When My Therapist Challenged Me to Try an Exercise Involving a Childhood Photo
“I need the thing that happens when your brain shuts off and your heart turns on.” ― Elizabeth Wurtzel, “Prozac Nation”
I got to my appointment early that day — almost an hour early. My favorite playlist hummed through the speakers. All the songs were slow and comforting. I could never really tell if I wanted to smile or cry when I heard them, I just know I was comfortable enough to do both to this playlist. I memorized the license plate of the car in front of me as I sat there unblinking and completely motionless. I imagined the bubble forming above my head, “3CSM320…3CSM320…3CSM320…” over and over again like keys on a typewriter being banged harshly until a ding was heard to indicate the end of each line. Whenever my heart and lungs were not in agreement I would take time and just try to clear my mind and think of the most random thing I could muster. Today my mind was transfixed by the license plate. It was the first thing in front of me that didn’t mean anything and could not be made to make sense. It felt safe. I knew as soon as I walked into that office I would find myself purging all the things that have been digging the dark grooves found below my eyes. I blinked away the numbers and letters much like waving away smoke blown too close to your eyes. The mirror agreed as my eyes watered. Grabbing my bag from the passenger seat, I took a deep breath and opened the car door.
After going through the protocol convincing them of my identity and handing over the co-pay, I sat in the chair next to the magazines that never appeal to anyone so as not to be stolen. The clipboard held the questionnaire that always made me uneasy. It was incredibly sobering to be asked questions like, “Over the last two weeks, how often have you been bothered by any of the following problems? (Circle only one number per line).” Then expose myself when asked if I had been, feeling down, depressed or hopeless… feeling bad about yourself or that you are a failure, or have let yourself or your family down… or, not being able to stop or control worrying. The options were so painfully disconnected: Not at all, several days, more than half the days, nearly every day.
Other clipboards leaned against fidgety knees as pens topped with flowers that had never bloomed and would never die scribbled to fulfill the gluttonous interrogation.
A man walked in and announced, “Everyone here for the session with Dr. Wright, please follow me.”
All but one… Then from the other door, “Angelica Fuentes?” a tiny woman mumbled to a nonexistent audience. My chest rose and fell before I got to my feet and sauntered over to her.
“How are you feeling today?” she asked as she swiveled around to lead me down the hall.
“I’m doing OK.”
I forced a smile even though her back was to me. She opened a door and waved me in. If a couch could be painted to look like leather but made of plastic, this office had it. I sat trying to emulate comfort.
“So I see you’ve been having a hard time lately?” she half inquired, half stated. It was a trick. I knew it well, she wanted me to believe she knew something before I sat down and wanted to make me feel comfortable enough to respond to her observation — the same one deduced by the form I had filled out in the waiting area.
“Yeah, I guess so… I think I just need to talk to someone and I figured you’d be the one because after all, you are the doctor who would know how to un-jumble my brain,” I chuckled nervously. Clearing my throat, I wiped my sweaty palms on my pants and shifted in my seat. Next question, let’s get this over with. I met her gaze for the first time, and it broke me. My eyes watered with the realization that her white coat and clipboard meant it was bad enough for me to find myself in her office. She noticed I was uneasy and put the clipboard down on the desk. Still, every now and then she reached over to jot something down, grabbing that familiar blue pen.
“I notice you smile when you say something upsetting… do you do that often?”
I pursed my lips before letting the words come out, “I guess I try to pretend that what I am saying doesn’t bother me much. I do have a hard time smiling genuinely, if that helps.” I made this contribution thinking it would help speed things along. Then she asked me if I have pictures of myself as a child. I nodded as I scanned my brain for family albums sitting on closet shelves.
Then she dug deeper, “Do you remember if you smiled or not?”
Looking down again I said, “I don’t think so… everyone told me I was a quiet kid so I always looked serious all the time, and as you know, growing up was not filled with the greatest memories.”
In previous sessions, I had mentioned hardships in my childhood such as my parents’ divorce, bullying in school, mom having kidney problems and doing our homework on the swivel chairs of the dialysis clinic, then later she developed cancer… The doctor had broken the news to me years earlier that I have a type of situational depression. That’s the kind of depression one undergoes when someone gets divorced, fired, experiences a death in the family, etc.; she explained that often, people can heal from these situations after a period much like mourning.
Today, she said I might have developed something else. Oh, great.
“It sounds like you are looking for an explanation as to why you feel ‘blue’ and there isn’t anything new or worrisome enough to cause you this discomfort, is this correct?”
Biting the inside of my lip, I nodded, “Sometimes I want to cry and nothing is making me sad. Or I get angry at simple things that shouldn’t be riling me up…It’s almost confusing because I wish there was a reason I felt this way and I just can’t pinpoint it.” I placed my hand to my mouth and breathed deeply.
The chair crept closer and she leaned towards me saying, “It may be upsetting however, not uncommon. It sounds like you are experiencing chronic depression… I know that aside from all the earlier trauma, you have been equipped with the tools necessary to process this type of feeling, but if it persists this way without reason it could very well mean it’s part of your makeup.”
There it was, ladies and gentlemen… it was now literally, “all in my head!” A tear rolled down my cheek. The chair rolled back and she picked up the clipboard again.
“So back to you as a little girl, I think I have an exercise for you to practice. Go home, find one of those photos of yourself as a child, and put it somewhere you will see it often. Every day, do something that would have made that little girl smile. It may sound silly, but as it is you aren’t happy now and from what we’ve discussed you may not have been happy growing up; so do that little girl a favor, make her smile. It may heal you too.”
Taking a deep breath, I got to my feet and thanked her for the idea.
That day, I found the picture. I was about 5 or 6 and I wore a Santa hat and did not make eye contact with the photographer. I was looking off to the side… no smile. Next to the box of photographs there was a box labeled “Scrapbooking stuff.” In it, I found some old postcards and magazine cut outs, a deck of 5X7, multicolored paper, glue sticks and other random craft things. What happened next was a complete miracle. I planned my activity. First, I played some music, I lit some sage, I grabbed a drink, sat on the floor, scattered all the items as far as I could reach, and covered rectangle after rectangle of colored paper with a tiny collage and a short message on the back. I had a pretty good stack of handmade postcards when I was done and applied stamps and addresses of the people closest to me… even if they lived down the street! This was a new “purge” for me. I was sending a little piece of myself to all the people I care about. It really got me thinking… I did it for “little Angie,” and “older Angie” felt good.
It reminded me of a quote I read earlier that week: “When a child gives you a gift, even if it is a rock they just picked up, exude gratitude. It may be the only thing they have to give, and they have chosen to give it to you.” ― Dean Jackson
In that moment I understood that although I didn’t have much to give, I gave myself, as well as the recipients of my handmade postcards, a little something, and in that small gesture lied the comfort that even the slightest distraction had its merit.
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Thinkstock photo by Kichigin