At the time, I had an idea I picked up from movies and television of people who stayed in therapy for years and years. This was the idea of self-indulgent, narcissistic people who had nothing better to do than spend an hour a week spouting off gawd only knows what to a psychiatrist without any specific goal of achieving something. Doesn’t "get better" mean you stop going to therapy? Freudian analysis – patient babbles, psychiatrist listens – can be quite open ended in this regard and I had a somewhat negative impression of the process. I come back to the word "self-indulgent".
When the therapist asked me if I wanted to continue, I thought of his assessment. Yes, I’m bummed out about my traumatic episode, but I had a remedial plan. What else was there to talk about? The only thing left to do was to go out and put the plan into effect. Right?
I declined his offer to continue this 50 minute session per week therapy and headed off to implement my plan. However, as time wore on, things weren’t working out as well as I had hoped. In fact, I seemed to be dragging around some baggage that I couldn’t get rid of. Had I missed something in therapy? Should I have stuck with it? Was I too dismissive of the process and had failed to give the process its due?
Four years later, I found myself in circumstances which allowed me to take another stab at therapy, however this time; I planned on committing to a length of time, a hopefully meaningful amount of time to see where this would lead. It turned out that I spent 8 months going to a psychiatrist for a session of 50 minutes every week. Over eight months, that would work out to be 30 times, setting aside one or two weeks for holidays.
Unlike my first time where I sat face to face with my therapist, this was truly the typical couch session. The psychiatrist sits in a chair at the head of the couch while the patient lies down on the coach and stares at the ceiling. This was stream of consciousness. I just talked on anything which came to mind with no specific agenda. That, in retrospect, is the odd part of this type of therapy. There doesn’t seem to be, well there wasn’t for me, any structure or guidance. It was just me trying to figure out something, but I’m not sure what It was the strangest thing. If there is no specific agenda; there is no specific goal and if there is no goal, how do you know when you’re done?
This happened over 25 years ago so I have absolutely no idea of what I would have babbled about for those 30 sessions. I do remember as I droned on about gawd only knows what, staring at the ceiling, sometimes counting the holes, the psychiatrist whose name I’ve forgotten, would sit out of sight towards the head of the couch. He would always sit with a pad of paper and a pen to record whatever revealing Freudian slips gushed out of my mouth as I sometimes desperately sought to find something to say. He did tell me once or twice that I could be silent if I wanted.
Comically enough, I remember being aware of his breathing. I could hear this. Occasionally, I would detect this subtle change in his breathing that I recognised as him having nodded off. I’m spouting great pearls of revealing insights into my psyche and my therapist is having a snooze. This began to make me think that this "extended" process of therapy I had decided to try out was more like my interpretation of my first time in therapy. It was self-indulgent, maybe narcissistic and at the end of day, was it really a question of doing your stuff or getting off the pot. Remember that this was just me talking. I don’t think he ever interjected anything. I just talked and talked and talked.
In session number twenty-nine, my penultimate session, I had the most extraordinary experience. It was so memorable; I recall it today like it was yesterday. I think this was for me the pinnacle of defining moments of my whole time in therapy. It was around the thirty minute mark. I was talking about heavens knows what, staring up at the ceiling when all of a sudden, in some sort of lull when I was catching my breath, the psychiatrist said something. Please keep in mind that for all these sessions he had been dead quiet while I was on the couch so him saying something was not just unusual, it was unexpected. He asked me this question, "When you were a little boy, did you worry about the size of your c**k?"
Have you ever had one of those moments when somebody says something to you but it doesn’t register at first? The words are uttered, but you don’t comprehend them. Then in your mind, you rewind this mental recording of those words so you can double check that what was said was in fact what your heard.
I lay there staring at the ceiling. I was dumbfounded. There was this moment of silence during which I didn’t speak and the psychiatrist didn’t say anything else. First of all, I was absolutely stunned that he had used the word "c**k". He had spoken so rarely that the fact he opened his mouth was stunning enough. But to have used this profanity? It was like having a bucket of freezing cold water dumped on you.
My next thought was, "It’s come to this." All of a sudden, the absurdity of this therapy had this big, fat light shining on it. S**t or get off the pot. If I don’t do something, if I don’t implement my remedial plan, he’s going to eventually link this back to some childhood memory about me feeling inadequate about the size of my manliness. Or would have it been at that age boyliness?
If I had been standing up, I probably would have made that gesture which means, "Oh brother" by rolling my eyes and slapping myself on the forehead. If I had been sitting, I would have leaned forward, tilted my head down then covered my forehead with my hand while uttering something like "Oh my gawd." As I was lying on the couch, I was silent for a moment then said, "No" as if I was responding to some sort of normal, regular question. "Would you like cream with your coffee?" No. "Do you think it’s going to rain today?" No. "When you were a little boy, did you worry about the size of your c**k?"
At the end of the very last session, I remember him saying to me something about me now understanding how breakthroughs came about; how the process allowed the patient to arrive at conclusions about themselves. I suppose, but I couldn’t help thinking there was an open-endedness to the process which failed to push a patient to face the facts and then move on. Of course, not every patient is the same but here I was thinking specifically about myself. Sometimes we need therapy; sometimes we need a kick in the ass?
This may look like I’m against therapy. I’m not. Going back to the beginning of this article, I did say that sometimes we need an unbiased professional eye. I suppose I could also add, and this is from experience, that we should all recognise that the fireside chat we may want to have with a member of the family or with a close friend may be going beyond the bounds of what an informal chat may be able to do. In fact, it may be so far beyond the bounds of that informal chat, we could very well be taking advantage of the good graces of the other person. In other words, we need a professional. Let’s spare the family and friends and go to a pro.
I’m currently in the middle of another traumatic episode of my life. I went to therapy for the first time in almost 30 years forking over $100 per week to talk it out with a paid professional for about 5 months. It is interesting how talking to a live human being can be helpful. I know that I sometimes talk out loud to help me work through an idea or practise a speech, but talking to another person can be very therapeutic.
At the end of two grand though, I found myself back to the idea of do it or get off the pot. I could talk from here to tomorrow, but at some point I have do something. Doing something may mean implementing a remedial course of action or it may mean accepting what is beyond our powers to change. The sun is going to come up in the morning and there is nothing I can do about it. The sooner I accept this fact, the sooner I will be able to move on.
The following may be considered as corny by some, but I think it is very applicable.
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change things that I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.