This Is What I Mean By That

On Mondays, I go to therapy. I don’t think the fact that I’m In Treatment is a Big Deal, or reveals that I’m broken or a less stable person than I “should be.” I actually believe that everyone should go to therapy, at least at some point, over the course of his or her life. But it occurs to me that Monday might be a significant day to be encouraged (or forced—the verb I associate with therapy varies) to talk about my feelings for 45 to 50 minutes. (I’m not sure how long my sessions are; or, rather, how long they’re supposed to be.) I don’t know if going to therapy on Monday sets the tone for the next seven days, but part of me thinks that it has to, at least on a subconscious, or even unconscious, level. Because most of the time, it’s the very first thing on my calendar for the week. And that has to be significant somehow, right? I’m probably just looking for meaning where there is only a mutually convenient timeslot.

Today, I told my therapist that I’m having trouble being alone; specifically, being alone with my thoughts because I can’t seem to turn them off. Most of these thoughts are whispers. Others are echoes. Some are sarcastic, some are unbearably earnest, some masquerade as profound. A select few resonate as primal screams into the abyss, like that scene in Garden State where Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, and Peter Sarsgaard are wearing trash-bags and it’s raining and “The Only Living Boy in New York” by Simon & Garfunkel is playing and Natalie Portman is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a filmic characterization that has since been retracted, but I really don’t understand why because it’s still a thing. Also, why is there no Manic Pixie Dream Boy? There should be one, I think I could probably use one. Especially when I’m feeling directionless, like there is Something Important that I should be learning or realizing, should be doing, but I don’t know what it is. Most of these thoughts, though, regardless of their volume or tone, are along the lines of: Just how damaged am I?

The clinical part of my brain, the part planning to become a psychotherapist in the not-so-distant future, takes issue with that statement because it denies ownership and accountability. There’s a passivity to the question, a pretty explicit implication (ha) that I have been damaged by circumstances beyond my control. Or, perhaps more realistically, by people I let into my life even though I shouldn’t have and, more often than not, knew that I shouldn’t have, but let them in anyway. A former friend said something to me along the lines of, “When you’re a teenager, you don’t see the red flags. As a young-ish adult, you see the red flags, but ignore them. Part of becoming a real adult is seeing the red flags and running as fast as you can in the opposite direction.” I no longer ignore the red flags. In fact, I tend to actively look for them, even when there might not be any. I acknowledge that I not only have been damaged, but also have caused damage. In fact, I’ve been the simultaneous perpetrator and victim of damage more times than I’d like to admit. A self-perpetuating damage machine. But that’s humanity’s par for the course, isn’t it? Show me a person who claims to have not hurt or been hurt, and I’ll show you a person who needs to be in psychotherapy. Starting yesterday. (Is it becoming clear why I’m having trouble being alone with my thoughts yet?)

So, I tell my therapist, “I’m having trouble being alone.”

“What do you mean by that?”

I pause to think about what I mean by that, to figure out how to articulate what I mean by that to another human being, one who, in all likelihood, has her own history of being both damaged and damaging, because even though she has a PhD in clinical psychology, she is also human.

“I can’t turn my brain off,” I say. “And I don’t like my thoughts. It’s not that they’re particularly destructive or dark, they’re just…they make me feel damaged. I’m constantly circling back to the refrain of what is wrong with me.”

Apparently, I have found the words to convey what I mean by that, because she nods, understands. And here’s the thing: she does understand because she is a fantastic therapist. I believe that finding the right psychotherapeutic fit is just as challenging, if not more challenging, than finding a significant other. Although I admit I might feel differently about this comparison if I weren’t single. (I’m no longer sure if I’m single by choice or by chance or by other. And, I don’t want to admit this next bit, but it’s true: being single is, without a doubt, one of the driving forces behind the what is wrong with me refrain.)

My therapist asks, “What do you do? When you’re alone and have trouble sitting with your thoughts?”

I break eye contact with her, then admit, “Not much, really. Knit. Watch TV. Read. Look at stupid stuff on the Internet.”

“Are you writing?”

Her question catches me off guard. No, of course I’m not writing. I don’t have time. I’m busy at work. My brain starts churning out rapid-fire excuses, almost against my will. I tentatively respond, “Well…not really. I wrote a couple of, like, I don’t know, mini-essays on Instagram or whatever, but no, I’m not really writing.”

“Are you performing? Taking any classes at UCB?”

“No, I just…even if I wanted to right now, I don’t have time. Work’s been busy. Which is great, I’m happy that work is going well. Work is good.”

“Are you doing anything creative?”

“Not really…I’m actually planning to end my podcast after one more episode. It’s become this would-be parody about the gross messages men send me and the different ways I can be a bitch in my responses. Except it’s not funny because it’s actually happening and it makes me sad.”

“Why aren’t you writing? You’re a writer.”

I physically jerk in response. Not because I feel like I’ve been psychically slapped or anything (because, seriously, how clichéd would that be), but because I’ve been reminded of Something Important about myself, about my identity, an integral part of Who I Am that I’ve forgotten or misplaced, and I feel silly about it. I imagine I would feel similarly if I were surprised to hear someone say, “You have blue eyes.” Or, “You’re a New Yorker.” Or, “Your favorite person in the world is your brother.” (Or, maybe, a thought whispers, “You’re damaged.”)

We talk more about this, about how I am a “creative person” who needs to be doing “creative things.” That even though I don’t aspire to achieve financial success or fame through creative pursuits, I might feel better, more like myself, if I devote time to writing, to podcasting, to performing, to creating. My therapist suggests I find a way to structure my creative outlets, hold myself accountable, maybe take a class or join a writing group. I shoot these ideas down (“I hate creative writing workshops”), but make declarations that I may or may not keep. I acknowledge that time is not the issue, because I have time. My workday usually doesn’t start until the mid-afternoon. I tell her I’m going to try to set aside at least 30 minutes a day to write, to produce, to create.

My 45 to 50 minutes end. I thank my therapist, and tell her I’ll see her next week.

I don’t have to work for at least another four hours, so I walk home through Central Park. I pass tourists paying homage to John Lennon near Strawberry Fields, pause to take a handful of deep breaths at Bethesda Terrace. The fountain is dry, but there are people in rowboats in the lake. It’s warm for early December, decidedly not beginning to look a lot like Christmas. It still feels like autumn, which is my favorite season. I realize this is probably a symptom of Global Warming, but I don’t care as much about the environment as I probably should. We all have flaws. Some of mine are more superficial and easier to admit than others. I sit on a bench just before I reach Fifth Avenue and finish reading Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up. I take a picture of my view as I read, and post it on Instagram with this quote from the novel:

“For so long I have believed I could never catch up, but now I realize there’s nothing to catch up to, there’s only what I choose to make. There’s still time, I think. I have so much time left.”

This resonates. I had said to my therapist, “I feel like there’s so much I should have already accomplished. That I’m behind somehow, because of the time I’ve had to spend recovering from the ways in which I’ve been damaged.”

I arrive at my apartment. My rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper East Side that I, for all intents and purposes, lucked into, that I unexpectedly moved into only four months ago. An apartment that I am still learning how to be alone in. That I am still trying to claim for myself. An apartment that, perhaps, feels too empty, so I unwittingly fill it with thoughts that I’d rather not have. Virginia Woolf would have something to say about this.

After hanging up my coat, I sit down at my desk, open my laptop, then Microsoft Word, and start writing. I start writing this. That much is probably obvious. I write, I write, I write, and then I notice that I am not editing as I’m writing, I’m just putting my thoughts—the good, the bad, the ugly (the clichéd)—on this blank page that isn’t a page at all but white pixels on a screen. I don’t censor. I focus on the content, not the form. I can edit later.

In college, I took a freshman writing seminar called Autobiography and Fiction. I wrote one semi-decent short story in that class that I coasted on throughout a series of creative writing courses. I remember meeting with my professor to go over an assignment, which might not have even been of the creative persuasion. He was a kind man, and, as far as I can recall, the first person to ever acknowledge or encourage my abilities as a writer, whatever that means. And even though it’s been over a decade, I vividly remember the question he asked: “Do you edit as you write or do you get all of your thoughts out and then go back to edit?” The former. Of course, the former. Obviously, the former. Always, the former.

This might be the first time I have written without worrying about form or craft or run-on sentences or typos or whether I’m being clichéd or if everything is grammatically correct. (I’ve made a career out of being grammatically correct, after all. Politically correct? Not so much.) I’ve attempted some jokes, there are some half-formed ideas here, I’m sure. Or, there were. By the time you’re reading this, I will have edited, but those half-formed things might still be lurking, even after I edit. Regardless, I’m fairly confident that this is the first time in my life that I am writing without simultaneously editing. Because the words won’t stop, I literally can’t stop typing, and there’s an image in my head of a dam breaking, but there are words gushing through the barrier instead of water. I wonder if I was somehow preventing myself from writing because I knew that when I started (again), I wouldn’t be able to stop. Obviously, I will eventually stop, and I will eventually edit. But there is a metaphor in here that I can’t fully grasp. Something about allowing a fire to burn, to get a little wild, to cause just a smidge of destruction, before containing it. Letting my psyche do its damage before reeling it back. A little bit of chaos, followed by conscientious control.

When I was growing up, my father often told me that actions speak louder than words. The process of writing contradicts that maxim. Because writing is proactive word-based action. I’m not sure I ever agreed with my father on that one. Tom Stoppard certainly didn’t: “Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”

When I was waiting for the elevator after leaving my therapist’s office, a thought took hold: If a writer doesn’t write, is she still a writer? The thought ballooned, maybe against my will, maybe as an extension of it: If a creative has thoughts but doesn’t commit them to the medium of his or her choice, is he or she still a creative? Yes, I decide. She is. Yes, I decide.

I am.


  1. Jo

    thank you for writing this!

    from one creative to another. sometimes we need the yarn, the tap of the needles, the song of our thoughts, and time. you know?

    but thank you for writing this. and keep on creating. i remember (and see) your work and please bless us with more of your words.


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