When I arrived in the group therapy program, I was a smiley person. I’m still a smiley person. Smiley is a default setting in my programing. In therapy, I discovered that I could say things like, “My heart is breaking” without the dimming of my smile. I’m pretty sure that it is actually very creepy.
Growing up, people always commented on my smile. Literally, I remember chasing other kids around old people at church to the tune of “Just look at that smile”. My smile has served me well. It has been my personal rescue operation in front of the parental firing squad, as well as my political stance during confrontational “discussions”.
My smile also deceived me. I thought I was okay. I thought I had joy and an undaunted optimism. What I really had were 30 years of emotion stuffed inside a body, heart and mind that were bursting. All of it covered by the bandaid of a bright smile.
I’ll never forget the day that changed. I will never forget the day that I wept in front of people. People I had only known for two weeks.
It started as a simple role-playing exercise that they called psychodrama . In this exercise, I played myself, while one of my therapists played the angry voice in my head. Meanwhile, another therapist sat next to me and helped me not run from the room wailing….errr…he helped me cope.
It started relatively simple. We sat in chairs facing each other – me facing the therapist who was to play my angry voice. I shared a time when I had some very angry thoughts toward myself. I described some of the thoughts I had so that the angry voice therapist could get an idea of what role she was playing.
Then, we began. The angry voice said something terrible, “You are awful and…” I sat there nodding my head. My helpful coping therapist nudged me. This is where I was supposed to respond apparently.
“Yeah, I do really suck.” I said.
I just accepted what the angry voice said! I didn’t try to argue with her. I didn’t try to negotiate. I didn’t even become emotional.
My helpful, coping therapist intervened. “Do you see how you just accepted and agreed that you are awful and terrible? Do you see that you are still smiling after that? THAT is a sign that you are shutting down your emotions.”
Oh yeah, that’s right! I turned the smile off, trying for appropriate severity. Helpful, coping therapist prompted me to say something back to the angry voice. Literally, I sat in front of my therapy group at a total loss for words. I had no idea what to say to the angry voice other than, “You’re right” with a glowing smile. I had no idea what to do!
They let me struggle for awhile, but then my therapist made a suggestion. Tell the angry voice how you felt about those angry words.
“Not good.” I said grinning, ear to ear, my vocabulary utterly absent.
“Maybe with more description, like is it scary or sad?”
“Ummm….sad?” I questioned
“Good,” Helpful, coping therapist said. “You could say, ‘I feel sad about those words.'”
And so I did. We did this sort of back and forth for several minutes, as I desperately tried to connect with some emotion – any emotion! Then, something strange happened as I said that I felt sad.
I actually felt sad.
For the first time in my life, I felt for myself. Not for the perfectionist version of myself, not for the angry version of myself, not even for the shameful version of myself. I felt for the child within myself. No matter how bad she messed up, she didn’t deserve to be belittled.
We continued on in this way, except my helpful, coping therapist didn’t have to help as much. I had found my own voice, my own words. Back and forth I went with the angry voice. I held it together for awhile – until I told the angry voice that I had given up, quit on all of my dreams, just so that I didn’t have to hear her belittle me anymore.
And then something broke open within me. I started to cry, but it was small crying. Crying for something small like a bad week, not crying for lost dreams and regret. It was monumental to me.
But not quite good enough for helpful, coping therapist. He said, “It’s okay to let it out. Look over at your new friends. Look them in the eye. Are they laughing? Are they criticizing? Are they angry?”
Through my tears, I looked at one face. His face and his eyes were the most kind things I had ever seen. His name was Chad. Even now, today, when I think of it, I am reminded of that iconic picture of Jesus with the kind eyes. Except this was real. This was real love, real concern. I dared to look at another person, Holly. She smiled at me. She nodded.
Yes, it was okay to let go.
After that I cried for a really long time. Helpful, coping therapist reminded me to breath. He patted me on the back. Angry voice therapist leaned forward and touched my knee.
“I think you get it now.” She said meaningfully, dropping her façade.
And I did.
I got it. I understood.
Afterwards, they turned on the lights and each of the people in my therapy group shared what they learned from my story or what was significant to them. It was really sacred to me – not what they said, but that they had actually heard. Someone had heard the real me.
And then it was time for lunch and we all walked out to the kitchenette. As I was serving myself a plate full of nasty hospital food, another therapist, who wasn’t in psychodrama, said he had heard about it. He asked me how I was doing.
And I smiled anew. Not because all of the sadness had passed. It didn’t and still hasn’t. I smiled because I knew. I understood.
People aren’t always looking for the truthful answer and that’s okay. I could give them a truthful answer in my own way.
“I am here.” I said, fully present to all that the day had brought – sadness, freedom, relief, grief and, yes, even the joy of being heard.