Therapy’s Ultimate Goal: Embracing Life

Are there endangered emotions in the world, much like endangered species? The ones that disappear? Most of us had sentiments and enthusiasms as small children we now rarely experience. What might they be? Can we get them back?

The greatest events of life, I’d argue, are fleeting. The birth of your first child is one. An early, electric kiss. The clichéd “thrill of victory” as it is felt, not reported. A musical performance of sadness or exultation so powerful you float and reverberate for days. Immediacy, intensity, and loss of self-awareness are found in these moments. Routine breaks. One is swept away.

What do we try to do with such things? Extend them, for sure. Go back to the source and regain them. Produce more children, maybe; more kisses, for certain. Play in additional ball games, too. Perhaps attend the repeat-performance of the concert the next day. But, the repeat almost never captures the wallop, the poignancy of “the first time.”

Does the picture of a speeding bullet seize the essence, help us remember and relive it? The most precious things and people are priceless, in part, because of their short supply and elusiveness. Here and gone. No matter the effort, we can’t catch an emotional deluge in a bucket and keep it in the fridge, just so.

Yet still we try. We want the honeymoon to be endless. We want our child’s spontaneity to continue forever. We think the earth-moving moment should be mounted in a frame or frozen under glass, but its soul is in the movement, not the stillness. The carefully preserved butterfly does not fly.

Some of us, as we age, lose even the ability to be astonished by life, bowled over by happiness or love, sensation or tenderness. Most want a bit of protection, so we add, without thinking, one layer at a time, beginning in youth. Seems safer, more necessary, less risky. The arrows of fate then won’t pierce as far, hurt as much, or so we believe. We want to escape fatal bullets, but unintentionally kill ourselves – the life in us – by trying to avoid them.

The bravest therapy patients attempt to change no one but themselves in their effort to recapture the innocent wonder they had at the point of creation, or grab the life-enkindling thing for the first time. They have the courage to recognize the mirror’s image, to overcome the pain of treatment, to outlast and out-will the unendurable: a kind of therapeutic integrity not to be denied. They grip tragedy and wrestle him to ground. They rip the emotional scabs off their being and bleed until purified and joyous. I still cannot believe how open they are.

As an observer of myself, I can characterize personal life from my 20s to the present as an opening more than a closing. My work required this openness, but so did full immersion in the best private moments as they happened. To my continuing surprise I become more open, not less, even now. Saying what others might not say, but only think; expressing the deepest part of myself to those who care to listen. Looking into your eyes if I am touched by your being. Life hurts more this way, but feels right and perhaps I have no choice: I became and am becoming such a person with little intention. Who knows what version of myself might appear tomorrow?

Death sets the border on everything. The cliché tells us the cemetery is full of irreplaceable people, the last stop on a human world in transit. The trains of life’s are always in motion, much as we want them to wait a minute. The best of them are swift. That’s what makes a train. No picture of a locomotive moves at 60 mph unless you throw it across the room.

So my advice to all of us is this: eyes open, heart open, stay alert, let down your guard as much as your dare; but don’t lose the best of yourself. Make love to life as if she were your first and last, both. She just might be.

Of course, I’m uncatchable, but catch me while you can.

As the advertisements tells us, we are all on sale for a limited time only.

The top image is called Berliner gör’n by Till Krech and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

20 thoughts on “Therapy’s Ultimate Goal: Embracing Life

  1. Very beautifully said, Dr. S. You have a big heart, and it amazes me how much one can endure or be resilient from secondary trauma as well, while having the ability to actively listen and help those who are brave enough to share and be open. Your words represent the heart of the wounded and of the great healers who dare to witness those scabs. Your words represent that kind of emotional vulnerability that can only come from being open, and from having someone allow you to be open. Many people try to hide their emotions and real selves. Many people, instead, represent a false self, as Winnicott would say. But the best parts about life is to freely be yourself, freely embrace life as it comes, freely make the most out of life while we are here. We can chase ourselves to the ends of the earth and try to find ourselves in the midst of blindly missing ourselves on that journey. When we can finally stand still for a moment, allow our self to simply come to us (instead of chasing it), we can join with it to finally find a partner within who can walk through life again – not missing out on what life has to offer while on our journey of self-exploration and change. There’s the grief, the losses, the could-have/would-have/should-have, and the memories; there’s the emotional pain we’re so afraid to show but so desperate to show it; there’s the longing for something that will never be; there’s the childhood dreams that were shattered or displaced. But then there’s the hope; the salutogenesis; the posttraumatic growth; the grit; the courage; the strength; the newfound dreams; the beauty from ashes; the butterfly that survived the cocoon; the repurposed bruised reed and smoldering wick (Isaiah 42:3); the justice (on our own terms, or in a spiritual sense – Isaiah 42:3); the newfound freedom to explore life as it was always meant to be, and to be grateful for discovering many firsts we’ve never had in childhood or young adulthood. There’s the hope that our growth in middle-age and beyond will leave a legacy of awe for those long after we have passed. There’s the hope that there is a world beyond death, or at least a memory of our life while we purposefully thrived and survived before our time was up. There’s the love of living life as long as you can live it, the hope of being strong well into your centennial years – if you can live beyond 100 years old, that is. There’s the endless curiosity of life and everything in it, whereby our meaning-making can go beyond ourselves and our pasts – toward a place of discovery, joy, and life explored on earth. There’s eventually the focus of wanting to not only help others but to find those kindred spirits to walk with you on a journey of mutual interests, fun, play, innocence, and dreams beyond our everyday work. We become curious to travel, to learn new cultures, to learn new things, to listen to new people, and to find a new angle toward listening to the people we know. A new paradigm, a new perspective, an innovation of sorts that helps us to find the same wonder we had experienced as children – but perhaps forgot about or lost post trauma. Even for the realists, there’s the hope of making the most out of our life while we are still alive, and to share that excitement with others. Our appearances, reputations, lost childhood longings, and pain become distal while our rebirth into a new freedom, second wind at life, and fulfilling adventure become our new reality. The happiness was there all along; our real self was there all along; the strength in survivors was there all along; the heart of the healing therapist was there all along. And no matter how painful and longsuffering the journey, the timing of discovery was just right.

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    • Thank you, PP. Of the many worthy ideas you shared, this one jumped out: “Your words represent that kind of emotional vulnerability that can only come from being open, and from having someone allow you to be open.” So many patients come to treatment because they didn’t have the “someone” who allowed them to be open. They then generalize to the rest of the world, expecting that no one will ever do so. A mistake, but an understandable one, they must address in treatment. There, the healer, if doing his job and being the proper “someone,” becomes the doorway to other such someones in the world outside of his office.

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      • You’re welcome, and thank you for pointing out what jumped out, Dr. S. As a survivor myself, I still struggle with being open, and then I struggle with being too open. I’m still working on finding a balance with opening up more in treatment and knowing when to use boundaries outside of treatment. In a perfect world, I wish we were all safe enough to be open, which would alleviate the issue or need for boundaries, I suppose. But in a safe and perfect world, we probably wouldn’t need therapy, LOL. Therapy is so valuable to many, and I wish there were more parity with regards to annual mental health checkups, copayments, hospitalizations (there’s a 190-day lifetime cap on Medicare, which means very poorly run county and state psych wards for those who don’t qualify or who go over their limit for specialized treatment centers for trauma, eating disorders, substance use disorders, etc.; you don’t find a cap on any physiological hospitalization needs; psychiatric reinjury and retraumatization could occur again like accidents and physiological problems could occur again). Perhaps the world would be an even safer place if more people were to open up in treatment or at least in an “annual mental health check up.”

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      • Another problem with being too open, I think, is that there still remains the injurious nature of life. For example, if you are shooting for first place in a foot race, some people who give everything they have will still lose. In relationships too, where we give our heart and have it broken; not always because the other was unkind, but because the “appeal” wasn’t there or maybe because someone else without greater quality happened to have whatever made the difference (even if 1000) other people would have preferred you. Such is life.

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      • Thank you, Dr. S. I think for me, given my history with some not-so-good therapists, I’ve changed over the years and have feared to speak openly with therapists but rather did “practice runs” with everyone else. My openness isn’t always a fair thing to the listener, so I do catch myself sometimes. I do, however, tend to be open with people whom I trust, and most of those people (mostly friends) tend to be open with me about who they are, too. I have a good friend from the Marines (a fellow veteran) who shares with me her stories and allows me to share with her mine. We’ve both experienced similar traumas while in the Corps, but we both also share the same excitement about the good stuff, too. There’s nothing like bonding with someone who has shared similar experiences. When I share too much with some (not all) authority figures, it’s a blend of transference, wanting reassurance, and/or practicing before I actually try to trust a therapist again. As I shared before, one therapist tried to have a dual relationship with me, and the last therapist I had said I was too old to go back to grad school – in different words, of course. I meet with a new therapist (who sounds like she’s just screening me to place me with yet another therapist) in a few days. I desperately want to share, but I want to take my time with trusting a therapist before I share my most intimate self. I really have to bond in some healthy way with the therapist because that is when I found my most healing from the good therapists in my past (only, they’re in another state). What I mean by bond is simply feeling that I can trust the therapist enough to be honest and open, not hiding any transference issues I feel, and being freely able to speak. The last therapist I had, who was the same therapist for a few other veterans, didn’t have a good rap sheet to begin with. Many of us veterans speak, and many of them, like me, have left her, made a complaint, or requested toward the beginning to transfer therapists. I think I lasted a year before I decided to transfer therapists. Another social worker at the VA who took over my case management said that she wasn’t supposed to tell me what she did, and a different therapist I saw shared with me some of my last therapists notes, which I found were highly inaccurate. That therapist made changes in my record, but I immediately requested to see a new therapist who doesn’t have access to their records; I want to start off on a clean slate with someone I seek out, instead of someone they try to find for me. I believe they respected my wishes, as they cannot share my record without my consent – or at least that was that way before I filed the complaint. I wasn’t the only veteran who filed a complaint, so I knew it wasn’t just me. But sometimes I doubt myself, and now it is even harder for me to open up in therapy – even though I can open up everywhere else. My heart wasn’t really broken, but rather disappointed. I never formed a bond with the last therapist, but the dual therapist I had about 8 or 9 years ago in a different state did form a strong bond with me. That dual therapist was harder to heal from; it was like breaking up with an abusive boyfriend, only, she was a woman who was sad that I “fired her.” I never said I fired her, but she didn’t understand that I couldn’t spend the nights at her house, I couldn’t deal with the threats of her roommate, and I couldn’t deal with her wanting to be more than a therapist to me. Both of them threatened me after I filed a complaint, which was suggested by the trauma hospital I had to go to after that incident. I’ll never forget the lessons I had learned about my client rights, but every new therapist I get seems a bit scared to treat me with that history. I know why they’re a bit apprehensive about taking on my case, but I’m not trying to be in control of the therapeutic environment, though I do want to be in the decision-making process of my treatment, with suggestions from the therapist, of course. Some therapists aren’t comfortable with that, and some are. I just have to find the right one that I can afford, or that is provided for free at the VA. I’ll try the VA for a while before I decide to use my Medicare outside of it, if the VA doesn’t work out. But yeah, when I do open up my heart about my dreams, goals, feelings for someone, etc., it hurts when my enthusiasm isn’t mirrored back, or when it is shot down. So far, though, I’ve had a lot of support from friends, which helps.

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  2. I like all your articles, but that one was exceptionally inspired!

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  3. Many events and people I encounter provide the inspiration. Thank you for yours.

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  4. “It’s impossible,” said pride.
    “It’s risky,” said experience.
    “It’s pointless,” said reason.
    “Give it a try,” whispered the heart.
    —Unknown
    A good therapist whispers right along side the heart.

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  5. Beautiful post, Dr. Stein. We are never too old to become more open, more human. In my life experiences, I have found that true connection with others brings as much joy as pain. It’s the nature of being a true human.

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    • You’ve recognized the double-sided nature of life, Rosaliene, that is the opposite of the myth of success and perpetual happiness sold as part of the American Dream. In some corners of the world, especially “prosperity religions,” having unhappiness is taken to mean your beliefs aren’t properly aligned. I like your view much better. Thank you.

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      • Dr. Stein, I had no idea that “perpetual happiness” is sold as part of the American Dream. Since that is impossible to attain because of our human condition, it’s no wonder that so many Americans suffer from depression.

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  6. This article touched me deeply, and was written beautifully. I’m bookmarking this one for a future re-read. Thanks for sharing.

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  7. I agree with Rayne; Dr. Stein this was just what I needed to read. I had it saved for days on my desktop till I could relax and soak it in, and when I did, it helped me so much where I am. (I have to pay $838 a month for insurance for 5 months, because Congress changed the Medicare B rule this year so the coverage won’t kick in till July. I was 6 sessions into bilateral ECT when my insurance was cancelled 12/31, so I had no option but to go direct to Kaiser and pay market rate so I may continue with the bilateral ECT.) So the paragraph you wrote about those who stick with therapy was so appreciated! I feel beat down, but your essay was the encouragement I needed — and believed. 🙂 Hugs.

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  8. Glad to help, Harry, and happy to know you are still out there and fighting. Keep up the good fight. We need you!

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  9. well written article. thanks

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  10. highly inspiring post . many thanks

    Like

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