My Therapist Says

My Therapist Says to Write Notes to My Future Self

Here’s how I learned to transform present pain into future growth

Xinmei Liu for Elemental

At 13, I told my grandmother that one day everyone would know that I was único, Spanish for unique. That was my code for being queer.

“You already are, my son. The past and the future can never meet. That’s why God placed the present in the middle,” she told me.

My grandmother’s words came back to me in an unexpected way, thanks to the chaos that the Covid-19 pandemic wrought in both the world and my life. Before the pandemic, I had a thriving special events business in San Francisco. I planned elegant galas for startups and cooked and hosted dinner parties in my home for international guests. I received a lot of press and won awards. And then, suddenly, I went from having to decline business to all of my clients canceling on me. In one day, I saw the next 10 months of my life disappear faster than free shots at a Gay Pride fiesta. That night, I woke up in a swamp, my sweat mixed with half a bag of kale chips that I had left under my bedcovers. At least I didn’t wet the bed, like I used to when I got nervous as a child.

I was left in my grandparents’ care after my mother divorced and decided to go to the United States to make a better life for us. I was one year old. When I was six, my mother returned for me, with a new family. I was torn from my grandmother’s arms in the Dominican Republic and taken to an airplane headed to New York. After my arrival, I started to have insomnia, as well as nocturnal panic attacks when I could fall asleep. After I fully assimilated, they eventually stopped. However, they returned after being triggered by 9/11, my grandmother’s death, and a boyfriend’s betrayal.

Still, I was largely able to keep them under control through therapy sessions and the occasional prescription sleeping pill, until the coronavirus struck. I lost not only my business but also my health insurance. A medical necessity became a luxury I could not afford. Meanwhile, my mother went through cancer surgery, and my grandfather died in hospice care, and I couldn’t be there for any of it. I was distraught under the first shutdown.

Thankfully, I had maintained a good relationship with my therapist, with whom I’ve checked in three to five times a year for the past seven years. When I reached out, she acknowledged the hard times and helped me work out a comfortable payment plan.

My therapist reminded me that the agony I experience from my insomnia and nocturnal attacks is a “special informant,” because it has a crucial message for me.

Here’s how she explained it: We often tend to think of advice as passing on wisdom from parent to child, teacher to student, or, in our case, therapist to patient. But what if we flipped that standard narrative? Our present-day selves advising a not-so-distant future version of ourselves? Think of it as an exercise in self-preservation. Write notes to your future self.

Our lives are subject to constant changes due to unanticipated circumstances, and reading messages from yourself lets you see how your life trajectory has changed since writing them. It also makes you pause and think about how you are really doing beyond social appearances, especially on social media. When you address yourself, your consciousness and thoughts are stored in your words. When you read those messages, it’s like you are being contacted by a former you. It’ll give you a different perspective, which will inform your life, instead of withholding from it.

To help you write the notes, ask yourself these five questions:

  • What have I learned up to this point?
  • Who are the people I want to always have in my life?
  • What makes your heart smile?
  • Do I take proper care of myself?
  • What am I grateful for?

This task was hard to face. It took me more than a month to turn the practice into a nightly habit before I went to bed. But now I’m grateful for it. It often turns into an in-depth, reflective process, one that sometimes still makes me tear up, but it’s worth it because the practice lets me sleep better, without terrors. It has not solved my problems, but it has helped me cope with them better.

When my therapist checked in to ask if I had tried her recommendation, I told her I had, and added that I took it up a notch by “writing” the messages via voice notes using my smartphone.

“Is that crazy?” I asked.

“No! That’s a great idea! Hearing your intentions through your voice will resonate even more,” she said, noting that she would recommend this practice to other clients.

I asked her if I could get a discount. She laughed and said no but left me with this message, which echoed what my grandmother told me so many years ago: “Our present reality is the result of our past actions. By being cognizant, we create the future, which is always in the now.”

Experience Planner| Dinner Parties/Events. Byline: Medium, The NY Times, Huffpost, NY Magazine, SF Weekly, Quartz, Interview magazine-among others.

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