Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.

Let’s get naked about mental health!

In this episode, I’ll discuss the craziest advice I was ever given by a therapist. And how it worked. There was a bright shiny thing that was begging me to look at and go down a tangent, but I managed to stay on track, with a few twists and turns. There is also something about mirrors.

Before getting into the episode: the important stuff. I just want to remind everybody that I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, or any kind of professional with an –ist at the end of their title. I am just a guy who has been there.

If you are in crisis, or know somebody who is, I implore you to reach out to a professional. There is now a national hotline you can call or text. 988.

I’ll repeat that because it bears repeating. If you or someone you know is in crisis, I implore you to reach out to a professional. Dialing or texting 988 will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.

Now, let’s get into the episode.

…but wait for a second. Pause. I am about to get into a story about someone who might be listening to this podcast. Karen seems to be popular these days so let’s call her Karen.

I’ve gotten into trouble before, hurt people unintentionally, hurt people I cared about, loved, because of miscommunication. When I explain to them how they helped me on my mental health journey, they took it the wrong way. They took it as a personal attack, only hearing “this is how I was triggered,” and not the entire “what was wrong with me to be triggered” and how I then developed healthier coping mechanisms thanks to them.

But on to Karen. I met with Karen long past this incident occurred. The incident created a huge opening for a healthy change in me and, for that, I will be eternally grateful. It just took, well, me being me, to get there.

At the time, right after I graduated college, I hated Karen. I guess it is a very normal story, common even. We had started to date, began a relationship, I moved in with her, and we even moved into a second apartment together. Then, we broke up.

It was an ugly, nasty break up, filled with a lot of harsh words, vicious attacks and, well, I was angry with her.

Anger, though, does not do the feeling justice. Fury is more like it. Hatred even. The fury came to dominate me.

In many ways, the fury was like the suicidal thoughts I experienced last year, when the swarm of gnats became a swarm of hornets. The fury made me impervious to the stings, but I was constantly in that swarm during every waking hour. I couldn’t think or concentrate, couldn’t get any work done, couldn’t really function normally.

I was lucky enough at the time that my boss was my uncle. He rolled with it, allowing me to turn a normal eight-hour day into a 16-hour day with breaks and naps.

A thing you learn in therapy is that anger is a secondary emotion. It grows from something else, like hurt and pain. I knew this but I didn’t give a shit. I wanted to be furious, allowed myself that, and allow the anger just to be anger.

It wasn’t healthy. I didn’t care about that either.

With the way it was dominating me, I finally began one of my brief forays into therapy. That’s when I heard one of the craziest pieces of advice I ever heard from a therapist. It almost made me walk out the door.

“Forgive her,” the therapist said.

Are you kidding me?!? Forgive her?!? After all she did? After all I lost? After this, that and the other thing? Forgive her?!? Are you nuts?

I imagine she had seen this before. Many times. She calmed me down and got me to sit back in the chair. Then she explained.

“Look, Chris,” she said, “I am not talking about reconciling with her. I am not talking about ever seeing her again, having any contact with her. That would be wrong as it was a very unhealthy relationship from what you have told me and we can get into that. We are talking about you, not her. In this moment. In this time.”

She went on to discuss the anger, not even bringing up the secondary emotion part. She knew I was furious, and the fury was dominating me. The fury was as unhealthy as the relationship had been. Maybe even more unhealthy. I was being completely controlled by it.

“You need to find a way to let the anger go,” she explained. “The way to do that is by forgiving her.”

I’ve never been a “forgive” kind of person. Aye, ya know, I’m from Philly. A baseball bat? Yes. Throwing fists? Yeah. Holding a grudge for a decade or two? You betcha. Forgiveness? Not a chance in hell.

But I was paying for therapy, trusted my therapist, so decided to give it a shot. This began a very long process. It was a “fake it till you make it” thing she explained. As part of the exercise, I had to verbalize it.

I found it all pretty ridiculous.

Thoughts of Karen would pop into my head often. Very often. I would be driving in my car, think of her, and the thought would release a flood of rage.

“I forgive you,” I would say, out loud. Followed by, “You rotten, fricking bitch that ruined my life”…and a tirade that would last about 5-10 minutes. A phrase spoken in one second followed by at least five minutes of very bad words, I even came up with new ones and new ways to string them together. I can be very creative.

In my car, at home, in work. The “I forgive you.” Followed by the tirade.

The forgiveness wasn’t genuine. It was just words. Empty. As my therapist knew they would be. The empty verbalization continued for about a month, followed by the tirade. My therapist said I was doing good and to keep it up.

It felt even more ridiculous.

The absurdity continued, the lie, but an interesting thing started to happen. The tirade became less and less over a few months. It got to the point where I was saying the empty words, “I forgive you,” and then just moving on with my day, without the tirade.

This went on for another few months.

At some point in time, I realized two things. 1) the words weren’t empty anymore. I had said them so many times, out loud, that I did finally begin to forgive Karen. And 2) The need to verbalize was becoming less and less as the thoughts of Karen, and the anger, were coming less often.

My life started to return to normal–or as normal as it ever got for me.

I don’t really know how much time had passed, but it hit me one day. I hadn’t thought of Karen in a long time, months. I hadn’t had to verbalize or even think, “I forgive you” in a while because I hadn’t thought of her in a long while. Karen, and the anger, had lost its control over me.

There were no thoughts of reconciliation or even contact. We were two young adults that weren’t right for each other.

It all led to thoughts of the therapist and anger. You see the memes a lot on Facebook and Instagram these days, about how holding onto anger is like drinking poison to spite somebody else. No matter that anger is a secondary emotion, it’s more than a useless emotion. I found out that it was a damaging emotion, to myself.

It is not like Karen was affected by my anger. She never even knew about my constant struggle. But by being furious with her, I had given her far more power over me, after the relationship ended, than I ever had during the relationship.

I took the power back. Released her and, more importantly, released myself from the prison I had built around me.

This is not about being a pacifist or turning the other cheek kind of thing. Aye, you can take the boy out of Philly but you can’t take Philly out of the boy. There are still a few people I would like to “meet” one day, people who had hurt my daughter. Maybe she has forgiven them or forgotten them. I haven’t. But I imagine that a therapist would say it is about her, and not me. They have no control over me but they hurt my baby. I’d enjoy the opportunity to return the favor, tenfold.

There is a reputation to Philly and we live up to it. It is home to cheesesteaks, hoagies, wader ice and the worst sports fans in the world, voted #1 in that category consistently many years running. I even have a shirt that says “Philly: Nobody likes else and we don’t care.”

A few years back, the “Peace Robot,” or something like that, made its way from coast to coast as an experiment. Everywhere it went in the country, people would pose for pictures with it and send it on its way. Its trip came to an end in Philly, where it was mugged. 

But let’s get back to me, in my apartment. Far away from Philly…

I have since applied the “forgiveness principal” to many people in my life. Most recently, it was Bob in my previous episode. I’ve applied it equally to friends, family, acquaintances and strangers. It’s gotten much easier over the years.

I actually have people that care about me angry about it. How ironic is that? They get angry that I’m not angry. But, then, most of them are from Philly.

I found that meme on Facebook is true, long before there was such a thing as Facebook. Holding onto anger really is like drinking poison to spite someone else.

Think about it. Whether you come into contact with the person every day or never see them again, they are never affected by your anger. Hell, if you come into contact with the person, they might be enjoying it. The only person it really affects is you.

Then, there is the other side of anger.

Maybe I am wrong, and maybe I really need to discuss this with a professional, but I still feel that anger can be a useful emotion, especially as a young child. Unable to do the adult calculations and processing, it was a simple and effective way to protect myself. It was a shield and sword, armor and protection against the things that were happening to me. It is a very simple coping mechanism.

I’ll leave a lot of that until after I do discuss it with a professional, but I was a very angry child, that grew into an angry young man, that then grew into an angry adult. I sometimes wonder how that anger affected me and my relationships in my life. It would become something that people had to look beyond to get to know the real me. Maybe some people couldn’t because the anger triggered them?

My anger, among other things, made me blind to certain solutions that have since become very important parts of my healthier life. In last week’s episode, I talked about how I tend to ignore red flags in certain situations. How I can be like the drunk driver, plowing through the orange cones and red flags, wondering what the bumps in my car were, completely surprised when the cop pulled me over…or I ended up in a ditch. Maybe, in some cases, the anger was the poison that got me drunk in the first place?

Yeah, I was ignoring the true other side of anger. Anger as a child’s defense? Like I said, I’ll get into that another time. It was a tangent.

Look: a shiny thing!

But it is that shiny thing in the sand that you have to look at just right, at the right angle, to catch the sun so it blinds you.

Now, I want to be blinded. Aye, I got two more pages into this script. I was following that tangent towards other faraway places, away from the real issue. Important places, but I need to move out of the angle of the shiny thing and address the REAL other side of anger.

Anger at myself.

I was doing a damn good job of following that tangent when Lance called me, the friend from episode five. We started talking about what I had already prepared for this episode…and I find myself trying to angle my eyes to look at the shiny thing again, talk about Lance. So, instead of Lance, let’s talk about Josh.

Josh is where I need to be right now.

It is 1996 or so and I am talking with Josh on the phone. It had been a bad week. I remember that. The stutter was getting the better of me at college. Josh had been my first roommate at college, and he was one of the people I could call when the stutter got bad…

No, Chris. Stop. Talk about it.

Josh, a few nights later. We got drunk with his girlfriend. I was hammered. Josh and his girlfriend were hammered. We were having a great time. I was a happy drunk. Josh passed out. His girlfriend and I continued having a wonderful time. Then, I made a pass at Josh’s girlfriend.

She very nicely put me in my place, and I think she even smiled. Then, she went and joined Josh in his bed.

That’s when the other side of anger took hold. Pure hatred, fury…at myself. I had just broken a friend’s trust, a friend that meant the world to me. I had just turned an excellent evening, a celebration, into a total pile of crap.

Josh and his girlfriend eventually broke up and Josh never spoke of the incident to me. I never spoke of it to him. It hung there between us.

Decades later, I would find out that the only thing hanging between us was my anger at myself. I finally came clean to him, bared my soul, bared my anguish and crime.

It took him a long while to respond. He had to dig through memories and go back twenty years.

“Ohhhhhh. You mean so and so? Hell, Chris, I stole her from Jason. I am so sorry you beat yourself up about it all these years. There was no reason to. None. I can’t even forgive you because there is nothing to forgive. But if it makes you feel better?”

Over the decades, I have gotten pretty good at forgiving other people. In terms of aloha, I can offer them and wish them mercy. Forgiving myself, offering myself mercy, is another story entirely.

It is the other side of anger, the flip side of forgiveness.

The depression, anxiety, PTSD, the unhealthy coping mechanisms, and just being what Lance referred to as merely being human, has led to many instances, many examples, of me being angry at myself…and then holding onto it to beat the hell out of myself for years and decades.

Another great example was with Karen herself. A couple years ago, so we are talking 20 years after our relationship ended, she reached out to me on Facebook. During my odyssey across America, I stopped by and saw her and her now grown sons.

We had spent 18 months together. There were many good times. One particular incident had eaten away at me for all those years. It would pop into my head once in a while and then dissipate, unforgiven.

Sitting with her on her patio in Florida, sipping coffee and sharing about our lives, I brought it up. Apologizing.

Like Josh, she had to work at remembering the incident. It took a while as she looked at me puzzled.

“Ohhhhhh. That. Chris, I appreciate you apologizing but there is nothing to apologize for. I was angry at the time, maybe for a few days, but? Don’t even think about it anymore.”

I could finally stop beating the hell out of myself. Over that thing. There is still a long way to go. A very long list. And perhaps a lot of counseling.

This is still very difficult for me to discuss. I have made a lot of progress though. I think it is safe to follow one of those tangents now.

Coffee first, coffee always.

Though coffee is the main part of my morning ritual, really the only thing I am able to do until after the caffeine kicks in, it is not the only part of my morning ritual.

When Covid hit, and the depression was really starting to hit hard, I realized that I had a choice to make each morning. Things were bad, I was isolated, I was depressed, I think my life got a bit more screwed up than other people’s lives–though still not as bad as some.

I wrote then that I had to look at myself in the mirror each morning and make a choice, to be miserable to be happy. I think it is a difficult choice to make at first and not as easy as some people may think.

Just like the “I forgive you,” I had to reaffirm to myself to be happy and not miserable. It was an empty affirmation, another “fake it till you make it” kind of thing. And it took even longer than the process with forgiveness. I continued it though, knowing, hoping, it might click one day.

I forgot about it.

This was 2020 for those keeping track, about 2 1/2 years ago. Growing up, my stepfather, Rich, would annoy the living hell out of me. He would sing in the morning! Sing! What the hell was there to be that happy about? To get the coffee, though, I had to put up with the singing.

I think I finally figured out his secret.

It wasn’t always the easiest times, but he chose to be happy each morning. He was awake, the sun was shining, the day was a new day full of possibilities. It made me even more miserable.

It was about a month ago now that it hit me. My sleep schedule had drastically changed. I was sleeping well but started finding myself waking up between 4:30 and 5:30–usually to crash and have to take a nap later in the afternoon. I had never been a morning person. Ever. What the hell was happening to me?

I figured it out. I was excited to be out of bed and get to work. My mind had chosen happiness and that translated to me being like a kid waking up on Christmas day, with the excitement of running down the stairs to open presents.

No, I do not sing. I’ve done karaoke (there’s video) and I don’t think I am allowed to sing in many states. But Rich would not annoy me these days. Possibly. There are still the endlessly repeated history lessons and stories while I am trying to have my coffee in peace.

There is that mirror in my mind, though, where I look at myself and make a choice. If I backslide, and have a previous bad night or day, sip one kind of poison or another, it may be empty words. But I’m human.

I think it is time to start doing something new. Maybe even before the coffee so my mind is not awake enough to reject it out of hand. Maybe it is time to look at myself in the mirror and say meaningless words.

“Chris, I forgive you. I grant you mercy.”

Saying that made me squirm. This is going to be a process. It is one I need to begin.

And that’s a wrap for this episode!

If you are enjoying these episodes and are finding them helpful, I invite you to check out my podcast webpage under “Support the Podcast!” I finally got the link up there on the main page. Now I am attempting the Herculean task of getting the information on there from my Patreon and GoFundMe pages. This is going to take a lot more coffee. It’s the whole asking for help thing.

But any amount can help. You can become a patron with a monthly donation for as little as $3 or make a one-time donation through my GoFundMe page. The easiest way to help, however, is simply by sharing this podcast and the website with anybody and everybody. You don’t know who might be struggling.

In any case, I’ll keep talking.


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