The Power In Owning Your Pain
The day that I met my new patient, Stella, will be etched in my memory forever. Stella was 15 at the time that I met her. She had lost her mother very suddenly and unexpectedly. To make matters worse, it also appeared that the day her mother left this earth, her father, too, had left, not physically, but emotionally. All that was left of her father in the aftermath of her mother’s death was a bitter, angry man, feeling overwhelmed and slighted over having to raise his daughter on his own. He did not want much to do with her treatment and eventually stopped taking her altogether, causing her to have to find alternative ways to get to my office. Stella was left to try to make sense over the loss of her mother and the drastic change in her father, all while trying to navigate high school. She lacked support, she lacked healthy friendships, she lacked adults in her life that she could trust.
Her first few months of treatment were turbulent as we were trying to get to know each other. She would self-medicate with marijuana, stay out of her home as much as possible, and found herself attracted to friends and romantic partners that were very toxic. Her grades were slipping, her motivation was dwindling, and she began to feel like she was drowning in her feelings of abandonment and grief.
It still breaks my heart to think back to the day I received a phone call from her father, telling me that Stella had tried to commit suicide and was in the hospital. It would be a few months before I would meet with Stella for outpatient therapy again, as she had spent time receiving treatment in a higher level of care. Needless to say I was thrilled when she came back into my office, looking healthier and in less agony. Stella was determined to keep showing up for therapy to continue to feel better and reclaim a life full of happiness, despite how much pain she was in.
This girl, this woman, this brave warrior fought like hell over the next few years in high school. She ultimately parted ways with her toxic friend group, ditched her emotionally abusive boyfriend, and started to surround herself with friends who lifted her up, made her feel loved, and gave her some of what was missing from her home life. Stella began turning to trusted adults in school, allowing them to help her bring her grades up so she could graduate. Not to mention, she worked as many as 25-30 hours a week on top of everything else she had going on. There were setbacks, absolutely, especially when COVID-19 took out her ability to go to the prom and walk in graduation, forcing her to stay home with a father who only continued to trigger her depression and anxiety. But Stella pushed through. She found outlets in art, in poetry, in fighting for minority groups. She found her voice and used it to help others, and allowed herself to receive love and care in return.
During our therapy sessions, she began to really let herself feel the loss in her life and find meaning in it. She realized that she needed to grieve not just for the loss of her mother, but also for the loss of her father, and the loss of her childhood, which was swept out from under her the moment her mother passed away. After spending so much time trying to avoid her pain by diving into toxic relationships and self-medicating, Stella finally began to own her pain.
This year, not only did she graduate, but she won multiple scholarships for her continuing education, where she will undoubtedly go on to change the world.
Stella is the perfect example of what can happen when we own our pain instead of running from it. Her new-found appreciation of life was born out of her ability to acknowledge her loss and let herself feel the grief. This will never bring her mother back; and she may never have a close relationship with her father. But she has chosen to move forward with her life and create space for hope, happiness, and love. I will always feel proud and inspired by watching her grow into an adult and choose a life full of meaning in which she is always giving back to others. The life she lives today is an incredible representation of what lies on the other side of owning your pain.
Long Lasting Connections
“If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart, I’ll stay there forever.” – Winnie the Pooh
When COVID-19 struck, I could barely wrap my brain around what was happening in the world before nearly everyone was self-quarantining in their homes with no ending in sight.
Some of the clients I work with chose to wait a few weeks before transitioning to telehealth in the hopes that the pandemic would blow over within a week or two. Other clients refused to do telehealth sessions altogether, either because they are teenagers who do not have privacy in their own homes, or because they do not have the technology at home to support telehealth. Either way, I never really got to have a proper “goodbye/see you soon” with them or a chance to process all the changes that would be happening.
It has been months since I have seen some of my clients who chose not to do virtual counseling at all. I remember the last time I sat with some of these people, I was shivering beneath a blanket in my office chair because it was early March and it was rainy and cold. Since then, winter has turned to spring, and now spring is preparing to turn to summer, and I still have not seen some of my clients.
Last night, I was feeling heartbroken over everything going on in the world. I miss my clients, even the ones I still see virtually because sometimes online therapy just doesn’t cut it. I miss being able to leave the house without wearing a mask. I miss not having to live in fear of a deadly virus. In the middle of ruminating, my phone buzzed. I looked down to see a text from one of my adolescent clients whom I have not seen since early March.
It was a photo of a puppy he had just rescued. Of all the people I’m sure he sent pictures to, this teenager wanted to send a picture to me, his therapist, who he had not seen in months.
It’s not just the photo itself that helped me shift out of my grief and sadness, although, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing I enjoy more than puppies! It was the realization that, just because you do not see somebody for a while, does not mean the connection disappears.
Personally, I have a hard time with this concept. I think most of us with histories of abuse and/or abandonment have a difficult time realizing this. We tend to feel lonely when physically alone. We forget that connections survive even without being in regular contact.
This client and I shared a few exchanges back and forth about the puppy, and I was so happy for him. My mood shifted instantly. I remembered the connection that I have with this person and how much I care for him and how happy I am that he is moving forward with his life. He has come so far thanks to all of the hard work he has done with me in therapy.
In the midst of a quarantine, it is easy for us to feel disconnected from the world. This is why is it so important to tell ourselves time and time again that just because we cannot physically see someone, whether it be a friend, a client, or a family member, does not mean that the relationship does not exist. These people carry us with them as they go about their days, and it is important that we do the same.
I am combatting the feelings of isolation and loneliness by holding onto moments like the one with my client, knowing that my clients bring me with them throughout their lives, and I bring them with me as well. I work hard every day to remind myself of my connections with the people I have helped, the people who have helped me, the family and friends that I cannot see right now, and my own therapist. Being physically isolated does not mean our supports have vanished, and I am grateful for a simple puppy photo to spark this realization in me.
What moments or memories will help you to hold on to your connections right now?