I am not a rookie when it comes to therapy. I have years of experience sitting on the couch. The first time I explored therapy, I was estranged from my mom. We had had a massive falling out over something my brother did. She wrote a fifteen page email and forwarded it to everyone in my contact list (She was able to access that via a chain email I had forwarded her). The email outlined what a terrible human I was, and even worse daughter. She had been keeping a journal of all the things I confided in her (as daughters are apt to do with their mothers.) The email explained away the journal as something she suspected she would need at some later date.
As a result, for over a year, I sat on a nice lady’s couch weekly and worked thru the feelings of such an intimate betrayal by the one person in the whole world a girl should be able to count on; her mom. I read the books she suggested, I took the pills that were prescribed. I went to garage sales and bought old porcelain plates for the sole purpose of smashing them to let out my anger.
I cut my mom off completely. Her betrayal rocked me in a way I couldnt have anticipated. My confidence was shot. If my own mom couldnt see value in me, how could anyone else? And worse, what if I didnt have any?
One of the things Ive learned thru therapy and working thru tough shit is that often, you feel worse before you feel better. You have to put everything on the table, confront and acknowledge all your feelings, even the icky ones. Sometimes you dont even know why you feel the things you feel.
The next time I saw a therapist, I was trying to save my marriage. I attended three sessions with my now, ex-husband, when the therapist suggested we not return. My then husband refused, or was unable to participate. He sat on the couch and cried, but refused to speak. I stayed an additional four years before I asked for a divorce.
After that, I saw a therapist in the same office as my daughters therapist. My daughter was a teenager at the time. She was self-harming and had been for a few years. Her therapist woudn’t speak to me about her and I thought the next best thing was seeing someone myself in the same office. Perhaps the doctors would exchange notes. I was worried she was getting worse. I was scared and distraught; I was frightened; I didn’t know where to turn. I needed support so that I could support her. I lived in daily fear that she would commit suicide. It was during this time period that I began having the one and only reoccuring dream ive ever had.
It’s the middle of the night and I receive the news that she has committed suicide. We take a helicopter to where she is, and when we get to her apartment the EMT’s try to keep me out of the room, telling me I don’t want to see her like that. But when I push past them into the room, she is there very much alive, talking and smiling. I try to grab her to show everyone it’s all been a big misunderstanding, but when I get to the door, she disappears. I can only see and talk to her in that room. If I leave, she cannot follow me; so I don’t leave. Ever. I choose to stop existing in the outside world as opposed to losing her forever. (My latest therapist pointed out to me that the significance is that she cannot exist without me and I without her. My relationship with her is the very definition of codependent. I imagine that’s something we’ll be focusing on and working thru as time goes on.)
At the same time, I was also newly remarried with four stepchildren, in addition to my own two biological. The transition was bumpy and not an easy one. Second families are not at all like first families. There were boundary issues, parenting issues, co-parenting issues, and about every other issue you can think of associated with blended families. I didn’t know how to help my daughter and I didn’t know how to help myself so I could best help her. I worried my divorce and re-marriage had caused her mental illness. I felt tremendous guilt, feeling like maybe I had traded her well-being for my own.
Most recently, I have found myself back on the couch because, plain speaking, I’m struggling with life. In the last five years, I have lost every sibling I have, and my mom. I have spent hours of my life sitting in hospice rooms watching my mom, and more recently my sister, slowly waste away to nothing. I have grieved for them as their hearts still beat, knowing that soon they would be gone. I have witnessed them refuse to eat, I have sat in on meetings with doctors, nurses, and social workers as they’ve explained the end stages of life, and the decisions that would need to be made. I have been responsible for making some of those decisions (my mom), and they were gut wrenching. I had nurses and doctors asking me how they could best help my mom die, and I didn’t know because I didn’t know my mom. I felt so much guilt; so much sadness; and yes, anger, because it never should have gotten so bad between us.
I have also received unexpected horrible phone calls out of nowhere to be told I need to return from a vacation (my brother) or midday at work (my other sister) because they stopped breathing overnight and were discovered in the morning, already gone.
I can’t tell you which is easier to deal with. On the one hand, I was able to tell my mom and sister how much I loved them before they passed. That is something I didn’t get with my brother or other sister. I think, in the short term, the unexpected deaths were harder for me because I didn’t see them coming and couldn’t prepare emotionally. When my mom passed I was holding her hand and had been grieving her for months. When I received the phone call waking me early in the morning on a Tuesday when my sister passed, I had known it was coming and said my goodbyes two days earlier.
I didn’t even initially cry when I got the news. I felt numb and I felt angry (but that’s another blog post.) In the long term, watching my mom and sister slowly die was excruciating. I needed to be strong for them while I was crumbling on the inside. In the case of my sister, she was married with a family of her own, and decisions were completely outside of my control. Information brings me a sense of control, and in the case of my sister, I had very little.
I have planned and payed for memorial services, and also been completely left out of planning services. My sisters family planned her memorial service on my birthday and I found out about the service when I got a mailed invitation to it. I felt like an outsider, and an unwelcome one at that. I was disconnected from that other side of my family even though it was the only family I had left. That is also something I’ve been working thru in therapy.
My husband recently questioned whether I should continue with therapy. He didn’t think I was getting better.
The idea of “better” has left me perplexed. What is Better? Who decides when I am better? What will that look like? Grief changes a person. Who you were before your loss is not who you’ll be when you exit the tunnel of despair and heartache. As the waves of grief ebb and the tide recedes, you will look in the mirror and a stranger will be looking back, weary and with a knowledge they did not ask for and would never wish to share.
When I sit on The Couch now, the woman in the mirror is the one I’m trying to get to know.