Thursday, June 6, 2024

Therapy MIrrors The Ocean

I've been thinking a lot this week about how much therapy mirrors the ocean.  It makes sense, considering I have spent the week in Panama City Beach, celebrating my anniversary.  I haven't been to the ocean since BEFORE I began therapy, and I found myself flooded with thoughts all week, as I enjoyed the time spent by and in the water.  Water is soothing and healing for a lot of people.  For some of us, while all forms of water are powerful for our brains and bodies, the ocean brings us into a deeper connection with ourselves, our Creator, and the world around us. 

In terms of nature itself, my husband feels and sees God's beauty and power most intensely in the mountains.  And while I can connect to God and his beauty through nature in the mountains, it isn't as deep.  For me, it's most deeply felt at the beach, surrounded by the sound of the waves crashing against the shore.  There is something magical and therapeutic about simply watching and listening to these sounds.  I think of the contrast between the power of the ocean, mirroring the great power of God, and sometimes the stillness of it, mirroring also a Father who loves us deeply and wants to swim with us through this life.  

At the beach, there is a flag system: blue, green, yellow, red and double red.  Each one of these flags serves as a warning, a gauge you can use to know what you are getting yourself into, should you choose to venture in.  And as we have watched these flags change throughout the week, the picture of how therapy and the ocean are related has been ever-present in my mind.  Therapy is hard work.  It is dangerous work.  It is unsettling at times, risky at others.  It can be filled with all kinds of danger, especially if you have never let yourself feel what is happening in your body and brain as a result of trauma.

But, on the other side of that spectrum, therapy is beautiful.  It is liberating.  It is powerful and can carry with a force that can change the trajectory of your life.  I don't claim to know a lot about the ocean, or really therapy even.  I know very little about how the tides work, but I do know that they ebb and flow.  And like the tides, when you throw yourself into the work of therapy, there are ebbs and flows.  And it is in thinking about this, that the flag system has cemented itself into my brain.

Let's start with the blue flag.  When this flag is flying, there is a higher chance that you will see or be affected by stinging marine life, such as stingrays, jellyfish or man o' war.   You can get in the water with this flag present, but you have to know that there is a risk.  The flag doesn't mean that you have to avoid the water.  It simply means that you need to pay attention and be on guard, so that as you venture forth, you are not unwittingly impacted by these potential dangers.  Stingrays, for instance, are usually only a threat when they feel threatened.  You can coexist in the ocean while they are present.  But if you do not move carefully and stay on the lookout for them, you could inadvertently cause harm to yourself or them.  

Those who have experienced trauma in their life oftentimes have triggers and PTSD or, for some of us, Complex PTSD (c-PTSD) from trauma that impacted us over extended periods of time, especially during childhood.  For some, the simple act of stepping foot into a therapist office poses risk.  Risk of being triggered by a memory.  In and of itself, being triggered isn't necessarily dangerous to the individual feeling it, though at times it can seem that way to us.    One of the safest places to feel triggered is in that very office, with someone who sees you and knows how to help you navigate through it.  It can feel scary to enter therapy with a blue flag, with things present that can cause us very real physical pain.  But like the stinging marine life, you can coexist with this danger.  The risk to you physical body is low.  Yes, getting stung by a jellyfish can hurt, but in the grand scheme of things, the pain is lower and the danger/threat to your life is not as high as say, interacting with a shark in the ocean.  The threat to your life and well-being remain low under blue conditions, and in most cases, you are unlikely to be impacted negatively by this threat.

A green flag means that there is low hazard and while the conditions in the water are calm, you should still exercise caution when entering the water.  There are times during the therapy process where you will feel relatively calm and safe.  You should still be on the lookout for the conditions to change at any moment, but you can usually rest better and experience higher degrees of healing during the green flag.  You can relax a little more and really enjoy the beauty around you.  But because the ocean is not fully known and it's power is vast, you still need to be aware of what is happening around you, so that you can maintain the same level of safety.  A green flag during therapy for me typically means that I am able to clearly understand and then articulate how I am feeling.  I can be curious about what is happening in my body and brain, and I find this to be the most productive in terms of forward momentum in the healing journey.

A yellow flag indicates medium hazard, which means that the surf or currents are stronger, though still mild enough that the threat is low.  During this flag, you can move through the water or against the current and make progress.  While here in FL this week, we have experienced yellow and red flags.  As happens with the ocean when you are in it, if you float or simply try to stand in place, you will be moved.  You can set your sights on where you began, by affixing your eyes on a certain building or where you staked your claim on the beach.  But without moving against the current at all, you will continue to be pulled further back or further away from where you began.

This, to me, indicates that in therapy, we are responsible for the movement we make.  As Kris and I knew we would be moved by the force of the ocean, we would forcibly move ourselves against the current, keeping our eyes fixed on where we started.  In yellow flag conditions, it was not difficult at all to keep the forward progress going.  But if we didn't move against the current at all, we would be pulled in a direction we weren't trying to go.  With therapy, if you don't put in the work to move against all the things that hold you back, it will be difficult to really make progress towards your end goal.

Most of our time in the water this week was during red flag conditions.  This means that there is a high hazard for high surf and strong currents.  During these days, it almost felt like a losing battle to try to move against the current.  We would take a few steps, only to feel ourselves pulled back the way we came.  We would swim and try to get closer to where we started, or where we were trying to go, only to look back at the beach and find we had made little to no progress.

Here's the truth though about proceeding with therapy during a time when the waters around you feel turbulent.  It's okay.  It's okay that you don't make a lot of progress.  It's not a race and it's not about reaching your goal in an instant.  We have to understand that therapy and healing take time.  A LOT of it.  And if you want to move through the ocean against the current during a red flag, you have to understand that it will be harder and at times you will have to FIGHT against what is holding you back.  And when you do that, you will find that you DO indeed make progress, however slow. Even tiny bits of progress are worthy of being noted and celebrated.

The last flag is a double red flag.  In these conditions, the water is closed to the public, because the risk to self is too high.  It's too dangerous to venture in, even if you want to make progress.  In my therapy sessions, if we touch on a topic that just feels too dangerous, I don't run from it.  HOWEVER, there is wisdom in WAITING to uncover it.  It's okay, if it's too hard or too heavy, to allow yourself time out of the water.  It's okay to wait until the conditions and threat are lessened before you get back in the water and continue forward.

And you might wonder, "Well, why do I have to go against the current anyway?"  I suppose you don't.  But in terms of relating this to therapy, many of us have spent our lives going in one direction.  And that direction is usually away from the person we were truly created to be.  We build our identities in all things that are unhealthy or unsafe.  We engage in behavior that is meant to protect us, but oftentimes, is harmful.  We put a mask on what is really happening inside of us, and we let the currents pull us wherever they may.  If we are not aware of what is going on around us, doing this can lead us into situations that pose very real danger to us.  While just letting the current lead us, we get caught up in addictions, affairs, self-loathing, hatred of others, selfishness and pride.  While floating in the water is relaxing and enjoyable for a time, we cannot be content to just stay where we are.  Many of us are carrying around wounds, some decades old.  And these wounds blind us to the fact that the flag is double red and we shouldn't even be in the water.  We are fooled into thinking that this is the right way, because it's the easiest way, all the while we are losing bits of ourselves to a harsh and dangerous ocean.

So what is the point here?  It's this:  therapy has many different layers and healing is not linear.  There will be days where the ocean you are in will feel calm and you can take many steps forward.  There will also be days where you need to be more cautious, days you have to work harder to gain forward momentum, and days where you actually have to get out of the water and just wait for conditions to calm enough for you to step back in.  It's not always wise to move full speed ahead as you go through this journey.  It's okay to acknowledge that there are times where forward progress is slowed or stalled completely.  Be kind and give yourself grace, because ALL of these different things are normal and necessary.

Therapy, for me, has become an act of worship.  Because it is through therapy that I am becoming everything that God has called and created me to be.  It allows me to experience a closeness with my Creator that I never imagined possible.  As I understand myself better and learn all the things that led me to the dark places I have gone, I am more aware of the wind and waves around me.  I am able to choose for myself if I want to get in the water or not.  I am able to look at the flags and understand that it won't always be one step forward and two steps back.  

But I am also able to understand that it's okay if I have setbacks.  It's okay if I don't feel strong enough to push against the current on certain days.  Every day is not a double red flag day, and the more I engage with therapy, the more I am able to see the beauty in all of the different phases/flags of life.  The green flag days feel great and should be celebrated.  But when the flag is yellow or red, I am more equipped now to remind myself that this ebb and flow is normal, and it will not always be this hard.  Sometimes, yes, it will be hard.   But other times, I will be able to see the progress I am making.  Even slow progress is progress.  And sometimes our brains and bodies need the days where we make NO progress.  Because sometimes we just need to rest.  Sometimes we just need to get out of the water until it is safe to keep going.  We just have to remember to watch the flags.  Because they will not always be double red.  And if we are aware of when it is safe to keep moving against the current, that is where we can begin to truly heal.