18. Therapy and The Wall

The long journey that led me to take vows as a Buddhist at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center in 1993 had taught me a lot, but the depression at the heart of my emotional/mental state seemed pretty resistant to the meditation and the vows and anything else I was doing.

I was moody and angry, and I wasn’t easy to get along with for my wife and kids. I think the meditation helped me feel better about things, but it didn’t really seem to be helping how I interacted with my family. I think I yelled at my middle school students a lot, as well!

It somewhat seems like it should have been a no-brainer for me to figure out what was going on, considering the traumatic nature of my whole Vietnam experience, which I’ve written about extensively on my other blog, A War Journal, though I’ve only briefly mentioned it in this narrative. That experience and the recent death of my father were both still unresolved for me, but it took me awhile to realize how all that was eating away at me and making it hard for me to relate to life and other people.

I thought I had packed it all away in some locked trunk in the depths of my mind.

Eventually, things just got intolerable I suppose, and my wife began to push me to do something, get therapy, take drugs — anything to make it better. We argued a lot, and I always felt that I didn’t know what it was that was wrong.
I went on anti-depressants, which I didn’t really like, and which maybe helped some, but they didn’t seem to fix things either. It was a constant struggle for all of us.

Somewhere in there, my wife’s father, Dr. Pisacano, suggested that therapy would be a good option. I’m not really sure how long it took me to act on that suggestion, given the resistance that I had to letting go of control.
But at some point, I gave in. I had my first session of therapy with Susan in October of 1997. According to my journal, which Susan recommended I resume seriously, I felt better right away, just for having made the decision to start.

It was a long and arduous path, because I had really buried a lot in the past 25-plus years. I was in therapy, at varying levels of frequency, for about five years.

Susan was the perfect therapist for me, because she had a similar background in Christianity and had moved on to a more contemplative approach and practiced mindfulness. With her careful and compassionate guidance, the therapy became a major part of my path for several years.

Susan included meditative moments in the sessions, and helped me to develop ways to incorporate the therapy into my sitting practice. One of the major thrusts of the therapy was digging into the conflict with my father and his dying before we ever resolved our differences over the Vietnam war and my response to it. So I spent many hours on my cushion talking to him tearfully, railing at him, and eventually finding my way to forgive him for everything.

I had been reading Brian Epstein’s Thoughts Without A Thinker even before I began the therapy, and it was a great help in merging therapy and practice. He shows how meditation can be a great help to therapy—and vice versa. He also makes it clear that for a person who has serious issues such as mine, practice alone is usually not enough. Those things that come up in therapy seem to get suppressed/repressed on the cushion. Dissociation makes it possible to think you’re dealing with deep things when you’re just sorta gliding over the top of them.

Once I began digging them up with Susan’s prodding, they were part of the work I had to do on the cushion.
All of which puts practice in a different perspective. Rather than just some quiet moments that help one deal with stress and be more relaxed, practice—time on the cushion, walking, journaling—becomes a matter of seeing through each discrete packet of emotion-laden thoughts as it arises in your mind. Not that you’re rationally analyzing it or finding answers and solutions. It’s more a matter of just looking at it and watching its structure come unraveled in front of you until it no longer holds power over your responses.

As I said, it’s a long and arduous process. The rewards, however, are great.

One of the best things this process did for me was help me to see what parts of the problems in my relationships were caused by my issues and what parts were caused by other factors, including other people’s issues. That’s a critical distinction if things are ever to get better. Learning to see through my own rationalizations and pushing the blame onto others was a major part of how it helped. Of course, that learning is still going on. I suppose it never ends.

But, things did get better.

The relationship with my wife was much better, and it held together long enough to raise three children who are, each one, a delight and a positive contribution to the world! That relationship was bright and good for both of us for about another 20 years, and its dissolution was something of a natural development of changes that each of us went through. Which, given the level of discord that was occurring in the few years before I started the therapy, is pretty amazing.

I was also beginning to practice Tonglen, the Tibetan teachings brought to the western world primarily by Chogyam Trunga and his disciple Pema Chodron. I have found the Tibetan teachings in general, especially Tonglen, to be very helpful and very easy to merge with an essentially Zen approach.

Integrating Tonglen and the associated lojong slogans into my sitting practice along with the therapy proved to be very helpful in dealing with the day-to-day difficulties of life.

The Tibetan teachings (leaving out the more esoteric, magical and theological aspects) share much with the practical, “things as it is” Zen teachings. The vital notions of accepting life’s vicissitudes as guidance along the way of liberation are pretty much the same in both sets of teachings, and the different ways they are presented, the different personal flavors from the teachers in the two traditions always have seemed complementary to me.
(In the other stream on this blog, the Posts, I have from time to time written about some of the specifics of Tonglen, and I’ve even dealt with a few of the lojong slogans, so I won’t go into that here.)

The other aspect of the interface between therapy and practice was writing. I had always journaled sporadically, but I began to approach it as part of practice, and Susan suggested that I write about the experiences that were such a big part of the interior anguish that was creating my depression.

As part of a writing group, I began writing about the Vietnam experience. The writing proved to be a big part of how the therapeutic process unrolled, and I eventually made it into a book, which is available on my other blog, A War Journal (warjournal.org), on Word Press.

As I began that, another avenue opened up that was part practice, part therapy.

I met Laura Palmer, a producer for Ted Koppel’s Nightline, when she was doing a program on my dear friend and Zen buddy Claire Hicks, who was the first doctor in southeast Georgia to treat AIDS patients. Laura had been a correspondent during the war in Vietnam, and wrote the wonderful book Shrapnel in the Heart (SITH), which is about the things left as little memorials at the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., and the stories of the people who leave them.

I had read the book, sobbing through story after story. It was one of the things that helped me to realize more and more that I had a huge mass of pain connected with the war experiences and my father’s death – an unacknowledged emotional tumor – and that led me to seek therapy.

Three days after Susan told me that I needed to revisit my buried feelings about the war, that I needed to work on opening up to all that, Laura asked me if I wanted to visit the Wall with her.

I was stunned, because she had no idea where I was in the therapy process and no way of knowing that I was looking for some kind of lever to open up the feelings.

But I immediately accepted her offer, and, within a few weeks, we met in D.C. and she walked me through what was a dramatically powerful experience.

I’ve written about this at length in the epilog to the War Journal. This is probably the key paragraph:

Those nine hours at the Wall changed something in me. I have spent many hours since in therapy, in meditation, in conversation digging down through my feelings about it all, until finally I am able to think about it, talk about it, even write this book about it – without being torn apart by the pain and anger over it all.

Going back in my journals and reading about all this is a painful, sometimes depressing, process. It reminds me that many of my current issues—some of which I’ve been blogging about in the Posts here—are just the same old stuff. “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was!” as David Byrne sang long ago…

It also reminds me that there were many vectors in my life, my practice, my process, that I tend to forget all about as I try to condense this into some comprehensible narrative.

I think that’s true of all narrative, fictional and biographical alike. Life is so loopy and jagged, so filled with false starts in multiple directions, re-orientations and mental revisions, that any attempts to smooth it out into a flow is necessarily filled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations. Just a caveat. I don’t want to represent this as a true and comprehensive picture of what my life was like. I’m simply trying to pull from the huge array of experiences to illustrate, as it were, how practice and the seeking of some path through life can be helpful and positive, even if by fits and starts. And to offer encouragement to those who are suffering and seeking, encouragement that there is the possibility of surviving through great adversity.

More on that to come…