Things are getting real. This week, a podcast I recorded last month with Coach Kiah came out. I first discovered Kiah by accident on Instagram. Since then, I’ve been a huge fan not only of watching her incredible weight loss journey but also her zest for life and all things farming. Yep. She comes from a cattle ranch and often features ag and farming stories that remind me how much I want to own a tractor someday. She mixes cute cow pics and great personal development advice together, resulting in me becoming a huge fan. If personal growth or farms interest you, be sure to follow her.
She was kind enough to invite me to be a guest on her podcast. It was a ton of fun to record. I went in thinking I’d spent a lot of time talking about my running journey and my one and only self-published book. But, towards the end we got talking about my new book. It was my first time diving a bit deeper into the purpose of my book and definitely had me sweating since it is a hard topic to talk about and even harder when you’re already nervous AF. If you’re interested in hearing more about the book and what I’ve been up to, check out the podcast here.
Since I’m writing, I thought I’d share another excerpt from my book. I am so appreciative to all of the messages I got from my last post with feedback about my writing. So, if you have a few minutes, please consider reading the chapter below and shooting me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts. It really does mean the world to me. My first ever book proposal is due June 5 so the clock is ticking and every bit of advice and encouragement helps!
Chapter 8 Therapy
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” David said.
Time stopped. How is that even possible. A few months prior I had started therapy in hopes to fix myself. Mom had been dead for over a decade. Despite graduating from college and landing my dream job, I had wasted my 20s away in a semi-destructive fashion. Perhaps I was just living my single days to their fullest. It is a fine line after all. Needless to say, something in my soul said I needed a change.
I quit my life in television news. I sold my soul to the dark side and took a job at an environmental liberal arts college as a PR hack. It was a straight day job, 8 – 4:30 pm, with weekend and holidays off. The pace more predictable and at times mundane. Come summer, the nearly empty campus and a generous vacation schedule allowed me to finally slow down and process the past decade.
Brutal is the only way I can describe it. At times emotional. One night, out of boredom, I watched boring reruns of The Real World and drank an entire bottle of wine. Somewhere towards the bottom, I suddenly felt I was spiraling out of control. I feared becoming her. Looking at the cheap zinfandel, I wondered at what point my mom transitioned from social drinker to alcoholic. I’d never get to ask her. But in this moment, I felt uncomfortably close. I threw the bottle out.
I chatted with my primary medical doc. She suggested therapy. I had run out of excuses and my insurance covered it. There was immediate availability at a clinic just 10-minutes from my apartment. I didn’t know many folks in this new town I was now trying to make home so I figured I had nothing to lose. YOLO, right?
There was also Steve. He was different than the other guys I’d dated. A keeper some might say. Our conversations ran deep. I laughed a lot. He seemed emotionally available. The attraction ran deep. Nearly a year into dating, a part of me wanted to run. To destroy things before he could break my heart. The other side of me, convinced I’d somehow mess this up because I was in fact a mess, wanted to do the work to ensure I’d get my happily ever after.
The perfectionist in me won out. I signed up for therapy convinced that a few deep conversations with a stranger would solve my grief, open my heart up and allow me to finally move past my mother’s death. In my mind, it was time to accept my mother’s death for what it was, close that chapter and start my life. Unfortunately, that’s now how therapy works.
Each week I’d find myself in a comfortable office sharing snippets of my past with a complete stranger. Conversations jumped from what life was like growing up to my career path to losing mom and falling in love. It felt very disjointed. Not at all like the movies. David rapidly scribbled notes down while I babbled on and on about all of the things I was trying to process. Occasionally he’d prompt me down another rabbit hole in which I’d bare another piece of my soul. Things I never shared with anyone suddenly came spilling out – I was comforted by the knowledge that this man had taken an oath to never share my deep, inner secrets with anyone.
The more I talked, the more broken I felt. What a mess I am, I thought to myself. But at least I’m doing something about it. At least I’m taking action to put myself back together again. At the time, therapy seemed magical, like the unsung hero who if given the chance, could have magically put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Finally, David said our time was coming to an end and that he felt he had enough information to diagnose me. Finally, a definition to this mess. A definition meant a solution. A pill. A treatment. A book to read. A way to move forward.
Then he said the words that shook my world.
“There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Other words followed. A lot of them. An explanation about how grief is hard but that I was in fact processing it and it was complicated. How it was totally normal to be nervous about my relationship because I was ready to transition from living solo to inheriting a roommate. Moving in with the boy was a big deal for me because I had spent a decade alone. I had successfully changed careers, but a lot of my identity was tied to that career I just walked away from. Something about the 20s being a major transition in my life.
He also talked about how my mother dying may have dimmed me ever so slightly. That pre-mom, I was perhaps a bit more outgoing and probably felt like an extrovert. It was impossible for him to know if I truly was an extrovert or just used that as a façade to not address my mother’s illness. Now I seemed to look inward more. To be a bit more reserved and at peace with that. Was that a result of my mother dying? Perhaps. My mom died at a very pivotal time in my life where I was figuring out who I was as a person. And, this would likely be one of the most defining moments of my life. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just meant I had evolved as a human – something we all do throughout our lives.
“But, what does this mean,” I asked.
In my head I was convinced he was wrong. He had to be because if he wasn’t wrong, that meant I was sentenced to this unsettling feeling for the rest of my life. That the random tsunami waves would continue to knock me off my feet at the most random of moments. I would never be the carefree teenager who took chances and felt invincible. Instead, I’d always be on edge waiting for the next big ball of doom to drop.
“It means that without me finding a diagnosis, your insurance likely won’t continue to pay for these sessions,” he explained. “I want to be upfront about that. I still think there are things we could talk through but you really are fine. If I had to prescribe you anything, it’d be to go live your life. To move in with Steve, enjoy this new life you’ve built. You’re ready.”
I couldn’t afford the out-of-pocket costs for these weekly talks. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the money but I questioned the value of paying someone to tell me I was fine, when I knew I wasn’t. I thought about getting a second opinion. Of finding another therapist who’d maybe understand that I wasn’t ok with just being ok. I wanted more.
I left therapy and something happened that hadn’t happened in a long time. I cried. I cried a lot. I cried tears of rage for mom breaking me and then abandoning me. Tears of rage for a therapist who couldn’t fix me. Tears of loss for discovering that the person I was pre-mom was gone. Tears of unmet dreams for leaving a career I loved and knowing I’d never return to it.
When the tears finally stopped my soul felt lighter. I started to understand that losing and letting go of those things meant space for new things. It meant exploring a new career that provided a more equalized balance between work and life. It meant time to start a side hustle writing. It meant giving my heart the space it needed to heal and eventually open up to falling in love. It meant exploring the Northwoods of Wisconsin and rediscovering myself on the south shores of Lake Superior. It’d mean starting to understand the connection and triggers that caused those tsunami sized waves of grief but also making space to remember the good times with mom.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d return to therapy many times in future years. Each time, I’d still ask the question, “am I broken?” Sometimes I wasn’t as whole as I’d like. Other times, I just needed a neutral stranger to ask me the tough questions and give me the space to process the answers out loud. To remind me that life is hard. That even on the easiest days, life can kick us on our ass. But we get to choose how we react. That we decide what comes next in those moments.
At one point, I found myself at a pretty momentous crossroads in life. I was having what I can only describe as yet another existential mid-life crisis, but I was only in my 30s. My career had stalled. I had grown tired of the Northwoods. Dad was sick. My relationship with my sisters was strained. I was a new mom. The honeymoon phase of my happily ever after had long since worn off. I was tired. So tired of going through the motions.
I wanted to run. I don’t know where to. But anywhere seemed better than the sticks of northern Wisconsin in the heart of winter. I just wanted to start over. I found myself once again in therapy, this time with an incredible lady who seemed to read my mind.
“If you could start over, what would you do?”
“I don’t know.” But it doesn’t matter, I thought to myself because I cannot.
She used that moment to give me some tough love. She reminded me that no choice is a choice. I was choosing to stay stuck by not doing anything. That inaction was in fact the action of nothing. I hated her in that moment.
“If you want to leave, leave. You have the knowledge and resources to do so. But, I wonder if that’s really the heart of what’s bothering you.”
Steve would eventually join me in therapy and I’d share my frustrations. I’d share that I was living a life that felt unfulfilled because somewhere along the time, life had started happening to me instead of for me. I no longer felt in the driver seat of my own destiny.
A conversation ensued about choices. I was reminded that I chose to marry a forester. I had chosen a career that provided a work-life balance that allowed me to be an incredible mother. I had fought long and hard to become a mother, it didn’t happen by accident. We had sought out our dream home on a small recreational lake, but that meant living in a very small place away from friends and family, but within driving distance of dad. These are choices I had made that lead me to this life I was living.
My therapist reminded me that this new life I dreamed of was void of making any choices. That if I wanted to start over, it’d mean making a choice about giving this all up. That’s the thing about choices. Choices rarely come without change. Change rarely comes without losing something to gain something else.
The truth is, I couldn’t imagine my life without Steve or Jake. I couldn’t imagine working a 60-hour work week or not being home to say goodnight to my miniature me. I couldn’t imagine a view without Moon Lake or the ability to be at my dad’s bedside when he’s sick. I couldn’t imagine not having time to write, or garden, or read a good book on my deck. I couldn’t imagine Christmas without snow and a massive live pine tree in my living room. I couldn’t imagine not living next to endless green space or leasing chickens in the summer.
The what if game is a dangerous game if you allow it to consume your life. It is one thing to wonder what if, if that is followed by a big dream that you go pursue. It is entirely another telling yourself how wonderful life would be if you could live someone else’s. I realize that now. Sometimes life hands me unexpected surprises completely out of my control. They knock me off my feet and make me angry at the world. But, for the most part, my life is the result of a series of choices I made, consciously and unconsciously, that I should embrace. If I don’t, I should change them.
If I could tell myself one thing, it’d be that a therapist can’t fix me because to fix me, I’d have to be broken. I now understand if mental health is Home Depot, your therapist is that friendly worker in an orange cape who can give you the tools needed to build, renovate or destroy whatever you want. I can google how to plumb a toilet or find happiness. It is just a lot easier to ask the man in orange to provide me the right tools to plumb that toilet, just like it is a lot easier to have my therapist help me understand the choices I’ve made and how that’s lead to the life I’ve created for myself and that maybe if I focused on what I have, I’d discover I am happy.
A therapist is great at arming you with tools and resources. The part that’s often missed, or at least was for me, is that you ultimately do the work. I ultimately decided to move in with Steve. To acknowledge that the life I chose is actually the life I want. To realize that if I don’t call my own shot, someone will call it for me. That’s on me. No therapy session, pill or self-help book will change that.
The great reward that comes with doing the work is you only have yourself to thank when things go as planned. It doesn’t happen often and sometimes it is a long and bumpy road, but there comes a moment when you can make peace with the decisions you’ve made. The other great thing, you get to decide when to do the work. Looking back, I genuinely believe things worked out the way they needed to for me. Delaying the full feelings of my mom’s death until I was in a place to process them, helped me get to a place where I could start to understand the grieving process. To understand that even trivial moments could trigger memories of mom, and that was in fact ok.
Megan Devine penned an incredible book entitled “It’s ok that you’re not ok. Meeting grief and loss in a culture that doesn’t understand.” In it, Devine spends a lot of time talking about our society’s inability to process grief and acknowledge that grief is not in fact something you get over but rather live with. There is no other side to grief. As a therapist and someone who has experienced great loss, Divine’s stories and advice are based in science and experience. I wish her book had existed in 1996 when mom died. But am so grateful it is available now. I understand now, the piece of me felt broken, is in fact a broken heart over losing someone I loved. But, as cliché as it sounds, it is better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all. Knowing that and understanding that means I wouldn’t wish this pain away, because for that to happen would mean never feeling the love either.