Slaying A Dragon

Yesterday was a very significant day for me – one I had worked towards since April last year: I told my mother that my boyfriend and I wanted to get married. This was problematic in several respects, not only because of the generally difficult communicative patterns in my family, but also because my mother is decidedly against marriage (never mind the fact she’s been married to my father for over 30 years). At her most irrational, she claimed she’d “outlaw” it if she ruled the country. My sister’s failed marriage didn’t do much for swaying her in a more favourable direction either.
In most families, the news that their daughter wanted to get married would be regarded as happy news, but I wasn’t so sure about that and thus the topic had been fraught with a lot of anxiety. The range of possible reactions just was too broad to predict a likely outcome.

To make you understand the scope of this, I’ll have to go way back to spring 2011. My boyfriend and therapist actually met ever so briefly once – hardly more than a greeting and shaking hands – at the visitor lounge at the psychiatric hospital, so my therapist was able to put a face with the name. After my boyfriend had to leave Germany at the end of March because his tourist visa expired, my therapist had assumed a quasi-parental role and questioned me on our relationship in the first therapy session after the separation.
I summed it all up in an email to my boyfriend the next day:

Each of our sessions start with him asking me about my depression index – whether it went up or down, and what I did to get there. The philosophy in CBASP, my treatment programme, is that your mood always is a result of things you do or don’t do (when usually, one tends to assume it the other way around).

I told him that you had to leave again and that my points probably would be lower if not for that. And he said with a major change like this, we must have done a lot of things right or else I would probably have bounced back quite a bit, to 20 or possibly even higher.
So I related to him everything that went down since my last session – how we had looked into ways to get an extended or permanent visa, how we found out that you had to leave again and still tried to make the best out of the last week. I told him about the trips we made […] and he asked what the goodbye was like, whether we cried – whether we *could* cry, because the inability to cry signals deeper depression than bursting into tears. If you cannot cry even though you feel like it, it means your access to your emotions is disrupted: crying always is a good sign in their books.
He went off on a little tangent here, explaining the differences between “primary emotions” like happiness, sadness, fear, anger etc. and so-called “social emotions” to me: the former are understood by all humans in the world and elicit the same reaction, and they are also “contagious” to the people around us. Every time we display one of those, we radiate it off to other people, too. That is why being around happy people can make you feel happier and why sometimes one person can get a whole group down. “Social emotions” are defined by culture. He gave me an extreme example: a member of a cannibalistic tribe will have no problem eating human flesh, while we would have to torture ourselves into it and endure very strong feelings for doing so.

My therapist proceeded to ask about our contact and very much approved of daily Skype sessions, then went on another tangent by telling me that he had a short relationship with an American girl from New York City when he was a student and that the costs for phone calls almost ruined him back then. He even did an internship in New York City and got an unlimited visa for the States then (that was during the early Clinton administration – wouldn’t happen anymore today, and his is not valid anymore because he left the States again). That’s also part of the CBASP programme, that you get to know your therapist on a personal level, because it helps you discriminate between different people’s reactions instead of just assuming that everyone will reject you.

Finally, he asked what we had planned for the future and I told him that you wanted to come back and that there were basically only two ways for you to stay here other than a tourist: either by job offer or by marrying me. He asked a lot of question about you to get a better picture, and I told him that you had worked as a historian and then, recently, for [international company]. He said you must have incredible skills to handle the [international company] job and was very impressed. He wanted to know what social climate prevailed in [my boyfriend’s current location] and when I said “Bible belt” and that originally you came from [city in New England], via [different state], he said he couldn’t blame you for having difficulties. He is very familiar with [city in New England] and called it “my city” – I think he has been there quite a few times on business trips and for workshops, and also said that it was rather European compared to other places in the States he has been to.

Eventually, my therapist came to the conclusion that I already communicated to you yesterday. He thinks that we have a very healthy relationship and that in his opinion, the key for lasting relationships lies in how well you get along in everyday life, and how well you support each other there. Everything else is secondary – no matter how good you are as a couple on holidays, for example, if everyday life together does not work, there’s nothing you can do.

That is only a rough overview; strewn in between were always small “lessons” for me. For example, when I said that our goodbye at the airport was very teary, he asked if I could have cried in front of my mother, too, and I said I wouldn’t. I’d try to hold it back there with all my might.
Or we compared and contrasted our situation with a hypothetical situation where we would not have sorted out all the legal stuff and lived in uncertainty.
In his opinion, we made the absolute best out of what we were dealt.

Anyway… just so you know what we were talking about yesterday. I personally feel very glad we spoke about all this in therapy, because it helps me process, and I am also glad that we had a whole session just for “understanding” what has happened here.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the first email I sent my boyfriend directly after the session, so I might have forgotten details. I do remember that we focused on behaviour a lot and also that my therapist asked about my boyfriend’s language skills, job perspectives, health management  etc. And I do remember that he advised me to not suppress or try to conquer emotions, and to cry when I feel like it, for example, because “trying to be strong” and suppressing costs too many resources and too much energy. In the end, he came to the conclusion that there were “no pathological structures” in our relationship, with an emphasis on the fact that he’d tell me if he detected anything like that.
Over the following weeks, we roleplayed me telling my parents about it, and he assigned me the task of making a list with reasons why I’d want to marry my boyfriend – because I’d been dumbstruck in the session when he’d ask me that question. “Because I love him” wasn’t enough of an answer, and so I started writing down arguments and categorized them into topics: “Because he respects me as a person: my sexual orientation; my feelings, opinions, ideas and wishes; my personal belongings; my privacy.” [On physical appearance:] “He likes me the way I am and doesn’t expect me to conform to some ideal standard.” [On depression:] “He can handle my depression and endure it, even if I’m feeling significantly better or worse than he does.” I had close to 50 reasons when I stopped.

Another email I sent my boyfriend, about two months after the one mentioned above. In the session, we’d talked about some unexpected news my boyfriend had received and how they’d influenced me:

We had some administrative stuff to sort out then, but at the very end – I was already half out of the door – he asked: “Can I say something about you and [your boyfriend]?” I stepped inside the office again, closing the door once more: “Of course you can!” Inside, I must confess, I got a little nervous at that moment, wondering what he possibly might want to say.
“I don’t know [your boyfriend] personally, even though he has been very ‘alive’ in our sessions through the way you spoke about him. I mean, I have seen him, but I don’t know him from personal contact. Still… I just wanted you to know how very deeply I am touched by the relationship between you and [boyfriend]. In my profession, I see so many relationships every day, but…” – he shook his head here – “…what you two have… this is what is important in life.” At this point I was just stammering ‘thank you’ and how much this meant to me, taken completely by surprise and once again speechless, so that I repeated the same two phrases at least three times. We said goodbye again, and just before I opened the door once more, “I believe [your boyfriend] is a really good person. I don’t know him personally, but I have a feeling that this is the right stuff.” And he smiled.

I remember leaving the therapy session that day, feeling like I was walking on clouds. I was just utterly touched by what he’d said, and the fact he did say it at all. In CBASP, one of the therapist’s roles is to heal emotional-behavioural damage in the patient through making them experience healthy behaviour in sensitive situations, and that was one the most important moments I had together with him. I knew I could completely trust every word he’d uttered to be sincere, that he had no reasons for bullshitting me, and this kind of openness was one of the great “healing moments of my therapy.” There was a lot more going on at that moment than is visible on the surface – every person in love likes hearing nice things about their relationship and partner, but apart from the content of the sentence, I felt being taken seriously and listened to. I felt I and my future happiness were important enough to someone that he’d trouble himself with examining it closely.

With so much support in my back, it should have been easy to just tell my parents – after all, I was in the unique position of being able to cite a mental health professional’s opinion. Nobody could accuse me of being deluded by my own romantic feelings. However, it wasn’t easy for me at all. I made a couple of attempts, but at the last moment, the words just got stuck in my throat.
There was one notable Sunday which I’d looked out as the date when I’d tell them: I’d be alone with my parents in the afternoon, with plenty of time for talking. I bought a cake for us and wanted to create a pleasant atmosphere. Everyone was ready when I noticed I’d forgotten something and ran out of the room, returning literally a minute later, but those 60 seconds had been long enough for my parents to get into a petty argument over something really insignificant. Frustrated, I ate my slice of cake in silence and retreated without bringing up the subject.
Weeks went by, turning into months. Stuck with waiting for some important document on my boyfriend’s end, there was no imminent pressure to come out with the truth – it was something present in the background, but I didn’t feel any need to act immediately, and thus the anxiety prevented my saying anything at all. Only when said document was suddenly approved and I received an express-delivery of my boyfriend’s paperwork, I knew I had to get moving – yet it took almost another four weeks and the flight to Germany getting booked until I could finally realize it. Fortunately, my boyfriend was cognizant and understanding of my difficulties and didn’t push me; he appeared more confident than I ever felt that eventually, I’d manage.

It happened on the way home from a farm shop where we buy most of our vegetables. My mother doesn’t have a driving licence, so I chauffeur her there, and it looked like a good opportunity: we were not going to be disturbed in the car and, in order to ensure the security of all passengers, my mother couldn’t have a complete melt-down there. Still, my stomach slowly twisted into a tight knot and nausea started to rise up. I was only a heartbeat away from breaking into a cold sweat, and there was this imaginary voice screaming in my head: “Stop as long as you still have a chance to do so! Just don’t say anything! Abort mission!”
We were literally two minutes from home only when I swallowed all of the silent terror, took a deep breath and said: “Mum, I need to tell you something… [Boyfriend] and I want to get married.” The rest is only a haze and I do not remember it very well – as I wrote in previous posts, stress and anxiety tend to wipe the memory out. I do recall that my mother said something like, “I thought so, I was kinda expecting that.” And, “You two need to know what you want.” Which I answered with a simple but convinced, “We do.” She asked a few practical questions about finances, health insurance; she was rather anxious about us wanting a huge celebration (which, considering the facts that we’ll get married on short notice whenever the paperwork goes through and that our finances are limited, is not the case at all). What I remember very clearly is that I parked the car in front of our house and that the last thing she said before getting out of the car was: “After that I need a cup of coffee now.” And I replied, with full emphasis: “Me too!”

After I was back at my own place, I updated my boyfriend, therapist and some friends via email. I have to credit one of my friends especially: we had been emailing back and forth this past week and also that morning, talking about my problems opening up to my mother among other things, and she had reasoned with me that the situation couldn’t really get any worse than what I was already experiencing. And she was right.
The huge wave of relief one might expect did not come, at least not so far. Maybe it will take a little longer until I really feel it, maybe that’s not going to happen. That was a huge dragon to slay and a lot of personal angst I had to confront – really one of the most difficult things I did in my life. Intellectually, I’m just glad to be done with it finally, the emotional reaction might or might not come still. Right after talking to my mother, I was in some turmoil as a direct result of the stress: shaking knees, slightly trembling hands and a little agitation, but none of it too violent.

When I turned 30, I looked at the decade behind me which supposedly defines what kind of person you are, and all I saw were missed opportunities, failures and loneliness. Years lost to depression. I don’t want to do the same when I turn 40, and so I try to push myself – no matter whether it takes 2, 20, or 200 attempts to realize my goal. The only way I can ensure a better future is to change something in the present…

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4 thoughts on “Slaying A Dragon

  1. “The philosophy in CBASP … your mood always is a result of things you do or don’t do (when usually, one tends to assume it the other way around)”

    That is an interesting concept, because I always feel like it is “the other way around”. It always seems like I have little control of my moods. Maybe this is a major difference between clincial depression and bipolar-induced depression.

    1. I don’t know enough about bipolar depression to make any educated guesses, but I’ve been taught that with major depression, you must “fake it until you make it.” For example, before therapy I would assume that I’m feeling well enough and thus get out of bed, or that I’m in a good mood and thus decide to go out for watching a movie at the cinema. Moods appear to control actions. But actually, it’s just the other way around: I get out of bed, and that makes me feel a little bit better. I go out, and as a result my mood elevates. My actions have a direct influence on my moods.
      There’s a certain degree of just “forcing” yourself, of making yourself do things, when it comes to controlling major depression. Getting up in the morning even if you don’t feel like it, taking a shower even though it seems exhausting, eating regular meals despite a lack of appetite, …. The spark that ignites the depressive feelings might be out of your control, but you can at least control whether it gets you down even further or not.

      To be honest, this isn’t always the easiest approach. When you are in a funk to begin with, there might be moments when you are like, “Screw this, I don’t *want* to do that right now!” But, at least from my experience, it does help if you try.

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