WHY BETTER IS WORTH IT
PSYCHOLOGY AND DOING THE WORK
I fell into a daydream earlier this week and started thinking about a psychiatric nurse I used to work with named Alan. He was a tall bear of a man with a gentle voice and the kind of dry sense of humor that teenagers just really get. We worked together on a locked psychiatric adolescent hospital unit and were among a small number of practitioners on the unit who enjoyed working at night.
There was a sweet surrender to evenings on the unit. A quiet that was greatly anticipated at the end of a long day of unknowns. I facilitated a reading group three nights a week with a fellow therapist. By the way, all group work should have two facilitators - it works much better than one for many reasons and I imagine the same goes for groups at the workplace as well, but no one talks about that. And that’s a dive I’ll take in the newsletter this week. It deserves some dedicated thought.
Each night before lights out, we read a book aloud to a small group of patients well armed with the hard edges of teenage life. They would simultaneously throw snarkiness while snuggling into the softness of bean bag chairs and fleece covered pillows. It was gentle and sweet with a thread of incomprehensible grief. The nights were generally quiet and still after the reading group and offered up opportunities for the kids to ask the adults some really hard questions. And they did. And Alan was brilliant at answering them.
I remembered back to a patient we had on the unit for an unusually long stretch of time. He was with us for over a month, which even many years ago was unheard of. Medical insurance never allows for this, which is criminal. Most patients receive a few days at best, which is not enough time to baseline, or reach a homeostasis where a sound treatment plan can be created and medication can be reevaluated or switched if necessary. It is just as challenging to get off of psychiatric medication as it is to start. It can take months. An allowance of three days is ridiculous if a patient needs to switch meds or titrate. The system is broken. And failed. And practically dead.
Because of time constraints, we rarely got to know a patient so deeply and after a month, this beautiful, brilliant and very human kid who was experiencing some really significant psychosis had created meaningful connections with all of us. He was tall and thin with a head of dark curls and incredibly piercing eyes. He was 14. And very, very scared. We were all rooting for him. I’m still rooting for him, wherever he is. Let’s call him Thomas.
After reading group one night while Alan and I were rating burritos on Haight Street we were gifted with a visit from Thomas. He chimed in with some real critical thinking about bean to rice ratio and chunky versus smooth guacamole. All good points and details Alan and I had overlooked in our rating system. We both quieted, allowing time and space for Thomas to talk, or ask, or cry, or scream. He got really quiet. After a few moments he looked to Alan and asked, “Does it ever get any easier?”
If you have been asked this question as a therapist, a parent, a partner, a friend, you know how it softens your whole body. This question somehow bypasses the mind and goes straight to the heart. It sits deep inside the body. It is a vulnerable question. There is little the mind can provide in response to this question. Data becomes irrelevant. What the person asking the question really wants to know is, is this survivable? This problem, this fear, this grief, this space in time, this mind of mine. Is this survivable? Tell me how it is. How do I do this?
Alan paused then looked at Thomas and said, ”life never gets easier, but it does get better. And you are no exception.”
I should say that this question was asked long before the It Gets Better Project and book by Dan Savage and Terry Miller. The idea of better wasn’t floating around in the ether and Alan’s words were the first time I had ever heard this idea. I watched Thomas take it in. The words travel through his mind and body. He looked at me for agreement and I nodded. There was a clarity in that moment. It sliced right through the constant chaos and grief of the room. It was freedom. A changed expectation that none of this was supposed to be easy and it never would be. We just get better at dealing with it. Thomas got it. And I could see the relief take over his body.
Better is important. Really important. Especially since easy will never come. Ease, yes. Delight, joy, love, celebration. Yes, all those things. But if the motivation to do anything is the expectation of absolute easy, then no. It’s not coming. But better is worth it. Ask anyone who has been in therapy. Has it made life easy? No. Not especially, but better, yeah. And this better is big. This better is worth it and makes all the difference.
So if you are out there listening wondering about doing the introspective work. Wanting to know why you should get to know yourself. Wondering if it is worth it when the work is hard. The answer is yes. But know this, you will still fall. We all fall and fail and stumble. But it’s the getting back up where the better comes in. We get better at repair. Reconciliation. Forgiveness. Compassion. Anger. Grief. We get better at finding where there is ease and letting go and being there when we can be. We know moments of freedom which feel like breath and dance and love. And we get better at discovering those moments. Working toward those moments. Resting in those moments. And it’s worth it.
Better is well, better. And you deserve it.
Thank you for being here.Listen to this episode here.