Uncertainty, Part III

“And I went into this PsyD program because I was too much of a coward to take the risk of trying to write more, or start a therapy practice, and now I’m going to stay in it even though I hate it because I’m too much of a coward to leave, and it’s going to cost me a hundred fifty thousand dollars in debt and I’ll hate myself for doing it.”

He finally got it out of me, my therapist, after twenty minutes of me “not knowing” what I’d been feeling lately.

“Coward?” my therapist responded. 

He’d been doing this for the whole session, repeating one word out of my monologues. It’s infuriating. I know what he’s doing. I KNOW THAT TRICK I USE IT TOO BUDDY.

“Yes,” I said defiantly. “You heard me.”

“Harsh,” he said.

What is this, the one-word therapy challenge?

Of course, in his repeating that one word, coward, I heard the harshness of it. I almost never think of anyone else as a coward, no matter how scared they are or what they are avoiding. But it rattles around in my own narrative, every time I proclaim that I’m not happy and yet make no changes. It’s because I’m a coward.

“Yeah,” I said, sighing and softening a little. “I know. I don’t know why my self-criticism is at an 11 out of 10 these days.”

“Because you feel unsure,” he said.

Oh right, uncertainty. That. Again. Two years ago, I was barely aware of how little uncertainty was (relatively) part of my life. I had basically a 20-year life plan, and I didn’t even notice how safe it felt to have a plan. Jack and I were going to have a kid, I’d publish that shitty first book that is sitting in shitty draft form on my google drive, we’d move back home to Seattle, I would start the therapy practice that would be my career, maybe we’d have another kid. It was such a heteronormative White therapist lady dream, and there were so many templates for it. I knew a lot of couples where the wife had a part-time therapy practice while parenting, and the husband had a full-time and higher-income job.

I have no template for myself now. I keep trying to find one. Can someone please introduce me to a 45-year-old single female psychologist who is successfully paying off school loans and who made peace with either having or not having children after being right in the middle, and who has reasonable self-esteem and her presence actually makes some corner of the world better?

But even if I found her, there would be something off. Something that didn’t match, that would plunge me back into my own uncertainty. This is what I’ve been doing lately: finding people I want to be like, finding the reasons I’ll never be like them, and berating myself for those flaws.

You feel unsure. Sometimes I think, maybe I should save my money and stop going to therapy. What am I even doing there? And then I remember, I’m practicing feeling unsure, and moving through life anyway. I’m practicing being in relationship while being uncertain, letting another human in on the mess and the confusion, and noticing his lack of judgment about it all. I’m working on feeling the accusations I lob at myself like icy stinging snowballs, but then seeing that they are lobbed by a scared child.

“Because you feel unsure.” It didn’t fix anything to hear my therapist name that, but it also fixed everything. Oh right no wonder. The self-doubt and self-criticism are my oldest ways of making sense of not knowing why something bad happened, and not knowing how it will turn out.

This is his primary therapeutic intervention: he tells me why I’m hurting so badly. He reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing. And then he proceeds to not fix it.

“Attachment disruptions are always traumas,” he said during my divorce.

“This doctorate program has been consistently disappointing to you,” he reminded me last month.

“You wanted to feel like you were on a path that made you feel competent, and it’s been the opposite,” he said last week. “Everyone in a PsyD program feels that way in the first year, but I think it’s been especially hard for you.”

His words stay with me, usually only for a little while (if they stuck forever I wouldn’t need to go back). I recall them when I need them, not before the self-criticism arises, but in a quick response afterward. Oh, here I am again, harsh because I’m scared because I’m unsure. Well that makes sense. As usual, uncertainty is not cured through certainty, but made tolerable through kindness.

Hanging in there

Humiliating was the word that woke me up at 2, then 3, and now I’m up at 4am because it’s better than lying awake in bed. That was humiliating.

“We’ve decided not to offer you a position. It seems that your experience is not the best match for our clients.”

This was for a practicum placement in a shelter for women who are homeless and/or fleeing domestic violence. I really wanted it. I keep replaying the interview questions and wishing I’d answered them better, but also feeling like I answered them well, and truthfully.

They asked why I was wanting to work in a community mental health setting after years in “private practice.”

This dichotomy exists in the field from the first day you enter it. Community mental health workers, so the stereotypes go, are advocates, warriors, but not the smartest clinicians and maybe they “couldn’t make it” in private practice. Private practice therapists are arrogant, sheltered from the world’s real problems, intellectual, business savvy and “successful.” In both camps, there is jealousy and scorn for the other. Some people manage to find the middle by having a part-time private practice with wealthy clients and doing part-time community mental health work with poor ones. The Robin Hood method of a psychotherapy career.

I spoke in my interview about how much I hate that dichotomy. How I went back to school right at the point in my career where I was gaining enough of a reputation that I could have built a “successful” private practice with people who could easily pay me $150 a session. That my colleagues who are on the community mental health track are asking questions like, Is this my salary for the rest of my life? Can I support a family with this? Will I burn out? Therapy offices (and clinics, and homeless shelters) are a microcosm of what’s happening in the whole country— the rich get more wealth (in the form of experienced, well-trained, well-rested therapists who can give them their full clinical hearts and attention), and the poor get poverty (in the form of beginning therapists who don’t know what they’re doing, who are burdened by demands of their training program, and who leave after 9 months because their internship is over; or who are out of school and not getting paid enough to live).

“I hate this system,” I told my interviewees. “I want to rebuild it, and I don’t know how. But I want to step into community mental health so that I can start thinking about how to solve it.”

I thought it was a pretty good answer, and waited for the email offering me the spot. For five hours, refreshing my browser constantly and not paying attention in class.

We’ve decided not to offer you the position. We were impressed with your experience, but we feel that you are not the best match for our clients.

Ouch. They might be right. They know their clients. But I couldn’t help feeling like my “experience” keeps pegging me into a very tight “private practice” box. She can’t learn what we want to teach, people seem to think.

I wish I’d said that in my “private practice” career so far I have worked with beleaguered, traumatized, multi-stressed individuals, mostly women. I didn’t realize until I walked out that they must be picturing me welcoming a series of plaid-shirted white tech guys from a waiting room into my office, where we talk about the pain of not having cup holders on your company-funded wifi-equipped bus ride into work.

I took a placement for next year that, truthfully, I’m not excited about. It’s working with adolescents, mostly boys, who are referred after getting into trouble (with cops or parents) for drug use/possession. It is community mental health, complete with the mountains of paperwork to ensure continued funding. I am trying to keep an opening in my heart for the possibility that I will dig these kids and this type of work. Admittedly, I’d so much rather sit with a traumatized, chaotic, homeless woman than a teenaged boy. I know that working with adolescents will necessarily stir up my own goofy-traumatic adolescent feelings. I’m not excited about that.

This first year in my doctorate program has been a series of invalidating who I thought I was. You can’t waive any classes, even if you’ve taken them before. We don’t want to hire you to offer free therapy to our clients, you’re not good enough for that but we won’t tell you why. It’s crazy-making. There’s a term in DBT therapy, a “chronically invalidating environment.” It refers to why people with borderline personality disorder act the way they do, often having come from a home or culture where they were never acknowledged or seen as a human with rights and needs and deserving of love and dignity. Invalidation makes people angry and crazy. I’ve certainly felt that this year.

And yet, underneath it, because I made the decision to stay, I feel resilient and strong against it. I’ve been taking those motherfucking classes again, engaging in whatever material is new to me, and re-thinking what’s already familiar. Having gotten a total of eleven rejections for practicum placements (ELEVEN), I’m willing to see what these druggy adolescents are gonna teach me (a lot, I’m sure). Despite the waves of humiliation, and after a humiliating divorce, I’m still here.

Sometimes hanging in there is really something to be proud of.

And the decision is…

And the decision is…

To stay, I think?

It’s the best I can do, making a decision with a question mark at the end, though I would like to burst forth with certainty and confidence and exclamation points. I HAVE DECIDED TO STAY! But that’s just not realistic.

I kept expecting to land on that exclamation point, or at least a solid and confident period. I told my supervisor last week, “Every time I imagine one thing, staying with the program or leaving it or moving back to Seattle, I immediately panic and imagine how much I’ll regret that choice in ten years.”

She looked at me with her grave dark eyes and that tiny modicum of a twinkle in them. “Oh, you’ll regret your choice,” she said. “That’s the only guarantee here. If you’re looking for the choice of no regret you’ll be stuck forever.”

Paradoxically, the decision to stay with my program came out of getting a huge blow, what at first felt like the last straw. I was put in the “clearinghouse” for next year’s practicum placement. What this means is that the places I applied to all chose other candidates over me, and the “clearinghouse” is where the leftovers end up (both students who did not get their top choices in placements, and places that did not get their top choice in students).

I originally applied with both confidence and arrogance, thinking that my six years practicing as a therapist would give me a leg up. When I got almost no interviews, my sister said, “In student teaching, usually experience is frowned on, because teachers want to shape students from the beginning. Applicants who have taught before come in with their own ways of doing things.” This might be the case with me, as I didn’t get placed at some agencies that offer the exact type of therapy that I’ve been doing (very well, I think) for a long time. But as I applied, the ways that I’m NOT experienced started to stand out in sharper relief. I haven’t worked with kids, or in community mental health settings. I think I am caught in a vortex of too much of one kind of experience and not enough of another.

So, I got placed in the clearinghouse. The leftovers camp. Is this the last straw? I wondered. If I were a believer in signs, having been wrestling with whether this program is the right fit since the beginning of it, it seemed like the clearinghouse should be the trumpet-sound from heaven: GET OUT.

But actually, the last straw had a funny effect on me. Getting rejected let me know something important: This education will be different from what I expected. And that’s what good education is. It’s learning things and having experiences you don’t plan for because you don’t yet even have a concept of them. The 18-year-old who swears she’s going into the medical profession takes an art history class and that changes everything. The 25-year-old artist realizes the value of a steady paycheck and decides to get training in software engineering. How can I know at the outset what this education will get me, and how will I receive what it offers if I insist on it being a certain way?

In the last month, I gave myself real and full permission to move back to Seattle. I imagined packing up and driving north, getting an apartment there where my nephew could have occasional sleepovers, where in the morning we would watch movies in our pajamas and listen to the rain fall through the trees. I cried over this image while walking along San Francisco’s bright and dirty cement sidewalks. I let myself start to plan this move.

And, I realized I didn’t want to do that quite yet.

It’s scary, because what if I never want to move back? I assume I will in two years, but what if I’m in a different place then? It’s still weird to have gone from a 10-year life plan (we’re gonna have kids and move back to Seattle and I’ll start a therapy practice), to essentially a two year plan (I’m gonna finish the coursework here, and then maybe move or maybe stay or maybe do something else entirely).

Mostly, this process has been a making peace with uncertainty and regret. Oh, you will regret your choice. I already do, and I certainly will when I’m up in Seattle next month, watching the rain in my pj’s. But it’s the set of regrets that feels most tolerable right now. And it’s offset by the joy of staying put, the intrigue of education, the stability of the structure that a doctorate program provides to my still-traumatized, uncertain, post-divorce soul.

When I was complaining about all this on Facebook last month, an acquaintance shared that he had prayed for me and imagined me in a field of flowers, smelling a rose with a pile of books and papers behind me. My therapist said, “I think it’s impossible to find balance in graduate school, because it just takes up so much time. But if you stay, you have to do the things that are important to you, so you can feel like yourself. It sounds like your nephew and writing are high up on that list.”

It’s been a rude shock to go from having a lot of freedom to be myself, to having to fit my self in the cracks of time and life. For example, I’m up at 5am writing this post, because I won’t have time after this. Next month I’m flying to Seattle for a short weekend, and will be doing homework on the flight there and back. It feels like there’s a tempting eject button, and at any point I can go back to a life of having my work valued (in the process of being repeatedly rejected for practicum training placements, I’ve told EIGHT potential therapy clients that I have no availability and would need to refer them to someone else), of having freedom to take care of my body and my creative self.

But, I think (question mark) it’ll be worth it to stick through the program. Maybe it’ll be worth it in a direct financial and career way, but maybe in other ways that have to do with the character formation of sticking through something hard, of having educational experiences you don’t know exist. At the very least, here’s my chance to have the necessary human experience of learning to tolerate your own set of inevitable regrets.

Should I stay or should I go now?

Staying or going… it’s such a binary choice, and shrink training teaches you to be suspicious of binaries. Is there a gray area with my doctorate program? I’ve been having trouble finding it.

Staying or going. Usually I hear this question from people contemplating their relationships. In marriages in trouble, re-committing for the rest of your life to the partner you currently despise is too hard. Of course, that’s what I wanted when my marriage was in trouble– in fact, I doubled-down on it. “I need to know I’m safe,” I insisted. “I can’t talk about this until I know you’re committed.”

Our couples therapist, Dr. Wise, was more moderate. “Jack, can you commit to trying? Can you take leaving off the table for a few months?” she asked. He couldn’t. But I suppose that was the right question, the one that might have eased just enough of my anxiety that I could have talked. Maybe there would have been a way for him to not feel totally trapped and I wouldn’t have been totally abandoned.

The middle is always so damn hard to find.

The Oregon Coast is helping me find the middle, I think, in my stay-or-go dilemma. Before I got here I was in total black-and-white binary mode. If I stay with my doctorate program, then I NEED to know I can pay back the loans, and the education will be worth it in ten years. If I leave, I NEED a guarantee that I won’t regret the decision. There is no room for dubious gray when anxiety is high.

But being here, in this place from my childhood, makes me feel like I don’t have to solve all my problems all at once. I remember that I can’t make a decision unless I have my whole self weighing in, and I have not had my whole self for a while. As with so many problems, the root is not feeling connected to self and others. The solution to solving a problem is usually not solving the problem, but strengthening self-and-other relationships first.

I knew Oregon would be magic.

An acquaintance of mine messaged me last week saying he is also up at 2am fretting about a choice. ”If I follow my girlfriend to Colorado, I’m afraid I won’t be myself anymore,” he said. “That’s the real fear. It’s not really leaving my business that I built, it’s not making new friends and finding a new routine in a different state. It’s no longer being me. Isn’t that always the fear?”

He’s right. The fear behind my urgency was that I’ll lose some important part of myself, whatever I choose.

My friend Leanna, raised as a 3rd culture kid abroad, and having lived in many cities as an adult, told me, “I feel like a part of me has died in every place I’ve left.”

Rather than “should I stay or go?” maybe I should be asking, what lives and what dies in the choice to stay or leave? Something always dies, but not always the thing you expect. I do not think of myself as a married person anymore, I am single, but marriage is interwoven into my fibers. I have known marriage, and marriage is a part of me. And now, singleness is a growing part of me.

Freud’s terms “ego” and “superego” were actually the German words “I” and “Above-I.” His English language translator thought that, in order to make Psychoanalysis more acceptable to the medical profession, Freud needed language that catered to the hallmark idea of Western science, that anything can be studied as a separate entity, so he took from the Greek “Ego,” “Id” and “Superego.” As if these are things we can dissect and examine, and not diffuse and momentary states of being.

In change and in choice, we are afraid of our ego being killed off, our sense of “I” dying. I am scared that I will no longer be I, and so I need something “above-I” (my “superego”) to make the choice for me.

I keep wishing I could go back to a year ago before the Wright Institute became a part of me, because it would be easier to hold my sense of myself. Easy to say no to a thing that was not already a part of me. But now, the Wright has become part of my ego, part of my “I.” And I am considering killing it off.

I even joked, in a bio for a talk I gave at my old graduate program last Fall, that “Christine is pursuing a PsyD at the Wright Institute, or will die trying.” Was I joking? Maybe not. Maybe it’s time to die.

Hopefully, both staying and going are closer to the middle than I’ve feared, rather than polar opposite choices. Maybe they are two slightly different versions of my ego, my “I.” At least now, looking at the waves, I feel more reassured that my ego will stay in tact—- that I will still be myself—- whatever I choose.

At the Oregon Coast

I’m back in the cabin of childhood, on the Oregon Coast.

Driving into Lincoln City always makes me think of the many trips my family took here, to come to this exact cabin, when I was a kid, most notably in the Volkswagen Vanagon. The rumbling of the diesel engine meant that everyone’s voice rattled when they talked. “D-a-a-a-a-a-ad make Jacob st-o-o-o-o-p!” Our cat, Nosey, would come along, meowing in her carrier, or sometimes (shh!) we let her out and she would crawl along the floor of the van.

Driving in, alone in a rental car, I wished I was a child in the Vanagon again, asking my parents how much longer before we got there.

I pulled up, unlocked the familiar foam-green door, put my keys down, and went out on the deck to see the ocean. I took a selfie and noticed how much deeper my mid-forehead therapist wrinkle has gotten in the last year. I’ve aged more than a year, thanks to the ongoing grief and the struggle. I have a right to that wrinkle, but I don’t like it.

I went back inside and said out loud, “Well, should I unpack?”

And the answer came in the form of my body suddenly feeling heavy. Not yet, it said. Sit on the floor.

So I did. And I immediately began weeping. It was the kind of crying where your body is taken over so forcefully that you can’t swallow the flood of saliva, so you just drool it out. Tears and spit and snot landed on the brick floor. I curled into a fetal position and found a strange comfort in being so close to the ground where I’d spent hours as a child.

“I’m hoping Oregon has some magic that will help me figure out my life,” I told people in San Francisco before I left. Last year it had the magic of helping me dream again. Being here last year, I found myself fantasizing about an actual future, a happy one without Jack. Maybe I’d get a doctorate. Maybe I’d get married again to someone kind.

Now, my forehead wrinkle is too big to ever get married again.

This trip, the magic of the Oregon Coast is that it’s bringing out my tears. It’s not a fun kind of magic. In my big, wracking sobs, I remembered being on the floor and doing puzzles with my mom, or sitting alone, bored and tired from playing in the waves, and studying the crevices and quirks of this place. I know every one of the photographs on the wall of this house getting built, by our family’s good friend Susan and her husband who died soon after. “Susan would have loved to have met someone after Dan died, but it didn’t work out, so she made the best of her life,” my Mom said.

She made the best of her life. I’m scared that’s what I’m gonna have to do. The actual best is behind, so the only thing ahead is “making the best of it.”

Sitting on the floor, I wanted to be five again, doing a puzzle with my mom, who was around my current age back then. Those sobs were out of the fear that her love was the best love I’ll ever receive in my life, and while my mom still loves me, that love is gone. The puzzle-on-a-floor love. The playing-in-the-waves love.

Before I left for the cabin, my mom packed my towels and sheets and a little jar of strawberry rhubarb jam for me to take. I was going to pack them myself, but I came back from a walk and she had already dragged a duffel bag up from the basement, stuffed it with things, and started reciting her mental list of other things I might consider taking. “You don’t want to have to do laundry, so bring your own pillows. Do you have a yoga mat? Take the thicker one, the floor there is so hard.”

Eventually, I got up from the floor and started unloading the car. I checked my phone and there was a text from my mom: “Did you get there okay?”

“Yes,” I texted back. “I’m unpacking now. Thank you for taking such good care of me.”

I meant the sheets and towels, but of course I also meant the hours she spent gazing into my crib, breastfeeding me, sitting on the floor and doing puzzles, taking me to the beach, singing songs, and saying, “You were the best Mother’s day present!” every time my May birthday rolls around.

Of course, it makes me wonder about having my own kids. But it’s hard to tell if I want a baby or if I want to be a baby. The lines get really blurred. I’m scared if I have or adopt a child I’ll be doing it for selfish reasons, so I can be loved again, which is one of the worst psychic burdens to inflict on a child. But what if the only cure for the odd pain of having been loved is to love?

After my floor-sob, I went for a walk out on the beach, and passed two kids, a girl and a boy, playing. The older sister had blond hair that was nearly in dreads from the ocean wind. She and her brother ran up to me. “DO YOU LIKE THIS?” she said, pressing a shell into my hand.

I looked at it. “I do like it! What do you think used to live in here?” It was the automatic response of being from a family of teachers. I can’t just appreciate something, I have to stimulate some learning for this 6-year-old I have no relationship with.

She ignored my pedantic question. “You can have it! We got a whole pile back there,” and they ran away, blond hair streaming and limbs flailing.

I didn’t think I’d be here again…

I didn’t think I’d be here again.

“You’re considering a divorce,” my supervisor said gravely. I’ve come to expect gravity from her, and her occasional light moments of mischievous and playful laughter take me by surprise almost every time.

A divorce. This time, a divorce from my doctorate program.

“And divorces are never slam-dunks,” she said. “Well,” she corrected herself, and I saw a flash of that twinkle. “I suppose there are always exceptions. But most divorces are an exercise in deciding what you’re most willing to regret later.”

I’ve been talking in therapy about what it might mean to have made a $24,000 dollar (and counting) mistake. It’s taken me four months to be able to consider it. I’ve been disappointed in my program since day one, but I’ve been trying to hang in and let myself adjust. If it weren’t for the money, I’d give it another year, maybe two. But I had a freakout after the first semester. Did I just make a twelve thousand dollar mistake? And now, I’m asking again, the figure doubled. What would it mean if I have to literally pay for this for the rest of my working life?

My therapist, reminiscent of a teddy bear with whom I would like to snuggle, asks, “Well, what would it mean?”

And I tell him. It means failure. It means I didn’t ask the right questions to begin with. It means I should have listened to the people who expressed caution, who urged me to consider a post-Master’s psychoanalytic training so I could become lofty and insufferable for cheaper, the people who asked me if I had really done all my research on this.

YES I HAVE, I insisted to them. And I had. But sometimes, in research, you don’t know what questions to ask. It’s the nature of research: questions lead to information which leads to better questions.

I tell my therapist that backing out would surely mean I didn’t try hard enough, I wasn’t actually smart enough. It would mean a future filled with certain regret; but I always follow that with, staying in also involves a future filled with certain regret.

“I’m noticing that you’re thinking a lot about what you may and may not regret, but you’re not talking about what makes you happy,” my therapist said.

Then I flew to Seattle. Literally, the day after he said that. I spent a rainy afternoon in my pajama pants playing “Catopoly” with my nephew. It’s like monopoly Auntie Chris, but with cats!! I wanted to move back, to just send for my stuff, not allowing for a goodbye of my home of nearly 5 years. I’ll just pretend that never happened.

Then I flew home, the other home, San Francisco home, and hosted my 3rd annual International Women’s Day party with a hurricane of 5-year-olds. They took over my apartment, bounced on my bed, chased my cat, threw cheese on my floor, took turns somersaulting over the edge of my couch, and I loved it. God how I loved it.

“I’m back to the drawing board,” I told one of the parents when the children swarmed out of the living room long enough so we could hear each other talk. “I’m thinking of leaving my doctorate program. I’m thinking of moving back to Seattle, before housing prices get worse there.”

“But Christine, we don’t want you to go,” he said.

There is such loss, such loss when home is two places. I cried flying away from my nephew, and I cried again after the party was over, recalling my friend’s words. Only the dirty miracle of grief makes loss bearable, but when home is in two places, you feel the loss almost daily. It’s an exercise in constant tears

I asked my supervisor, grave Queen Esther, what if I DID make a $24,000 mistake?

“CHICKEN FEED,” she said. “Twenty-four thousand dollars, to learn to be more tender with yourself when you change your mind? To experience how you can be in a surprisingly different place in a year’s time? To have the freedom to ask yourself what you want? Christine, that’s a bargain.”

My therapist’s take on it was, “Maybe it’s the cost of your divorce. You needed a plan and a major change, which everyone does after something like that. Divorces are always expensive.”

There’s something that feels so right about that, not good, but right, that I will literally pay, for years, for that tragedy. Something is so right about honoring how I had to climb out of that hole, the hard and expensive way.

I don’t know yet. I don’t know what my choice will be, but as the fear and shame slowly soften, the options open.

Five Embarrassing Things I Did During My Divorce (and Five Things I’m Proud of)

Five embarrassing things I did during my divorce:

1. Begged.

Not always out loud. I don’t actually remember how much of my begging made it to the surface, because it was inside me constantly. Please stop this. Please don’t go. Please work through this with me. I’ll do anything. I won’t say no to sex anymore. I won’t have limits. I’ll be whatever you wish I was.

For much of the four months of hell Jack put me through, I was frozen like a small child. Maybe if I am still enough, if I don’t make any sudden moves, things will go back to normal.

2. Attacked.

Some of the things I said to my husband were, “I’m sorry to see you alive this morning. I was hoping you would get hit by a bus overnight,” “I hope you get cancer and no one cares for you,” and “You don’t deserve the touch of another human as long as you live.”

Then I would go to work and see clients and pretend to be a shining beacon of compassion, thoughtfulness and gentleness.

3. Ceased to function.

I am good at life, generally. I like my work. I know how to play. I practice self-care. I eat. I do my dishes.

I did not do these things during my divorce. I spent days not eating because I didn’t care. I lied to my clients about having dentist appointments and sudden illnesses. I spent every evening watching tv and scrolling my phone mindlessly, not enjoying either activity, for months on end.

Overall, I did continue to function, but working and exercising and eating were all empty motions. It was life devoid of life. I was a walking hollowed-out trauma-balloon. Maybe I functioned well enough on the outside, but it felt like nothing. Living and not living felt about equal for a while.

4. Blamed myself

When the worst things that can happen happen to you, it stirs up your oldest demons. They come out of the graveyard and rush back into your life. If you weren’t so selfish, you would deserve love. He’s the only person who knows your true self, and he wants to get away. You never were sexy enough, smart enough, strong enough, you just faked it, but your time is up.

5. Denied it was happening

As much as I longed to feel connected again to the person I loved, I was scared of his acting out, so I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening and things were “normal.” There were some minutes where I really did almost believe that Jack was just out for a run, he would come home and share his world with me. Or, he was grabbing drinks with friends after work, nbd. Not that he had downloaded that app, not that he was looking into his other options, not that he was really most of the way out the door.

Psychic defenses—the mental gymnastics we do to protect ourselves from pain— are split into two categories, those that are “primitive” and those that are “secondary.” Primitive defenses develop in infancy, the first one being denial (“this isn’t happening”). Normally we can use the “secondary” defenses (rationalizing bad choices, making light of painful things) to get by in life, but when we’re going through a major trauma, we go back to primitive defenses.

Even while going through hell, a part of me (a very small part) found it fascinating to watch my own regression unfold. Oh my god, I just told my therapist about a vacation I want Jack and I to take. This is what denial feels like. Weird!

Five things I did during my divorce that I’m proud of:

1. Set limits.

Two weeks after Jack moved out— you know, after the four months of going back and forth about whether he wanted to recommit and live a life with me or whether he needed FREEDOM AND ADVENTURE AND ESCAPE FROM THE CONFINES OF DOMESTICITY— he emailed me, “Can you send me your rosemary potato recipe? I’m having friends over for brunch and I want to make it.”

I mean, first I texted a screenshot of this to like ten people. ‘Cause I’m mature like that.

Then I wrote back, “I will only respond to communication about legal or financial issues.” It was really hard and scary to write that. Telling the person you let in the deepest, the one that you loved and witnessed and cared for for a decade that the only topic on the table is now money, it’s a little strange. But after I did I felt both safe and powerful. Your bullshit is now optional for me, and I choose not to participate.

2. Asked for help.

I asked friends to please invite me over and cook dinner for me. I asked them to call me when they were watching dumb shows. I asked if I could take their kid out on a picnic and to a playground. I let them buy me dinner and flowers. I told them their words meant so much, and asked for more. I asked for help finding roommates. I asked them to call and check up on me whenever they thought of it. I asked them to be available after Jack moved out, after my first mediation meeting, to hear me ramble again about whether to change my name back or not.

And yet, I didn’t ask enough. As much as I asked, I was afraid of being burdensome, so I spent a lot of nights home alone crying, needing, not asking. I wish I’d asked more.

Now that I’m no longer in the middle of a trauma, I miss the freedom to ask for help. People like being asked for help. When I asked, I got to see other people’s brokenness, too. They helped me because they knew what it feels like to need help. Being desperate taught me what interdependence looks like.

3. Dreamed

This is still in process. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s terrifying and confusing. But, when your life goes back to the drawing board, you can dream or you can collapse. I cooked up this doctorate plan. My friend Travis said, “Christine, you can do anything. Anything. Sure you can get this doctorate. You can also move to Croatia. You can have children. You can write a book. You can join the circus.”

I picked the doctorate. It’s not what I’d hoped for in many ways. I may yet change my mind and opt for the circus.

4. Forgave myself

Being trained in psychology made this easier, I think. With my therapist’s help, I understood why I said horrible things, why I couldn’t stop crying, why the “ghosts in the nursery” were reactivated and I was blaming myself. From a previous post on this blog:

During my divorce, I went into a textbook case disorganized attachment. This is the strategy both children and adults take when they can’t figure out a consistent way to get close to the person they love. I started saying (and doing and thinking) things that I’d never said (or done or thought) before. They ranged from, “I hope you die,” and “I hope I die,” to “I never deserved you” and “You never deserved me.” There were a lot of these polar opposites— characteristic of a disorganized attachment. I scoffed and raged and threw things and wailed and stopped eating. It was scary to be saying and doing things I didn’t associate with myself, that I’d previously only heard “crazy people” say and do.

The underlying strategy of this disorganized attachment style is, if I say or do something radical enough, directed at you or at myself, I will get you to respond to me. When it comes to attachment, any response is better than no response. Thanks to my therapist training, I vaguely understood what was happening with my crazy behavior, and that helped keep me a little bit sane. Or at least I didn’t berate myself as much as I might have.

It is deeply healing to go further into the depths of crazy than you’d been before, and simultaneously (or soon after) offer yourself compassion and understanding. It’s fortifying. Self-compassion is the ultimate vitamin. Self-compassion means everyone else can think you’re batshit, and you have peace amidst their sneering and mockery.

5. Survived.

My therapist was the first person to name what I was going through as a trauma. “Disruptions in attachment are traumas,” he said.

“So what do you do when a trauma is unfolding?” I asked through tears. “I know how to work with people after a trauma, but not when it’s playing out day by day.”

“Your only job is to survive it,” he said.

And so, somehow, I did.

If you found this post because you’re in the middle of divorce or something horrible, you will survive, too. Promise.

On letting myself be destroyed, again.

These anniversaries, they might kill me.

“Oh baby,” Leanna texted, “Divorce feelings are so hard.”

They’re not hard, I said, they’re obliterating.

The feelings have felt far away for a while, but this week is an anniversary, and suddenly they come rushing in like a winter gust, leaking into the open windows and chilling the house.

And all the things, the horrible things, suddenly feel like they happened yesterday.

On this day last year, I cried so hard I went deaf in one ear for a week.

Two days later, I went into my final couple’s therapy appointment. Even though there seemed very little hope left, I still felt Jack’s words, “I want to get a divorce,” like an atom bomb.

I walked out and called my mom, desperate. She didn’t answer, so I called my Dad. He was buying granola at Fred Meyer, responding to my sobs in that measured voice one uses when talking on a cell phone in a public place. Even though I was drowning in grief, a part of me wondered at the paradox. My life was ending, and my dad was buying granola. The devastating and the ordinary.

“Some day you’ll both be a part of each other’s story,” he said.

I walked to the BART stop, logged onto Facebook and unfriended and blocked Jack, thinking, what a strange first divorce act. But it felt like the best way to protect myself. I was so tired of his lies.

I am jealous of people who have never experienced divorce for many reasons, the main one being, they can continue to believe themselves incapable of murderous rage. I see the reactions of my friends who are therapists when they glimpse my rage, caught between wanting to validate my feelings like they are supposed to do, but longing to squirm away from them. “Yeah… he really hurt you,” they say clumsily. Only the brave few have responded with true mirroring: “I hope his dick rots off.” “I’ve ended my decade-long friendship with him in solidarity to you.” “You can hate him as much as you want for as long as you want.”

We can’t hold for others what we don’t acknowledge in ourselves. This year has been a year of internally repenting for the ways I failed as a therapist, pre-my-divorce. I didn’t know that grief could go that deep. I didn’t know what it meant to feel obliterated, but still be walking around the city looking whole. I didn’t know what it meant to wish for someone’s death, and mean it, wholeheartedly. I squirmed away from these feelings in my clients, clumsily validating, but missing them entirely.

But I know now. My clients seem to intuit that I can hold more than I used to be able to. Down their own rabbit trails of rage and terror they go. The work is so much deeper, so much more human. I’m proud of my new capacity, but oh, the cost. I would reverse it if I could. I would go back to thinking that divorce and murderous rage belong to others, not to me.

I heard an interview with Margaret Cho recently. She was asked about forgiveness and her response was, “Forgiveness doesn’t heal me. I am healed by the cathartic power of rage, and anger serves as my bodyguard.”

Damn. I get that.

Of course, there are other feelings, too, not just the rage. There’s the looking up in the middle of crying, seeing the cat sitting aloof on the arm of the couch and looking askance at me. “Aren’t animals supposed to comfort you when you’re sad?” I asked her. “You’re useless.” Then I remembered how often Jack and I would joke about the useless cat. I don’t know what that cocktail of feeling is, some combination of longing and anger and sadness.

This week, when the feelings are close rather than far, when the rage rushes it unexpected and unannounced, I hear myself saying the things I said a year ago. Today’s golden moment was, “I hate Jesus. He deserved to die. I hope he did feel all the sins of the world. Asshole.” I pull out the mind-games that I had finally boxed up and put into storage, and play them compulsively: Maybe if I had not flossed in bed, Jack wouldn’t have blamed me for his confusion and regret. Maybe if I didn’t leave knives in the drying rack, he would have had a better internal object world and been able to keep his most important promise.

There are other anniversaries coming. The anniversary of the first time I felt free of caring about Jack either way. The anniversary of taking the GRE and knowing I was on my way to my own self-created life. The anniversary of welcoming my first post-divorce roommate. The anniversary of my week in Oregon, realizing that I still had me.

But this week. This week is a hard one. I know that it won’t actually kill me, that feelings truly felt bring life rather than death. But I also need to not know that, to feel fully, to let the mysterious process of grief, like the Holy Spirit Wind, rush in, destroying everything again.

“You’re So Mature”: The Growing Pains of Being Blocked by Anne Lamott on Twitter (and finally learning to track my period)

I am a writer who doesn’t read.

Ever since I took on this title of “Executive Editor” for an online magazine, and started teaching writing workshops, people throw random authors at me assuming I know what they’re talking about. They all seem to have three names. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

“Just look at David Foster Wallace,” my friend Kelly said yesterday as I was waiting for my latte macchiato, on a break during a “Writing Workshop for Therapists” that I was leading. I had run into her and she asked how the workshop was going.

“It’s the usual fraudulence,” I admitted. “I’m giving people advice that other writers have written in books, and even though I say where it’s from, they somehow credit me for telling them about it.”

“David Foster Wallace felt like a fraud all the time and he was a brilliant writer,” Kelly said.

Mental note: Google “David Foster Wallace.”

To be honest, I want the cliff’s notes to everything in life. I want to get my doctorate having read the summaries of all the Great Theories of Psychology, but these 500-page tomes weigh me down (literally and metaphorically).

Give a book one hundred pages minus your age, I read once, before you decide whether to stop reading it. That means when you’re 101 you finally can get away with not reading anything. I can’t wait.

The part of me that wants the cliff’s notes is probably my 5-year-old, youngest-of-four-kids self, wanting to keep up with the big-kid and grown-up conversations. I learned when I was young which words to mimic to elicit the response, “Wow, you’re so mature!” If I can know just enough about David Foster Wallace to nod knowingly, and maybe quote something, the grown-ups will be impressed.

Except, I’m the grown-up. Every week I want to tell my 22-year-old grad school colleagues, enjoy how impressed everyone is with you, because soon you’ll be an actual adult and no one will be like WOW HONEY, you’re only thirty-three and you know who David Foster Wallace is? You’re so mature!

You’re only thirty-three and you’re already paying for your own rent? So mature.

I miss impressing people.

On the night before my workshop, I was PMS-ing something major, and I realized it thanks to THE APP, because without AN APP I’m still basically fourteen years old when it comes to my period, having month after month of OH SHIT moments, asking colleagues and strangers for tampons. I have so many tampons at home, because I buy them in my OH SHIT moments, use two, then stash them in the bathroom only to buy another box twenty-six days later.

Anyway, I realized I might be PMS-ing when I thought, “Wait. I’ve been mean to myself about every choice I’ve made in the last 24 hours. That’s not usual.” So I checked the period app, and there it was, the little angry storm-cloud. PMS. So I ordered sushi, and was only a little bit mean to myself about that choice.

(Sushi. Latte macchiato. What will people think?)

So I was PMS-ing something major and thinking about how I’m a writer who doesn’t read, and no one is impressed that I’m only thirty-three and already have a job! I was getting ready to lead this writing workshop, and dreading having to pretend that I believe the shit I teach.

One of the things I tell my workshop attendees comes from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: “Learn to recognize your inner editor so you can more efficiently ignore it.” My inner editor has been saying, Don’t bother writing. Your best days are behind you, and they weren’t that impressive.

“No one cares if you write, so you have to,” says Queen Anne Lamott. Queen Anne, who blocked me on twitter. I meant to write that story, but I was too sad and angry at the time. She had tweeted that writers should not use laptops and phones, but they must use pen and paper for their ideas to have merit. I disagreed, vehemently, and quoted Bob Dylan at her. I was probably PMS-ing that day, too, but that was before I got the app. She blocked me, then tweeted, “Today I’m blocking asshats.”

IMG_7107 IMG_7106

I wanted revenge. I wanted to expose her, but also to apologize, and for her to apologize back. I wanted forgiveness and reconciliation from this person who doesn’t know I exist. It’s hard to have idols. To Queen Anne, I was just 160 characters that made her feel insecure and vulnerable for a moment, so she blocked me and called me an asshat.

“You reminded her that she’s getting old,” my therapist said.

“What’s wrong with getting old?” I asked.

But I have feelings about aging, too. No longer being so mature, or at least, no longer hearing that as a compliment. I needed to watch Anne Lamott get old on twitter and say old-person things like “iPhones don’t count,” because there are not enough women who grow old and are real about it. But I wanted her to also say, “You’ve made me rethink my position,” which is not a thing many old people say. I sure as hell do not want my 22-year-old colleagues making me rethink any of my positions, even though they almost certainly will. 

Speaking of positions, last year I worked up the courage to ask my Mom, “What’s sex like after menopause?”

“Similar to before menopause,” she said, “It mostly depends on how you feel about your body, and how respectful and kind your partner is.”

It was a good answer. I wanted a little more, but not from her, because even at age 33, I do not want to hear about my mother’s sex life. I want it from Queen Anne Lamott, from all those other writers (that I don’t read). I want to hear a post-menopausal woman admit, yeah, I never tracked my period well either, thank God it’s finally done. I crave their wisdom as much as I am itching to give my own advice to my twenty-two year old colleagues (“Plan to be on food stamps for a least a year if you’re starting a private practice,” might be the first bit).

Sometimes in my workshop, people say, “Rough drafts don’t work for me, because I don’t know what I really think until I say it to someone else.” I tell them a version of Queen Anne Lamott’s advice, “Write it down immediately, as soon as you’ve said it to your friend.” But I always add, “There are some great apps for note-taking.”

I am jealous, though, that they find face-to-face connection so easy, easier than sitting alone in a room writing. Maybe I am a writer who doesn’t read because I want something more immediate. I want the wise older woman sitting with me, not mediated by ink and paper (or, gasp, my kindle). I don’t want words, I want faces and voices.

I start my Writing Workshop for Therapist with the words of Julia Cameron. I can’t find the exact quote from The Artist’s Way, but she says something to the effect of, people who become psychotherapists were always supposed to be writers. They are lovers of story and meaning and truth. They become therapists because they’re too scared to follow their true calling.

Usually, when I say this, at least one person in the room makes a noise like they were just punched in the gut. That was my response the first time I read it, too. There was something so true about how I picked the socially-sanctioned path to truth and meaning and beauty. But, five years into my career, I now disagree. Therapists are writers who love faces. Therapists believe wisdom comes in words, but also in touch and voice and presence. Therapists are sometimes writers who don’t read, who would rather sit and talk.

Me with my friend Kathleen and Queen Anne Lamott, before our twitter-falling-out.

Me with my friend Kathleen and Queen Anne Lamott, before our twitter-falling-out.

I Miss Theology (but I don’t)

Part of the reason I picked my current doctorate program is because the school reminded me of the seminary from which I got my Master’s degree. There’s living room furniture in the front entrance. The classrooms have difficulty with temperature regulation, going from freezing to sweltering and back in the course of five minutes. The professors are spoken of as holy, next-level untouchables.

The difference, though, is my current program is not a seminary. There is no discussion of integrating current psychological theories with spiritual development, no integrating “God’s Story” with “Our Story,” no discussions of how “Church counseling” compares to “Secular counseling.” There is no theology. At least, not explicitly.

It’s a relief to not talk about theology.
And, I miss talking about theology.

Through theology, more specifically, feminist theology, I found words I needed to describe feelings I had. I found these words in feminism and feminist theology far more than in psychology or counseling.

Through feminist theology, I found words for my God-loving, wonder-infused, transcendent experiences, as well as for the constricting, oppressive, invisibilizing experience that is living as a Christian in a female body.

Feminist theology gave me words for what happened inside of me when my former pastor preached about the “If a man rapes a woman, he must marry her” passage without pausing to acknowledge the experience of that girl, after a lifetime of being treated as property, forced to marry her rapist and doomed to a future of sexual slavery.

Those words were:

Feudal System

They were also:

Feminist theology gave me words for the slow torture that happens on Sundays every time “God” is paired with “He.”

In the words of Sue Monk Kidd:

There’s something infinitely sad about little girls who grow up understanding (usually unconsciously) that if God is male, it’s because male is the most valuable thing to be. This belief resonates in a thousand hidden ways in their lives. It slowly cripples girl children, and it cripples female adults.

Feminist theology helped explain my own lifetime of uncertainty, of being unable to trust myself.

In the words of Rosemary Redford Ruther:

If God is Male, then Male is God.

Feminism gave me words for why talking to Christian men about Feminism almost never fucking works:

In the words of Audre Lorde:

The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.

(In other words, the men, too, need to learn a different language).

Feminist theology told me, “Your experience is real. Theology that makes your experiences feel un-real, words that make your stomach churn or your palms sweat, words that incipiently begin to convince you that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ those words are not theology, but violence.”

Theology helped me to hear the experiences of people who are not given voice, pulpit, TV-time, whose videos do not go viral, whose revolution is not televised. Through theology— not the Karl Barth kind but the Kwak Pui Lan and James Cone and bell hooks kind— I tried on skin that wasn’t mine. I lived a few paragraphs at a time in other people’s lives, and I saw how my liberation is tied to that of Ghanian women and American White Men and Bengali children and everyone else on Earth.

Through theology, I grew increasingly suspicious of theology, adopting what is called a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” and learning to always ask, “Who is speaking, and who is silenced here?”

But then, I let go of theology, because I had me.

And, as one does with a good therapist, I internalized Theology until I didn’t need it anymore.

I began to believe my experiences were always legitimate, and that I could create my own words for them rather than finding them in books. I decided that I had no use for religion that had no use for me. I began to trust myself— a radical concept according to some theologies— and, through trusting myself, I began to see the shadowy imprint of God, the imago dei, on my soul.

I read the academic work of a friend recently, a paper he later shared at the Academy of Religion conference. It was a theological work, and it was about his body. It was about his young queer body drowning in the violent words and suspicious eyes of the Bible belt. It was about trauma carried within his body. It was theology, but it transcended theology.

I read it and remembered how theology can transform the world from the inside out.
I read it and was relieved to not have to translate my experiences into and out of theology all the time.
I read it and was glad to be shot of theology.
I read it and missed theology.