When I stopped waiting for the magic, healing happened.
When my previous therapist invited me to imagine murdering someone, I knew I needed another therapist.
My previous therapist’s visualization exercise to help me deal with my history of being bullied involved imagining holding the main bully underwater.
Drowning, he said, because people can’t speak when they are drowning
Drowning him with my foot on his neck. Drowning him, he said, because people can’t speak when they are inhaling water. Drowning him, he said, because it was a good visualization. Drowning him, he said, because he deserved it. Drowning him because getting rid of him would feel good. It would bring healing. Drowning him because it would give me the upper hand over him and all other bullies in my life.
That was one of our last sessions together. Many things didn’t work for me with that therapist, but between that exercise and a few others, I decided I’d had enough.
I can see how there’s a difference between reality and the real world. I can imagine how that exercise could be powerful. But it didn’t work for me on many levels. On any level.
I’m a rescue diver, and I’ve had a bunch of training in dealing with drowning victims. I was a police officer in a past life. I’ve seen a lot of violence over the years. The visualization exercise of murdering someone who had bullied me… Maybe identifying how I wasn’t okay with the exercise and discussing it with my therapist would have been a healthier thing to do — but instead, I decided to do self-care by not going back to that therapist. Come to think of it, it was a poor fit long before that time — he was already on notice for telling me he was gay and then asking me a bunch of questions about my sexuality that didn’t seem all that relevant to the work we were doing at the time, which didn’t strike me as the most professional approach.
Where’s the reveal?
The big impression my previous therapist left me with, though, was that something big has to happen for therapy to work. A big reveal. A big a-ha moment. A breakthrough; a showpiece.
I realized that all this time, I have been expecting my therapist to be guiding me through a magic trick somehow and that the healing — feeling okay again — is the final reveal of the trick. In fact, I re-watched The Prestige (2006) and was surprised to realize that this was exactly what I had been waiting for in my therapy:
Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.
I started work with a new therapist. She’s magical, gentle but firm. Socratic, in her approach — questions, questioning, and explorative.
In my mind’s eye, I had a vision of my therapist cracking her knuckles at the beginning of a video session, looking me straight in the eyes, taking a deep breath, and, almost regretfully, announce that this is where the work starts. This is the one. This is the session where I’m reduced to a blubbering wreck of snot and tears on the floor, where we do the sudden invasive mental surgery that removes the trauma, and where we start the work of putting the pieces back together again.
I have no idea why I had that visual. Perhaps it was because of the visualization exercise my previous therapist had done. Perhaps it was because therapy is often extremely poorly portrayed in the movies and on TV. Perhaps I have some fears about what will come blasting to the surface if you drill deep enough into the subconsciousness. Maybe I am under-informed, or perhaps I just don’t really know how the mind works.
At some point, I told my therapist, with some trepidation, “I think I might be ready to start doing the work”. I was met with blinking eyes and a look of vague bemusement. I told her about my vision, and I think she jokingly asked me if I wanted her to crack her knuckles. We talked about expectations for a bit.
The next week, I had to share something with her. I had been in a really shitty place for a few hours. I’d received an email that had triggered my bullying trauma — a long story involving being billed for something completely unfair by a medical company. I told her how I had opened my email and then been up until 2 am. Being upset for five hours wasn’t helpful — but I mentioned how it was a victory of sorts that I had gotten any sleep at all. That I had expected to lose days — maybe a week — to anxiety. But that somehow, at 2 am, I just decided to solve the problem in an unsatisfactory way (I paid the bill) because I realized that they weren’t trying to bully me — they were just doing their job. If anything, the American medical system was unfair. They are just playing their role within it. But it wasn’t personal. And by paying the bill (which was less than four weeks of therapy worth), I could avoid being anxious and angry about it for four weeks. I decided that I couldn’t take on the whole system. It wasn’t enough money to get lawyers involved. And it caused so much anxiety that it wasn’t worth me dealing with it myself. But I could choose to re-focus my attention. Put it behind me. Get over it. And so I paid the bill. If they really were bullies — they win. If they aren’t targeting me personally, they are just cogs stuck in a profoundly unfair system. I was able to choose one of those truths and ignore the other. Is it a privilege to be able to pay off a bill to make it go away? Absolutely. But the alternative would have been to lose a month of therapy to this issue. Turning it over in my mind again and again and again, fighting that windmill. Instead, I was angry for four hours, paid the people, and slept like a baby.
One step at a time.
I told my therapist about the incident. She asked me how I would have reacted six months ago. Two months ago. Hell, one month ago. I didn’t answer, but she read my face and saw the light-bulb go up.
“Fuck. We’ve been “doing the work” this whole time, haven’t we,” I finally concluded.
She shrugged and smiled.
That was the moment that I allowed therapy to work. It sunk in that therapy isn’t a magic trick. I realized that being ‘cured’ isn’t binary. I’m not either broken or fixed; it isn’t a choice between “lose a week to an email” or “shrug it off with a smile”. Perhaps four hours of being angry this time is progress. And if four hours doesn’t feel appropriate, I can delve deeper. Get it down to two hours next time. And maybe an hour the time after that.
I didn’t need the gimmicks. I didn’t have to imagine murdering anyone for this to work. All I had to do was to observe how I react. See if it serves me or not. And if not, see if there’s something I can do to sufficiently calm my central nervous systems. Gently work myself back into my ‘envelope of tolerance’ — able to make solid decisions again, without spinning out mentally. Sometimes that looks like drinking a cup of coffee. Eating something. Going outside. Talking to a friend. Taking a shower. Doing something creative.
The big reveal for me was that therapy isn’t magic. For me, the kind of therapy that works is slowly sanding off the edges, near imperceptible from session to session. One fuck-up at the time. One let-down at the time. One trauma at the time. And to be gentle with myself when, sometimes, being frustrated and angry for a few hours is the right way to react because it’s all I have. This time.