Naked, with grace

“When was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror, naked?”

My friend giggled, perhaps embarrassed that I’d said the word naked in a public coffee shop. “This morning.”

“All right. And what did you think when you looked?”

She raised an eyebrow in confusion. “I don’t think I did think about it. I mean, I saw my reflection, but I didn’t really look. I just did my hair, put on my make-up, got dressed.”

I sipped my coffee. “Okay, let me try again. When is the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror naked?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, God, not only do I not know, I don’t think I want to do that.”

“Why?”

“Cause ew.”

Now it was my turn to laugh? “Ew? You’re so profound.”

“I don’t want to see that!”

“And yet you see it every day.”

“But like, I don’t want to see see me naked!”

“Hmm.” I responded.

“Oh stop it!” She flashed me her death glare from across the table. “I hate when you do that thing where you act like you are in a therapy session and you want the client to reveal something about themselves through your casual observance.”

I wiggled my eyebrows. “When I do that, how does it make you feel?”

She laughed louder. “Stop it!”

“I’m not your therapist. But I am therapist. How does that make you feel?” We both laughed again. “Okay, but honestly, as your best friend, can I just say that if the thought of looking at yourself naked makes you say ‘ew’, what kind of energy does that put out there into the world? How does that influence how you think men see you, or your own self-confidence and energy?”

Her eyes narrowed, playfully, but I could tell she was thinking that through. “I hate you so much. Okay, Mister Therapist, when is the last time you looked at yourself naked?”

I non-chalantly sipped. “This morning.”

She laughed. “Oh fuck you. And how did that make you feel?”

“Well that’s why I brought it up.” We both laughed, and then I grew serious, sober. “Okay, so first it dawned on me, historically I have never given myself a good look. I’ve avoided looking. And most my life, I’ve just been hard on myself, like feeling ashamed about how I look naked, but also not wanting to look at myself naked because then I would have to feel ashamed. Does that make sense?”

“Oh my God, yes. But I think you just described everyone, ever.”

“And, like, what does that say about me? It’s just easier not to look, so I just won’t look? Because if I do, I might be ashamed? That’s gross! I hate thinking that way. So I gave myself a good look this morning. And my very first impulse would be to be super hard on myself. I have a few inches around my stomach. Like I’m strong, but I have fat deposits there, and they are jiggly, and there is some extra skin there from when I used to be fat. And when I turn around, I can see where my spine curves, and my ass only looks great if I stand at just the right angle. My feet are flat. There is a space next to my chest by my armpits where there is just some skin there and it doesn’t look like I’d want it to ideally look. And I have grey on my temples.”

She stared at me. “Okay, I know I’m married and straight, and I know you’re gay, but you know how much I love the gray on your temples. You’re giving me all the right daddy vibes.” We both laughed. “And to hear that you are being that tough on yourself, when I look at you and think you are super hot, it pisses me off.”

“Yes! Me too! It pisses me off! Also, thank you! I am super hot!” More laughter. “But isn’t that what you’d do, automatically see the flaws when you’d loo? If you’d look?”

She bit her lip. “All right. I’ve had kids. I’d see stomach fat, and stretch marks, and my boobs would be saggy because I’ve breastfed kids. And I’m sure I wouldn’t like the rest. This sucks, I don’t want to talk about it.”

I gripped her hand. “And so whenever your husband sees you naked, you just assume he’s going to look at those things, or that he will just purposefully look past them. Like you’d be mad if he noticed, but you’d also feel ashamed. Like self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Yes! Yes! Okay! You made your point!”

I laughed again and winked. “I haven’t even started to make my point yet. I feel the same way! Like all this body shame that I want to avoid thinking about! And I have those same expectations from my boyfriend cause he basically looks perfect naked.”

“So does my husband! Damn we have good taste in men!”

“Or they have great taste in us!” I countered, and we laughed again.

“Okay, so what is your point?”

“So this morning, instead I tried the opposite. Looked at myself in the mirror with grace instead of judgment. I was… kind. I thought of all the time I’m spending in the gym. I looked at my massive arms, my thick shoulders, my back, my muscular legs and calves, my ass, my stomach, my smile. And instead of feeling ‘ew’ I felt… happy. I felt driven. I felt like I wanted to eat healthy and exercise and see what I’m capable of. I thought of how my partner sees the best parts of me, so why would I see the worst parts? Why would I waste time either not looking, or just hating what I saw? Why would I do that?”

And then I leveled my gaze. “And why would you? You’re gorgeous!”

We talked about our naked selves for a while, laughing and connecting, because that is the kind of friends we are. We smiled. We discussed loving ourselves, with grace, not with judgment. We talked about how we want to raise our kids to do the same, and then laughed about how we can definitely not talk to our kids about nakedness cause that’s weird. But then we talked about wanting to use grace more, with all the parts of our lives. About our jobs, and our friendships, about our writing and our families. About our personal journeys. We talked about using grace and not shame as a way to motivate ourselves, to find love and self-acceptance. We talked about how confidence is the very sexiest thing.

Because if we can’t look at ourselves naked, how can we expect anyone else to?

 

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2019 ‘I Wills’

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Emotional (Feelings and Relationships)

I will trust, when trust is warranted, and I will hold my truth close.

I will make time for feelings, for sad and mad, scared and guilty, happy and joyful, grateful and proud and secure. I will process them and give them the space they need and choose what to do with them.

I will invite and extend, and I will thank those who show up and especially those who reciprocate.

I will be honest with my intentions and be accountable even when others are not.

I will reach out and message back. And I will pull back as needed.

I will remove negative influences from my heart and spirit.

I will prioritize the friendships that prioritize me, beginning with myself, my sons, my boyfriend, my mother, my best friends, my siblings.

I will offer and accept compliments.

I will banter, and flirt, and laugh, and love.

I will clear my heart and give to myself.

I will ask for what I need. I will listen.

Mental (Achievement, Work, and Money)

I will love what I do.

I will give my all to my clients, though I will not work harder on them than they work on themselves.

I will be prompt and honorable with my schedule.

I will be honest with my dealings.

I will charge a fair rate for my services, and offer a quality product in return.

I will research, and read, and learn.

I will pay my bills promptly.

I will plan leisure activities, indulge, and spend on myself.

I will plan for the future and be wise with my money.

I will spoil my children just the right amount.

I will work, but not too little and not too much.

Spiritual (Peace and Purpose)

I will have integrity. I will hold myself accountable.

I will speak out against injustice. I will stand for social justice, equality, feminism. I will embrace the outcasts, whose tribe I have always been a part of.

I will be open to criticism and feedback.

I will not measure my success and happiness against that of others.

I will make my time with those around me, especially my children, quality and focused. I will take similar quality time with myself.

I will put my phone down more, and turn off all screens more often.

I will be outside more, and I will absorb and observe the things around me.

I will tell stories with other storytellers.

I will continue to reach high and find projects that arrest, fascinate, and motivate me.

I will travel and explore.

I will love with as much of my heart as I have to spare at that time.

Physical (Body)

I will improve my sleep.

I will manage my pain by healthy living, through stretching and chiropractics and massage.

I will listen to my body more mindfully.

I will rest.

I will learn to be hungry.

I will not eat animals. And I will make room for my inner animal.

I will learn to eat the right things, and in the right quantities. I will learn to indulge when it is right, but only when it is right.

I will exercise, often.

I will achieve the goals for physical fitness now that I am 40 as I have frequently fallen short. I will allow my mantra for ‘slow change over time’ to apply to me, but I will not use that mantra as an excuse to fall back on old habits.

I will love the me that I am even as I seek to change and grow.

Ocean Lonely

The sky is gray and rain is pelting my skin. The wind is heavy against me, but somehow I’m not cold. I’m standing alone on the bough of a ship, right at its triangular peak. As I stare straight ahead, the ocean is all I can see. It takes my breath. It always will. The water ripples powerfully, more water than I can ever imagine. And far from here, as far as my vision extends, the Earth curves, and it is ocean and ocean and ocean.

It overwhelms me, this sight. Rarely do I feel this small, so aware of myself. It its simplest form, this complicated set of feelings, this sense of myself, it just feels lonely. But of course it is more than that. I’m channeling the experiences of the past few days and the fullness of the world within me, one that is both at peace and at unrest. I don’t know what else to call it but existential.

In the waters beneath me, there is a massive and incomprehensible eco-system. Various life forms at every level of the sea floor, each with their own complex set of rules. Thousands of life forms, millions of them, cohabitating carefully. Plants that feed on light, fish the feed on plants, larger fish that feed on smaller fish, and thousands of breeds of each of them.

Just yesterday, we spent six hours, only six hours, in another country, a small island colony called Grand Cayman. Fifty thousand people on this beautiful stretch of land, and all I saw were the docked cruise ships and the jewelry and souvenir and seafood shops catering to the tourists. Just a few hours in the capital city, Georgetown, and I wanted to spend a week but already know I’ll probably never make it back there. My boyfriend, my two sons, my sister, her daughter, and I, we joined a small group of tourists at the back of a bus, and we rode to a beach where we boarded a boat that took us out to a nearby sandbar. There, a group (a pod? A school? A cluster?) of Southern Atlantic Stingrays had gathered. I look it up later and learn that a group of rays is called a fever. A fever of rays. And that stuns me as much as the creatures themselves. Dozens of other rays have other habitats in the area, the Lemon Ray, the Manta, the Spotted something. They feed on smaller animals and sharks feed on them. There were about 150 humans in the water, each carrying a bucket of squid guts to attract the Rays. The females of this species grow to have wing spans as wide as a grown man’s outstretched arms. They are accustomed to humans, to our grouping hands, our bouncing presence on their sand bar, to the sounds of boats. We were lectured on how to approach them, how to pet them, what parts to avoid. We donned vests and masks and we stepped into water. My children held tightly to me as I walked them toward an enormous ray, one that a man from Argentina from our boat was holding closely. We reached our hands out and we stroked its soft wing, its rubbery stomach. We looked it in the eyes. My youngest son started with fear, and then enthusiastically rubbed it, wondering if he should call it Fluffy or Flappy. And again, in the distance, the ocean curved, except this time I could see the island that I wouldn’t get to explore.

Before we stroked the rays of the wings, I give my children an encouraging lecture about how to approach the creatures. I invite them to describe how they would approach an unfamiliar puppy, or kitten, or bird, or fish. Every creature is different, I explain, as is this one. We only touch certain parts. We are calm and careful. We respect them. This reassures my kids and they gently rub their palms over the wings of the ray, respectful and kind, as they cling to me so the ocean won’t whisk them away. I clutch them tightly until we get back on the boat.

Shortly after that, at a local restaurant, I looked over a menu, one that brandished names of local creatures that could be purchased and consumed. Snappers, Groupers, Flounders, Lobsters. Crabs scuttled over a nearby rock. Gray-green iguanas sat in a nearby tree. A local told us how the invasive green iguanas were taking over the territory of the blue ones, and now the blues were in danger. I keep hearing roosters in trees and occasionally they strut by; my son is thrilled that there are wild chickens, and he wants to count ever one he sees. I ask the waiter what other animals exist here naturally and he sadly tells us that the others were mostly wiped out in the hurricane in 2004, nearly 15 years ago. He says there were snakes and rats that kept the chicken population under control, but when the waters rose, everything that couldn’t fly or climb just drowned. So now there are chickens everywhere, he says, and they breed too quickly and they are left searching for ways to survive because there are so many. They even eat themselves, he says, they eat the discarded waste of the Kentucky Fried Chicken downtown.

And I grimace, because we are the same. I immediately think of all of the tourists on the cruise ship. The humans with money who are looking for the perfect vacation, and so they spend thousands of dollars to ride a ship and eat too much food. They push others out of their way and wait in lines impatiently. They breed too quickly and have no natural predators, and they eat not what they must but what they can, long past the point when it is healthy. They roam and strut and crow in trees.

The ship itself is supposed to be indulgent, fancy, luxurious. But it feels sad to me. All of those employees, all of them from different countries, with huge smiles on their faces. 1100 of them on one ship. 1100 humans who just work there, live there, day after day, week after week. Every five days, thousands of new impatient and indulgent roosters climb on board and expect to be catered to. The workers sign six month contracts and work long days, 10 or 12 or 15 hours. They share rooms with others. They leave behind their families, their homes, their children. Some do it for adventure, others for survival. And each of them have stories, tragedies, places they come from, streets they have walked. They hail from Cuba and South Africa and Tobago and Herzegovina. They take these jobs and then break their backs at them for months at a time for, what I must presume, is a competitive wage. They fold clothes and cut vegetables, they swab decks and clear plates, they massage aching shoulders and stack chairs, they restock feminine hygiene products and they sing and dance on stage. Day after day. The ocean curves for them too.

And because that is how my brain works, I immediately start thinking of all of the things they must see, all they must have to deal with. On a ship this size, with this many people interacting every day, there must be so many protocols in place. How to clean bloody nose stains off of pillows. How to handle drunk and irate and aggressive men. What to do if a sea-bird lands on the deck and gets into the restaurant. How to handle a woman who has just suffered domestic violence. How to smile when a customer complains too loudly. How to handle the couple who is having sex on the deck near the pool. How to do CPR after a heart attack. How to handle the customer who attempts suicide by jumping off the edge of the boat. What to do with confiscated cocaine. How to handle the international person who tries to sneak on the ship during port. How to entertain 3000 people when the storm rages on for three days and the pools close down. How to disarm the man who snuck the gun on board. How to process the shoplifter. How to handle the customer with stomach flu or peanut allergies or a motorized wheelchair or cerebral palsy or anemia. How to assist the woman on her honeymoon who just found out her husband is cheating. How to break up a fight at the bar. What a complicated reality this all must be. And what must it be like to work in human resources on a ship like this, with a crew this size, with international people. How to handle the affairs, the depression, the illnesses, the complaints. What a massive operation it all is.

For me, this vacation represents relaxation, and family, and adventure. It represents giving my children something that I never had. It demonstrates love to them in a way I always hoped I’d be able to show, by showing them the world, by spoiling them, by allowing them to indulge. I planned this trip two years in advance. I want them to play and sing and leap and explore. I want to show them different foods, ways of life, and shores. I want to spoil them just enough. Just once in a while, I want them to feel like they are spoiled. I want them to grow up and tell stories about that time Dad took them on that epic vacation. And that feels wonderful, that part.

But this trip also quiets the distractions. Despite all the food and noise and entertainment, I’m cut off from the outside world for a time. I have to set my phone down. No constant media updates, no clients to listen to, no consistent routine. I’m here, instead, surrounded by indulgent tourists and cruise workers who have huge smiles on their faces. Everything feels like a transaction. It’s disorienting, in both good and bad ways. It’s uncomfortable. My insides rock and bob with the movements of the ship. And when I disembark, my body will be disoriented again, wondering why the ground has stopped moving.

Tomorrow we will eat more, and bury each other in the sand, and spread our toes in the soft silty soil as the ocean tides lap over us. And the day after that, we will pack up, get on a plane, and go home.

But for now, I stand here with the wind and the rain, in contemplation, and all I’m left with at the end is the curving and turbulent ocean.

And somehow that’s enough.

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Self-disclosed

Part of being a therapist is being absolutely elastic. Clients come in with different motivations, some of them outwardly stated and some silent and under the surface. They are paying for a service (or sometimes their insurance, or some benefactor is paying for them) and they want to receive that service in a unique way. The most difficult part of the job is knowing how to meet that for each person. This can wind up leaving me feeling like I am auditioning over and over for people, trying to convince clients that I’m a valuable practitioner, who is worth their time and money. It can be an uncomfortable reality in my field. A lot of clients want a particular result without having to put much effort in. It can be exhausting.

I often meet new clients with some sort of introduction that can prove my worth. “Hi, I’m Chad. I’ve been doing therapy for this many years, and I specialize in these types of services. I try to utilize an approach that meets clients where they are, validates their pain, and also pushes them into positive growth, but this can often take time. The therapeutic relationship forms over a period of weeks. I’m here for you. Now tell me what brings you in?”

I like to think that I’m an effective therapist in most situations, and I think most of my clients would agree. I continually ask myself what my role in a given situation is, and in these situations I have to remind myself that my job is to be the therapist my client needs me to be during the time that I’m with them. They live their entire lives before and after our sessions, and there are no quick solutions. I have to listen, be attentive and consistent, and push hard, but not too hard.

I’ve had a number of clients complain about me over the years. These are isolated experiences, but they do happen. And I’m human, so every time, the negative feedback leaves me sad, frustrated, self-critical, or vulnerable.

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“I felt you weren’t listening.”

“You were too tough on me.”

“You weren’t tough enough on me.”

“I told you I was suicidal and you didn’t take me seriously.”

“You should have realized I was suicidal even though I didn’t say anything.”

“You were too critical of my life choices.”

“You told my wife to find a safe place for the night after I hit her, but you didn’t even hear my side of the story.”

“You aren’t competent enough in _____.”

“You shared too much about yourself.”

“You are too closed off.”

And on and on.

On days where I see many clients in a row, I feel different parts of myself being challenged each time. Some need a coach, some need a best friend, some need a kid brother, some need a confidant, some need an emotional sponge, and some need a parent. Clients may come in and willfully withhold information, testing to see if I can sense that they are hiding something. They may come in aggressive and take out that aggression on me, their nearest target. They may come in silent, or sleepy, or in pain, and expect comfort, or nurturance, or challenge. And they expect the therapist to be fully present and adaptable to those needs, spoken or unspoken, no matter what the therapist is going through personally. (And trust me, therapists get headaches, and get sad, and have family problems, and…)

On top of that, the therapist has to be able to manage time. Sessions last for fifty minutes. Clients need a balance of reporting HOW they are doing, while being kept on a continuum of working toward their goals. (And some clients have VERY specific goals, while others have NO goals).

Most clients expect some kind of therapist who has life experience with struggle. They want to know their therapist has an understanding of depression, and anxiety, and addiction, somewhere in their personal lives, but they also don’t want the therapists to have ANY problems currently. And so self-disclosure becomes necessary. I use self-disclosure sporadically with clients. I use it to demonstrate understanding of a particular issue, to create a bit of a personal bond with a client, or to increase empathy between us. Self-disclosure is expected by most, if not all, clients, at least to a degree, but it has to be brief while also being frequent.

These interactions with clients get extremely complicated given three basic facts: 1. I am a human, who has human problems and human emotions. 2. I genuinely care about my clients, each and every one of them, even when they get on my nerves. 3. I have feelings, and I won’t always do everything right, even when expected to.

A few examples of self-disclosure follow.

“I know what that feels like. Before I came out of the closet, I went through a period of deep depression. It can be so hard to do the work it takes to get out of it, but it is so worth it. It’s the difference between hope and despair. What do you think would help you move forward?”

Or “I hear you! Being in a relationship is so hard! My partner and I fight over the stupidest things sometimes, and we see things completely differently. Communication means compromise, though. Meeting in the middle. The other day we argued about ___, and then we got through it by ___. Tell me about your last fight.”

Or “Maybe taking a break from church is a good idea for a while. You are talking about how conflicted you feel when you attend every week. I wouldn’t recommend quitting all together, but taking a few weeks off so you can get some clarity. When I was in my faith crisis years ago, I needed room to breathe, and it helped immensely.”

Self-disclosure in therapy can become tricky. It builds bonds, but those bonds have to be kept within certain boundaries. The client can’t feel like the therapist is over- or under-sharing. There needs to be a friendship without the two being friends. Co-dependency can form, as can romantic attraction, or emotional distance, or overstepping bounds. In fact, because these are human interactions, not only can they happen, but they will happen, and then they have to be managed along the way.

After 16 years in this field, I’ve learned a few things, but above all else, I’ve learned that I have to be organic. My job requires me to be knowledgeable, competent, kind, and consistent, to manage time and goals, to be accepting of everyone, to be both soft and hard in approach, to keep clear boundaries, to be human, and to be adaptable. And despite all of that, I have to realize that I’m human, that I’ll make mistakes, that I can’t help everyone always, and I certainly can’t please everyone always. I also need to know that it’s okay to say sorry, to receive criticism, and to trust myself all while doing my best to help those in front of me.

I love helping others, which is why I do what I do. It’s a calling. But it is also a job, and just a job. And I have to leave work at work and then go home. And so, like every other day, I’ll do my very best, one client, one hour at a time.