My husband and I had been engaging in the same tedious yet maddening arguments for about a year, and I'd had it. The fights themselves were usually about some forgettable issue — child care or household chores — but they went from match strike to gas explosion so quickly that neither of us could dodge the flame, a tip-off that, perhaps, whose turn it was to buy the baby wipes wasn't the real issue. My feeling unappreciated and stressed-out was.
In the space of only a few years' time, we'd sold one home, bought and renovated another and started various new jobs. We're also the parents of active, preschool-aged twin girls, with all the ensuing sleep deprivation and household havoc you'd expect.
On top of that, several of my close friends had recently moved to the West Coast, and I missed the unspoken love and understanding that had always been just a coffee klatch away. My husband and I adored each other, but we were locked in a chronic pattern of pushing each other's buttons from which, it seemed, only a couples therapist could disengage us. On that, at least, we both agreed.
So off we went, hand in hand, to a highly recommended, $250-an-hour shrink for our first counseling session. She had a businesslike air and a sleek, black leather couch that felt cold on my bare legs. I spoke first, and as I did, my eyes began to well up. "My kids are incredible, and I love my job," I said. "I feel tremendously lucky that we have so many blessings in our lives."
Then I got to the "but." My ensuing list of grievances about the man I love surprised even me. I'd never really let 'em rip during our arguments at home for fear that I'd say something irrevocably hurtful. I told the psychologist that it felt as if my husband was my adversary, not my ally. That he often seemed distant, defensive and condescending and didn't seem to appreciate how hard I worked to keep everything together for him and for our family. "And the worst part for me," I said, sobbing hard by now, "is that he always dismisses my opinions as invalid because he thinks they come from a place of emotion rather than logic!" If I hadn't been so upset, I would have laughed at how comical my words must have sounded, sitting there as I was with mascara streaking both sides of my face like Alice Cooper.
But I was upset, even more than I'd recognized.
A blubbering mess
I was also tired, overwhelmed and lonely. Laying it all out without censoring myself the way I usually did made me cry even harder. My husband put his arm around me, though I'm sure he was stunned by my litany. The therapist said nothing as she pushed a box of tissues across the coffee table with an impeccably manicured nail.
I was a blubbering mess. But I was a blubbering mess who, I realized, was already feeling better than I had at the beginning of the session. Lately, I'd been so focused on getting through each day, doing my job, shuttling my girls to and from preschool and play dates, that I hadn't even thought about the cumulative effect all our seismic life changes had been having on me. Once I listed everything in a single breath, I decided I was justified in feeling overwhelmed. Who wouldn't in my situation? True, I also felt embarrassed and vulnerable, like I'd accidentally thrown up on someone important. But I was the tiniest bit relieved, as well. Now that I'd finally put everything out there, maybe I could get the help, empathy and support from my spouse that I craved.
There was silence in the room, save for my snuffly breathing. Next to me, my husband sat utterly composed and in control, his usual demeanor whenever I lost it. The therapist studied me. "Have you ever been depressed?" she asked. I told her that yes, I had been, years ago, though I was more one of those hard-driving, high-achieving people afflicted with anxiety and obsessiveness than the stay-in-bed, hopeless-and-gloomy type. In fact, I told her I was now on an antidepressant that had helped me enormously. "Well, you should definitely talk to your doctor about increasing your dosage," she said. "It's obvious to me that you're under a lot of stress, and it's likely you're experiencing a resurgence of your depression. Promise me you'll do that?"
I nodded, dumbly. She was the authority and charged the fee to prove it. We spent the remainder of the session listening to my husband's more measured point of view. She nodded but asked him no questions. Then we sat in silence for what seemed like 10 minutes while I grabbed more tissues and rubbed my red nose. I was sure she'd say something meaningful or profound, but she didn't. As for me, I'd already laid my heart bare and so I said nothing more. Finally, the therapist said, "I'm sorry, we need to stop now," and reminded me to look into upping my prescription.
What about a good cry?
As we headed home, my husband shook his head. "I was a little shocked that she suggested you take more drugs," he said. "I mean, I think you should do whatever you think will help you feel better, but I know that would have offended me."
He was right. The therapist had listened to me for all of 20 minutes before she suggested I medicate away feelings that many would think were completely appropriate to my situation — a working mom with two demanding little girls living in New York City, one of the more intense places on the planet. Shouldn't she have waited for the full 50 minutes, at least? Wasn't it OK for me to be really, really upset? Whatever happened to having a good cry and feeling better afterward?
Not that I have anything against medication. In fact, I am categorically pro-antidepressants for someone who needs them. But I still had to wonder: Why would any psychotherapist be in such a hurry to pathologize my emotions, to decide that I was in need of a prescription for my tears? I knew that she was simply trying to help me, help us, but no matter how many ways I attempted to see my sobbing, sniffling self through her coolly professional eyes, her response didn't feel right to me.
Maybe that's because I know what depression feels like, and what I was feeling that day was definitely not it. I'd battled the blues for the better part of a decade, starting in high school. By my 20s, after years of hard work and talk therapy, I had hacked through the jungle of my upbringing and emerged a happier, healthier person. Yet despite my progress, I still struggled to free myself from the familiar loop of self-doubt, worry and desire to please the critical voices that played incessantly inside my head. So my shrink recommended a very low dose of an antidepressant, just enough to vacuum most of the negative noise out of my brain — which left me with the right amount of peace between my ears to appreciate all that was going well in my world. When I went on the medication, I felt as if I could breathe deeply for the first time in memory.
Guided by emotions
Still, life is not a flat line, and I wouldn't want to live a flat-line life (thus the tragicomedy on the therapist's couch). Although her first impulse was to label the powerful expression of my honest emotion a problem, in truth, what she witnessed in her office was not a woman suffering from depression but one who was simply upset by her life circumstances (perhaps thrown into relief by the fact that the man sitting next to her was so clearly not showing his feelings).
I chose not to call my doctor. Instead, I decided that my emotions weren't the problem after all but, rather, were a healthy indication that I needed to start living my life differently — get more sleep, work with my husband on ways to better show our mutual love and appreciation for each other and finally give the Wonder Woman thing a rest. If none of that got results, well, then maybe I'd try taking a higher dose of my medication. But first, I would let my emotions guide me. Because what other gauge besides our emotions do we have to help us determine what is and isn't working in our life? Without my feelings of anger, frustration and sadness, as unpleasant as they sometimes are, I wouldn't have a compass.
So my husband and I found another couples therapist, who has been wonderful. He basically lets us argue in front of him, stops us when we start going around in circles and helps us understand each other better. After our first session, we both realized that our ongoing problems, as intense and potentially threatening to our marriage as they sometimes felt, were nothing that a little talking, a lot of sleeping and occasionally dumping off the kids at their grandparents' for a weekend couldn't ultimately cure. But I'm glad we saw the first therapist. The experience reminded me that sometimes, managing my emotions during stressful times involves nothing more than simply feeling them. Which doesn't require a prescription at all.