When the end of a marriage or relationship happens, it can feel like the end of the world. It can be lonely. It can be a time of upheaval and uncertainty. It can be hard to find the motivation to get out and engage with other people. But being with others can provide a new perspective: It can relight hope and help you find emotional strength during a difficult time.
A few years back I was working with a gay male client who was going through a break up with his partner of 17 years. A gregarious man by nature, he was feeling overwhelmed and felt he needed the help of a therapist. He hadn’t been leaving the house much, unless to go to work or the grocery store. He noticed himself avoiding others at the office, feeling “like a zombie.” He said he was just getting through the day so he could get back home, watch tv and get his mind off the pain and loss of his relationship. He had always prided himself on staying in shape and leading a healthy lifestyle. But he lost interest in exercise and then felt bad about himself for skipping the gym.
When I asked how he had been coping, he said it was his connection to other people. Several friends called regularly to ask how he was doing and to let him know they were there for him. Sometimes they’d go to dinner. He realized people still cared, still enjoyed his company, and valued his friendship. But after dinner was over and after everyone said their goodbyes, the loneliness would return.
What if by some happenstance, loneliness wasn’t present after an evening out with his friends? What would be in its place? I asked. “Purpose,” he said. “I’d be doing something meaningful with my life.” It turns out that my client had a talent for art, drawing in particular. He had planned to major in art in college and wanted to become a teacher at one time. But he succumbed to self-doubt, and criticism from his family, opting for a degree in business instead (“a passionless pursuit,” he said).
He loved helping people. He had put his easel and pencils up in a closet years ago, too busy with work and life to find time. His face lit up when he told me about a time he volunteered at a local library helping adults improve their literacy skills.
A month later, my client came into his session very excited. He told me that, after much contemplation, he had felt motivated to contact a nearby senior center about volunteer opportunities. He had suggested teaching an art class on Saturday mornings, and the center staff were thrilled. They were always looking for volunteers. It felt really wonderful, he told me, sharing his creativity and skills with others. He was truly moved to see older people finding joy through making art.
When he told some of his friends that he was teaching art to senior citizens, they were surprised—what could a gay man in his forties have in common with heterosexual old people, they wondered. “We share a passion for learning, and for creative expression,” he told them. “And besides, how would I know whether they are straight nor not? It doesn’t really matter.” My client was so inspired by his students that he put more time into planning lessons for them. He found this process rewarding. It not only sparked his creativity, but it helped him focus; this had benefits in other areas of his life as well, particularly at work.
Though the pain of his break-up was still very much present, over time the loneliness and anxiety had lessened. Through his creative connection with the Saturday group, my client found purpose and meaning in life again. Through making art, the senior group members shared stories about their lives. They had been through so much, and had seen so much over their lifetimes. He was truly humbled by their experiences and felt privileged to be working with them.
My client noticed something happening after a few weeks with the group. He began engaging with co-workers more and he didn’t feel like rushing home so much. He continued to go out for dinner with his friends. He felt better about himself, and he felt valued by others. He set up his easel and drawing pads in his apartment again and began creating art just for his own pleasure. He never realized, he told me, how much being with others could propel him, and help lift his spirits during a really difficult period in his life. The Saturday group had given him an opportunity to pay the gift forward.
Disclaimer: To protect confidentiality, some personally identifying details have been changed.
Diana M. Pash, MA, LMFT is a certified Solution-Focused and LGBT Affirmative therapist in private practice in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. To find out more about Diana click here: Diana Pash Therapy