Tuesday, November 26, 2013

For Liz Ledman, the Woman Who Saved/Changed My Life

I have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. I mean, as I type this I am watching the sun rise over Seattle, my favorite place on earth. My home. My husband and I moved out here safely. We both got jobs. In fact, I have a job I really love. We have a great apartment. We have our health and I wake up just about every morning feeling content, which is a huge shift from last year.

But what I am most thankful for right now is the person who got me to this place, a person who I recently learned passed away far too young, but who spent their time here improving, and in some cases including mine, saving lives: My therapist, Liz Ledman.

I’m no stranger to therapy and I have no shame in talking about it or the factors that brought me there starting when I was fifteen years old. I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life and I refuse to feel stigmatized because of it. I think it is essential to talk about, which is part of the reason I’m writing this now, in addition to honoring Liz. I wasn’t totally ready for therapy the first time I went. When my parents and doctor suggested it, I agreed to go along with it because I sort of thought it was glamorous, being obsessed with women like Sylvia Plath and Zelda Fitzgerald and Susanna Kaysen. I ended up with this awful psychologist, whose idolatry of Freud became very clear several sessions in when I finally decided to be completely honest with her—more honest than I’d even been with my best friends—and confessed tearfully that I was pretty sure that the boy who’d recently broken up with me, who I’d lost my virginity to and had been and still was head over heels in love with had been emotionally and sexually abusive. Her response: “Let’s talk some more about your grandfather. I think you have issues with men because you have issues with your father and grandfather.” I definitely did have issues with men because of my issues with my dad (my grandpa was just an asshole, I’m not sure how much that really affected me), but I’d also just said I was abused and she hadn’t even acknowledged it. I walked out of her office and never went back (even though my dad tried to convince me to go for “closure”).

I spent the next few (several? Depression makes time hard to remember.) months in a deep black pit of despair and anger. The secret cutting habit I’d had since junior high severely worsened. Eventually as I describe in this Rookie piece about my self-injury, I had a total breakdown and showed my parents my wounds hoping they would like me up like Sylvia. Instead, they sent me to a different psychologist, one my mom had seen and liked. He was a man in his fifties or maybe even older (youth makes it hard to judge), so I was uncertain about him at first, but he was kind and he actually listened. And maybe I did have daddy/grandpa issues and I needed a kindly older man to listen to my problems. I saw him sporadically until I graduated high school and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, when I was seventeen, and then again when I moved back at twenty-one. I was more serious about therapy then—finally acknowledging that I had all sorts of problems including the cutting, but also with insomnia and alcohol. I knew I still needed to work through that abusive relationship and to work on my relationship with my dad. My doctor helped with all of these things. Also, when I turned twenty-three and no longer had my mom’s insurance, he kept saying he would bill us later and he never did. By the time he retired a couple of years later, we must have owed him thousands. I also owed him a greater debt because I’d stopped cutting and drinking heavily, felt mostly healed from the abusive, and was on the verge of finally getting out of a co-dependent relationship with an alcoholic boyfriend and figuring things out with my dad. I still had the insomnia problem, but aside from that I felt fixed. Healthy.

In the years that followed, I sold two books and married an amazing guy. But things didn’t always feel so rosy. I actually barely remember the launch of my first book because it’s clouded by deep grief—my dear friend Marcel was killed in a motorcycle accident just a week or so before. He was the third friend of mine to die in six months. Then, things started to go downhill for me in 2010 when my editor said they couldn’t buy another YA book from me. My first two had come out during the heart of the recession and clearly their sales hadn’t met the publisher’s expectations. I tried to put a brave face on and keep writing, but I struggled with serious writer’s block. On top of that, my beloved cat Sidney had hard-to-diagnose and even harder to treat health issues, which turned my life upside down and put me on a constant emotional roller coaster. In spite of all of this, I finished a book and found an amazing new agent… but that book didn’t sell. And neither did proposal that both of us were so excited and confident about. Even though I spent my days slaving over the keyboard, I didn’t feel like a writer anymore. I was a bartender with an MFA, which in my overachiever Lisa Simpson mind was totally fucking pathetic. To make matters worse, the bar business was just getting worse and worse (it is NOT recession-proof) and I was struggling to make ends meet.

By June of 2012, I was waking up every morning crying—sometimes full-on sobbing, sometimes tears leaking down my face that wouldn’t stop. I knew I couldn’t afford financially or emotionally to be a bartender/writer any more, but I didn’t know what else to do. Even the most appealing jobs like librarian or social worker overwhelmed me. They meant more school, more debt, and deep down to me, they meant failing at my dream. I’d also grown obsessed with all I’d given up to write. Stability. The chance to follow other dreams like moving to Seattle or having a kid. Yeah, I was proud of my books, but had they come at the expense of my happiness? On top of all of this was grief I still hadn’t full processed and Sidney’s illness which was growing far more severe. I knew I was falling into that same black hole I’d been in at sixteen, but I wasn’t sure what to do about it. My career was the problem and I was certain that the only one who could fix that was an editor benevolent enough to buy my next book, not a shrink. Besides I had shitty health insurance and no money to pay out of pocket.

Then my urges to cut started coming back. There was a box cutter at work that I would stare at every night, daydreaming about how it would feel against my skin. I started writing journal entries about how I fantasized about losing control of my car or someone coming into the bar and shooting me. And one night during an emotional conversation with my husband about how stuck I felt, I took my hair clip—one of those alligator clips with the little metal teeth—and pinched my skin repeatedly with it while I spoke, wishing for blood while he watched, not sure of what to do or say. This was technically self-injury and I knew it. I hadn’t done something like that in ten years. I needed to find help.

An online search led me to Liz. Her office was in the town next to mine, she accepted sliding scale patients, self-injury was listed in her profile as an area of expertise, and the icing on the cake: She described herself as a feminist. I called, left a message, and even though it was right around the Fourth of July holiday, she called right back and we set our first appointment for the following Thursday.

As cool as she seemed on paper, I went in to her office doubtful that she could actually help me—that anyone could because my issue was my career, but Liz saw right away that what was actually happening was that feeling like I’d lost control with my career had sent me into a downward spiral because as an abuse survivor keeping control was everything to me. She recognized and helped me see patterns in my life, how strict I was not just with my writing routine, but with my drinking, my eating and exercising, my obsessive planning. I set impossible standards for myself and felt really good when I managed to maintain them, but I set myself up for failure and when I did, I failed hard. If writing went badly on a Monday, I dismissed the entire week. I would go a long period of controlling my diet and my drinking and then I would binge, getting so drunk I’d puke and feeling incredibly guilty even if there was no reason to. This sort of behavior was common in women who’d been through what I’d been through. When she explained this to me, at first I was awash in anger—I thought I’d dealt with what had happened to me seventeen years ago, I hated that after all that time my abuser was still having an effect on me. But the anger quickly vanished, replaced by relief. This was actually a revelation that explained so much about my life and my rigid personality. In my early twenties, as soon as I’d stopped cutting and drinking heavily, the urge to control everything had set in. I didn’t like it about myself, but much like my career, I didn’t think it was fixable. With Liz’s gentle guidance, it was.

She wrote a list of things I needed to focus on that I hung up and still have up next to my desk. They were centered on my writing, but most of them applied to the rest of my life too. “The moment counts” and “ritual not rigidity” are the first two. Another is “recognize when fear of control is setting in.” Over the course of the next eight months I worked to apply these things both to my writing and my life in general.

I was obsessed with both my past and my future when I walked into Liz’s office for the first time, so the biggest thing we worked on was living in the moment and through that I learned to be less terrified about my future. From our very first session, Liz refused to believe that I would have to choose between writing and happiness. In our second session, when I told her about my dream of moving to Seattle, she told me, “You can just go.” She didn’t think I needed to figure out my career or get stuck on all the details that had been getting me stuck for years. If I decided to go, she assured me, it would work out. It was a fucking revelation. I called my mom on the way home from that session and said, “Liz thinks I can just go to Seattle… And I think I can, too.” Part of what helped was that she’d lived in the Pacific Northwest for awhile, she’d just packed up and gone when she was younger and even though she and her partner had lived on crappy canned goods for awhile, it had worked out and that time they’d struggled had actually been really happy.

The way she related these personal stories to me was illustrative of a major difference between Liz and my psychologist—we had a lot in common. Part of the reason I’d been so quick to trust her was I saw the tattoos peeking out from under her sleeves. She got my references to Riot Grrrl. She’d been a punk teenager. She also loved to write. We had the same motorcycle boots from Vegetarian Shoes. She was, I’d learn later from reading her obituary, only a year older than me. Our sessions sometimes ended with her recommending restaurants or vegan jerky to me in addition to books I could read and tips about how to stay focused and live in the moment. It wasn’t a traditional therapist/patient rapport and I don’t know if that’s how she was with many of her patients, but I’m guessing she was that way with me because she recognized that it was what I needed. In my late teens and early twenties, I’d needed a father figure to listen, I’d needed something more traditional because I was only beginning to understand myself. When I came to Liz, I needed a woman like me to deepen the understanding I already had, to nudge me forward. I needed someone who clearly got where I was coming from and had experience I could trust—that’s what gave me the strength to have faith in myself.

In the eight months I saw Liz, I went through a lot of ups and downs. I set aside the book that hadn’t sold on proposal and started writing one about grief—which felt fitting because I was working on my own grief for my friend Marcel, for my career, and once he passed away in late November for my cat, Sid in our sessions. It wasn’t easy. In early November, just before Sid’s death, I had a total crisis of faith about my writing while on a writer’s retreat and went to my next session with Liz feeling totally dejected. I tried to be strong, telling her I’d “broken my book,” but I always break my books so I knew I could overcome it. She encouraged me not to look at the book as broke, but as experiencing “complicated grief” (a term she taught me that I then was able to use in the Grief Book!). I needed to do whatever I needed to do to get it through. This was yet another way she encouraged me to break out of my pattern of rigidity, which helped me both as a person and as a writer—in fact, last December I wrote a full list of things her therapy had done to make me a more productive and healthy writer. It turned out that a good therapist really could do as much and possibly even more for me than a benevolent editor. But of course what I got from Liz went way beyond that.

As I alluded to earlier, I was basically suicidal when I sought Liz’s help. On top of that, I was angry at myself for feeling that way, for being weak. Though I am always the first person to listen and provide empathy for friends, I had no empathy for myself. I was just a failure. Liz gave me the empathy I needed—she cried with me in our session after my cat, Sidney died, and it was also because of her that I was able to quickly come to peace with it. A couple of sessions before that, she’d taught me how to have empathy for myself. We did narrative therapy. She guided me through speaking in third person about Steph and all the things Steph had juggled that week. It felt silly at first, but by the end I was crying for “Steph,” and I’d had a serious breakthrough about being kind to myself. Finally, for the first time since childhood, I learned to stop punishing myself when I couldn’t just barrel through my own pain. I took December off from writing my novel because that was what I needed and I refused to feel guilty about it. I mourned my cat. I completed my end-of-semester teaching work. I wrote a short story. I started figuring out the logistics for our move to Seattle. I was a little freaked that when I went back to writing in January it would be hard, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought—I just had to manage my expectations of myself and not freak when things didn’t go exactly as planned.

I saw Liz less often from January through March because she was sick. When she was able to meet with me, our sessions were still amazing and I was proud of myself for being able to apply all that she taught me even when we weren’t able to meet—I’d just journal or talk through what I wanted to say to her in my head. She told me she was going to have to stop practicing because of her illness in March. She offered to recommend me to someone else, but I felt okay. I was set to move to Seattle at the beginning of July and I was almost finished with my book. Mostly I was worried about her. I thanked her for all the help she’d given me and told her to take care as good care of herself as she had me. I did text her when I finished my book. It was the first time I’d ever written a book in less than a year and I’d never been more proud of a book than I had that one. I couldn’t have done it without her and I told her so. She said how proud she was of me and that she couldn’t wait to read it when it was in print. I assumed that since she was young, she was getting better. I didn’t ask because as friendly as we’d been, I was still a client and it didn’t seem like my place.

I emailed her in June to see if she was practicing again—not for me, but for a friend of a friend. I didn’t hear back, so I assumed the answer was no. A couple of weeks ago, I Googled her—I wanted again to see if she was practicing because I had another friend I wanted to refer and I also had been meaning to tell her that I was doing well in Seattle, largely because through out all the hard parts of the move I’d applied what I’d learned from her. I’d lived in the moment, taking life in fully for the first time in… possibly ever. I’d trusted that things would work out. I’d taken care of myself and stepped back when I needed to. The first thing that my Google search returned was her obituary. She’d passed away at the age of 34, two days before I’d sent my email in June. I couldn’t believe it. She was too young, too amazing. Like my friend Marcel, who she had helped me grieve, she was one of the brightest, most empathetic and understanding people I’d ever met. The world had lost so much.

After I learned the news, I went for a walk and I talked to her, aloud but in a whisper, not really caring if people on the street thought I was crazy. It was a gray but beautiful day in Seattle. I told her that I was here and it had turned out as amazing as she’d told me it would. That thanks to her I was happy. My book hadn’t sold yet, but I felt confident it would. I would never give up on it because I wanted to honor her with it, put her name right up top in the acknowledgments. Though I only knew her briefly and mostly in this professional sense, I’ve cried for her a few times including now as I write this. But I also know she lives on with me and all the other people she helped in her too-short time here. Her voice is in my head during the hard times, guiding me through. I also see her nodding and smiling at me whenever I have a breakthrough, usually of the emotional kind that is small and private. She’s proud. She’s me being proud of myself.

I know this was very long and probably only a few people will actually read it all the way through, but this was the best way I could think to honor her because anyone who does read it is another life she’s touched, and even if no one does, I got to see her nodding and smiling all the way through as I wrote it. Thank you, Liz, for saving my life and more than that for making it more beautiful and whole than it has ever been. I promise to enjoy the Pacific Northwest and the words I read and write for you. I will live in the moment, be grateful, and be kind to myself and others the way you taught me.

6 comments:

Annika said...

Thank you, Liz for helping Stephanie.

I love you, Steph. I'm so sorry for your loss. <3

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thank you, Annika, for reading, for understanding and for being an amazing and sympathetic friend xoxo

Alexa Young said...

I read the whole post, my friend. A brave and beautiful tribute. I'm so grateful that we've been in closer contact lately, so thankful to have you in my life, and grateful for Liz and all she's done for you (and in turn for us). xoxoxo

Megan said...

Thank you for writing this. Liz was one of my best friends since childhood and this is an amazing way to remember her. We are all better for having her in our lives. Take care. -- Megan

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Megan, I am so glad I could honor Liz in this way. I'm so sorry for your loss and you are right, we are all better for having her in our lives.

Capture Our Lives said...

I'm a bit shattered by the news of Liz's passing. While we were close so many years back, teammates in gymnastics, she always left a lasting and positive impact. She was a smiling, powerful and fearless little spark-plug of an athlete. I think this is an amazing tribute to her. Thank you for sharing. I so wish I could have reconnected in the times I thought to myself "I wonder what happened to Elizabeth?". I wish I knew more and knew then what I know now. A true loss.