mental illness · personal

Follow the Pleasure and Embrace the Pain

I’ve started going to therapy again. As I do when I write about my mental health issues, I begin with a slight hesitation. But the more I read about illness–mental and otherwise–the more I realize that I need to write about these things. So here it goes.

I’ve started going to therapy again, and I have to say that therapy is a bitch. Last summer, I started going to therapy and didn’t care for the therapist. Every session was a platitude. Every session was typically C. telling me that it was normal to feel stress (I am in a PhD program, and had just gone through the splitting up of a three-and-a-half year relationship; of course I was stressed). She would tell me I needed to be patient, she would say things like “time heals everything” and “everything will get better.”  I could have gotten the same insight from a self-help book, and it would have taken less of my time.

I had to scream at her before she would listen to me and agree that I needed medication, even though I woke up every morning with extreme panic attacks and couldn’t sleep because I was afraid of waking up to another one. When I did sleep I always woke more tired than I felt when I went to bed. If I hadn’t had to get up to feed my cats, I’m not sure if I would have gotten up at all. After a couple weeks on the meds, I stopped having panic attacks, and I stopped going to therapy.

This summer, I’ve started going again, this time to a different therapist. So far, I’ve had three sessions with T. The first one we spent reviewing my file and checking to see what’s changed since last summer. The second session we talked more about basic things–I have difficulty concentrating, I lose track of time, I’m not getting my work done. She asked me to make a weekly schedule and bring it in next time so we could see if my schedule seems reasonable.

Third session. She looked at my schedule. “This seems reasonable. So, tell me what’s happening when you’re losing motivation.” That’s when the “therapy is a bitch” part came in. I was explaining that I just had trouble keeping momentum, then suddenly I was crying and insisting, “I’m not lazy. I’m really not.”

T. was patient, let me cry, then wanted to know the root of these feelings–where was I getting this strong emotional response to the idea of being called lazy?  We did talk about that for a while, but that’s not for this post.  After we discussed the roots of the emotional response to the idea of being thought lazy, T. asked me to look at a list of statements and see which ones resonated with me. They were phrases like “I’m not good enough;” “I make bad decisions;”  “I am inadequate;”  “I have no control/power” and other variations, all negative, self-deprecating things. It turns out that all of the things I think when I don’t meet my goals for the day lead me back to “you are not good enough” and “you are a disappointment.”

T. drew a line graph at the bottom of my schedule:

line graph


She told me that my motivations right now stem from a desire to avoid pain, rather than from a desire to seek pleasure. She told me that, instead of focusing on the passion I used to have for my work, I just constantly beat myself with a stick and hold up every unmet goal as an example of my inadequacies and my inability to live up to my capabilities.

I’ve tied up so much of myself into my studies, but instead of finding the joy and the value and the motivation in the work, I’ve been doing the work because I’m afraid of the pain of failure. The awful irony of it all is, of course, that in motivating myself this way I’m not avoiding the pain at all. I’m digging myself into such a deep pit of pain that I’ve lost sight of the joy, and I am not motivated by the passion that led me into graduate school in the first place.

So that was the homework T. gave me for the next couple weeks: focus on the pleasure of the work, and stop using avoidance of pain as a motivation.  While she didn’t say it, I also realized that, in the process of seeking pleasure, I need to embrace the pain. So, while I seek and move toward the pleasure, I’m also going to embrace the pain that comes with it instead of avoiding it. Embrace the pain, seek the pleasure. That’s the new mantra.



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