For nearly two years, I’ve had a recurring monthly appointment with a therapist. His name is Randy, and he’s a psychologist who worked at Mayo Clinic for thirty years before opening a private practice. I began seeing him six months after my diagnosis.
I haven’t ever actually looked forward to these sessions…but I always keep them, because I know they are good for me.
I leave each session with something to mull over—a new insight, a behavior which isn’t serving me well, or a newly unearthed fear I’ve held close but haven’t expressed verbally. On the best days, I leave with the joy of sharing a good laugh as I admit my idiosyncrasies without feeling judged.
I understand I have to be totally honest in order for Randy to help me, but there are times I hedge. I might start to talk about a new symptom, fear, or emotion, but then stop without completing my thought. Or I might totally change the subject mid-sentence. Sometimes I glibly answer, “I’m doing fine…” when asked how things are going. I’m also quite adept at changing the focus away from me and asking Randy a question. It’s so much easier to ask about his most recent vacation than to dredge up my difficult emotions.
Randy respects and honors my right to stop talking about a topic that feels too upsetting or painful at the moment; but I can be assured he will circle back to my silence later in the session, asking in his calm, gentle manner if I’m “ready to talk about ‘x’ now?” If I decline again, he will likely bring it up during my next visit in the same open and accepting way.
Once I finally open up to Randy, I’ve been struck time and again by the honest breakthroughs I’ve reached. There is a remarkable difference in the conclusions I’m able to reach in this non-judgmental space—witnessed by an empathetic listener—compared to the ideas that result from my own self-talk, which is often critical, demeaning, judgmental, and negative.
In therapy I do a fair amount of venting. I release my periodic frustration with my family’s behavior—and hear myself vacillating between saying they hover too much, then complaining they aren’t there for me enough. I acknowledge how exhausted I am at how much work it takes for me to get through a day, and how frustrating it is to know what I don’t know. I admit how sorry I can feel for myself when I can’t find the right word in a conversation or in my writing, especially because I’m a writer and words matter. I always shed at least a few tears, followed by a deep sigh of relief at having let it all out.
I began this essay by saying I never looked forward to these sessions, but just this week I realized that statement isn’t entirely true. For the first time in two years, my monthly session was cancelled due to icy road conditions, and couldn’t be rescheduled until next month. I found myself feeling disappointed and sad at the prospect of going two whole months without being able to express my emotions and frustrations freely, and leaving Randy’s office feeling emotionally lighter and more resilient.
For the first time, I’m approaching my next session with a new appreciation for the reward I get for the hard work of purging, sounding off, complaining, venting, and clearing.
Not only do I experience a personal benefit, but my marriage has benefited from therapy recently as well. Those who have read our book know that Keith and I had a paradigm-shifting experience with couples therapy after Keith suffered sexual dysfunction after prostate surgery.
But just like life, a marriage is never done shifting and adapting, and we found ourselves seeking a new solution a few months ago when Keith and I were at odds with each other. I was feeling misunderstood and dismissed, and Keith was feeling as if he couldn’t do anything right. We both felt miserable and stuck. I suggested we meet with Randy together and Keith agreed without hesitation.
Being able to express our frustrations, complaints, anxieties and discord to and through a neutral third party helped us concentrate on listening to each other rather than trying to ‘win’ our disagreements, justify our reactions, or blame one another. And of course, because we had the opportunity to listen, we heard each other and recognized our misconceptions, mistaken perceptions and judgments.
Randy reminded us that we are walking through uncharted territory in our relationship. My memory lapses can cause me to feel frustrated, anxious, and a painful sense of the ‘loss of me.’ And if that weren’t enough, my moods can be variable, unpredictable, and out of character at times. Keith is also in the midst of significant changes in his life, as he is restructuring his business in transition to semi-retirement, and is experiencing frustration at not being able to ‘fix’ my condition.
Of course we had recognized these issues ourselves; but naming them out loud, in this safe space released much of the anger and frustration we had been holding…and as we released it, we reached for each other’s hand. After quietly observing us for a few seconds Randy spoke again. “You two have been through a lot of hardships and significant challenges during your marriage—major medical issues, untimely deaths of parents and a grandchild, job changes, relocations, times of financial hardship. But through it all you’ve remained united and strong, because you’ve been open and honest with each other, sharing your fears, expressing your needs. You know talking is the key to understanding—even when it’s painful.”
It’s been four weeks since our joint session and it feels as if our barometers have been reset. We are again loving, laughing and listening to each other. And while I’m now back to seeing Randy by myself, we know we won’t hesitate to ask for another joint session when needed.
The sessions are hard work, but it’s good therapy.