Why I Go to Therapy
I have written in this space several times about my admiration for James Altucher. The man has both succeeded and failed spectacularly and he fearlessly exposes his innermost feelings on his blog on an almost daily basis. I read him religiously, but that does not mean that I always agree with him. In fact, after reading one of more recent posts, “How to Quit Therapy,” I could not disagree with him more. Altucher, as usual, makes solid arguments, but I think his post misses the overall point. At least, I know it does for me.
I see a therapist twice a week, Tuesday and Thursday morning before work, and I find it extremely helpful. Are there days when I feel like I don’t have something substantial to talk about? Sure. Am I occasionally forced to explore the minutiae of something innocuous because my therapist possibly believes that I’ve buried a horrible secret or memory in my subconscious? Yes. But those moments are (a) few and far between and (b) part of the larger journey.
I always felt like I needed some form of therapy. Being the youngest, my brother and sister were off at college while I was still home, so it’s almost like I was an only child in my early teens and we lived in a big spread on the edge of town that was fairly remote (Google Maps still does not have a street view of it). As a result, I spent a fair amount of time alone and I would often get lost in my own head, which is both good and bad. That practice made me pretty self-aware, especially for someone at an early age, and I knew that I thought differently from most of my friends and classmates. In junior high and high school, I would pontificate about how I believed most people were fucked up in one way or another and needed some form of counseling, myself included. (Adolescent dating tip: explaining why you think you and all of your peers need therapy is not a way to impress a pretty 14 year-old girl.) It turns out I wasn’t all that different from those around me, I was just much more willing to express my inner thoughts and insecurities. I had a weird hang up about what I perceived as lying to girls in order to make them like me, so I would be brutally honest to the point where it probably became uncomfortable. In some way, I guess I thought this would make me more authentic because I was laying my soul bare, but all it did was reinforce my own idea that I should probably talk to someone professionally. For as self-aware as I was, I wasn’t aware enough of those around me to just hold a few things inside. This character flaw probably prevented me from dating but, in my crazy brain, I was being my authentic self and if no one wanted that and all that it entailed, then I didn’t want them either. I never grasped the concept that just because the entire picture isn’t exposed doesn’t mean the entire picture doesn’t exist. I’m now 32 years old and I’m still learning this lesson.
There’s still a stigma attached to therapy in this country and I can’t figure out why. Millions of people go to therapy every day, but virtually no one (except for Howard Stern) talks about it openly. Our nation’s pill epidemic, on the other hand, is shrugged off and treated as if it’s normal that Americans spend more than $300 billion on capsules to make themselves feel better. The only medication I take is Synthroid, also known as Levothyroxine, to regulate my thyroid. However, I do not take anything else and I have never taken anything that would be prescribed in therapy (such as antidepressants). I’m quite proud of this fact. If I can overcome my demons without mood altering drugs, then maybe I’m not as fucked up as I feared. Plus, there’s a certain degree of pride that comes from working through this process naturally rather than submitting to a drug, much like someone losing weight through diet and exercise rather than a gastric bypass procedure.
In his post, Altucher wonders why a person only goes to a medical doctor when they feel sick, but go to a therapist all the time. While this argument has certain merit, it’s more complicated than that. Instead of comparing a therapist to a medical doctor, I believe a much closer parallel can be drawn between a therapist and a nutritionist or a personal trainer. These are all people that improve you, but also give you the tools to improve yourself. If that weren’t the case, why would Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade all have the same trainer? If the greatest athletes in the world can benefit from an assist, why can’t the rest of us?
I’ve been going to my current therapist for about 18 months and I know the process has helped me. I’ve learned so much, both about myself and the world around me. I’ve gotten a better handle on the people that love me…and those that hate me (“Best friends and money? I lost them both.”). The things I’ve learned cannot be unlearned, so I could stop going right now if I so chose. I don’t go because I feel suicidal (anymore) or because if I don’t go I’ll completely lose my mind and fall into a catatonic state. Instead, I continue to go because I feel like I’m constantly improving. Plus, it just makes me feel better.
I don’t go to a therapist because I was molested or suffered any other traumatic childhood event. I go to a therapist because I find the process valuable and the more I learn about myself, the more I understand myself and, as a result, can understand those around me. It’s made me a better person. If there wasn’t such a stigma attached to it, I’m sure it could help many others become better people as well.
It’s important to note that it's not the way it’s portrayed in most movies and TV shows – there’s no weird shaped couch or a cerebral Freud-obsessed old man stroking his beard. In fact, the most realistic depiction is in The Sopranos. You sign in, you sit in the waiting room, and you wait your turn, just like every other doctor’s office. You go back to the room, sit – not lie – on a chair or a couch, and start talking about things. The therapist only takes notes in the initial meeting. After that, it’s just a conversation that one person completely dominates. In other words, it’s like every other conversation I have.
While I always knew I should talk to someone, the reason I ultimately took the initiative and started going was to improve my home life. When I was no longer single and living alone, I was no longer the only person affected by my mind state. I’m an extremely difficult person to live with and the pursuit of perfection pressure I put on myself on a daily basis is also transferred to that other person. I’m a neat freak (bordering on OCD) but not a clean freak – things need to be organized and put away properly or I lose my shit, but if there is an inch of dust on the table, I won’t notice. I want every DVD to be put back in its proper place (alphabetized, of course), but I never realize when a bathroom needs to be cleaned.
Therapy not only helps me with improving myself in these situations, it also gives me perspective. It shows that I’m not the only one making sacrifices for the betterment of my relationships. It allows me to talk through issues with a person that is not only learned, but also objective. She tells me when I’m rationalizing, when I’m being selfish, and when I’m being too hard on myself. She presents a different outlook to me and helps me to realize that having a completely neat house is not the personification of perfect or that not being able to build a barn or renovate my entire home by myself does not make me less of a man, despite what some of my handier friends may say.
There are times when there are a multitude of things to discuss and there are times when it feels like I have nothing to say. And that’s okay too. It’s a conversation, not a performance. I’ve often been embarrassed by admitting things I’ve done or thought because they’re not beneficial to my overall well-being and improvement and I fear that my therapist will be disappointed in me. But that’s exactly the point. The purpose of talking to someone is not to have them tell you what to do or not do (and berate you for doing the “wrong” thing), but rather to find out why you do what you do and why you think the way you think. When looking at it in that light, the process only works if you’re honest and I’ve decided to be painfully open and honest when I’m in that room. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’ve admitted to feeling like a failure and a disappointment to both my wife and my parents. I’ve explained how I want to become an amazing success because I (incorrectly) believe that it will make up for any feelings of insecurity or loneliness I have had in my life. I’ve talked about how I want to be desired by every woman that has ever come in contact with me because I was rejected by the girls I liked most in junior high and high school. I’ve expressed how my need for validation nearly trumps my need for food and oxygen. None of those things had ever been expressed aloud before. I think that is significant.
I realize that all of those things can be seen as petty and I should just get over it and get on with my life. But we all have something gnawing at us that dictate our thoughts, words, and actions, so why not try to find out why? Wouldn’t things be easier if everyone knew why they behaved the way they do? If we were all a little more tapped in, we probably would all be a little happier and a little friendlier.
What could be better than that?
Pierzy writes a weekly NBA column during the season, as well as columns revolving around other sports, hip-hop, movies, TV shows, food, beer, marriage, (impending) fatherhood, and a variety of other topics. You can follow him on Twitter here.