Beginning Therapy; Being Vulnerable
I am sitting in a social worker’s office. It’s my first therapy session. I don’t know what I will say. All I know is that I will say quite a lot of things I’ve never wanted to tell anybody ever before.
People think that troops in the military have to fight the ultimate battle, that they face the worst kind of horrors in human history. I hear those kinds of sentiments all the time because I live with a vet who talks this way when he visits me, but I can honestly say that it takes a whole new level of courage to open up to a mental health professional, after holding all of the after-effects of abuse and neglect by my mother and sexual abuse and rape.
There are a lot of misconceptions about the therapeutic process—even educated people still mix up the terms “psychiatrist” and “psychologist”. Many believe that you go to therapy to get fixed, to therapy to get fixed, to mend those broken shards inside of you.
I am wondering, as I sit here in this little room, just how I will be fixed. Books and movies tell me that I am supposed to be told by the professional how I should feel, and why I should feel the way that I feel. I am extremely nervous, because I’ve never opened up to a professional about any of lasting remnants of the abuse that still impacts my life.
I am here because it seems right, however. Since my friend John had not spent any time with me since I experienced a recent shocking event, only calling and emailing me from a distance to see how I was picking myself up after this latest trauma.
I wanted John to visit me in our supportive living facility for the blind like he used to and console me, make me laugh with tales of his army exploits, and allow my appreciation for his presence to just linger as we quietly held hands in my apartment talking about all sorts of things, other than things that were happening to me. This connection was the one thing that made me think all would right itself eventually.
When John first became distant, I had asked him to visit me. I then revealed how comfortable his presence and the physical contact made me feel. I shared how I also looked forward to his tales and opinions on current events and updates on his life. I was amazed that an older, straight army man would be so emotionally and physically open with a gay emotional millennial like me. I thought what we had was strong, so I was shocked to discover that it could vanish all in a split second. I thought I did something wrong. I also needed someone to talk to about everything.
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My friends didn’t give me great advice. They said to leave him alone. I am a man who wants resolutions; even if those resolutions are self-realizations. I could spill the details of my life to a diary or an online journal, as if I am in a circle of gossip-hungry teenagers, but telling a professional how I felt was utterly foreign to me.
Chris comes into the office and sits down, opposite from me. He is calm, I am not. I don’t know how this works. I don’t know where to begin. The only thing I do know for certain is that I really want to have some chocolate because chocolate, of any size or type, makes everything and anything better.
“So,” Chris says, “thank you for coming in!”
“Thank you for having me!” I stumblingly begin, “I’m just going to be frank, because, well, I don’t know where to begin, but I want to tell you about a feeling I am having regarding, well, all of this stuff that’s been happening these past few days and, well, months.”
Chris leans forward, immediately intent on what I have to say, and I begin, not even sure where this will lead.
Survivors of a certain kind of abuse are usually very insightful. We have to be. We have to learn to develop this hard skill-set so we can predict the level of abuse we will get whenever it happens to us. It isn’t something we would put on our resume, but it can serve us well in any number of situations. Whenever my mom’s moods would shift, and she would choose to be the hero of the beer bottle, it created this wall inside of me where I would hide and watch. I judge people behind this wall, and I silently gauge and predict the reactions they may have.
Because I’ve been beaten, cursed at, cut, burnt, scratched, screamed at into the night as I became a flimsy punching bag, I’ve learned to try to guess how others will react to what I say and or do. Most of the time, I am right. Today, I am so nervous that my “ESP” is slightly off and my nerves are straining to be rational.
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I decide to take a risk and start off by telling Chris something very personal.
“There’s a resident here,” I begin, and he leans in even closer, his silent eyes locked on my face like a vice. “And, well, I want to tell you something.”
“I’m here to listen,” he urges. I lean in closer, my hands twitching on the table. Being a rape victim has also taught me to try and judge people, and how they will react. My swirling feelings clog my mind up,
but I take a deep breath as my fingers continue to twist around one another and begin.
“Well, there’s this resident who I love, but it’s not a gay love or whatever. It’s a father kind of love. His name is John. Do you know John?” He nods, so I continue.
“I feel like I shouldn’t have these feelings, like I am too old to have these feelings for someone who isn’t even gay, and someone who is triple my age. See, this is how it all started, really. One day, my eye was really hurting, bleeding, in fact, and I called him because I was very scared and I didn’t know what else to do, because the CNAs didn’t answer the emergency call right away. When he arrived to look after me and comfort me, and make sure I am okay, he told me something I will never forget. He told me that I was like a son to him.”
Telling Chris this made me realize just how important John’s words were to me. I’ve never had a mom, or a dad. I’ve never had a home. What’s a home, anyway? Is it a place where people go and those who live there HAVE to take you in? I didn’t know. I continued.
“I realize he struck a chord inside of me, so now I want to show him my accomplishments, get advice from him, even though I know it’s not always going to be good advice. I want to have him say he’s proud of me… and, well, I do like his company.”
We speculate about some of the feelings I have and why I feel the waythat I feel. Chris tells me that my father need isn’t wrong at all, that I am free to need whatever I need. He explains it as if it were just something I had been lacking: love, in any form. He then told me a LOT about himself.
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I listened as he explained about him and his brothers. He’s a Latino, and he grew up in a Chicago’s ghetto. He talked about his life and about his brothers and I felt a connection and I slowly started to gain a new perspective on things. We all need love; and love can be shown in different ways. Every time John calls me to see if I need anything, or to give me a military-like order to eat all my food at the dinner table while other residents tease me, or, yes, his indirect way of asking other residents if something is wrong with me when he hasn’t heard from me for weeks. I realize that’s a kind of love I haven’t grasped yet. John has told me several times that, in all of his 73 years of living, he has never been as emotionally needy as I am. I thought that was him telling me I was, and that I am, annoying.
I tell Chris all of this and relay my biggest fear: that John doesn’t need me or love me like I love him and that I am just a burden on his life just like I was a burden on so many others. Chris, however, has a perspective I should think about.
“In John’s case,” Chris says, “have you ever considered that you maybe helping him just as much as he’s helping you?” This genuinely shocks me because I thought that John just put up with me. He lived a full life with kids and a wife, I thought. Why would he need me?
He tells me that he thinks that, deep down; I need to hear some validation that people really do want to help me. I don’t understand what he’s saying at all, so I ask him even more questions, and realize what I am doing.
I am not fixing myself. That part is clear. I am exploring my feelings and thoughts along with him. Sure, I’ve explored these thoughts and feelings before inside of my head but it’s very different when you explore them out loud, with another person. It’s almost as if youare telling someone that you don’t have the answers and they say, “Okay, let’s figure this out together, piece by piece.”
People say the first step in therapy is acceptance. I don’t know what step I am even taking, but I believe this exploration is helping me more than I am aware. While I didn’t get any answers, I felt as if I was closer to something.
Before I knew it, two hours had passed and I had to head to dinner. With each step I took to the dining room, I explored what I was thinking at that minute. The first thing I thought was that TV gets it wrong. The second thing on my mind was; anyone who says therapy is supposed to outright fix you, well, obviously, that’s just as slippery a fallacy as a banana peel on the floor. People take steps to get where they want to go. I can’t speak for others, but I’ve started taking my steps. It’s okay if you want to take yours. Trust me, it really does feel good, and it really does get better.