The psychiatrist I saw for more than 10 years has a blog. I won’t say which blog this is, because that seems awkward. But I read it sometimes, mainly because I saw her for 10 years without realizing she held any particular views on how people get better. We chatted about schools in West LA or Buddhists concepts of mindfulness or something else fairly light and off I went. It was only through her blog that I understood how she saw things.
This wouldn’t be important, except that maybe she sees things in ways that are similar to how my therapists saw them. (I saw several therapists: one retired, then it took a few tries to find someone else I could work with, then I moved.)
The thing is that I did not get better. So this is something I wonder about from time to time. I left therapy and moved to a remote country with little in-person emotional support and absolutely no one around who has the faintest notion of how to respond to trauma. Then I began to get better. I got a little bit better. Slightly.
But in my own country, awash in information about trauma, with more MFTs than you can shake a stick at, when I was seeing two different, highly trained professionals, I was mostly treading water. Why? I usually don’t get any compelling answers.
This isn’t an indictment of the whole profession of psychotherapy. I can’t evaluate that. But why didn’t I get better? More to the point, why didn’t I get better when clearly it is possible for me to get better? If I didn’t get better because I couldn’t get better, I wouldn’t be getting better now.
I think it might have to do with an idea of hope. Traditional psychodynamic therapy has a fairly dim view of a patient’s prognosis. People have mixed feelings about getting better—we call this resistance. They both do and do not want change. Getting better takes a long time and occurs in fits and starts and if you don’t get better, you need to just be patient and trust the process.
It’s not a motivating theory. Recovering from trauma takes a lot of hard work. It is exhausting and painful. It consumes your life, crowds out fun and sucks the joy out of many, many things. If you don’t believe quite fervently that all of that effort will pay off, why would you do it? It’s possible that I didn’t.
The thing is do not hold this view. I do not believe in the concept of resistance. I do think change is frightening to people. But so is the idea of waking up in the morning a year from now with all of the same pain you have today. I believe, instead, that people are motivated to seek equilibrium. We want very strongly to be fine. Our whole being is oriented towards fine. If we are not fine, it’s because we don’t know how to be fine. And that’s a really fundamental difference between my belief and a more traditional Freudian-style belief.
If you have my belief, that people want to be fine and don’t always know how to be fine, it feels a lot more hopeful. It becomes, then, a matter not of waiting passively for the resistance to magically lighten, but an active search for how to be fine.
I woke up this morning and I was thinking, in a rather despairing way, about C. She hurts me, actually, repeatedly. I struggle again and again to understand why she is behaving the way that she is and also why it hurts. However, I explain it to myself, she behaved rather badly towards me this winter. She didn’t take my calls, then she changed her mind about her school plans after she had agreed to take my help in pursuing them, then she couldn’t be decent enough even to tell me that. She sent a text, left her phone with someone, and ran away. Or lied about leaving her phone with someone and ran away. I can find all kinds of reasons for this, but it was not nice and she knew it was not nice.
When I woke up, I was thinking about this. I was thinking, “Have I doomed myself into being in a situation that repeatedly confuses and hurts me?”
Well, possibly. I began to think of my ex-wife. It was that kind of thing: She behaved badly, I was upset and confused, I probably behaved badly. I could never understand what had happened or why I was so upset and I could never calm down again either. Is that what I have done to myself?
I began to think about this.
The difference is that I have this new idea about human beings, about myself, and about what to do in situations like this. It’s a much more optimistic one. We are not stuck in patterns we can’t change because of shitty childhood events we didn’t cause and couldn’t control. It’s just that things upset us. Then we can’t think straight. Then sometimes we make poor decisions. Or, alternatively, we shut down our emotions to avoid being upset and we think with only the facts we can see and remember with the slow, analytic part of our brains. Which sometimes also leads to poor decisions. If we can calm down, we can think straight with our whole brains, and given some intelligence and life experience under our belt, we will figure out how to find equilibrium. We will make decent decisions.
The problem with my ex is that I didn’t know this. I went to my psychotherapist with my confusion, she had this other idea about what I needed to do, which mostly had to do with being more assertive, less dependent, and less expressive of my needs: setting boundaries and focusing more on myself figured strongly. She did perpetually ask me, “How do you take care of yourself?” But this seemed to have to do with something else. Meeting my own relationship needs or I don’t know what. She didn’t mean calming down enough to think so that I could make some better decisions in my life. The taking care was an end in itself for her.
I never calmed down. I never understood the dynamics of the relationship or what about it was so upsetting to me. After 7 years of that, I finally became overwhelmed by the pain of it and left without having any meaningful insight. I may have thought I did, but I didn’t. I have more insight now, more than a decade after the fact.
I have a different approach now. It isn’t fool-proof: as soon as I am overtaxed by the stresses of life, I lose all ability to calm down and think again, but this has to be getting easier. It doesn’t feel easier, but I keep dealing with more and more trauma. I keep becoming a more integrated person. Whatever it is that is upsetting me in my relationship with C, I will find a way to cope with. Either I will find a way to change her behaviour or I will find a way to come to terms with her behaviour.