((Warning: Long post ahead))
Yes, you read the title right.
This would be the second time this semester that I had made the decision to walk all the way to the edge of campus to go to the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Office because I felt like I wouldn’t be able to make it through the rest of this week if I didn’t. It was a long walk and with a heavy backpack filled with a laptop and textbooks, a heavy messenger bag filled with art supplies and a lunch bag, it was a tiring walk.
My shoulders, which were already aching from the invisible (mental) burden that I was carrying ached even more by the physical burdens I was carrying. As I walked to the office, the little self criticizing voice said, “What are you doing? Why are you going to CAPS? You just went yesterday, remember? Why are you such a loser? You’re an adult! Can’t you just deal?” over and over. Each step grew heavier and I doubted my decision.
Sounds familiar, right? This was exactly what I happened the last time I decided to go to CAPS for an on-call visit.
That little voice in my head is a jerk to me.
I pressed on and felt relief when I got to the building that the office was housed in. I felt relief when I saw the familar face of the receptionist. She’s always quite a sweetheart. Feeling a little self conscious as there was another student behind me, I said to the receptionist, “Can I speak to the on-call clinician? Whoever that might be…” I secretly hoped that it was my own therapist. She checked her computer and told me to take a seat. I filled out the paperwork and waited.
This is the worst part. The waiting. My hands were shaking and I kept tapping my right foot. I hadn’t really been tapping my foot this way since I started taking Ritalin but I’ve done it several times this week. The nervous energy in me was threatening to explode.
5 minutes later, the on-call clinician came out to greet me. I felt like it was way longer than that. As I’ve been a client at CAPS since April 2015, I had seen most of the staff that works there and so I knew who this psychologist was.
He led me down the hallway to his office, which was right at the corner of the building. Along the way, we passed my regular therapist’s office. Incidentally, he walked out of his office just as we approached and I caught a glimpse of his back as he walked out the door. It was actually nice to see him, even if it was just his back. I felt a little calmer just catching a glimpse of that familiar person.
So as I settled on the couch in the on-call therapist’s office, let’s call him J, he said to me, “You’ve been seeing S for a while now, right? So you know all about the confidentiality we maintain and all that?” I said that I was. He didn’t want to waste time. He then told me that we would talk about what brought me in and follow up with strategies we could use to ensure that I would be safe. It sounded good to me.
I started by telling him that I’m trying to be proactive with my situation because I knew that work was coming up next and I wouldn’t have access to CAPS for the rest of the week. I told him that I didn’t know if I could go through the week without any support. I explained that I feel like I just can’t go on. I also explained to him all the stresses that I’m facing at the moment with my job, with school assignments, with switching my major, with other personal issues etc. He empathized and agreed that I was going through a rough time.
We then talked about my desire to self harm, to cut. I told him that I feel like my world is like a table that has been upturned and everything I’ve laid out on the table are now scattered all over the ground. I feel lost and confused. I feel like I can’t pick up the pieces and don’t know how to put them back together. I told him that I feel like I’m losing my mind, my grip on life and that I’m losing control of everything. The cutting is like an escape, a way to control something, a way to release my stresses and a way to make something intangible like depression tangible.
I also expressed my self doubts, especially about feeling needy. I told him how I felt stupid for coming in to see him, that I’m an adult, that I should be able to deal, right? I told him that I feel like I’m not working hard enough, that I’ve been missing tests and forgetting deadlines. I’m losing control. I told him that I didn’t want to come across as needy and attention seeking. I didn’t want to be a “poser”. What if all I’m doing is trying to get sympathy?
He stopped me there and asked me what cutting does for me or why I feel like I need to cut. I told him that I feel like I need to release my frustrations and anger. Then he addressed my self doubts and told me that what hes hearing is that I’m extremely self critical. That I’m so harsh with myself. That there are so many judgments. He explained that from what he’s hearing me say, that I am looking for answers as to why I feel the way I do and why I want to do something (like cut). Then I find the answer and as soon as I do, I invalidate the answer by doubting myself and thus putting me back to square one. He told me that my mind has devised a “clever” and unending loop of self punishment. That I continue to punish myself repeatedly for things I have no control over. This way, I’ll keep myself depressed for as long as I need to – I guess because I’m so terrified of recovery or being better because it is an unknown.
J then brought up sympathy vs empathy as I had said that I didn’t really know the difference. He told me that I don’t come across as being a “poser” or just wanting for attention. He said that it seemed more likely that what I need is empathy and understanding. I agreed that that’s what I would like – the funny thing is, it seems like this understanding that I need seems to only really matter if it came from certain people because otherwise, I wouldn’t still be so desperate for it as I’m getting empathy from readers of this blog and friends.
J also explained that sympathy is more superficial where a common response from someone sympathetic is “I’m sorry” while empathy is when someone extends not only sympathy but also understanding. He then explained that empathy and judgment are on opposite ends of the spectrum. He went on to say that I judge myself so much; that I don’t have any empathy for myself. I had a mind blowing moment when he said that.
He asked me if I had any reactions to what he had just said. I had to take a moment to process that. Self empathy? Wow. That’s a concept I’ve barely ever considered. I learned that the reason why I seem so unempathetic is not only because I don’t know the difference between empathy and sympathy but also because I don’t practice self empathy!
We also discussed my suicidal thoughts and how on the way to CAPS, I had thought that it would be easy if I just walked in front of traffic. I had also mentioned other thoughts I’ve had. He asked me what I could do to keep myself safe and keep myself from doing anything harmful. There was a moment of silence as I contemplated his question.
I realized then that I had often backed myself into a tight corner – so much so that the only choice left seemed to be death. I thanked him for asking me that question because I realized that what I needed to do to keep myself safe is to look at the big picture. I have, for too long, been ruminating and dwelling on the negative. I then shared with him my husband’s sneak peek for a surprise he’s planned for me that I will get to see in 5 months’ time. I told J that I had forgotten all about this surprise. I now realize that I have something to look forward to and in the midst of my pain, I had forgotten all about it.
J and I talked for about 40 minutes or so. J expressed that I have made his job easy because of how thoughtful I am and how it’s clear to him that I’m working hard to figure out my psychological condition. He also told me that our conversation had been clear, that I wasn’t being needy, that I needn’t feel bad and that I now know what I need to do or think about in order to be safe.
When I walked into his office this morning, I didn’t anticipate the kind of calm that I would feel after I left. I thought that I would still feel empty and hopeless. Instead, J pointed out to me what empathy meant, what self judgment meant, how I need to keep myself accountable for my actions and thoughts, what I need to do to be safe and above all, he listened and made me feel understood.
I thanked him profusely as we said our goodbyes. I told him that I was glad that I had dropped by and that he had helped me more than he probably realized.
I walked in with a head full of turmoil and I left with a little less burden on my shoulders and a lot of calm in my heart. I think this might turn out to be a more stable week after all.