Leaving the Clearing: My IFS Journey

When I was 23, I had my first major depressive episode. I had graduated from college and, after a summer at home with my parents, began a graduate program in creative writing. Everything was going fine until, a few weeks into the semester, I woke up at four in the morning with a knot in the pit of my stomach and an impending sense of doom. Over the next several weeks I descended into a weepy, despairing shell of a person, in a state of confusion and deep anxiety over what I was supposed to be doing with my life.career

Up until I graduated from college, I had played by the rules, made good grades, and excelled; I had done what they told me to do and advanced sheep-like from one rung of the academic ladder to the next without giving any thought to what lay beyond school. 

Now at the end of that safe cocoon, I saw suddenly that a creative writing degree would not support me financially. I recognized that I had no skills or ability to find a career path, and frankly, no desire to do so. Why couldn’t I continue to just sit alone and write? Well…money, that’s why. For the first time in my life I had to grapple with the economic reality of independence, and it terrified me.

I left school and moved back to my parents’ house to try to figure out my path to adult stability. My parents sent me to first one therapist and then another, but they were all ineffectual. The first woman I saw simply said nothing: as I cried and babbled snotted everywhere, she nodded pityingly at me and said nothing. I don’t know what kind of therapy she practiced, but her sympathy was not enough. 

I remained a total mess. At their wit’s end, my parents sent me to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with major depressive disorder and put me on medication.

The medication worked beautifully, and I came out of my gloom and into action. I moved across the country with a friend, found temp jobs, and applied to a new graduate program, in the study of religion, where I could continue to explore the DeepThoughts that had always been more compelling to me than the Real World. Soon I fell in love with a newly-graduated scholar and left school behind unfinished to follow him to a new city, where he had a job waiting. We got married, had babies, and made a home…but I still didn’t know how to find a career path and move out into the grown-up world.schwartz

Recently, I’ve begun using Internal Family Systems (IFS), the therapeutic method pioneered by Richard Schwartz, to understand why I continue to flounder in finding a satisfying career path. In IFS, the client works to understand the many, often conflicting, parts of herself that vie for control of behavior and thoughts. These parts are broken down into exiles, firefighters, and managers. Exiles are the hurt, traumatized, or angry parts that emerged in childhood as a result of difficult circumstances; firefighters are the often destructive coping strategies that arose to manage the exiles, and managers are the ones who put a good face on it and repress the others in order to live a seemingly-normal life.

When I try to get in touch with these parts, the exile who is most clear to me is the terrified 22 year-old girl who cannot go out into the world on her own. I realize that I am somehow stuck at that stage of development, when the trauma of this life transition hit me. Instead of processing it, I got on anti-depressants and they acted as an artificial raft, propelling me forward into adult life and allowing me to tuck away the unprocessed terror for another time. Ever since, this hidden terror is a gift I have been giving my future self.

Over time, the terror has surfaced as a recurrent depression, that shows me I have left some crucial thing undone. In avoiding my original fear, I have robbed myself of the sense of purpose and camaraderie that comes with working with others toward a common goal.

I have often imagined my predicament as a walk in the woods, complete with clearings and paths. In my clearest visualization of my situation, I live in one of these clearings, was born there and have never left it. Everyone I know has struck out on various paths through the forest and out to whatever is beyond. They forged these paths themselves or followed ones that were well-trodden. But I just stayed behind in the clearing, watching them go. And then I used child-rearing as an opportunity to avoid the decision. Women can still justify their existence in the face of society and their own self-measure by having children: it’s a recognized excuse, and all I needed was to be validated so I didn’t have to leave the clearing. I could just stay there thinking about which way I might go, which way I should go, or could go, but not ever actually going anywhere.

rsz_1rsz_img_0615For so many years I longed to move beyond the clearing. Of course, many forces of comfort and familiarity and fear and self-criticism held me back. Those were familiar; the paths out were not. But as the loneliness, self-loathing, and disappointment of being stuck in the clearing increased, I was forced, against the will of some very tenacious part of me, out into the world. 

The bad news: it was terrifying and impossible just like I thought it would be when I was 22. The good news: therapeutic interventions like IFS helped me to finally begin to face that exiled fear and move forward. 


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