So I recently got this new therapist, my first since the last ineffectual therapist who guided me through my developing panic disorder by casually suggesting I try things like “breathing.”
Ladies and gentleman, therapists are not like spouses. They are like Christmas trees; shop around until you find the right one for you. Then keep it around until the life has been dried out of it.
In between these two therapists, I’ve spent most of my time groping around in the dark. Millions of half-assed attempts were undertaken to try and address this gaping mouth of an issue as it slowly closed its jaws. I was successful in that I managed to keep panic disorder from creating avoidance habits, like not going out of my house ever. By the time I came to visit my current therapist, I’d mostly learned to live alongside my anxiety and see it for the weeny kid it is. I was a complete failure in that I took myself to the emergency room this past Summer and once walked away from my wife into the cold, Northern New Mexican mountains during a storm, proclaiming through shivering teeth that I was going to walk until I found a road and would never, ever go back in that water.
New therapist is my ideal Christmas tree. He is of the behavioral variety, interested in the “Fourth Wave”, which includes Acceptance Commitment Therapy. We do mindfulness exercises together and work on accepting the presence of anxiety in my life. The meditation is particularly painful. Inevitably my mind focuses on my beating heart. I gently try and bring it back to the meditation’s subject, and then my heart amplifies, like a baby screaming louder the longer you ignore it.
It does, however, work, in the sense that it disrupts my anxiety reflex.
Here is an exercise we did today that I found particularly cathartic (they don’t have to be cathartic and oftentimes aren’t)…
I am sitting next to a stream. In the Fall. The light beneath the trees is warm, orange and yellow. I feel the ground beneath me. Grit and sand, a little damp. Leaves cover the stream bank.
A light wind passes across the water. Stirring the leaves. I inhale the air. Decomposition, that loamy scent of rotting humus. Then the clean smell of cold running water.
I hear the clinking stream. Gentle tapping of glass, ambient confusion, layers of echoes. Small changes in air pressure flip over my eardrums.
Leaves are following the water downstream. They pass beside me, dip, and rush away. My therapist tells me to imagine placing each thought on the leaf as it comes up. See the thought, place it on the leaf, and see it off.
I try thoughts, then imagine placing my body on the leaves in pieces. I start with the parts I rarely think about, essential as they may be. My spleen, my kidneys, and my liver all flow away on leaves. I feel lighter. I take each foot and place it on a broad Sycamore leaf. Then my shins and knees and thighs. I hardly miss them. I peal my skin off in a single piece, wad it up, and put it on a leaf. The wind is cooler now. I am surprised by how little I need.
My stomach now, and bladder. Intestines. Hunger no more. I pull my hair off in one tuft; I was going to lose it anyway. My thoughts are open now. My ears. The face goes in waves, each on the leaf of a hickory branch. Teeth on the floor of the stream, like pebbles slowly rolling away.
I leave my hands last, so I can take care of the essentials. My eyes, my brain, the little scraps I’ve forgotten. My heart. I’ve saved it. I am both eager to rid myself of it and scared to lose it. Perhaps I feel a little tender to it. I take it from my chest. It palpates in my hands. I feel pity for it, this small, struggling muscle, but it looks nice in the Autumn light. I wait a moment for a leaf. One approaches, rising and falling. It drifts to the bank, circles in an eddie, and I place my heart on it. It passes on. I sit on the bank without shape, without a body. I consider thoughts then, and they pass away on leaves as well. Bodies are just things after all. Not so hard to lose. No need to be afraid of them. Failure is, in a different perspective, the passing of a stream. Why fight a current?
My therapist asks me to breathe two more times and open my eyes. I draw a deep breath, feeling my thin, temporal lungs. Let it out slowly. Breathe again. And open my eyes.