Butterscotch cookies, cotton candy sky, and a therapist’s emotional toolkit in Alameda, CA

*Names and some identifying details have been changed for confidentiality

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The setting for today’s entry is Alameda, an East Bay island city of 78,000 that’s adjacent to Oakland. It’s home to Faction Brewery, where you can enjoy a beer outside next to picnic tables, hacky sack boards, and an expansive view of the Bay Bridge strung out between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island like a shimmering accordion. Alameda also housed a Naval Air Station in the 1940s and ’50s.

As a kid my soccer team and I would practice on fields surrounded by abandoned blue and white buildings (former homes to the children and families of men who worked in the military).

These fields were infamous for their multitudes of goose poop, which we’d try to avoid each time we kicked the balls across the field, but they would inevitably get covered in it at some point—and when they did, we’d squeal as they splattered poopy mist through the air. Scraping mud and poop out from under our cleats became an after-practice ritual that could last as long as twenty minutes.

Fifteen years later, I pick a passenger up from this same field I once practiced at. Her cleats are in a plastic bag to prevent poop from dripping onto my seats, which I appreciate.

 Another passenger, a middle-aged woman with short hair and a muscular build, gets in and announces, “I was just out having drinks with some friends to celebrate being alive. Because I almost died today in a motorcycle accident.” 

Boom, right to the point. It’s refreshing.

The main passenger story of today’s entry though is Jeri*, who talks about therapy, conflicting feelings in relationships, and emotional management tools.

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Main Passenger Story: Butterscotch cookies, cotton candy sky, and a therapist’s emotional toolkit

“For many people, going into the depths of their thoughts and feelings is like going into a dark alley—they don’t want to go there alone. People come to therapy to have somebody to go there with.” —Lori Gottlieb

 At the age of 16, passenger Jeri* was one of those people. Her mind, with its murky depths of thoughts and feelings, indeed felt like a long dark alleyway she’d never traversed. Now though, she is training to become an escort for others down their own obscure paths.

It’s seven pm when I pick her up, and the sun’s beginning to descend over the shingled rooftops of East Alameda. As we drive I watch as thick blankets of cotton candy clouds devour the last remnants of it.

 She comes in with a magenta-colored laundry basket filled with clean clothes (“I do laundry at my boyfriend’s house,” she explains), wearing Ugg boots and plaid pajama bottoms, her brown-red hair gathered up into a high ponytail. Two loose strands on either side fall just past her cheeks, somewhat framing her face. The smell of butterscotch cookies fills the car, fresh from her boyfriend’s oven.

Jeri’s MSW studies become the main topic as we weave through the streets of Alameda (hitting occasional bouts of traffic) on our thirty-minute ride back to her apartment in Hayward.

“I wasn’t always sure I wanted to be a therapist,” she admits, blinking from behind the circular, chestnut-colored frames of her glasses. “I finally committed to it though after years of wavering. Not because the doubts went away—they’re still there and might always be—but because I just made the decision to go for it regardless.”

She describes one of her main doubts as having been “the need to maintain empathy for patients who might be doing shitty things to other people.”

Patients who are hurting others or hurtling down self-destructive paths can be some of the hardest to work with, yet it could be argued that they’re the ones who need help the most—so when one of them’s just admitted to harmful behavior, how do you remain supportive and continue to care?

When I ask Jeri this, she says that consciously re-directing her focus onto the patient’s positive qualities gets her through the more difficult moments.

“It sounds simple, but it can be hard to implement sometimes,” she admits.

I relate to Jeri on this, having applied a similar tactic when working with at times challenging students as an English teacher in Uruguay. 

 One of my students, for example, expressed slightly homophobic thoughts and feelings from time to time. To ensure that my frustration about this didn’t affect the quality of the lessons I was providing, I focused on his love for his dogs, his tenderness towards his wife, and his upbeat energy. I recalled the time he told me that he’d once given up his bed to a cat who was giving birth.

Sometimes a therapist’s own self-healing can help as well.

 “If they’ve hurt someone in a similar way to how someone’s hurt me, and I haven’t fully processed that situation— or I still feel resentment towards the person from my past—I won’t be as present with the patient who reminds me of them. I’ll feel more distant,” she explains. “If I’ve made peace with it though, I’m more able to see the patient as an individual, separate from whatever happened to me.”

She shares a specific example from her own life. 

Jeri and her ex-boyfriend had been together for three years. Though the two of them had at one point planned to get married and settle down, after losing his job her then boyfriend pulled a complete 180.

He told her he wanted to change his trajectory; start a blog where he could showcase his photography; travel, see the world, and have adventures. The life with her he’d said he once wanted, he now viewed as holding him back—even going so far as to call it “baggage.”

After they broke up, instead of resolving these feelings, Jeri admits to having stuffed them down and carried on with her life. She continued to harbor resentment towards her ex, albeit unconsciously—the feelings no longer at the forefront of her mind, but still in there somewhere, muddying her lens.

Years later, a patient she was working with told her she’d recently dumped her boyfriend. “He had too much baggage. I just couldn’t do it anymore,” the patient said.

The phrases she used were similar to ones Jeri’s ex had uttered when breaking up with her years ago (“I just want to see the world;” “I feel like he’s holding me back”).

“If I’d worked through my stuff, I wouldn’t have been so triggered. I would’ve been able to stay in the room with her, mentally and emotionally,” she acknowledges. “Maybe I still would have had a slight internal reaction initially that wasn’t 100% accepting, but I think I could’ve moved past it without a wall going up.”

 Lori Gottlieb describes therapy as a “dual apprenticeship” wherein therapists can “take their patients only as far as they’ve gone in their own inner lives.” That said, self-care and emotional self-maintenance can be a critical component that helps in maintaining empathy for patients. Without it, patients may continue to tap into the therapists’ own unresolved traumas.

“It’s no surprise that as I heal inside, I’m also becoming more adept at healing others,” Gottlieb writes.

Therapy can be emotionally draining, which is why for now, Jeri says on a Friday night she wants nothing more than to do laundry, bake butterscotch cookies at her boyfriend’s house, and be in bed by ten. 

Just as she’s about to leave the car, I notice a book on top of her pile of clothes. Nestled between the pages is a sock that seems to be functioning as a bookmark.

In the past I’ve used candy wrappers, napkins, and other unconventional items as bookmarks. Never a sock though. I’m impressed by Jeri’s innovativeness, and compliment her on it.

These days when I find myself struggling to accept a person in all of their complexity, I sometimes think back to our conversation about conjuring the positive to dilute the negative. When a jerk drives by me, I picture his mom. When I’m feeling some inklings of road rage towards the car in front of me, I focus on the adorable dog who’s sticking his head out from his window, reminding me of his owner’s humanity.

It’s kind of cool that it actually works.

Thanks for reading! Check back soon for more Lyft stories, and follow us on Instagram @lyft_tales

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Photo credits

Lori Gottlieb— https://www.salon.com/2019/03/31/lori-gottlieb-wants-you-to-know-therapists-are-humans-too/

Butterscotch cookies— https://www.daringgourmet.com/butterscotch-coconut-cookies/

Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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