I have been working with my therapist for 10 years.
For 10 years, I have sought solace in Billie’s office once weekly, shielded from the daunting outside world for a blissful 60 minutes. I arrive prepared, poised to unshackle the skeletons buried in my closet and come eye to eye with the ghosts of my past once more. Shifting, the cushy seat sinks under my weight – I am restless as always. I glance down, notice a hangnail, and pull. There is pain – ouch – a prick of crimson blood appears.
“Shall we get started?” Billie asks, thumbing through a thick folder of our work to date. She is never one to waste time.
For 10 years, I have reached to the right of the beige sofa, fumbling for a small bowl of knick-knacks Billie keeps tableside in my honor. I have never been one for idle hands. There it is, my favorite. Removing the small stone from the bowl, I caress its perfectly smooth sides, instantly soothed by the familiar coolness. Years ago, Billie had returned home from a trip to France and offered me the pebble as a token of positive energy during a particularly challenging session. Touched by the gesture, I have since kept the stone near – I will take all the good luck I can get.
For 10 years, I have driven several towns over to meet with my devoted therapist, basking in the warm glow of a tangerine sunset. I drive fast as nostalgic music blares and wind from the perpetually cracked car window sends my tresses of thick, dark hair flying. Struggles of the past week lie heavily on my chest, piling up, restricting precious air that is necessary to breathe. I am anxious, which is nothing new, and struck by a familiar queasy sensation. I have come to know this feeling well: anticipation of the hour to come, when I must finally confess to my often-shameful misdoings. Idling on this thought a beat too long, the knot in my chest grows tighter, tighter still. I step on the gas. If I do not arrive soon, I think I will die.
For 10 years, after each session, I have traveled the same winding roads home, now darkened and somber. I drive into the abyss. Reflecting upon painful truths uncovered in the past hour, I begin to compartmentalize once again and place the inflamed memories gently into a pocket-sized mental box, just as Billie had taught me to do. I seal the lid now, storing our sensitive work away until next time. I have contemplated whether it is appropriate to laugh or cry in these moments, knowing that while I may be a step closer to internal freedom one day, for now, I am raw to the core. Apparently, my body has decided on a combination of both as tears spring to my eyes, followed by short bursts of laughter. Because of Billie, her compassion and candor, I will make it through to see another day.
Taking a deep breath, I clutch my little stone harder, venturing to summon consciousness back to the room. Two feet flat on the floor, back straight. What do you smell? Hints of spicy orange, an essential oil Billie often uses. What do you feel? The pillow in my hand’s fluffy outer layer, soft, warming. Hear? Muffled whirs of white noise, a comforting reminder of our confidentiality. Taste? Traces of a black cherry cough drop I had been sucking on before entering the room. For this hour, and this hour alone, I am determined to exist within these four walls.
Stone in hand: I am here. I am safe. “Ready,” I finally reply.
Although 10 long years have passed, it may as well have been yesterday that my journey began. Yet, when I look in the mirror, there is someone different staring back at me now. She is older, yes; wiser even, maybe. But still, there is a sadness to her, an unmistakable void. The mirror mocks me, asks, “Why are you still here? Why do you deserve to be on this earth, when so many others are not?” I have no answers, turn away. Although I have pondered this very thought a hundred times, lost countless nights of sleep to it, tossing, turning, I remain perplexed. Despite everything, here I stand all these years later, a soldier still fighting a war with myself.
* * *
Billie enters my life when I am 14 years old. At this tender age, I am already lifeless, grossly overmedicated, and barely able to communicate. Personal hygiene is long gone, after I begin to fall asleep brushing my teeth or slump to the ground of the shower in an exhausted stupor. I watch this lethargic, decrepit body as if from above, the girl’s feet shuffling slowly, slowly through a pair of dingy doors in a group home, pointed in the direction of a nearby sofa. There are other people in the scene, my mother and father, people speaking pointedly in hushed murmurs.
The sense of viewing myself from above continues. A voice hisses, “You’re already dead, see? Look at that disgusting creature, you’re a waste, a monster.” I wince. Prisoner to a defunct brain, I long to crack this head of mine wide open, to pluck the demons out one by one, to finally reclaim the ravaged mind I once called mine. A room is assigned, and a top bunk given to me. Now it is time to say goodbye. There are tears in my parents’ eyes as they tell me once more, “You cannot come home right now; it is not safe. You need help, Annie.” Suddenly I am aware, cognizant for the first time of what is happening, and I am a wild animal, thrashing, trapped. Take me home, I want to go home.
Days later, a small woman beckons me into her office. Her hair is a frizzy mop of curls, not unlike my own when I was young. She gently tells me her name is Billie, that we will be working together during my time here. I am tired, so tired, but she is nice and in here I am safe. I sit for a while, silent, and Billie does not push, but sits quietly too. Finally, a voice speaks, slow, barely loud enough to be heard, and I am surprised to find it is my own, pleading, and unfamiliar.
“I want to go home.”
Billie sighs deeply, and I register genuine sadness in her eyes as she responds, “I know, sweetheart, I know.”
My time spent in the group home is nightmarish, lonely. The few moments of light to shine through exist only within Billie’s office, where I am comforted by the love only a dog can give. Billie has a new puppy, Maggie, and the little King Charles’ snores have come to be a calming lullaby to our sessions, muffled and rhythmic, constant, unchanging. Time after time I sink into Billie’s familiar couch, still comatose from all the medication, but finding temporary solace in stroking Maggie’s long, silky fur. As I pet Maggie, I am often reminded of my own animals back home, and quickly notice hot tears begin to accumulate, threatening to spill over with one false move. Don’t think about it, don’t think about it. I fight to stay awake, speak until the words will not come anymore, the three of us together twice a week before I must leave, return to the hellish outside I came from, and fight to survive another day.
* * *
Sitting with Billie today, I am 24 years old, resting on the same couch, but in a different scene. Her latest office is in a small building, almost cottage-like, vastly different from the ratty group home where we first met. Today, we are taking time to honor my first successful experience with community college. I have acquired 30 credits and, for the first time, though it was my third attempt, I have made it through a full year of classes. This would be a minor accomplishment for many, but for me, these were 30 credits of blood, sweat, and tears. They were 30 more credits than I had when I began my college journey, and 30 credits more than I had ever thought possible. They could also very likely be the last 30 credits I ever attain, as having finally danced with higher education, I ultimately decided it was not for me. But that is OK: completed on a timeline entirely of my own and seen all the way through, victory was in the journey: a beginning, middle, and end. I will guard these 30 credits with my life.
When I am sitting in this office, I am still 13 years old and bitter anger saturates every inch of my body. When I am sitting in this office, I am 14 years old, walking through group-home doors again for the first time. Here in this office, I am 15 years old, hopeless and high, and I am 16 years old, nearly a high-school dropout. At 17, the closure of life as a child draws near, and at 18, I am new again, reborn. Nineteen through 22 whacks me from a fragile equilibrium, knocks the wind from my chest with the magnitude of a hurricane, forceful and violent. I am sinking deeper into quicksand by the second, unable to gain any stable footing in the “real world.” I am 23, sobbing on Billie’s couch, gasping that I cannot do it anymore, that I do not want to. I am 24, celebrating my first successful year of college.
I am all of these people and I am none of these people.
Most importantly, I am seven years old, innocent, and bursting with life. Carelessly, I bound across the fluffy, green grass and jump into the arms of my cherished grandfather. I am alive and free. Suddenly, the world goes black. There is no longer joy, but only fear and guilt, the sudden understanding that my existence as I know it is one of sin. What else is a child supposed to believe, when someone in a position of power— a well-regarded nun, who also happens to be your second-grade teacher— tells you just this? Now enlightened about my damnable soul and where, one day, it will eternally rest, everything has changed. A servant of God herself has personally delivered the message — I will burn in hell.
Billie is what connects me to my past, proof of a lifetime I cannot erase.
She watches me evolve before her eyes in 10 years’ time, sometimes pausing to take it all in. “Look at what you’re doing, Annie. Living a life of independence, setting goals, achieving them… who would have ever thought?”
I squirm, uncomfortable with the compliment, as always. “Fraud!” my 16-year-old self snarls from the shadows. “Don’t believe that praise! You are nothing. Rotten, a waste of space.” As abruptly as she appeared, the 16-year-old slinks backward into the dark of my subconscious. I twitch.
“Come back to the room, Annie,” Billie says, recognizing a familiar look of vacancy in my eyes. “You are right here, safe on this couch.”
Again, I have a visitor: a young child knocks at my chest, shaking and scared. I clutch the stone Billie once gifted me a little tighter and breathe slowly, outward. Four… three… two…one… “It is OK, little girl,” Billie says. “You are safe now.”
It is delicate work Billie must balance to navigate my meddlesome “parts of self,” who extend their tentacles into all aspects of my life, our time spent in sessions together being no exception. Their arrivals are overwhelming, instantly transporting me back to years past, events so emotionally charged my numbed body cannot compute. I am no longer driving this car. Outside Billie’s office walls, when I dissociate, I feel powerless to my frenzied nervous system, in what she refers to as fight-or-flight taking over. But in here, I do not have to battle alone. In here I am safe, alongside a therapist who has also become an old friend in many ways, woven into the intricate seams of my life in a way no other human will ever recreate. And for over a decade now, Maggie’s melodic snores have served as the soundtrack to our session, her comforting little body still beside me all these years later.
Regardless of any progress I have managed to make in my life thus far, maintaining employment remains almost impossible. Unfortunately, bills do not stop and so I continue to attempt and immerse myself in honest, hard work. Before stepping out the door each day, I prepare for war. A shield of psychic armor weighs heavily on my chest, acting as a powerful barrier between delicate flesh and harsh surroundings. In this armor I am impenetrable, I cannot be hurt.
Maintaining work with mental illness continues to prove tricky. One moment, I am euphoric, overwhelmed with gratitude to be professionally valued, and still amazed to not only have a bank account with my name on it, but also to be equipped with money I have earned on my own. To be a useful member of society is not something I take for granted; I will never let this feeling go. The next minute, I am huddled in a corner during a shift, desperate for air and fighting to regain my composure, to somehow make it through the rest of the day. I hear a familiar voice, reminding me to be gentle to the little girl, to breathe. “You are not trapped, Annie,” Billie reminds me, “you have survived far more than this.” She is right. I will hold my head up high, rise tomorrow, and try again.
* * *
When I leave our last session together, I take an extra minute to gently stroke Maggie’s still silky coat, wholly absorbing the comfort of her presence. She has been in a weakened condition for some time, and for some reason, I have a feeling this is goodbye. She nuzzles her little head into me, tail wagging, the same as the first day we met. “Goodbye, Maggie,” I say, “I’ll see you soon,” and leave.
At our next appointment, Maggie’s absence is deafening the second I enter the room. A knot has formed thick in the back of my throat, and I am finally able to choke out, “Did she leave us?” already sure of the answer.
“She did, Annie,” Billie responds.
For the first time in our work together, tears gather in her eyes, a response only Maggie could elicit from Billie during a session. This is the marker I have dreaded for so long, the passing of Maggie, of time and history. It is finally upon us.
Suddenly I am back at the group home. Empty, broken, I sit on the couch in a little green office, meeting the house’s psychologist— Billie—for the first time. Billie tells me she has just gotten a puppy, Maggie, who will be accompanying her to our sessions. The little dog immediately darts over to me, hops on the couch and into my lap. I am startled at first by the animal’s instant, affectionate acceptance of me, the way she curls herself into the crevice of my arm and begins to sleep. The psychologist’s voice is a distant whir in the background as I observe Maggie’s little snores, for the first time in years remembering what it feels like to be loved, wholly, in all of your faults. A tear rolls down my cheek, and then another one.
Thank you, Maggie. You showed me I am still here.
* * *
It is a crisp autumn day in the city in mid-October. There is a slight breeze in the air, and I stroll through a park, mittened hands cupped tightly around a steaming cup of coffee. The trees are ablaze with color, bursting with vibrant leaves, deep shades of red and orange. Every so often a stray leaf is carried in a puff of wind, floating weightlessly down, down… I stop to rest on a nearby bench and pull my knitted scarf close. Life is happening all around me but here I sit at peace, enjoying my autumn place. There is a sound and to the right, a little girl, legs swinging freely from the park bench, sits down. She is quiet and holds a book in her hands, turning to me and revealing a head of curly brown hair, her eyes a deep, deep chocolate brown, brimming with innocence. The child appears familiar, almost like someone I used to know. Someone I still am.
It is OK, little girl. It was not your fault, I think.
She glances upward, reaching for a loose yellow leaf cascading through the air. The little girl speaks softly, tells me she is scared, tells me not to leave her. Gently, I take her hand and we sit, quietly gazing off at the city skyline in the distance. “Don’t be scared, little girl,” I say, “we will try again tomorrow.”
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.