Redemptive Reinforcement: A Lesson In “Staying The Course”

Recalling the conversation now, I realize I’d broken my news almost as an afterthought. That’s typical: my reluctance to call attention to myself or having others “make a fuss”  over me.  After we’d talked for more than a half hour, I casually mentioned to my therapist, “Oh, and I’ve begun a blog about my new drawings—you know, showing some of them and talking about how I’m feeling about drawing again.”

If I expected her to let my comment pass, I’d definitely misread the moment.  She had, after all, been the impetus behind my return to drawing in the first place. And each time she looked over my latest sketches, she seemed genuinely pleased—even delighted—to see my progress, “illustrated.” Now absorbing my news, she reflexively raised her hand toward her mouth. “Oh, this is huge—a really big step,” she remarked. “I’m getting a little misty just hearing about it. How do you feel about it?”

Well, I’d certainly been intrigued when I first considered the notion of pairing my “new habit of drawing” with a blog. I realized blogging offered the perfect forum to chart my progress; to talk about my inspirations; and to give readers insight into my creative journey. Further, I imagined others might pull for me and urge me to keep up the good work. Secretly, I even fantasized about attracting a small legion of “fans”—maybe an influential critic or two—who’d offer support and eagerly await my next post.

In answering her question, it seems I replied, “Well, I’m happy about it … ,” though I was still sifting my emotions. As I sat mulling this, my therapist opened my blog and began skimming my first few posts. She read random passages aloud, rhythmically checking invisible boxes with her index finger as she emphasized resonant phrases. I felt unsettled excitement, like I’d ace’d an important test I’d been unaware I’d taken. I also grew humbled, as she touted the potential payoffs my actions might yield.

Do you know how much you could help other people through this?” she asked, a note of wonder infusing her tone. I’d not really considered that; I’ve never though of myself as inspiring or as a self-help resource. To the contrary, I suffer from a sort of low-grade, “functional depression.” I’m also very critical and rigid toward myself. And my experience over the last decade—during which I’ve been chronically un- or under-employed—has left me feeling generally inadequate. (My earlier reference to being embarrassed when others “make a fuss” over my accomplishments surely relates to this negative self-image.)

Still, lately I’ve remained more disciplined and persistent about drawing than perhaps at any other time in my life. I’ve actually felt proud of several pieces I’ve drawn; and I’ve been excited both to reveal them to my therapist and publish them in my blog. Most significant, I’ve felt more emotionally buoyed and hopeful, despite the increased time and energy this work requires. Having personally experienced these brief successes (continuing to draw, to publish my blog–and even to gain “followers”) I realize I’m more positive and hopeful.  And, I’ve gained a higher regard for my abilities along with a new sense of purpose.

In resuming drawing, I’ve strayed into a realm I really care about. I feel a sense of belonging to this endeavor, like I’m on my spiritual home turf. That awareness of “coming back to” a treasured part of myself has also left me somewhat scared and humbled. To be sure, I’ve only been at this for a brief time (and sporadically at that; I can still go days without drawing.) But, before, I’d held fast to my shame and inadequacy, criticized myself unmercifully, and internalized the judgmental messages I heard (or believed I’d heard) from others. Now, by taking positive steps forward, in a field about which I am so passionate, I’m actually replacing some of my victimized, reactive behavior with stretching, encouraging and risking.

So, having my therapist gently emphasize that I’m doing good—with the supporting evidence laid out before me—penetrated my leathery emotional hide. But it was the suggestion that others might benefit that broke my dam. The next moment, I cried big, heaving sobs. Along with feeling grief, however, I realized I was experiencing a kind of redemption. If only briefly, I’d peered beyond the sense of inadequacy that so distorts my outlook. And I’d arrived at this moment of clarity by consciously treading a series of scary steps along a path that offered me no guarantees I’d succeed (though I’d certainly received ample encouragement).

After several minutes, I recovered my composure. In our last few minutes, my therapist gently summed up our session.  She reminded me how recently I’d become very preoccupied with my adult daughter’s mental illness and erratic behavior.  She suggested that, perhaps, this circumstance actually offered a kind of diversion from recognizing the pain I’d finally confronted.  Still gathering my wits, I shook my head in assent.

After other such “breakthrough moments,” I’ve tended to hope, unrealistically, that “now everything will be different.” I’ve come to realize, however, few miracle arise from even the most transcendent moments. It seems something inside changed that afternoon; or maybe I just received particularly memorable “reinforcement” for being on the right track. I do recall that the following day I made a special point to go out and do some drawing.

(I remember another rather ironic detail about my mindset leading up to the above meeting with my therapist: I’d nearly cancelled the appointment for fear I just wasn’t “up to” discussing heavy, emotional stuff that day. I’m glad, now, I made the effort to show up.)

 

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