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Dispatches from therapy

05:03 AM January 15, 2019

The room was approximately a four-by-five-meter box.

The walls were painted pale yellow. I must have been talking for a good half an hour already when something in my mind clicked. I shifted my gaze to the gutted-out wall socket. It felt like I was away from my body in that moment. Then, suddenly, I returned to the weight of my flesh, to the sureness of my bones.

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I was 16 when I first went to therapy. My university had mandatory guidance tests for all freshmen students. Several months after I took the test, I received a notice from the guidance office asking my availability for further tests. I obliged to the interview, and the next thing I knew I was being advised to get regular counseling.

Alarm bells rang in my head. I knew my moods tended to shift erratically, and sometimes my tiny body contained more than its weight in anger. But to require me to go to weekly therapy? What would my parents say? What was wrong with me?

I didn’t get into trouble when I told my parents, and things seemed to settle into business as usual. My first therapist was a tall, softspoken guy whose mother, I would learn years later, was a renowned child psychologist.

He liked playing the guitar, which was always in his office. One time he let me play a few bars on it. I played the opening riff of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and told him later, in typical teenage fashion, that I related to the song a lot.

He would leave the university the following year, around the same time I stopped going to counseling.

The next time I would come face-to-face with the sense that something was up with me was in my sophomore year of law school. “Tugade,” my professor called my name that one day my head was empty, and asked me a series of questions.

I froze for a seeming eternity. I completely bungled my recitation — and right there and then, I wanted to set the room ablaze. The immediate reaction was embarrassment, which easily evolved into a deadly mix of anger and sadness.

The following week, upon the prodding of friends attending medical school, I went to a psychiatrist. To this day, I consult with her on the medical aspect of my bipolar II diagnosis. At best, the medication makes me stable.

In whichever way the chemicals worked, my mind became less of a dark place. Yet, sometimes, the light shuts off, and I am once again at the bottom of a deep well. I am an empty shell left to my devices. A rock in isolation in the middle of a swell in the ocean.

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I know I have my friends and family. But with as much help as they can give, I still need to make sense of my anger and sadness.

Right now, I am in the process of learning new techniques on how to manage situations, feelings and thoughts. During one of our sessions, my therapist drew a quadratic chart of emotions. The X-axis stood for the type of emotion — negative or positive — while the Y-axis represented intensity.

“I can only feel anger and sadness,” I told her. These emotions fell on the left side of the quadrant, with anger — my dominant emotion — occupying the top leftmost of the graph. We tried to work out the reasons behind it. She also explained why I always feel spent after intense bursts of anger.

I am liking therapy so far. Even for an hour or so, my head is contained in a space of calmness. My thoughts and emotions are methodically processed, and I speak without inhibition. In that hour of examination into my thoughts, I feel no judgment of my past or present. There is only counsel to help navigate future decisions and events.

I am afraid, too. Deathly afraid, even, at the prospect that even therapy might fail me. “We don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” my therapist tells me. She is right. All I can do is try to be better. I have to give being better a chance.

* * *

Ross Tugade, 28, is a lawyer.

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