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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Messy Closets & Going on a Bear Hunt

We had been sitting and talking for some time—a long time. It was like we should have been friends always, but since we hadn’t been we needed to talk until we caught up. In the midst of all of our words, I shared my story and she shared hers. It was clear she probably had more healing ahead of her. My healing inspired her to take the leap to find the full truth of her story. I knew I had that effect on people—it was both humbling and a responsibility.

“Are you ready to know the truth?” I asked her.

She didn’t respond immediately, but I could see the longing for healing in her. She was ready.

“You know,” I said. “It is like cleaning a closet. The only way to do it is to take everything out and look at it. It is always a huge mess and you wonder why you did it. You have to deal with one thing at a time, get rid of the things you don’t need, and then put back what is valuable. It is a really, really messy process. You just have to sit in the mess.”

I thought about my book I am going to share with the world. Some of it is very messy. It is a snapshot of what it looked like when I went to therapy, opened the closet door, and my painful memories just puked all over me and landed on the floor at my feet. It was awful.

I did wonder why I had opened that door, but realistically the door was coming open with or without my permission. I am glad I went for help before it happened. Now that I know the full story of what happened to me, I understand why I was so frightened about opening the door.

Bringing my mind back to the conversation at hand, I said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to finally make sense to yourself?”

She didn’t really say yes, she kind of sighed yes. I understood. I had lived my life wishing I could just understand myself. Now that I do make sense to myself, I want everyone to know it is possible.

It is important to understand that there are reasons for all the things about us that don’t make sense. A healthy fear of heights is important but my pathological fear of going around curves on mountain roads was not normal. It had a cause. My panic attacks during relay races also had a cause. Our likes and dislikes have reasons. It isn’t important to understand everything (though I tried), but when we sense that something is wrong deep within us, it is worth exploring. It is worth understanding.

Then I talked about the need to finish. Taking a break while you clean is great but not finishing is a very bad idea. No one who cleans a closet stops in the middle and leaves it all over the floor. Well, maybe some do, but it isn’t the best idea because it is very likely going to cause someone to trip and fall—probably the person who started the job. Yes, once the process begins, you need to finish it. I have seen some go to a couple therapy sessions and then walk away. To do that it is necessary to cram the junk back into the closet—never a good idea.

Why walk away from therapy (i.e. cleaning the closet)? It is messy. It is painful. It is hard. It is discouraging. It seems like it will never be better. It seems like you will never be done. And you had no idea that you would find so much junk to deal with. It is overwhelming—but you just have to keep working at it. It is like a bear hunt.

Going on a Bear Hunt was one of my favorite stories to tell to children. There is a line in the book that says, “Can’t go over it. Can’t go under it. Can’t go around it. Got to go through it.” Yes, therapy and healing from pain is just like a bear hunt. You have to go through it. You have to sit on the floor in the middle of the mess and own it. You can’t ignore it, avoid it, suppress it, or throw positive thoughts at it—not if you want to heal. You have to go through it.

Going through it is difficult for most of us to accept. For one, it is painful; but maybe more importantly we have been told that we will get over it. The spiritual version of that is to leave it in God’s hands. I am not saying this isn’t effective for some, but if this hasn’t proven effective up to this point then trying it ten more times probably won’t do the trick. In fact, it is probably making you feel like a spiritual failure. Sometimes, you just have to go through healing and to do that; you just may need to go to therapy.

Sitting with my friend, I felt a humbling sense of responsibility. Many, myself included, have carefully guarded stories and wounds. We have layers built around our pain that enables us to live mostly functional lives. When we open our wounds, it is painful and we need both space and support. Sometimes we have to get to a place where that can happen. Yes, I do feel the need to be responsible when encouraging others to seek help, because when they open the closet, stuff will puke out, and then it is like going on a bear hunt. You have to go through it.

On my first day of therapy, I filled out a form. It asked something about what I wanted as a result of therapy. I said, “Peace,” and then I opened the closet door and went on a bear hunt. Going though the process was the hardest thing I ever did, but I found peace. It was worth the journey.

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