Our family is currently attending an intensive counseling and renewal program for overseas workers called Alongside. So far we are learning a lot about how we are even more messed up than we thought, which is always fun - but I think it will be pretty transformational.
I sat down at orientation feeling, well, disoriented. We arrived late from our road trip and our bags were still in the car. As the director introduced the program, he said, “You may be looking around thinking, ‘I know why I am here, but why are they here?’” I had to laugh because that was exactly what I had been thinking. I knew nobody was here because their life was smooth sailing, but everyone looked so normal, so together.
Do you know what hurting people look like? A lot of times they look just like everyone else. They smile and make jokes, at times. Maybe they wear makeup or fashionable boots. They may look like they could easily step up into a pulpit or battle the wilds of Africa. Hurting people just look like people.
But we have started to share our stories. Loss, trauma, transition, incredible stress, and so much pain. In a safe place the pain, so carefully controlled, comes flooding out. We are normal people, and we hold so much pain.
Group therapy. Just the thought makes some people shudder – or laugh. It sounds cheesy, all that feely stuff. We start each day with, “today I feel...” so at at least one point during the day, we recognize and verbalize what we are feeling. This is harder than it seems, when you aren’t used to identifying feelings.
We share our stories. And let me tell you, there is nothing cheesy about it. This is the story we usually share only in pieces, only behind a shield of humor or stoicism. I shared my story – the themes of depression and anxiety that have ebbed and flowed throughout my adult life, years of sickness and survival and burnout leading us to this place.
We entrust each other with our deepest pain, believing that we will not be ridiculed or belittled, and we aren’t. Nobody says, “Think positive. It wasn’t that bad – it could always be worse. Here is how you could be healthier/less depressed/live a better life.” Instead they just listen and say, “I hear your pain. I feel sad for you. That shouldn’t have happened. Thank you for telling us.” Their tears have allowed me to cry – and I hardly ever cry – instead of withdraw to my analytical “safe” zone.
I am surprised that the small group has been so healing. As an introspective introvert, and one who tends to turn inward in pain, my go-to is writing or maybe talking with a close friend. I would never have thought that sitting down in a group of six strangers would have opened me up and allowed space for processing.
Of course, the group is a bit special. Nobody came in with pretense – we are here because we need help. We have parameters for not giving advice or platitudes but just showing understanding. Even though each situation is different, we recognize each other’s pain. It is a safe space, where we experience the power of community and shared pain.
You may not have a group, and you may not need therapy. Apparently some people are emotionally healthy and not even mentally ill, crazy right? But on the off chance you have or will ever experience pain in your life – find your people. Find your safe people who can share that pain with you, who can resist trying to fix you, who can enter in and sit with you. Because really, everybody needs group therapy.