Jun 07, 2008
Poeple often ask me how therapy helped me overcome panic and anxiety. My replies have tended to be technical and mechanical in nature, descriptive of a process as opposed to an experience. A member posted a question in which she said that therapy -years of it- had not "worked" for her. She did not, therefore, "believe" in therapy. In reponse to this post, rather than argue about not doing it right, as though I were explaining how to stroke a golf ball, I decided to report a turning point in my own therapy, in the hopes that any reader will sense that therapy is helping on the basis that "you'll know it when you see it."
The "trick" of therapy which digs into the past is to find some experience or conditions in the past which influenced your ways of thinking at the time in such a way as to produce anxiety, which subsequently became attached to succeeding conditions as you grew up -you carried it ahead with you into life.
Let me tell you MY defining event, and see if that helps you find yours. I'll call this the "Last Good Thing That Ever Happened Between my Father and Me."
My father bought a used sail boat when I was 7 or 8 (or 6 or 7). He didn't know how to sail. This boat was a "heap," leaky and unsteady and old. The two of us set out together to "learn how to sail." It was a disaster. We ended up sinking about 300 yards from the dock. And it was the most fun I ever had. In my eyes, Dad always did everything "right." And on this occasion, everything was going wrong. And he laughed at his own ineptitude as the boat filled with water and we could not possibly bail fast enough. What was so pleasing about this was to see things go wrong, and yet he did not curse angrily. We both laughed. He, alas was as naive as I was about sailing. The boat sunk onto a mud flat, and we made it to shore and walked home. When he asked me if I would like to try another trip later on, I signed on enthusiastically. We reported our undoing to Mother, laughing again at the re-telling, and she went into hysterics with us. I just could not WAIT for the next disaster. But there was no "next" trip.
Instead, Dad decided to buy a "real" sailboat, join the local yacht club and learn how to race. He got the new boat, bought books on sailing and racing, even bought litttle plastic models to illustrate techniques. All very cool, I thought. And so, when he asked me be his "crew" in a race, I signed up. But now, the situation was different. Racing -competing- was serious business. And now, nothing I did was right or good enough. The sheets were too tight or too loose, I wasn't fast enough or I was too fast. He started raising his voice with me. He was frustrated. I raced one or two more times, hoping for a different outcome, but it only got worse. Ultimately, it was my older sister and my mother who became crew. I became the "weak link." When I say our sinking experience was the "last good thing" I don't mean that there were never any more good things, for indeed, there were. I mean, rather, that a boundary had been crossed. My understanding of Dad moved from a fundamental sense of security and happiness to a performance-based fear of him. And among the devices I used to cope with this was helplessness and sickness and not being "able." Of course, there is a lot more to this story, but I think you can see how panic and anxiety found a way "in" to my psychology; and they stayed with me for the 40+ years until my recovery, though therapy. To this day, I cannot tell this pivotal story of my personal history without wanting to both laugh and cry -and I weep as I write this.
My psychiatrist's notes will say something like, "age inappropriate demands of father," and that would be right. But, it really doesn't tell the story. The story is in the heart, in the gut, in your feelings and until such time as you can connect with that, there is more therapy to be done.
The "Last Good Thing" was not the specific cause of my anxiety, in the sense of a smoking gun, but rather a significant experience that has meaning for me -one which captures the very essence of what happened over a number of years. There were, of course, preceeding events and situations that made me vulnerable, and there were succeeding events and situations which turned out as they did because of the emotional course that had been charted. It might even be safe to say that if the sinking sailboat experience NEVER happened, I still would have turned out as I did. And it is even possible that I fabricated the memory -that it never really played out as I said, or maybe did not happen at all. (I do have 3rd party verification). None of that matters -what matters is that the story, like all good stories, is emotionally correct and true and explains me -TO me. Recalling it, reliving it, sitting there in my pyschiatrist's office, tears rolling down my cheeks, sobbing.
Should I hate my father for this? No, on the contrary, his attitude toward me in the racing venues and subsequent scenarios in which my performance disappointed or hurt him became a demonstration to me of HIS humanity, his burdens, his weakness. Knowing this -as an adult- made my last few years with him were very good ones. How I do miss him. Forgiveness? None. There is nothing to forgive. But there was much, and is much, to understand, and in understanding, you find truth.
And the truth? The truth will set you free.
No one who reads this should now begin searching for some old memory of something in particular that went wrong in their childhood, and then assign to that event the entire course of their emotional history ever since. The idea, rather, is to recognize anything which carries with it very high emotional value. In my case, it was not so much a big, BAD thing that happened as it was that a very good thing disappeared. Furthermore, it is rare that the entirety of our lives pivots on a single event. The memory of individual events tends to capture and encapsulate the sum and substance of much that will never be remembered, but rather, that which exists in our experience, our outlook, the way we think, and what we value.
Let me put it to you this way. There is a famous painting by Lee Teeter of a veteran standing before the Vietnam War Memorial "Wall." The veteran is leaning toward the wall, propping himself up by his outstretched hand as shown in the picture. But it is not his own image that appears in the reflection. Rather, his fallen comrades reach out through time and touch HIM. By no means do I wish to co-opt Lee's profound message. What I am saying is that in the same way that Lee's image captures a momentous history and profound meaning reaching far beyond the painting itself, so also will YOUR connection to your past challenges do the same. The memories give you a hinge, a point of focus, a token, an emblem, whose meanings stretch far beyond and yet are present in the memory itself. When your therapy causes such memories to present themselves, you are open to understanding, change, and recovery. You will know this is happening when you FEEL it.
Incidentally, if you'd like to know more about how the Vietnam Reflections painting came to be, go here:
I hope this is helpful