I’m pretty sure when a doctor prescribes medication to a patient, they’re supposed to discuss the potential side effects with them. By pretty sure I mean this seems to make sense to me but I’m actually not 100% sure what the rule is because I avoid taking medication at all costs.
It just seems like good practice to warn patients about all the weird symptoms they’re likely to experience as a result of a medication, treatment, or therapy. That way they don’t show up at your office in a week all like “Well, my acid reflux is gone but I haven’t gone to the bathroom in a week.” Or, in the case of emotional exploration and certain therapy, saying “What’s going on doc? I feel like a basket case!”
My current outlook has me contemplating this and feeling a bit remiss. Since our inception, we’ve discussed many ways to explore, express, and seek therapy for grief, but we've never provided the disclaimer that sometimes some of these things may initially make you feel worse.
On some level, you probably already understood healing means opening wounds and poking around. It’s why we avoid thinking and talking about the things which force us to feel the sting of being scared, angry, guilty, hollow, and small. We avoid the road that leads into darkness because we aren’t sure it will ever open onto a sunny path.
Maybe we should have warned you that, when we asked you to explore your grief, we were really asking you to dive into the pain and keep swimming. We were asking you to tolerate it, sit with it, and even embrace it. Perhaps we should have clarified, many of the methods we recommend – journaling, art, therapy, etc. – have the potential to make you feel worse before you feel better.
I remember someone talking about being in couples' therapy, I can’t really remember who, but they said it’s kind of a nightmare. For an hour, they are forced to open up in a way they never have before. Theoretically, things like honesty, communication, and truth are positive, but anyone who’s been in a relationship knows they can also sometimes lead to pain. It makes total sense for a couple to leave these sessions feeling like crap, unable to recognize any progress in their capacity to communicate, empathize, and cope which (in theory) ought to happen in the long run.
The same sometimes holds true with individual therapy. Sometimes you wander down emotionally dark alleys, admit truths, and accept the unacceptable. Some days you might leave feeling refreshed and invigorated and some days you swear you’re never going back again. Oftentimes the burn means it’s working.
Then there are the areas of creative, artistic, and expressive coping – journaling, art, writing, photography – these can be just as frustrating. I’ve had a few people ask me if I think writing this blog has been cathartic and I think ultimately the answer is 'yes'... but, every so often, I feel like the further in I dig here, the worse I feel.
Some days there are just no words or pictures to express how I’m feeling, and some days the words and pictures are right but troubling. In my journal, I have at least a dozen opening paragraphs on a dozen different topics. I write a paragraph, I stop writing, I look into space, and I think “No, I don’t have the energy to explore this today." I’m not a writer, so I don’t know if this is what writers' block feels like, but I am an avoider so I can say with complete certainty that I’m avoiding. In order to write honestly it means admitting things and right now I’m just not in the mood. My frustrated self tells me I'm better off lounging on the couch watching The Real Housewives of God Knows Where.... but deep down I know I'm not.
My mother died many years ago and honestly it wasn’t even close to being the first time I felt the pangs of despair and hopelessness. I’m not new to the game, I’ve experienced several different shades of anxiety and depression since my early 20s. I know the frustrating feeling of “Nothing I’m doing is working.” I know what it’s like to stand at the bottom of a pit without a ladder. But I also know the only way to get out is to start digging. To keep at the things I know to be helpful even when I feel like I’m getting nowhere.
So this is my disclaimer to you: Dealing with grief sometimes comes with a few emotional side effects. The sting of sadness, guilt, shame, and despair - often these mean it's working. Don't give up, keep trying, and call me in the morning.
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