Stress, Therapy, and Figuring Out Who You Are

“It’s just stress,” the doctor said to me. And that was the end of the consultation. This was less than helpful.

The words, “it’s just stress,” were said to me throughout my childhood and well into my twenties and thirties. They were said when I went to a doctor with stomach pains, with dizzy spells, with migraine headaches, with jaw pain, with sinus pain.

The answer I got, over and over: “It’s just stress.”

The words were always said like this was the solution to my problems.

“Well, we looked into it, and it turns out there’s no medical condition causing your symptoms. What’s causing it is stress. So, that should clear that up. Off you go. Come back when you have a real problem, like one of your limbs has been torn off by a bear.”

The diagnosis did not help. All my symptoms remained. So what was I supposed to do? I had no idea. And this went on for years.

Eventually, during one of these doctor visits, I was on my way out the door, frustrated as always. Something was wrong, damn it, and these doctors were not helping me.

A nurse casually said, “Maybe you should see a therapist.”

She said this in passing, like she was half kidding. But the truth of her words hit me hard. That’s what finally put me on the right path.

Why then? Why her? I’d studied psychology at university, as many damaged people do. I’d read books about therapy and the therapeutic process. I don’t know why that one nurse was what finally pushed me to take action. But she was the one. I guess I was just ready.

My workplace had an Employee Assistance Program. I reached out to them and had a few sessions. After the maximum allotted visits, they suggested I get my own therapist to explore matters further, and gave me a list of therapists to check out. I picked the therapist who was conveniently located close to my workplace. It was a lucky choice, because the two of us clicked.

I was fortunate enough to be in a situation where I could afford therapy. I met with her multiple times a week for a decade. (To be clear: not all problems require ten years of fixing, but I went in planning to do as much work on me as possible.) We did psychoanalytic psychotherapy. That’s the kind of therapy where you lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling and talk, with the therapist sitting behind you taking notes. It sounds weird, I suppose, but this approach helped me get my words out, and helped me fix my life.

Mind you, therapy has not fixed everything. I still have stress symptoms. During this pandemic nightmare that we’re all living through, I have been clenching my jaw. I’ve done this to the point where (my dentist tells me) I have cracked three teeth. Sometimes the entire left side of my head throbs in pain. But I’m dealing with all of this from a much better place. I have a mouth guard I wear when I sleep, and I take muscle relaxants when my jaw bugs me during the day. I can also let out my stress with exercise and making art. The big thing is, I know this is stress.

I’d always had trouble telling the difference between an emotion and a physical symptom. Growing up, I was told to shut up, hide in my room, and not rock the boat. If there was conflict of any kind, I was told doing anything would just make things worse. If my father yelled abuse, I was told to just laugh it off. This created an environment of helplessness, with very little “me” in it. There was no room for having an identity or a personality or feelings.

My emotions went underground. Why scream and yell and cry if no one actually cares that you’re upset? So instead I became cynical, quiet, and detached.

As I got older, I’d feel oddly sick a lot of the time, unaware that what I was experiencing were actually emotions. When I was feeling anxious, or upset, and my heart started to race, it was the beginning of a heart attack. Better go to the hospital, or just prepare for death. When I ignored my own desires, and let other people make all my choices, it resulted in feeling numb and foggy. My hands tingled and my nose went cold. That’s either an emotional state, or the onset of a diabetic attack. I chose to believe it was diabetes, and went to the emergency room, asking for a blood test. They gave me one and it was normal. They kept me around for an hour and then sent me home. Because, surprise, “It’s just stress”.

Without a “me” to understand what was happening, all sorts of physical sensations felt strange and maddening. I needed a self inside, to help figure out what I was going through.

In therapy, I slowly built that self, and I came to describe the process as that of “making concentrated orange juice”. Before therapy, my being was scattered all over the place. I was like a thousand oranges strewn throughout a football stadium. Over time, I found the oranges (scattered bits of my identity) and added them to a can at center field (my united identity). I went from being ghostly and absent, to being present and real.

How do you do that in therapy? It’s complicated. But a big part of it involved asking the questions, “Who am I?” and “What do I want?” and “How did I get here?”

These may seem like selfish questions to ask. Most of us are taught that we should think about others and not about ourselves. To a certain extent, that is true. In things like politics, community, and working as a team, you want to rise above selfishness. However, when it comes to our own individual lives, they are ours to do with as we please. If you grew up being discouraged from making decisions about your life (or any decisions for that matter) the very idea of asking “What do I want?” can feel taboo. But I found it essential to getting better.

Another aspect of therapy was looking over my personal history and figuring out what made up my story. When I walked into therapy that first day, I was a blank, without a past and without a future. By going over who I was, I began to understand how I’d gotten into this predicament in the first place. My ghostliness was a coping strategy that no longer worked. My childhood home felt like the Vietnam war, and the strategies I developed (disappearing and not existing) saved my life. But now they were killing me. I understood that I now wanted to become real. Instead of being a theoretical entity, I wanted to become a human being.

Changing from a ghost to a real person comes with problems. Friends and family might not like it. One friend, Gary, greatly benefited from my absent nature. He used me as a crutch to prop up his own identity. I was very much his “sidekick”. As I became more and more real, I voiced more demands and desires. This did not sit well with him.

“You’re different,” Gary said one day, eyeing me suspiciously. “You started changing as soon as you began seeing… that therapist.”

I laughed in his face, much to his confusion. I was getting better. He saw it as getting worse.

Eventually, Gary couldn’t take it anymore, and he ended our friendship. My demands for equal time were too much. He needed someone to take care of him. An equal was not something he was willing to tolerate.

Other friends and family also noticed a difference. Some were happy for me, seeing me coming to life. Others felt threatened and diminished. I used to do whatever they asked, without complaints. Now I had boundaries. I no longer said yes to all of their demands. I wasn’t available whenever they needed me. I set limits. I made room for me. Many found this problematic

It was difficult for me to let soured relationships go. If someone insists they get an 80–20 split, and I want a 50–50 split, there isn’t much room to negotiate. I had to learn to just walk away from the bargaining table. Which is when, irony of ironies, they called me a selfish jerk for walking away.

Being misunderstood can feel like a kind of torture. On a regular basis, I had to resist the urge to step back up to that bargaining table and justify myself. The thing is, some people just want you there, arguing and negotiating, forever. If they tricked me into staying, frantically trying to explain my perspective, they were getting exactly what they wanted. I was still there, feeding them the psychic energy they craved. They still had someone to yell at. I had to learn to let these people go, and let them believe about me whatever they wanted to believe. If they wanted to think of me as a selfish prick, so be it.

After a decade, and having learned a lot, I told my therapist I felt ready to end therapy.

As she put it, “Things don’t feel as urgent now.”

And that was exactly it. Life still had challenges, but I felt like I could face them with the supports I had outside of therapy. Additionally, I wanted to take the money I was spending on therapy and use it for something else. I’d discovered, much to my surprise, that I love to travel. When I was a ghost, the idea of going anywhere seemed impossible. Now? I wanted to see the entire world. The money I was spending on therapy sessions could start going into travel adventures.

My therapist and I discussed it and we agreed to a scheduled finish. The way to end therapy is to give room for exploring the end and what it means. There’s no sudden break. Instead, there’s a sort of countdown: ten more sessions, nine, eight… And in those last sessions, there’s a lot of talk about what the end means, and how I’ll cope when it’s all over.

And then, suddenly it was the last session, and I was done.

I’m not perfect and I never will be perfect. I’m still figuring myself out. There’s always more personal garbage in my head to manage. I’m just done therapy. And even there, I’m not necessarily done forever. Just for right now. I always know that, if things get really crazy and I’m at a loss, I can go back, and start therapy again.

If I have any regrets, it’s that I wish I had started therapy sooner. And I wish all those doctors who had said, “It’s just stress,” had then provided some actual guidance on how to deal with stress.

If you search the internet for ways to deal with stress, the results can feel like more work: Take up a hobby! Get out and exercise! Learn to meditate! Do yoga! Socialize more!

The to-do list just grows and grows, ironically creating more stress.

Another option is getting a therapist. Meet with them regularly. Talk about who you are, how you feel, and your history. Having someone like this in your corner, to help you better understand yourself, can be very powerful. Just be ready for how something seemingly so simple might shake up your entire world.

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