Suicide is cocky. “Yeah, it’s like a revolving door around your office these days. Everyone wants to talk about me.” Suicide is pleased with itself . . . Suicide doesn’t care that it’s hard for me. Suicide looks at me through shifty shark eyes, eating up my anger and all of this attention. “What’s so hard about it? Isn’t that your job, to talk to people about me?”
Full and Empty
Tonight at women’s group, we check in by answering the questions: what are you full and empty of right now? It is meant to be a brief jumping off place, to gather a sense of where everyone is and how the night could unfold. My answers flash across my mind instantly. I am full of anger and overwhelm. I am empty of comfort and release.
After each of us has spoken, Erin invites us to expand on our check-in headlines in action. I stand up from the bright orange, sectional couch in the far corner of the office and move into the wide-open expanse of hardwood floor at the center of the room. When it’s my turn, Erin asks me to pick a prop from the assortment of scarves, stuffed animals, hats, and trinkets, and to show my anger without using words. I choose a medium-sized stuffed shark from the shelf and take two small steps towards the middle of the group. My hands grip the neck of the shark as I raise it over my head and hurl it at the ground in front of me as hard as I can. The thump is satisfying, but not sufficient. I eye it there, on the floor at my feet, then kick it across the room. Watching the grey and white shark fly through the air makes me laugh. I notice that I can breathe again, my chest is already less constricted from harboring my anger.
Later that evening, the shark and I meet again. I set the stage for a dialogue with suicide, the source of this week’s anger and overwhelm. Erin, our group leader, volunteers to play suicide, an edgy and challenging role to enact. She usually directs any psychodrama work we do, but no one else wants to attempt this, so she steps in. It’s almost hard to imagine Erin, this sweet, intuitive therapist with a musical voice in such a villainous role. To cast her as Suicide, I drape two sheer scarves, royal blue and black, around her shoulders, pulling her long brown hair out of the way, and I hand her the stuffed shark. This way we can clearly tell the difference between when Erin is herself, and when she is representing the embodied concept of suicide.
I set up two low, armless chairs, facing each other. One for Suicide, one for me. Constructing the scene myself is part of this work. The minute I sit down across from Suicide my anger spits forth. “I’m fucking livid at you, Suicide. You’re sneaky and you won’t stop sending people to my office, who need to talk about you. I hate it, I’ve had enough.”
Suicide is cocky. “Yeah, it’s like a revolving door around your office these days. Everyone wants to talk about me.” Suicide is pleased with itself.
“Yeah, and they want my help. They want me to educate them about you, tell them it’s OK, that it isn’t their fault if someone they love dies because of you. Or they need me to reassure them that it isn’t their job to keep someone safe from you. I’m sick of it. I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s too hard.”
Suicide doesn’t care that it’s hard for me. Suicide looks at me through shifty shark eyes, eating up my anger and all of this attention. “What’s so hard about it? Isn’t that your job, to talk to people about me?”
I keep ranting. “You know damn well what’s so hard. You took my sister, you took my cousins. Stop taking the people I love. Enough!”
“Yeah, you just can’t escape me, can you?” Suicide taunts me. “Even here, one of your safest places, you aren’t immune to me.” Suicide is smug.
Back and forth we argue. I rage against the injustice of multiple losses. I voice doubts about any responsibility I hold for my sister’s death. I rail against having to be the calm, grounded therapist with clients who are spinning out with their own fears about suicide – for themselves, or their loved ones. “Where do I get to wail like my clients do? Where do I fall apart?”
This especially gets Erin’s attention. She’s still in her role as Suicide, but she sees this as a way to invoke more intense self-care into my days. “Where do you fall apart? Why don’t you cry like that? Where do you allow your anger to be seen?”
My voice is small, not as fierce as I’d like. “I bring my anger here, to group. I take it to therapy. I let it out in the scenes I do with the woman I am playing with. I write it. I am wading through this grief and anger the best ways I know how.”
This is where we close the dialogue, as good a place to end as we can find. To escort Erin out of her role as Suicide, I remove the scarves from her and put away the shark. I choose a bright orange scarf from the shelf and wave it all around Erin. I look into her eyes and say, “You are no longer Suicide, you’re Erin.”
I take my seat back on the couch with the four other women in my group who observed this conversation. They each share what they noticed in my work or how it affected them. I am told I am brave. It doesn’t resonate with me. Brave feels like something one chooses. I didn’t choose this relationship with suicide. And I have no choice but to live my way through this.
The group shifts focus to another woman’s work. I take one of the purple pillows on the couch and rest my head, letting myself fade out of attending to the voices around me.
(Post-scene reflections for Ma’am)
I was so nervous, fearful of falling apart as I knelt before you. A chill ran through me even though the room radiated warmth—red walls of exposed brick, black leather furniture, a plush orange blanket draped across one chair. Your touch, your hand over my heart, your eyes on mine reminded me that I am safe here. “It’s OK to let go, your emotion is welcome. In fact, you’re not allowed to hold it in, give it over to me.”
I needed your words more than I could articulate. When I closed my eyes to the intensity of your gaze, you commanded me back, made me look at you and breathe. That moment conveyed such fierce compassion and care I almost couldn’t bear it. Yielding to your feet kicking my ass, or your fists on my back, even your hand in my cunt is easier for me to breathe through than that moment, eye to eye.
Tonight was the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever experienced. One layer of intensity after another, pounding down around me like giant waves breaking over my head, pushing my body to absorb it and let it move out through me. My throat is raw from grunting, growling, yelling. My body is already sore and will be even more so tomorrow. But for now it feels blissfully worn out. I am spent, used, exhausted both physically and emotionally. I feel relief and release. I am grateful—to myself for making this scene happen, for giving myself permission, and to you, for taking me to these places with such skill and attunement.
I cried many times tonight from the impact, from the rush of emotion pouring out of my body as I processed the physical pain. I cried for the way my body took what you inflicted on me, incorporated it, kept my breath moving and let it pull the tension, sorrow, rage and fear from me.
There are marks across my belly and my breasts from whips I got to watch you throw, each movement full of concentrated grace. It is breathtakingly sexy to watch the spark in your eyes and your smile as you focus on your next move. At that distance, the length of the single-tail whip you wield, the eye-contact is less intense, I can tolerate it more easily.
Tonight was different in that I concentrated on giving you my pain, let myself release the tension and hurt and sadness I’ve been lugging around. I felt your fists strike it out of me. It is a profound relief to let my body do some of the hard work of this grieving, to feel the intensity on my skin, in my muscles, to experience the thrill of pushing my limits, and the release of letting go.
I like that my tears are welcome here, that all of my emotion is. I adore that I am seen here, really seen as who I am. I can be afraid here and I don’t have to hide; I’m not allowed to hide. You are here to witness, to honor the grief I am pushing through, to help me navigate decades of shame and oceans of loss.
This time I really noticed your eyes, robin’s egg blue fading to a faint hint of sky. They twinkle. They write compassion all over my body. They can hold whatever I need to bring here. I am safe in your eyes.
This is the Work
It is a relief to have a sense of what’s coming. We’ve only ever done EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprogramming) one other time, and in that session I cried so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. Tears poured out of me as I gulped for air. But it felt like it shifted some piece of my grief towards healing so I was willing to try it again.
I’d try just about anything Gayle suggested at this point. She’s been my therapist off and on for fifteen years and knows me more intimately than almost anyone in my life. Before this session, I sent Gayle an email listing headlines of things that I’d been weathering since we last met. With EMDR we don’t talk much, so I knew I wouldn’t get to process these details, but I needed her to hold the context. We spoke briefly when I arrived about how difficult the previous week had been, how stress and anxiety had ran rampant through my days. I reiterated that I was calmer so far this week.
We scoot my chair close to hers, so we’re sitting across from each other about a foot apart. The chair is one thing I dislike about EMDR. Lately at Gayle’s office I only want to sit on the floor, either with my back against the wall if I’m coping well, or at her feet with my head in her lap if I’m fragile and need to cry. But for EMDR we need to be eye-level to each other, so I have to sit in the chair.
When instructed, I close my eyes and pay attention to what is happening inside my body and mind. I notice any emotions or thoughts drifting through my consciousness. Gayle invites me to share what I notice and we talk back and forth a little until we land on something that feels significant. When that happens, I open my eyes. She holds up two fingers on her right hand, and waves them back and forth across my line of vision. My job is to follow her fingers, like one of those creepy cat clocks where the eyes shift sideways rhythmically. At the end of twenty or thirty passes in front of my face, Gayle brings her fingers to a stop in the center of my field of vision, and asks me to close my eyes. We repeat this cycle many times throughout our session.
At one point, with my eyes closed, I hear myself say, “Everybody leaves.” Gayle asks me to stay with that, to notice how my body feels when I focus on the statement that everybody leaves. My stomach begins to swirl inside. I feel nervous and scared. My chest tightens and my breathing goes shallow. I am angry and I want to yell. I report all of this to Gayle with my eyes still closed.
Gayle has me put one hand on my belly and one hand on my chest. My desire to yell intensifies. I hold that position for several moments. Then she asks if I want to yell with my eyes open or closed. As I consider this, I notice the energy shift inside me. I breathe the intensity down, calm it through my breath and swallow the yell. I no longer want to yell, I don’t want to speak this anger.
This is where Gayle gets really clear and instructive. She tells me that moment, right there, is a major piece of our work – learning to cross that chasm of not swallowing down my emotions, of not shrinking away, of giving all the parts of myself a chance to speak, to yell, to emote, to exist and be seen, heard, validated. I can feel the passion in her voice, hear the depth of her tenderness towards me. Her dark brown eyes and warm smile emanate love and acceptance.
Somehow I find my words to ask, “Now can I sit on the floor? Are we done yet?”
“Yes, of course, we’re finished with EMDR for today, but we’re not out of time.” I push my chair out of the way and settle myself on the carpet in front of her. My arms are folded across Gayle’s lap and I let myself lay my head down, waiting for the tears to flow. She puts one hand on my shoulder to soothe me.
In that moment, I am struck by how much overlap there is in the work I am doing in each realm of therapy. I notice the way these pieces are knit together within me. With Gayle I feel compelled to use my voice in a big way, and then I swallow it down. In scene with Ma’am, I’m encouraged to sound more like a lion and less like a mouse. I get praised for making noise there, both to speak my desire, and to process the intensity of impact and sensation I am experiencing. At women’s group, I talk back to suicide, and speak openly about being angry.
In all of these places my work is the same – to learn how to be in my body, to find and amplify my voice, to show up and be seen, to cultivate genuine presence. The venues are so different, and yet they aren’t. It is all therapy. It is all self-work. It is all part of constructing the authentic life I want. The work tangles in and around itself as I move between these connections. These are the primary places my body receives touch. These are the places where I get to be an embodied emotional creature. These are the places I am seen and held. This is where I am learning to heal.
Our session ends before I have time to voice any of this to Gayle. We’ve been sitting in silence, connected through touch and shared emotional experience. I stand up slowly, checking to make sure my feet aren’t asleep from sitting cross-legged. I ask for a hug and she holds me tight. When we pull away, I start to thank her but she gets there first. “Thank you for letting me in this far. This is powerful, core work we’re doing. I’m honored.” My words fall silent but a shy smile crosses my lips as I step away and walk out the door.
Megan Jennifer writes memoir about grief, love, identity, family, therapy and tangled relationships. Her work has been published in two anthologies and she is working on her first book.