Let Go of the Old to Embrace the New

Medical Post
Helping Hand Column, July 8, 2008

“It’s the Year of the Rat”, she said. “New beginnings. It’s the start of a 12 year cycle in the Chinese calendar”.  This year is supposed to be a year of plenty, bringing opportunity, and good prospects.  We are sitting at the kitchen table in my new house, my friend and I, having a drink and celebrating my ‘new beginning’.  I have just moved, and the boxes are barely opened and put away.  It is nice to see walls and floor, instead of boxes and piles of furniture. 

I reflected on what she had said.  All day and all around me, I watch people dealing with change and transitions.  Life brings such change – people get married, widowed, separated, or divorced; people have new babies, send their kids off to school and then to university; people have serious illnesses; people get hired, fired, or promoted at work; people move, rent, buy and sell houses.

Each situation is a new beginning, after the end of something else. 

In his book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges describes the three phases of a transition.  There is an End, followed by a period of Confusion and Distress, and then a New Beginning.  Regardless of what the change is, all of us go through these stages.  Dealing with the end of something requires us to go through the process of grief, with a sense of loss and regret, and possibly shame and confusion.  While it may be a bit easier if we have chosen the change, as I did with this house move, the choice does not entitle us to avoid the grief process.  Ultimately, we have to let go of the old way, so we can move on and embrace the new beginning. 

My recent move asks me to do the same – to let go and move on.  I have just moved out of a house in which I lived for about 20 years, and decided that this would be a good opportunity to downsize, simplify, and clear out clutter.  I had seriously underestimated how much effort this would take…or perhaps I did know and so was putting it off.  As a result, I left the bulk of the sorting and packing to the last month.  This proved to be a huge task.  As I touched everything in the house, considering whether it would have a place in the new house, I realized that everything had a history and memory attached, and that dealing with this would add to the energy that this task would take.  There were old toys, outgrown and outdated clothes,  magazines and cards and letters, photographs, school art and creative writing projects, books, VHS movies, dishes… Luckily, my sisters and friends helped me to be first sentimental, and then brutal.  I was allowed to have the memory one last time, and then put the item in the give-away pile.  The children were doing the same.  I came across one of them with tears in his eyes as he, just home after his first year of university, looked at a photograph of himself on the first day of kindergarten.  Later, the twins laughed uproariously at a story they had made up in Grade 2 about Godzilla and alien invaders, complete with hand drawn pictures.  We were all happy to know that our pile of things that we had decided not to take with us would be going to immigrant and women’s shelters, and that others would benefit from them.

The new house is great.  Our things fit there perfectly, and we no longer remember much of what we have let go.  We have a few new things that fit better here.  The appliances are finally in; the furniture is in place, the pictures are hung up on the walls.  The cable, phone, and internet are finally hooked up; and the 27 calls it took us to achieve that will soon be forgotten.  It feels like we have been here much longer than the past week.  Our friends visit us here now, even those from our old neighbourhood.  This morning, I drove to work along the new route, almost absent-mindedly.  A nice young couple, recently graduated from medical school and starting their residencies, will move in to our old home and start the next phase of their lives– the same stage that we were in when we first moved there. .Already we have let go and are moving on.

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at mgautam@rogers.com. Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.