Yesterday morning, I had my last therapy session. After seven years, I’ve… graduated? Of all the portrayals and descriptions of therapy that I’ve seen and read–how it starts, how it helps, how it goes wrong, what it’s like–none have addressed how it finishes. When I started the process, younger and more ambitious, I thought I’d write an epic poem of the process, a sort of Commedia of the psyche. I even had the opening and closing verses in mind. I didn’t record them anywhere, but I remember the opening was the patient announcing that he has a crippling fear of death and the closing was him walking out saying something like, “But I’m still afraid to die.” I just couldn’t figure out what would go in between. It would be a journey that included an Inferno, sure, but there wouldn’t be purgation, and it wouldn’t end in any paradise. Even before I began studying and then practicing Buddhism, I didn’t believe in escape (as much as I may have longed for it). And my therapist had ruled out any such possibility at the start of the process, telling me that she couldn’t promise I’d become happier, only more alive, more fully engaged in my life. So I conceived my comedy as circular (or, perhaps, spiral) rather than strictly progressive.
But from the perspective offered by completion, I wouldn’t consider any sort of journey, progressive or otherwise, as an apt metaphor for therapy. The patient doesn’t go anywhere, and neither does their world (in an odd way, they don’t even really change in relation to each other). Instead, the metaphor I’d propose is swimming. Starting the process feels very much like jumping into deep water and flailing around, unable to find bottom or perhaps even to get properly oriented. Much later, you find that you had actually been in the water all along, but hadn’t been aware of it (an echo of Dante’s protagonist finding himself emerging from a wood in which he can no longer remember how he became lost at the opening of the Inferno). And from that moment of first immersion (or first awareness of immersion), it’s all about learning to swim. You might need the support of a life preserver (medication) or a lifeguard (therapist), you might panic, and you might swallow some water, but eventually, if everything goes well, you learn to swim. And the process is complete not when you emerge from the water (that’s not possible–there is no cure), but when you find yourself swimming, safely and steadily, on your own. I’ll still get angry, anxious, and even depressed, but I’ll be able to handle it.