Thursday, March 3, 2011

Connect the Dots

I remember the puzzles in the middle of my coloring books when I was young where there were a series of dots and until I knew the alphabet or my numbers I had to rely on someone else to show me where the lines should connect to develop the picture that I could then fill in with colors. At this point that's how I felt. I was looking at a series of dots manifesting themselves as antidotes from my past and present, but the symbols that appeared above them so that I could make the bigger picture were again foreign to me.

As I sat in my therapist's office after the weekend this is where I was: I knew that life had fallen apart, I knew that I'd asked for help, I knew that there were things that had started to feel more and more unmanageable throughout the last year and I knew that I had a past that complicated all my thoughts and feelings, but what I didn't know was how to connect all those dots. What I didn't know was how in the world I ended up here, in this place.

During my intake I'd been asked more questions then I ever imagined, but a few things stood out. In one section she'd asked me about whether or not I'd been diagnosed with depression in the past. Well, no, but I'd also never made the leap to go to therapy before. Looking back I told her I could see times and places where I was very likely clinically depressed but it had never been this bad and it had never persisted this long. In another she asked me what had been the single biggest stressor in my life as of late and that was a simple one - work.

At the end of that session she gave me a homework assignment; I was to write about three times in my life when I was happy and comfortable with myself. The thing was it hadn't been that long since that had happened. After I figured things out a few years back about my past, all my fears and anxieties, the accumulation of all my life experiences and how it had shaped me into the person that I was,  I had made a lot of changes in my life. I'd started exercising, I was eating right, I had lost weight, I felt healthy, I bought a new, nicer wardrobe of clothes that I actually felt good in, I'd ventured out on dates and I was genuinely happy with the person that evolving both physically and mentally.

It seemed too simple to think that a bad boss, a family death and a few other incidents could unravel me in the way they had even if there was a biological basis that underscored it. But my therapist had stared at those dots and connected a pattern and so that day we started our first of many conversations about work. I suppose that in some ways it was essential that we discuss the place that I wasn't even capable of going to anymore. There had to be a reason that I had to take doctor-ordered time off. So, we started the conversation and it wasn't enough to say simply that work sucked.  For years I'd vacillated between loving my job and being dissatisfied with it. It was never my passion to be doing what I was, so that played into me never being all that happy, but most of the time I didn't hate it and I certainly was never on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of it. Before that it was just that I wanted to be doing something different, something better, something that was challenging, something that mattered, something that I would be proud to tell people I did,  but it was all too easy to stay in the comfort zone - another part of the coasting through life and taking the easiest route.

But slowly for the past three years work had become pretty miserable and the last year had been excruciating. For anyone that hadn't worked in the situation it's pretty difficult to capture what was happening within the walls of that building. When she asked me to describe my boss the simplest phrase was to say that on a good day she was incompetent, on a bad day, well it was worse. There was manipulation at play, outright lies and so much more. And as the stress and pressure built and I began to fall deeper and deeper into depression, I started to make mistakes, I overlooked small details and I found it difficult to concentrate on tasks that were second nature to me. And as those small things were exploited my concentration and everything else became worse. Everything just seemed to be adding more fuel to the fire and it became more and more intolerable as the flames rose up around me. And then I began to stop caring - what did it matter anyway? Nothing was changing and whether your work was good, bad or somewhere in between the response was all the same. And then it was more and more difficult to get out of bed to face a day filled with so much dysfunction, deceit and despair.

We talked about this and strategies to figure out how to deal with it when I returned to work, but what was very clear was that since the situation was not going to change I needed to start a job search to get out of the hell. I could learn to manage the work world I was in but for my long-term health and sanity I needed to get out and find something suitable.

Looking into my eyes she told me, "I've been in a situation like this, your boss is your abuser. You now know what it feels like to be in an abusive relationship, it's just not the kind that most people label as one." And at some point she also told me "You realize that even if I only believed half of what you told me, which is not the case, I've diagnosed your boss with two or three types of psychosis. Those take years of therapy to even attempt to correct. You are not psychotic but being around someone that is leads to feeling pretty manic yourself. She isn't going to change so we need to get you on a path to get out of that environment." So now, in addition to my cleaning checklist I needed to do some research on jobs to share with her for the next time.

At the end of that session we discussed aromatherapy as a way to deal with anxiety. I left with a piece of paper scented with pure lavender oil. I was to add it to my worry stone that she'd given me on my last visit that I was to hold and rub when anxiety overtook me.

And every appointment we would discuss more and more about work, what it had done to me, how it had destroyed my confidence and identity and at the end of every session I would get one more coping mechanism for dealing with the stress and anxiety of life. When I was off work I didn't need to employ these techniques, but I was sure that I would have to when I returned to my job.

What she had connected and I hadn't yet was that while work was an issue, how I dealt with it and the abusive treatment I received and the stress then generated from it was where I'd begun to fall apart. She was pointing me from dot to dot but I still didn't clearly see the picture she was helping me make. It took me a while to put it together and I didn't arrive there after a few appointments.

Here I kept thinking how did I make all these life changes and yet I still ended right back where I started? How did I go from finally living life to being at a place where I didn't really want to live at all anymore? How had the woman that never would have contemplated ending her life begin to think it might not be the worst solution if it didn't take so much energy?

 Eventually though I saw what she knew and I had to figure out for myself with some gentle pushes - once I'd let myself finally live things mattered - they were no longer just something to get past on the way to another mundane day of sameness. And I had learned to live when things were going well, but I didn't know how to live with things when they didn't. If I had never started living I wouldn't be in the hole I was because none of the things would really have mattered - I would have coasted right by them as just another crappy part of life. I might have had the mild, short-lived depressions of the past, but I wouldn't have fallen to the lowest point in my life. But once I'd been happy when things turned a little dark I didn't know how to make them light again.

So all the strategies she would teach me - the worry stone, the aromatherapy, the deep belly breathing, the visualization, the touchstone, the journaling - they were all ways to deal when the going got tough again because if I let myself live there would be times when things were not always sunshine and roses. She was looking at this pretty picture ready to be colored, but it was taking me a while to catch up to her. And who knew what the end result would be when I finally connected them all and stood ready with my crayons to fill in the dotted frame.

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