For whatever reason, Switchfoot’s “Dare You to Move” keeps playing in my head lately. I guess it started during one of the days recently when I was camped out in a cozy nest on my couch, trying deperately to make myself get up and go to the bathroom or the kitchen or get the mail or anything formerly trivial but, since I was essentially rendered paralized by Covid for a week, I couldn’t. It was pretty painful just to exist – even my skin hurt so much that a shirt sleeve rubbing against my arm felt like a million pin pricks. When I walked more than a few steps, the incredible pain in my lower back and legs was both bizarre and overwhelming. It felt like I was made of cement, heavy and immovable yet also illogically wobbly. And it winded me! One day I took out the trash and that 2 minute adventure made me so bloody tired, that I came inside, fell onto my bed with my shoes still on, and slept for 45 minutes. On one hand, it’s a blessing that I lasted nearly three years without getting it and I am eternally grateful that vaccines kept me from experiencing the lung and taste and smell issues of early Covid, and that took the lives of so many people, some of whom I loved and grieved deeply. On the other hand, I wish so badly that I had made time to get my second booster so I wouldn’t have had to experience it at all.
The whole Covid experience is too much to rehash. One of the only comforts was going on Reddit and finding dozens of other people who had the same concoction of bizarre symptoms and in the same nonsensical order, and the same insanely unpleasant side effects of Paxlovid and tips to get past them. It made me feel less crazy and less alone. We all know I love a normalizing moment.
Another comfort though was the number of people who regularly checked in on me. I am not someone who likes asking for help or admitting weakness or acknowledging loneliness to the people in my real world. But I was forced to while I had Covid. It is scary and humbling to live alone when you are so sick. The first two days were so tremendously awful and terrifying that I actually considered whether death might be more palatable. I could barely walk, I had full body goosebumps and tremors even while I was sweating through my clothes, I had too many bathroom adventures to count, my head was full of nothing but snot and pressure, and I nearly passed out in public twice on the day I walked a mile to get a PCR test. I have never felt so small and needy and helpless in my life. And yet, when I called, my friends picked up. They helped. They gave tips from when they had it (Vick’s shower tabs are essentially heaven, btw). They sent Postmates and Instacart. And more than one of them texted. Every. Single. Day. As awful and gross as it was, I also felt loved.
It felt really nice. And refreshing.
It took me a really long time and so much unnecessary frustration to find her but the time that I have spent talking with my therapist over the past several months has almost been worth the struggle to find mental help. Of the many, many things we’ve talked about and tried to unpack and work through, one of the things I am most grateful for is her helping me to be more proactive with my friendships. I am still on the fence on the chicken-and-egg of whether I have always been a loner or, if due to growing up shy coupled with recurring emotional trauma over the decades, my independence and solitude have become learned and protective behaviors.
As I’ve shared a few times before, although I obviously have memories of childhood and high school and everything pre-college, I underwent a significant change in who I am and how I show up in the world somewhere around the age of 21 or 22. It’s difficult for me now, at 43, to remember much about the person I was before that shift. I objectively know that I was shy and quiet and sweet and demure and naive and Christian, and also a doormat. It’s just that I look back on that time, that period where everything shifted, when I found my voice and my backbone and a modicum of self-confidence, and I feel a mixture of both pride and regret. I am proud of who I am and who I have grown to be. While there were obviously external influences along the way, and pockets of rich friendships and formative experiences, I did most of that changing by daring myself to … move. On my own. I did it through conscious choices more than circumstance and, eventually, after I dared myself to speak up, show up, participate, reach higher, engage … eventually, those thoughts became actions became habits became character.
The regret part comes into play, niggling at the back of my heart and feeling a bit too close to shame most times, when I am faced with situations where perhaps I have become too bold, too outspoken, too brash, too honest, too brave, too intense, too passionate, too vulnerable, too comfortable. Sure, some of that is insecurity rearing up from the depths of my past self, an innate self-consciousness that lives vividly within my inner child. She calls out sometimes to remind me of how much I have always craved belonging because I never quite felt like I fit anywhere for the first half of my life. Once I found my place, I am not sure that I fully lived there, at least not to the fullest that I could. But I operated in that space and I did it well.
The majority of the past nearly twenty years have been spent devoted wholly and passionately to my work. I LOVE MY WORK. As a high school counselor for twelve and now as the director of pre-college and scholarship programs for the last five, I have gotten to play the most rewarding and fulfilling roles I could imagine. That isn’t to say that it was easy. On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence in the words on these pages that, in fact, there has been a lot of tribulation and disappointment, a lot of crushing heart ache, and so much literal blood, sweat, tears, and mental and emotional anguish. And YET, at least once a week, I still receive an email or a comment or a phone call that I add to the literal and figurative “smile file.” I have always felt seen, loved, and valued by my students, their families, and a lot of my colleagues, in ways that are unmatched in my personal life by a mile. And I know that this could sound a bit sad, that so much of my identity is bound up in my career, but similar to my penchant for solitude, I just don’t really know how much of it is innate and how much has been a learned, adaptive behavior, born from emotional necessity and self preservation.
That brings me back to cultivating friendships. My therapist and I have talked a lot about grief, loss, and rejection, specifically as it relates to what I experienced with John but also generally as I have exerienced, collected, and kept saddled to my being for as long as I can remember. As a child, several of my earliest memories are of loss. As a teenager, I felt rejection and exclusion so fully that they are like a velcro blanket over that time period, covering and clinging to the memories so tightly that I can’t separate them. As a college student and early 20-something, I felt both extreme lows and extreme highs in terms of belonging and self-identity. And as an independent adult over the past 17 years in DC, I have lost almost every close friend I’ve had to physical distance, marriages, mother/fatherhood, or job changes and, without exception, have been rejected or betrayed by every man I’ve dated. I have never been anyone’s number one, be it romantic, friendship, or family relationships. Every other person in my life has someone who is or becomes more important to them than me. I love that they have that love, but I am also jealous and envious and sad that I don’t. My family is the only true constant, but even some of those relationships have morphed and thinned in ways I did not anticipate, feel regret for not preventing, and wish were like they used to be.
Losses and emotional traumas are the fenceposts between which all the rest of my life has been strung. Some of those distances are spanned with solid, relatively unscathed streches of electrical wire, while a lot of others are bent, broken, tangled and in need of repairs of various magnitudes so that the pulse can flow through them. I think it’s probably possible to mend some of those stretches – at least in the ways that they still affect me. There are some stretches though that are always going to be rough and you’ll feel the jolt of the current if you get too close. I grew up on a farm; fence posts and broken fences and gates left open and electrical shocks were part of my normal childhood days. I know that even when you repair a stretch, it’s weaker in that spot unless you replace the whole damn thing.
Obviously, I can’t get a do-over on this life. I can’t go back in time and make different choices, walk through different doors, choose a different career or man, or see how things could have turned out if I’d been less bashful and more confident, if I hadn’t experienced some of the loss and violation I did as a tiny kid, if my trust and compassion hadn’t been broken and abused by people who should have been better humans. Although I have spent far too much time allowing myself to daydream or wallow in the sliding doors moments, depending on my mood or the season, I objectively know this isn’t possible.
My therapist asked me to write this week about unrequited love. This came from an observation I made after saying how nice it felt to feel cared for by friends while I was down and out with Covid. She asked why I thought it felt like people were more concerned and supportive when I was physically in crisis versus a year ago when I was experiencing emotional crisis. I told her that was an easy answer: I confided in more people. She asked why and I initially said because it’s easy to just simply text someone and say ‘I have Covid, it feels awful,’ when most of them have already experienced it, versus having to have a significant conversation full of emotional landmines and unknowns to explain what happened and formulate words for how it felt to people who haven’t experienced anything like it.
She pushed back because she’s good at her job. Of course my explanation is true but also, a year ago, I did not have some of the significant people in my life that I do now, I wasn’t as close to some of the ones I did have, and I made very little effort to cultivate or water those friendships, new or old.
She has been challenging me to try to take ownership of both my aloneness and my loneliness by making an intentional effort to be a friend and seek community. Specifically, to be less alone in my world. In some ways, I feel like the timid and polite 20 year old sitting in my Anatomy & Physiology class junior year with a bully of a professor and, exasperated and frustrated by the inequity, finally just daring myself to speak up and stand up and not be intimidated. Now though, I am daring myself to reach out to friends instead of wishing they would reach out to me. I feel like I used to be better at this or at least more natural but, now I actively send up smoke signals in the form of texts or even (gasp!!) occasional phone calls. I check in, I share more things, and I initiate physical time with people I like but also intentionally suggest things I like … concerts, dinner, HH, outdoor things, nerdy talks and live shows, etc. I am definitely one of those people for whom the snarky t-shirts “Sorry I’m late. I didn’t want to come.” exist. Except, I abhor being late and loathe flakiness so I usually either say no from the first suggestion -or- I make myself go but I really, really don’t want to and spend the preceeding days & nights wishing I had said no. If I suggest things I want to do, with people I like, that reluctance and dread leading up to things is much less crippling.
I know all of that is partially anxiety and introversion, but it’s also partly because I have grown so accustomed to being by myself, on my own, with no accountability for my time, that the idea of COMMITTING to something or someone that I’m not jazzed about is really difficult. So, I’m trying to be more proactive and it’s been helpful and, in most cases, enjoyable. When I suggest something and the other person isn’t free or doesn’t want to or flakes or whatver, there is definitely still an irrational level of disappointment and rejection and a reluctance to do it again. And I still feel slighted or excluded when I see on social media that suburban friends are in the city, less than a mile away, with their kids or something and don’t bother to tell me or invite me. I know that’s kind of silly and self-centered and they have every right to do things with whomever, whenever they want but I’m admitting that I still have to work through why it always hurts. I’m trying. It’s a work in progress. I’m daring myself to move. Again.
One year ago tonight, probably at exactly this time, I opened this laptop to write in this blog about a man I loved who was (allegedly) suddenly moving to another city and ending or at least changing what I thought was my best, most significant, most loving relationship of more than three years. What I found instead shattered me and blew up all the pieces of my life that I thought made sense. I didn’t know what to trust or believe, including my own mind.
I cannot say I am fully back to good. There are parts of this stretch of fence that will never be repaired without a significant weak point or two, and an electrical pulse that jumps and pops if you get too close, but I am moving. I no longer feel suffocating pain or crushing sadness. I still feel disbelief and anger and I still thirst for retribution and ache for resolution and long for any indication of remorse or contrition. I am less empathetic in some ways and more so in others. I have completed a grad program in management and gained a multitude of new connections, a community in which I not only belonged but thrived, and a couple of GREAT friends I can’t believe that I didn’t know this time last year. I no longer feel empathy for the other woman; I feel pity that she doesn’t respect herself enough to walk away but that is also not my business. I accept now that I did the best I could to help my fellow woman and I cannot fix stupid.
I have dared myself to date, dared myself to trust, dared myself to give men a chance, dared myself to keep seeing men that I wanted to run from too early because I’m scared and gun-shy, and I have dared myself to walk away from (stoopidly attractive) men who were far less than I deserve. I am learning to recognize that what some men give is only crumbs and I do not have to accept it just because I’m hungry. I still don’t like being hungry but I’m trying to find ways to fill the void, even if it’s not through a romantic connection.
I have some renewed insecurities that I thought I repaired a few times before but, again, those repair points aren’t ever as strong as they once were, and there are days when I do not see the point in trying to find belonging and feel overwhelmed by self-pity and hopelessness. And yet … I am also tougher, more discerning, less blindly compassionate, more comfortable being vulnerable (beyond writing in an anonymous blog), and have made a serious commitment to and impactful strides toward being mentally healthy and protecting my peace. And yes, medication has been a game changer.
Heading into another winter, I am anxious and trying not to let the sads creep in just yet. It’s a daily battle this time of year. But I am still here; there were days and a lot of nights in the past year where I prayed that I wouldn’t be. I did not want to be. There are less of those nights less frequently now.
It isn’t perfect. I still feel many of the emotions I felt on this night a year ago, but most of them are relatively dull more often than not. There are days when I am proud of me and there are days when I feel like the climb is too high.
But I wake up every morning and I dare myself to move.
“I dare you to move I dare you to lift Yourself up off the floor
I dare you to move I dare you to move Like today never happened”
I find it difficult to believe that we are already strolling the back nine of May. Social media, tv ads, and the slightly obnoxious, passably heart-felt yet decidedly canned, agency-wide emails from HR repeatedly tell all of us that May is #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth. While presumably well-intentioned, it always feels like someone is just checking another “xyz history month” box when I read these things and I cannot help but roll my eyes. It isn’t that I don’t think mental health is important; I unequivocally do. It’s simply that I know personally how profoundly difficult it is to actually get quality mental help, and I have yet to see a single ad or corporate email that even remotely hints at the reality. They make it sound as if it is as simple as calling a number or creating yet another login and password combo. It isn’t.
The real need for awareness in May, and every other month, is that if you wait until you actually, acutely need mental help in this country before you seek it – you are going to be in an alternate universe of hurt, frustration, stress, and anxiety. The very search for quality mental help is a catalyst for a personal mental health crisis and, if you are poor or intellectually limited, the risk is exponentially compounded. The smart choice is to seek it when you feel fine because, when you already feel awful, the search just might be the thing that kills you.
There are some articles about this mental help desert, sure. Some of them are even from reputable publications and seem well-researched. A few authors even indicate that they themselves have had trouble navigating the mental help landscape before getting what they needed. But you know what all of the articles I have read also have? Ads for bull shit “services” like BetterHelp. (Yes, that link goes to one of many Reddit threads about the greedy underbelly of the site because I refuse to be responsible for driving any more traffic to their website)
I will try not to get overly ranty here but, over the past seven months, I have experienced the nightmare of seeking mental help in America first hand. In 2017 when I started writing here on WordPress, I never intended this blog to be more than a personal journal and I did not care about having followers. But, the same atom bomb that dropped on my life in late October and that forced me to seek mental help is the very same destruction that has also brought more than 1700 views from hundreds of people to the posts I’ve written here in the months since. I feel strange about that often because, yes, as a typically private person, it is a whole other level of vulnerability to have people reading your thoughts and words, particularly while you try to process the most personally painful thing you’ve ever lived through. And, yes, I recognize that I directly drove a lot of those folks to a couple of the most raw posts from October and December, but it doesn’t change how it feels to me. I lived it. I’m still living it. You’re just reading about it.
At least once a week though, usually when I feel like perhaps the proverbial inkwell has permanently run dry or, more frequently, I hesitate because of the ridiculous notion that my regular readers will be thinking, “oh mylanta, could she just move on from that asshole already?!,” I hear these lines from Ani DiFranco:
After all, it’s my journal — I should write what I want. And my pain (and healing) just might help someone else through their day. So, in the hope that it can normalize the experience for another human, or maybe help a single person who is hurting navigate the cosmic irony of this mental health -v- mental help reality, then so be it. Here’s my journey through the battle with them both.
I’ve worked with teenagers in some form of counseling role for nearly twenty years, mostly academic but nothing happens in isolation, and there likely isn’t anything that I have not experienced with and through my students and their families or communities, or myself, over the past two decades. When someone was in crisis or had recurring issues that I could not address, I could give their parent or guardian a general list of services kind of like this one for the District of Columbia, but I could never recommend a certain practice or practitioner. It was deemed unethical. I also didn’t really know a good practitioner that I could refer them to if I was allowed. This was incredibly unhelpful to my families, especially the low-income families and communities within which I have always worked. I gave out so many physical papers with a list of resources in the early years and, later, an email with the same information. After a few weeks or whenever I spoke to that child or guardian again, I was disappointed and frustrated 100% of the time. I cannot recall a single time that any of my students ever started outside therapy. I’d hear the common refrains of “the waiting lists were all six weeks long; he’s suicidal now,” or “they don’t take our insurance,” or “the shelter doesn’t have any beds right now.” Naively, it took a long time for me to realize that these were not just excuses. It was and is the reality of mental help in the United States, especially urban areas.
At the end of October, my world shattered. When I opened my computer to write about a person I loved suddenly moving away, I discovered by accident that this man I had been seeing for over three years was getting married to a woman I never met. He admitted that he had been lying to me when I confronted him, but that is where everything ended. I have not heard from him since and I still have as many questions now as I did then, and then some. I did my part to warn her but, when I learned that the other woman actually went throughwith marrying him, I kind of lost my shit. I’ve always considered myself a great judge of character, with a keen sense of empathy and the ability to read people — how could I have gotten this one so wrong? And for so long? It made me question everything I thought I knew.
It was too much for my brain and my heart to process and I became a shell of a person, begging a g/God I don’t believe in to let me please not wake up the next day. I can’t say anything more than that here because I’m trying desperately not to pick off the scabs that have finally started forming over the past few weeks.
Within a few days of that happening, I knew I needed help. I was already having a really stressful time with work and, you know, the existential dread from two years of living through a pandemic plus four years of previously unfathomable vitriol and hate spewed from a cretin who was, inexplicably, the elected leader of the free world. It seemed like I had been angry and overwhelmed for years. But at the end of October, on top of all that, I also lost my person, the person I talked to about everything and the person with whom I experienced the good things in this life. It pushed me over some invisible precipice and it felt like I had lost control … over every part of my life. I simply did not have the capacity to get myself through a day. I didn’t trust my own thoughts or opinions on anything. Reality seemed like a mirage. I rarely slept before this happened but now I also could not physically eat for weeks. I was so confused and angry and sad that I couldn’t even determine what emotion I was feeling at any moment, let alone articulate it to anyone. I was in a constant state of disbelief and nothing seemed real. I don’t even remember most of that interminable time period; I just wasn’t really there. Read through those November through January posts, you get the idea. It was a night that never ended. The daylight never broke, even for a moment.
In the days right after it happened, I was Googling all kinds of things when I couldn’t sleep at night. Relationships, betrayal, narcissism, emotional trauma, being the other woman but not knowing it, whatever. I was trying to do what I’ve done through many other hard situations in my life — cope by gaining knowledge and information, trying to normalize the experience, and gluing myself back together on my own. I wanted to move on as quickly as possible. I kept seeing and hearing ads for therapy sites. Every podcast I’ve ever listened to (which is a lot!), has advertised BetterHelp or TalkSpace at some point. One night, I was on a website poking around, reading reviews, and learned about a site that BetterHelp (BH) recommends, called Relationship Hero. I thought the price of BH and the others were absurd and this one seemed to specialize in all things relationships, it was all virtual, and you could buy minutes rather than locking yourself in to a set number of sessions at $300+ per month. I signed up and got matched with a therapist within a day. Let’s call her Candy; she was terribly sweet.
I initially bought 30 minutes with Candy and my first video session was scheduled for the next night after work. I decided to Uber home because I wanted to be sure I got there in plenty of time to prepare. I was anxious and sad and feeling reluctant but was also hungry, exhausted, weak, and scared shitless by not knowing how to move through the day anymore. As luck would have it, there was a protest at the go-go corner on Florida Ave that evening and I sat in the Uber for a good half hour before I even noticed that we weren’t moving. I was that out of it in those early days. I got out and started walking but knew I wouldn’t make it. So I met this sweet, diminutive, compassionate therapist through my tiny phone screen, while I was walking and wearing my headphones, with go-go music and someone yelling through a megaphone in the background. It took me 20 minutes to tell her what had happened in the days before and, by the time I walked in my front door, the time was nearly up. She gave me a relationship styles questionnaire to take before our next session and, honestly, when I hung up, it just felt kind of freeing to have told anyone what had happened.
I should mention that Relationship Hero seems to specialize in “getting your man back” or some other ridiculousness. I made it clear to Candy from the beginning that I had zero interest in that. I met her less than a week after it happened and she couldn’t believe I had already thrown out anything in my home that reminded me of him. Why wouldn’t I? Jesus. What woman would want him back, or want him period? That much was clear to me from the moment I discovered his betrayal, despite the fact that I have trouble believing it happened at all, even now. I met with Candy a few times, once a week, until I went to my brother’s for Thanksgiving. I hadn’t been planning to go away but that was the weekend of the impending wedding and I had to get the fuck away from here. I did not trust myself to stay here — I’d either end up dead or I would drive out there and destroy it. I was drinking so much in those early weeks that either or both could have happened and I might not have had a clue.
The wedding happened, I survived the weekend, although I do not remember much of it beyond the sad and worried looks from my family, and I realized that Candy wasn’t going to cut it. She was kind and demure and very young. She listened and responded better than the words on these virtual pages, but she did not challenge me or help me process the how and why and what now; all the questions I really wanted answered. She kind of made things worse in some ways by feeding me this narrative that I had something he wanted. Why? That’s not at all helpful to me moving on and, honestly, who cares now what I gave him. He took way more from me. My 400 minute “package” eventually ran out and I didn’t buy more.
Throughout the early part of winter, I don’t remember much. I read back through posts from November and December and January and they sound familiar but I also feel like those things happened to someone else. I feel detached when I read those words now. Not because they feel like someone else wrote them, I know I did, but because it’s too painful to ruminate on those thoughts and memories. I felt so alone. I still feel alone.
In early February, after countless failed attempts to find a therapist that was accepting new patients through my health insurance, I sucked it up and used one of my podcast sponsored discount codes and bought a month of BH, at $380 a month. Not much per week compared to paying out of pocket but for me, for my demoralizing experience with it over the next three months, it was an absolute waste of money and precious, precious time. I caution anyone to read the Reddit threads for testimonies from both clients and therapists about that site before signing up.
The first therapist I was matched on BH with was a man called Ben. He had a PhD and decades of experience. You have to complete an intro form so the therapist knows what you’re coming to them for so he already knew that my purpose was two-fold: I was hoping to process a painful heartbreak and unbelievable betrayal, and I wanted help working through some recurring anxiety about eventually losing my parents and being alone. He honed in on the latter. He asked me if I knew that emotions are reactions to thoughts. I said yes. He asked if I understood how thoughts work. I said yes, that I have a degree in molecular biology and I understand basic brain chemistry. Then he told me that thoughts are magical and my emotions are just reactions to thoughts that do not exist. He badgered me into enduring a torturous few minutes of guided mindfulness during which I felt like I might be experiencing a panic attack. I wanted to cry but didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. He said he recognized resistance in me and did not think we would be a good fit. I agreed. I couldn’t even form a sentence, I was in such a state of confusion about how a trained therapist could completely disregard and discount my lived experience. I just nodded and kept digging my fingernails into my palm to keep from crying.
I requested a new therapist and when given the option, I requested that it not be a man. I hadn’t thought it mattered but hearing this magical thought lunacy come from the mouth of a black man was pretty triggering, especially given that a black man is exactly who had been lying to me for years, purposely distorting my reality. So I requested a woman.
It took a couple of days to get a new match. I matched with a woman who, like Ben, sent an initial canned message but then never had time on her schedule that was outside of my work hours. For two weeks. She said I could find her off of the BH platform and make an appointment at her regular practice but — I had already paid $380 for the month.
So I requested another therapist. Waited another couple of days. Matched with a woman, Dr. Jennifer Weekes, who had decades of experience dealing with all kinds of trauma. I had to wait more than a week for her first available appointment. I was tired of telling “the story” by this point so I briefly summarized it for her and then sent her the link to my blog. She said it was helpful to learn about my thought patterns. At our next session, after she had read some posts here, she was floored by the level of deception and intentional destruction I had experienced. She articulated things in a way that made me feel like someone finally understood what I was experiencing. She was bold and confident and knowledgeable, and I felt like I was in good hands. My month of BH was up but she seemed promising, so I renewed for another month at full price.
We worked well together through five sessions total and I was starting to feel like progress through this nightmare might be possible. One night, we talked through an assignment on forgiveness she had given me right before I went on a solo vacation at the end of February, how it completely derailed me and, essentially, ruined that time away I had taken for myself. We agreed that change was hard for me and surprises are counterproductive — that she would lead me toward things in the future rather than springing them on me. She applauded me for finally showing emotion in that session and said it indicated progress. Twodays later, while I was in the midst of my management class on Saturday morning, she sent an abrupt message saying I would need to request another therapist. Again. She said she sustained an injury and had to scale back, but it was as if the entire last conversation we had just had about prepping me for changes had never happened. In REAL therapy, when a therapeutic relationship must end for any number of reasons, the therapist is obligated to help you transition to a new one or at least give you a professional referral. Not on BH, apparently.
I requested, matched with, and then re-requested four more therapists through BH. Each time waiting a few days to be matched, receiving a canned welcome message, and then waiting a week or more for their first available appointment. And ALL of them were Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW). Now listen, I am not saying there there aren’t some highly skilled, well trained, social workers out there. In my vast experience as a school counselor though, the social workers that I have worked with both in schools and in communities are not equipped or trained to help me through this personal crisis. During this time, of course, I had to renew my subscription yet again but what else was I going to do? It felt like I was stuck but I didn’t want to give up; the thought of making the choice to terminate the potential for “help” and go back to unsuccessfully trudging through alone seemed insane and, frankly, like too much responsibility. As long as I was doing something, expensive and fruitless as it had been so far, I was able to cling to some modicum of control over my plight. That was probably just the magical fucking thoughts though, right?
Eventually I matched with another sweet, young therapist, also an LCSW, and I had three or four sessions with her. I don’t even remember her name now. By this point, I refused to rehash the story and sent her to the blog before our first meeting instead, asking her to read about what happened in October, as well as the Receipts, and the posts about my previous therapist experience. I liked her a lot and although I never quite made it through a whole session without crying and feeling hopeless, I tried so hard to work on the things she suggested. I did the worksheets she prescribed. I wrote out attempts to “reframe negative thinking,” practiced mindfulness techniques even though I couldn’t ever quite get my mind to settle, and was honest with her when things just didn’t work. But I eventually requested a new therapist because it started to feel like she was just reading from a Counseling 101 manual and had no idea how to recognize nuance in patients. I felt like I was back in grad school, acting out a case study where your fellow classmates allow whomever is playing the therapist to wrap things up in a neat little bow. This wasn’t that; it’s my actual, real, messy life. She didn’t seem capable of suggesting anything that wasn’t in her small toolbox and, as kind as she was, I genuinely do not think she had the experience to understand why this situation had completely blown up my life. She also only had 30 minute appointments and couldn’t figure out how to use the BH platform on her side to get them to be 45 or 60 mins. We spent part of my therapy time talking about this. Why?
She suggested from our first meeting that I consider trying medication but, as a social worker, could not help me with that or refer me. Told me to call my insurance and tell them I was just looking for medication management. HAH! Another thing that is nowhere near that simple. I did go on my insurance website, searched for psychiatrists and medication management, just as I had already searched for therapists several times before, and called SEVEN different offices in just one day — all of which said on the UnitedHealth Care Choice website they were accepting new patients. None actually were and more than one turned out to be larger, national, telehealth services, so calling them was like calling Verizon or some other huge corporation’s customer support. After a zillion automated menus, you couldn’t even remember the name of the doctor you were calling about but it didn’t matter because, when you finally talked to a live human, they told you that no one in your area was accepting new patients anyway. They could put you on the waiting list but could not tell you when it might move and that it would likely be at least six weeks, probably more. On some of the websites, you had to create an account before you could search, only to be told the same thing about the waiting list. And THEN, you couldn’t even delete your account. So yet another company just has all your data and never even attempted to provide you with a service.
I called one of the doctors’ numbers that was actually a large, national service called Amwell during work one day (because of course the hours of most places are regular business hours) and, miraculously, the lovely woman who answered was able to help! She created an account for me over the phone, sent me a text with a link to download the app and, although I had to wait three weeks for an 8am video appointment, it was that simple! And for only a $10 copay. Three weeks go by while I keep seeing the nice BH therapist, she asks me every week if I have made any progress on the medication, every week I tell her that yes, remember I told you last week that I have that appointment at the beginning of April? The Amwell appointment rolls around, I log in 15 minutes ahead of time as required, complete the virtual emergency paperwork, and a pop up takes over my screen saying that the provider “I” have selected is not licensed in my state!?! Apparently the girl had searched in Washington State instead of Washington, DC but at no other point in those three weeks I was waiting did this app tell me where this practitioner was licensed or really anything about them. Oh, AND they charged me $40 for a no-show fee!!!
I called to file a complaint, they refunded my money after a few days, and kindly apologized but also rationalized how easy it would have been for the girl to make that simple mistake. Sure — I get that. I am a rational person who can empathize. However, it has already been five months of utter hell where I am legitimately trying to make it through the day without losing my sanity. I am trying so hard to get some help, and failing at every turn.
I did the rematching thing on BH twice more, again paired with LCSW’s that had no availability or horrible reviews on other websites, and I eventually just deleted the BH app with two full weeks left on my third month contract. So, more than $1K over three months … for what, exactly? There were other frustrating things with BH like a terrible platform, tech glitches that the therapist(s) couldn’t fix or didn’t know how to address, and the fact that when you’re in those weeks of downtime waiting for an appointment, they tout their “webinars” and unlimited messaging with your new-therapist-you’ve-yet-to-meet as part of the “full service” you are paying for. They credited me one free week after this happened so many times and I had written about it to customer service but, ultimately, it was such a headache that I couldn’t stand it anymore.
I started wondering if I actually now needed help processing this futile search for mental “help” rather than the underlying and still very present trauma that brought me to the search in the first place.
Again, I reached out to my health insurance. I called and talked to a woman from Texas with a friendly demeanor and a thick accent, explained what I was looking for, that I had searched the United HealthCare website with multiple filters but still could not find a licensed therapist or psychiatrist that was both taking new patients and NOT a social worker. She is very friendly, sympathetic to the run-around I have been getting, and makes it sound like she has struck gold when she asks whether I want the list she has found emailed or texted to me. I’m doing all of this calling from my phone so I ask her to text them to me. She stays on the phone while they start to come through. We hang up after my phone starts buzzing, she wished me well, and I feel hopeful after talking with her. There are 19 texts in all. But, of course, I quickly notice that I already called every single fucking one of these places and, yes, MOST of them are just social workers.
I go back to the Amwell app and request another psychiatrist, this time for DC. I have to wait two weeks for another 8am appointment, this time on a Sunday morning.
I finally confide in a dear friend from grad school, from back in 2003-2006. She has also been a school counselor since we graduated but just became a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in Pennsylvania. We are the kind of friends who do not ever need to catch up; things just don’t change, regardless of how long it’s been. In the 16 years since I moved to DC, we’ve maybe seen each other three or four times total, but we keep in touch through texts, usually during Steelers games and mutual frustration. I don’t know why I hadn’t reached out to her about what I had been going through except that I don’t think she even knew John existed and, frankly, I had been so surprised, confused, and disppointed by how my close friends had shown up for me over the past six months (like, not really at all?But, also, what were they supposed to do? And who could blame them?) … I just didn’t want to bother anyone else with it, I guess. But one night, I sent her the blog, asked if she would be free to talk sometime about what happened, and admitted that I had been having a really tough time. She read the entire blog, start to finish, within a couple days. We set a date for a call about a week later, talked for maybe an hour, and it felt like home.
She listened and asked questions like a real friend but also like a clinician. She didn’t just tell me what I wanted to hear and I needed that. She even asked if I thought I was really ready to work through what happened or if I needed to just feel for a while longer. I am still not sure what that answer is but I am far too stubborn to sit and wallow. I refuse to let my emotional stability be defined by the wreckage left by a man who didn’t care enough about me to protect me … from him. I need to feel like I am moving on and, for the first time in my life, I was very sure that I was not going to make it through alone. Talking with my friend made me feel like there has to be a positive therapeutic relationship out there and it really could help me; I just had to find it. It gave me a shot in the arm to keep trying.
I start Googling shit like “why is it so hard to find a good therapist?” and talking to a couple of new friends from my management cohort about who they see in DC. I get one referral and write an email to that practice. Eventually I also get to Psychology Today‘s Find a Therapist page. The filters are minimal and not terribly helpful for someone who has been searching for so bloody long already. Most therapists listed there do not take insurance but will provide you with a statement for out-of-network insurance claims which, of course, United HealthCare does not honor for mental health. That would be far too healthy and helpful. However, I really like how you can read a lot about the person/practice’s philosophy, approach, experience, etc. I spent hours reading these things and made a short list of nine. I wrote an email that basically summarized the emotional trauma I experienced, the ongoing anxiety I have felt for a couple years, and now the frustrating journey to find help. I copied and pasted it into the email field for all nine, except a couple that don’t allow you to send an actual message, just a request for a return call. I got one return email from the referral my friend had made and one return email from a woman with a PhD, called Tessa Wimberley, who offers free 20 minute consultations to see if you are a good mutual fit. I’ve still never heard back from the other eight, many weeks later.
I met with Tessa for a 20 minute video call while I was hiding in a phone room at work one afternoon. It was probably more like 30 minutes. She listened and asked questions that my friend had asked. She seemed to really understand and articulate that there are a lot of layers to not just what happened and how I found out, but also the underlying junk of why it has taken me completely psychologically out. I think maybe there was too much that came before it and all that scar tissue was finally ripped all the way open. I think my mind and my body just refused to heal itself again this time. I kept it together pretty well during our brief call — partially because I was at work, partially due to having talked about the same shit so many times with so many different therapists that it was like numbly reading a teleprompter by that point, and partially because she was soothing and empathetic but also curious and realistic. At the end of our call, she asked if I had any questions before we decided if we wanted to work together and I found myself desperately choking back tears when I asked her simply, “Do you think you can help me?” She said that she couldn’t promise that to anyone but that she felt like she had the experience and understanding to try. Her naturally flowing empathy and that sliver of honesty was good enough for me.
In late April, I finally met virtually with the Amwell psychiatrist. It was pretty cold and clinical, and reading his summary treatment notes were kind of hurtful. Not because they aren’t accurate or because they were a surprise, but because it is a strange realization to know that you are now a person in the world with a diagnosis. To be decribed as appropriately dressed with appropriate eye contact and “grossly intact” cognition, but dysthymic, and now labeled with major depression and generalized anxiety and, also now, 50mg of a tiny blue pill every night was just kind of … sobering.
I had a follow-up scheduled for two weeks later but, because I was geographically out of town that evening, I again got the not-licensed pop up and again had to pay the no show fee and again wait for another appointment the next week and again call to complain to request a refund. The Amwell platform isn’t great, but it’s the best option I have through my current health insurance.
I have met with Tessa maybe four times now, at nearly $200 per session out-of-pocket, but so far it has been well worth it. We talk about a lot of things that have nothing to do with him though sometimes it still comes up because, well, what he did has profoundly changed how I feel about myself, others, and how I interpret the world around me. I still miss my friend. I miss that sense of comfort and effortless belonging, and I worry that I will never be able to trust it with someone else. I barely trust it now with my friends, I cannot imagine letting another man in. Maybe that will fade, maybe it won’t. I am still angry that he could have been so intentionally cruel for so long, and I am enraged that he gets to live his life without really suffering any of the repurcussions. I am not terribly invested in meeting anyone right now. I feel both lonely and alone, but don’t want to give anyone the power to hurt me again. I don’t know how you trust someone not to after what I’ve experienced. Could you?
The medication too has been having an effect. For the first couple of weeks, nothing changed. By week three, I started to think maybe it was psychosomatic but, I wasn’t feeling as irritable. I didn’t have any of the negative side effects the shrink warned me about, or any side effects at all, except for the dreams. I went from almost never sleeping (for years), let alone remembering my dreams, to having such vivid dreams about real people and places that I wake up in the mornings and truly wonder if they happened. Aside from one where my dad and I were rescuing a zebra rolling down a hill onto a country road and one about a peacock sleeping on my living room floor, they have all been otherwise very mundane but incredibly real. None have been about John though I still think about him most times when I crawl into my bed or enter my building or make certain recipes or hear or see anything golf related. Jesus, I fucking hate golf.
I cannot say that I miss him, John; it makes me ill to even remember him let alone see a likeness of him (like Eversen in the latest season of The Circle! Though Eversen is an objectively more attractive version, and I’m not just being salty). Seriously though, I really miss having that person with whom I felt so freely connected. After this long, it’s hard to recognize that person as the man I now know him to be. I only care about the one who wasn’t real, the one who shared so much with me, and that’s still hard for me to accept but it’s now hard for me to even see that version; I only see the cruel one. It’s kind of like grieving someone who died; that version of him did, right? I miss having someone to talk about life with and hear their perspective and share all the good things with, and that’s proving to be even harder to find now than it was four years ago. But it is what it is.
My jaw doesn’t hurt from clenching as much; though when I am stressed at or about work, that is still there. And it’s not that I never feel sad or angry; I do. Often. I also feel happy and I still experience joy. I don’t feel numb like some people experience. I just don’t trust the good things. And unfortunately, with very few exceptions, I still don’t really miss my friends or have any more desire to hang out with their children and dogs and the suburbs than I did before. I still go out, I still do things, forced or otherwise, just with different people now than before. I need to shed things that don’t fit anymore.
It is really diffcult to explain how things feel now. On medication. I can’t articulate it. Weird isn’t descriptive enough but there’s definitely an odd conscious awareness that you feel differently. Maybe it’s what some would call normal but I genuinely can’t remember how normal felt at this point so, I’m not sure that’s accurate for me. It isn’t entirely comfortable either and I really don’t know how to describe that part.
One of my friends analogized it really well and I’ll try to paraphrase – before it felt like I was speeding down the highway and the slightest turn of the wheel could send me careening way off course, swerving back in, or potentially even crashing. With medication, I can control the wheel better, and maybe sometimes the speed too. I think that’s an apt analogy. And I would add that the blinding road rage, for me, is mostly gone.
I have had this post sitting in draft mode for weeks because I have not wanted to put in the time and effort required to remember the long, harrowing, awful experience of seeking and repeatedly failing to find mental help. But I also hate that May has become this month where it is so easy for companies and media and celebs and random ordinary people to share a post about the importance of #MentalHealth, but hardly anyone talks about how hard it is to actually get #MentalHelp in this country. I like that mental health is becoming less stigmatized but where is the mental help? I went through a really, really dark period from late fall through early spring. There are whole weeks that I do not remember. I took four days off work in two weeks because I just did not want to go. Prior to, I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve taken off work in 20 years.
My Christmas cactus even bloomed again in mid-April because, surprise, surprise, I learned that you can trick one into blooming in the spring if you give it 10-14 hours of darkness daily during the winter. That is how much time I spent in my house, with the shades down, not sleeping but a lot of time in bed, overthinking, feeling stuck, sad, angry, watching shadows cross the ceiling, and definitely not living.
I do not know why it isn’t easier to actually get mental help. I know there are a shortage of clinicians due to the increased demand from COVID, Trump, BLM, Ukraine, mass shootings, partisan politics, allofthethings….. but that just is not acceptable. I am blessed to be able to afford nearly $200 a week to talk with someone who is starting to help me work through some things that have maybe been latent and compounded for a long time. I wish I had searched and put in the work to find this long ago. As it was, it took months, dozens of phone calls, at least a dozen therapists, and so much mental and emotional frustration … when I had nothing left in the tank to begin with.
I told my therapist last week that although I am not sure I have made a lot of progress yet, I finally feel a glimmer of hope that it is possible; that the hard work could be worth it. I joked with her that the saying in romcoms about “you understand why it never worked with anyone else” is finally something I understand. At least, I hope that’s true. I felt that way about the person who did this to me, who shattered my trust and obliterated my sense of self, so I have some reluctance to fully embrace that this therapeutic relationship will not also hurt me. But at least I have a little hope starting to glow again.
I wish I knew how to make it easier for everyone who is struggling to get the mental help they need. Not just medication, but also the therapeutic help. There are so many people in this world dealing with far worse than the aftermath of a lying, heartless, snake of a man, and it makes me angry on their behalf to know the frustration and continued pain they are going to have to push through in order to actually get help. And even then, will those who need it most be able to afford it?
Why is therapy so expensive? How can one person’s time be worth so much for an hour? It seems counter to the very idea of helping those who need it. Mental “help” … are we sure about that? We are not getting it right in this country. I am sure of that.
Not all days are cloudy. This has been a gorgeous weekend full of sunshine, blooms, reconnecting with old friends, and peace.
I wish there were more of these soft and sweet days and that they could last longer. I know that’s the nature of life – the ebb and flow. Every spring, always after the spring solstice, when the evening walks home still have bright rays of daylight and then some, there is always a point when I can almost viscerally feel the fog clear. The clouds break. The warmth of the sun penetrates into my soul and allows me to take a deep, cleansing breath. It isn’t permanent. It still takes a while to get back to homeostasis, to a more constant state of “up,” but there is nothing like that first deep, unlabored, freeing breath.
In these mellow, reflective, grateful moments, especially after a period of being sucked so far down into the grey depths, I think of that old Velvet Underground song.
For a couple weeks now, this powerful punch from Rage Against the Machine’s song of the same name has been reverberating through my brain. That it is now officially the short month during which this country seeks to recognize the historic struggles and contributions of African Americans is not lost on me. I’m not intentionally seeking to personally appropriate a song meant as a battle cry against the forced ideals of white America and an unbelievably prescient commentary on teaching (or not teaching) critical race theory in our schools.
Now thirty years old, it is just as frustrating and loathsome now not to have witnessed enough quantifiable progress for Black humans in this country as it was when this song was bumping and thumping through car stereos at deafening levels in the 90s, when the multitude of humanity’s hues were chanting and raging the lyrics with indignant anger, though often misplaced and misdirected toward parents, religion, teachers, and other entities representing authority. Teenage ignorance masquerading as defiance, really.
“In the right light, study becomes insight
But the system that dissed us, teaches us to read and write
So-called facts are fraud
The rage is relentless
We need a movement with a quickness
You are the witness of change and to counteract
We gotta take the power back”
“Take the Power Back” – Rage Against the Machine (1992)
Because I wasn’t even in high school when Zack de la Rocha was yelling these words, I cannot pretend that I understood the lyrics then. Lord knows you couldn’t Google lyrics back then. I used to record songs from the radio onto a cassette tape and then pause, rewind, and play the lyrics over and over and over until I memorized them. I can still recall every word of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” by the way. It suffices to say that I wasn’t memorizing Rage Against the Machine’s lyrics back then.
In fact, those metal bands of the 90s like Metallica, Pantera, Megadeath, and Rage kind of terrified me. Those bands are what the “bad” kids listened to, the kids I had no interest in being around and, because I rarely talked to anyone beyond my family and very few friends in that time of my life, I sure as shit wasn’t listening to the music of “those” kids to try to assimilate. Motown and the Golden Oldies were what my family listened to and that’s what I liked! I’ve come to legitimately love some of those hard rock bands though and I couldn’t tell you when or how that happened. I’ll be seeing Metallica in concert for the second time in my life in a few months, and Rage somehow became the go-to soundtrack to my workouts. There is nothing as motivating as those opening, angry bars from “Killing in the Name” — you have to grit your teeth, you have to grimace, you have to growl the words through your chest — it just happens. Those songs have also been the soundtrack to more than one season of heartbreak … you know, after the sadness and self-loathing phase, when the anger pulses with such force that you just need to get it out? Yeah. I’ve been crashing on that couch, off and on, for a few weeks now. It isn’t comfortable and I still don’t sleep, but it serves a purpose on this journey back to myself. Again.
I have always marveled at the ignorance of those “bad” kids back in my hometown. Honest to g/God, they probably still bang their bloody heads off to these bass lines while screaming along. But those tough, redneck, steel town boys, now men, are also the ones who used to litter my social media timelines with bigoted, biased, conservative bullshit. Those unfiltered and appalling voices are the reason I haven’t had Facebook in years now. I do not miss it. And if I tried to point out the irony of their views and the music that molded them, they’d brush it off the same way they do any challenge to their glaring and profound ignorance.
Anyway, the lyrics of this song make me angry. And they help me rage enough to get up and get through another day. If I allow myself to not think too much about what de la Rocha is really saying, if I allow myself to just feel Morello’s guitar and thrash into the emotion, those words “…take the power back,” are a battle cry for me too. Personally. I am personally trying to take back the power —- the power to move, the power to heal, the power to take care of myself. I won’t stop fighting for justice and equity for humanity, in February or beyond, but right now, I’m fighting for me. I’m fighting to remember who I am, fighting to trust again, fighting for what I can give to the world if I’m healthy and my heart is glued back together, fighting for someone who wants to be present in the lives of people who are waiting for me to resurface (hopefully they can wait some more), and I’mfighting to be proud of that person again … once I find her.
First step: I bought myself a subscription for fresh flowers from UrbanStems. Is there anything more delicately and intricately perfect than a ranunculus? I think not.
Step Two: Found a new therapist. One who understands trauma in all its forms.
Next step: A solo vacation this week. I need Vitamin Sea (and D) and my soul needs to recharge.
I’ll be fine. I’m making progress. Sunshine will help. So does Rage.
I don’t see the point of cold without snow. Even the grey days have a bit of beauty when everything is covered in white. Sunny ones are always better. These are from my folks — not exactly my DC view. I don’t mind longing for the cold and often endless grey of this place, because it envelops me with warmth.
Remember when the perfunctory doldrums of winter were the only things I had to write about? Never dreamed I’d miss those times.