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Using Words to Say What They Cannot

Playing The Sims 3 too late Monday night all but ruined Tuesday. My plan had been to pick up textbooks from the bookstore on campus, leave from campus to go to my music therapy session, then return to campus for my evening class, attend class and come home. Instead, I overslept by 45 minutes. I was sluggish, groggy, and disorganized. I left an hour later than I’d intended. When I got to the bookstore there was a long line; I was worried about being horribly late for my session, so I left without accomplishing what I’d gone to campus to do. 😦

I was late for the later time to which I’d pushed back my session when I realized I was running late, but my therapist (Wakana) was very nice and actually allowed it to go on longer than our usual hour. Fox came with me, per my request, so we could work on some stuff together:

The Issue

I’ve been feeling very trapped in our relationship, like I can’t express myself fully. It’s fueling the depression. Sometimes I feel like he’s trying to shape my thoughts regarding a topic (e.g. saying we know my pet rats are smart) or change some aspect of something I’ve said (e.g. repeating it with an inflection that suggests a different emotion/meaning, or changing the wording). He (almost) always has a response for (nearly) everything I say and most of what I do; that response always seems to convey either approval (like I need it) or the suggestion that I should do/think/say something different. When he doesn’t respond, I worry that I’ve broached upon an unapproved topic.

Other times, I feel like his actions (e.g. opening a drawer for me) or reactions (e.g. shrinking away when I express anger) limit my ability to be an active agent in accomplishing my goals. I feel like he doubts my abilities when he helps without me asking him to. I feel unsafe expressing anger – and harnessing that energy to complete tasks – when he shrinks away from it. I worry that I’m being too aggressive. I almost never practice music when we’re together because I know he doesn’t like hearing the same thing repeated over and over again. I waited almost an hour and a half to call Banji Monday night because I felt uncomfortable excusing myself from Fox to do so.

I don’t know whether these are red flags suggesting an unhealthy dynamic to our relationship (as my mother seems inclined to suggest), or whether I’m taking his behavior too personally. One of the mental distortions in depression is perceiving others’ neutral behaviors as somehow negatively directed toward oneself – for example, as disapproval. Knowing this can help me quiet the Critic enough to get through a day, but it might also cause me to doubt instincts that I really need to trust. Do I need to just be myself, assert myself, do what I need or want, and leave it to him to express his needs directly? Or is something more sinister going on here?

The last thing I need is an abusive relationship.

What Words Can’t Say

I am distressed by the impact of Fox’s actions on my quality of life, but just as distressing is my impulse to ask him to change his behavior and speech patterns to better suit my needs. How is that not limiting his ability to express himself fully? Don’t we both have that right?

I feel horrible bringing it up, especially since he’s done so much to show his love for and dedication to me. He’s stuck by me through some very rough times, shown me more respect than I was once inclined to show myself (and still have trouble requesting from others), and even remained supportive and present while terrified by the strength of my anger. (I think it helps that I was not angry with him at the time.) How dare I question his motives?

I worry about falsely accusing him, controlling him until he’s forced to become someone he’s not, hurting his feelings, and/or driving him away. The anxiety steals my voice and silences my thoughts. I have trouble coming up with the words to express how his behavior is affecting me – or, how I feel in response to his behavior. If I manage to think the words, I can’t bring myself to say them. My mouth and vocal cords refuse to work.

If I manage to say something, I don’t communicate it clearly. I think it comes across as nitpicking about this instance of the behavior instead of trying to address the broader pattern. Fox becomes defensive. I get frustrated and fall into a cold, hostile silence full of pain, anger, and guilt. At some point we both let it go. Rinse and repeat.

Tuesday morning was particularly bad because we were both cranky from lack of sleep, and on a schedule. It didn’t help that (as he expressed later) he was trying to navigate the thin line between giving me the nudge I need (and have requested) and being overbearing; I felt like he was guilty of the latter. I was convinced he was controlling me and I hated him for it. Even when he went to take a shower and I was putting our breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, these thoughts were running through my head. I felt abused, unappreciated, neglected.

Finding a Voice

I talked to Fox about feeling trapped on our way to the music therapy session. I told him I hoped we could use music to work through some aspects of our dynamic that I was having trouble understanding and expressing in words. He agreed to try. We also talked about what happened Tuesday morning to try and find better ways of interacting. I suggested we work together as a team, with a routine and different jobs we each know we need to do, to make mornings run more smoothly. He suggested we have a technology curfew – no computer/internet use after midnight or too soon after waking – to help us get the sleep we need and start the day focused on reality.

(I’m breaking the technology curfew to write this, ironically. But he’s not here to be affected by my choice; he’s at his own home near his campus. I’d probably benefit from maintaining it whether he’s here or not, though. There’s just one problem: late night is my favorite time to write!)

The music therapy session was the one part of the day that went well. Wakana opened it by asking what our objective was, so I explained my perspective of what was going on and desire to use music to work through it together. We showed Fox how to play a variety of instruments, then he and I selected several to improvise with. He played the djembe (African hand drum held between the knees/thighs). I started with the cymbal, but when I saw that it was interfering with his music-making, I switched to the “nicer” and “quieter” malimba (African thumb piano).

If I’m making music with one or more other people, I listen to and might watch them, but the majority of my attention is on my own playing. This time, most of my focus was on Fox: his playing, facial expressions, and other body language. I tried to give him time to find a rhythm and play something that made sense with it. I got frustrated and even once played loudly on his drum when he played very quietly around the edges.

It was only when I backed off and became engrossed in the melody I was playing on the malimba that he was really able to join me. We responded to each other in the music and smiled at each other. He started to play with more confidence and volume. Where before my cymbal playing had interfered with his ability to play anything, I found I could punctuate and to some extent respond to his rhythmic patterns with it … then go back to playing the malimba. We connected and had a lot of fun.

Using Words

I was a bit annoyed when it seemed like Wakana was focusing mostly on Fox’s experiences, but listening to Fox speak was actually very helpful. I learned that, like me, he feels like he is putting a lot into our relationship and not getting as much out of it as he would like; his needs aren’t getting met. He expressed that he’s trying very hard to support me in dealing with my depression, all the transitions that are happening in my life, and day-t0-day stress. Sometimes it’s hard for him to figure out how to fit in his own needs, particularly because he doesn’t want them to have an adverse effect on me. It reminded me so strongly of what I’ve learned about the therapeutic relationship – the therapist should never use the session to meet hir own needs at the expense of the client – that I actually told him very firmly “You are not my therapist.”

I think sometimes we both need to remember that his job in our relationship is not to meet my needs. We are two individuals, equals, both of whom have needs that need to be met in a mutual and reciprocal way. I can’t meet all his needs and he can’t meet all of mine; we each need to find ways of taking care of ourselves and reaching out to other people for support. I think a lot of my anger toward him comes from forgetting this.

I’ve also finally come to acknowledge that, whether he is intentionally or subconsciously controlling me or not, I am putting stupid amounts of energy into trying to control him. Let me say that again: I am controlling him. For a while I was reading a book Wakana had recommended, titled Codependent No More: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself by Melody Beattie. As soon as I read the subtitle I denied that I could possibly be guilty of controlling others. My mother did that to me, Fox was doing it, even Banji. Everybody else. Not me! I was the victim.

Now I’m thinking maybe I should give this book another read with the understanding that maybe more of it applies to me than I had thought. Maybe Fox and I can read it together – codependency is something we both struggle with and a significant, 2-way issue in our relationship.

Wakana also gave us a valuable tool we can use to better assert our needs to one another, while still respecting each other and being polite. She suggested that if one of us wants to talk to the other about something, we set a date – it could be “in half an hour” – so we both have time to prepare mentally. Then no one’s activity gets interrupted and everyone’s needs can be discussed, hopefully addressed to the satisfaction of all parties.

A New Vocabulary

Wakana and Fox also helped me find the words to better explain something that’s been happening to me that is very distressing, interferes with my functioning, and has yet to be addressed by mental health professionals despite my attempts to bring it up. Sometimes I freeze up (I used to say “get stuck”): I feel like I either can’t or really don’t want to move; sometimes my head is swimming with thoughts. Sometimes I can’t think at all. All I can do is hold still and feel my body.

From my subjective experience it seems similar to my understanding of catatonic episodes, though for me it usually only lasts a few or maybe several minutes. I’m afraid to use that word with mental health professionals, though, in case I’m wrong. My understanding is that, even in the context of depression (vs. schizophrenia), catatonia is considered a severe psychotic symptom. One of my major goals in life is to avoid being involuntarily committed to inpatient psychiatric care – or needing it, for that matter. Applying inaccurate labels to myself around authority figures does not seem conducive to that goal.

Wakana didn’t use that word, though, she put it in the context of trauma response. There are 3 typical responses to a traumatic experience: fight, flight, or freeze. She noticed that, in my suddenly-much-clearer-than-usual explanation of the symptom, I said I feel overwhelmed by my (often self-deprecating) thoughts and conflicting emotions. “It’s anxiety,” she said, “probably linked to a past trauma.” There have been several times when I’ve frozen up to varying degrees – from feeling like I couldn’t move to completely shutting down emotionally – in response to trauma, such as: hearing my parents argue (as a child); learning my father had just died (as a preteen). Those responses seem sensible. Freezing in response to my own thoughts as an adult is a bit of a concern. Clearly I have a significant anxiety disorder that coexists with and feeds into my depression.

Well, now I have the words to describe one of my most distressing symptoms, and a nudge from Wakana to address it with Psychiatrist B.

But It Comes with a Cost

The downside to the extra session time Wakana gave us is that I left her office too late to make it to my class on time. I was beating myself up mentally for being late, especially because I did not have the book the instructor had emailed us three times saying to bring!

I tried checking my email to see if the order had been filled, so I could at least get the book and keep up with assignments, but I didn’t have an internet connection. I was too exhausted to deal with showing up significantly late for class without the book, never mind attempting to learn anything (and driving home afterward).

I went home with the Critic angrily lecturing me about the extra money I’d wasted on transportation to campus and how irresponsible it was/looked to miss the first day of class – especially as a graduate student! It went so far as to tell me I’m not allowed to spend an equivalent amount of money on other things! (Suggesting maybe I shouldn’t would be reasonable. Saying I’m not allowed is a bit harsh.)

I told the Critic that I’d made my choice and to shut up, but the guilt lingered. It only faded when I decided to make an appointment to meet with the instructor during her office hours. I’m also thinking I should look into filing for official disability accommodations with the school; it might be the difference between graduating and being forced to withdraw – i.e. give up my dream career – “for medical reasons.”

If I were given a choice between that and being involuntarily committed for inpatient psychiatric care, I’d take the latter – at least temporarily.

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2 thoughts on “Using Words to Say What They Cannot

  1. Pingback: My Efforts to be Codependent No More – Part One: What’s Codependency and Who’s Got It? (Me!) | a day with depression

  2. Pingback: Listening to Myself – Part 1 | a day with depression

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