Emotional Mapping

“Now this — this can be put in its box, we can put its lid on it,” says my therapist. “And we can leave it in the closet, and only return to it when we want to.”

I smile — although she can’t see it, through my mask — and continue my deep breaths. I don’t know what I’m chuckling about more: that the very grounding techniques she’s using on me are ones I use with my own clients, or the fact that she thinks I can so easily put a lid on it.

There is no lid to it, I say to myself, but she only hears me taking slow, diaphragmatic breaths.

We spent the majority of the session doing emotional mapping and I am in tatters because of it. I wasn’t expecting that. But when she had asked me to focus on the first tableau and what it makes me feel, I knew a wellspring of sorrow had been tapped. It took very little to link one memory with the next — my life has been on rerun for several years, so jumps from one thought to the next are more like small sidesteps. As we are winding down, she tells me to imagine these memories like something we can store in the closet, something we put in a box — and put the lid on. But there is no lid for it.

In essence, none of the things swimming in my mind do. The boxes have no lids and the closet has no door and I’m nothing more than a kid on a constant search for Christmas presents. But I don’t bring that up. There are some things I don’t even share with my therapist.

But I adore her. She’s exactly the kind of therapist I need. She has the right energy needed for someone like me. We vibe right — way better than my first therapist and I ever did. And she’s trauma-informed, and specializes in the very techniques I love learning about, and has created a plan outside of regular talk therapy. She doesn’t flinch when I lay everything about my life in front of her. And it’s not her fault that we have the same bag of tricks for the people in our care.

It’s tough being a trauma-informed instructor, turning to another trauma-informed instructor for help. In some ways, it’s like a magician watching another do identical tricks.

My breathing normalizes quickly enough. These techniques don’t lose their magic just because you know the trick. We exchange a few more words, schedule the next session, and I’m eventually out. It’s freezing cold — and I wish I had brought a spare mask; this one is sodden with tears and surely to freeze — but I walk to the Merrimack River to decompress.

A return to therapy was inevitable. It’s been a rough several years, and my soul had had enough. I had learned that, despite all my introspection, despite my constant battle towards self-actualization, I was falling far from the mark, and the patterns in my life was proof of it.

I had lulled myself into a false sense of security — because I was someone constantly in a state of introspection. I was the kid who was constantly going through the boxes in this closet. For some reason, I thought my return to therapy would be more of a chance to be told how to stack those boxes. But instead I found my hand being guided through boxes with broken Christmas ornaments, cutting my skin on its ragged edges.

But I guess that’s the point. Part of the reason I found myself at a stalemate with my first therapist was that I always felt one step ahead of her. She would ask if I had looked through a certain box, and when I’d tell her that I did, she’d shrug her shoulders.

“Have you tried meditation?” she’d ask.

I’m a god forsaken yoga teacher, I’d think very, very loudly. But I didn’t say anything. Ironically, part of the reason I was in therapy was because I didn’t know how to advocate for myself, then. I still don’t, which I guess is also why I’m back

The Merrimack River is churning when I walk down to it. Ice has formed on the rocks. It reminds me a poem I wrote, nearly six years ago, when witnessing this exact phenomenon, at this exact spot by the Merrimack.

Demonstrating the vital need for moving forward with force, I paraphrase to myself, silently. I think about that poem, the person I was six years ago, the times I would come to the river, at this very spot, for a moment of solace. It was a completely different reason then — the world was a completely different world, then — but in many ways it draws parallels to the present day. Life is an exquisite and excruciating juxtaposition sometimes.

There’s a saying I have — live your life in a way so that no one has to go to therapy over your actions. It’s a low bar to clear, but it’s incredible how many people find a way to limbo under it. It’s a sentiment said with exactly as much spite as you’d think one would say it. But, in some ways, I find myself reevaluating it. What are those people in your life but the inspectors who let you know exactly where the cracks are in your foundation? What is their role other than to shine a light on every corner of that closet, to illuminate what would’ve been hiding blissfully in the shadows?

And furthermore, we never go to therapy for their actions. Their actions aren’t the ones sitting on the couch, tears soaking their pandemic mask. Your therapy doesn’t turn them into more considerate, less callous people. The therapy is for you. Because the world is full of the inconsiderate and the callous, and it’s vital to make sure your foundation is solid, that there’s nothing lurking in the shadows.

It’s a weird place to be. In some ways, I can thank those people for creating an honest overview of what’s stored in the closet. But in other ways, I don’t know if I can fully forgive them for adding on to the boxes to sort through.

It is fitting that the evening after my therapy appointment is spent FaceTiming one of my kindred spirit friends. He had witnessed me sob openly just a few months prior, albeit through the phone screen. But it doesn’t diminish the vulnerability in that moment. Because of that, and from that moment, I have felt an obligation to update him on my healing, on how much better I am now than even a few months ago.

“It’s good to see you in a happier place,” he remarks, and we both talk about therapy, about the struggles life in a pandemic world creates, about the idiosyncrasies that only one who gives part of their life to the internet for consumption can understand.

And I am. The tears I give to my therapist are nothing compared to the tears I shed by myself, tears that I refused to give to those who caused them. These boxes of memories, of demons and hang ups and hurts and sorrows, might not have lids on them, but with every visit to this metaphorical closet, things really do get sorted out. And I am grateful to be the kind of person who is motivated to go through the boxes, even if I’m getting cut on what’s inside.

It is through this ruthless spring cleaning that I’m not the person that I was six years ago (goodness, she’d be intimidated by me, these days). It is because of my constant assessing of the past that I have more fight, that I catch on quicker, that I establish boundaries sooner (even if it’s still painfully after the fact). My therapist says I don’t have to return to those boxes in the closet if I don’t want to, but I do, and I will keep on returning until the shards are picked out, the items are organized, and the boxes are stacked.

And — who knows — maybe I’ll find those Christmas presents, after all.

1 thought on “Emotional Mapping”

  1. Your post grabbed my attention from the very beginning. Your writing and honesty is amazingly captivating (it’s probably odd to hear that seeing that what you wrote was very vulnerable and about your inner struggles) but I thought I’d let you know anyway. I am all for self-care and one of the best forms of self-care (I think) is therapy!

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