Lost and Found
Nicole sat across from me, pen and clipboard in hand, waiting for me to respond. We were in a small but well-furnished room. Soft atmospheric music played from somewhere in the corner – the only sound that broke the otherwise awkward silence. The smell of peppermint was emanating from a little machine that silently spewed mist into the room. Everything here was designed in such a way to put me at ease, and yet I was shaking inside.
“So why don’t you tell me why you’re here?” she had asked a few minutes prior. It was a question that I should have been able to answer, but my throat clenched and my voice failed me.
Why am I so nervous?
She waited patiently, didn’t push the issue, and smiled softly. She wasn’t the first therapist I had gone to. The first two were a disaster, and I almost gave up on the whole idea altogether, but a friend encouraged me to keep trying.
“I don’t really know.” My voice trembled and despite the thick jacket I wore, the room felt cold. “I guess I’m just sad?”
I half expected her to jot down everything I said, but her pen didn’t move. She continued to smile at me. Her eyes gave me the impression that she wanted me to go on.
“So… um.. I just went through a bad breakup.” I didn’t really know what else to say. It was the truth, but for some reason, I felt like a fraud for being there over a breakup. Other people have real issues and here I was feeling sorry for myself. “Sorry… I know that’s lame.”
“Don’t apologize.” She said softly and kept her gaze on me, searching for something. Unlike my previous therapists who had a patronizing way about them, Nicole had a warmth that radiated from her. “You cared about her a lot?”
I spent the rest of that session going over that relationship: How madly in love we were, but also how awful our fights were. I cried, and I repeatedly blamed myself for how things turned out. Nicole never once tried to console me or tell me things were going to get better. For some reason, I had it in my head that that was what therapists were there for. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Our next session a couple of weeks later started pretty much the same. I was still sad, and I was still angry about the relationship. The tears came again, and I went over all the awful fights and ugly names we called each other. Yet I was still in love with her.
“I should’ve never walked out on her. I thought she would change if she saw I was serious.”
“Tell me why you left.”
“I told you, I couldn’t stand the fighting anymore.”
“But tell me what you fought about the most.”
It was simple in my head. She kept trying to control me. I kept letting her until it became too much and I would lash out. We would fight, then make up and restart the cycle.
“Would you ever tell her if she was becoming too controlling?”
“Well… eventually yeah.”
“I mean to say, would you tell her during the moments she was being controlling?”
I had to think about this for a moment and the truth was no. I would always allow things to ‘slide’, then only when the situation would become unbearable would I express myself. Usually, that expression was rage.
“Would you say you bottled things up?”
“I… suppose.” She made some notes and then announced that the session was over, but she’d like to see me again. I’d never seen a therapist more than twice, but Nicole intrigued me. Her questions probed me in a way I hadn’t realized I was missing. She was kind but direct and was never trying to be my ‘friend’.
The next session felt different. I went into it with some excitement rather than crippling anxiety. I had a better idea of what to expect, but was also curious about what was next.
“How are you doing today?”
“I’m a bit better, I suppose.” I sat there twiddling my thumbs, still wondering what I was doing in therapy. This was a place for broken people. I was certainly sad, but I wasn’t a “broken man”. She gave me that same warm smile. Her eyes were still digging for something and I could sense the slightest hint of excitement in them. Almost as if she knew I was ready to open up more.
“How are your emotions today?” she asked, taking me slightly by surprise. No one had ever asked me a question so direct.
“Uh… well less sad. But still sad.”
“Well, progress is progress. Will you tell me about your childhood?” Again, I was taken by surprise.
“My childhood? I dunno. It was happy. Crazy? Lots of siblings.”
“Good relationship with your parents?”
I sat there for a while contemplating this question. My parents? What does this have to do with my sadness? Of course, I loved my parents. They struggled and fought to raise seven kids. My mom came here from El Salvador with nothing to her name and worked 3 jobs to bring me and my two older brothers to the U.S. My dad wasn’t my biological father, but he took us in when I was just 8 and immediately treated me like his own. He too came from El Salvador and the two of them worked blue-collar jobs to keep us fed.
“Well, yeah my parents are- well my dad died recently but he was great and I’d do anything for my mom.” I had a pang of sorrow just then thinking of my dad.
“Would you say your parents were highly involved in your life? And I mean this in ways other than keeping you fed and clothed.”
I wasn’t sure what she was getting at, but it felt strange that she was prodding me about my parents when I had come in crying about my ex. I really had to think about the question, but wasn’t sure how to answer her. The very intimate nature of the conversation made me uncomfortably aware of my vulnerability. Fidgeting in my seat, I wanted nothing more than to be out of there. Relief came when our time ran out for that session and I left slightly annoyed. Nicole, of course, set up another appointment. I nearly decided not to go.
I did though.
“You asked me last time about my parents and I thought about it…” I took a deep breath and told her how mom and dad were simply too busy and there were too many kids to really focus on any of us individually. They were always working. When they weren’t, they were tired or had other things to do around the house to keep things running.
“Ok. Tell me then, a time you remember most vividly when it was just you and your mom or your dad. No one else.” A memory immediately came to mind. And it was not a happy one.
My dad, who’d only been my dad a short while, had taken me out for lunch. For some reason, and I can’t remember why, it was only me with him. On the way back home in the car he started asking me questions about my mom’s ex-boyfriend. I was about 9 at the time and the ex-boyfriend in question hadn’t been around in years. I couldn’t remember anything except his name and that he was a drunk. My dad pressed me for information, and I got scared, so I just gave him whatever came to mind. I didn’t want to make eye contact, but I could hear him making this unusual huffing sound, could see his hands tense up on the steering wheel, and his driving became erratic. It was like I had unleashed an angry bull and I was its unwilling rider. When we got home, he and mom argued. As it turned out, dad was a very jealous man and had no qualms about using his new son for his own gains.
Mom packed our things and threatened to leave. There was a lot of screaming and yelling. Mom was angry with me for saying anything. She called me a lot of names I don’t remember. Mom’s reaction and her anger toward me made me feel guilty and ashamed. Dad’s anger made me feel scared and helpless. Either way, I took a lesson to keep my mouth shut and never say anything to either of them.
This is how things went on. My family didn’t express feelings or show love in the same way other families might. As far as emotional development was concerned, my siblings and I were on our own. I finished telling Nicole this story, still wondering what one thing had to do with the other.
“Did your mom and dad fight a lot?” Nicole asked.
“Well, yeah. At the beginning, but not so much after my little sister was born.”
“Did you ever witness your parents talking about their feelings to each other?”
I laughed at that idea. The thought of seeing my dad express his feelings was absurd to me. The man had kept all his frustrations deep inside until, eventually, that stress literally killed him.
“Do you think this experience with your dad is the reason you hold things in until you can’t anymore?”
I wish I could’ve seen my face from her viewpoint that day as the sudden realization dawned on me - the reason why Nicole had been prodding about my family. “Uh… I dunno, I guess I don’t like confrontation…”
“We’ll continue talking about this next session, but do me a favor. Next time someone or something bothers you, I want you to express it to someone right away.” She ended with her usual warm smile, and I left.
I would continue therapy for another 2 years with Nicole. The process started with me thinking I was broken, but the thing about therapy is that you go in there with expectations to fix yourself but find that it’s more about finding yourself. My journey began because I thought I was sad. It turns out I was lost.
The whole experience was a turning point in my life and I’m glad I took those steps, but I know that many people don’t. Maybe because therapy was considered taboo for a long time or had a certain stigma about it. Maybe it’s because, like the old me, people aren’t sure what to expect or what therapy really is. It’s terrifying being vulnerable especially to a stranger. But if I can leave this world with one truth, it’s that we need to be vulnerable and we need to express ourselves fully. If you’re a human who feels anything, then you’re a perfect candidate for therapy and I encourage you to take that leap.
About The Author
Gustavo Alvarenga is a Salvadoran American student at UNLV majoring in English. After more than a decade in the telecom industry, he decided to go back to college to pursue a life in writing and storytelling. He spends his free time split between the outdoors and board games. When he is outdoors you can find him either hiking, climbing, or his newly found hobby – Snowboarding. He’s also fond of a
great beer and is always up for trying new brews.