The ones who know our waves

I’ve been working my way through one of Ann Patchett’s beautiful books of essays lately and just finished the piece that the book is named after, These Precious Days. In it, she tells the story of coming to know and to love and to care for, in an interweaving order, her dear Sooki, a woman battling recurrent pancreatic cancer.

As is true of every Ann Patchett piece, there are layers upon layers here, to the point where it feels too reductive to call out just one thread in the gorgeous tapestry. But I will speak to one because of the way it hit me in that tender spigot that lives just behind my eyes.

Ann is recounting several months during which a newish friend comes to live with her in the home she shares with her husband in Nashville. Sooki’s been accepted into a chemotherapy trial nearby and every Wednesday goes down the road for treatment, returning after to the loving arms of Ann’s home. Wednesdays aren’t fun, by any means, but it’s Fridays and early Saturdays when the effects of the chemo really start to take hold. That’s when Sooki gets quieter. That’s when she starts to really long for her home in L.A. That’s when she feels like giving up.

And each Friday and early Saturday Ann gently urges Sooki to wait before making any decisions. She doesn’t get frustrated with Sooki or tell her that she’s ridiculous for, once again, experiencing this despair. She doesn’t roll her eyes or get edgy. She doesn’t put on a bright smile and condescendingly remind her that everything will feel different, feel better, soon enough. She simply – tenderly – reminds her that this is how she feels on Fridays.

“I do?” Sooki asks.

And Ann replies, “That’s what I’m here for. I chart your emotional life.”

As I read that exchange, I was reminded of the person who charts my own emotional life. He’s been doing it for a couple years now, since we reconnected over cocktails and the hilarity and painfulness of divorce. And he does it so well that, just like Sooki, I’d both barely registered it and had been surviving because of it.

My own peaks and valleys – more valleys than peaks, I can assure you – aren’t the product of cancer medicines. They are usually in response to more banal causes: monthly hormonal fluctuations, cycles of my workweek, days piled up with no breaks from parenting.

“I just hate everything right now! I don’t even know why!” I’ll growl as I move through the kitchen, shutting drawers just a little too hard.

And from a safe distance that conveys both I know you need space and I’ve seen this before and I’m not afraid, he says, “Didn’t you just talk to your mom last night?”

It takes a particular strength of character and a very distinct tenderness to be able to suggest to a woman that her feeling that the world is crashing down around her is here because her period is starting in less than 48 hours and have her not wish your immediate death.

I’ve been thinking about what makes this possible, what otherworldly touch one must possess to be the charter of an emotional life without being a know-it-all or an asshole. And I realize it’s not really magic, exactly, but indeed kind of magical.

It’s attunement and curiosity. It’s attention and humility. It’s having enough interest in someone to watch the ebb and flow of their feelings while also being able to manage one’s own emotional state so as not to get pulled out to sea with them. It takes a healthy amount of emotional maturity. Just enough sensitivity to be a good thermometer but built out of solid enough materials to be hung on the deck without fear of cracking.

It’s this skill set, but at the end of the day, I see it as something that is far more fundamental, more elemental. It’s love. Love is the charting of someone else’s emotional life for them.

Love is noticing that it’s been six hours since they had any real food and so their tone doesn’t reflect the best of them. It’s recognizing that they haven’t been sleeping well and so how they feel about themselves can’t be trusted. It’s knowing that it’s that part of the month at work when the deadlines are looming and they will almost certainly want to quit and that if they give it three more days they will remember why they do this again. It’s noticing too that while they can’t see very clearly how the duration of their despair is shortening each round, you do. You see how the lows maybe aren’t as low, or their handling them just a little bit better.

Which is why, at the end of the day, good therapy is love too. I’m not suggesting that this kind of emotional charting is the only mechanism of good therapy. But for me it feels like a vital element, a prerequisite. As a therapist, it’s my honor to say to this human who has entrusted me with their emotional life, “I know you feel like burning it all down, but have you eaten today?” Or, “I see how helpless you feel at this moment. That feeling seems to be showing up right on time.”

I hope that we all have these charters of our emotional lives. People who are able and willing to show up and tune in, to follow the messy threads of feelings and spool them back to us. To help us feel a little less tangled. To help us weave something beautiful.

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