“When I compliment her she won’t believe me
And it’s so, it’s so
Sad to think that she don’t see what I see
But every time she asks me, “Do I look okay?”
—Bruno Mars, Just The Way You Are
When I moved back to Arizona from California, where I had lived most of my adult life, I decided I wanted to see a psychologist. The universe showered wonderful down on me when I found Dr. Debra Johnson. Our sessions were like visiting with an old girlfriend. Sometimes we talked about my art (she bought some), our clothes, my writing (she was a fan), our clothes, and eventually about why I was there.
I had just begun to care give for my mother and our fractured relationship was often the topic, along with my bipolar disorder. I could probably sum up months and months of sessions by quoting Dr. Johnson in two sentences.
- “Dori, your problems all relate back to your mother.” [Ouch]
- “Dori, the day you learn to make independent decisions, not based on what your mother thinks, will be the day you find personal freedom.” [Really ouch.]
Dr. Johnson taught me how to set boundaries with my mother, how to communicate them to her, and how to enforce consequences if the boundaries were crossed. Let me back up. My mother is a bully. I have low self-esteem due to many reasons, including how she treated me as a child. Oh, there was much work to do. After several months of learning and practicing this skill, I began to see an improvement in my relationship with my mother. As a gift with purchase, she began to respect me. She backed down, as most bullies do when confronted. Yay, me.
Now. On to part two–learning some life and coping skills to help deal with my bipolar disorder. I had left the comfort and support zone of my California home, friends, and doctors, and returned to the place where I grew up and had run away from so many years ago. Issues? Oh, so many.
It was June, and my beloved psychologist suggested I attend an intensive outpatient program (IOP) held at a Phoenix women’s hospital over the summer months. I affectionately called it Crazy Girl Summer Camp.
There was no one as dedicated as I was to working out the crazy that summer. Every day, from 8 AM until noon, I attended small group therapy sessions to learn the secrets of life and coping skills. It became my summer job, this Crazy Girl Summer Camp. The IOP was attached to a women’s mental health hospital in Phoenix. The attendees were women who had been released from the hospital and were attending the program on a mandatory basis. If you have ever had a stay at The Pajama Hilton, you understand this drill. If you haven’t, it’s a transitional program to make sure that you’re really okay before you go home. There were abuse victims, suicidal women, just a rainbow of serious problems.
There were usually several groups going on at the same time, and they were limited to 10-12 women, led by a licensed therapist. I landed in a group under Kara. That’s Kara With A K. I liked her. She took no crap and was highly organized with whichever drill we did each day. Women cycled in and out of the groups and stayed an average of two weeks. We were all assigned a doctor, who made the decision on when one could leave. One had an appointment with this doctor about once a month, which I highly resisted, as I already had a doctor. This was probably my only incident of noncompliance until the day I decided to leave.
The structure of the group was that everyone had a check-in time in the morning to report on how they were doing, had anything on their mind, or if there was something special they wanted to work on. You had the option to pass. And we did have someone who passed nearly every day. She was from one of the local Reservations. Culturally, it must have been difficult, this idea of sharing in front of strangers. During breaks, she would talk to us one-on-one nonstop. After check-in, Kara With A K would then present the day’s lesson. Often we would break into smaller groups and practice the new skill.
The women in the group were diverse and had arrived for a myriad of reasons. One of my favorites, who left a deep impression on me on overcoming life’s obstacles, was the girlfriend of an NBA player who had beaten her so badly she jumped off of a second story balcony to escape him. The police called her DOA when they found her. But this brave warrior proved them all wrong, taking a year to heal and sent her boyfriend to prison–not an easy task.
The day after she left, she had Kara With A K play Bruno Mars’s “Just the Way You Are” for us as her goodbye. I don’t think anyone wasn’t sobbing. For her, for all the love she gave to us, and for her hard won abuse survivor journey.
Not everyone was so nice. I got a quick lesson in what extreme borderline personality disorder was from an especially mean Army Girl who went out of her way to behave spitefully every session. This one was great–a newly discharged young girl who sat down in a chair next to me. I took copious notes at every lesson because I was there to learn, dammit. She turned to me after a short time and informed me, with all of her grand haughtiness that, “These are private sessions. Would I please stop writing down everything she said?” I was so taken aback at her aplomb I just handed her my notebook. Read away, Crazy Ass Narcissist, maybe there’s something in there on manners.
We grew bigger with new members and continued to grow into an overly large group. It’s difficult for everyone to have a say when there are so many of us. This drives therapist leader Kara With A K crazy.
Oh, wait, we’re crazy. She runs the asylum. She’s not crazy. She’s our leader.
I grew to accept that within the group dynamic there would always be someone there who annoyed me, as I likely annoyed others. That day, several new members had dropped into us from Inpatient. I found it curious that the two Debbie Downers in the group were actually named Debbie. Fortunately for me, one had graduated.
The replacement Debbie Downer’s debut appearance was announced by her throwing out smarmy, entitled, I’m-so-much-better-than-you comments to the women in the group who shared their experiences during check-in. Because, don’t you know, she is a professor at ASU. She was in charge of a zillion students, teaching assistants, blah blah blah.
As if the student, attorney, nurse, working moms, and all the rest of us in group are inferior to you and we didn’t matter? Yeah, we all had successful lives like you did once, too. So, new Debbie Downer, I see that you are here via a stay at The Pajama Hilton. What exactly is so different about you that separates you from being just like the rest of us?
The sooner you recognize we are your sisters in mental illness, the easier it will become for you. We recognize your denial of all things crazy, and your career mourning, because we’ve all been there, too.
When it was my turn for check-in, she made a snarky remark after what was a very difficult and painful share by me, stating, “You are not sharing correctly.” Really? Fuck you, Debbie Downer. How would you like to see what a little bipolar rage coming your way and landing on your little situational depression looks like? Ooops. Back to practicing mindfulness. Breathe in. Breathe out. Don’t toss her through the window. Not today, anyway.
Note to self: Learn how to deal with life’s Debbie Downers.
I left when I had cycled through all of the lessons, about a three month period. Part of the reason I left was also about something Kara With A K said about me. Some kind of assumption that wasn’t true. Apparently, she didn’t teach me about passive aggression. I left without telling her why she upset me.
So that was the summer of Crazy Girl Summer Camp.
It was one of the best investments of my time I have ever made. My mindfulness skills are at expert level. I can speak my truths. I set boundaries, and I enforce consequences. I can calm my anxiety with breathing and cognitive skills. I can teach my skills to others. The lessons I learned were valuable life hacks, and I practice them nearly every day.
In the sisterhood of that summer, I learned that women come in all shapes and sizes, and that’s just on the inside. We really are beautiful just the way we are.
“When I see your face
There’s not a thing that I would change
‘Cause you’re amazing
Just the way you are”