My dear Sweatpants & Coffee tribe,
I’ve been in the mental health trenches lately, as perhaps many of you are, and have been. Therapy has been wild. I wrote the other day, “I really get my money’s worth out of these sessions. I’m like one of those people at the Mongolian BBQ place who gets the side-eye from the cashier because their $8.95 one-per-person bowl is just heaped with enough food to feed an entire family. Except my bowl is full of emotional issues.”
If you’re literally paying an expert stranger to listen to your problems, there’s no reason to be apologetic, but still. I want to defend my father to the patient woman sitting across from me, regarding me thoughtfully over the top of her legal pad. There’s no judgment coming from her placid scrutiny, but I’m airing secrets, so I feel guilty.
“He loved me very much. He was a really good dad. He just couldn’t hold that thought in his head, I think.” I pause. She’s waiting, but not expectantly. The best therapists know how to leave space and observe what fills it. “But I mean, I was so little. I didn’t even know what French kissing was. I wouldn’t make up a story about going to kiss a grownup relative goodbye at a party and having him turn his head at the last second and stick his tongue in my mouth. What kid would make up a story like that?”
The trauma (one of many) we’re working on is not the tongue in the mouth – which was just gross and confusing. It’s the schism between what I know happened and what I was later told. “Stop it That’s not true. We don’t say things like that about family!” I did say it, though. And I learned a lesson – just because a thing is real doesn’t mean you should say it or that you will be believed. I didn’t know the word gaslighting then, but even if I had, I’d have felt bad applying it to my parents who were only trying to protect me with what they had: a salve of love and denial. Also, they’re dead, and it feels disrespectful.
It’s taken years to understand that I’m deeply and essentially angry that I was taught to distrust my own perceptions at an early age. And that most of my shame is about that anger. I’m supposed to list my traumas today, and I’m surprised at how embarrassing it is. They seem shabby and insubstantial. Beat-up cardboard traumas.
Therapy is a show and tell of scars. Scar-gazing.
This one, I got in preschool. This one, on the bus in middle school. This one, in my own house, when I was 19. Oh, yeah – I forgot the one when I was nine; it’s more like a soft-focus movie-memory, but we should probably count it.
“I mean this in the most complimentary way,” says the psychologist. “But you could be a lot crazier. If that makes any sense.”
It does. I burst out laughing. “Well, if that’s your clinical assessment.”
It’s almost illicit – the pleasure of speaking aloud what has always felt true in my bones and being not just heard but validated. The minute I leave this office, I will, of course, immediately begin spackling over this bright relief with a layer of guilt and dissociation. But each time, the layer is thinner and easier to bust through. Eventually, maybe I’ll get tired of cleaning up the mess and just not bother with the covering over. But for now, this is okay.
Sometimes, it can be enough to recognize your scars, and to name them like constellations set in the firmament of the night sky.