Right in front of me

After I wrote the turdface post, my friend Marilyn sent me an email filled with a lot of grace and a lot of wisdom and a lot of gentle challenging. Marilyn is one of those people that I haven’t known that long, but I feel like I have. I think it’s because our friendship found ground in hard places, and has been for both of us a constant source of grace and wisdom and gentle challenging.

My friend Marilyn said that when she finds herself in those moments when writing is hard and she’s sitting down with all her psychiatric issues, she thinks it’s probably because she’s not writing what’s right in front of her.

Yeah, that’ll preach.

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The reality is that I haven’t just been in a bad place, I have been in an anxious place. And more days than not the anxieties have been winning. I know what a panic attack feels like now, and I know how super scary it is when you’re driving your familiar hometown roads thinking of nothing in particular and then your chest feels tight and your breath doesn’t catch and you have to pull off into a Wawa parking lot and wait for the crazy to pass.

That, my friends, is my big ugly truth.

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Shauna Niequist says that it’s not hard to figure out what you want your life to be about, and that the hard part is figuring out what you have to give up in order to have that life. I hear Shauna, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with her right now.

I think sometimes it is hard figuring out what you want your life to be about. I think sometimes it’s really hard to sort through all the things that other people tell you are important, and I think sometimes it’s hard to figure out what are your own wants and what are someone else’s.

The hard part for me right now is admitting to myself and saying out loud to everyone else that what I want now in my thirties isn’t even a little bit what I wanted in my twenties, and the harder part is being okay with it.

Because when I was in high school and college, I wanted to go to grad school, and I wanted to work as a therapist, and I wanted a BMW, a small one, so I had some status but not too much because that would be prideful. So, I went to college and I studied psychology, even though I think God was wooing me with Lit classes and a writing minor. I went to grad school and studied counseling because I was good at it and it came easily and everyone I encountered in the field told me I was good at it and to do anything else would be a waste of my skills, all while working in youth ministry and teaching teenagers that following God probably meant leaving the easy road.

At thirty years old, post-grad school and post-youth ministry, I’m leaving the easy road.

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If I wanted to be a therapist, I would be a therapist. I don’t want to be a therapist anymore.  And it’s hard to tell you that because I’m afraid of what you will think. Maybe you’ll think I wasted money and time on my degrees, and I’m not sure I can convince you otherwise. But, studying psychology and counseling for as long as I did made me a better person, and I don’t think I’ve wasted time or money on that. I think God really used that, actually. And I think I helped an undergrad or two along the way, and I can definitely live with that.

But, I don’t think working as a therapist full-time is going to get me those things that I want my life to be about.

Hang with me, I’ll explain.

I want my life to be about more than work that impresses people. I know that having credentials and letters after my name is cool, and I really like signing papers with letters after my name. But, I get a fat head about my skills and talents, and I stop being humble and gracious when I sign my name with my letters. And I don’t think God’s very impressed by my letters. I think He’s impressed when I get into a moment with someone and listen well and respond with presence instead of a advice, but…I don’t think He’s impressed by my letters.

I think maybe there’s a different way for me to get into a moment with people and listen well and respond with presence.  Anne Lamott says the gift of writing is that it makes you pay attention. She says that writers are people who are here, who are present and accounted for, and who are taking notes. That’s what I want my life to be about – paying attention and taking notes.

I want to pay attention to people and places and experiences, and I want to pay attention to what God is telling us all about who He. I want to make notes about these things, and I want to share them. Because I think Jesus is the best person ever, and I think He’s gotten a pretty bad rap lately, and I think maybe I can be someone who tells a different story.

I think maybe if I give up being a therapist and start being a writer, then I’m going to tell a story with my life about taking a risk with Jesus, which isn’t really a risk at all. Because I think if I do this, then my faith will be really real. I think that God won’t be the guy that I taught the teenagers to follow, but I’ll actually be following Him.

I think that if I start chasing after the things I really want my life to be about, then God will probably surprise me and it will be awesome. And I think that maybe I just might have a shot at the abundant life He offers, instead of buying into the lie that anything less than will be at all satisfying.

And, guys, the thing is that this is what my anxiety has always been about. For me, anxiety is not about the fear in taking a risk. For me, anxiety is about dragging my feet about taking it.

This is what is and what has been right in front me all along.

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Unlearning

Last week, I found an old journal at the bottom of a stack of books. It’s holding together with packing tape, and I realize now how hard I was on that black faux Moleskin in the two years I used it.

I took that black faux Moleskin with me when I still went to the small church, and I took it with me when I started attending the big church. And scanning the pages front to back, I can see the ways God was working on me, sometimes even at me, changing me and maturing my faith.

Somewhere in the early part of 2011, I stopped taking sermon notes for awhile. Or I’d start taking sermon notes, get distracted by a question I had about what was being taught, and wrestle on the rest of the page about what wasn’t sitting so well with me.

Looking back, I know that God was leading me away from the way I had always done things and prompting me to open myself up to the greater ways He could work and maneuver and move in the world. He was guiding me into deeper faith, into greater knowledge of who He is, and into better ways of loving.

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I told one of my Bible study girls not too long ago that I feel like I’m in a season of un-learning. I told her that I think this way we were raised in church with the sense of “right-ness” hadn’t opened me up to experiencing people who were different than me, because I was so concerned that they were “wrong” in their sin and needed to get back on the “right” path. I told her that what I know now is that those were never really my calls to make, and that probably all Jesus wants me to do is listen to them, and extend a little love, and let them know they aren’t alone.

I told her that I can’t get the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman out of my head, and that I think maybe I should follow His example a bit more. She said that following Jesus’ example is probably always going to be the right call.

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'Rat Hunting - Kalasin drinking = shot + water' photo (c) 2007, Marshall Astor - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

This is what keeps sticking with me about the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman – He never calls her a sinner. He never once tells her that she’s going down the “wrong” road, and He never tells her that if she doesn’t start doing things the “right” way that she’s going to Hell. What He does instead, it seems to me, is listen and offer another way of doing things:

You can keep pulling water from this well that you’ve always been pulling from and you can keep being thirsty, or you can let me give you living water.

The woman, of course, knows that her life could be counted by her failed relationships. She knows that she’s marked as an outsider by her race and her gender, and she knows that she’s connecting to men in a desperate attempt to feel not so alone in the world. She knows what’s up, and she doesn’t need another man on his religious high-horse telling her how screwed up she is. It seems that what she needs is someone to sit down and recognize her pain. What she needs is someone to get that she gets that she’s a mess, and she needs someone to look her in the eye and offer real help. What she needs is someone to give her a drink.

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I was raised in church and I wouldn’t want to change that, don’t get me wrong. In fact, I told my dad the other day that being in youth group in high school saved me, that having friends probably kept me from making a lot of reckless decisions in a desperate attempt to feel not so alone in the world. And for that I will always be grateful.

But…

I’ve spent most of my life in the church and I’ve spent most of my life feeling small, and those aren’t two things you want anyone to experience at the same time. So, I’m thinking that there’s got to be a better way, a more Jesus-like way of being in the world. And I’m thinking that probably starts with letting Jesus be Jesus and giving myself permission to just be me, and then getting on with the work He’s called me to do.

And that work, I think, starts with sitting down, listening to people, hearing their pain, and offering them a drink of water.

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” –John 4:13-14

Living my life

So, I found out today that a friend of mine who I haven’t seen in many, many moons is “scared to death” to see me because she’s afraid I’m going to psychoanalyze her.

And it made me angry. And sad. And totally self-deprecating.

I was told my friend was scared to see me and I thought very little of how this person hasn’t spent much time with me since I started grad school and finished my degree, and because of this doesn’t actually know me that well. No, I went straight to beating myself up for being the kind of person that people are scared to be friends with.

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Me: …she’s scared to death to see me.  Nice. So much for being a friend. It’s a shame there’s no return policy for my stupid degree.

BFF: Lol. It’s not your degree, it’s who you are! You listen intently and offer insight. Sometimes people don’t like that.

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It was all I needed to hear in order to switch off the self-deprecation in my head.  Because the listening intently thing has always been something I’ve done, always been something I’ve been really good at, and has always something I’ve really liked about myself.  I think it makes me a really good friend, and often being a good friend is the only thing I feel like I know what I’m doing.

So then, what my counseling degree did for me was sharpen the skills I had ready had.  It taught me to find a point of empathy with every one, and to save my judgments because everyone has a story and often those stories have really ugly chapters.  It taught me that when I take the focus off myself and focus wholly on another person God is glorified.  It taught me that sometimes presence alone is healing, and that God can do amazing things when the space is made just for conversation to happen.   It taught me, and it made me better at what I do naturally.

My counseling degree has made me a better version of myself. 

Mary Pipher, an expert psychologist in adolescent development and a beautiful writer, once said in a letter to one of her grad students, “Being a therapist is less about making a living and more about living my life.”  Mary Pipher is not a Christian, but the Baptist in me sure wants to give a hearty “Amen!” from my back row.

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She came to me unsettled and somber the second night of camp.  It was late and we were both tired, but she needed to talk.   She needed to share with someone just how disconnected she felt from God and from other people.  And I listened.  I told her that her anger was palpable and that if I were in high school with her now, I probably wouldn’t be her friend.

At least she says now that’s what I told her, I don’t remember – it was late and I was tired.   She says now that it was exactly what she needed to hear.  And other students in our youth group say that they’ve seen a change in her, a release of anger and a surrendering to Jesus.

So, yeah…

Maybe sometimes people don’t like that I’m a psychoanalyst by nature and by training.  But, I believe in the passion God has instilled in me for both His Word and the study of psychology.  And I believe that He’s using it for His good, for me and for the people in my life.

Maybe people don’t like it.  But, maybe it’s what we both need.

Another person in the room

I’ve been studying psychology and counseling for the better part of 10 years now. And when I say “studying, ” I actually mean “have been consumed by.”   It’s prone to happen when you’re a full-time student, I suppose.  What I’m finding in my not-student life since graduation, though, is that old habits die hard.  I’ve wandered back to books I read for class and re-read them with a more dedicated eye, looking to engage with the ideas presented rather than skimming for answers to exam questions or discussion board posts.  And I’ve spent a lot of time just thinking, remembering really, class discussions on a slew of issues that are really only interesting to people who study counseling, like the ethics regarding dual relationships, or the merits of psychoanalysis versus cognitive behavior therapy, or the generic names and dosages of antidepressants.  Fascinating, right?  I bet you wish you spent HOURS in your head about these things.  But, sometimes in the course of these hours, I’ll have a flash that hits on a much deeper level, a flash that affects not only how I counsel, but also how I live my life.

Another prof in the department came into our seminar class last Fall to deliver a guest lecture about working with clients who are delusional.  I’ll admit, I didn’t go into that class poised to pay a whole lot of attention, partly because I’d been up since 5:30 and had already put in a full day with clients and was feeling pretty brain-dead, but mostly because I didn’t envision my path crossing with delusional clients and I didn’t think I needed to pay attention.  Mark another tally in the “Things I Was Wrong About” column, because there was indeed a flash that got into my heart and changed me.

This prof was sharing a story about a client she’d worked with for years, starting in her own internship.  This client was delusional and would only have 30 second snippets of lucidity in a given session. That means this prof had half of a minute in a 50 minute therapeutic hour with a person checked into reality.  3o seconds! She was finding herself frustrated and questioning whether there time together was, well, worth it, so she did what any responsible intern does and talked to her supervisor.  When she had finished saying her piece, her supervisor asked her, “Can you be another person in the room with her for the other 49 and a half minutes?” “Yes,” she said.  And he said, “Then that’s enough. Just try that.”

(c) 2007 Alex Guerrero // via Wylio

I think what’s most brilliant about her supervisor’s response is its simplicity.  I know that I’m guilty of thinking too much about my skill set and techniques and making sure I hit them all well that I forget that one of the coolest parts of therapy, and one of the reasons that it works, is the relationship that develops between therapist and client. The person-to-person contact when someone’s in a state of vulnerability.  The being another person in the room.

I think the “being” piece is what’s most critical.  What does it mean to be with someone?  Is it as simple as just sitting in the same space?  Yes. And then it’s about letting the space fill with conversation or laughter or tears or silence.  It’s true when I’m in session, and it’s true when I’m sitting at dinner with my friends, or in the car with my mom, or having coffee with a youth.   And for me, I think it’s also about shutting down the analytic stuff that I’m apt to let my brain do and relaxing in the relationship.  For me, it’s about taking the pressure off.  It’s about thinking less about how to connect and just letting the connection happen.  It’s about spending less time in my head and more time with the people in the same space.  Because when I come to the end of my days, I  want to look back at my life and say that I was engaged with people, that I enjoyed the favor of them, and that they knew that they were loved.   And ultimately, I think that’s what being is all about: love.  Sharing  your time and your laughter and your tears and your silence, sharing yourself, I think that’s “being.”

So then, can I be another person in the room?  Yeah, I can do that. And  I hope not just with my clients, but with my family and my friends as well.

Clinical language and The Word

I’ve been a student of psychology and counseling for so long now that sometimes it’s easy for me to forget that I love it. Tonight I was reminded.

I think I’m guilty of being anesthetized by our own kind of vernacular. Some call it “psychobabble,” I call it clinical language. Either way, I throw around terms like these every day it seems: disordered thinking, dysfunctional core beliefs, unhealthy schemas, unhealthy character style, and on and on. I say them now without giving much thought to their meaning, because most people I use these words with are in the field and don’t need them defined. In seminar tonight, our prof offered another kind of language to describe the same ideas. She reminded me that while psychology may say that someone is disordered in their thinking or dysfunctional in their character style, Christian theology calls this all “sin.” And what we in the psychological field and we in the Church are saying when we sit with someone in their brokenness is essentially the same thing – something’s not working.

As a therapist, I get to work with people as they figure out what that means. It’s not the whole of my job, but a large part of it is facilitating a safe place for people to be real. Often as I sit with clients, I’m reminded of Jesus sitting with the Samaritan woman at the well, because He did the perfect job of creating a space for her there to talk about the things in her life that were shameful – the divorces and current living situation, for example. He met her where she was, and he heard her when she shared her story. He didn’t just listen, He heard her. He understood her. He joined her in the shame. Then He offered her another way of looking at herself and her situation: You’re thirsty. Let me give you Living Water so you’ll never thirst again.

I love my job because every day – EVERY DAY – I get to emulate Jesus. I may not pray with every client, I may not share the Gospel with the client in words, but I bring the Word (read: Christ, John 1:1) to them in a tangible way every day by creating a safe place for them to tell their story and offering back a different way for them to look at themselves and their situation.

Psychobabble, clinical lanuage. Words and the Word. Seems to me it all works together to bring healing to a world that hurts. I happen to think that’s pretty special. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s divine.

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