I get a call from a client who I’m seeing today for her first session. She knows me. When I was a caseworker, we spent some time together. We were both really depressed at the time, but given the nature of my job, she wasn’t kept afloat of my mental health. She doesn’t know that I wrote a poem about her, after she tried to overdose. How, as depressive narcissistics are wont to do, I equated her detriment to my own and convinced myself I would become her some day if I stopped pushing away love and relying on my bitter resolve to get me through anything. Eventually, I started spending an hour or so a week with her, in her trailer. We both liked to do arts and crafts, and she loved watching HGTV and drinking decaf. We’d hang out on little lawn chairs in her living room, knitting and making small-talk. She’d constantly be trying to hand off her belongings to me with little back-handed insults: “My daughter gave me this package of diabetic socks. That bitch knows I don’t have diabetes. Here, why don’t you take them. They’re actually very comfortable.” That sort of thing. I had come to love her, in a way. To look forward to our visits, which seemed less of a home health-care check-in, and more like a social obligation with a friend I was sort of intimidated by. When I was preparing my move to Chicago for grad school and visited her a last time, she hugged me tightly, and I knew that she would miss me. I also knew–could feel–that tired sentiment of hers on repeat: “Someone else is leaving me. Everyone always leaves me.” Perhaps this was the nucleus of our bond: I was also used to being left behind.
Fast-forward two and a half years. I am back in Massachusetts from Chicago, go figure. Having decided that Chicago was too far from my family and so cold that even New England winters seemed tropical in comparison, I sucked it up and returned to a place I had felt I was done with forever. My boyfriend, who had put up with two years of nearly unbearable long-distance (never again, never again), didn’t want to uproot himself and move to who knows where to do who knows what. It didn’t seem fair to keep meandering down this void of not knowing who I wanted to be, let alone where I wanted to be. Besides, after two years of Midwestern hot-dish-charming hospitality, I was ready to get back to some New England salt. The old organization offered me a job off the bat to come back as a full-time individual therapist–almost unheard of for new social workers. In the back of my mind, I felt this queasy sense of failure. I couldn’t make it work somewhere else. Well, I could. But I didn’t want to. Was this place I had come to resent in my separation really the home I was suddenly meant to return to? I still don’t know the answer to that. I have been back for six months. I still feel like I’m floating and my ether is just a little stickier than it’s supposed to be. Is ether supposed to be sticky?
So back to this phone-call. For the purpose of anonymity, we will call her ‘S’. She says, “They tell me I have to be in therapy, but I hate everyone. I literally hate everyone. But they won’t give me my pills if I don’t come. They tell me you’re back. I’m coming to see you, but I’m not trying to grow or change or any of that crap. I’m just coming because I have to.”
I try to hide the laughter in my voice, “S! Is that you?!”
“You know damn well it’s me. You people have the caller i.d.’s. Can we make an appointment or not? I won’t be bothered to come in until after Christmas. I’m not leaving the house until after that mess is over. Do you need any spices? My neighbor must think my food is bland or something because outta the kindness of my heart, I made the old dingbat some lunch and the next day she brings over this whole shelf of spices. Like, don’t do me any favors you old bag. It’s probably poisoned anyway. That house is just one puddle of cat piss after the other. Anyway, you want ’em?”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass.” She’s just as I remembered her. The cynical “don’t act like you know me or give a shit about me” tinge in her voice is exactly the same. I can clearly imagine her sitting in one of her folding plastic lounge chairs in front of her ancient TV wearing a cartoon-cat covered sweatshirt and some brown velour leggings, drinking Crystal Lite while watching an infomercial. The image is at once comforting and tragic. Despite all the books that I’ve read, the conferences I’ve gone to, the personal work that I have done myself…that same thought injects itself into my narrative, that one that I can’t ever seem to shake: “People don’t change.”
Sure drunks can put down the booze, addicts give up the needle, fat people go on diets. Our habits can change. Our environments will ebb and flow. We age and become different manifestations of ourselves. But meaningful change? Those dark and buried secrets within ourselves? Will they ever stop feeling so terrible? Will I ever stop feeling so afraid? And as quickly as I have become cognizant of this fear, I am transported back into that old habit of mine: Using S. as a marker of comparison for my future self. I fall back into it so organically. I don’t even notice.
I don’t necessarily think that there’s anything wrong with that. I am an exceptionally hands-on, visual person, and I know that truly grasping things and making logic out of them often requires some sort of physical semblance of reason. Why do people become therapists in the first place? Yes, there is a helping quality there, there is a micro-desire to give people your attention and insight and kindness and warmth, but is it not, above all, about understanding them? I currently have 37 clients on my caseload, all of whom I meet with on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, and despite their range in experiences, phobias, tragedies, traumas, addictions, desires, etc. I still find myself, in session, making comparisons. While I resist the urge to do so vocally, I make these connections in my head. I try to find snippets of myself in these lived lives. Is this selfish? Or is this just making me better equipped for the work? How can I not transport myself into the lives of these people when all I know about them are the glimpses of them that they open up to me while sitting on the couch in my office? It’s the perfect career choice for the overly-imaginative child who liked to speak in a British accent to herself and pretend she was an orphan well into her adolescence. Or even more so, that kid who likened herself a less cool Harriet the Spy, always studying people and writing down observations in a Top Secret marble notebook: “Janine from next door wears floral sweater, AGAIN. Her husband Tom has grey chest hair.”
I still don’t know if what I’m doing is right. And I don’t just mean work. I mean, life. On the outside, I think that it all looks pretty normal. I live in a nice, cozy apartment with my boyfriend. We work full-time, make meager but stable incomes, pay off student loans and grapple with issues that appear to be age-appropriate frequent-flyers: Should be legally bind (don’t I make marriage sound so romantic?)? Spawn? Try to own property? And what comes first? Do they make chickens or eggs for these sorts of decisions?
Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I went into a car dealership and I bought a fucking car. A really solid adult car, at that. A Subaru, dammit! And while I basically had to finance the entire thing, and I have no business buying a car (except that I need one, and my current one is 20 years old), I kept having these out of body experiences where I was like, “Wait, did I just sign that?” “Did they just give me that title?” “Why do they think I’m responsible enough for this?” “Aren’t they going to call my mom?” And I think that this constant questioning of myself and my actions come from a place deep down that really believes that I’m faking everything. That everything I do is just one big lie bent on proving to the world around me that I’m okay, and even more than okay, I am like totally well-rounded and secure enough that people COME TO ME FOR THERAPY. Every time I say it, it’s still shocking to me. I live day to day under the guise of stability while praying to whatever universal force I can aim my prayers at not to wake me up to a world of crippling depression, where that guise of functionality is no longer an option.
I just turned 30. I know that a big part of these feels is this number. All through my 29th year, every “older, wiser” person would gripe at my age: “You ready for the big 3-0?” Duh-herr, just as ready as I was for the big 2-9 or the big 9 for that matter. Of course nothing has changed. Not in a way I can feel anyway. I mean, I look at Facebook and my newsfeed is 90% puppies, kittens, and babies and 10% marital glamour shots. That feels new. That feels different. But then I can’t help but watch old movies of people who have their lives together, sitcoms of young beautiful people making it all work out, and they’re all supposed to be like 26 or something fucked up. And I know that the defense for this is “yeah, that’s the movies,” but like, some people really do have their shit together, and how is that possible?
I guess it’s also important to mention that I spent much of my 29th year in constant, chronic pain. What is still waiting to be diagnosed: is it a pinched nerve? Is it a herniated disc? Is it that other disease that I can’t pronounce that basically means chronic ass pain? All I know is that there were many months out of this year that I was doubled over in severe discomfort because of my lower-back. Just getting in and out of bed, my car, my desk chair was enough to make me put off things like walking to the other side of the room. And you never know how frequently you drop things when bending over is such an excruciating task.
And what really hurts? Well, besides the pain? My social life has suffered substantially. I used to be someone who would go out bar-hopping and dancing multiple times a week. I’ve always been down to travel on impulse, be sporadic and spontaneous, immerse myself in the physical world. Suddenly, I’m an indoors girl. I’m afraid of erratic terrain. The very idea of falling makes my heart race. So when people called to ask me to go Mo-Town night and I was in too much pain to actually change my clothes let alone dance in tight, sweaty, slippery quarters for the next several hours, and because the pain didn’t improve the next time or the next time after that… I kept saying no. And my friends stopped calling. I know that part of this is age-related. My group of friends right now are fiercely split between those of us who are in committed long-term relationships, shacked up with their significant others, watching Netflix in bed and spooning…and those who are single and pub-crawling and Tinder-dating and resenting/pitying us nesters. I get that.
But the other part of me can’t help but feel that people think I’m boring now. I think about who I was just 3 years ago. A somewhat promiscuous, often-drunk version of myself who couldn’t get on stage without two shots of whiskey to recite a poem, followed by a night of reckless abandon and often some illicit decision-making to top off the evening. Today? I barely drink and seem to have adopted some sort of alcohol allergy (is this aging, too?) where I’m hungover before I’m drunk and switch over to chaser no chaser, before I’ve finished my beer. I know that I have my purpose. On nights I do go out, I find myself longing to be home before too long and I wonder if this is because I no longer feel able to hold my own or if I’m afraid that a ripple of shooting pain will set me off to a place I can’t recover from, and more terrifying than anything, that I’ll need to ask for help. So I stay home, most of the time. And maybe for the first time in my life, I don’t know who to call anymore. This sounds more dramatic than it is. I have friends. I have wonderful friends. They will always get in touch with me because they need things edited, or because they want advice or the perfect funny come-back to their OkCupid stalker. But it’s fewer and farther between and despite the love of my partner and my pets, which is ongoing and consistent–I’m lonely.
Some gift of the birthday gods made it possible for me to have a nearly pain-free week from December 15-22 when the boyf and I went to Iceland to celebrate my 30-year milestone. I had been having a couple of good weeks before that, and tried to play them down and not give them too much notice, but when I made it through a 5-mile day with only a few periods of stiffness and sciatica, I felt, for the first time in a long time, a sense of relief that I might be okay. I know that it is too soon to say that I am in the clear and I know that these sort of injuries are a part of life and the pain can return to me as easily as it came, but for today, I am not doubled over. Today, I am getting up from chairs and picking up dropped things with ease. Tomorrow might be different, I know that. And even though I walked around that icy tundra like a toddler taking her first steps, I spent my 30-year-day under a volcanic water-fall overlooking the Arctic ocean and it was a goddamn beautiful thing. I could explode with goo and gratitude for how lucky it felt to be me in that moment. There is so much joy left to be had.
What this all culminates to is not a cry for help, a desire to be told how to live my life, a gesture of helplessness in which I need old friends to call me and remind me that they still love me. It’s just an acknowledgement really, of the passing of time, and how it keeps passing, and faster at that. And while it continues passing, I continue searching for myself, and searching within myself to understand the gripping challenges of this life, beyond my own experience. It’s an exercise in maturity, maybe, to admit how fucked up I feel all the time.
It’s a scary world out there, and it’s way less scary for me than it is for a lot of us. I know where my next meal is coming from, I know that when I leave my office I am going home to love and warmth. I have been gifted a small place in this journey that is likely inconsequential and will pass like a hapless wave, but I’m only 30. I have so many more things to be scared of.