I write a lot about change on this blog. This space is after all dedicated to makeovers of all kinds and the “befores” and “afters” surrounding change. I tend to focus on the “afters” in my posts because they are wonderful and whole and new, but it would be remiss of me if I didn’t also talk about the “befores”. So that’s what we’re going to do today.
(Now let’s roll up our sleeves and prepare to get dirty.)
Let me take you back to a day I remember well, my appointment with my very first client. I was a graduate student with many hours of classes under my belt, but absolutely no experience putting what I learned into practice (in other words, working with a real human being). I was half terrified/half curious about what it would be like to sit in the therapist’s chair. Thankfully, the young man I met that day looked just as unsure and nervous as I felt; we both entered the room with wide eyes and fidgety feet. I asked a lot of questions and he answered them. His reason for seeking counseling? To work through his experience of childhood molestation.
We started off that first session reliving in detail what had happened when he was five. Each session thereafter ended up being a replay of the previous one; we talked about what he did that week, how he struggled with depression and anxiety, and suggestions on what he could do to feel better. Over the course of several months, there were some “a-ha” moments, where he would connect his current self-destructive behaviors with his experiences from the past, however we never reached a major turning point. We kept circling around the same issues and the same behaviors over and over, like we were lost in the middle of a desert. Everywhere we turned, we saw the same thing – miles and miles of bare sand surrounded by an endless blue sky… and no way out.
I think the whole experience was frustrating to say the least, for him and for me. It came to a point where I suggested putting the brakes on therapy after he had canceled a few sessions in a row. It became obvious to me (and my supervisor) that this client was – to put it in fancy counseling terms – stuck in the muck.
Unfortunately there’s no easy way to get unstuck. More often than not, it takes time, pain and more time to want to get out of a messy situation. It’s not that people don’t know they need to get out of the slime and filth they’re in; the truth is they would rather stay in it. When you’ve been covered from head to toe in mud and dirt, you get used to it. You don’t mind the wetness between your toes or the grime caked in your hair.
I couldn’t really blame my client for being stuck because I was stuck once, too. As a prerequisite for graduation, I had to fulfill 30 hours sitting in the client’s chair. I’m sure I more than likely frustrated my own (way more experienced and qualified) therapist as I kept “wandering in my own desert”. During one session she told me I needed to read a book which, according to my Amazon.com history, I purchased on October 24, 2003 (it’s scary how much the internet remembers!). The title of the book said it all – Hiding from Love: How to Change the Withdrawal Patterns that Isolate and Imprison You – and it said more than I wanted to hear at the time. So what did I do? I skimmed the first two chapters and then hid the book underneath my bed (real mature for a counseling student, I know!).
Being stuck is not fun, but it is a crucial part of the process of change. In order for things to get better, they have to get worse first. I’m talking about yucky, dirty, crazy, as low as you can go, bad. There will come a day when you’ve been sitting in the muck for so long that the mud has hardened. The sludge and waste you’ve accumulated over the years have finally weighed you down. You can no longer take a step forward because you are that stuck. Only when you get to that end of your rope – your long list of excuses, your facade and your self-medicating behaviors – will you be willing to crawl out of the muck.
But in the meantime, if you feel like you’re stuck in the muck – whether you’re dealing with an unhealthy and destructive way of thinking or behavior – sit a while and take it all in. Experience the ickiness and the pain that you’ve tried to keep hidden away by being busy. Allow yourself to feel. And may this awareness move you to make the decision to change.
This post was actually inspired by Bastille’s song “Pompeii“. The lyrics are a good analogy for being stuck in the muck.
Remember a time you were stuck in the muck. What motivated and helped you to get unstuck?