Often when things happen to us, we get thrown off course. Life can become disrupted. This may also be true when it comes to who we are, or who we were. In this episode of our addiction and recovery podcast, Jackie Pack explores the word “continue” and how it relates to therapy and the process of reclaiming ourselves.
TRANSCRIPT: Reclaiming Your Life Through “Continuing” Therapy
Hey everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. As I’ve been continuing my shelter in place for the fourth week going on the fifth week, I found myself doing some reflection, not that I have a ton more time or anything. I’ve talked to some people who will say they have a lot more time than they normally do. I don’t feel like I do since I can work from home and most of my clients have continued with me, but times like these get me reflecting. I’ve read through some old journals, looked at old photo albums. We as a family have talked about times gone by as we spend time together more than we typically do, and at times, I see my kids’ personalities shine through in their adult selves from when they were young. It got me thinking about when we hit our 20s, it seems like we have spent our entire lives in a classroom. We slowly transition from grade school to middle or junior high school to high school to the final home stretch of college or a graduate program. For 16+ years, we were educational sponges absorbing information from classes, lectures, seminars on dozens of diverse topics, and then it stopped. Like many students, I spent the better part of my academic years falling asleep in classes, doodling in classes, thinking about other things during classes that were neither stimulating nor practical in my everyday life. I still remember being thrilled as I finished the final sentence of my last college paper thinking there, I’ll never have to write an essay or go to school again. But of course I was wrong. After entering the workforce, I’ve realized that learning is even more important now than it was back in my dorm room days. For one, Humanities 101 definitely didn’t prepare me for the skills I need to further my career, skills like how to negotiate my first salary, how to present in front of a large crowd, or even how to budget and invest for the future. So I found myself going back to the figurative classroom, and I started learning again. It turns out that learning something new not only helps the brain function more effectively; it also improves focus, overall confidence, and self-esteem. This is something I’m trying to get my youngest, who’s a junior in high school, to recognize as she’s begrudging and complaining about the schoolwork and the learning that is before her still.
Now as I work with and supervise or coach new therapists, this is something that I often tell them that all the schooling you’ve had up to this point will only get you so far. I will tell them the education that you got in grad school actually is just the beginning of knowing what you need to know. Graduating or the degree that they hold only allows them to learn new things going forward. It hadn’t taught them all the things that they needed to do. I tell them you have to have your master’s degree in order to sign up for the training that will teach you the skills of improving and perfecting your craft. Now many professions require continuing education, and continuing professional development is important because it ensures that you continue to be competent in your profession. It’s an ongoing process and continues throughout our professional career. Sometimes it’s mandated by professional organizations or required by codes of conduct or codes of ethics, but at its core it is a personal responsibility of professionals to keep their knowledge and skills current so that they can deliver the high quality of service that safeguards the public and meets the expectations of customers and the requirements of their profession.
So let’s think about for a minute that word “continue”. The word continue means to go on after suspension or interruption, to last, to endure, to remain in a particular state or capacity, to remain in a place or to stay or carry over. With several of my clients, the work that they are doing currently is one of assessing what has continued in their life. Maybe they’re looking at what they want to continue or what they don’t want to continue. Actually, I’ll say this is part of the work all of my clients do. They come to this point in therapy when they’re having to look at the big picture and they’re having to sort and they’re having to make determinations on what needs to continue and what doesn’t.
This past week as I was having therapy sessions through telehealth with two of my clients, this topic came up, and it got me thinking along with the reflecting that I’ve already been doing, it got me thinking about this concept of continuing as we were talking about it. So in these sessions we were talking about who they are. Both of them find themselves in a position of asking themselves that question and not really knowing what the true answers are. What is the authentic version of themselves? For both of them, there’s been experiences that happened that stopped or impeded the continuation of that self, that authentic self. In one way or another, the traumatic experience they had endured had actually been what continued instead of the self. It’s the self that they got to know. This traumatized version of themselves had continued in such a way they didn’t even know there could be anything different. They didn’t know until recently that this was not the authentic version of themselves, and instead was the version that they had learned in order to cope, to do what was needed, to be who someone else required of them or needed from them.
Usually at this point in the therapy process, I will say to them something along the lines of, “That kind of living is what got you here, here in my office, looking for change. What has worked prior to this point stopped working, and it led you to ask some questions. It led you to begin this process of change. Perhaps a process of reclamation.” Oftentimes it isn’t simply a process of change, although change is hard enough. It’s usually a process of change and reclaiming. We have to change how we are doing things now and reclaim who we’ve always been, even if we stopped being that decades ago. Oftentimes I’ll tell clients to look for the clues of who they are. We aren’t going to go out and find who they are. It’s not out there somewhere external to themselves, but rather it’s an internal process in which we start to look for the clues that take us inside and we uncover who they are, finding it buried sometimes very deep under many levels. Sometimes we have to go to very young ages in order to remember, in order to find the origins of these clues, to be able to see and feel the origins of themselves, but we do find it. It’s there, and as we uncover more of it, we usually find that it’s always been there in some form or another, maybe in a diluted or adulterated form. It may be in a form that’s hard to recognize as a strength. Often what we first see in therapy is the adulterated or diluted form of their personal strength, a strength that’s overdone or underdone, that needs some dialing in in order to show up as a strength, to show up in a way that’s authentic and helpful. At first I might ask them to tell me the adjectives of how they were described as a child. Sometimes we have to reframe the words that were used in order to describe them as a child in order to see it as a strength. Sometimes we have to reframe that stubborn may have been determined, mischievous may actually be curious. Many times our parents didn’t know how to see us, or perhaps it was a schoolteacher who had a difficult time seeing the child in the classroom who wasn’t conforming and thereby was making life in the classroom more difficult and less productive, and it was difficult to see the strength of that child who wouldn’t conform.
I had one of these kids, actually I still have one of these kids. She’s currently 21, but I have a lot of stories from when she was in elementary school and beyond elementary school ages. One of the stories I will tell about her is when she was in the third grade. So she’s daughter #3. So daughter #3 and daughter #4 were in… their elementary school had a Spanish immersion program, so both of them were enrolled in the Spanish immersion program and were learning Spanish along with English in their elementary school grades, and so she had two teachers. She had that year in third grade, she had Mr. Perez and I’m blanking on the other teacher’s name that she had, the English teacher. Anyway, so she had these two teachers in third grade, and she came home from school one day and said to me… we didn’t live far from the school. She could walk. It was just kind of around the corner from where we lived, and so she walked home and she came in and said, “Hey, Mom, Mr. Perez needs you to come back to school with me. He wants to talk to you.” And this was not unusual. This is not the first time I had been summoned to go back to the school with her for some reason, and so I didn’t ask a whole lot of questions. I grabbed my purse and we walked out to the car to drive back over to the school, and I said to her, “Do you know what this is about?” and she said, “Yeah, I think so.” And I said, “Okay.” And she said “I don’t think it’s very fair.” I said “Okay.” And she said, “I don’t think he’s being really fair about this whole thing.” “Okay, well let’s go talk to Mr. Perez.” So we got back, Mr. Perez was waiting for us, and we sit down and he says, “I’d like to know if you told your mom why I wanted to talk to her.” And she was a little bit defiant because again, she’s not thinking that this is very fair and she’s not really happy about the situation and being called back to school to get in trouble with her mom, so she said to him, “No I didn’t tell her what was going on. I just told her we needed to come back.” So he says to me, “At our last recess of the day, the playground duty teachers had collected all of the balls that kids had played with throughout the day all over the school playground in this one area, all of the balls were collected in one area, and I went out to collect the class from recess and to bring them in for the last little bit of class, and Kelly was in the far corner of the school playground. She saw me, and she started running in, and she noticed a ball clear out where she was, so she ran over to it and started dribbling it in.” Kelly was a soccer player. “So she started dribbling it. Kelly, why don’t you tell your mom the rest of the story.” So she turns to me and says, “Well, I was dribbling the ball, and you know I’ve been working on my kicks and having better kicks in soccer, so I wondered if I could kick this ball hard enough and land it right in the middle of all those balls, hard enough that all of those balls would fly up in the air, so I decided to try to do that, and it was a good kick, and I landed it right in the middle and several of the balls flew up and it was really cool. It was so awesome.” Her teacher is not smiling at this point. He’s not thinking that this is a very awesome decision that she made. So he interrupted her and said, “Did you know that you would have to go collect those balls that you sent flying?” And she said, “Oh I did, yeah. I knew that I would have to collect those balls, and I just started running and collecting all the balls that had flown from when I kicked the ball. “ And he said, “Even though the whole classroom and myself are sitting here waiting for you to come into the line, you decided to spend some extra time sending the balls flying and then collecting the balls and bringing them all back.” And she owned that decision, which she’s never really had a problem owning her decision, and so she just said, “Yeah, yeah, I did.” And he said, “Well, did you know that you’d probably get in trouble?” And she said, “I did, yeah I did.” And I remember it was a Thursday because of what she said next, so in their elementary school, Friday was a short day. They got out early on Friday, so a lot of times the classes would do some fun activities on Friday, and they called it Fun Friday, and in this particular class, you had a card with your name on it, and if you got I think it was like three or more punches on your card, like just a hole punch, if you got three or more punches on your card for misbehaving, then you didn’t get to participate in Fun Friday. So Mr. Perez is asking her, he said, “Did you know that you would get in trouble?” And she said, “Yeah, I figured I would get in trouble.” And he said, “And you did it anyway?” And she said, “Yeah I did.” And he’s like, “Why?” And she said, “Because I just wanted to see if I could do it, and it’s Thursday and I don’t have any punches on my card, so it doesn’t really matter if I get a punch of my card. Now Mr. Perez was not happy at her deduction and her reasoning on this, so he said, “Well actually because you did this, you don’t get to participate in Fun Friday after all anyway.” She just kind of was like frustrated, and we ended the conversation, and I mean, to me as a parent, I knew Kelly. I lived with her. I knew that I had to pick my battles, and this just wasn’t one I was going to pick. She wasn’t being defiant. She kicked the ball. She had her reason for wanting to do that. She was more than happy to collect all the balls. She was more than happy with the consequence that she got from this, so we left and we went out to the car and she tells me, “It’s ok. I don’t care if I’m missing Fun Friday because they’re really not Fun Fridays anyway.” And I just said, “Okay, well, you just need to be aware. It sounds like Mr. Perez is pretty upset with you.” And she was just like, “Well that’s fine because I can’t wait to tell my coach about my kick.”
Now there’s a lot of things that I have learned in raising a child who maybe marches to the beat of her own drum or is willing to do things that maybe are not mainstream and is willing to kind of live outside of the box that a lot of other people live in, and one of the things that I have come to appreciate, even though I will say sometimes the years raising her were long and there were a lot of stories like this one with the ball that I could talk about with her as I know that she stretched me as a person, and I came to appreciate the determination and the viewpoint and the curiosity that she had and was willing to pursue, and that was something that I often had to reframe as maybe one person saw it this way, Mr. Perez saw it as her not obeying and being disruptive, but I saw it as her taking a chance, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Now I will say it was kind of a fine line to figure out how to teach her to be a responsible person and to behave enough while also not trampling the energy and the personality that she came with.
Sometimes when I’m meeting with clients or we’re working through the process of figuring out who they are, they express a fear of finding their authentic self. They’re afraid of what they might find and what it will look like. What if they don’t like it or what if it’s as bad as they’re afraid of it being? Now I will say I have never worked with a client who, upon getting to know their authentic self, didn’t feel at home. Often I find that they recognize what they see or who they see. There is this acceptance of who they are, and it helps make sense of how they have been. They can put the pieces of the puzzle together with the understanding of how they got off course or what caused them to skip a beat. Once they can start to see this big picture, it’s easier to reclaim those authentic pieces of themselves and continue the way they were meant to be, and they know how to continue that.
I sometimes tell the story of myself when I was in first grade. When I was in first grade, I think there was a girl who was the grade younger than me, and she had written a letter to Tip O’Neill. Tip O’Neill was an American politician who served as the 47th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987, and he represented northern Boston, Massachusetts as a Democrat from 1953 to 1987. He was the only Speaker to serve for five complete consecutive congresses, and he is the third longest-serving Speaker in American history after Sam Rayburn and Henry Clay. So I don’t really even remember, like I said, I was in first grade, but this girl had written a letter to him and somehow it resulted in him coming to the elementary school, and he met with this girl, and then he also did an assembly for the elementary school, and I don’t recall all of the events of that elementary school. When I look back at that as an adult, I think what a strange assembly for elementary school who the oldest kids in the audience are 12 years old, and this is a politician coming to do an assembly that most of use really couldn’t even appreciate or grasp what this was, but I remember him coming to the elementary school, and I remember going in for the assembly, and as we were sitting down, my teacher in first grade was named Mrs. Tribbily, and she was Maori from New Zealand, and she was one of the kindest teachers I ever had, and so I remember during this assembly, I don’t really remember what happened, but I remember they got to the end, and there was a question and answer, which again is such a strange thing to ask elementary school kids if they have questions that this politician can answer. Now let me back up a minute because I came from a family who most of them, a lot of them were in education. My mom was in education, her brother was in education, her sister was in education. I’m trying to think if that was all. Another brother was in education. So my mom came from a family of people who worked in education, and often when we would go to my grandparents’ house on Sunday and my extended family was there, my sister and I… so I have an older sister, and then me, we’re the oldest two grandkids, and there isn’t another grandchild until like between my fourth and fifth siblings, so when we went to my grandparents’ house, there wasn’t a ton for us to do. We just kind of hung out with each other as siblings, which wasn’t that much different than a normal day at our house when we had each other to hang out with. So we also spent quite a bit of time around the adults and around adult conversation, and so I’m guessing that when I chose in first grade to stand up and ask my question, I’m guessing that my question went back to one of the conversations that I overheard at my grandparents’ house as my mom or my aunts and uncles were discussing events and particularly as they related to education. Now I can’t even remember what question I asked, but I remember they turned it over for question and answer and nobody really had a lot of questions, and so I raised my hand and they brought the mike to me, and I stood up because my class was kind of in front, so we didn’t even have chairs, we were just sitting on the floor criss-cross, so I stood up and I asked my question, and like I said, I don’t remember what my question was, but I remember a feeling in the auditorium that something shifted. I remember there being kind of a tenseness because I remember wondering if I had said something wrong or if what I had said meant that I was now in trouble, and I remember looking down the row of my classmates towards my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Tribbily who would have been sitting on a chair at the end of our row, and I remember just kind of looking at her, and she was kind of just looking straight ahead, really good poker face on her face, just seemed to not be phased at all by what I just did, but I remember looking at her and just out of the corner of her eye, she caught my eye and she gave me a wink, and I just saw the corners of her mouth kind of go up in a smile. So I remember thinking, well I’m not in trouble with Mrs. Tribbily, so I guess I’m okay. So fast-forward a couple of days I think, and the county that I lived in had a newspaper that came out… I think it came out twice a week, and it was just kind of events about the county, sometimes high school sports or different things like that. It was just kind of a county newspaper, and I remember my mom coming to me and saying, “Hey, Jackie, do you want to tell me what happened at school the other day?” And to me, I didn’t think anything of it, and I was like, “Nothing happened at school the other day.” And she’s like, “Well something happened. You didn’t tell me about it.” And so she showed me the newspaper, and on the front of the newspaper was Tip O’Neill and the girl who had written the letter to him along with… I don’t remember if it was a picture of me or just the story about me, and so I was kind of reading through the story, and I got to the part where it described I think it… I know it described me as this small first grader with knobby knees, so I must have been wearing a dress, and I remember not even knowing what knobby knees meant, but I was so kind of offended, like knobby knees? How rude! I don’t have knobby knees! And said something like “In a timid voice, stood up and asked the question.” I don’t even really remember, and I just kind of looked at my mom like, oh yeah, okay so that happened at school the other day, and my mom asked me some more questions about it, and it me, it didn’t really stand out that much, probably because I knew I wasn’t in trouble. I had looked at Mrs. Tribbily, she had winked at me, nothing else was really said throughout the remainder of that day, and then I just went home and kind of forgot about it and moved on with my life.
Now there’s another story that for me in my life stands out when I was in sixth grade. So when I was in sixth grade, still at the same elementary school, and my mom… I will say my mom prior to me starting school, my mom was a teacher at the elementary school, and so she was familiar with a lot of the faculty at this elementary school, and she knew the principal, and she quit teaching when I was about four years old, when my younger brother Ben was born, she quit teaching, but she still knew, she was involved with the school, she was on the PTA, she was a room mom, she still knew people and she kind of kept up her connections at the school. So I was in sixth grade, and my teacher was a male teacher. I had a male teacher in fifth grade, and then again in sixth grade, and growing up and going to that elementary school, I had always heard about Mr. Nielsen and how kind of scary he was, and as a young child I remember being scared and intimidated by Mr. Nielsen, but when I was in sixth grade and had Mr. Nielsen as a teacher, I actually really enjoyed him as a teacher, and I learned a lot from him. So one day I’m in sixth grade, we get to school a little bit early before school started, and we had ridden our bikes, so we had locked up our bikes and we’re just playing with kids on the schoolground. Now there was a girl in my sixth grade class who if I remember correctly, she moved in in sixth grade. She might have moved in maybe in fifth grade, but she wasn’t in my class, so it’s not like she was somebody that I went to school with from kindergarten on, but she moved to our elementary school, and I knew that she didn’t have… her family did not have a lot of money, and they lived out in the more rural part of our area, and you could tell that she didn’t really have nice clothes and she didn’t always maybe bathe or wash her hair as much as maybe I did, and I wasn’t necessarily friends with her, but I wasn’t mean to her, and so she had gotten there after the rest of us had gotten there, and she was kind of walking her bike up to the rack to lock it up, and I remember she had to walk it because her chain had fallen off, so she got to the bike rack and kind of parked her bike in the bike rack and started putting the chain on her bike, and in the process, if you’ve ever had to put your chains on bikes, your fingers get a little bit greasy from touching the bike chain, and so there was a group of kids that I was friends with, I wasn’t super great friends with all of them, but I was friends with them, and this one boy in particular went over to where the bike rack was and started making fun of her. Now this wasn’t unusual. She did get made fun of by people in our school and in our grade, but he went over and he was making fun of her, and he was particularly making fun of how dirty her fingers were, and there was something in me that just kind of rose up, and I was angry because at that time, you just had to know how to put chains on your bike. It really didn’t matter if you were a girl or if you were a boy, that’s how we got around, that’s how we got to friends’ houses, that’s how we went and did things was to ride our bikes, and if you didn’t know how to get a chain back on if it fell off, you could likely get stranded and it would take you much longer to get back to where you needed to or where you were going than if you just knew how to put your bike chain back on. So she was putting her bike chain back on, he was making fun of her, and I was just angry because I knew that every single one of use who was standing there at that point knew how to put our bike chains on, and I also knew that not one of us could put our bike chains back on without getting our hands dirty, and so something just came up and out of me and I said what I was thinking and I told him, “What do you think you’re doing? This is what happens when you put bike chains on. Why are you making fun of her for putting a bike chain on? There’s nothing wrong with being able to put a bike chain on.” And he started coming after me, and he was angry, and again, we’re in sixth grade, nothing too major at this point, but I remember I hauled off and I punched him in the nose, and he got a bloody nose. I had never to that point in my life hit somebody that way, just out of anger, just kind of punched him in the nose, but I punched him in the nose, and I remember he ran to the ground duty. I was like I’m getting in trouble, I know I’m in trouble, and sure enough, the ground duty came over to me and said, “Your teacher wants to meet with you. You need to go meet him in the principal’s office.” So I started walking into the school towards the principal’s office, and I get to the principal’s office, and my teacher Mr. Nielsen and the principal Mr. Hallows are sitting in his office, and they invite me in, and I’m positive that I’m in trouble and my mom’s gonna hear about it, and that’s not gonna go well, and I sit down, and my teacher says, “I heard what happened this morning on the playground before school started.” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I want you to know I’m proud of what you did.” Now that was not at all what I was expecting, and I kind of looked at Mr. Hallows like, wait what? Is this is a trick? And Mr. Hallows was just smiling his smile that lit up his eyes and was just quiet as Mr. Nielsen proceeded to talk to me and said, “I’m aware of the bullying that’s been happening with this particular classmate of yours throughout the school year, and I understand why the kids make fun of her, but I don’t think it’s okay, and so I’ve been wondering what to do as her teacher.” So he had this plan and he said, “I need you to be a part of this.” It was something I look back on as being quite impressionable on me at that young age and to see that side of my school teacher and my principal, the humanity of both of them, and to know that they needed to do something… they felt for this student as well and they needed to do something, and they got me to help them carry that out.
Sometimes when I look back at my younger self with her knobby knees and her daring voice or timid voice asking question, trying to figure things out, attempting to make sense of the world around me and willing to ask the question, whatever it is that’s inside of me or speak the truth, whatever that seems to be at that moment, I have an appreciation for her and for what she was trying to do in her life at that young age. Now I’ve never been in the paper again. I’ve also never punched anyone again, but I have gotten in trouble for asking questions, and I have been rejected for speaking my truth. There were also times that my truth got clouded because it was easier to not know or to not see what was right in front of me, and as I went into my own therapy process, as I was able to maybe work through the confusion and the layers of who I thought I was, but I wasn’t, and to get back to that place of reclaiming who I am and who I’ve always been, and how I am, I’ve been able to refine those traits without extinguishing them, and I’ve been able to accept that that is a part of who I am. It always has been, and actually I’m okay with that.
There’s a poem by Maya Angelou called “Continue.” She says:
My wish for you
Is that you continue
To be who and how you are
To astonish a mean world
With your acts of kindness
To allow humor to lighten the burden
Of your tender heart
In a society dark with cruelty
To let the people hear the grandeur
Of God in the peals of your laughter
To let your eloquence
Elevate the people to heights
They had only imagined
To remind the people that
Each is as good as the other
And that no one is beneath
Nor above you
To remember your own young years
And look with favor upon the lost
And the least and the lonely
To put the mantle of your protection
Around the bodies of
The young and defenseless
To take the hand of the despised
And diseased and walk proudly with them
In the high street
Some might see you and
Be encouraged to do likewise
To plant a public kiss of concern
On the cheek of the sick
And the aged and infirm
And count that as a
Natural action to be expected
To let gratitude be the pillow
Upon which you kneel to
Say your nightly prayer
And let faith be the bridge
You build to overcome evil
And welcome good
To ignore no vision
Which comes to enlarge your range
And increase your spirit
To dare to love deeply
And risk everything
For the good thing
Happily in the sea of infinite substance
Which set aside riches for you
Before you had a name
And by doing so
You and your work
Will be able to continue
I hope for all of us as we continue that education, as we continue the learning and the work of evolving who we are, our authentic self, our vulnerable self, our real and genuine self, that we continue in the work and we continue with courage and bravery to reclaim those parts of us who make us us.