Chapter 6 – The Dungeon Keeper

No, no, no – I’m not talking about that famous video game where we want to conquer the world. No, that’s not what I mean. My dungeon keeper is someone slightly different but you’ll have to wait a bit to understand until I get to that part of the tale.

See, I had a story. I’m not unique. We all have stories. I can tell you a story about my trip to Costco yesterday. Breakfast stories are always entertaining. Stories within stories are numerous too. Let me tell you about the T.V. show Luke Cage on Netflix. Or did you hear the latest about Rihanna (or my next door neighbor)? We breathe stories every moment of our lives.

But what if you have a secret story, a hidden story? What if that story hurts? What if it keeps gnawing at you and it won’t disappear?

That story lives inside. And that story wants, no, NEEDS to be told. It needs to be heard, and seen.

Maybe you remember some happy stories from when you were a kid. Maybe you remember getting an ‘A’ on a test or drawing a picture that you liked. Didn’t you run to your Mom or Dad all excited because your ‘story’ needed to be shared? Didn’t that feel good?

And those stories that hurt? Maybe someone at school was mean to you. Maybe you felt ashamed that you hadn’t done your homework. If you were lucky, there was someone in your life you could tell.

But, many of us weren’t given that gift of having a listener in our lives. And so much of our unspoken history collected inside of us. And some, or even many of those tales, were seemingly forgotten. You know, like when you throw your excess coins into a bowl or box but then forget that you’ve amassed a small fortune?

Our abandoned stories sure don’t seem like treasures. We may have deigned them simply as waste to be discarded. We cast them into our own personal dungeon – deep below our living room – below the space where our conscious lives carry on.

Then one day, or one week, or one year we begin to live a story that we can’t have imagined. The dungeon is full – no more stories can be hidden. We believe that everything tossed into the dungeon is offal – getting close to it too terrible to contemplate.

Maybe we try to empty the dungeon by throwing this refuse into the garbage cans out back. Again, surprisingly, we discover that no one is coming by to pick up the rubbish.

What to do? Panic mode ensues. The muck is beginning to seep everywhere. My goodness – what if someone sees it? Smells it? What if my secret story spills out into the alleyway? What, what, what to do?

Well, now it’s time to face the Dungeon Keeper. Who is the dungeon keeper? Why does she keep my stories captive? Why do the stories seldom escape? And why do I believe my stories are less than worthy – that they need to be tossed?

It wasn’t until my own self-described sewage became too toxic to survive anymore that I realized the dungeon keeper was my own fear. It was me, living upstairs, who kept the stories hidden.

I needed to release my stories. And who would slay the dungeon keeper? Who would conquer the fear? Who slays the dungeon keeper? Who will be the hero? You may begin to agree with others that I have a split personality when I tell you that it was ME who was able to become the conqueror. The courage within ME overcame the fear within ME.

Courage slays fear, I’ve learned. Well, no – the truth is we’ve always known that courage slays fear but I guess I’d say that that ‘truth’ does not become Truth until we’ve experienced it ourselves.

I became the hero.

I don’t know about you but my imaginary life overlaps with my so-called ‘real’ life. Honestly, when I thought about my pent up stories, I actually could visualize their life in a dungeon.

So, anyway, what does all this talk about dungeons, keepers, trash have to do with therapy anyway? (Yep, two anyways in a sentence is bound to be an object of your admiration, right?)

This long drawn out story is really about my therapist, Anne. No, maybe it’s really about the hero, my courage. No, I think it’s about that space that opened up once the hero came forth and rescued me. No, it’s about….

Let me think about this a bit more, ok?

Well, the metaphor so far has a few characters – all of whom are me, by the way. The trash, the dungeon, the hero, the dragon master, even the trash cans are the roles that I inhabit.

So, what role does my therapist play? Is she the ‘sanitation engineer’ that we so fondly like to name our garbage collectors? Did she help me dispose of the trash?

No. I don’t want to visualize her in that role simply because by the end of the story I realized that what I had considered trash and garbage were really signposts to my deeper self. They needed airing because without coming into the light out of the dungeon they would fester and rot and sicken the entire house.

What she was and continues to be is the torchbearer. When the hero (me) used courage (me) to look for a solution to the trash problem (me), she showed a beacon, a light that guided me.

One of the definitions of torchbearer in the Oxford dictionary is “ A person who leads or inspires others in working towards a valued goal. Yes, I could state that about my Anne, my therapist but how she did that is the magical part of the story.

See, with Anne, I WAS HEARD. I AM HEARD. Being heard, I believe, is the most important part of inner growth and healing.

And though we began this little fable referring to dungeons, I’ll conclude by stating that my forward journey could not have begun without someone listening to ME.

The removal of the treasures (I called them trash earlier) in my dungeon can take a long time. That’s o.k., because unlike real trash which we want to discard as quickly as possible, our ‘trash’ are jewels that need close inspection and renewed appreciation. We discover that these jewels deliver a richness of life that might never have been discovered without someone the hero could show them to.

I’m going to repeat myself: Being heard is a powerful antidote to emotional suffering and is a salve to emotional wounds.

It is a theme that runs through all of the stories I’ll share with you. Whether I’ve struggles with ruptures with my therapist or I’ve felt fear of her or I’ve gained incredible insights with her, I can guarantee you that if I hadn’t felt heard, my inner work with Anne would have not have been fruitful.

Now that you know that the key element, for me, in therapy is the experience of being heard, I can now discuss some of the stumbling blocks that can be put in the path of our inner work.

The work of cleaning out the dungeon can be dirty and challenging. We face steep, slippery steps. Some of the bags to remove seem too heavy. Other debris is difficult to see in the poor light.

The next chapters I’ll begin describing some of those challenges.

Chapter 1- The Fly Flits

The Beginning

“I need to tell my story”, I spoke slowly into my cellphone, my voice tremulous, my knees weak as a 98 year old woman, my stomach host of those proverbial butterflies that riot when enclosed in such small spaces, my throat with a sign that screamed, ‘out of order’ which is why I could barely swallow or speak. The stranger and I engaged in a short conversation that no amount of hypnosis will ever allow me to remember exactly. This inconceivable act of daring would change my life forever.

“Daring?” you ask. “What is so daring about a telephone conversation? It’s not barreling down a 40-foot wave at North Shore, Oahu. It’s not squeezing your foot into a toehold in granite on Half Dome, Yosemite.   It’s not driving harrowing speeds in your Formula 1 car at the Indy 500.”

Ah, thou “doth protest too much, methinks”, my friend. Shakespeare (in the voice of Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother) and I share the sentiment. Let me educate you a bit. ‘Daring’ is any action that requires courage. I did not use a dictionary – just trust me. I was scared; I pushed through; I dared.

I received the call while in the office of the County Convention and Visitor’s Center on 2nd street in Old Town, as we call that quaint part of our little city. Enjoying visiting a friend who works there, my heart just about skidded out of my body when I saw who was calling. I scurried to the front door and stood on landing of the gray Victorian building overlooking the bay while soft cool drizzle ensured that I stayed on the porch. It was December after all.

The stranger spoke first, “Pam, hello. You called and wanted to make an appointment with me?” Like I mentioned earlier, I have no memory of the exact words. I am positive, though, that she didn’t invite me to go bungee jumping with her. I’m sure she didn’t call to purchase my Arabic language tapes. And, I am certain she didn’t call to inform me I had won the lottery. So, we can deduce that our conversation was simply to schedule a meeting.

I misspoke earlier. The more compelling act of courage took place 2 days previous. You know how it is when a crazy thought first appears. You swat it away because, you know, it’s crazy. But then the absurd idea continues to show up. “How silly”, you say to yourself, as you work to resist its message.

My cockamamie idea approached kinda like a fly that begins to flit around your head. You notice it at first and then forget about it. You believe it’s gone on its way. But the fly returns and it’s annoying as hell but you can’t ignore it. It’s in your face, for crying out loud!

It stubbornly refuses to be perturbed by your continual attempts to smack it to kingdom come. As the fly hovers, you realize it ain’t goin’ nowhere. The torment is similar between a persistent uncomfortable idea and the persistence of a fly that won’t leave you alone.

As you slow down enough to try to develop a strategy to be free of the fly/idea, you notice something – you notice that your idea is not as fearful and as ugly as it seemed at first. It’s like finally noticing that the fly is actually a rare Monarch butterfly, recognizable in its beauty with its orange and black wings. I was not able to see that initially because I had been living blind – blind to possibility.

Some of our ideas may be like the Monarch – dazzling yet delicate and at risk of extinction. Immense beauty lies within nature and within ourselves. But effort and a healthy dose of bravery are necessary to preserve that beauty and encourage it to thrive.

My idea seems so matter-of fact now but at that time it was revolutionary -take concrete steps towards self-knowledge and self-empowerment. What’s more exquisite than that? But, it’s difficult for some of us because feeling trapped in a known, yet miserable, place has its own attraction – it’s familiar and it’s easy. I love to laughingly chant, “I been stuck in the muck, gotta get (un)shucked cuz I’m almost outta luck.” I know, I know – pretty terrible rhyme, huh? You get the idea though, don’t you?

I’ve discovered that it’s risky and scary to try to undertake the work of saving and nurturing something that is illusive and uncertain. The mediocre efforts to save the Monarch may fail as will half-hearted attempts to save ourselves. You may believe I’m being melodramatic here and maybe I am. But doesn’t being able to act from our true selves a part of ‘saving’ ourselves? Well, to me, they’re one and the same -to you, maybe not.

An expression born in ancient times comes to mind – ‘gird up your loins’. Although stemming from the Roman and Biblical era in which loose and long clothing needed to be tied up so as to make movement easier, it has become an idiom meaning to prepare oneself for action.

So, I did. I girded up my loins, so to speak. How? I don’t know. But I was able, by some miracle, to find enough grit within myself to make the phone call to a psychotherapist. So simple -punch in the numbers, hear the phone ring, listen to answering message, speak into (voice) mailbox. Easy.

I know, right? What’s the big friggin’ whoopdedoo about that? Well, only those of you who have made that call from the emotional land of uncertainty & fear may understand why that action is bigger than a big deal.

I possessed no conscious understanding that I was on the way to exposing myself and disrobing all layers of protective covering. I didn’t know I’d end up naked. I’m sure my subconscious knew that truth. That would explain my overriding anxiety. Though my steps were faltering and unsteady, I acquired somehow enough will to move myself forward towards my goal.

Of course, you know I’m talking about this in a symbolic sense. But, even as shy as I am, stripping all clothes off and being seen in all my fleshy glory by a stranger might be easier than what I ended up doing in therapy. Self-knowledge is not child’s play – it’s deep and sometimes very painful work.

Hey, you, the one who hasn’t explored therapy yet. Don’t let my words scare you off. No good therapist is going to demand anything from you. How you use the therapist is up to you. If being naked is not your thing, no problem. If you’d just like someone to share make-up tips with or home decorating or current events, a therapist will probably oblige. They’ll understand that your comfort level with them is the first step in the work to gain emotional well-being.

I’ll tell you upfront that I will not disclose the emotional struggles that finally compelled me to find a professional to share my story with. I will inform you that I’m a middle-aged woman with 3 grown children and 3 little grandsons. Hilariously, as I look back, I saw myself as a well-adjusted, competent, self-assured professional- as teacher, business owner and mother. Just because I could juggle work and parenting and household chores does not mean that I had enough emotional intelligence to maneuver through life well. The ability to know and understand one’s own emotions is a subject that I believe should be taught in every school. (I’ll step off the grandstand momentarily).

My life is testimonial that one can muddle through life being mostly clueless and still no one dies; that most things turn out o.k. – even with the slips and slides, the merry-go-rounds, the spinning wheel and all shapes and sizes of confusion.

I have 2 stories – one to tell my therapist and the other to tell to you. My therapist heard, hears and will hear of my personal emotional challenges. In many ways the tales I share with her are not that dissimilar to the one I’ll share with you.

Both tales contain missed opportunities, misunderstandings and mistakes. To be honest, I can laugh now but some of the stories did/do carry a punch that many times knocked me to my knees.

You will read about the unbelievable ups and downs that the therapy process itself causes and about the unique emotions directed towards and stimulated by my therapist. The weird relationship I’ve suffered through and have been exhilarated by with my therapist is the topic of this book.

Will my story have as many thrills as those experienced by those participating in the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain? Eh, maybe, maybe not. Does my saga contain the confusion of emotions that a fiery soap opera presents? Hmmm, possibly. Does my little memoir hold an array of feelings ranging from melancholy to panic to shame to rage? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

But therapy basically witnessed the growth of happiness, gratitude, respect, admiration, joy and love – the goal, you know. A potpourri of emotions spills out in my tale.

It’s a big story. IMHO (in my humble opinion.) Hold on to your hat!!