freaking inner child. I participated in a weekend-long psychodrama workshop and spent my birthday sobbing in a roomful of other addicts. Accordingly, I was very, very uncomfortable a lot of the time.

There were weeks and months that I hated going to see John, that I dreaded every Thursday, that I sobbed through our session questioning why I had to deal with all this, why couldn't I just ignore it? It wasn't fair, I would wail in frustration, and you know what? It wasn't. But it was my reality and I had to accept it.

Therapy was also expensive, and John (of course) didn't take insurance, but my partner agreed to help me make ends meet while making my mental health a priority, a huge privilege I was thankful to have. It was never meant to be a long-term arrangement.

But things got worse before they got better. I went on vacation to Puerto Rico shortly after beginning therapy with John and I can vividly recall being afraid to climb to the top of a beautiful old tower in the rainforest with everyone else because I was scared I'd fling myself from the top. The most horrific feelings I'd ever experienced started to come up seemingly out of nowhere -- oozing, shameful, disgusting feelings that were nearly impossible to endure. I felt like my whole body was an open wound and even the lightest breeze was excruciating. I sometimes wanted to claw off my own skin rather than sit in the discomfort.

For the first time, I grasped the meaning of the expression "The only way out is through," even as I desperately wished for some other, easier way out.

But slowly, very slowly, things got better. As I re-experienced  and worked through the feelings brought up by my bleak, traumatic sexual history, it started to be easier to handle. The strange middle-of-the-night back spasms disappeared completely, validating my theory that my repressed feelings were trying to get my attention through my body. The powerful, frightening compulsions to act out diminished, then disappeared entirely. From group, I learned to speak up for myself, and to engage in healthy conflict even though it scared me.

About a year ago, the participants in my therapy group were all doing so well that we elected to disband for the time being.

Fast forward to a few months ago, and I started to notice myself having less and less to say on John's couch. We'd poked around the idea of ending treatment, and while the idea of finally freeing up the time and money was an exhilarating one, some part of me was terrified to end my relationship with John. In many ways, he was the first safe man I ever knew -- one whom I had an intimate relationship with who wanted nothing from me sexually.

The funny thing about a therapist is that your relationship is a professional one while at the same time being an intensely personal one. I believe that John cares deeply about me, as I do him, but I knew that once I stopped paying him, our relationship would be essentially over. This man who has been such an integral part of my life for 3 1/2 years, who has listened to all my deepest secrets, who essentially saved my life, would sort of just cease to exist to me. So I clung to him.

Until last Thursday, when we finally, mutually decided that I was ready to move on.

And it's scary. Of course I can check in, but it won't be the same. I'll miss him. We both cried a little as we reminisced about the first desperate message that had gotten me to his office. For the first time, I heard his side of the story, the deep sympathy and concern he'd felt for me while listening to his voicemail.

I asked if I could hug him, and we broke the carefully observed physical boundaries we'd always maintained for the first time ever.

But despite the tears, as I left I felt ecstatic, and so proud of myself. It wasn't easy -- in fact, sometimes it was horrible -- but I faced my demons head-on, worked through them, and I'm no longer in a dangerous place. I buckled down and decided to tackle the heavy stuff now, while I'm young, and I made real progress. I'm not "fixed" or "cured," but I actually healed. And that's pretty freaking incredible.

I'll still be seeing my general therapist -- she helps me work through the day-to-day stuff that's always gonna come up. And John says I can always come back if I need to, thank God. But today's my first free Thursday afternoon since 2011. And I've got to say, it feels pretty damn good.