She always asks how I am doing. I rattle off a few tidbits, mainly professional milestones or interesting people who I crossed paths with over the past week, simultaneously picking at fluff that does not exist on her couch.
She probes again “How are you doing?”
I always reply “I told you how am doing, it’s been a great week.” And so it goes, week in and week out when I’m on my therapist’s couch. I’ve been a regular cushion warmer since last September. I thought that I had my shit together.
Dark clouds started rolling in, a storm without warning. They gathered together, forming black thunderheads that have obscured my view. My senses abandoned me one by one, falling away without ceremony. I lost my faculty of smell and taste. My ability to discern my emotions vanished seemingly overnight.
Back to the couch.
By the way, the couch is located just off Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. California, sunny days, mountains that meet the sea, and 57 flavors of tacky. I love it. I walked in and greeted my therapist dressed in my usual undercover garb. Disheveled, crazy hair, and bulging eyes. I fidgeted, divulged my dark suicidal thoughts, cried, screamed and begged for medication. She was not having it.
She asked: How are you DOING?
“I just told you how I am doing. My life sucks, and I want out.” From her green swivel armchair (they are always green and swiveling) she proclaimed that my life did not suck. It just happens to be the circumstantial crazy-making happening around me that is driving me mad. That and the fact that I have severe self-esteem issues and my self-worth is hiding somewhere underneath the cat shit in the litter box of my mind.
“Look at you. You are a beautiful woman, even like you are right now. Your sweater is on inside out and your hair isn’t combed. You have black circles under your eyes that concealer doesn’t cover. But you are gorgeous.”
“So fucking what,” was my reply. I hate that for too many years I have been judged by my looks and not by brains. Her point was not lost that I am lucky for this, and it’s high time I take ownership of my package and thrive.
She persisted, “How are you DOING?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know how I am. I can’t feel anything.”
My problem is that I have lost touch with myself. I was a person who had definitive likes and dislikes. I used to be the wild one. I used to be spontaneous. I used to feel electrified. Now, the only thing I know for certain is that I can’t stand judgment. Period. Every week, with her, the script plays out this way. I must be driving her crazy. She is patient. She is warm. She checks in with me after hours.
I hate my mind.
I don’t remember when—if ever—I have lived without some form of something. Melancholy, depression, restless anxiety, physical ailments, whose rendezvous come unannounced. A miscreant troupe of blah. Most of my life, most of the time, if I am left alone, I am fine. The chinks start to appear when I am confronted with strife. This makes me sick to my stomach. I hate that I am weak. I hate that I am so sensitive. I hate my mind.
I finally said fuck it and found a therapist, I had too. The temptation to join the “call me crazy” club was getting out of hand.
Have I told you that I loathe therapy? Have I told you how much I hate being medicated? Have I told you how much I despise depression? Probably not. That conversation is reserved for a small group. Husband, kids, parents, siblings and in-laws. I hide my demons well.
My therapist has superpowers. She believes in me. She refuses to give me a label or medication. She steadfastly sticks to her belief that I can conquer my self-imposed prison of depression.
The last time I saw her face-to-face I was nearly manic with excitement. The culmination of a professional dream being fulfilled was just about to be feted.
She asked me, “How are you DOING?”
I reached into my bag and pulled out the fruits of miraculously combined efforts. The book, the one that was just celebrated. Turning to her, with a smile on my face, I presented my gift, like promised. Taken aback, she stroked the book’s cover. She flipped the pages, checked that it was a signed copy (of course). She read the back and then she put the book down in her lap.
She asked, “How are you DOING?”
This time instead of grasping at straws, I asked her why she kept asking me that annoying question. Her response intrigued me. She told me that she firmly believes that I can come back to life. A real life, not just a pretend one. She believes that I can enjoy my life completely, not just through professional accomplishments.
She told me there were other things that I could be proud of. Good things. Things that I forgot how to see. Things that I don’t give myself credit for. Things that I deny instead of owning.
She asked me to list my qualities. I would rather have my fingernails pulled out than talk about myself. Seriously, that makes me uncomfortable.
“I can’t think right now, I am wiped out. Let’s talk about …”
Nope. She refused.
“I have noticed a pattern,” she told me. “Whenever I ask you a question that involves acknowledging your worth, you shut down. I have also noticed this pattern when we talk about conflicts in your life. You shut down. It is a reaction or byproduct of the life you have lived. Your life has been one that seems to be dominated by codependent tendencies. Maybe you have been surrounded by emotionally abusive individuals. Certainly the sexual abuse you endured did not do you any favors. You will never, ever, be able to escape the pattern of shutting down unless you learn how to protect yourself from the triggers that go off in your subconscious. I want you to think of a safe word. A word you can use when you are being confronted. A word you can use when you think you are worthless. A word that will give you strength. Your talisman. What is your word?”
Rivulets of salty tears ran for their lives down my cheeks.
“My word is Phoenix. When I lived in Paris, about four years ago, before I started working on Feminine Collective, I was at a breaking point. Another breakdown was approaching, I could feel it. I was walking in the rain, disconnected, depressed, just another shitty day like all the rest, then the Phoenix popped into my mind’s eye. The book, that book in your lap. It’s here because of the Phoenix.”
She replied, “Finally. You have found yourself. You are the Phoenix.