As a therapist, I often feel like I’ve heard everything and it would take a lot to shock me. In the same breath, surprise is never far away. It’s a dialectical statement and both are true. In some ways, the stories we hear daily are where surprise comes from; however, the root of those stories lies so much in the same story. Humans struggling with the power of emotions (afraid of them essentially, especially the ones that bring out our greatest vulnerabilities). One would think that working day in and day out with emotion, someone would become very comfortable with emotion. However, sitting in the presence of others emotions, empathizing with them, validating those emotions is very different then sitting with someone with your emotions on display. Emotions are so powerful, they change behaviors, lives, etc. They are so powerful, that even as someone who is trained and deals with heavy emotions regularly, it’s unbelievable challenging to understand and look at your own emotions. Even when you know it’s just an emotion and it will pass and you know there’s no reason to be afraid of it, it takes a lot to allow ourselves the admission that we too are vulnerable to emotion. One of the most challenging aspects of being a therapist is that you have to be a great actor. People are coming to you at some of the hardest points in their lives, for guidance, for strength, for validation, and they want to know that you empathize with them, but as I hear all the time, ‘you’re the professional.’ They look at you and need you to play the role of a professional. While people want someone who feels and empathizes, they also want someone who is confident, has a plan, and knows exactly how to lead them back onto the path they’ve wandered off from. It can be exhausting day in and day out to play that role when life is throwing things at you or maybe it’s not. There are just days when therapists would like to dive into the pool of avoidance too. Similar to the actor or actress that cannot break character, therapists do the same. It gets even more complicated when the day ends and you return back to the person you are. The person who knows that probably in every session you have had that day, you heard elements of yourself. In your ‘infinite wisdom,’ you might even have made some connections for yourself. You definitely probably encouraged a lot of decisions or choices that would be hard for you to follow through with or to make yourself. When it’s all said and done, just like the actor backstage after a performance, the costume comes off and it’s back to being you. A lot of people are surprised that therapists go to therapy. We definitely need it and we’re hard cases. I’ve been a therapist to therapists. Instead of having to knock down a wall of beliefs about why feeling feelings is important, you’re having to distract someone away from the process (which they know) and get into their feelings. It’s challenging because therapists know how to mask feelings (we’re trained to do it). We essentially have to unlearn all the skills that make us great at what we do and allow ourselves to be completely vulnerable to emotion (this idea that we feel like we often have a superior grasp on because we study it and work with it all day). The truth is most people I work with are 10x easier to work with then I am. To sit in front of someone (who is trained the same as you are) and allow them to do their thing is like knowing how to fix your car and watching a mechanic do it. The truth is the mechanic might see things you missed, even if you’re a great mechanic yourself. In therapy though, the therapist does not have the ability to see him/herself as the world experiences him/her. Therapy is a relationship and, through that relationship, patterns start to emerge, avoidances are noticed, illogical thought patterns come to bear light. Therapists can apply skills to their own lives, but we are incapable of seeing ourselves as others experience us. The mirror doesn’t show us what’s going on inside back (although that’d be pretty amazing). Deep down, going to therapy, I know probably the root of the story. I walk in knowing, my feelings are getting the best of me. Again, that’s how powerful feelings are. We can know they are literally ‘beating the crap out of us,’ and we often remain defenseless. The feelings blocked by all the beliefs we develop about them and what that means about who we are etc., are so strong we consciously and most times unconsciously let them dictate our choices and our behaviors. It’s amazing the power a feeling has, isn’t it? When a therapist sits in the patient’s chair, it’s amazing how this confident, emotionally intelligent person, who knows how to call out defenses, etc. becomes a rambling mess. As a therapist or any sort of mental health professional, this is often very stigmatizing. Unfortunately many mental health professionals do not seek out professional help because there’s a deep fear of being ‘judged.’ Why would the mechanic go to a mechanic? Unfortunately, that stigmatization combined with the fact that most mental health providers experience ‘secondary trauma,’ from being exposed to it all day long is why mental health professions statistically are among the top professions for completed suicides. At the end of the day, there’s a person there. No one can do therapy on themselves because therapy is relational. I’ve spent a lot of my career working with intense trauma. Often, we think it’s those intense trauma cases that cause ‘vicarious trauma,’ however, it’s not. This year for the holidays we spent a significant amount of time throwing the teens I work with a great holiday party. They got some really amazing gifts, we played games, we watched a movie… It was meant to be a light, fun day. I (another reason I need to keep going to therapy) am pretty good after almost fifteen years of doing this work of not noticing how it’s affecting me. I definitely does, but when I walk out of the office, I’m so defended against it, I rarely notice the feelings that are there. The day we threw the party, I walked out of the office, and I could feel the heaviness, the sadness, the tiredness of all those individuals. It was an ice bucket of water being thrown on me moment, where I felt what being around a dozen or so significantly depressed individuals all day does to you. I’m sure it was noticed because of their inability to enjoy the days events, but it also really spoke to how much energy is absorbed from just being in a room with individuals all day who are clinically depressed. The night I wrote this poem was a warmer January night last year. I went to therapy after work and I walked outside into a dreary and yet warm January night. I went home and wrote this poem, as I left my therapists office that night feeling incredibly ‘human.’ I thought about the progression of interactions between a therapist and a client and how hard it is to ‘find that human (or tap into that real emotion). As a therapist, I know how gratifying it can be to see that breakthrough for someone. I also know, as a client how incredibly frightening it can be. The dance that it takes to get there is tedious on both ends, as it is also on both ends, when you see the piles and piles of bricks torn down to get to that tiny little emotion. However, when we first see or feel that hint of that tiny emotion how it can feel so huge in contrast to what’s been encapsulating it. As I wrote it, it just occurred to me how big emotions really are.
& I walk out into the warmest evening January has given,
fogged, there’s a wetness in the air. I’m in my usually blah, blah, blah..
I am a life stealer when alone. The well dressed lawyers in the office,
in clothes my body could not wear. The tatted maintenance man,
the receptionist flirts with as he tells he’s lost all his security cards.
A perpetual loser of cards and keys, I wonder how good looks opens doors.
My kidney is failing me tonight. Next therapist it might be another organ.
I am heavy with you’s, them’s, he’s, she’s, me’s, us’.
The pronouns in my backpack are a load. Between missing others,
I have to question, “Do they miss me back?” “Do I miss them?”
or “Do I miss the me they made me?” Between thoughts I try to smile.
Grin is probably more like it. My orgasms make me laugh and cry at the same time.
I want to scream to the top of the tall buildings and across the lake,
“My heart was broken.” He asks me about the illnesses,
the real broken parts of my body. I tell him, “I don’t know anything else.”
He wants to know about the poet, who has become invisible
as the fifth metatarsal bone in my foot. It’s not there on scans,
but it’s a part of my every day. Writing is like that.
“Are your poems about you?” I say, ‘yes and no,’
but even the imagined ones can’t stop dreaming of a different way of living
There is the ‘you are always in a care taking role,
but I wonder who does that for you?” Instead of trying to figure it out,
he accepts my answer of ‘me,’ and states,
“you must be fatigued.” I sit in his chair daily,
I think back silently, “I am your last appointment today,
you must be fatigued.” He will learn I am much softer.
He will learn crying is not easy to make me do,
but say your words right and I will break. He will learn
I am trying to be harder because I’m not sure how much longer I’ll have a family.
He will wonder where the bullets went.
He will look for the bruises
and poke at them until he gets an ‘ouch.’
He will meet my poker face
and swear never to play cards with me.
He will learn of sliding door moments
and realize my life is made of missed subways and trains.
He will begin to think maybe I’m a ghost lost in this world,
but then he will be introduced to a haunt of a memory,
and when he sees the tears dripping down my face,
my nasally, snot nosed confessing, ‘but my heart was broken,’
he will feel the bullets, the bruises, the faded love notes
that just need to be mentioned for my poker face to crack,
and the white sheet will come off and he will see finally
the tiny human parading as a giant ghost.
He will realize he is more haunted by that tiny human,
then he ever was by that giant ghost.