In general, things don’t happen in real life as they do in movies. That palpable difference is, after all, one of the reasons why we love cinema. Our lives do not finish in a neat narrative moment that resolves as it fades to black. We do not, in general, experience our lives as a grand unfolding of plot points that crescendo-culminate in some grandiose happening, whether dramatic or comedic or both.
Rarely do we have that succinct pointed epiphany. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a love story, a war story, a family story or a personal story; the real defies any narrative framework, perhaps because rarely is anything in real life just one story.
Which is why cinematic reproductions of therapeutic moments give me a huge pain in the ass. There is no “it’s not your fault” Good-Will-Hunting Robin Williams absolution in real life. In real life, Judd Hirsch does not in a one swift grace-giving moment allow you to forgive yourself for your older brother’s drowning. In real life, Sybil’s fragmented self does not coalesce like mercury in some emo Joanne Woodward-facilitated realization of her own abuse.
I know this, and I feel this, because I’ve been in therapy for almost three years. I see my Freudian, who might be played by a squashed, fattened, aged-up Meghan Mullally, once a week every week. I used to resent going with every fiber in my body, then I hated it with a white hot flamey passion, now I’m resigned to going; I go because slowly I get better.
I don’t go because I expect there will be some major epiphany apoppin’ that, as with an Etruscan amphora and an archaeologist’s gentle hands, will put my shattered pieces back together again.
And yet that has happened.
For the last two years, I have been procrastinating writing my dissertation. It has loomed over me large and black as the 2001 monolith, while the monkeys of my own worst self have nattered, cowering and shrieking, at its base. I have felt too small, to bowed, too unsure of myself to attempt it.
My dissertation has been my Machu Pichu, my Everest, my Kilimanjaro. And even though my rational mind has known full well that I am capable of scaling it, even though my rational mind has told me that others have tread the ground before me and that I am as good as they, if not better, even though my rational mind has urged me over and over that a journey of a hundred uphill miles begins with a single step, I have been unable to put a foot forward.
Not to belabor the metaphor or anything.
I have tossed the ball of my dissertation up and down. Should I write? Should I abandon it? Up and down, hand to hand, juggling these apocryphal pages like a piss-poor clown, I have wavered between finishing my Ph.D. and not. And though I could list for you the pros and the cons of doing it and not, these enumerations are less important to the narrative than the years I spent weighing them.
A few months ago, my rational mind latched onto one really good reason to write my diss. I’m not sure that I want to do the tenure-track thing, but I am sure that I want to write books. And simply put, a book by an ex-stripper Ph.D. will be a better story than an ex-stripper ABD (All But Dissertation, for those of you without the eggy academic heads). I grasped tight that concept in my rational mind’s sticky toddler’s fist.
But it didn’t help.
I still couldn’t write. I just told people that I’d decided I was going to. Still, though, when I had the time to write, I did something else. Something other, something not dissertational. I wasn’t dissertating. There was no diss, except in my head, where it stayed locked up and dust-gathering.
I talked a lot about it, this diss-monolith, in therapy. Then, one Monday afternoon, or maybe it was a Thursday, it doesn’t matter, I had the epiphany.
“What would happen if you didn’t write your diss?” my therapist asked, her fingers tented like she’d been taught in shrink school.
I’d feel like crap, I answered. I’d feel like crap for the rest of my life.
“So,” she said, her mouth twitching as it does when she makes a really good point, “are you not writing your diss so that you will feel like crap?”
If the clouds could part in that little vanilla ice-cream colored room, they would have. Yes, I realized, yes, I am. I am not writing my dissertation because it helps me feel like crap. And crap-feeling, however unhealthy, is a really comfortable state for me. I had a wretched childhood filled a few pyrotechnically awful moments (my biological father abused me as an infant, then he abandoned me; my mom made some spectacularly bad choices in raising me; my grandfather committed suicide), but mostly it was a wretched childhood of casual neglect. I was taught that I didn’t matter, so I have grown up treating myself as if I don’t.
There was more that I realized that session. That not writing my diss keeps me suspended in this prolonged adolescence I’ve created for myself, for example, an adolescence that shields me from adulthood that for a number reasons I perceive as a bleak state. And so on, but it gets a bit tedious, and why bog down a good story?
There was no big John Williams-scored musical swell to that therapeutic epiphany. My therapist and I didn’t hug. I didn’t cry. Visually, there wasn’t a lot to clue you, the audience, in to the fact that something seismic had changed. I left the session and I started writing. Not as much or as quickly as I wanted, but I’ve been writing.
Searching for an image that captures this paradoxically small and big moment, I came up with dawn. It happens day after day, but it still is a small miracle. It’s daybreak in the city of diss.