Why Psychotherapy is like Kale

Psychotherapy is not easy, or fun. It’s good for me, even necessary, but I don’t love it. Psychotherapy is like kale: not nearly as tasty or enjoyable as homemade macaroni and cheese, or pizza, but sometimes, I have to force it down.

One of the biggest issues about not seeking help from a psychotherapist is that we rarely know why we display negative behaviors. Often, we react to stimuli based on a complex process of unresolved issues (or trauma) from childhood. Some behaviors are good, like holding a door for someone or not cheating on a test. But others include slamming the door in someone’s face, tearing up your husband’s baseball card when he stays out all night, or yelling at some unsuspecting cashier. Consistently negative behaviors harm us and can destroy relationships with people we love.

Before I turned 18, my birth mother ran out on us; my father remarried a physically and emotionally abusive woman; my step-uncle sexually abused me; my stepmother slept with one of my boyfriends; my older brother was killed in a motorcycle wreck; my younger brother was kicked out of every elementary school in our town; and I moved in with an abusive, cheating, drug-dealing boyfriend.

Phew. I realize there are millions of people who’ve suffered far worse tragedies than I did. I’m not searching for pity, only understanding, a willingness to see another perspective. A family member once said, “In my day, we didn’t go to therapy. We solved problems by ourselves.” Hmmm. This family member drank a six pack every night just so he could fall asleep. And he stayed in a marriage with a cheating spouse for 20 plus years.

At 21, I eloped with a man we’ll call Jon. This was one week after I admitted to my parents that I’d been sexually abused as a child. My father said, “You must have liked it because you never told us.” My stepmother said, “You’re just trying to cause problems.” Um, no. But before you hang these folks out to dry, I can assure you these are typical responses. (After my father divorced the nightmare, he spent the last 15  years of his life apologizing to me for the earlier response).

In the wake of Donald Trump’s accusers coming forward about his sexual misconduct, many people ask, “Why didn’t they come forward when it happened?” I echo comedian Seth Meyers’s response. For reasons that seem absurd, our society tends to blame the victims of sexual abuse. I was four when my uncle started abusing me and nine when I screamed, which sent him running from the room never to touch me again. If anyone says a four year old girl is asking for it, he or she should be flogged.

Often times, people who’ve been sexually abused as children become hyper sexual, engaging in risky behaviors like having unprotected sex with numerous people largely because their personal boundaries were destroyed. In addition, subconsciously, they’re scared of getting too close because others might get to know them and judge them for their “shameful” past.

For two decades, I moved guy to guy, always dumping a good one who loved me for someone who treated me like the piece of shit I thought I was. It was as if I were saying, “Don’t get close. I don’t want you to know the real me because I’m no good. I deserve to be with a piece of shit.” In recent years, science has offered new theories on addiction, drugs, sex, food, shopping, alcohol, saying it might have more to do with attachment disorder than genetics.

A theory is a theory, but it makes sense to me that someone who has lingering feelings of being discarded, neglected, and abandoned, might have serious problems with interpersonal relationships (lack of trust, PTSD, fear of authority). I have a solid circle of male and female friends, people I’ve known for years who love and support me. They appreciate my unfiltered speech, openness and honesty. But if you asked the men from my past what it was like to love me, you’d get another story.

After years of pushing good men away when they got too close, I ran out of luck. The man I shared a deep love and even deeper friendship with, the man I grew closer to than anyone in my life, drew a line in the sand. “If you don’t want me,” he said, “I’ll go.” It was the exact opposite of what I wanted and needed, but I was used to my past coping skills, so I let him go and moved on to the next guy. I also went into therapy.

In the year that followed, something happened. Through long discussions with a psychiatrist, talks with friends, and reading self-help books, I stopped. Instead of pointing my finger outward, I turned it on myself. I needed to excavate my painful childhood memories, unearth them, and examine them to set them free.

Over the past several months, I’ve been attending therapy once a week, including doing EMDR, which tastes like kale but is so good for me! Sometimes I break down bawling. Sometimes I just want to run. My therapist challenges me. I’ve processed one old memory and am working on a second. There are plenty more. But I feel more confident in my ability to move around in the world, to forgive myself and others, to recognize that the man I loved and lost did me a favor. He forced me to take stock of myself and see I am not my past, I can be better, but I need to do more work. It’s a long, long road, and at the end, I hope they have pizza.

Poem for my Brother, 1966-1987

The Prankster

You’d just turned 21, bought us the Beck’s Beer
we sipped while we waited for the drop-off

at my place, listened to the Stones. You had
silky hair like Mick Jagger, wore a leather jacket

from Dad’s shoe repair shop, dingy white Pumas.
We laughed about our childhood, how you played

tricks on me, like saying you were adopted or
that the shell tasted better than the egg.

We planned to run Dad’s business until we died.
You left to buy one more six-pack, Ruby Tuesday

playing on the stereo, and I was happy to wait
for you. You patted my shoulder, said, I’ll be back,

three words that became a broken promise—
Hours later, after I guessed you’d caught up

with a buddy, forgot to call, our uncle phoned
to say they found you one block from the store,

motorcycle mangled, brain stem snapped in two,
you never felt a thing. Eighteen years old, grief

dropped over me like a veil. I took a cab to our
grandparents, thought of when we were kids:

you made a noose out of plastic, tied it around
your neck, pretended to hang yourself–head slumped,

eyes bugged–from the top bunk. When Dad came
in, he popped you on the head with his knuckle.

I sit at our grandparents, watching the door,
waiting for you to waltz in like so many other
times to tell me that this was all a joke.

The Deep End of the Pool

When talking to people, I’m not interested in staying in the shallow end of the pool. Blame it on the writer in me, but I am intensely curious–fascinated–by other people’s lives. I also am happy to share experiences from my own life as a way to connect with others. From time to time, however, I have found that sharing my experiences, especially the less than pleasant ones, leaves people feeling uncomfortable and not knowing quite what to say. Recently, I was reminded of some phrases that get under my skin.

1.”I must be lucky because…” As in, I am not in the crappy personal situation that you confided in me, which sounds way worse than my own, which I might even be hiding from you because I don’t want to be judged, so instead I’ll say how blessed I am and not share anything.

If you’re a parent, you probably recognize number one. You can’t sit near other parents without hearing about how unique, amazing and intelligent their kids are. And if you say, “Wow, I wish Janie got along better with her kindergarten teacher,” or “Thomas hasn’t been bringing home his homework,” more than likely you’ll get, “I must be lucky because Arthur and Amy love all their teachers and have straight As.” Back to the shallow end

2.”You must be really strong…” As in, I could never survive if I lost my brother, or husband, or father. I would just kill myself. Gosh. How do you even wake up every day and laugh and smile?

Losing a loved one is not a choice. Telling someone, “I would kill myself,” is insulting at best. Don’t say it. Just hug your friend. Ask them if there’s anything you can do. And please, please, don’t say, “I must be lucky. I have never lost anyone close to me.”

3.”I don’t know how you do it…” As in, I could never be a single parent. My husband is wonderful, and I just couldn’t get by without him.

This is a kiss through a veil, a back-handed compliment. It’s as though the person making the comment is waving their Happily Married banner right in my face. And, just to be clear: my ex-husband and I share custody of our son, and just like a couple who are still together, we talk, negotiate and sometimes argue. We live five-minutes from each other. We attend basketball games and parent conferences together. And when things get tense between us (since our divorce was less than friendly) we call a time-out and discuss things in private. We may be single-parents, but we collaborate as a unit, because we can. We have a choice.

I think kindness goes a long way. And if you don’t know what to say to someone who makes you uncomfortable, why not admit it?

 

May Was the Cruellest Month (So Far)

May Day is my brother Tony’s birthday. He was born in 1966. He died on May 3, 1987, in a motorcycle wreck. So every year at about mid April, I get the blues. On his birthday, I usually post a collage on Facebook with the message, “Miss ya, Tony.”

My brother-in-law Wes was born on May 12, 1970. He died in August of 1997 during a car accident. So every year, on his birthday, I post a photo and message on Facebook saying, “Miss ya, buddy.”

My husband Harly was born on May 17, 1969. He died in October of 1997 from a genetic liver disorder. So every year, I post a collage on Facebook with the message, “Miss ya, Har.”

Once I am passed those three rough days, I feel better. But this year, on Harly’s birthday, I got a bonus. While I was pulling weeds in my backyard, my 95 pound black lab/Newfoundland Gus was chasing my pitbull Ginger and I got in the way. Gus came running at me top speed and hit me just about head-on. It felt like a flying brick. I yelled, “Ow, ow, ow,” and wobbled into the house to get some ice.

After looking up concussion symptoms on the web and seeing that I was going to be OK, I took it easy the rest of the night. But the next morning, when I looked in the mirror my jaw hung open: I had two black eyes. I worked from home the entire week. On May 22, I took the skills test for my Certified Nursing Assistant with two black eyes. The rater, who was a nurse, raised her eyebrows and said, “Your dog did that?”

I can’t ignore the looks I’ve been getting for the last three weeks. I wonder how many people think I am in a domestically abusive relationship. Part of me feels like a movie star, skulking around my small town in sunglasses all the time. Even today, I have two thin marks left, two purple reminders of Gus’s faux pas.

Boy, am I glad June has arrived. May, you can kiss my *ss.

Funeral Dinner

For my brother Tony: May 1, 1966 to May 3, 1987

Dad and I sat next to each other at the cemetery,
folding chairs cold and hard on that spring
afternoon. He and I were holding hands, but
his wife slid her chilly fingers in between and
how quickly I pulled away, watched the men
lower your body into the mud-soaked ground.

At the funeral dinner, Dad heard me mouthing off,
“I’m never calling her Mom again.” He grabbed
my hand, dragged me upstairs and locked us
in a tiny bathroom. “Your real mother was
an egg donor,” he said. “That woman downstairs
is your mother.” He wiped his nose on his white
handkerchief, stuffed it back in his pocket.

He left me to stare at my reflection, black rivulets
down my cheeks, hazel eyes like his, curly hair.
You looked just like our mother: light skin, bright
green eyes, full lips. And now, just like her,
you had betrayed me: here one day, then gone.

Smoking With My Brother

You left us at 21—brown leather jacket and
blue jeans, feathered hair parted down the middle,
freckles, the bright green eyes you got from
our mother. I never wondered if her leaving
broke you, smoking and drinking by 12,
popping pills by 13, dealing drugs in your
Windsor knot and dress pants to the stoners
at our catholic school just down the block
from home. You worshiped the Doors,
danced with the gangly arms and wild heart
of a rock star, and Dad imagined you’d run off
to join a band and never come back—like her.

After your wreck on that rainy night, we found
your box of poems, foretelling a life that would
end before you aged. “Never trust anyone over
30,” the hippies once chanted, and you would
have raised your fist right alongside them.

Dear brother, this year you would be 49, far
too old to trust—and yet, I would still follow
your hunched shoulders all the way down
to the creek slithering behind Grandma’s,
pack of lifted Winston 100s and box of matches,
I’d perch beside you on a flat rock, light
the cigs against the wind, and not yet knowing
how to inhale, but so you’d think I was as cool
as I believed you to be, hold the smoke in my mouth
as long as I could stand, the stale taste of tobacco,
cotton and paper mixing on my tongue, pretend.

A Glimpse Into Wilson’s Disease

The Assumption

My husband Harly thought he had the flu,
felt lethargic and never wanted to eat.
I just thought he was lazy. After hauling
bags of grass seed all day at the local plant,
he’d flop down on our couch, slather Vicks
on his chest, cuddle with our baby girl
and watch Barney. He stayed up late into
the night playing TechnoBowl, chest pains,
tingling in his joints, then fell asleep, TV
blaring, lamps aglow. He never left the house
except to work, and when he pressed his calves,
he left fingerprints. After his stools lost color,
we saw doctors who dosed him, told him eat less,
walk more. It was a nurse who noticed
the golden hue of his eyes and skin, insisted
on a blood test that showed a liver gone bad.

I drove us back to our modest home in our town
of a thousand. Harly sat in the passenger seat,
sniffing—a twenty-seven-year-old man
who would need a specialist, tests, a transplant.
But right then, all he needed was to hear
the radio play Tom Petty, to rest his head
on my chest. He smelled of sweat and soap.
I’d never seen him cry in the time we’d been
together, but over the next six months,
as he watched his baby girl scream through
her own blood tests, his brother lose his life
to the same disease, his own body wither
from broad-chested and strong to brittle
and thin, I’d wipe them away, one by one,
as they blended into his yellowed cheeks.