I had my first, real therapist in 2007. I mean “real” because she wasn’t one of those state-appointed people I had to see from domestic disputes gone awry. I sought her out myself for my own “big girl” problems.
I was just about to graduate with my bachelors. I was getting divorced. I’d cremated my dad a year before. I was twenty. Like just about every other time in my life, I sought the advice of my teachers for what to do. Kessel gave me a book and Bennett gave me a card.
The book had some long title, but the gist was about loss. I read it in two nights, finishing each exercise and “homework” assignment with more diligence than I ever actually did for Kessel. The book made me realize how much loss I was really experiencing and, though I’d experienced loss before, I hadn’t had it coming from all sides like this before. I realized school was ending and that was a loss in its own right. I realized that a year wasn’t enough to digest the loss of the only father I’d ever known – plus, I’d finally said goodbye to my toxic mother in that time; while that was a good thing, that was still a loss to reckon with since it meant a host of life events would have no parents to help guide my way. To that same tune, I left an emotionally abusive husband who constantly called me “gross and disgusting,” but it also meant I was losing my home, my dogs, my mode of transportation, my insurance, and, what felt the most damaging, the last of my pride. So, like I said, it came from all sides.
The card, I think it said Margaret, but she went by Peg. And she cursed more than I did. It was instant connection. I told the receptionist I was coming in for grief counseling, gave my husband’s insurance information (we weren’t divorced yet so I took all I could) and had my appointment the next week. Peg saw me in fifteen seconds – and told me that. Maybe she really did or maybe she has a damn good poker face, but she convinced me damn good. How do I know it took fifteen seconds? She told me so. I walked in her office, not sure where to sit, how to sit, or what to do with my damned hands. She read my intake file to me and told me to explain grief counseling. I told her my dad died. She asked a few questions. The clock said it only took ten minutes, but it felt like my whole life was spewed in those minutes. Then, she stopped me and said, “it took me fifteen seconds to realize you aren’t here for grief counseling. You’re here for life coaching.” And so it was. She didn’t leave me any room to argue. She emphatically told me that I was “healed from that dead father and childhood shit.” And so I was. She said what I needed was some direction. In my ten minute ramble of the session, I’d apparently spoken of all my schooling endeavors and she was convinced my childhood healing was due to the consistency school played in my life and I needed that now, maybe more than ever. But, I was graduating in a few days. Peg didn’t care. I wasn’t ready for math grad school just yet. Peg didn’t give a shit. “I don’t care what you enroll in, but you’re enrolling. That’s your homework. Come back next session with good news.” So, I did.
Since Peg didn’t care what I took and a woman at work was in what seemed like a pretty easy degree, I applied for a Masters in Higher Education. I enrolled for the next semester. I proudly went back to Peg with my completed homework assignment. Maybe she was proud. If she was, she surely didn’t show that card. She said, “good” and moved right along. She gave homework assignments at the end of every session. I did them all without question. And she never acknowledged that work. It made me work harder at my assignments.
I think it was the seventh session. She said, “now what are you going to do?” I didn’t know to what she referred. “You can’t afford me.” I stared blankly. That insurance I was using only paid for eight sessions. We talked, I guess. I’m not sure what about. I remember not having any idea how to answer her question.
My eighth and final session was cancelled at the last minute because something had come up with her kids. I never rescheduled. At first, I felt abandoned. Then I realized I felt lost. And, then, I remembered our first session. School. School would be my answer.
I have been enrolled in graduate school each and every semester since fall 2007. While it has caused numerous problems on its own, it’s been structure for me through all the other shit. It saw me through the loss of my therapist and all the things I had at that time. It gave me purpose when I got cheated on the first time and when a guy didn’t actually call me the next day and it was something to wake up for with every heart-break in-between. It was always there for me when some awkward conversation came up about what I was doing/did/was going to do whether that was some relative I never really talk to or some stranger at the bar. It gave me consistent chunks of time of my life to manage. Disaster could strike, but it would still be there. It could be a hard, seemingly malicious, relationship at times but I knew how to deal with it. I’d press on through every external event, just like Peg said, with a structure that had been with me my entire life. My entire life. (Save for that one semester I tried to take a break when my dad died and all I really had was a killer tan and a huge dent in my reading list.)
But, just last week, I officially quit grad school. There’s no semester to even finish. No last assignments. It’s done. I typed the words out of the very fingers that type this on my phone right now. There was no arguing. There was no pleading. Just a few short hours later, my decision was “respected.” And that was that. (Well, it is another blog post for another day.)
And here I am. I’m leaving my volunteer time with the National Park Service. More specifically, I’m leaving this new position I think I really like dealing with federal compliance and I’m leaving Death Valley. Sure, I’m going to a place that allows me to breathe through both my nostrils simultaneously (a distant memory only revitalized on weekends I leave the desert), but it’s a loss nonetheless.
And, it’s my first loss without my safety net. Come March 23ish, I’ll have said goodbye to every piece of structure I’ve had – some for a decade and some for just a few short months. I want to say I wish Peg were here. But, I think she is. Or at least the heart of her strategy. It’s not lost on me that she also gave me structure through my weekly assignments. And more so, it’s not lost on me that her intentional lack of praise to those assignments was exactly how life deals its cards.
Only this time, I guess its up to me to make my assignments.