Endings, part 4

Before leaving my sweet little nonprofit counseling center, my workplace for the last four and a half years and my second home in San Francisco (well, maybe third, after my church) for the last time, I sat for a minute in my favorite room, “the middle room,” and said “Thank You” out loud a few times. To Kate, who hired me, to Karen, who took over running the place rather than let it close down, to my colleagues. And mostly, to the clients who risked revealing their deepest selves in that room.

This last week, I ended with people that I’ve seen weekly for two or three or four years.

“Ending a long therapy is like reading seven chapters into a twelve-chapter book,” one of my professors said this year, “And you have to put it down and never know what happens next in the story.”

The people I was ending with talked about their fantasies of seeing me again, in months or years, and waving, saying hi, catching up. “Can I email you if something happens in my life?” Yes, of course, I said. I did not say, “You could email weekly, because I can’t imagine not hearing about your life that often.” I did not say, “Seeing your face every week brought stability and consistency when my own life was falling apart.” I did not say, “I worked hard on your behalf and it feels right that you paid me, but at the same time, it doesn’t, because those deep, healing, internal shifts you made were mirrored inside me, and I, too, am walking away changed.”

The echo chamber of “thank you.” True gratitude is never one-directional, it’s always mirrored.

I ended with my grave and wise supervisor this month, too.

“What a mystery,” she said in our last session, looking at me with her dark, deep eyes. She must have been beautiful when she was younger, I thought, followed by a guilty pang. She is beautiful, even with the slow drag of gravity that I’m also starting to feel in my own face. I’ve occasionally wondered how old she is, but she’s one of those people who roots themselves in other things besides generational markers. She’s felt like a peer sometimes, when I crack a joke and she responds in kind, when we share wit and banter. More often, though, she feels like an ageless, wise sage.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean, the mystery of, what brought us together? What has the purpose of our role in each other’s lives been? I suspect I won’t know until much later, maybe years later.”

In the movie What Dreams May Come, a man named Chris, played by Robin Williams, is killed in a car accident, and he finds that his afterlife is inside of one of his artist-wife’s paintings. Shortly after his death, his wife commits suicide, and he learns that her fate is to spend eternity in her own created hell. With the help of some guides (who turn out to be his two children, and a former mentor, disguised as other people), he decides to find and rescue her.

On the journey into hell, Chris’ son, in the body of one of Chris’ former colleagues, reveals his true identity. Then he asks, “Do you know why we choose these bodies here, Dad? Because our roles about who is the teacher, who is father and who is child, they get in the way of who we really are to each other.”

While boundaries are important, and we can’t ever lose sight of who is therapist and who is client, who is the parent and who is the child, if we fixate on them too much, we risk missing the moments that provide two-way healing and growth. The teacher learns much from her students. The parents grow through the children. And healers are certainly healed by the wounded.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

It’s taken me some time in this profession, and a lot of help from my grave and wise supervisor, to understand how important it is for people to express love, gratitude, and attachment. It goes against my training, both that of my gender and much of my professional training as well. I want to deny it, to say, “Oh I’m not that good,” and “But you did the work yourself.” There was and is a lot of talk in my graduate programs about how to receive difficult feedback from clients, when they’re mad or disappointed with therapy, but none on how to keep my body still when they thank me. Six years into this profession, I can finally say, “You are so welcome.” Always followed by, “And thank you.”

In the end of the movie, Robin Williams finds his wife in her hell. After a few intense moments trying to convince her to leave with him, he realizes the futility of this. And instead of leaving, he decides to stay with her in hell.

This is another truth that speaks both to my human and my therapist heart. Years of training and education and theory do not actually teach a person how to be with another, how to join them in hell. That only comes from experiences of being joined. In the year that I was in hell, many people peppered me with useless wisdom and techniques and platitudes, but what I remember are the people, including my own therapist, who did not try to help. Who said nothing more than, “You’re in the dark. I’ll sit here with you. When it’s time to emerge, we’ll do it together.”

I am so grateful to the people who, through whatever route, end up in my office and let me into their lives. I’m so grateful for my first professional therapy workplace, that it will continue as long as possible to offer sliding-scale therapy to the remaining population of San Francisco who is not wealthy or well-insured. I am so grateful that I moved down here, even though this is where the biggest trauma of my life happened (and I do think the culture of San Francisco played a big part in my divorce). I am so grateful for the twists and turns, the mistakes, the dark and confusing moments of life, the ones that force us to seek each other out and sit in hell together.

And Now for Something Completely Different (An Ode to Stretchy Pants)

I’m in a brief 4-session writing group this Summer (alluded to in the last post). It’s felt so freeing to be given a prompt and to get 20 minutes to go wherever with it, not needing to write anything worthwhile. This was one from last week.

Prompt: “The opposite of despair.”

The opposite of despair is feeling everything. Like the opposite of hate being indifference. The opposite of despair is grief. The opposite of despair is stepping into the horror.

The opposite of despair is also stretchy pants. Stretchy pants are goodness, comfort, and hope. Stretchy pants are the good-enough mother, the one who is always there at the end of the day. Stretchy pants don’t care if you’re premenstrual, or bloated, or going on day two of mystery diarrhea.

Stretchy pants pair well with whiskey, with the cat’s purr and letting the parakeet out of his cage to land on your finger and stare adoringly at you. Finally someone does! Stretchy pants are the real proof that God loves us. Sorry Ben Franklin, but ain’t nobody ever got a hangover from wearing stretchy pants.

Related to the glory of stretchy pants are tank tops with built-in bras. Whoever coined the phrase “let your hair down” must have already removed her bra, because that fucker is the first to go when every woman I know walks through her own front door. Judy Blume should have written a scene in one of her books about a girl’s first successful removing of her bra without taking her shirt off. That shit is a Necessary Life Skill. Mom, I appreciate all the matter-of-fact education on sex and periods but you really dropped the ball in the bra-removal department.

In interviewing potential roommates recently, I asked all the normal questions about when they go to bed and how clean they are, but in the back of my head I was actually evaluating Could I lounge in stretchy pants with this person? and How soon before I’d be comfortable farting in front of them?

My top fart candidate decided to fight her ex-boyfriend for their rent-controlled apartment. “I honestly didn’t mean to waste your time,” she texted the next day, “But hearing how you stood your ground in your divorce made me feel more empowered to stand mine.”

I really wanted to live with her, but I texted back, “FUCK YEAH GIRL.” Women gotta have each other’s back in this world.

The person moving in in 3 weeks seems really nice, but is not an ideal fart candidate. My god, I just want one relationship in my life where I don’t have to be the one to break the fart barrier. Maybe I should put that on my dating profile.

Oh, it feels good to be silly. Psychologists are such an uptight, scared, insecure bunch. I read an article the other day on “The Importance of Humor in the Therapeutic Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder,” and it was the LEAST FUCKING FUNNY thing I’ve read all year. Poor us. Poor people who become therapists. We’re all dying for a laugh, but we only let ourselves relax with our clients, not with each other.

STRETCHY PANTS THERAPY. Oh god yes. Come sit on my pillows in your stretchy pants. Feel free to fart— it does indicate your parasympathetic nervous system is in good working order. Oh, and we’ll talk about your life, too.

The opposite of despair is finding people you can fart in front of.

All of It

“Thank you for taking me out here,” I said to myself. Little me to big me, artist me to planner me, hungry me to the me who shops and cooks and pays for the food.

“And thank you for the writing class, too,” I said to me.

I have 2 months off of my hard and disappointing and all-consuming doctorate program, and while there’s a ton of shit I need to do, I am hell bent on feeding and nurturing the little-me, artist-me, wild-me that’s been stuffed into the crevices of my life for the past year. I signed up for a writing class that I can’t afford, and this past weekend, I rented a car that I can’t afford to go camping.

I always pack poetry on my camping trips. As I was packing for this camping trip, I grabbed a book of poems that Jack had given me. “Maybe I’ll read this or maybe I’ll burn it,” I thought. As I pulled it off the shelf, a card tumbled out of it.


My stomach dropped in the same way it did just before I clicked a link the other day that said, “See the final photos before tragedy struck.” I knew— I knew — that I would regret it, but I clicked through anyway. I gazed at the smiling faces of families on airplanes that never touched ground again, at a picture of John Lennon signing autographs 10 minutes before Mark David Chapman shot and killed him, at the twin towers sparkling against the sunrise on the sunny morning of September 11th. Afterwards I felt the exact horror and nausea and heartache I expected.

What is that, that fantasy that makes us click the link? As if looking at these pictures hard enough will transport me back into that moment, the moment before disaster, and I could do something? Or is it just the fascination that life can change so quickly? That, among the millions of happy relaxed families boarding planes, this one family had their last happy moment, and they had no idea.

I opened the card from Jack, knowing every ounce of how much it was probably going to hurt.

Happy 32nd birthday from your biggest fan, it read, You’re just getting started. Love, Jack.

My 32nd birthday was three months before The Weekend. The Weekend when he said he was relieved to hear I hadn’t gotten pregnant the month before, because he didn’t want to be married anymore. And that he would be partying with friends at a cabin over the weekend, unable to care about the state of numb horror I would be in.

Could I go back to that birthday card, and say something? Stop something? Do something?

“You fear that you did something wrong that made Jack change, and if you could just figure out what, it would make sense,” my therapist says, using his primary therapeutic intervention of Not Fixing Anything.

Yes, and if it could make sense, I would know what to say or do when I time-traveled back to the birthday card.

From the living room, my roommate, not knowing I was standing in my room and staring numbly at a card from my ex-husband, yelled, “FUCK! SHIT! Yes, yes, YES! NO! NO! NO!” He was watching his women’s soccer team, having promised to try to not jump up and down this time. His exuberance was enough to pull me out of my spiral.

I summoned big me to talk to little me again. “Nothing you did made him change. He used to be the type of person you wanted to be with. Then he changed into someone you didn’t want to be with, and it happened too fast. You’re still in pain, and that’s normal, but you’re also okay.”

These kinds of mementos from my marriage throw me off for days, often weeks.

I reached the campground. I was there last year, too, and it was in the months when I thought maybe my life would be even better post-marriage. I spent the whole camping trip last year just saying the words “thank you” out loud, sometimes to specific people, sometimes to God, sometimes just those two words.

I waited for the same flood of gratitude, but this year is not the same as last year. It was way hotter this year than last, and the mosquitos were killing me as I tried to recreate the peaceful joyful evening by the fire. This year, I’m tired. I’m worried. I still feel ongoing grief and anger from my divorce. I’ve been disappointed by the thing that I hoped would be redemptive (my doctorate program). Dating is weird and hard. Roommates are coming and going, as much as I long for one stable person.

I flipped through the book of poems, deciding that, no matter how angry and disgusted I am with Jack, I don’t burn poetry. But I didn’t love the selection. I thought of the poem my former high school English teacher sent me last year, wishing I had it printed out.

Arriving Again and Again Without Noticing

I remember all the different kinds of years
Angry, or brokenhearted, or afraid.
I remember feeling like that
walking up the mountain along the dirt path
to my broken house on the island.
And long years of waiting in Massachusetts.
The winter walking and hot summer walking.
I finally fell in love with all of it:
dirt, night, rock and far views.
It’s strange that my heart is full
now as my desire was then.

– Linda Gregg

Last year, I thought I would live a phoenix story. I hoped to rise from the ashes of my terrible divorce, strong and beautiful and full of power. But instead, I’ve learned what good-enough survival feels like. The phoenix story is mostly just for the movies. Real humans survive terrible shit without too much flourishing, which makes the moments of flourishing extra sweet. Real humans suffer from their traumas in long, ongoing ways. Hopefully, often with the help of therapy, real humans have their hearts cracked open to how beautiful ordinary moments of life — washing dishes, eating tacos, navigating public transportation — can be. They fall in love with the ordinary, as Linda Gregg writes, with the winter walking and hot summer walking. I’ve heard people in therapy say things like, “and then I bought a cup of coffee, and I felt so lucky, that my ______(sexual assault, childhood abuse, violent relationship) didn’t take my love for coffee away.”

Real life is all of it, what Melanie Klein called The Depressive Position, which is the ability to see and feel and acknowledge the good with the bad: the horror of a lost marriage with the exuberance of a roommate watching soccer, the cup of coffee with a totally unfair childhood, the peace of the woods with the goddamn fucking mosquitos.

And somehow, those little moments can outweigh everything else. In writing about working with elderly schizophrenic patients, a group that mosts analysts at the time refused to work with, considering them a lost cause due to their age, Harold Searles wrote:

Even a single moment of deeply-felt interpersonal and intrapersonal relatedness is subjectively timeless, eternal, and ‘makes up for’ several decades of living as a less-than-whole person.

The phoenix happens not in years, but in moments. In this 4-session writing class against a grueling 5-year program, in the ordinary washing of dishes and drinking coffee after a lifetime of abuse. In a good life, the beautiful moments can be far fewer than the horrible ones, because in the end, they weigh so much more.

I don’t know if I’m in love with all of it, as Linda Gregg seems to be. But I swear, in some moments, I am simultaneously so sad about my life and so very grateful for it.

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 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.