March 18, 2010
Platitudes, Psychotherapy and Personal Growth: Finding Meaning in the Mundane
“What do you do for personal growth?” he asked me. I was at my third job interview at the age of 32. Not third interview for this job, mind you, but third interview of my life. I started working for my parents at the age of 14 and continued working for them for 18 years. I had a brief break my first quarter of college and for a few months when the entire family left cold, cloudy Cleveland for the sunny grand adventure of Las Vegas, where we would open a store and run it as a family. You would think I was brave, trekking across the country to face the unknown. But neon lights, burnished mountains and 110-degree heat had nothing on what ultimately claimed me—agoraphobia.
I’m not exactly sure when it started. Perhaps it was before we even left, as I was terrified of driving my car across the country. So we traded it in and took my then-husband’s car instead. And I didn’t drive again for nearly six years. There wasn’t a good reason for it, I just didn’t and no one really pressed me on it and so it was. When we bought a house, we chose one that was only a few blocks from my parent’s house so they could easily pick me up on their way to work. Then Jay or my sister would take me home from work. “Jenny doesn’t drive,” they would say. But that wasn’t entirely true. I had had my license since I was 17 and knew how to operate a vehicle. In fact, one night before heading home from work my sister got sick and asked me to drive us in her car. I was panicked and frightened and don’t think I ever approached the speed limit on the highway, but I did it. That was the only time. Well, the only time until Jay and I decided it was time to get a second car.
In 2003 we purchased the first brand new car either of us had ever owned. I don’t remember what the impetus was, only that it was to be my car to drive even if I was only going to drive it to work and back. And even though I had this new semi-mobility it didn’t cure me of my fear of going places alone. I didn’t do my own grocery shopping or pump my own gas and if Jay was with me, he was certainly the one doing the driving, not me.
Fast-forward four years in which we bypass my divorce, my first-ever sessions with a psychologist (who ultimately diagnosed me as agoraphobic), and a burgeoning new relationship with the man who holds my heart to this day. A wonderfully supportive man who helped me to take the first steps in my recovery and ultimately drove with me the 1300 miles from Las Vegas to Seattle (each driving exactly half of the 18 hour journey) to make a home and a life together. Isaias always told me I could do anything I wanted to do. It would take me a while to realize and eventually I did and am now reaping the rewards of that conviction.
Don’t think that I think of myself as some fairytale princess who just needed her Prince Charming to come and save her. My story is not that succinct. After my move I became depressed for the first time in my life. I had never been so far away from the family I was used to seeing every day and it was taking its toll on me. Once again I decided to seek therapy. My previous foray into psychotherapy was less than a success. I learned a few things, like how to “build on my successes” in terms of conquering my fear of driving. But over time I began to see my therapist as a parent-type and wasn’t being totally forthcoming with her for fear of being reprimanded like a child. I stopped going after just a few months. I found my current therapist through a referral from a friend’s therapist and have been seeing her regularly for almost three years. And she’s not just any therapist—she’s a Jungian psychotherapist. I don’t know why the fact that she was Jungian resonated with me. I certainly didn’t know much about Jung. I owned a copy of “Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious” but I had never gotten more than 20 pages into it. The referral list I was given had about 8 names on it. I called several and left messages for all and made an appointment with the first one who called me back. Then Leslie returned my call. I don’t know what it was about her but I knew she was the one. I made an appointment with her and called the first one back to cancel and I’m so glad I did.
My confidence in driving began to regress once I moved and I was scared about having to take the highway to a place I’d never been to meet a woman with whom I was going to share my most intimate fears. I don’t remember much except that she was very nice and welcoming and understanding. I had told her that I moved here with Isaias yet I felt alone because Isaias had family and everything here and “I have nothing.” She plucked that phrase and made it the focus of the session. Before our next meeting I was to make a list of “What I Have.” And I did. And with it came hope. It was the beginning of a beautiful journey that has brought me to where I am now.
“What do you do for personal growth?” asked my soon-to-be boss. I loved the question and I loved the interview—the most Zen, non-interview ever, of that I’m sure. I told him that I was a singer/songwriter/pianist and that I use music to express myself and attain personal growth. He told me that he had a master’s degree in counseling and I shared with him my experience of agoraphobia and recovery and that I was in therapy still working on it all. He told me what a mentor once told him: Pain is our birthright. We shook hands, said our goodbyes and I was offered the job a few hours later.
In the two years since then we’ve had the opportunity to “wax philosophical” on a few occasions. Most recently he told me of a Sanskrit phrase “Neti neti” which translates to “not this, not that.” He used it to illustrate how to describe what God is or what Love is—we don’t know what it is, but we do know what it is not. Neti neti. I didn’t know the extent of how this would resonate with me.
The New Year found me agitated and feeling stagnated. I didn’t feel like I was going anywhere with my life. Sure, my job paid well and I had learned skills I never thought I would but somewhere deep inside I wasn’t satisfied. Enter: Death. No, I’m not being emo and I didn’t attempt suicide or have a near-death experience. This is Death from The Endless. The sister to Dream, Desire, Delirium, Destruction, Despair and Destiny. The Death of the Sandman graphic novel series by Neil Gaiman. More simply, I changed the desktop background on my computer at work to an image of Death—a pretty Goth girl with a charming smile. Written on it was “You get what anyone gets. You get a lifetime.” The words haunted me. I found myself avoiding the text and her exuberant gaze. I had decided a year prior that I wanted to become a psychologist but I was just waiting to save enough money to go to school. But then there’s Death looming over me telling me my time will be up eventually. My 35th birthday was just two months away. I had no plans to go to school but if I didn’t go now, when was I going to go?
I had recently read an article on a blog called Zen Habits entitled “The World Needs You To Do What You Love.” It listed seven steps to get started on doing fulfilling work. Work doesn’t need to be boring and mundane. Work should be something you’d do even if you didn’t get paid for it. One of the steps was to make time to attain your goal. So I made the time to research universities and make education my number one focus. I have applied to a state university and will apply to a private university soon. I already have my graduate school picked out. I am going to be a Jungian analyst with a private practice.
Oh yeah, Jung. Dr. Carl Gustav Jung. Remember when I said that something about Jungian therapy resonated with me? At the time I would have said, “hmmm, that’s kind of strange.” But now I would say that it was me connecting to the collective unconscious. Deciding to become a psychotherapist isn’t just a decision it’s part of my process of Individuation. I always knew I was an Introvert, but I didn’t know that Dr. Jung coined the term. Leslie told me early on that the answers to all of our problems were located in our unconscious. I nodded and I believed her but I didn’t think it would actually happen or realize the impact it would have on me when it did.
I feel like I’m part of a tradition. Carl Jung suffered a psychotic break when Sigmund Freud excommunicated him from the analytical community. Jung was able to heal himself by studying his Unconscious as it revealed itself in his dreams, paintings and visions. I, in turn, was able to heal myself (with Leslie’s help) by heeding what my Unconscious was trying to impart to me. I’m also a part of another tradition. Many of Jung’s patients came to him after having been analyzed and told him that they had figured out what they wanted to do: they wanted to be an analyst just like him. This happened so frequently that Jung would slap his head and say “Not another one!”
And so it goes. Not this, not that. Neti neti. Eureka! I have found it! What do I do to attain personal growth? I grow. I continue to reach for that which will help me to actualize my full potential. A potential that wasn’t met in working in the family business or selling pest control and definitely not in hiding away, afraid to go out into the world. I embrace the difficult and the challenging so I can look back and say, “I accomplished that. What’s next? Bring it on.”