For years, I’ve joked that writing is cheaper than therapy. Come to think of it, I’ve said the same thing about wine. Earlier this year, though, writing and enjoying a good glass of Pinot wasn’t helping. I realized I’d need to see a professional.
What exactly was wrong?
I don’t think anyone would blame me for unraveling a bit after 10 years of systematic targeting from cowards who write hate mail filled with sentences ending in prepositions. That would bum anyone out.
Or it could have been the sudden discovery of a missing gene that doubles my risk for cancer, requires invasive detection procedures, involves gifts like an “Inherited Risk Registry” lunch bag and, worst of all, limits the amount of Pinot I can drink.
Surprisingly enough, these weren’t my reasons for therapy. Challenging sure, but nothing too serious. Something else concerned me.
Waves of sadness concerned me.
These almost-suffocating surges arrived at awkward moments – in the carpool line, mile 4 of a 10-mile run, or once while reaching for a bag of cheesy poofs at Costco – and quickly built to a crescendo that left me spent and emotionally drained. Like open water swims at the beach, sometimes I could swim through the waves and arrive at the finish feeling victorious, other times I’d swallow a mouthful, almost drown and then fart sea water for the next two hours.
It’s no fun admitting you’re a cliché, but here I was, a middle-aged mom with everything she’d ever wanted, fighting waves of sadness and in need of professional help. How original. In the 1950s and 1960s, they called women like me “worried wells.” In the 1970s and ‘80s, they called us Woody Allen characters.
Now we’re Lexapro customers.
I tried to solve the problem myself. I mentored troubled kids, started Spanish lessons, took on more responsibility at work, and began training for triathlons, determined to work around what was happening.
I felt similar pangs back in 1998 when my Nana died. In 2009, I lost my best friend Becky to bad circumstances. This year, I lost my very dear friend Stewart. Some would say I’m fortunate to only have three losses at my age. Perhaps. That also means I have limited experience with the kind of profound grief that, at times, makes it difficult to breathe.
Exhausted, I finally admitted I couldn’t get through this on my own. I talked to a few psychiatrists and adamantly refused medication. The doctors agreed. My issue didn’t need drugs, it needed analysis. I wanted to talk to someone who didn’t love me unconditionally. I wanted to talk to a stranger.
A stranger with a few degrees.
I met Susan. My therapist.
After Susan determined this was not dangerous, not depression, and these episodes were not triggered by hormones, she zoned in on three areas. Mental anguish usually originates with spouse, kids, or work. Sometimes all three.
My husband Marc is my favorite person in the world. My kids are wonderful young men and a delight to be around most of the time. I have the career I’ve always dreamed of – all of which is good news, but also meant that Susan and I had our work cut out for us.
“I want you to make the sadness stop,” I demanded during our first session. “I’ll do whatever it takes: give me an exercise, mental or physical, or maybe a mantra. I’ll meditate. Hell, I’ll even go to church. There’s gotta be a solution and you and me, we’re going to find it.”
“Why do you want this to stop?” she asked.
I didn’t hesitate.
“It’s pissing me off,” I said.
We had weekly conversations, getting to the bottom of things. Susan recognized my determination and solution-based mindset. We also talked about Buddhism and its focus on non-permanence, mindfulness, and meditation. She encouraged me to learn more, and after a few months I crossed the bridge from trying to control and eliminate every unpleasant emotion into something that felt more like acceptance.
It wasn’t easy. Just sitting there, allowing sadness to come and go, silently and without warning. After a while, I got used to it.
As we age, we must deal with loss. People die. Relationships end. Lovers move away or move on. Letting go isn’t easy, but it’s necessary. Pain is part of life – like pap smears and nose hairs. Sometimes no solution is the solution.
Susan and I didn’t have a Good Will Hunting moment where I broke down and cried and realized I needed to move to San Francisco with Minnie Driver.
We simply discussed little moments of awareness that added up to a healthier outlook on life.
I stopped electronic forms of communication, exited social media, started daily meditation, read Pema Chodron books, practiced tonglen, embraced non-attachment and, most importantly, felt compassion. For all of us, including me. Combined together, these things set my soul at ease.
“Do you want to be the type of person who experiences profound loss and doesn’t mourn?” Susan asked.
I thought about that for a while. No, of course not. Might as well feel it all while I’m here.
Writing does still help, as does a nice glass of wine. But I’m grateful to Susan, a stranger who never told me what to do, just pointed to a place where I could figure it out for myself.
A part of me will always mourn those I’ve lost. The trick isn’t to fight those feelings, it’s to accept them.
To accept myself.
Even in Costco.