Therapy

Down the Shore: Confessions of a Trash Bag Traveler

It appears as if I am channeling Noah in my parenting–yes, that Noah. Everything we do seems to involve the number 2: Two boys, two cats, and, now, two dogs. It is no surprise that with such a menagerie, we would need two cars to go spend a week “down the shore” on Long Beach Island.

As I made my way to the beach in the dog car, along with two crates and a variety of other “essentials”, I couldn’t help but think about my own childhood shore travels. How different the journey to my in-laws’ place was from my family’s trek to Wildwood, New Jersey thirty-some years ago. Hard to believe that we crammed into ONE vehicle–all seven kids and our parents. Yes, NINE of us in one station wagon. We lapped it, we sat in the way-way back, and one or two rode shotgun with mom and dad, who smoked their Kool 100s in a futile attempt to escape the chaos that surrounded them. All of this was done without a single seat belt or child-proof lock. I’m sure we even hung out the windows–I know that’s where we threw our trash–the Now and Later or Juicy Fruit gum wrappers.

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How did we all fit in that one wagon with all of our luggage? We didn’t. The luggage, I mean.  Most of us were given a large green trash bag and told to fill it with whatever we wanted to bring to the beach. Yes, my two sisters belongings were placed in with my parents’ luggage, and the five boys traveled a la Hefty.  My bag weighed three times as much as I did, and included the $35.00 I had saved for months from my paper route. I placed the wad of money in my bell bottom jeans, which I packed right next to my Starskystarsky_hutch and Hutch sweater. We all received these sweaters for Christmas, and I overheard the older kids–I am fifth in line–say that they were bringing theirs for the boardwalk. I couldn’t wait to belt my sweater around my waist and get in touch with my inner Huggy Bear while cruising the rides at Morey’s Pier.

After placing every piece of summer clothing from my drawers inside the trash bag, I dragged it downstairs to the car. There, I looked at four other similar bags–each stuffed not with trash, but all of our treasures. This was the highlight of our summer, our year. We felt lucky–special–because we got to say we went on a vacation to the beach. Vacations were a luxury in my neighborhood. Yet there we were, headed to The Al Sands Beach Hugger Motel on Third Avenue in Wildwood, where we would rent two rooms for a whole week. Two rooms for eleven people. My grandparents stayed with us (I think they actually paid for our lodging). That meant eleven people crammed into two compartments. Of course my parents and grandparents stayed in the same room with my younger brother and sister (twins) and me. I never seemed to make the cut off into cool-dom. The four eldest got to stay in the other room, right next door. I was still small enough to share a cot with the twins, but I hated every minute of it.

Back in the driveway, my father was faced with a dilemma: Where the hell was he going to put all of this damn stuff? This is what I loved about my parents–with so many kids, they did not have time to check our bags, nor did they have the sense to tell us what to pack. We were left to our own sensibilities–or lack thereof. My dad’s solution was to throw the bags on top of the station wagon and tie them down with string. STRING. Now, we were the type of family who lacked many tools and equipment. There was no garage to store these items in anyway. We were lucky if we could locate a hammer and nail–although never in the same location. And there was no need for a screwdriver–a butter knife would do just fine. So, of course there was no camper thingy to place on the roof–camper-thingys were for rich people, or at least those who were better prepared. And God knows where he got the string. It was equivalent in strength to a spool of dental floss. I would say that it WAS dental floss, but I am certain there was none of that in our house, either–again, made for rich people.

Going_and_ComingWith the bags piled high on the top of the roof, and mom and dad’s luggage wedged in the back with a few pairs of knobby knees, we headed down I-95 to the Walt Whitman Bridge–the portal to ocean paradise–or, if you live in a large, crazy family, Hell in another location. Car rides were always a nightmare, but long car rides were insufferable. This was pre-head phones, people. No one could tune out everyone else–or pretend to. You were stuck–literally stuck– in a position. The radio was a constant source of resentment–nine people just couldn’t seem to agree on a station. Any game attempt ended in a fight that could involve fists and hair pulling; sing-alongs died off in seconds, and everyone just counted the minutes until we could get out and stretch our limbs. Of course there were always fart wars, and staring contests, and name that tune, but nothing made the journey more tolerable. And someone always had to go to the bathroom as soon as we pulled out of the driveway, but we had to hold it. Holding it became a source of pride.

We had just settled in for our misery on the interstate when my mom chirped up: “Look at those people pointing to our roof and making fun of us.” “Joanne, relax,” my father said, annoyed that she was probably right. Embarrassed, my father sped up to get away from them. “Yeah, we know,” he said, more to us than the car he just left behind. “They should mind their own business,” said my mom. And it dawned on us in the back of the car… THIS WAS NOT A NORMAL WAY TO TRAVEL. Other people didn’t travel with trash bags. Other people had suitcases, or maybe duffel bags. Other people would at least hide the bags among the bodies in the back. But noooo, not us. There was our trash bag mountain, on display for the world to see.

Within a few moments, another car was honking at us. My dad huffed and puffed his way out of the passing lane, thinking it was because he was moving too slowly. “Dad, they’re pointing at you,” my brother said from the back. My dad rolled down his window, as did the other car’s passenger. “Hey Pal, you lost your bags a few miles back. We’ve been trying to get your attention.” “Uhh, thanks,” my dad mumbled, a bit dazed. “Oh, no,” said my mom. “Oh, Jesus God, please no!” “Joanne, relax,” said my dad. We made a U-turn on the highway and headed back to the on-ramp. Then, we exited and entered I-95 again. We found nothing.  Not one stitch of clothing. All of the bags were gone. This whole ordeal transpired within twenty minutes, and we lost everything–including my bell bottom jeans, my paper route money, and all 5 Starsky and Hutch sweaters.

We witnessed this realization from inside the station wagon. There we were, still crammed like sardines, with my dad standing outside the driver’s seat, looking out at the cold, unforgiving highway. His eyes then turned to the roof of the car–it was barren. My mother burst into tears, “Why us, God? Why? Dammit anyhow!” “Joanne!” said my dad, who hated any curse word.

We drove the rest of the way in stunned silence. Nine people trying to figure out how one family could cause such a ruckus. My brothers and I made mental lists of all of our clothes and other belongings that were now in the sweaty hands of some other family with too many mouths to feed. I lamented every dollar that I stowed away in my jeans–You fool, thought I. Never store your money in a trash bag on the roof of a moving car! Then, my Catholic guilt kicked in, and I considered how the trash bags could have caused a major pile-up on the interstate. How strands of plastic bag could have blinded other drivers’ windshields who could have lost control. So I lost everything I owned. Others could have been killed, for Christ’s sake.

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When we arrive at The Beach Hugger Motel in beautiful Wildwood, everyone is hot and tired. Body parts are peeled off of other body parts and vinyl seats. We exit the car. No one knows what to do. Unload the luggage? Ha! Change into our bathing suits for a swim in the pool? We have none.  I follow my mom into the motel office. The man at the desk is cheery and kind. He hands her the keys for two adjoining rooms.

We file up the stairs to the second floor. The outdoor speakers blast Paul McCartney: “Someone’s knockin’ at your door, somebody’s ringing the bell…” The pungent smell of the ocean awakens our senses. “Do me a favor? Open the door, and let ’em in.” Our rooms are clean and chilled from the air conditioning. There is an ice machine down the hall where we can get all the free ice we need. I go into the “big kids” room, hoping that this time I will make the cut–I don’t. But for now, we jump on the beds and turn on the TV, catching a groovy episode of The Partridge Family.

My mom goes out to Woolworth’s and buys several packages of underwear, 2 shorts, 2 shirts, and a bathing suit apiece. She does laundry every day. Throughout the week, we swim in the motel pool, we ride waves at the beach, we get sunburned, we eat too much, we lick melting ice cream cones in our hands, we go to the boardwalk. We make do. My family is crazy. We have shitty luck. But we make do.

The Wildwood summers do not last. They don’t become a family tradition. They don’t graduate into a beach house for a week every July, or a vacation elsewhere every summer. The few summers at the shore we had were quite eventful and unpredictable. But there was one thing you could count on from that trip forward: my father never stored anything else on the car roof–EVER!

My Garden of Weedin’

photo (22)Lately, I have found myself telling  people that my gardens finally look the way I’ve wanted them to. If it sounds like I’m boasting, it’s because I am. And it’s only taken me ten years to get them just so!

We bought our house ten years ago from a widow who had maintained her property, but her landscaping was lacking. Bordering the house was a row of yew trees and the backyard had a field of ivy by the fence. I was young and foolish and, like any new homeowner in this era, dutifully watched my share of HGTV shows like Weekend Warriors, Curb Appeal, and Yard Crashers. Armed with such gusto, I went about creating garden, after garden, after garden. I hacked away at dozens of yews. I even stood on a ladder wielding a chainsaw to destroy those bastards. It did not take me long to realize that I HATE yews–I really do. Next, I ripped up a perfectly happy bed of ivy to plant hostas and liatrope. I pulverized forty year old tree roots to establish gardens on both sides of my patio. I hacked and I hoed in the side yard, the front yard, around the house, beside the house, around the mailbox… In all, I created 10–count ’em, T-E-N gardens where there were none. Suffice to say, I was out of my f***ing mind.

Around this time of my maniacal meanderings in the yard, I remember visiting my in-laws home in the New Jersey suburbs. Their house was very pretty, but I remember feeling sorry for them because most of their yard wasphoto (24)-001 grass, and the few garden spots they had were wasted spaces of ground cover. I thought to myself, “What a shame. These gardens have such possibility.” I look back on that moment and laugh–hard. They did not have such gardens because they were smart. They enjoyed something known as the weekend, rather than spend countless hours mulching and digging. They were older, and wiser. And now, so am I. Don’t get me wrong, I love my gardens, but now I see the wisdom in the adage “Less is more.” Such a thought is counter-culture here in America, but God I wish I knew the beauty in that phrase ten years ago.

photo (23)-001Yet, just as my shrubs and perennials have grown, so have I. I find a lot of meaning in working in the garden, and it can be a great place to till the soil of one’s thoughts. Some of life’s most profound lessons can be made in one’s attempts to garden.

First off, a garden teaches one patience. I remember planting tulip bulbs one fall, annoyed that I had to wait a whole six months to enjoy them. Yet, with each passing year, my impatiens (pardon the pun) has subsided. I have planted seeds and saplings that are now flourishing shrubs and towering trees. Today, rather than feel petulant when burying  bulbs and young plants, I am comforted by the fact that all things need time to grow, just like people. Rather than be annoyed at the time I must spend waiting, I enjoy other features in the meantime. There is always something to captivate one’s eye in the garden.

Gardens are also a great cure for perfectionism. We live in a world of Martha Stewart Madness, but if you compare yourself to these Marthas, you’ll never be happy. I can recall when I finallyphoto (25)-001 realized that my gardening was more of an obsession than a hobby. I was miserable, and I was constantly complaining to my wife. “I can’t do this alone,” I would lament. I was seriously overwhelmed and wanted her to help. I joked with her how all I was trying to do was “create a showplace” for her–I know, I’m cringing at my word choice there, too. She looked at me and said, “You’re not doing this for me.” Then, it dawned on me–I wasn’t. I had to find out why I was doing this–and so much of it. For one, we live on 3/4 of an acre. It’s a lot of property (too much really) but it allows us a buffer from a busier thoroughfare. We are the corner house on a well-traveled street. Secretly, I wanted to be the envy of others. I imagined people slowing down as they passed my house and asking themselves, “Who lives there, Martha Stewart’s younger, cuter brother?”

I was also doing it as a way to celebrate having more than I did as a child. We lived in a twin house, and seven kids did some serious damage to the plants and shrubs my father attempted to maintain–we laid in the arborvitae bushes that he took such pride in as if they were nature’s hammocks, we yanked leaves off of trees just because we wanted something to do with our hands. In short, we had no respect for what he was trying to accomplish. There was not enough space for gardens and playing areas. Eventually , he gave up. And my mother! She had a brown thumb when it came to the outdoors. Every azalea or hydrangea that she received for Mother’s Day would be dead by Memorial Day. I swear, the woman thought that watering was optional. In later years, after everyone had moved out, she remarked to me how her black-eyed Susans were thriving in the front garden. I pointed out to her that those flowers were right under her window air conditioning unit which steadily dripped water into her garden. “Oh, you think that’s why?” “Yes, mom. Watering helps things live.” “Hmph,” she replied.

photo (20)And so my gardens were well watered, and I marvelled as things grew and came back year after year. “I did this,” I’d think, “and it looks pretty amazing.” But the moments of joy were fleeting. Things would bloom and whither so quickly. Some plants would bully others out of existence. Others needed more sun, some more shade. Plant. Replant. Dig up. Replace. And then there was the issue of the weeds–those damn weeds.  I would no sooner weed a bed, then the earth would sprout more. I referred to countless articles–which were oh-so-helpful: Pull the weed at the root…Really? Thank you, Captain Obvious. Yes, weeding is indeed an exercise in futility. There is no way to see how far down the root is, and try as I may, a tip of root always remains underground. But again, life lessons can be gleaned from this: the trick to pulling a weed is to be very gentle. Ripping out weeds is the most ineffective way to attempt to get rid of them. A gentle tug is all you need. There is something very Zen about pulling a weed properly. The release from the ground is euphoric.

I have grown accustomed to weeds. I know now that try as I may, there will always be weeds, and just as one of my gardens may look weed free, there is another beckoning for some maintenance. Who cares? Not me– anymore. Like debt, or those extra few pounds, weeds are simply part of the experience-a fact of life. To rid your world of them is nothing more than hubris–our arrogance as human beings.

Once, I was involved with a  community flower garden at our high school. This garden barely looked alive. But what was surviving were the weeds.  While we were attempting to beautify the space, a friend of mine, an art teacher, remarked, “You know, a weed is just a flower without a press agent.” Her words were so profound, and they’ve served me well in the garden for years since. Whose to say this purple spiky thing can be called a “flower” but this purple spiky thing cannot.  Now, when I look at “weeds” I try to see the beauty in the “ugly”.  Also, when I admire a garden, I try not to search for weeds or other flaws, but to see past them at the aspects that are pastoral and pleasing. I bring this attitude into more of my daily life. Look for the beauty and it will surface.

photo (21)I am a much happier gardener these days. I’m not out there toiling every day, and even when I am, it is not for hours on end. I set more realistic goals–weed for fifteen minutes a night, water while the kids are running through the hose. I even shut down a few gardens because I had too little time. Ahh, the power of grass seed. I’ve also had the opportunity to watch a number of young couples, newly married homeowners, move in to our neighborhood and begin to hack away at their American Dream. I see myself in their attempts at doing it all. I smile knowingly, and I nod in agreement–yes, I recognize you.

Gardening has taught me so much: what is beauty, how to enjoy it, what I want in a hobby, and that if I am not feeling happy doing it, then don’t. My jobs in the garden will never be finished. There are weeds sprouting up as I write this. Some I will pull, many I will miss, and none of it matters in the end. Such are life’s reminders one can find while working in the garden–if only you’re willing to dig deep enough.

Old Yeller

2774519474_3dff3f1e56_zDon’t worry. This post is not further lamenting about my dog’s death, but the title just fits my predicament so well. You see, I am a yeller. I’m not just a loud person. I need to be the loudest in the room. I need to be heard. And if I feel you are not getting my point, I will simply yell it AT you. This is a horrible trait–probably my only flaw:)

This flaw is weighing on my mind because I recently had an incident with my sons that I am still ruminating about. Last week I yelled at them–a scream at the top of my lungs kinda holler. I’ve only done that a handful of times with them, but it’s the type of behavior where just once is one too many. And of course, what really irritates me about the whole incident is that I was trying to be nice.

It was Friday. They had been bugging me about swimming at the YMCA all week. When they got off the bus, I asked them if they wanted to go. They answered with a resounding “Yes!” “Then we’ll get pizza and watch a movie,” I said. What a plan! What a great dad! What an idiot for thinking it would be so easy! “Can we have snack first?” asks one. “Can we watch a little TV first?” asks the other. “Sure. We’ll leave in a half hour.”

Of course I try to accomplish a dozen things in that half hour, so an hour and a half later we’re finally getting into the car–just in time for mommy to be pulling in from work. Shoot, I never told Pam my plan, I think. “I want Mommy to come with us,” Hayden says.  This is not fair to Pam, who didn’t even know we were going. Understandably tired, she lets him down easy. But this will not suffice. Hayden goes full throttle into one of his tantrums. He starts yelling and flailing and I realize I should have gone an hour ago. The window of opportunity closed tightly while they were getting their Sponge Bob on. Pam dashes inside and I get both boys in the car, but Hayden is still crying and whining, “I WANT MOMMY TO COME!” Owen gets out of the car–“I don’t want to go now because Hayden’s ruining it.” This makes Hayden wail harder. I tell Hayden he can’t go if he doesn’t calm down. I tell Owen he has to go because we had a plan. Everyone is now miserable–including me and Pam– who is witnessing this dysfunctional tableau from the kitchen window. But–hear me now–up to this point I have not yelled once. I did not raise my voice at anyone involved. In fact, I hearken back to the childhood behavior gurus, Brazelton and Spock, and try to rationalize with my son like the good disciple I am: “Make a good decision, Hayd, I know you can do it. C’mon, Buddy, use your thinking side.” I recall the syllabus of books that I have read throughout my years as a parent: Touchpoints: Birth to Eight , What to Expect: The Toddler Years, 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline from 2-12,  and, finally, I’m Okay, You’re a Brat (this is a partial list).

With everyone safely buckled, I take a deep breath and begin to drive. I am quiet, hoping the storm has passed. I turn on the radio, wishing to hear one of the inappropriate songs that might distract them, the songs they now sing with bizarre naiveté (Can I blow your whistle baby, whistle baby, let me know…). Within two minutes, they begin to fight over a Fun Dip packet in the back seat–a gift from one of their friends from their Valentine’s party yesterday–cards alone don’t cut it anymore. Owen lent Hayden the dip stick to have a few licks (GROSS) but now he wants it back. Hayden is holding the sugary powder pack hostage.They begin to hit each other. I turn back for a second to see what the hell is happening, and as I look again to the road, I see a line of stopped cars with glaring  red tail lights. A slam on my brakes–stopping just feet from the car in front of me. This is the closest I’ve come to being in a car accident with the boys. Once I realize that we were lucky, that we are safe and no one is hurt, I want to kill someone. F***ing Fun Dip. F***ing swimming. F***ing pizza. F***ing movie.

What I say is, “DAMMIT!” Loud–remember this post is about my yelling. “DO YOU SEE WHAT YOU ALMOST MADE ME DO? WE COULD HAVE BEEN REALLY HURT! GIVE ME THE FUN DIP! ARE YOU HAPPY NOW HAYDEN? WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE THIS WAY? WHY CAN’T YOU BE HAPPY? WHY DO YOU HAVE TO RUIN THINGS?” Hayden sees my irrational state, and raises me twenty. He proceeds to kick the back of my seat. He yells at me, punctuating each word with a stomp of his foot. While still driving, I attempt to grab his leg, but then realize I need to reclaim my “Adult In Charge” badge. I turn the car around and head home. I am proud of myself for not continuing to go to the Y, but my screaming has not reached its end. “ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS…AND YOU GUYS DON’T REALIZE HOW GOOD….AND WE COULD BE AT THE HOSPITAL….I BET YOUR FRIENDS DON’T…AND YOU ARE SPENDING THE REST OF YOUR NIGHT IN YOUR ROOM, HAYDEN.” And with that we are home. The boys are in tears, and I slam my door and storm inside. “Well, that was a bust! We’re back…”and then I rehash the whole debacle for Pam, rants, threats, and all.

I march Hayden up to his room, he is still yelling, and I pretend to ignore him. As I begin to shut hisyell door, he looks at me, teary-eyed, and screams, “Why do you always yell at me?” To which I reply, “Why do you always yell at me?” I shut (not slam) his door hard, and I go to my room and lie down. Yes, it’s 5 o’clock on a Friday night and I’m spending Happy Hour in Hell!

“I’m going to order the pizza. Do you want any?” Pam calls up to me. “No!” I yell down, wallowing. I lay on our bed and just try to breathe, to relax, yet I can hear Hayden talking to himself in his room. I feel sad, not sure whether he is berating himself or me (probably both). I go to his door and open it.  “Can I come in?” “No,” he says, but bitter-sweetly. I go back to my room and lie down again. A few minutes later, I spy him hiding in my doorway, peeking his head in, hoping I’ll notice him. “Come on in,” I say. He climbs on the bed. “Hayden, Mommy and I love you very much, but we get sad when you behave like that. You say I always yell at you. When was the first time I yelled at you today?” In his signature inaudible whisper he says, “When we almost hit that car.” “And weren’t you yelling at me and mommy and Owen?” He gives me a pouty lip nod. “Let’s BOTH work on not yelling, okay.” He repeats pouty lip nod. We spend the next few minutes just lying there, savoring the quiet, which seems extra loud now that neither of us is screaming at each other. While I am glad to have this reconciliation, the thought that I often have is gnawing away at me: “Oh, God. He’s me. He’s me.”

“Pizza’s here!” Pam hollers. He and I both make our way downstairs. I proceed to gobble two slices of the pie I said I didn’t want. We salvage the night by watching Hotel Transylvania–again. My behavior weighs heavy on my mind. I am trying so hard to have patience, to show my boys how to be respectful and kind. But old habits die hard. I think back to my childhood where he who was loudest was the winner. Yelling was the most effective way to gain attention in my large family. To yell was to win. And what a price we paid for that victory.

The next day, Owen and I find ourselves sitting on the stairs tying our shoes. He then hops into my lap without warning. Just puts his arms around my neck and plants a kiss on my face. I am so moved by this. Each time we share such a moment, a voice in my mind cries out, “Remember this. Enjoy it. Such embraces will disappear soon. He will not be able to sit in your lap much more. He will not want to kiss you much longer.” I take this opportunity to address the incident from the day before. “Hey. I’m sorry I yelled like that yesterday. I was upset, and I was scared that we could have gotten hurt.” “You scare me when you yell like that,” he says softly. A small dagger pierces my heart. “I know I do. And I’ll try not to yell like that again.” He remains in my lap a bit more, and I will this moment into my mind so I can remember this promise that I make to him.

Having reflected on this situation for a week now, I am reminded of how my anger still seeps through into my life. I am not foolish enough to think I will not raise my voice ever again–I’m sure I’ve raised it every day since. But there is a difference between raising one’s voice and yelling. And I am aware that part of my anger is resentment. At times, I resent the fact that my kids don’t realize how good they have it–what a charmed life they are living, or how much attention and quality time we give to them. But then I think about these young men we are shaping, the habits we are forming in them through our example. I realize that one of the most important things I can do for them is show them how to remain calm and composed, even when angry. It has taken me decades, but one of the most valuable lessons I have learned is that yelling is one of the fastest ways to get people to shut down. Once you’ve yelled, you’ve lost.

Therapy

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.