“You’re doing the work.”
My therapist said this to me recently. I’ve heard this from therapists before. It’s a phrase that’s both flattering and irritating in its vagueness. What is “the work?” Why am I doing it? And how long do I have to keep it up?
I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was in grade school when my parents took me to a “sleep doctor” for chronic insomnia. I realize now that the kindly doc was actually a child psychiatrist. We did biofeedback and guided meditations to help me cope with anxiety and fall asleep more easily. Little did I know at the time that this was but the start of a series of therapists responding to varying episodes and conditions.
Right now, I attend two therapy sessions a week. A private session with my primary therapist, and a therapy group that meets in Central Park for six weeks this summer. Post-Covid and a serious mental health crisis, I’m trying to meditate, exercise, eat better, cultivate social connections, and express myself creatively. I’m trying to undo decades of internalized shame and stigma about how my brain works and how I interact with the world around me. I’m doing the work. And it shows. I’m more joyful. I’m more motivated. I’m more creative. I’m experiencing renewed gratitude for my family, friends, and partner. I’m falling in love with NYC for the thousandth time, despite record-breaking heat and humidity and a rat population boom.
And yet there are days when I wake up with a migraine, still exhausted from fretful dreams. Days where I’m unable to motivate myself to walk around the block, let alone go to the gym. Days where sudden anxiety or depression steals the breath from my lungs and the light from my eyes. Moments when I struggle to push down deep shame about the way my ADHD brain gets in the way of my goals and relationships and happiness. When I wonder if my vague physical symptoms (headaches, muscle pain, congestion) are due to anxiety, long COVID, or the collateral damage of getting older. When I yell at the person I love most in the world because he can’t understand why I’m spiraling into despair and fury over a sink full of dishes.
On hard days, the only reason I don’t give up is that I know the only way to feel better is to keep moving. Keep trying. Keep reaching. Keep resting. And yep, keep “doing the work.”
Despite regressions during sadder, more challenging times, I’m getting better. I no longer think about hurting myself. The hopelessness and terror that engulfed me earlier this summer have faded. But doing the work doesn’t end, and “getting better” is relative. I thought I’d take a few weeks off from the workday grind, “find myself,” and emerge healthy. That hasn’t been the case. If anything, I’ve discovered that physical and mental health requires a lifelong commitment.
“Doing the work” is giving life an optimistic chance each morning. It includes all the unsexy, routine maintenance we all must do every day. Going to therapy. Working out. Getting my teeth cleaned. Talking about relationships. Paying taxes. Meditating. Engaging in my hobbies. Going a choir audition or a job interview or to the gym when I’m overwhelmed and tired and hot and just feel like curling up in a ball and sobbing. It can be painful. It’s often tedious. Sometimes, it just plain SUCKS. And it doesn’t always lead to magical revelations or hard-won wisdom.
But it does lead to small moments of beauty and revelation. Walking through Central Park on a hot summer evening after my therapy group, I’m struck by how my story, my struggle, is just one of thousands of stories in a city teeming with people. The teenager playing “La Vie En Rose” on the cello by the pond has a story. The handsome Black man giving free haircuts to passersby has a story. The little girl running after her new puppy will grow up and be scared and learn her own strength and fall down again and maybe even end up in therapy, “doing the work.” It’s comforting to know that whatever I’m feeling, whatever way I may be cracked or broken today, someone else has also experienced. Someone else has cried on this bench, fallen in love under that tree, watched the sunlight turn golden and dappled as dusk approached. I feel connected to everyone who ever walked here. It makes me feel small and lonely. It makes me feel held and comforted. It makes me feel like I matter, like everyone and everything matters. Like “doing the work” isn’t just a task I take on begrudgingly. It’s a privilege. It means I’m alive.
I have to believe that the incremental changes I’m making are inherently worthy of my effort and attention, even if I backslide and stumble. That each tiny step I take to love myself a little bit more or be a little more patient with other people is valuable. I have to believe each time I’m true to my authentic, anxious, tenderhearted, weird, ungraceful self, I’m paving the way for someone else to do the same. I have to believe doing the work matters, regardless of the results. Plus, someone has to keep all those therapists and personal trainers and meditation leaders and self-help podcasters afloat financially. It might as well be me.
One thought on “Healing is Hard Part 2: Doing The Work”