by Maryann Aita
It wasn’t a violent pain, like the visceral twist to your insides when something is ripped away from you. It wasn’t the upside down-ness you feel when the news of a loved one’s death hits your sternum. It wasn’t like the tightening in your face when the most recent love of your life dumps you. Instead, the was sudden, like a flame deprived of oxygen, but the grief was slow, like vapor.
My last session with my therapist of three years—a therapist I had been seeing three times a week for almost two of those years—burned and flickered until it withered into itself and was gone. And like the quenching of any fire, only a thin trail of smoke lingered in its absence.
She’d told me six months earlier that she was pregnant and had decided to leave the practice. We had time to prepare, but I still spent our last session faltering. I talked about a job I had turned down a day earlier because of “a feeling,” something I couldn’t define, but trusted anyway. This was progress in our view. I had listened to my body, even though everything on paper made sense. I’d said no for myself instead of yes for somebody else.
Similarly, I had decided not to see a new therapist after her departure. I had a psychiatrist—someone I’d started seeing at her suggestion after months of deep depression—and that felt like enough.
“Medication is like a blanket when it’s freezing,” I said. “You can’t just sit out in the cold with a blanket, but it can keep you warm enough while you keep moving. So… I don’t think I’m there yet, but I’m moving.”
“I don’t think our work is done. This was not an easy decision for me.” She paused. I let silence dangle between us. Usually, I couldn’t bear our silences. “You have resources.”
She’d given me the numbers of two therapists. But I didn’t want to call either. So I didn’t. And that was progress in our view.
Before I left, we had talked about how I might feel, what I might do in her absence.
“I know it can be hard to mourn in the moment,” she said.
“Yeah. I feel sad now, but I think it comes more later, after a few weeks when I’m not taking an hour away from work every afternoon. When I start to realize more.”
“What do you think you’ll do if it’s hard?”
“I might…see friends.”
“I notice you’ve talked about your friends more. It seems like you have good relationships, which you were worried about when we started.”
This was progress in our view.
“Yeah. I’ve been spending more time with them.”
I inhaled silence.
“And I might write about it,” I said.
Writing had always been a way for me to deal with the feelings I was never able to name. It was what happened when I couldn’t be the container of my emotion. When I couldn’t live with it in my body anymore.
“Yes, you have writing.”
She nodded. I nodded.
She made sure I knew when we had five minutes left and asked if there was anything I wanted to say, anything I might regret not saying.
I said I didn’t know.
We draped ourselves in another silence while I considered what I wanted.
I thought I might like a hug.
“I’ll miss you,” I said.
“I’ll miss you, too.”
“I think you’ll be a really good mom.”
I asked if she was having a boy or a girl. A girl—they hadn’t chosen a name, but I asked because the part of me that will always be a little bit delusional hoped she’d name her after me.
We talked a minute more and I smiled while my eyes watered.
As a final gesture, my therapist gave me my sketchbook—I had occasionally done artwork as part of our sessions. I cradled it to my chest and said goodbye. Before I walked out the door, I turned back and waved a weak farewell, still unable to ask for the last thing I wanted. Three years later and I couldn’t cross the threshold.
I walked down the stairs, my sketchpad wrapped in my fingers, and thought I should go back. With each step, I felt it slipping in, like the numbness of hypothermia. So many details and revelations. My feelings, my body, my anxiety. My sister, my mother, my abuser. Drinking. Almost dying. Falling in love. Living. So much carried away in that sketchbook. So much extinguished in my therapist’s office. So much progress. But like a flame, I grew smaller and smaller until, suddenly, I was gone. Dead without fire.
The work I’d done in therapy those three years made me a happier, more self-assured person. I’d learned to manage depression, to allow myself to live in an emotion, and to leave behind the things that harm me. But therapy is not a potion; it is a practice. As with anything, you can take time away, but there is always room to continue growing. I made so much progress and still, I could not bring myself to turn back, to stand in the doorway and eke out the words: I want a hug.
I stepped into the 90-degree day, clinging to my sketchbook as I swallowed back tears. There was a vacancy in my body—an emotion I could only recently identify, a new feeling uncovered in our many sessions. It would become an expansive sadness, a growing gap in the weeks and months ahead of me.
The slow vapor of grief lingered in the heat, a reminder of the light that once was. I crossed the street, sketchpad at my chest, and moved forward into the bright daylight, only a faint stream of smoke behind me.
Maryann Aita (ATE-uh) is a writer and performer in Brooklyn, New York. Little Astronaut, her debut essay collection, was published by ELJ Editions in spring 2022. Her work has appeared in PANK Magazine, which earned a Best of the Net nomination, The Porter House Review, perhappened mag, The Daily Drunk, The Exposition Review, and other journals. She is also the nonfiction editor of Press Pause Press. Maryann is a St. Nell’s Humor Residency for Ladies Fellow, and she performs around New York City, including her one-woman-show My Dysfunctional Vagina. She has an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College and lives with three cats. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @maryann_aita