Saturday, March 31, 2012

One tiny gesture can change your day

There are times when we lose track - we get lost in the everyday grind and just forget what got us there in the first place. It's easy to do in a busy day. I'll often tell my clients to take a moment to engage their bodies - to do something physical to give themselves a tangible reminder of something they're trying to keep in their mind. Here's something I wrote that illustrates what I'm talking about, albeit in a little more poetic way. I think you'll see what I'm getting at, though.

There are uncounted times when powers of abstract reasoning fail and the fog of doubt clings to the shoreline without hope of lifting - in those disquieting moments there is pure solace to be found in the power of the body, motor movements both gross and fine, regression to the physical mean of sinew and synapse. All inward-gazing philosophy rests upon the grounding power of the body, the sweet slide of muscle fiber, the beating of the human heart, the symbolic weight of the human grasp.

Each day in my internship, I would stride across a bridge that spanned a small creek. The creek was gorgeous and verdant, a riparian paradise no matter the season. I’d stop on the bridge, the beams worn smooth by hand and foot, by generations of students who parked their cars in the real world and then trudged across into the academic fantasy land of Reed College. I’d stand in the middle each morning, halted halfway, and I’d make the transition to work with a small physical gesture that reminded me to be open to what happened there. I’d open my arms and welcome the grass-scented air, my mind conjuring the smell of ivy clinging to hand-hewn limestone, no ivory in those towers. I’d pull my day into my consciousness with that small physical gesture, and I’d continue my walk to the counseling center.

Each day I’d toil in the service of the university, in the hope of bringing comfort to the students who were struggling to succeed in such a lofty environment. Successive clients would bring successive tensions, and I’d carry them in my body and in my mind. Lunch breaks were often sodden with the damp weight of disappointment or depression or drug abuse, my mind racing to make sense, to discover what to do next, how to help. I was new at full time therapy, and I was overwhelmed, and in my job you didn’t show it because everyone else was overwhelmed too, students and staff and faculty all in it together, holding up the crushing load of a top-level university. Everyone bore their share, everyone supported a wall or a staircase or a shelf in the library, and no one wanted it to come crashing down.

These were my days at the Reed College Counseling Center - halt halfway on the bridge in the morning, willingly accept the piling of trouble on emergent trouble, stay engaged and open and try to learn while all around me others did the same. The secret, the thing that kept me from dragging everything back to the car and packing it up to bring home to a young family, was what happened on that bridge at the end of the day.

At the end of each workday, after the notes were filed and the lights were turned off and the chairs were moved back into place, empty of sobbing students and struggling new therapist, I retraced the steps that had brought me there. On that same bridge, above the mossy green banks of that slow moving creek, I’d halt again. This time, though, I’d bring myself into my body, deep into where my heart beat and my lungs filled and emptied, and I’d pull my day out through my veins and I’d will my day into the warm and empty palms of my hands. I’d stand with my hands cupped, and I would fill them with my day, with all of it. When I’d emptied myself of my day, when my heart beat with fresh blood and my lungs filled with air free from the worries of students, I’d step to the worn handrails of the bridge and I’d turn my upturned hands over. I’d drop my day into the slow moving creek, watch it as it dissipated, some caught in little eddies by the moss, some flowing straight and true, all the way to the ocean.

Some days all it takes is the knowledge, deep in your bones, that a few simple movements can change everything.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Listen to your heart. Your emotions are the one true thing in your life. Trust yourself, forgive yourself, believe yourself. Love yourself.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

This moment

This exact moment is the one that contains your entire existence. Live it.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What's my therapist thinking?

Like every blogger everywhere, I check my "stats" once in a while, curious to see what brought people to this particular corner of the interwebs. Often, some variation on "what is my therapist thinking?" Or "does my therapist like me?" pops up. And it makes all the sense in the world.

In therapy, one of the things you do as a client is to open yourself up, often to a greater degree than you would with a close friend. Of course you'd like to know how that's being received. Coupled with the therapist's duty to make the therapy session about the client, and not about the therapist, there's a knowledge gap there that can be uncomfortable to tolerate.

While I can't purport to know what every therapist is thinking in session (yikes! No thanks!), I can tell you a little bit about how that process works for me. And, if this is well-received, I may just take a flyer on a "does my therapist like me?" post somewhere down the road. MAYBE.

One of the things I dearly love about therapy work is that it is so engaging. I can truly say that there are very few times that I'm thinking about anything but my client when I'm in the middle of a session. Distractions outside the room abound - as hard as we try to eliminate them - but my focus is on my client. If I'm tired, stressed about something in my personal life, sick... those things really do tend to melt away in session. I'm in the midst of a flow state, when I'm doing it right.

So, I'm not thinking about things outside the room. What's going on inside the room that I'm focusing on? Therapy's complicated. A good therapist is tracking all kinds of meta-communication, like body language, vocal tone, eye contact - and parsing it all in the context of that client, the depth of the relationship (new client? Long-term?), cultural differences, etc. We look for changes in the meta-communication between sessions, and especially within session - if your eyes shift at a telling moment, if I see tears welling, if your smile isn't congruent with what you're saying, I'll point that out if the time is right. But, I have to think about whether the time is right.

We listen for content, but we try not to get too wrapped up in stories. If I'm trying too hard to remember who Uncle Bob is, and why Aunt Marge is mad at him, I'm likely to lose track of the emotional content of what's happening in the room at that moment.

Have you ever seen one of those shots of a TV control room, or a NASA launch center, with all the monitors displaying different content? Yeah. It's like that.

Another thing we're paying attention to is your safety, if that's been an issue for you. We assess for risk on a number of levels. We sometimes grimace a little, internally, when you tell us that you're going to do something that we both know is not good for you. I'm not your parent, though. Autonomy is important to me. And, if you say something that really resonates with me, that makes me remember something in my life, I have to make a very quick decision about whether or not to tell you about it. Self-disclosure isn't taboo for me, but there needs to be a reason for it.

For me, above all, therapy is about acceptance. If I can't find it within myself to truly accept you, and all that you bring each week, I can't do my job. For that reason, I really do believe that some people are able to be therapists, and some aren't. When I tell you that I'm not judging you, I mean it. The day that I'm not able to do that, I'll stop doing therapy. I love the challenge of being myself within the confines of the therapy relationship. That keeps every day, every session, worthwhile for me. Paperwork, getting to and from the office, relationships with coworkers, all of that can be difficult, but it can wait for when you've left my office.

The therapy relationship is a complicated one, but at its heart are some very simple things - respect, autonomy, acceptance - and as long as I stay there and try not to work too hard, I think I'm doing my job.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Fear vs. Inspiration

I was wandering the internet the other day, no doubt seeking some universal truth or maybe just some freshly-unearthed cat memes. A run down my Twitter timeline led me to this link, a collection of Carpenters songs stripped down to just Karen's vocal tracks and maybe a bass line.

I was transfixed for a while, both tumbling back in time to when I was sporting some very Carpenter-esque bell-bottoms and other 70s embellishment, and absolutely frozen into place by Karen Carpenter's angelic, transcendent vocals. Go, listen, and then come back and read the rest of this. Go.

I sat there on my sofa, eyes closed, earbuds effectively acting as a time machine and a temporal barrier to anything 2012. Later, reading the comments on the post, I saw that others had done the same, immediately plopped in the middle of a restless Saturday spent housecleaning with parents, hearing the now nearly lost sound of the needle dropping onto vinyl and wandering for a precious millisecond until it found the first groove on the LP and tracked its way through to the end. I remembered those little spaces between songs on an album, the breathing room between songs, when you could see one tiny etched line that guided the tonearm to the next song, and the next. Album sides were an unbroken inward spiral, and if you were lucky your favorite artist would put a pre-Easter egg Easter egg on the album, sticking some little final song at the end for you that would go undiscovered until one day you forgot to get up and pick up the needle, and it would start, and you'd marvel at the intersection of whimsy and technology.

I listened to her voice, there on the couch, and thought about what it would be like to be an aspiring singer hearing something this perfect for the first time. Would you give up? Would you listen to her command of dynamics, her perfect pitch, the liquid clarity of her voice and just go do something else, never to pick up a microphone again? Would you feel so under-equipped, so unarmed, that your dream would die?

You've been there, haven't you? You design a few houses and then spend a day at Falling Water, you pick up a guitar and strum a few chords and then someone plays some Richard Thompson. You play a few open mics and then you listen to Karen Carpenter, all artifice stripped away, all cheesy double-tracked 70s doo-wahs pulled out without mercy to leave you staring at the reality that you will never get there, ever, and why even try?

You write some things, and you read a William Styron paragraph and you wonder about maybe just chucking your keyboard over a bridge somewhere, maybe giving it a temporary life as a bird, a more lofty life bestowed than your clumsy fingers will ever give.

Or maybe you find a flicker of inspiration. Maybe rather than compare, you exult in the ability of the human mind and your intricate corporeal machine to muster such beauty. Maybe, just maybe, that Styron paragraph and that Thompson chord and that Carpenter vocal are allowed to just saturate your soul and remind you that there is always room for more art, more beauty, more inspired passion in the world.

Maybe no one is under-equipped. Maybe some are just under-inspired, and overly scared, and maybe all it takes is just to try.

Maybe the beauty is truly in the work.