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Health Christie Tate: 'Group Therapy Saved Me, And It's Still My Lifeline, Even On Zoom'

15:17  27 october  2020
15:17  27 october  2020 Source:   womenshealthmag.com

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The summer I turned 26, I ranked first in my law class and landed a plum internship. I also binged on apples at night, and wanted to kill myself.

a woman smiling for the camera: Christie Tate, author of 'Group', says group therapy saved her life, and continued to be a lifeline even as sessions went virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic. © Mary Rafferty Christie Tate, author of 'Group', says group therapy saved her life, and continued to be a lifeline even as sessions went virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professionally, I knew I had every reason to be optimistic, but I didn’t have any close friends, I didn’t have a boyfriend, and I didn’t know how to do things with other people. If I died, I thought, I wouldn’t have to fill the 48 hours of the weekend or holidays off from work.

I wouldn’t have to endure a lifetime of nothing but me, a bag of apples, and the hope that some of the stragglers after a recovery meeting might want some company.

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I’d spent the last eight years in a 12-step program to keep my eating disorder under control, and other people at 12-step had started recommending their therapists, as if they could see I needed more help.

I thought therapy was too expensive, that it wouldn’t work, and that it wasn’t for someone like me.

I thought I just had to suck it up and be grateful for my law career, and be sad for the rest of my life. One night, a woman named Marnie invited me to dinner, and I reluctantly went.

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While we were talking, I noticed that Marnie seemed happier and lighter. She started talking up her new therapist, and I shut down. I thought, I can’t do that, I’m not rich like you. It turned out that she had started group therapy, and it was one-third the cost of individual therapy.

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The clincher: her therapist, Dr. Rosen, had just gotten remarried. I assumed that as a divorced person, he knew broken relationships, and as a remarried person, he understood how to start new, healthy relationships for himself.

At the thought of this happy, smiling person (whom I had never met) in a new marriage, I thought, maybe he could help me. I wasn’t happy, I never smiled, and I wasn’t in a relationship. But I wanted those things badly.

After three individual sessions, Dr. Rosen placed me in my first group.

It was a co-ed “professionals” circle full of doctors and lawyers that met on Tuesday mornings. When I arrived at my first session, the sun was streaming in, and people were chatting.

Generally, when new people start group, the groupmates pepper them with questions about why they are in treatment with Dr. Rosen, and what they want. The group wants to know how open someone is. Have they come to play, full-out from the beginning, or do we, as a group, need to give them some more warm-up space? It’s a way to feel out where someone’s boundaries are.

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It does get personal. “How’s your relationship with your mom?” and “Do you have an eating disorder?” are common questions.

In my case, I was clearly there to deal with my intimacy issues, so the first question my groupmates asked me was, “How do you like to have sex?”

It was clear that group would not be like anything I’d ever done before, that it was going to change me.

And that’s what I wanted more than anything, because I couldn’t imagine getting sicker, or being worse off. Starting group felt like being jolted alive; I anticipated meeting parts of myself I’d never seen, strictly by being radically honest with a group of witnesses.

For me, having witnesses means that I can let go of the shame I carry about the secretive things I do.

The turning point for me was when Dr. Rosen asked me to disclose my apple binges to the group. When I was bingeing on apples every night for years, I hated myself for it. The shame grew and grew because it was a secret. I thought if people knew about my apple binges, they would reject me and find me disgusting. I was so afraid I would be scorned and mocked.

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When I was met with love and compassion, I let go of the shame I associated with food. With that shame lifted, I began to feel hope about my capacity for relationships, change, and recovery.

Flash forward 19 years: I’m married, I have two children, and I still do group with Dr. Rosen once a week.

I’m in a different group now, but it’s still the anchor of my calendar.

I have the attachments I craved when I first crawled into Dr. Rosen’s office; now I just need help deepening them.

In group, there are six or seven chairs in a circle, and everyone can see your body. There’s no way to hide. I rely on my group to give me a reality check, particularly on my relationship to my body.

Group met in person for the final time on March 13, the Friday before the lockdown started.

Nobody had masks yet, and one guy was wearing winter gloves. One of the physicians asked, “is it responsible for us to be meeting in this room right now?” We had a big, long discussion about it. Because one person has an immunocompromised spouse, we agreed to go remote.

Finding privacy in my house was a challenge, so that first session, I Zoomed into group wearing a winter coat in my cold, unfinished basement. I felt grateful that group didn’t have to go away, the way my kids’ school and my office went away. We had a lot of internet problems. There was one point where Dr. Rosen was about to tell me something important, and then my computer froze. (After that, I upgraded my internet.)

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We’ve since had conversations about what it means to “be together,” and I think we all agree that many things are lost online. Last week, I cried in group. I was up in the attic, and it’s really lonely to cry with a computer screen, as opposed to a room full of people holding your hand and passing around a tissue box.

The group dynamic has also changed. On Zoom, everybody has to be so polite, because if two people speak at the same time, no one knows what’s happening.

Going to group in person is like a buffet where you can pick whatever you want. Online, it’s still a buffet, but there are less options. I feel like I’m getting the nutrients I need, but there are no extras. I’m not starving, but I’m craving the variety and the dynamism of in-person therapy.

On the flip side, it is incredibly intimate to see my groupmates in their homes. In person, we didn’t have access to that intimacy. There’s a sweetness about people Zooming in from bed in their PJs, or having kids and dogs and spouses make surprise appearances.

Overall, group continues to be a lifeline during the pandemic.

I have a place to take my anxiety and fear about everything going on around the world.

I don’t know how people are getting through it without any kind of outlet.

I think a lot about what would have happened if the pandemic had occurred when I was 26, single, and essentially confined to my home. I lived from recovery meeting to recovery meeting, so I would have had a major crisis on my hands. I can’t imagine coming out on the other side of that.

When I drive down the street, and I see people out and about, and I judge them for not social distancing, I remember that the walk they may be on with their friend might be saving their life. It’s not my job to weigh pandemic threat versus mental health threat. Because mental health is important, too.

Christie Tate is a Chicago-based writer and essayist. She has been published in The New York Times (Modern Love), The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and elsewhere. Her memoir Group is available for purchase now.

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