All forward motion counts

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On my last day of CBT, I spent the full session sitting in my chair sobbing uncontrollably, muttering ‘I’m sorry’ in between gasps for air, ‘I don’t know why this is happening’.

A few weeks before Christmas, I self-referred to a local mental health clinic in an attempt to gain control over my thoughts and to learn coping strategies when things felt like they were spiralling out of control. It was something I’d always thought I should do, but never felt I was ‘bad enough’ to require outside guidance. I’m fiercely independent, and I always want to be able to take care of myself without anyone’s help or input. But as my husband’s condition was worsening and the future was quickly filling up with more and more unknowns, I realised now was the time to admit that I needed help. I genuinely felt like I couldn’t face whatever came next for his treatment unless I was properly prepared. So I signed up for a 6-week CBT one-to-one course (cognitive behavioural therapy), intended to analyse the way I reacted to situations, then work to implement changes to disrupt the negative pattern I had fallen into. It sounded like the perfect thing for me to do: it would be work, but it would come with noticeable results.

I kept it quiet from most everyone. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was working on myself because I didn’t want to admit that 1) there was anything that needed fixing and 2) that it was affecting anything more than myself. To be completely honest, I was so stressed and so panicked and so overwhelmed that it was affecting a lot in my life. My anxiety had gotten so extreme that I wasn’t leaving the house except to go to work, and even there I wasn’t myself. I needed help, but I didn’t need to broadcast it to everyone. I wasn’t ready for that.

So I went home to America for the holidays and tried my best to relax during my time off knowing that when I returned, it was time to get to work. And I did. Every week, I went in for my appointment and talked about how I react to situations and how they’re affecting me and how I thought I could change that. I’m not a therapist, but CBT itself is pretty straight forward. It’s goal-oriented and something you can track progress on paper. Each session I’d walk in with my homework in hand ready to discuss it, and each week I was transparently told how well I was doing. I felt pretty proud of myself, and received the positive affirmations I needed each week to keep me working toward a better me. I was slowly breaking the pattern that I knew played a major role in my recent demise. I was clawing my way back up to the surface each week, and for the most part, it felt pretty damn productive.

On my last day of therapy, I had recently gotten incredibly stressful news about my husband. He was due to get DRG surgery in the coming months, but we hadn’t yet been given a date for the surgery (a type of spinal cord stimulation targeting your dorsal root ganglion nerve bodies at the base of the spinal cord). We were just anxiously awaiting a phone call from the hospital that could’ve literally come any day, which meant most of our life plans were on hold or tentative until we knew what was going on with his surgery. A very tense way to live your life, let me tell you. Anyway, we got that call, suddenly, when we weren’t expecting it in the slightest. But it wasn’t the call that threw me – it was that the hospital called to ask if he could come in for surgery three days later. It’s one thing to know you’re waiting for life-changing surgery, but it’s something completely different when you’re asked to get it done in mere days! However, I thought I handled that experience with ease: I was calm, strategic and gave my husband logical advice. When we finally determined it wasn’t the right time to drop everything for the surgery and we’d rather wait for a later date in which we could plan properly, I hung up the phone feeling proud of myself for handling it like a mature adult. Pre-therapy Tanya would’ve completely crumbled from the stress of the situation, over the need to give the hospital an answer within the hour. Panic would’ve taken over and I would’ve been crying in the bathroom desperately trying to compose myself before getting back to work. But not this time! This time I handled it like a pro, and although I still felt a little jittery from the whole ordeal, I survived and I was able to get back to work comfortably. Or so I thought.

When I eventually had my final therapy appointment, I walked in prepped and ready to tell my therapist how I dealt with a scary, overwhelming scenario like a boss. A ‘look how much I’ve learned already’ show of achievement. I walked in smiling, sat down and started explaining how the situation came up and how I responded to it, and the minute my therapist asked what I would’ve done if my husband had taken the early surgery date… I burst into tears. And they didn’t stop. The entire session. I kept apologising and muttering that I didn’t know why this was happening and I was fine the whole time until I walked in that door and how it didn’t make sense and that I was sorry, sorry, sorry. She told me it was a completely normal, emotional reaction and it just showed how much I cared about my husband, and how that type of worry is and will still be normal. She explained the stress of his medical situation is unique and how I need to stop viewing my tears as weakness. I don’t remember every detail of that appointment mostly because I was utterly embarrassed and surprised at my own reaction. I mostly remember her telling me I was strong and proactive, but that maybe I needed something a little more than CBT and gently suggested I pursue treatment elsewhere. I know she meant well, and I know she’s probably right – I need treatment catered specifically to me and my situation because it’s too, uh, complex, for generic therapy plans. But I couldn’t help feeling like I had failed therapy. I was doing so, so well only to completely lose it on my last day with an emotional reaction I didn’t even know was in me. I thanked her for everything she had taught me along the way, asked her to send me info for further treatment and took my sobbing self to the bathroom to cry in peace. My husband eventually had to meet me on the walk home since it became evident I wasn’t going to compose myself any time soon.

At the end of all this, we did get an appointment date through for his surgery. It’s in a few weeks time, actually. We were able to go away on holiday beforehand to get some sun and proper relaxation before life as we knew it will change. I haven’t yet signed up for new therapy. I still don’t know if I will, and I imagine it hinges on whether or not this surgery goes well. But for now, I’m applying what I have learned so far: I don’t know what will happen after this surgery. I don’t know if it will be the saving grace we’re after or if it’ll send us back to square one. But I do know that these ‘what ifs’ are not helpful, and we’ll tackle the outcome when that day arrives. And I’m still trying to remind myself that I am strong and despite feeling weak more often than not, I have every right to be proud of how far I’ve come so far. This stuff is absolutely terrifying. I wouldn’t wish any of this on my worst enemy. I know I’m going to be emotional when his surgery date arrives, but I know I’ve got some tools to help myself this time around. And if I find myself falling short – I have options. That, in itself, is empowering. There’s no reason I should ever feel I’m going this alone. And it’s about damn time I realised that.

You’re looking for the explanation, the loophole, the bright twist in the dark tale that reverses your story’s course. But it won’t reverse – for me or for you or for anyone who has ever been wronged, which is everyone. Allow your acceptance of the universality of suffering to be a transformative experience. You do that by simply looking at what pains you squarely in the face and then moving on. You don’t have to move fast or far. You can go just an inch. You can mark your progress breath by breath.

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