"I feel my stomach knot and my muscles tighten as Ben goes silent and furrows his brow. I don’t want to feel this. I want to feel connected. I want to feel relaxed and benignly compassionate, knowing where I am in our conversation, and comfortably waiting for Ben to speak next. Ben has now twisted slightly in his seat and is staring at the carpet, and my body involuntarily braces, against what I’m not sure. I’m unsure what the tension is about, even as I feel it thicken."
- Mary Jo Peebles, When Psychotherapy Feels Stuck
I love spicy food. Even as a young boy I had a reputation for high heat tolerance. One afternoon, when I was 12 or 13, Bodo Mama, my eldest maternal uncle, known in the family for his morbid health anxieties, saw me bite into chilli after hot green chilli with my lunch and decided to teach me a life lesson.
"Do you know why when someone important dies, they say in the news 'such and such person breathed their last'?"
I didn't and couldn't care less. All my attention was on the chicken.
"They put it that way," Bodo Mama continued, "because everyone, even the most important people, are born with a fixed quota of breaths. Say your quota is 50 million breaths. One day you draw the last one, and that's it. You've finished your quota. You are dead."
"There's a quota for everything in life. There's a quota for eating chillies, too. Maybe you were sent to Earth with a quota of 50 kg of chilli to last your entire life. Now, it's up to you if you want to exhaust your quota when you are 20 and develop stomach ulcers and never get to eat another chilli for the rest of your life, or you want to be smart and stretch out your quota so you can enjoy chillies even when you are 80."
I didn't know better then, so I couldn't push back that a) eating chilli doesn't cause ulcers, and b) 80 is an optimistic number because data suggests that people with mental illness tend to die younger, and not because they eat too many chillies.
Bodo Mama's sermon did not make me give up spice. But the idea of slowly running out of one's allotted quota of things in life – energy, patience, love... good skin – has stayed with me. It comes up particularly when I feel stuck in therapy, during sessions when I am convinced that I have squeezed out every last intelligible syllable I am capable of, my insides feel sandpapered, and I am worried that if I try to open my mouth and get out one more sound, I will puke cockroaches and bats and grotesque prehistoric life forms all over the Zoom window.
On good days, when I spit out insight after insight, therapy feels like a natural, interminable part of living. "Does anyone ever end therapy?" I once asked my therapist. "Oh, all the time," she said. "People run out of words, you know." It sounded silly to me. "That's like saying you have finished your bath because the tap ran out of water, even though you have soap left all over yourself." She smiled.