When Christie asked me to contribute a guest blog post I was excited, but the topic made me cringe at first. How exactly could I write something instructive on how to keep everything together when it feels like it's falling apart? I have fewer answers and more perspective so here it goes.
Sometimes when I complete an intake with a new client, I hear some variation of "I wish I had it together like everyone else" or "Therapists don't have to worry about this kind of stuff." Oh, new client, if you only knew! :) And then I tell them, “Hey guess what? You're normal and here's why!” Many people struggle with pulling it together sometimes, even us therapist types. We talk about how getting overwhelmed when we've gotten out of balance is really a normal reaction to an abnormal state. (It's pretty liberating for clients who grasp this concept after they work through the self-blame and shame game of not being able to "just fix it". Yuck.)
Therapists often get put on a pedestal as if we're supposed to be some sort of super-human emotional warrior. We have lots of those awesome moments, of course, but we therapists experience our own vulnerability and anxieties too, and it's often troubling to think that we have any expectation to be less human when the work we're doing requires the full heart engagement of a HUMAN. Wait, what? Yes, it does! We are all born to connect and we are never done learning, never done challenging ourselves. We're just never done growing and adapting! That is the natural direction of the psyche, to move toward a balanced state, and often this means allowing the demons at your door to have a solid voice to explain why they're hanging out and making trouble. Those demons belong to us, and often need to be reined in.
How do I know this? Well...over the last 19 months I've had to be okay with being good enough at nearly everything, including things I used to rock at, while I worked through a deeper understanding of a pivotal moment and my place within it. My father's death was sudden, horribly traumatic, and horribly timed. (There was no good time for this, obviously, but c'mon.) He died a week before my only child's 7th birthday. They were best friends and my Dad's memory is etched on that kid's heart.) He died two weeks before Christmas. Three weeks before mine and my husband's 20th wedding anniversary and New Year's. Really, Dad!? How many opportunities I was provided to get really clear about the fact that he was gone. Sadly, far too many, all at once, which is what helped morph my trauma into PTSD. I ached through every single moment, every time I tried to breathe it hurt. I cried most of the day. My body couldn't handle this sadness and I disconnected. I didn't leave the house and I rarely ate or slept. I cuddled my cat in bed on good days and I howled waves of grief into my empty house on the bad ones. I was overwhelmed, terrified, raw, embarrassed, angry, and ashamed. I was so terribly lost. The whole time, I had awareness that I needed to let myself do this. I NEEDED to grieve HARD. I had to discharge all this negative energy and I had to listen closely to my grief to do that. Holding my family in this was difficult.
I did all the things - psychotherapy, meds, journaling, prescribed crying, grief groups, more tearful conversations with friends than I can count, and all the other self-care I could throw at this wound. All helpful supports, but the great healer has been a mixture of spiritual work, time, and understanding the loss. The unyielding grief that split my heart, has been (mostly) healed by time, which helped me put enough necessary pieces back together to thrive in a world that just isn't the same without my Dad. My grieving psyche was beautifully broken apart and reordered in a way that allows me to hold memory of my Dad in a place of joy instead of a place of pain. This took lots of time and I'm still not done. It's a process, not a task to be completed. I can't check a box, but I can breathe a little easier when I see an aging scruffy dude wearing a train engineer's hat. No one wears that hat without me noticing.
The very nature of therapeutic work has required me to make great internal investments in knowing myself to provide a container that can safely hold and support others, but is permeable enough to make that spark of genuine human connection hum. That witnessing was key for me, and I hope to provide that to those I serve. Sometimes you have to tell the same story over and over until it finally sinks in. I hope what I have shared here is helpful or comforting in some small way as suffering alone can be frightening, but we're out here waiting and we know it's hard. Remember dear reader, if you are struggling with big things it's okay to stop and evaluate, take a break, seek little joys - whatever you need to do. We were designed to feel deeply and one of the greatest joys in life is authentic connection to your inner self. With blessings of wholeness and wellness.
Sandi Labo, MA, LPC
Sandi can be reached at www.sandilabo.com. In addition to being a therapist, Sandi is a mom, wife, daughter, friend, and a woman who cheers for everyone who has ever felt misunderstood or invisible. She values balance, humor, kindness, and equality. She loves cats, reading, strong coffee, and scary movies. She hopes to bring a unique lens to helping clients process trauma and manage mood disorders. In her downtime, she’s probably watching YouTube cat bloopers or reading comics with her family.