Hello, I’m In Therapy

When someone finds out I see a therapist, they think I’m a little crazy. When they find out I go three times a week, they think I’m completely bonkers. While there’s no denying I’m weird (that’s something I cultivate and enjoy) I’m not crazy. I’m not on any medication, and I haven’t been diagnosed with a mental illness. Not even depression. And everyone gets that particular diagnosis, nowadays.

When people aren’t assuming I’m crazy, they express envy. “It must be nice to have someone to talk to. Can you take some of my problems, next time you go?”

Of course, the envy is easily fixed. You can go to therapy too, if you can afford it. I regularly offer people a referral from my own therapist.

I have yet to meet someone who isn’t scared off by that idea. Their eyes go wide and they say, “No, no, no, I’m good. Thanks.”

So, I’m nuts for going, they’re jealous that I go, and they’re frightened by the possibility of going themselves. What is going on? I suspect part of the problem is people don’t know what therapy is. TV and movies have created some very weird misconceptions. A therapist’s office is the magic crying room. You go there to blame everything on your parents. And you should only go if you were abused every day of your life.

I wish more people went to therapy, just to improve themselves. You don’t need a major trauma to be there.

I started therapy because I was having stress symptoms. My nose would go numb, my hands would tingle, and I’d feel intense panic. After ending up at the emergency room with these symptoms, I knew I had to do something new. It was getting annoying to hear doctors say, it’s just stress. That’s almost as bad as saying, “Yeah, the bone is broken. But I only deal with the flu, so you’ll have to leave.”

I now have some understanding of what was going on back then. My stress started when I’d stopped writing and painting. I told myself, why bother with that stuff? I had a real job, it paid the bills. Maybe I should just let my dreams die. Grow up, dummy. Art is for artists, and not for guys like me.

Turns out nothing brings out stress like ignoring your own wants and needs. I was strangling myself, choosing to be mute.

At work, we have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). I saw a councilor a few times. We sat in an office and talked. She suggested I write out my problems. I showed up at the next session with a 40 page short story. She had accidentally given me permission to write again. EAP only allowed for a fixed number of sessions a year. Once those ran out, the EAP person gave me a list of local psychoanalysts to choose from.

They say finding a therapist is like dating. You should shop around until you find somebody that clicks. I didn’t do that. Instead, I looked for a therapist close to work. The rest was just good luck. Valerie (not her real name) seemed capable of withstanding my eccentricities, and could follow my fanciful writing. We had a few sessions face to face, much like business meetings. Then Valerie suggested a change: I lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling while I talk to her. Valerie sits behind me in her chair and listens, and interprets, while taking notes on an iPad. It’s the classic psychoanalytic setup. But with an iPad. And that’s how it’s been ever since.

I think of therapy a little like having a personal trainer, but for the mind. Instead of working on muscles, we work on my identity. If that sounds a little self-centered, it is — but in a good way. There are a lot of clichés in the self-help world. You have to love yourself before you can love others. You need to save yourself before you try saving others. Every airplane flight teaches this lesson: get your own oxygen mask on before you help someone else. These are the therapy clichés, sure, but I believe them. I need to direct my own life. It’s mine. To help make sense of the world, I have to work on me. With a solid base (my identity) I can then worry about others.

People say western culture is too self-centered. I agree, sort of. It’s more like we’re “self off-centered”. We do all kinds of selfish things to avoid our real selves. We drink, eat, do drugs, shop excessively, binge on Netflix shows, screw random strangers, abuse each other — all to avoid looking at the real self in the middle of the mess.

My therapy is about that self. It’s about organizing my resources, figuring out who I am, what I want and need, and making that a reality. Or, to put it another way, it’s taking all the scattered oranges of the self, and putting them in one can of concentrated orange juice. It’s the difference between drifting through life as a ghost, or being a real person.

How does therapy do that? By giving me the time to contemplate life, with a witness. Valerie and I look at my current struggles. We think about how they are informed by my old patterns, including ones established in childhood. We come up with new strategies for me to deal with life going forward. That’s basically it. Of course, it’s both simple, and not that simple at all.

For example… Working to be “concentrated orange juice” doesn’t always make life easier. There are people who prefer “ghosts” to fellow human beings. I’ve lost a few friends and family members, thanks to my getting better. They don’t like this new “uppity” me. Once upon a time, I quietly got along with everyone, listened without complaint, swallowed my own heart on a daily basis. I was a doormat. After a year or two of therapy, I had beliefs and opinions and desires. I started pushing for my own space in the room. Not everyone liked it.

One family member was upset about how I ignored all her unasked-for advice. She growled suspiciously, “You’re in therapy! I thought you would be better!”

Another “friend” got upset because now I wanted to participate in conversations, instead of listening to his lectures. In a disgusted tone, he said, “You’ve been really different ever since you started seeing that… therapist.”

Both of these people were used to being in charge of me. When they lost that control, they were hurt and confused. And stopped talking to me. To cut them some slack, I think it’s safe to say that my new assertiveness threatened to reveal their own pain, their own needs and weaknesses. They needed to be in charge because of their own problems.

Ironically, what these two expected therapy to do was exactly what I worried it would do. Early on, my biggest concern was that it would make me “normal”. I thought Valerie would tame me, make me a solid citizen who loves his job. It would make me respect my crazy and abusive parents. I’d never drink too much again; I’d stop being weird; I’d know my place in the world. I’d be put in a tiny box.

That didn’t happen. There’s a reason why therapists are known as slippery devils who answer questions with questions. Good therapists don’t want to impose their world on yours. Valerie doesn’t have all the answers. She definitely doesn’t have all of my answers. It’s my life, so I need to figure out what’s right for me. Her job is to help me figure out what I think and feel.

I started to feel a lot better about therapy when I disagreed with an interpretation Valerie made. She didn’t get angry. The world didn’t end. We deferred to my judgement. I started to feel more comfortable.

Part sounding board, part witness, part priest — Valerie is someone in my corner. Her office is a safe place I can retreat to. I think through the issues of my life, and get her perspective. It’s great to have that time to stop, consider, and evaluate. At the end of the fifty minute hour, I go back out into the real world again.

So, why do I go three times a week, if I’m not a lunatic? Partly, it’s a tradition in psychoanalysis. Based on my experience, it works something like this… Session one digs up some truth. Session two brushes the dirt off of it. And session three preserves it, so it doesn’t get forgotten.

I have often left therapy feeling astounded at some new insight. Two hours later, it’s gone. I can’t remember any of it. Where the hell did it go? Our brains are designed to hide painful truths from us. Wisdom doesn’t come easy. But if I have to go back the next day, lie down on the couch again, the insights come back. By the end of the week, they stick. They can’t fade any more.

Maybe you can tell that I adore therapy. I’m a bit of a zealot. I recognize it’s my solution for my problems, and it might not work for everyone. We each have to find our own way. All the same, I find myself regularly wanting to preach it on a street corner. Therapy is great. Therapy can help. Get a shrink today!

Would you like me to get you a referral?