Posted by: cavemanwithmartini | June 3, 2010

Chapter 4 of How To Be Relentlessly Happy; What Have You Been Through?

IV. What Have You Been Through?

I was only about five appointments in, but a very long ways therapeutically, by the time my therapist had diagnosed me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was diagnosed at Fenway Community Health Center. Fenway mostly but not exclusively served the gay and lesbian community of Boston. A well-regarded, warm and always busy place, it was also known to have some of the most innovative therapists in town. Since the town was Boston, that did mean something.

Lisa was my therapist at Fenway, and a gifted one. In a breezy, confident style completely her own, she lowered my guard by keeping me pleasantly off-guard, but she was not the first therapist I had ever met.

My first experience of therapy was at an office very near where I was living at the time, in Cambridge. My health-insurance provider arranged the appointment, and it felt in every way, like a first date.

I decided to walk, the office wasn’t far, after several stately Harvard acres, I came to a small, squat building with none of the Ivy-league charm of the surrounding area. I thought it looked like a bunker. I soon learned this particular bunker concealed a nun.

Showing up for a therapists appointment would have been a new experience. But sitting in front of a nun, for me, that couldn’t have been more familiar.

“I’m Troy. You’re a … nun”, I said smiling quizzically.

“I am a practicing nun, yes.”

“A practicing nun?”

She didn’t get up, and immediately added: “However. Even though I am a nun, I can assure you that you can tell me anything, no matter how shocking, and I will not be shocked.”

Something about it felt like a brag.

“I can talk about anything?”


I stuttered, and looked at her trying to communicate this is a joke right you can’t be serious purely with my facial expression..

A long moment passed where we smiled at each other with our mutual eyebrows raised until I was forced to say-

“Nightclubs, music, sex. Drugs?“

“Yes yes”, she said quickly, and then, as if remembering to soften, “- sure.”

Even though the day was bright she had the blinds drawn, her desk light on. She sat behind her sizable vintage steel desk, with a dream-a-little-dream-of-me smile, in full-habit, and sturdy brown wooden crucifix.

In a black leather jacket and ripped jeans, probably smelling of a hard night out, I sat there glaring at her.

We slowly started asking each other random questions. The awkward first date had every potential to be the worst date ever. I considered the massive waste of time this was going to be. At the time, I thought I needed a different kind of therapist, someone tough, sophisticated, maybe well-traveled. I didn’t really know what I needed. But I had been surrounded by nuns my entire life. If one of them was going to help me, I felt like I would have been helped by now.

“I’ve had sex with all my friends” I said, eventually, in a quiet yet resigned voice, “I don’t think I have any real friends.”

“Maybe you should make some friends you don’t have sex with?”

She glanced at me like this simple, nothing of an observation, was only the start of what was going to be her big assistance to me.

“How would I even meet someone like that?” I said, testing for the presence of a sturdy sense of humor. Getting serious, pushing her on her dare, I added, “But tell me. What’s wrong with only making friends with people you’ve had good sex with?”

Even I, even then, could have guessed the answer to this, but I wanted to hear her good answer. She looked at me like a grade-school teacher with a hopelessly crass dunce, I examined her closely for cracks and signs of judgment. Not yet.

Since I had gone to private school for so long, therapy sessions with a nun were going to quickly become a great way to explore my feelings about going to Catholic-school or we’d soon hit a bland dead-end. We said little but both understood we were careening toward the latter.

I honestly think she was so intimidated by me, what I was wearing, what I might say, the faint aura of sex around me, that the appointment quickly became more a torture for her, than any kind of help for me. She seemed to be edging closer and closer to actual tears. I kind of felt sorry for her, and I kind of really wanted to see them.

Fear of AIDS, murderous rage, violence-I didn’t think she could handle my imagination, much less my real life, which did include drugs, anonymous sex, and a creeping, all-engrossing paranoia.

I decided to leave. On the way out she said, again, that I should be honest, that she couldn’t be shocked. Even as she spoke, she looked at me with a please don’t hurt me, frightened-rabbit expression. The entire appointment became her dozen different reasons why having sex was, as she said, “a bad idea”.

I was 24, relatively attractive and had long ago established sex as my main coping mechanism for anxiety. If giving up sex was going to be a cure for me, I never wanted to be well. For this reason alone, I was probably the closest thing to the Devil she was ever likely to meet.

I decided that not only could she be shocked, but that she had been shocked recently, probably a dozen times just in the minutes since we met. I walked out about thirty minutes in, apologizing awkwardly and likely sending her whirling into an appointment with a career-counselor, prayer or both. I don’t remember that well, but I think I went off to have sex with someone.

Our few minutes of knowing each other, only sent us running off to our mutual coping techniques. I didn’t know anything about healing, I really didn’t, I did know that wasn’t it.

A few days after my appointment with the flying therapist, I was walking up Marlborough Street in Boston, very half-heartedly trying again. I was perfectly prepared to give up therapy forever, but not without what I considered to be a decent attempt.

As a backdrop for speaking about unspeakable things, Boston’s picturesque Marlborough Street with its old, stone edifices adorned with fresh, young greenery wasn’t bad. It seemed like a place where things go to die or be born.

My new therapist was just as on the up and up, as the street I went down to meet him was. At the edge of a glamorous environment of cafes and upscale European boutiques, he worked in a smart, hotel-like building, among the flowering-trees of the Back Bay, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Boston. It seemed like the kind of place where you could get to work and let the healing begin. Being a writer, Anne Sexton came to mind, she wrote about the flowering trees of Boston, of being in therapy, being in the Back Bay. But she had also killed herself. And I was aware of that, too much.

Maybe the surroundings would be so uplifting that just going there once or twice a week might be enough to help me. Anyway. It couldn’t be worse than talking about sex with a nun.

I walked in and sat down in a clean and bright, but small office, with a guy only a little older than I was, who told me in a thick Indian accent that he just came to this country.

His accent was so thick, the sound of it literally made my eyebrows raise upon hearing it. He seemed in a hurry to help.

“So! You want to see a therapist. Why? What made you think about seeing a therapist?”, he asked me crisply.

The environment was so elegant, I didn’t feel like I could be ugly-truthful with him. I left out the hours-long panic attacks, the isolating rage, the strong impulse toward violence, the sitting alone in a dark room, in a cold sweat for hours -and just said, “I feel … increasingly maudlin.” If I am prone to using a word like maudlin instead of sad, this was especially true in my twenties.

“What was it? What did you say?”

“Maudlin. I’ve been … maudlin.”

I said it three times, each time a little softer. A therapist making you repeat something difficult to say-that isn’t very nice, but it was better than when, after a minute or so, a big smile came over his face, and he said in a rush of words,“You’ve been modeling!”

I blinked my eyes, stood up.

“Well I think that is excellent! You are very handsome,” he added. “So what is the problem?”

And I walked out.

These were my first-ever experiences of therapy. My hopes that it would help me were pretty dashed at this point. I relate them because many years later I would learn that if the person seeking therapy is determined, careful to select someone with whom they can work, the process of finding a good therapist, by which I mean an effective therapist, can be, just by itself, a tremendous therapy, a powerful declaration of the desire to get better.

Indeed, for many people insisting on just the right match in therapy can be the first, very healthy act of a radically transformed inner-life. It is impossible to overstate how important this is.

A great many people do not push on. After one bad experience of therapy most people stop looking and stop going. I talk to people everywhere I go about when and how they started to see a therapist, almost everyone I talked to had stories like this.

Most often, a person has to work themselves up, quite a bit, to even ask for this kind of help, and then their first experience of help is that much more un-helpful, even aggravating and tearing at the hurt simply because of the kinds of scenarios and people suggested for their therapy. Recovering from sexual assault, no one wants to talk to a therapist who looks in some sense like their attacker-that’s both reasonable and unfortunately, utterly commonplace.

As candidates for improved mental-health, we are going to have enough work with just what we are going in there for, we do not want any hidden grievances against the person trying to help us.

It is true that sometimes meeting regularly with someone who represents in some sense what we are struggling with or against, can aid us in moving past it, in a safe environment, but if you can’t even get going because of a lack of communication due to religion, age, gender, sexual-orientation, even race-it doesn’t matter how impolitic that block to the communication is, we want to move on to someone new. I needed to be able to be honest, feel free to speak, feel heard and even somewhat comfortable. Maybe even encouraged.

Looking back now, I would even take an extra step. I advise practicing saying, before the appointment, “I don’t want to meet regularly, with you. I don’t mean to sound impolite, I just don’t feel as comfortable as I’d like, and I prefer that this be productive time for both of us. For whatever reason-it’s not a match.” Questions will likely follow, being as direct as you can be will make a satisfying match more likely. “I want a male therapist please.” “Female.” “Female and gay.” Whatever it is.

Many people, even those that are educated and successful, don’t realize they can say this. It is completely OK. We wouldn’t go to a job that we got if we didn’t want it, we wouldn’t go on a date with someone who rubbed us the wrong way, but for some reason, many people feel that the therapy they get, is the therapy they get. Not true.

Learning to relate this admittedly difficult and awkward communication could not only change the path our therapy takes, it could change our entire lives. I know that I would have hated having a nun for a therapist. I very likely would have stopped going.

In attempting to talk to her, I felt more isolated than ever. The moment we decide to ask someone for help, and then actively look for it, is a moment to seize. Finding the right therapist is not something we can roll our eyes at. It is one of the situations in life when our input really does mean everything. As a culture, we need to discuss this moment more openly.

I don’t know why I continued to try to find a therapist to help me with my anxiety. I just knew I was desperate. At the same time, I honestly didn’t think having a therapist would change the outcome for me. I went into therapy exactly like one goes to the hospital, during a heart-attack. Only because it sounded vaguely correct. It must be what one does I thought.

Maybe I would get in trouble for not going into therapy when I was clearly falling apart. I didn’t think I would do well, or that the anxiety would stop. It’s not that I was not going to die. It was just that I needed someone to officially pronounce me dead.

As a last request of sorts, I wanted that someone to be a person who I felt could listen and hear me. I wanted to feel understood, if even for one small moment, by someone I respected. And that’s why I didn’t stay with the nun, and why I didn’t stay with the very nice Indian man.

I decided I would try just one more time, and then I would stop.

Fenway was my end-of-the-line in therapy, its offices right in the middle of Boston, and it was teeming with talented mental health professionals. It didn’t look like a bunker, it wasn’t quiet, it wasn’t posh either. It looked mostly like a small school, with classrooms and administrative offices. The people in the waiting room looked like my people; misfits, dragged-out, hopped-up, strung-out types, some waiting for shots of antibiotics to cure them of an STD, others with terrible, obvious anxiety. Lewd, eccentric, hardened, tired, end-of-the liners. These were my people.

Likely my health-insurance provider just figured that with that many therapists in one building it would keep me busy rejecting them for awhile. I was bound to find someone, they told me on the phone, and find someone I did. After an assessment-appointment by someone who asked me a long list of seemingly random questions, assuring me the whole time that he would likely not be my therapist, I was led into a small office and met Lisa.

Lisa was in every way easy to underestimate, and I wasted no time doing so. Short, always dressed in baggy khakis and a pale top, with a warm and earth-colored sweater over that, comfortable shoes, even her curly hair reminded me of a busy elementary-school teacher. After their assessment interview, it was their idea to match me with a woman, since their questions to me revealed that among other things, I had some issues with women. They made sure to ask me if this was okay, though, and I told them, “-as long as she isn’t a nun”.

We go inside these therapists offices, and they are like so many blind dates, we could be excused for giving up dating. They sit there like the wizard, in the Wizard of Oz, and the problems we bring them are like the giant wheezing, shaking computer around them. We think it is just as likely to explode as to grant us our most private wish. We come to them overwhelmed, but so are they, they can’t help but be-at times. The point is that we have an ally. And that’s what I had in Lisa, and then later, with Rob. I had, more than anything else, two very good allies.

Meeting Lisa, I knew I had reached the end of my stamina with this process and that if it did not work even one more time, I was done for. After all, I had daydreams upon daydreams of killing myself, being dead was my one and only true wish anymore and I wished for that all day long. Someone trying to help me, and then not ,and then not, resulted in me, finally at Fenway, bored and faraway, then nervous and ready to leave. I was not interested in this anymore, and was merely going through the motions. I wondered however if this match was going to another easy for me to dismiss solution.

I would quickly learn that Lisa was a lot of things.

Easy to dismiss was not one of them.

Lisa was always smiling and joking, she had a talent for continually displaying, in her physical presence, a tremendous personal warmth. She constantly gave me the feeling, almost from the very first moment I saw her, that she was from the future, when everything was already settled and fine, and that here she is, coming back from that future-moment of your perfect well-being, and isn’t it silly of you to doubt the outcome, when she just came there, from a time when you were sipping lemonade on the beach?

Lemonade, beach, you, fine, it was all just a little ways ahead.

Lisa would ask a question, as if the questions themselves were just a boring formality, and soon you were going to leave them aside and talk about something else entirely-something much more exciting and completely easy.

And somehow in just this way, we talked about my whole childhood, she would dig and probe a bit, and then she’d change the subject-mention something I was wearing, something about Boston, anything.

Making small jokes, making eye contact, speaking in a soft voice and being kind of charming. She made me laugh and laugh, simply because she gave me the sense that she thought therapy was kind of important, but really kind of ridiculous too. I couldn’t make up my mind about her, which was a very important detail. Was she just grasping, was she going to teach me how to be as gentle and easy-going as she was? Was she in over her head with me? Were we going to give up and just go have a salad and some gelato on Newbury Street and then walk me over to the best building in town to take a leap off of?

For a whole month, each week-I felt good when I was in session with her, on my way to the appointment, and on the way back. That’s about all the progress I had made, and the rest of my life was just as dark as it ever was. I woke up, got dressed, sat in a chair in my bedroom, and stayed there in a panic-attack all day long.

But-if she had cleared out even an hour a week of my life, really about three hours going there and back, where I felt even a little bit calmer, then I would agree to be impressed with her, for as long as it lasted. And I even did marvel at her, at that accomplishment. But I also knew, and I believe Lisa was even more aware, that was where things stood.

My inner-life was so dark, so horror-filled, it even intimidated me to think about it, and I knew it intimidated Lisa. My dark stuff sat there, like a monster in a crate that we were having lunch on top of, and that crate rattled and shook, and the growl from inside grew hungrier and more vicious. We both knew that we would have to open it someday, and I felt sad that we would have to, and Lisa made me feel that she would be sad to open it, too.

That is how the first three or four appointments went with Lisa. Until, very unexpectedly, with great energy and flourish, one day, at the very beginning of the appointment, Lisa simply handed me a piece of paper and a pen. Smiling, she told me to make a list, and write down everything I could think of from my past, that I wanted to talk with her about, everything that was bothering or haunting me, even the more shocking stuff, she said, and to not hold back, whatever I did. If it was unusual, or even struck me as unusual, I should write it down.

“And don’t worry”, she said conspiratorially, as if we were both at a cocktail party, and not in a brick building full of severely distressed people, “I’ve heard things that would make your toes curl.” She laughed, brimming with positivity.

You don’t know me, or my toes, I wanted to say, as she left me alone in the room.

I looked around the office uneasily. I picked up the sheet of white paper and immediately folded it in half.

Everything about this appointment felt different. She had joked with me as she left but seemed nervous. For the first time, we were headed toward a specific task instead of seemingly whiling-away the hours. Instead of only being half-interested in my therapy, we were suddenly extremely interested in my therapy.

Suddenly, in a lifetime of hard-to-do things nothing ever sounded harder than what she was asking me to do, now.

I looked around the room, then at the paper, then around the room. I couldn’t believe what she was asking me to do. Couldn’t believe resolving all my past transgressions, my beef with the world, the various nightmares of my life, could really start with something as simple as writing them down, one by one, looking them over, checking them off, like a shopping list. Shocking as it was, she was insisting I do just that. I really didn’t know if I could.

I did nothing for the first ten minutes. Slowly, but steadily, the idea of a list at first nagged, and then appealed to me. OK, a simple list, with no flourishes, I thought I could do that.

Like after a crime, when a cop tells you that you are going to draw a picture of the monster that attacked you, so that you can then hunt him down together, and end this, once and for all. And that was the point-I would have help. And the help was right there, standing right next to me, and the person helping me assured me that she could handle it. We were in a big, well-respected office in Boston, full of professionals trained to do exactly this, deeply capable people.

I shuddered, my mind raced, I was extremely uncomfortable, but I could not ultimately resist this step. My daily existence was so bad, so untenable. If this list represented a new start, even the start of a new start, not even the first step, but the first thing I could do in a hundred that would eventually lead to me taking a first step someday, then I must try to do it.

When I decided to write the list, without difficulty, I wrote down the first five things that came to my mind, in less than one minute.

There are no words to say how much that shocked me. That though I had never thought about my past seriously before, I quickly wrote down five things as if they had been on my mind my whole life long, day and night, somewhere in my unconscious un-awareness. As if I had been memorizing them over and over, to then somehow remember that I must forget them. All so that one day, when it was important, I would know them by heart, just in case someone asked. With great intensity, I looked my list over, like a math equation I had attempted, the successful solving of which might determine everything about my future, and gave it no title.

As soon as I wrote the list, I looked it over closely, and hated its existence.

Now that I had created the list, it was like it had a life of its own. Now I had really done something! It was like everything before was okay, bad but just barely manageable, but now that Lisa was back in the room and the list was done, it was as if I had started a small fire in her absence, which would soon rapidly grow and kill us both.

She sat down uneasily, it was the first time I saw her visibly unsettled, and she reached over for the list. I was more than happy not to have it on my person anymore, and I handed it to her readily, like it was my shame, my terror, my deep sadness, for her to somehow make all go away. She always gave me the sense that she could right? And she was from the future which was secure right? And we had always joked, so easily, even when we were discussing the really dark stuff.

I looked at her after a few minutes and felt very worried that she was still looking at the list. I felt bad to have done this to her.

This was going to end very badly, this was going to be worse than ever.

She stood up and said the one sentence in the world I didn’t expect her to say.

“I am a little overwhelmed by this list. Excuse me. I’ll be right back.”

And with that Lisa left the room.

If all of your worst nightmares came true, one after the other, what do you think would happen to you?

How long would you be able to hold yourself together?

Would you be okay after the first really bad trauma, even the first few?

How many worst things could happen to you, and you still remain you? The you that you, yourself, recognize as you? What combination of events would it take, to really get to you, to really mess you up, long-term?

Does it depend on the severity of the experience, who was with you when it happened, what you were doing when it occurred, maybe how old you were at the time?

Might there might be a way to walk through hell and still somehow not fall apart so much that anyone could tell this just from looking at you?

Of course, the other side of that is, if all the worst things you can imagine have already happened to you, over and over, what in the world is there to be afraid of anymore? What could truly stop you?

If you could heal from it, you could become very powerful in your mind, that is, if you weren’t left with a psyche so fragile you’d have to be hospitalized.

The fascinating thing is of course, that everybody’s list of what would be the most horrific experience, the most traumatizing and debilitating experience, would be so unique to them specifically. Though our troubles and obstacles to peace, happiness and healing are almost shockingly similar, it seems to me how and what we fear in a concrete form is very unique, because it involves our specific personalities. I have a wonderful photo of a moment of an earthquake, and one person is laughing as the ground is starting to shake, and the person next to them is starting to scream.

What is shameful and obliterating to the self for one person is no big deal to someone else. Being exposed nude in front of the whole town for one person could make them attempt suicide the next day. I know people like that, that would experience public nudity as the ultimate moment of fear, leading to tremendous private shame. For someone else, that would be no big deal, they would go through it with an upturned smile. The experience would make them, to themselves, a hero of courage and self-acceptance. I know people like that too. And yet that same person might fear something else-clowns, guns, physical violence.

And there are things that make almost every human-being tremble.

But if I had written out a list, of all the things in life that I imagined to be, from the very earliest days of my life, the most horrific things I could personally think of, or imagine-all the things I hoped in my deepest soul to never experience or see in front of me even one time, if I had added to that list every year, almost as a warning to life to give me everything in the world but the things on that list-well, that would have been the list I wrote that day in that office.

That list would have been the story of exactly the things that began to happen to me, almost as soon as I was born, like clockwork, one right after the other.



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