“Since when did self-awareness lead to a change in behavior?” So said a character recently on one of my favorite shows.
She has a point. Enlightened souls have blind spots. Smart people do stupid things.
Of course, realizing this is an act of self-awareness. It hits close to home, considering the number of years I’ve spent in therapy. If the “talking cure” doesn’t cure, what’s it good for?
But the human mind is far from simple. When I have a sore throat, runny nose and ear pain, my doctor diagnoses me with an infection and prescribes Amoxicillin. Within a week all is well. The same can’t be said for a mood disorder.
This doesn’t mean that therapy has no value. The absence of “ah ha!” moments or earth-shattering insights during a session isn’t a sign of failure. Sometimes just being there talking and reflecting helps.
Parts of me resist logic. I appreciate my elusiveness, take pride in the chase. But I’m always a little behind. I’m reminded of Camus’ thought in The Myth of Sisyphus: “The important thing is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments.”
Sounds like something he learned in therapy.
Every stomach ache or sneeze. The rise and fall of each orgasm, every burst of laughter. Physical sensations leave their mark without our conscious awareness. As with bodies of water—the flow of past currents etched in a riverbed—we retain a trace of what’s washed over us.
Particularly painful memories have a way of reemerging when we least expect it. The original moment has passed but we’re in the middle of it again, searching for an exit. I call this phenomenon the phantom limbic effect.
We’re familiar with cases of amputees who feel their missing limbs long after surgery. In what I’m describing the trauma is “missing,” that is to say, not happening right now, but the sufferer still endures its terrible weight, unable to dismiss it. An outsider might call this phantom pain, but for the victim it’s the closest thing to a flesh-and-blood terrorist.
The limbic system is the area of the brain that deals with emotions and long-term memory. In this case the body and limbic system together recall the trauma, with the body serving as the site of reenactment. It’s not just how you feel about a memory then, but how it feels about you, on and underneath the skin.
Of course, this works for the liberating effects of pleasure. But it’s hard to seize the day when old traumas hold us hostage.
I can’t hide from it: I’m a sensitive guy. Sometimes I lie awake and picture the people I care about, focusing on my connection with them, recalling what about them makes me feel good. But there’s not one person I love who hasn’t suffered in this world. And this makes me sad. And the sadness I feel for myself rushes through me. I acknowledge, in their pain, my own.
We’ve all screwed up at one point or another. I’ve had my fair share of missteps. God’s forgiveness is easy to get. All you do is believe. Securing the forgiveness of others is difficult, but it’s never out of the question if you humble yourself and make amends.
The hardest part is learning how to forgive myself. If I could find myself walking down the street, emerging from a faceless crowd, what would I say to me? How might I comfort this sensitive guy, move out of his way and let him pass?
I read somewhere an interesting analogy regarding the relationship between our intellect and emotions. Our intellect is like a monkey riding on the back of an elephant. The monkey thinks he’s the boss, barking out directions to the hard-headed elephant who pays no attention, charging up and down the jungle.
When it comes to my depression, the elephant is Godzilla. Elephants are big; Godzilla breathes fire and destroys major cities with his tail.
I’m still learning how to approach my monster without being crushed. A man can run only so far.
“I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility . . .” –William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800)
There are two things in my life that have gone well together for a number of years: writing poetry and going to therapy. I have maintained since high school that my art and mental health battles have greatly defined my identity and place in the world.
Both my poetry and depression have roots in emotion, which is why I took a liking to Wordsworth’s quote about “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”
I see parallels between these activities. In the calmness and safety of a therapy session, I am given tools to deal with my emotions. The session provides moments for me to recall emotions of varying degrees; my poetry, meanwhile, serves as a vehicle for my thoughts and feelings as they’re expressed within the confines of the text.
To take it a step further: the time and place of a session is the container (the event). What we discuss and how I feel about it are the contents (the-tending-to-the-event). The structure and layout of a poem is the container (the form). What I’m saying and how it’s expressed are the contents (the-tending-to-the-form).
At the end of most sessions, I share a recent poem with my therapist. This has far-reaching practical applications. It’s beneficial for my therapist and for me.
Each informs the other: my poems help in my treatment and my treatment sessions help me strengthen my poetry. My therapist serves as a guide to living well and writing well. He’s my interpreter and editor for both life events and my artistic choices. He can tell from a poem my overall mood in the days surrounding its composition. This can be pleasing one time and troubling the next. (Ironically, what I leave out or try to avoid—in both therapy and writing—is significant regardless of my noticing it.)
I see no immediate end to the journey that is my therapy. And as long as I have my wits about me, I’ll continue writing poetry. Wherever my feelings take me, I’ll submit myself to the process—and have plenty to think about as I carry on.