The word seminar always sends shivers up my back, hearkening to mind the countless times multi-level marketers have used the term to somehow legitimize their cultish gatherings around Power Point presentations. You know the ones: the two hour seminars on their methods for self-reliance and financial freedom, the seminar you and that motley crew of randoms have been selected to view, because you all apparently espouse exclusive character traits (gullibility?) this proven system is looking to acquire. Sarcasm? Yeah, that was sarcasm.

I bring this up, because I recently embarked on a seminar aimed at counseling my depressive tendencies, known as cognitive behavioral therapy. To find myself willingly signing up for an eight week program going by the same definition, is a bit of a shock to my system, and not without the quicksand of negative preconceptions bogging me down. I figured I’d thrash out my experiences here in text and see what sticks.

A valid question might be, why am I doing this? The short answer is that I told my doctor I wanted to explore “options” before cashing in a prescription for antidepressants; the longer, more thought out answer, is that I legitimately want to lose the baggage I carry of subconsciously behaving like I’m too good to try stuff, when in reality, it’s a grander way of avoiding landing outside my comfort zone, especially where emotional health is concerned. “If I learn one thing, it will have been worth it,” I bravely told a pessimistic friend yesterday. I remember cringing just a little at the way the phrase sounded, practiced, maybe a shade insincere, but I genuinely wanted to believe this cheery outlook going into the uncharted territory of the first session.

I woke up early this morning, after mashing the snooze button a half-dozen times on my iPhone alarm. My sessions begin at ten AM on a Tuesday, at a children’s hospital in the middle of nowhere, so there’s a certain amount of preparation and travel time to account for arriving punctually. When I first heard the seminars were being held here, I was uncertain whether this venue was creepier or less creepy, than the alternative batch of sessions which could be found around the corner of a hospital wing for recovering meth addicts; either place isn’t exactly normalizing the concept of caring for the psyche’s well being. When such clinics find their way next to Starbucks or above bowling alleys, well then that’ll be progress.

As the session haltingly began … the usual hallmarks of group participation reared their ugly heads

It had started to bucket down rain on the ride there, which wasn’t exactly terrific. Getting off the bus, I swearingly took shelter under a willow tree and broke out the phone, trying to figure out from a cryptically written email where exactly on the sprawling campus I was supposed to go. And by cryptic, I mean the directional terms right and left were used in a long series, until I felt like a soaking wet piece of Tetris ready to spill off the screen and into the waters edge of the Georgia Straight before me. Surrendering to mob mentality, I found two other lost depressives, and followed them in their wayward wanderings until the three of us stumbled upon a clubhouse, seemingly dropped there among the rubber tiled ground of the disabled kid’s playground — next to a faux-waterwheel and a slide harbouring a slough of dirty rainwater and molding leaves. Yep; this was it. At least I wasn’t making a solo entrance, I reckoned.

As the session haltingly began (due to half the attendees being unable to find their way), the usual hallmarks of group participation reared their ugly heads. Workbooks, sign-in sheets, the little pieces of trifold paper you write your name upon using dull sharpies so you’re no longer anonymous. And, pairing off with participants. I became conjoined with a dental hygienist who proceeded to ask me what my end goal would be at the conclusion of the eighth week. “Probably more emotional stability,” I guardedly said to her, wondering how hostile I might be coming off as, before I added more context to salve my being abrupt. “I tend to swing from one extreme to another sometimes, so maybe by then I’ll have found some common ground in the middle?”

I may find joy in order, but as I recall the dirty dishes I left chilling in my kitchen sink this morning, I can admit that I’m definitely not a perfectionist.

“My son is exactly like you,” the hygienist replied. “Everything has to be perfect; it’s hard to live with.” She then proceeded to explain her desired outcome of the program, which I’ll leave politely undefined here, while I pondered how my emotional stability could have anything to do with purportedly being a perfectionist. I may find joy in order, but as I recall the dirty dishes I left chilling in my kitchen sink this morning, I can admit that I’m definitely not one.

We practiced breathing techniques, the importance of the Vegus nerve in relaxation, and contemplated slides and flowcharts. Oh, and the relevance of feelings, something on which the practitioner wanted feedback from each and every one of us. I mentioned how I felt feelings might be good for making ethical decisions, a bit of a departure from the other answers that dealt with feelings being useful for preventing burns in the kitchen. These quips were taken at face value, but when it came to mine, I was asked to elaborate.

I said that sometimes where ethics are concerned, facts only go far and a gut feeling might be more compelling to motivate you in doing the right thing. “You mean like when a bus drives past the curb and is about to splash you?” the practitioner asked. “Your gut reaction of wanting to stay dry alerts you to step back?” Uh no, I thought to myself, that’s not what I meant at all. Only I didn’t say that, and my blithe neutrality ended up getting interpreted as gleeful agreement. I was thanked for my thoughtful feedback involving feelings and getting splashed by buses.

The seminar continued for just a little longer. Each session was only supposed to be an hour and a half long, and we’d started late this first time. Before long, eleven thirty rolled around, and closing statements were taken. Most were positive and optimistic; I said I was looking forward to learning new habits. This back-patting was interrupted by the levity of one participant, the only person wearing formal clothing, a shirt and tie. “In all honesty, I’m wondering how all of this is actually going to help me,” he said, looking pensively at the practitioner. The room fell silent. “I mean, maybe that’s just my old personality tugging at me,” he added, blunting the edge of his statement just a little. “Maybe that’s why I’m here.”

As I plodded through the wet fields of the kid’s hospital on my way out, I bumped into an old lady wearing a lime green rain coat whom I recognized as being another participant (there had been fourteen of us). Somehow we’d both lost our way once again, and had ended up in a dead end alongside an elbow in the dirty waterslide. I guided her to the freedom of the parking lot, and bid her goodbye until next week.

I caught a bus, shirking past two passengers who had also been in the clubhouse, avoiding any more dialogue or sharing in lieu of a fleeting smile of acknowledgement. I fled to the nearest coffeehouse and ordered an Americano, my favorite antidepressant elixir, wishing as I drank it and wrote, that the content I hammered out here would somehow be more giddily optimistic, more satisfied with what I’d just encountered, but it wouldn’t be entirely true if it was. My phobia of such emotional training being borderline patronizing feels a little earned right this minute, but I can’t dwell on that. I can’t judge the well meaning efforts of the people who cared enough to provide this service.

At least I grasped the importance of deep breathing. I like knowing cause and effect, and the very knowledge that a focused inhalation flexes the Vegus — the nerve responsible for that feel-good warmth in your being — means I’ve learned at least one new thing today.

According to my attitude going into this, that’s all that matters. I’m going to think on that for a while.

3 thoughts on “Emotional Tetris

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