About a year ago, a friend of mine at work was telling me how he had an appointment with an acupuncturist after school to see if this would help his breathing issue. Bill suffers from a lung disease, and the acupuncturist may be the answer he needed to assist him in breathing better. I thought, Cool. It’s amazing what different areas of medicine can do to heal a person—even something as unconventional as acupuncture. As I left school that day, I recalled Bill’s casual mention of seeing a non-traditional practitioner of medicine. See, I was on my way to therapy after school, yet I would never have mentioned this in the work room to one of my colleagues. In fact, I’d say fewer than five people knew I was in therapy back then. That day, I fantasized about how refreshing it would be to talk about seeing a psychologist as casually as mentioning the dentist or the chiropractor. Sadly, we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where any mention of therapy is often met with fear and ignorance. Even those bold enough to mention it in discussion do so warily and with trepidation. And even then, these professionals are looked at with speculation: My shrink tells me that… To this day, on the rare occasion where someone does mention going to counseling in public, even I tend to think he/she is making a joke.
Yet, if you’ve been following my blog, you have heard me mention that I have been in therapy. I have seen a total of four counselors over the past ten years, and I am a changed man as a result. However, until now, only a handful of people knew I was in counseling. And, I must say, it feels amazing to just put it out there. It is nothing to be embarrassed about, yet I have lied on many occasions about my fifty minute hour with said therapists: I have to stay late after school, My son has a doctor’s appointment, I have to get a cavity filled—it seems I am happy with any other type of obligation except for Mental Health. Think about that expression: MENTAL HEALTH. Why are we so afraid of talking about the other form of health that inhabits our body? Is it because we can’t see it? We can’t see air, but none of us doubts its imperative nature in our lives. So why back away from health of the mind? If your ankle was swollen, you would see a podiatrist. If you had a skin outbreak, you would go to a dermatologist. If your cholesterol test came back high, you might start to take a supplement. But I would guess that the majority of us would not be quick to make that call to fix our mindset. This saddens me.
My counselors were as varied as the hang-ups living inside my mind. Therapist number one, Dr. Bob, was a warm, grandfatherly type. He was in his sixties and had an affable demeanor. At my first appointment, I was so stifled emotionally that I left the part of the questionnaire that said “Why have you sought counseling?” blank. I was too embarrassed, too ashamed to write anything. As we sat there that first visit, he immediately went to that unanswered question. Calmly, he inquired, “You are here for a reason. I cannot help you if I don’t know why.” I looked at him for a long time, realized I hadn’t been breathing, exhaled, and began to speak. By the end of our first session, I had shared more intimate things about my life with him then I did with any other person in my life, including my spouse.
I was with Bob for about two years. It was a time of self-discovery. I began to tear down a lot of the walls I had built up emotionally. It all seems so hokey until you put it into practice. Before therapy, I would often joke about loving oneself, or someone having daddy issues. But once under a doctor’s care, I began to see all of the cheap defenses we hide behind—laughter being a huge one for me. He and I talked about the importance of loving oneself (I know, stupid, right?). Yet, how many of us do check in with ourselves? How many of us do look out for our own well-being? One of the coolest things he and I discussed was the importance of being self-CENTERED. Previously, in my world, if you were trying to do what was best for you (but not necessarily those around you) you were accused of being selfish. “What does selfish mean?” he would implore. “You know, like, self-centered.” “And shouldn’t one be centered? Centered in the self? Shouldn’t one be balanced, and aware of one’s limitations?” LIGHTBULB! It was as if I was seeing for the first time. “So, it’s good to be self-centered?” I asked, hesitantly. “How can you be available to others if you are not available to yourself?” WHOA! It was a turning point in my life. How often do we ignore our own needs, give to the other people in our lives, and then end up resenting them for what we chose to give? For the past ten years, I have become much more selfish, and it has allowed me to have more meaningful experiences with all those I am lucky to surround myself with.
After my time with Dr. Bob, I took about a year off. In the meantime, Pam and I had our first child, and then a lot of my resentment of the past started to rear its ugly head. I went to a female therapist, Carol. She and I did not mesh well. I often found her aloof, sort of phoning it in during our sessions. Instead of paying her, I should have just stood in front of a mirror and repeated my statements as questions. Me: I’m not sure I should say anything about this to my sister? Carol: Do you want to say anything about this to your sister? Me: I’m not sure I want to have more than one child. Carol: Do you think it’s a good idea to have more than one child? I think Carol went to the Goddess of Echo School of Psychiatry. One night, I ended up leaving Carol’s office, somewhat heatedly, and I never returned.
Next, there was Marie. Marie was well read, had a lot of education, and a lot of hang-ups of her own. I felt sorry for Marie, and as a result, I never wanted to burden her with my problems. Aside from a few good parenting books, Marie offered little in the way of therapeutic assistance.
My final therapist was a man. I do think in my case, because a lot of my issues are with my dad, that a man suits me better in therapy. This guy was relentless. He never talked about his own life (married or single, father or childless, Catholic or Jew, gay or straight, I’ll never know). Beyond that, he was very analytical in the Freudian sense. And he was very good at deciphering dreams and finding connections in my life that I was unaware of. I recall one time, I was telling him how I had started to feel panicky whenever running races. I have run long distances since my mid-twenties, and had recently become more competitive with trail races. “Why now? Why would I have anxiety when I’ve been racing for years?” “Because now you care more about being competitive and you don’t want to look like a loser. Because now you feel like a man.” Ouch. That hurt. But I was glad to know the reason, and I believe he was right. Such discoveries opened my eyes in ways I would have never seen without therapy.
But the most fascinating thing about seeing Dr. Doug was his assessment that I had a lot of anger issues. “I’m not angry,” I protested. He stared straight into my eyes, unyielding. “I’m not,” I mustered up in response. “Am I?” I whimpered. When I got home that night, I told Pam about my session: “The doctor thinks I have a lot of anger.” I have never seen Pam’s eyes grow wider. It was if her eyeballs were nodding emphatically. “You think so, too?” I asked. “Yes!” she said resoundingly. And here I was, eight years of on and off therapy, four therapists, and finally the crux of my issues—I was angry and I needed to work on it. And I did. I saw Dr. Doug weekly—that’s once a week!!!—for over a year. I was with him for over two years. And now I finally have some perspective on my past, I am aware of my anger, and I have spent a lot of time healing.
I have been out of therapy for over a year, and I feel great—for the most part. I still get angry. The point is to not avoid anger, but be aware of its presence and your triggers. I can tell you this, though, most of the time, when I do get angry, it has very little to do with the thing I yell about. But I realize that this is all a process, that I continue to grow as a person—a husband, a father, a teacher, a friend… Looking back on the past ten years, I can tell you this about my experiences:
Therapy is like dating cancer. You go to meet this entity (your psyche) each week; you bare your soul and are more intimate with this being which represents all of these issues that could have destroyed you. You are the host to this vile, caustic thing, and you need to spend time with IT—whatever issue you are confronting—and recognize how potent it is in your life. If you ignore it, it will continue to feed on you until it has consumed you. Okay, maybe this isn’t dating, maybe it’s stalking. But you get the gist. She is a bitch, but you will keep seeing her until you break up on YOUR terms. Who is stalking whom?
Breaking up is hard to do. When you commit to seeing a therapist, the two of you establish a rapport, and it is hard to know when to say goodbye. I was with the same person for several years, but how long should one stay? It’s an individual choice, but a necessary one. I have the utmost respect for my last therapist (Doug), but he was not getting the hint when I kept telling him I needed a break—I was tired, I felt drained, and I needed to apply some of this knowledge to my daily life. Finally, I resorted to writing him a Dear John letter while he was on vacation—it’s not you, it’s me, I just need my space. He wrote me a very caustic reply, saying he would not be able to see me again if and when I ever decided to come back. So long, Doug… As for the others, the first ended when he moved away, the second in a nasty fight, and the third I just never called back when she reached out to get back together again. Such is the life of dating—I mean therapy.
Everyone could benefit from therapy! Everyone. Think of how cool it would be to confide in a person in the strictest of confidences? Who could not benefit from understanding why they react the way they do, from a non-judgmental professional who has an adept understanding of the way humans behave? Not sure why you can’t stand your sister-in-law? Wondering why you can’t relax in museums? Noticing a pattern with your unsuccessful dating life? Resentful of your kids for no good reason? Your answers are closer than you imagine. (The above scenarios are all hypotheticals, of course.)
There are affordable options. Laws are changing to ensure that mental health coverage is commensurate to other health care coverage (Parity Law). Moreover, under the Affordable Care Act, more people have access to mental health treatment than ever before. If I did not have insurance, I could not have afforded to see a therapist weekly. But the co-pay was money well spent, even if it was a considerable expense in my weekly budget. When money was tighter, I went less often, but I still had access. There are also services through churches and synagogues (many of which are non-denominational), and many therapists will work on a sliding scale.
Don’t stay in a bad relationship. Finding the right therapist is work. Most health care websites have a database of practitioners in your area. It may take a few different ones before you feel the right fit. I did not have luck in this area. I knew I did not feel right with either female therapist, yet I stayed because I felt bad. That’s my issue. But if you are brave enough to seek counseling, do yourself a favor and find a good match.
Be open to the idea that you may find yourself in therapy again. I have been in and out of treatment several times. Right now, I am applying what I’ve learned in how I live my life. But I know that someday, I will probably need to seek help from a therapist again. And I hope I am aware enough now to know when that day arrives. Who knows, maybe, as I continue to grow, I won’t be ashamed to tell a friend where I am going after school?
Finally, the words of the song “What Do You Hear in These Sounds”, by Dar Williams, always resonate with me when I think about my tumultuous ride with therapy:
I don’t go to therapy to find out if I’m a freak
I go and I find the one and only answer every week
And it’s just me and all the memories to follow
Down any course that fits within a fifty minute hour …
And when I talk about therapy, I know what people think
That it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink
But oh how I loved everybody else
When I finally got to talk so much about myself…
Her words sum up so much about my experience. I am no more a freak than you—okay, I did just laugh—but we’re all freaks in our own way. And, when you are given the right, the encouragement to talk about all of the things
that may be blocking you on life’s path, you find you are so much more open to others outside of therapy because you have dealt with your own issues in such a meaningful way.