Is ‘love’ enough for a lasting, long-term relationship? Maybe not. Healthy relationships need more than raging passion. So the intense feelings associated with ‘heartbreak’ need to be processed from the lens of what red flags were missed, what one could learn about themselves and look forward to ‘accepting’ what one cannot change. The much needed healing follows only after that.
While this post is inspired by a real life case, all the specific details about every individual have been altered to maintain anonymity.
Couple of years ago early one morning, my clinic’s receptionist called to inform that she’s shared my number with a gentleman who’s seeking counselling for his son. The call came in almost immediately after I hung up. An elderly male voice from the other end spoke very deferentially,
“Am I speaking with Counselor Jonaki Thomas?”
“Yes Sir. You are. How can I help you ?” I asked.
He went on to explain that he’s calling for his 26year old son Andrew, who has been fighting depression and anxiety for past 3months and seems to be losing the battle.
“This involves a girl he likes and we have no objection. But he doesn’t tell everything to us so it is difficult to know what to do. I am an ex-serviceman. I am aware of what depression can do to a person. I have even taken him to other doctors when he couldn’t sleep or eat, but his condition has not improved much. Can you help him to manage his anxiety or depression or what he is going through? It is difficult to see him like this for months.”
I heard the helplessness in a parent’s voice when he knows he has actually done all that he could. I reassured him that I will make time for his son but insisted that the appointment needed to be taken by Andrew himself (unless clinically depressed, its a good sign that an adult schedules his/her own session . It signals a certain readiness for self exploration.)
Young adults don’t share things with their parents for many reasons. Right at the top is their fear of being judged. Others include thinking parents won’t understand, or worry and /or get mad at them. I believe this is where an inherent sense of guilt and shame also creeps in. Guilt comes from thinking they have made some mistake that they could have avoided but shame comes from a sense of failure to keep the connection they wanted to establish. We signed off the call with the gentleman saying that Andrew will book a session with me asap.
Presenting Problem as Sessions Commenced
Andrew came in to meet me soon after. Once he got over his initial hesitation he blurted, “I am not sure how you can help me. I can’t seem to stop crying and I hate myself for it.” I nodded empathetically. This is a familiar territory for me. People who are inexperienced with the process of ‘talk therapy’ question its efficacy and incidentally- benefit the most as well! I began with the sacred confidentiality of our work and the multiple possible approaches of psychotherapy which can be individualised based on his specific needs. He relaxed and gave himself the permission to share his anguish.
A handsome boy with a shy demeanour, Andrew did have the classic telltale signs of depression- sadness, feeling hopeless, not sleeping well and wondering about the worthiness of life. As our rapport fell in place, I noticed that on a self rating scale he gave himself 5/10 ( 0-being very depressed, 10 being- very happy). According to me he was much lower but that was a good sign. It showed Andrew’s estimate of his innate resilience. Primarily, it was a good indicator of his ability to begin psycho-education, when needed. (If people are very depressed, they are unable to absorb scientific information about their condition.) On the road to recovery, a therapist has to match pace with the client’s readiness. With my years of experience and Andrew’s readiness, the issue could be very quickly resolved.
Andrew’s story began unfolding as we started noting the details of my ‘Intake Form’. At that time, he was almost finished with his Masters degree from a reputed institution. He had been dating a girl in his college who had recently called off their relationship. He was devastated. He didn’t want the breakup and did not know how to handle it. He had been on antidepressants for past few months but only medication didn’t seem to be helping.
Road to Recovery
First, Andrew and I discussed immediate interventions. Though he didn’t look out of shape physically, his energy levels were low. Thankfully he was open to exercising and was thinking about joining a gym. I pressed home the need to do that.
Three of the most important lifestyle changes that help with depression are physical exercise, healthy diet and a good sleep hygiene. Andrew was at home so I didn’t have to worry about his diet. And he was open to fixing the other two right away. He went home with the promise to exercise, hydrate and work on a better sleep hygiene.
In my line of work, I keep running into people who do not hydrate enough. About 70% of human body and 90% of our blood is made up of water. Blood carries oxygen to different parts of the body. So low water content in body, along with other important functions can cause unclear thinking and result in mood changes. In the next session I also shared Dr. Masaru Emoto’s water experiment video with Andrew to explain how his own thoughts were making unhelpful patterns in his own body. Andrew like others, was fascinated with data based on research that was presented visually.
In the following sessions, Andrew retuned with higher energy levels and chalked two goals for himself – Emotion and Relationship Management. Our work together began in earnest. As I introduced the concept of ‘Assertive Communication’ to Andrew and asked him to watch how he communicates in real life with others, he presented his own data sheepishly, ” I think I am passive 40% of the time and aggressive for the other 60%.” I smiled before saying, “I am so proud of your honesty with me Andrew. Since you know all about what being passive and aggressive feels for you and others, what would you like to change about your future style of communication?” He smiled back with, “I am actually ready to be assertive.” We dived right into what he had to do to sound and be more assertive. Andrew’s journey to healing was picking up speed.
As the counselling process began its magic, Andrew’s mood started improving. He began talking more with his parents everyday. His awareness increased about the impact of how he was communicating with his ex-girlfriend, her father, others and himself. After learning the nuances of assertiveness as a skill, Andrew was ready tor its practical application. I encouraged him to change the way he spoke to others and notice the difference in their response, if any. The feedback was a positive one. We then started on his goal of emotion management with ‘thought disputation’ and CBT. Since Andrew’s primary style of communication was aggressive, I wasn’t surprised when he also came back to discuss ‘Anger Management’ in one of his sessions. He wanted fast results and was willing to do the necessary work on himself.
Soon, our sessions moved from dealing with depressive feelings, to exploratory discussions about deeper values of ‘love’ and healthy relationships. Andrew found himself deconstructing his beliefs about what he wanted from a girl friend. Inevitably, we also talked about ‘respect’.
According to me ‘respect’ is a cornerstone of a healthy relationship. When we believe we are in love with someone, we tend to see what we want to see and/or the best qualities in the other person. We tend to set aside their flaws and weaknesses and somehow tolerate them without paying attention to how much they bother us. This is a very surface level relationship. Respect helps us to make the ‘deeper dive.’ It reminds us that the other (like us) is a package deal of both good and not-so-good. Respect introduces us the enduring values of patience, trust and tolerance with others’ struggles and our own. Finally, it also helps us to take responsibility for our actions. With introspection, Andrew came to the conclusion that his relationship lacked the desired level of respect for endurance. Now he faced the difficulty of ‘letting-go’ for healing.
It was time to do some grief work for his loss. Andrew started learning how to be kind to himself as he oscillated between different stages of grief. As he got better he also began applying for a job. Our work became intermittent for a while and Andrew kept in touch when he could. I waited for the chance to teach him the next set of useful tools.
I consider myself a non-traditional therapist/coach as sticking to any one way of working limits results with different clients. I teach NLP techniques, visualisations along with mindfulness to clients who are willing to try them and get reasonably good results. Andrew was game in the next session to learn a new visualisation technique before an upcoming job interview. He returned after couple of months to tell me had got the job and had recently run into his ex-girl friend at an engagement ceremony. I was proud to see how well he was handling himself. He was more open and engaged with everyone and everything happening around him.Time for closure had come.
After a stint at a local company, Andrew landed himself a good job with a multi-national firm in another city. The last time he came in to see me, we completed the closure process with raving reviews on both end. In any case, the results were there for all to see in the sessions that we had over 8months. He had moved from a confused teary state of self recrimination to the more powerful state of self awareness with improved communication and self care. He only needed encouragement to give himself the time he needed to heal completely.
As we shook hands on his way out, Andrew suddenly asked “Can I have a selfie with you?” Back then it was a big surprise as I was more used to being acknowledged privately. I was happy to smile widely for his click.
Author (Psychologist, NLP Life Coach, Breath-Mindfulness Coach) can be contacted for personal 1-0-1 sessions on email@example.com