The parking lot is busy when I pull up to the building. Parents, mostly mothers, are walking to and from the building, pushing strollers, holding the hands of walking toddlers, laughing, smiling, happy to be picking up their little children from the preschool and kindergarten program hosted by our church. Sometimes I smile when I witness these happy moments; snippets of time in childhood and parenthood that fade all to quickly.
Sometimes I wince because it is just one more reminder; a cold slap in the face of my reality. A mother with a daughter that looks just like her walks in front of my stopped vehicle. I find a parking space next to a minivan that is being unlocked by a woman with a toddler by the hand, a baby in a stroller and a bulging belly with another on the way. I shake my head a little to refocus my eyes and attention on the task at hand: put the vehicle in park, lock it and walk to the counselor's office for therapy.
I enter the doorway that leads directly to the main office. The senior pastor is there, opening the door. I smile and say hello, taken aback by his kindness. Then I realize as a shout of jubilation echoes in my ear when I walk through the doorway, that he is holding the door for the new mother carrying her newborn in a car seat. She was entering the building a pace or two behind me and I was just the lucky recipient of good timing.
Still, I tell myself, it's nice to have someone hold a door for me. Even if the act of kindness wasn't initially intended for my benefit.
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly, making sure to relax my shoulders as I exhale. I keep walking down the hall toward the Sunday School classrooms. Separate from the children's wing, this hall is quiet, the lights are low. My shoes clatter on the tile floor and echo off the bare walls. The dark coffee color of the hall is soothing as I approach the two chairs flanking a side table. Sunlight filters through the paned doors that lead to the courtyard, reflecting off the dancing dust particles in the air.
Taking a seat, I let my bag fall to the floor while I close my eyes. Breathe in through your nose. 1...2...3...4...5.... Hold and breathe out through your mouth. 1...2...3...4...5... The white noise machine my therapist keeps on a petite circular table just outside the classroom pumps soothing ocean wave sounds. Breathe in... breathe out.
The custodian walks by, whistling a tune as he pushes his yellow Rubbermaid mop bucket with the handle of the mop. The caster wheels rumble like a distant thunder. "Afternoon, Ma'am," he says with a slight nod of his head.
"Hello to you too. How are you today?" I inquire. He is usually the only person I see in this hallway while I wait for my counselor to open the door signaling the beginning of our session.
"Fine, fine. Can't complain. Nice weather we're having."
"Yes sir. Busy day today?"
"Always, always. Sumthin' always goin on here. This place is busy, thank you God. Fine place to work. Nice folks too."
He continues on his way, pushing his bucket down the hall, whistling. We have nearly the same conversation every time I see him. I like it. It's familiar and he never asks what's wrong with me that I should need therapy. He never asks. He just whistles and pushes his mop bucket.
The door opens and my therapist invites me in to her office. It's really a classroom but during the week, she is allowed to rent the space for her sessions. She puts the chairs in a circle, her own personal chair up against the wall. The lights are low and candles are burning. She has a small table with a clock on it so her clients can keep track of time for themselves. The other tables between the chairs have knick knacks from her missions trips, coasters and tissue boxes. I sit in the chair I always sit in. Sometimes I think I'll sit in a different chair just because, but I never do. Maybe next time I think to myself. But I think that thought every time I walk into the room, just before I plant my bottom in the seat I always take.
She sits across from me and smiles. She asks how I'm doing. We begin.
In February 2009, the ex told me just a day or two before Valentine's Day that his credit card lender had called. On a Saturday. The card with a balance tumbling past the $5K limit because of late fees and overage charges had gone unpaid for six months. The collections agency needed $1280 immediately or my van would be repossessed as collateral. He didn't have any reasonable answers for why he let the card go unpaid. He figured that would be as good a time as any to also inform me that his Lowe's card was also past due, and over the limit... and that he was getting collections calls for it as well.
The money was needed within four days with a signature agreeing to a repayment plan in addition to the cancellation of his credit card. I couldn't speak. My mouth was open but words did not come out. Dazed, I walked out the back door and sat on the stoop. No good. I got up and paced the porch. Anger? No that wasn't the right emotion. Betrayal? No, that wasn't it either. Hurt? Nope. Shock. Dizzying, mystifying, rendered speechless,shock. I staggered a few steps. I tried to catch my breath. I went in and called my parents.
They bailed him out. I still owe them $800 of that money. I got to keep the van and the bank garnished his business account in the amount of $264 every month until the remainder was paid in full. I made an appointment to speak to our senior pastor for advice.
His advice was to make an exit plan for the marriage and he referred me to their contracted pastoral counselor and their sliding scale scholarship fund for members that need financial assistance paying for counseling services. Three and a half years of therapy later, I'm finally walking through that exit plan.
"Jennie? How are you?" she asks again.
How am I? What can I say today? Sissy screamed at me all night and woke up this morning at 5:45 hell bent on making me miserable. And do I mention that she had me up at 3:00 am getting a drink of apple juice when she HATES apple juice? At least, when I ask her to drink it, she hates it. Do I mention the pregnant mommies in the parking lot that take all of my self-will and energy to overlook just so I can get through the door of the church building? Do I just start bawling until I can't cry anymore (which would be the entire session and then I'd be paying her for something I can do at home in my bed)? Do I tell her how my cute chihuahua got afraid of his shadow on a plastic grocery bag? I don't know. I just don't know. There is so much in my life and in my head and on my heart that I never know where to begin.
"I don't know where to start today." I tell her.
"What's the first thing that comes to your mind?"
"Talk about your anger."
Talk about my anger? It's me with clenched jaw, lying in fetal position in my bed at night, rocking myself to sleep, my left hand up to my mouth but my thumb tucked in. It's visions of smashing beautiful, breakable things into piles of dust. It's secret, unspoken images in my mind of hurting people that have hurt me. It's exhaustion and hair loss. It's lines on my face, chronic cold sores on my lips and another 10 pounds on my body. It's abject apologies for my carelessness and forgetfulness. It's a steady stream of expletives constantly running in my head and uttered under my breath. It's aching joints and throbbing temples. It's taking prozac and klonopin even though my doctor swears that I do not suffer from a diagnosable mental illness rather situational anxiety and depression. It's having situational anxiety and depression when I can't even change my situation.
I laugh. Snicker, really. Maybe snort. Anger. I roll my eyes and let out a loud breath. "I don't know. My anger is big. I can't contain it. It's bigger than me. It goes right into the stratosphere, all those miles directly above my head of anger. Red, hot, steaming anger shooting straight up like a geyser with so much momentum that it soars that high. And I don't know what to do with it."
"You take it little bits at a time."
"yeah," I say feebly. Only I don't know how to take it little bits at a time. I don't know how to take it at all. I only know it's there, and it's bigger than me. And it's justified. And it's fair for me to feel so angry and to say so. "I don't know how to do that," I offer. Because what's the point of being in therapy if I can't be honest. REALLY honest. I mean, I forgo haircuts and new clothes in my budget so I can have the money for therapy every month.
"Some people write about it. Others find expressing their anger in artwork is helpful. Talking about those events that have caused you so much anger and pain. Taking care of yourself. Do any of those ideas sound good to you?"
"All of them. I guess I do some of all of those things. It just doesn't feel like enough. It feels like the anger won't ever end."
"And maybe it won't. But you can try to get some of it out little bits at a time."
An image immediately pops into my head. "It's like pouring out a salt container, very slowly onto a bowl so it heaps up into a perfect pile, each crystal rolling down the side of the cone, some bouncing. There's a steady cascade of white coming from the salt container and the container isn't really a blue cylinder of Morton's salt with the umbrella girl. It's a brain. Pouring the hurts and negative words and horrible memories and painful moments out of my brain onto a dish and there's so much it just keeps coming and never stops. It's like that. That's what I see when I think of trying to be free from this."
"Can you draw that? Or create that? It might be one way to get a little bit of the anger out. Say more about the salt. Why salt?"
"It lies. Salt is white and pure and perfect crystal shapes. But you can't drink salty water, it will kill you. You can't have too much of it on your skin, it will burn you. It's a natural preservative, curing meats for safe consumption with a shelf life up to two years. Plus, chemically speaking, salt is ionic so it's reactive and easily decomposes when combined with other compounds. Not to mention that the two elements that salt is derived from are extremely reactive and dangerous in their natural states."
"So salt is..."
"Anger. Hurt. Pain. Insult. Injury. Suffering."
"And salt is in your brain?"
"Yes. It's all the memories I have trapped in my head that won't stop tormenting me. And I have to get them out. I know I do. But it's so hard. And slow. And it feels like there's no end."
"But it's important that you know that there IS an end."
"I know that cognitively but I don't trust that to be true."
"Just keep pouring out the salt little bits at a time. You'll get there. Look how far you've come already."
"Would you be willing to try making that image for next time? Draw it or create it, or stage it and take a photo? I think that would be something we could continue to work on and talk through."
"Yeah. I can do that. I WILL do that."
"Good. See you next time?"
Uncharacteristically, when I stand up to leave, I feel compelled to give her a hug. She accepts and I leave feeling some better. Stronger. Safer from my emotions. Fortunately, during the time of my session, all of the preschool families are already gone, the parking lot very sparsely dotted with a few cars. I get in my van, roll down the windows and put it in drive. The radio is blaring the classic rock station I was listening to when I pulled into the parking lot. I switch it off, opting to listen to the wind as it blows through the open van windows. I pull out of the church drive and onto the road, grateful for my van, this church, my therapist but mostly for my strength to keep keeping on.
I stop by the dollar store on the way home and purchase a container of Morton's salt and a discounted plate on the clearance shelf. As luck would have it, the Halloween decorations are out and I find a really disgusting zombie brain. I'm certain the clerk at the checkout thinks my purchase is very odd but I don't care. It's one more baby step toward being free.