Sometimes things have to get bad before they get better. This is true for coughs and cold sores as well as grief and conflict.
Well meaning people try to make it better for the sufferer before the awfulness has peaked. This rarely works.
Some years ago, when I was really not ok, when someone I loved and thought I could heal, tore my life and heart and self-esteem to shreds, people tried to help. They had creative and brilliant ideas. Since I no longer wanted to live, they encouraged me to kill off the part of myself that needed to die—my inner meanness. They tried to get me to re-direct my aggression against the nasty one who deserved it. They insisted I was lovable and worthy. They encouraged me to die in the moment—to let go and relax. All of this was right and good. Thank god for loving friends and therapists. But their help didn’t help. It didn’t make me not want to die.
Plus, I couldn’t do the things they suggested, and this made it almost worse. Not only did I not want to live, after all my years of training it had come to this. And I didn’t have the chops to make me better. What was wrong with me?
What I needed most: To be understood. To be witnessed in my pain. To be seen.
I lived to tell the story. The mean guy did not. He killed himself. I’m still ashamed to admit how bad it got between us, but I’m pretty sure some of you have been there yourselves.
In the grand scheme, I know there was a rightness to it all. I wouldn’t be where I am today—and so on and so forth. But still. It fucked me up pretty bad for a while.
These days, mostly I’m good. But there are always things that get to me. My dog’s recurrent limp, for example. My father’s bent frame, his persistent cough. That my step-daughter has to fight for her right to exist in a trans-phobic world. My darling partner’s mother died and left a house, and decades of files, and drawers full of things—for him to deal with; and that the southern California Porter Ranch gas leak, an environmental disaster, has caused great concern about property values at the exact time we need to sell his mother’s house.
And then there are the big NOT OKAYS. Like Donald Trump.
The world is not ok.
Which brings me to the topic of wanting to fix things. Altruistic, yes—but sometimes selfishly so and a strategy for pain avoidance. A liability in my field.
On the morning of a major holiday, a couple broke up in my office. I really didn’t like it at all. It’s not that I’m in favor of couples staying together. But really—on this holiday, with three small children waiting to go celebrate. Did she have to tell him she was leaving their marriage, that she was done, right there in my office? Did he have to weep with quite so much snot and silence and empty out my Kleenex box? If only I hadn’t encouraged her to focus on her body signals, her turning away, which lead to her truth.
There was nothing else I could think of to do, so I sat and cried with them.
A month later the couple was together, and better than before. The breakup had lasted a week.
After she had read every text message and scoured months of his email, after she had extracted from him every last detail of every interaction, every glance, every passing in the hall at work, every cup of tea shared with the other woman, they entered a period of naked truth telling and self-discovery (each owning their part in what had created his affair) which lead to renewed passion and their best sex in years. Enough for her to realize she wanted to keep trying. At least for the moment.
And my part was to be there, to have creative and brilliant ideas for weeks on end, and then to accept the awfulness.
There has been lots of stuff like this lately—death, memories of trauma, unrequited love, couples in hate and rancor. I’m trying not to fix it.