The Experience

As little flowers, which the chill of night
has bent and huddled, when the white sun strikes,
grow straight and open fully on their stems,
so did I, too, with my exhausted force;
and such warm daring rushed into my heart
that I – as one who has been freed – began:
“O she, compassionate, who has helped me!
And you who, courteous, obeyed so quickly
the true words that she had addressed to you!
You, with your words, have so disposed my heart
to longing for this journey – I return
to what I was at first prepared to do.” (Inferno. II, 127-138)

The work that we call therapy is so intrinsically tied to who we join with for the journey, that without a good partner the work just can’t be done. Over the past 19 years, not including childhood, I have seen many different types of therapists. They each are as different as their fingerprints. Some warm and motherly, others withdrawn and cold. This type of variety makes it very difficult to find ones way.

When I first went to therapy, during my first year in college, I saw a young social worker. She would sit across the room and watch me not talk. She did not make an effort to steer the conversation, or to ask questions to prompt me to reply. When I look back, it was cold and distant. Even the decor of her office, and distance the furniture was set apart fostered this clinical feel. I saw her for a month or two and moved on. The next was of similar age, but a lot more direct. She asked questions like she was shooting ducks, bam, bam, bam. Well that didn’t really much suit my withdrawn quiet depressed psyche. She said my depression was because I was gay, and I needed to come out and embrace it. It was the root cause of all my trouble.Hmmm, didn’t think gay was still in the DSM at that point. I moved on again.

From there I went to another female therapist. This woman was older, wiser and a whole lot more skilled than the first two. Each week I would go and sit and talk to her. It wasn’t an easy road, but she was kind and supportive. This was my first real experience with what it meant to be linked to another person on a very deep level. To come out of my shell and share, meant a certain amount of intimacy. I don’t mean sexual intimacy, I mean emotional intimacy. There was no stone left unturned, few thoughts left unsaid. I learned to trust, and to share what hurt. I learned no matter what I said, she would still be there on that same couch week after week. Nowhere in my life had I ever experienced anything like this. I can’t say I took to in like a duck to water, ’cause I didn’t. I found it uncomfortable and hard to express how I felt. I didn’t know how to put words on it. I was the equivalent of an infant when it came to emotional intelligence. I could be rational and discuss matters, but when asked how I felt, there were no words. I was an emotional mute.

The next therapist I met was during a somewhat extended hospitalization( 6 months). I was raging and angry. I was young, about 20 yrs old when our paths crossed. She was a far cry from the warm older woman I last saw. I disliked her from the moment I laid eyes on her. Everything from the suit, to her garter straps, right down to the gold ankle band. But most of all her small dark eyes. She made my skin crawl. I would have to sit there with her, and she would say nothing. For long stretches we would just watch each other. Like those documentaries of the animals at the watering hole in Africa. Each staring at the other to see who would move first, who would assert their dominance. Given the inpatient setting, there wasn’t much I could do. I had to see her. I had no power. She could change my meds, she could alter my privileges, she could ultimately decide if and when I left there. Somehow that inequality just enraged me. I would glare at her, I very rarely said anything remotely decent. I scared the heck out of this woman, and she made no bones about it. It was the only power I had, so I latched on to that for all it was worth. If she asked to speak with me, I would stand a little to close. Look at her a little to directly. If she took a step back, it was a victory for me. I felt such happiness in those small battles I won. If we were meeting off the unit, in her office, and I got her to stop the session and take me back, I’d celebrate. This relationship had been nothing about intimacy, it was about control. It was about the power play. I went nowhere in my treatment with her. That BS psychoanalytic style of hers didn’t do much for me. I have never liked silence, her treatment style just exploited that. I often wonder what my inpatient stay would have been like, had I found myself with a different doctor. Maybe I wouldn’t have hated it nearly as much.

As my time for discharge loomed close, she pulled the plug on our treatment together. But this meant I could not leave. I had no therapist for the outside. I still think she feared me, and my anger. An anger that rippled strong and raced just beneath the surface. Any idiot could see it, but the next who did see it was far from an idiot. The next person who came face to face with my anger, has been with me ever since. About 17 years ago I stood in a community meeting. Yeah, I was standing. Was supposed to be sitting, but I was so pissed I couldn’t see straight. If you were to ask me now, what I was angry about, I couldn’t tell you. I know it had to do with one of the other patients. Some perceived wrong by the staff. I was angry, I was defending her. It was us against them. I stood at the point. It was a spot I often found myself in. I was a leader amongst this disenfranchised motley crew of patients. I cared deeply for all of them, and we stood beside each other. On that day I found myself looking at a new adversary. I sized her up, I looked for a fault. I looked for any apparent weakness. I didn’t see any. I made myself bigger with my anger, I flexed that muscle I knew so well. It made most people back down, even if barely perceptibly. No, not her. Well, that just made me even more angry. She spoke to me, not at me. She deflected my anger, but in doing so did not patronize me. This woman was unlike any I had met. I don’t remember the outcome of that meeting. I don’t remember the name of the little blond girl, I was defending like my life depended on it. I don’t even know what happened to her. I do know that in that moment I crossed paths with the person who would save me.

She stepped to the plate, and took me on at discharge. I’m not saying it was easy, and she sure had her work cut out for her. But in these past 17 years, I learned about loyalty, and faith. I learned that I forever have someone in my corner. We have been to hell and back. From the darkest of moments, to the highs of hypomania. From hospitalizations and suicide attempts to the in between moments where life levels out and things are good. I have never known anyone like her. I have never known a person who didn’t run when times got rough. A person who didn’t back down when I got pissed and flashed that ever-present anger. I learned about respect, I learned how to harness that anger and make my life worth living. It was our work together that made this possible. Over these years, and the hundreds upon hundreds of sessions later, I have found that emotional intelligence I so lacked at the beginning. I have found my emotional “home”. In those moments that I lose sight of it, and get lost in the Bipolar train of emotions, all it takes is her voice. That voice I know so well, to bring me back toward center, back to that emotional “home”.

It was an easy decision to give her the name Virgil for this blog. It so suits our relationship, and where we have been. She truly is a guide, standing beside me for our journey. Just as Virgil led Dante, all the while explaining what was happening. Sometimes Virgil walked beside Dante, other times he stepped ahead to guide the way. Sometimes he even walked behind to let Dante take the lead. This mirrors the work that happens in therapy. Good therapy. She has given me knowledge. She has given me tools to travel this road,regardless of if I am in front or lagging behind. Most of all she has given me unwavering support, no matter what happens, or where on the path of life I am.

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