Do you believe that depression, anxiety, fear, and emptiness are the new ‘normal’? Have you given up on the idea that you can change your life because “nothing works”? Then please read on… there is an explanation for why you may feel this way as well as effective solutions to turn things around. This is a fairly extreme story, but also a situation that millions of people can readily identify with. (Please note, Mary* is not a real person, but her story is a composite of many people’s very real experiences.)

Meet Mary*

In her early forties, Mary came to therapy to deal with problems she was having at work. About a year prior, she began noticing her lack of motivation and difficulty focusing which caused her to make mistakes. She worried that her boss and coworkers were starting to notice, and that she would lose her job. Most of the time, she felt numb; at times, however, intense anxiety over the idea of losing her job overwhelmed her and she didn’t sleep or eat well.

When a coworker made a comment about her forgetfulness, Mary knew she needed help. She started seeing Kyungah Kim, a Licensed Professional Counselor who recently joined Maria Droste Counseling Center. The two began by talking about what else was going on in Mary’s life.

Mary revealed that she had lived with her current boyfriend for a few years. At first, he was kind and loving, and he took good care of her. However, once they moved in together, he started to change. When they were alone and he was drinking too much, he became verbally abusive toward her, often making degrading comments. When they argued he would raise his voice, throw things, or punch the walls, but he never hit her. He insisted that she be around for him, so when she was not at work, she had almost no opportunity to spend time with friends or do much for herself. Mary felt very isolated; her partner allowed her very little socializing, and even when she did see friends and family, they put constant pressure on her to leave him. Mary believed that loss of his job and too much drinking were responsible for his behavior, and that it was her role to make him happy again.

Kyungah, who specializes in helping people make healthy choices in relationships, knows that Mary’s story could indicate a potentially dangerous situation. “The first thing I do in that case is establish that the client feels safe in her current situation. If not, it is not the right time to confront him or make attempts to change things around,” she says. She explains that therapy won’t be productive without other support if the client is in fear for her life, or worried about losing her kids, where she will live or how she will support herself. “I start by asking, ‘Do you feel safe around him? Has he hurt you physically? Are you afraid of him escalating to physical violence? Do you know where to go or who to call in an emergency?’ If necessary, I help the client develop a safety plan and also refer her to local agencies that can provide her with legal, financial, and housing resources. ”

Mary acknowledged that she did feel safe, and that she was not prepared to end the relationship. So, she and Kyungah continued the therapy process, which included discussion about other aspects of Mary’s life. Kyungah allowed Mary to do most of the talking, but she guided the conversation with questions and assessment tools, beginning with Mary’s history.

Mary shared that her first marriage to a controlling and emotionally abusive man ended in divorce after just a few years. She was in her early twenties at the time. Since then, she had been in and out of a few relationships that all fizzled for one reason or another. Her current boyfriend, however, stuck with her. When he was angry, he often threatened to leave her, saying things like, “then no one will love you.” But, he didn’t leave.

Eventually, the conversation turned to Mary’s childhood and her relationship with her family. She says that as a child she didn’t feel loved. She remembers a lot of anger in her household. When her father stormed out of the house after intensely yelling at her mother, Mary would console her mother and try to make her stop crying. Her parents seemed to have their own problems and didn’t pay much attention to her unless she did something wrong. She grew up feeling like she was always on her own.

As Mary and Kyungah developed a rapport, Mary opened up about some of the most difficult aspects of her past. Revealing tightly held secrets can be the most challenging and uncomfortable part of this process, Kyungah says, but it can also be the most enlightening if it happens in a safe and trusting environment. In time, Mary shared that as a teenager, when she told her mother a family friend had sexually harassed her, her mother didn’t believe her. As a result, she felt that even the people closest to her didn’t trust her and she began to think that maybe she was mistaken and that it was her fault.

“When there is no appropriate validation, it’s easy to believe that there is something wrong with you for feeling certain ways,” Kyungah says. “From there, you start to develop a false belief that if you do something differently, you can control this in the future and it won’t happen again.” Mary realized her mother’s invalidation was more hurtful than the sexual harassment itself, and started to feel anger towards her mother.

Through the work of therapy, Mary began to see the pattern in her relationships, and to understand that while she can’t control external factors, she does have the power within herself to make a change and create healthy relationships in the future. She explored the question of why she repeated the actions that led to this pattern and gained the tools to recognize when she was headed in that direction and make different choices. She also gradually learned to see her mother as another human being who has flaws and makes mistakes like everyone else, and realized she could give herself the validation and love that she had wanted from her parents.

Today, Mary is happily single. She left her boyfriend and has chosen to take care of herself for a while. “I thought I didn’t matter, but I’m learning that that way of thinking was what I needed to survive,” Mary says. “Now I know my thoughts and feelings, my likes and dislikes, they all matter, because they are important to me.” She occasionally dates and is testing the waters of a healthy relationship. Having someone in her life who respects her and with whom she is comfortable just being herself is a new and exciting experience. She is open to the possibility of a committed relationship in the future. She has gained confidence at work, and her relationships with family and friends have also improved. “I am grateful for that, but it feels so good to know that I can stand on my own – that I don’t really NEED someone else to feel good about myself.”

Everyone struggles with aspects of their lives that can make them profoundly unhappy. Abusive relationships that emotionally and/or physically harm people are all too common. But the guidance of a therapist in a safe environment is incredibly helpful in recognizing the aspects of our lives and our pasts that lead to unhealthy relationships in the first place. By acknowledging these factors and healing those old wounds, we can grow to build healthy relationships that bring joy into our lives instead of anxiety and pain. Your ‘new normal’ can be a happy and fulfilling life.

For more information on how therapy can help you, please contact us at 303-756-9052 or intake@mariadroste.org.

Need Help?

If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.

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If you are in an abusive relationship and require immediate assistance, please contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.