Ugh, Feelings

I’ve always loved that scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon walks into a therapy session with Robin Williams, claps his hands, and sarcastically exclaims, “Let the healing begin!”

That cinematic moment exemplifies my ongoing approach to therapy in general, except that I say it with sincerity. I always start going again for a reason (I can’t count how many times I’ve started and stopped therapy). Maybe I was lost in a haze of raging insomnia, focusing my anxiety on a tender, stinging molar, or haunted by the mental imagery of prior trauma. I always want to start fresh, because therapy never worked for me before. This time will be different; I can be perfect from now on.

Somewhere, outside of myself, there is an easy solution. There is someone out there waiting with the answers, ready and willing to save me.

The solution isn’t gin, or the army of tipsy, swoopy-haired men I counted on to be transformative. It’s not my husband, or daughter. Changing boroughs didn’t work, nor counties. I’m still looking for it: the 1-800 number on a late night informercial that offers salvation for 4 easy payments of $39.99 plus shipping, no CODs. I want the easy way out.

The routine I’ve repeated with more than a dozen therapists is always the same. At first, full tilt fervor. I walk in, say nice to meet you, take a seat on the brown pleather la-z-boy, and summarize my life story in 20 minutes, all gruesome details. I am thoughtful, unfazed. I interchangeably use SAT vocabulary and therapy-speak. I immediately want the therapist to know that I am amazing, and we are done here.

It doesn’t work.

Even if I could convince every therapist in the world to tell me I’m fine, I am not always fine. I can tell my story with vigor, all sweeping narrative and astute observation, but talking at someone who’s being paid by the hour doesn’t kill my ghosts. They’re waiting outside in the car, haunting the Honda, laughing at my refusal to be genuine.

I started therapy again when I was pregnant. My best friend, who’s spent the last decade delivering babies and nurturing new moms, told me it was important. Being pregnant and giving birth can be extra emotionally difficult for survivors of sexual trauma. (Something to do with abdicating control of your own body for a year, handing it over to a midget dictator who is not exactly sensitive to your whims and feelings).

I repeated my usual performance, nudging the therapist to say, “Why are you even here? You sound terrific.”

My next act, if I make it that far with a particular candidate, usually involves them asking me how I “feel” about certain events. This always stops me dead in my tracks. I hate this question.

The real answer is that I try not to, at all costs. What I do is think about my problems, not feel them. Thinking about them hurts less. I want to think my way into an easy solution, think myself into a place where the feelings fade into the atmosphere like hot breath in cold weather. I don’t want to pay someone to let me sit on their shit-colored couch for 45 minutes and then leave the office feeling like a gaping wound for the rest of the day, dysfunctional and dripping with blood.

That’s around the time I stop calling and booking appointments.

I stopped seeing the therapist I saw during my pregnancy because she, like all the others, didn’t understand me. Never mind that she didn’t understand me because I didn’t let her, a minor detail.

I’m seeing another new one now. A severe postpartum depression set me straight; I will take any measure possible to ensure that I am healthy enough to care for Lu. No amount of dignity is more important to me than being able to care for my daughter.

I’m trying to take it seriously, to let the healing begin, if you will. I want to learn how to feel stuff and not immediately try to arrest it, push it away, think over and through it.

Yesterday, while sitting on her brown couch (because what other color could it be), Lucy crawling around on the floor banging blocks together to make sound, I read her the narrative I wrote recently about my sexual assault (A+ student!). This is ripe stuff, the work of someone who is clearly dedicated to her emotional and spiritual journey, perhaps even someone who is really almost just fine. The paragraph that follows the description of events begins, “Being assaulted was not my fault.”

She looked at me for a minute. Finally, she said, “Ok, but that’s not really how you feel about it, is it?”

Shattered. That knocked the wind right out of me. She didn’t buy my textbook summary, my saying of the thing you’re supposed to say about this kind of thing.

She’s right. I don’t think it’s my fault, I feel it’s my fault. And thinking about it doesn’t change how it feels. It feels like shit. I spent the rest of the day mostly lying on Lucy’s floor, exhausted from feeling stuff, while my daughter amused herself with toys.

I made another appointment for next week, a scheduled sacrifice, 12:15pm Thursday my still-pumping ventricles will be ripped from my ribs and held up to the light.

What’s different this time? I’m more willing to do the work because there’s a new emotional frontier that I don’t want to be shielded from: the one that’s two feet tall and has the world’s most squeezable cheeks.

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I want to go all in. I want to be the best possible version of myself, emotionally whole, so that there’s more of me to experience her. I don’t want to run away. I want to finally learn how to coexist with the messy stuff I’ve spent decades trying to outsmart and outrun.

Maybe she’s saving me after all.

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An Earnest Celebration of the Mom Bod

It’s great that this “Dad Bod” thing has gone viral. My husband has a dad bod; he spends his free time with our daughter, not at the gym, and has the inner and outer core softness to prove it.

How amusing, though, that the most famous examples of this newly heralded physique, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jason Segel, are not actually dads? Their dad bods say, “the gym on this yacht doesn’t meet with my standards, so, more fancy burritos please.” They also both date notoriously tiny women.

In contrast to dad bod, the mom bod is not a celebrated viral phenomenon. Many celebrity mothers shy away from the spotlight postpartum (for many reasons, I’m sure- a spit-up drenched top probably doesn’t photograph well). They emerge back into the public sphere months after giving birth, perfectly svelte, all of their parts arranged back where they used to be, through a mix of gentle starvation and aggressive cardio.

Enough with this shit.

Where the dad bod says, “I’m 35 and still play a lot of video games,” the mom bod cries, “I gave birth to a human and haven’t slept in 6 months.” The mom bod is about praising what the female body can do.

A Brief History of My Body

I never quite fit into my body. I have a clunky, awkward spirit, one that never settled quite right into its soft but lanky musculature. I was bullied for years as a kid, mostly because of a wonky eye, high-water hand-me-down jeans, and two front teeth that stuck out at attention. The simplest survival tactic I found was to detach from my packaging.

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Since feelings mostly hurt, I tried not to feel at all. I ignored my body, and entertained my brain instead, usually by watching hours of TV. I wanted to exist in a world where Clarissa could explain it all directly to me, or I could morph into a silver puddle just like Alex Mack. It’d be a lot harder to pick on a puddle.

Some of my earliest experiences with men were psychically devastating. My first couple of boyfriends were loving and respectful, so I assumed other men would be, too. I learned the hard way, repeatedly, for more than a decade, that other people don’t always have your best interests in mind. The first time a man assaulted me I was drunk and sixteen. I learned that in addition to not liking my body, others were capable of abusing it, treating it like a trash can.

Unfortunately, my body came with my brain into my twenties, still feeling all wrong. I learned how to eat less, drink more, and smoke like a forest fire. I’d diet, get rail thin, and still not like myself. I’d wear strategic outfits, make my hair bigger to smooth out the proportions, have beer for dinner. I hated beauty standards, knew better than them, but couldn’t escape the easy path they offered as another way to despise my own skin. The way I saw it, my body was the source of my problems, and my brain was just along for the ride.

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Pregnancy changed me.

First it changed me in the way that I’d walk the dog around the neighborhood listening to Cat Power on repeat, sobbing hysterically at the thought of my poppyseed-sized baby, while pinching dog shit into a baggie. I knew I was pregnant before the tests even registered it, because I immediately went insane.

My first trimester I was nauseous and wobbly, commuting four hours a day, working ten, wanting nothing more than to lie down and be fed french fries. I felt relentlessly horrible.

The second trimester, however, was a revelation. A belly started to emerge, round and hard, and with purpose. I could imagine my girl in there, swimming like a tadpole, feeling for the warm landscape. By twenty weeks I could feel her fetal karate practice. I’d assign autonomy to her movements: a kick to the ribs meant “eat less curry,” and a quiet day meant she liked the book I was reading. I felt inexorably connected to her, a fat jellybean on a placental string, and by default was linked back to my own body. I was forced to cherish myself because I’m where she lived.

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Her birth was transformative because I survived it. I had no idea how strong my body or mind was until I endured fifty hours of labor followed by awake surgery. At the end of it, I had her on the outside. Seeing her for the first time rearranged every particle in the fabric of my being.

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My body became about her. I used it to feed her, hold her, sing her to sleep. My body birthed her, and then kept her alive.

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My body cooked this up: a mundane miracle (happening everywhere, endless species propagation, and rarely special until it’s your DNA). I have to be grateful for this.

Now, too, I have to think about which of these lessons to pass down. It haunts me to think of her enduring the nastiness of other 5th graders, the agendas of seedy men, or the difficulty of having her voice respected as another woman.

She deserves to be treated carefully: nurtured, listened to, respected, and loved deeply. It’s only possible if she learns to treat herself this way, first. I have to show her how to do that, by doing that, by loving myself, body and brain.

What Mom Bod Means to Me

It means I love my daughter with an unflinching fierceness, and my body is the soil she sprouted from. Every part of my body is useful now: for holding, soothing, feeding, teaching. Instead of a jutting, angular hipbone or clavicle, the result of calculated hours of abstaining from real food, she feels the softness of my stomach, a perfect pillow.

My softness is everything, indicative of my entire transformation. The battle scars of my younger years are fading into a gentle roundness, a more delicate way of moving in the world.

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I am part magician, now, a miracle worker. You should see her face when I pull a pack of crackers out of my bag.

The Sweatshirt

I created a sweatshirt for glam | camp in celebration of the most all-time powerful bod. My Mom Bod is nothing short of a fucking triumph, and I intend to let everybody know it.

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I encourage you to share your story, too. Let’s nudge the next viral phenomenon in the direction of honoring the sorcery and squishiness of mom power.