Life Transitions, a.k.a., Life
The other day I was killing some time at a trendy coffee shop, enjoying my once-a-day caffeine romance, and I found myself inadvertently eavesdropping on two college freshmen bonding over the unexpected difficulties they were encountering in their new phase of life. Navigating a vast pool of possible topics, one of the women ever so carefully dipped her toe in to the deep end. She began talking about feeling homesick and lonely, inviting her friend to swim in discussion with her while also protecting herself from the conversational equivalent of skinny-dipping alone.
I amused myself with the idea of lending some sage words of wisdom to the conversation, drawn from my own version of their experience. And I almost laughed out loud, picturing their wondering faces saying “Why is this crazy old lady talking to us?” So I kept mum, enjoying their talk, and finishing my coffee just as they geared up to analyze the fact that college was seriously falling short of their lofty expectations for it to be the best years of their lives. I took one last sip and began walking home with the words of one of the greatest philosophers of our time buzzing through my mind, “From the cradle to the grave, life ain’t ever been easy.”
In many ways, transitions are what give our lives meaning and a sense of structure as we grow from (like Tupac said) “the cradle to the grave.” Learning to walk and talk, going to school, graduations, dating, marriage, and on and on—these are the stages of many of our lives and we must move through them to grow. “Transition” literally means “moving across” so it’s no wonder these moments can also make us feel unsteady, off-balance, and lost. They are also a time that many people consider therapy, for support during the emotionally uncomfortable stretching and growing pains necessary to “move across” to that next phase of life.
When “Laura” came to see me, she was shocked and embarrassed to find herself in therapy. She considered it to be a place for “crazy people.” But after going through weeks of crying bouts, appetite loss, and sleepless nights, she arrived in my office and told me she was sure she had depression but was scared she was actually bipolar, since her moods felt so unpredictable. Hanging her head in embarrassment, downcast eyes, Laura told me she didn’t know what happened but she guessed she was one of those “crazy people” now. I gently asked if she would be okay with me taking the time to find out some more about her history and what was currently happening in her life. That is where we started.
I found out that Laura came from a tight-knit community of friends and family and had recently moved away from all of them for an exciting job opportunity in which she was excelling. I found out that she loved her new job but that she had not considered the emotional upheaval this move would wreak on her and she was starting to feel like she was living a double life. At work, she was a star. When she spoke to her family and friends, any hint of homesickness might be the sign they were looking for to tell her to come home and so she concealed any truthful feelings. And after work, alone in a new city for the first time in her life, feeling alienated from her old world back home, her thoughts had begun snowballing into anxiety, depression, and self- doubt.
The DSM-V, the bible of which mental disorders insurance companies will consider covering, would have explained Laura’s experience as Adjustment Disorder. Personally, I hate this term and think Tupac could have more accurately termed it “Cradle to the Grave Disorder.” Whether it’s moving away for college or a new job, getting married, going through a divorce, or losing a parent, life is filled with exciting and not-so-exciting transitions. Some we may feel we have a choice over, others we may feel are imposed upon us. Some may make us feel like the world is our oyster and others may make us feel like we are locked up in jail.
The more I worked with Laura, and other clients who came in with their own versions of transitions, the more I became fascinated by them. I was also subsequently shocked by the lack of information on life transitions. But what about support groups, you might be thinking? Or life coaches? Or that great best-selling book you just finished? Yes, all of that exists in spades. Support groups can be a powerful tool for seeking understanding and compassion. The largest section in any bookstore is often the self-help section with a wide range of titles to choose from. Even life coaching can have its place. But in all of these examples we are looking at each transition in a singular manner. If we took our eye off the microscope, what would the bigger picture look like?
As it turns out, I wasn’t the only person asking this question. Some fortuitously-timed digging led me to a book published this year exploring the psychology behind transitions. The author, Francesco Duina, may hold a Ph.D from Harvard, and head the sociology department at the University of British Columbia, but I would also consider him to be the Indiana Jones of this topic. His trailblazing book helps us understand transitions, and the framework he has developed should be required reading forclinicians. But really this book is aimed towards anyone who’s ever gone through anything. So… everyone.
In eight chapters, Duina outlines eight major life transitions and boils them down into two categories: either a time of excitement and possibility, or a time of connected reflection and continuity that often involves acceptance and adaptation.
Now, let’s try something. When you’re done reading this paragraph, close your eyes for a moment. Get comfortable wherever you’re sitting and take a few deep breaths. Now, can you think of a transitional moment in your life? It can be positive or negative. Perhaps it was moving to college, or getting married, a painful break-up, or even losing a parent? It could be something that’s happening right now, coming up in the future, or even something that feels like it happened long ago. Got it? Great. Now, holding that memory or experience in mind, open your eyes, take one more deep breath and try answering these next five questions.
1) Was the transition internal or external? Meaning, did it feel as if it was something you made happen or something that happened to you?
2) Was it an opportunity to reinvent your self? Or did it feel more like you were getting to know yourself better?
3) What were you leaving behind? Did it feel like your past was coming with you and you could incorporate it into what was happening? Or did it feel more like you had to dismiss your past as something that just wasn’t relevant anymore?
4) Did the future feel wide-open and full of possibilities or did it feel more defined? And last, but certainly not least,
5) Was this transition just affecting you? Or was it also affecting your family? Friends? Or maybe even your entire community or even all of society?
Simplicity is often one of the hardest and most complicated things to achieve. But what Duina has given us with these five questions is a simple way to understand and discuss complex experiences. As a therapist, I’m grateful, and as a human being who has undergone more transitions than I’d sometimes care to remember, I’m ecstatic! When I think back to my client Laura – who I met long before this book was published – I can’t help but wonder if this framework for discussion was as prevalent in our cultural conversations as some of the mental illnesses she worried she had “caught” – would her experience of moving to a new city have been different? She may have still felt lonely and confused by all the sudden changes in her life, but she also might have had some context for understanding why she was feeling that way.
And I wonder about those two women at the coffee shop, both so earnestly trying to understand their unexpected feelings about college. Would the thirty seconds it might have taken for them to answer these questions for themselveshave made their conversational dance less treacherous? It wasn’t that long ago that talk of depression or anxiety would have been considered taboo. In our current culture of status updates, news feeds, and reality shows where we seem to have an endless amount to say about everything, why do we still have so few words with which to understand our individual, and bigger picture, life experiences? Thanks to Duina’s take on the topic, I hope that can begin to change not just in psychotherapy circles, but in all circles. Now there’s a transition, I’d love to see.