“You understand yourself so well, why are you here?”
It was the beginning of my freshman year of college when the therapist I had been seeing for a couple of months asked me this question. I was silent for a moment and finally responded,
“Because I can’t stop hurting myself.”
It was true. Since I arrived on campus, I was on a downward spiral of starving, purging, over-exercising, drinking, and cutting. The cycle started Monday morning when I woke up promising to be good for the week by sticking to my “diet” of 750 calories per day and working out at least once a day if not twice. I’d usually make it until Wednesday, maybe Thursday, when I’d fall off the wagon with a bowl of pasta or slice of pizza at a study night. Angry at myself, the slip would turn into a night of drinking, resulting in more feelings of self-hatred, shame, and despair. And then I’d wake up and start the cycle all over again. I was drinking 12 cups of coffee a day to keep myself going, and had a full class load and busy college schedule.
The therapist was right though. I did know exactly what I was doing and why I was doing it – I knew that controlling my body and what went into it was about being sexually assaulted. I knew that cutting myself was a distorted way of feeling something real. But talking about it didn’t seem to help. It was like I could hear myself telling her these things and hear them at the same time.
I was scared but I didn’t know what to do. I knew this woman couldn’t help me. Luckily, I had a growing group of friends and mentioned my dilemma. She told me something I would never forget:
“You just need to figure out what kind of peanut butter you like. You see, therapists are like peanut butter. Some are crunchy and crunchy. Others are smooth and creamy. Do you like jelly with your peanut butter or do you like it plain? Once you know what you like, you go find someone who has those qualities you are looking for.”
Huh. This was a novel concept to me. I always thought that if a therapist signed up to listen to my crazy and messed up problems, I should be grateful and not complain too much. I thought therapists secretly harbored the same resentments and doubts I did: it’s in the past, just get over it, it’s not really a big deal. It never occurred to me that there were different styles of therapy and I could choose what was going to work for me.
With this peanut butter metaphor in mind, I set out to find someone new. I went to campus psychological services and got a list of four therapists for trial appointments.
At the appointment, I told them the basics: I had been molested by my grandparents, I had an eating disorder, and talk therapy wasn’t working.
The first one seemed really nice and asked me a lot of questions. She was particularly interested in the memories I recovered of additional abuse as a teenager. She wanted to know if I was planning to press charges because she wanted to try hypnosis. “I am really interested in your story,” she said. And I decided I needed someone more interested in me.
I really liked the second therapist because she was honest and direct. When I explained to her that talk therapy wasn’t working for me, she told me that talk therapy was all she really knew how to do. So as much as I liked her, she wasn’t for me.
I never made it to an appointment with the third therapist. We had a brief call on the phone to make an appointment, and after we hung up, he called me back to make sure I could cover his fee. In retrospect, I understand why he brought this up – better not to get attached if it’s not going to work out financially – but at the time, it felt like his top priority was getting paid. So I canceled my appointment.
I vividly remember when M called back. She was the last person on my list, and I was starting to feel discouraged. I was in my dorm room talking to my roommate when the phone rang. I wasn’t interested in wasting any more time so I just dove in with my elevator pitch about my history and how talk therapy wasn’t working for me.
Well, she said, there are LOTS of things we can try if talking isn’t working.
(My mind stopped racing. Really? There are?)
She rattled off about a dozen of them including art, meditation, breathing. And a few I hadn’t heard of yet but would learn more about – the Hakomi method, experiential therapy, Gestalt.
It wasn’t simply her answers that made me breathe a sigh of relief. It was the gentle tone in her voice and the confidence that she could help me. I hung up feeling surprisingly optimistic. My journey with M had begun.