Therapy for Everybody!

I’ve been seeing a shrink about a year now to work through a few issues. In my family we’re no longer ashamed to be seen associating with mental health therapists. “Licensed clinical social worker”, “psychologist”, “psychiatrist”, even “psychotherapist” are words that now easily roll off our tongues.

It never occurred to me I would ever need or even want to see a shrink of my own. It seemed sort of unmanly somehow. Real men, women and children from normal and healthy families (and I assumed I fit in those categories) didn’t need mental health specialists. This is what passed for my reasoning. I figured I was supposed to struggle through my own stuff alone. That was an intrinsic part of the human experience.

And I guess I could have kept struggling alone. But at some point the suggestion came for me to see my own shrink. I found in a strange sort of way I was looking forward to it. For a while I sat through sessions wondering just why I was there. I pictured myself as the one in the family fully grounded in reality. The only therapy I needed was fuzz therapy: my cuddly cat Sprite all curled up on my lap looking up at me with his adorable Bambi-like eyes.

I thought therapy was reserved for people with real issues. For example, I figured if I had compulsive hand washing problem I needed to consult a shrink. I seemed to navigate fine through life. It was true there were aspects of my marriage and family situation that seemed pretty topsy-turvy at times. Yes, occasionally the stress level got pretty high, but nothing more than I could handle. I was an immovable rock. The high seas could crash against me as much as they like but I was (I thought) fundamentally unchanged. I could handle it.

Still when the wife told me to go see a therapist I figured she must see something in me that I did not quite see. So off I went. And now every couple weeks I sit in a room with a guy about my age and a diploma with a PhD in Psychology on his wall. We talk about my life and the answers to life’s persistent questions.

I still don’t understand what this therapy business is doing. I am not usually aware of any real changes in my thinking or behavior from one session to the other. Basically I just sit there in the cushy chair and talk. And mostly he listens. Occasionally he throws in a suggestion, or repeats back to me what he is hearing. This often means I have to restate my words several times. And then we move on to the next topic. Sometimes this is in a structured way, but often in an ad-hoc sort of way. All this for $130 for forty five minutes. I’m glad I’m not earning my living as a Wal-Mart greeter.

But anyhow this therapy stuff seems to be working for me. Maybe it is just coincidence, but I seem to be getting better at managing my problems and my own life. Things that used to annoy me don’t seem to annoy me as much. I seem to be a pleasanter person than I remember being. My wife and daughter seem happier to see me, and I am happier to be with them. And I keep going back and talking to my shrink. I sometimes I wonder why I am still there shelling out money.

It seems like everyone I know beyond a superficial level is doing therapy these days. Those who aren’t getting it I bet often secretly wish they were, or would if they understood its value. I’m starting to believe that in our complex world pretty much anyone — no matter how well ordered and happy they consider their life to be — would be better off in therapy.

I’m trying to figure out what is really happening in therapy. Am I really getting better because I spend my time talking to a guy with a PhD in Psychology? Is this better than, say, talking to my minister? I don’t think it hurts that my shrink has all these lovely professional qualifications. But I’m also starting to suspect that with a little training we could all be pretty competent therapists.

For me the value of therapy is simply that I can unload the stuff running around my mind. It has to get spoken, heard, repeated back and probed. It doesn’t mean as much (for me apparently) to analyze it in my mind. It’s only when these feelings are articulated, expressed and heard that the feelings derive meaning. Then they appear in a place that I can grab on to them and actually tackle them. In other words the simple act of sharing them with another safe human being is in itself therapeutic.

In less complex times I think our friends, family and neighbors were our therapists. Many of us still do this of course. But increasingly intimate family connections fray upon adulthood. In my family we are all geographically separated. I have one sister about an hour away. Everyone else I will probably only visit by buying plane tickets. Yes, we do have email to keep in touch but unloading on family is inherently risky. Family members more than anyone else really know you. They know what buttons to push to trigger devastating emotional damage. I’m sure my birth family wouldn’t do it deliberately, but might they might do it inadvertently. So I’m not anxious to unload too much on my family. As for neighbors, they live too close to warrant the exchange of intimate information. I can’t risk the whole block knowing my private life. As for friends I can’t think of any friend I have who I’d really want to exchange my most intimate stuff. Even with my wife I find I have certain thoughts and feelings I don’t want to share with her. But with a therapist I have a safety valve. I have that necessary but missing mental health link. And that by itself makes the difference.

So I say therapy for everyone. If it were up to me we’d all have individual therapists we would see on a regular basis. I realize there are cranks out there in the mental health world. It’s important to spend some time checking a number of therapists out before settling on one you are comfortable with. Even if it is just a trusted friend you can confide in, I think it is in the nature of human beings to need to confide and unload your thoughts with someone. Those of us who try to deny this need probably do so at our peril.

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