Nobody ever thinks they’ll need personal counseling—at least not in the way people think they’ll find riches, happiness, and love. Still, it’s not hard to imagine how therapy works its way into a person’s life. You’re a baby. Everything is new. You get older. You watch your Saturday morning cartoons. You eat your cereal before it gets soggy. Life is good. You get older and your parents are busy working, fighting, or worse, not communicating and you wish life were better. You get older and you see that your attempt to make your life better is failing and all the lies you were told about the straight path to success fade from your ears. You get older. You flip on the tube to take your mind off the mundane mediocrity of your life and you’re bombarded with ad after ad, scaring you into buying the latest happy pill. 250 mg Zanax. 500 mg Prozac. Coke chaser. Next thing you know, therapy has you. You’re sitting in a chair telling your darkest secrets to a stranger who doesn’t really care.
You could have gotten the same thing at any bar for the price of a few drinks.
I have not enjoyed life for any significantly measurable amount of time. In my family, I was the low man on the totem pole of abuse. My father abused my older brother; my brother doubly abused me. On the social front, I was buffered by two forces to keep me walking the lonely path of bachelorhood. On one side, I was constantly and in the cruelest ways rejected by girls I desired. On the other side, I refused to settle for any of the squat, sloth-like, snaggletooth monstrosities that hit on me. Personally, I had low self-image. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the predominantly Caucasian society that I lived in. As such, I grappled with trying and failing to be white. Over the years, these pressures and many more like them slowly stained me black in the deepest sense. I have dug an emotional moat around myself and destroyed the drawbridge. So, even though I value and strive to form strong relationships, platonic and otherwise, I am ready to abandon those relationships at any given moment without the slightest hesitation. I have no qualms with dealing out pain, seeing death, or taking life. I don’t fear dying. Have you seen my will to live? Because I seem to have lost it.
The fact that I know these things about myself is precisely the reason why therapy — in the conventional sense — is useless to me. Therapy is about self-discovery and ultimately self-acceptance and I have already taken the time to do some emotional house cleaning. I accepted my reality. Aside from recommending medication, I couldn’t imagine that a therapist could offer anything more.
My do-it-yourself therapy kit came in the form of an online journal, which I published to handpicked readers. I had attempted to maintain a private journal, but because I already had my thoughts well contemplated in my head, my entries degenerated into emotional shorthand and I lost the impetus to write. Publishing my journal allowed me a deeper introspective view of myself by forcing me to articulate my thoughts so that my readers could understand my point of view. No question is more powerful than the question: “Why? ”Why was I sad? Why was I angry? Why did I think this about that? There were many nights when I wrote, so sure of my stance or belief on an issue, only to find my reasoning faulty or just plain stupid. It was profoundly cathartic to externalize myself in this way affording close personal scrutiny. It was a process of discovery and redefining. It was everything I could ever hope to get out of therapy.
In April of 2002 I was overcome by a very deep depression, which was the product of several factors. First, I was not doing well in school. Having transferred from a junior college based on a semester schedule to a university based on the quarter system, I was not prepared for the workload or the pace of the classes. Furthermore, I was an English major and I hated the material, but viewed the major as the least of all evils so continued my losing battle in classes that bored me to tears. Within two quarters of my transfer, I was placed on academic probation and from the looks of the current quarter I would soon be dismissed. Nights were spent lamenting the heartache I would cause my mother who expected me to right all of my older brother’s academic failures. Any sleep I did get was so near waking that I wouldn’t bother to call it rest. Instead, I would opt to nod off in class, which only further ensured my dismissal.
Secondly, I was working as a debt collector for Sears Credit Collection. At first, the job was a godsend in that it was one of the few decent paying jobs that catered to a school schedule. After a few months, the mindless repetition and the seething hatred exuded by our “customers” chipped away my mettle and I hated the job. Within six months, I had used up all of my “segments” (allowable sick days) for the year. If I took just one more day off for any reason (death in the family, serious injury, saving a baby from a burning building, you name it) I would be terminated.
Thirdly, I was still continually being snubbed by women or passed up for other guys who, in my opinion, were not better choices. My life was not going in the direction I had hoped. I considered suicide as a viable solution. In doing so, I threw caution to the wind.
I simply stopped going to work and school. For the first time in my life making these fatalistic decisions had no effect on me because I planned to commit suicide before any adverse repercussions could manifest themselves. Besides that, my car broke down and I was without reliable transportation for about a week anyway, which would have resulted in the same outcome with work and school, in that I would have been fired and I would have missed out on taking requisite tests in classes. Strangely, the depression I was suffering was not the stereotypical depression one sees dramatized on television or in the movies where you sleep a lot and have no energy. In fact, I behaved pretty normally. I was just waiting around to die.
Before I kicked off, however, I decided I would make one more go at happiness (i.e. easy money). I did some quick research and became a Webmaster for several self-created porn sites. I figured that since Internet porn businesses had suckered me out of some cash in the past, that my fortune was just a few million clicks away by other suckers worldwide. Unfortunately, teaching myself the intricacies of web authoring and then promoting my sites by myself was insurmountably harder than I thought it could be. Two months passed and only enough lonely souls visited jackability.com to cover my starting capital. I let the website die and was now prepared to follow it.
I turned to my journal. I was ready to end my life, but I had to reconcile my emotions with my Catholic upbringing. I didn’t fear God, per se. In fact, I didn’t necessarily believe in God anymore. I feared the possibility of God. To cover all my bases, I had to view my choices from the perspective that God exists. The initial conclusion I came to was that while suicide would send me to hell (i. e. willfully engaging in acts that ensured my death, like decapitation), risking my life would not send me to hell (i. e. engaging in acts that offered high potential for my death, like free mountain climbing, driving while heavily under the influence, etc.). I honestly thought I had found a religious loophole. But then the argument was clouded by the idea that God is omniscient and knows my thoughts and intents. And if my intent is to get killed, regardless of the action, God will consider it a sin great enough for hell. That idea gave way to a more dangerous thought: if the action is irrelevant and all that matters is the thought or intent then I’m screwed anyway, because I’ve had very sinful thoughts in my life that I never acted on. Confession wouldn’t save me, because God would know I was only confessing to get back into His good graces and not because I was actually sorry or felt I shouldn’t have thought those things. After all, if I didn’t think I should be thinking those thoughts, why did I think them in the first place?
At the end of a lengthy journal entry, I realized I could not circumvent the dilemma of God and, worse, I concluded that suicide or no suicide, I was going to hell. Since I imagined hell to be worse than (or at the very least, the same as) my life I decided I needed to take some life affirming actions to stave off that inevitable outcome. It’s amazing what a logical, introspective examination can do for you!
The turnaround time was instantaneous. I immediately looked into damage control with my college career. A buddy of mine, who had also been on the same road to dismissal, was able to make a complete recovery by checking out the personal counseling available for free on campus. I witnessed how well he was performing in school now and I considered taking the therapy. I analyzed the situation as logically as possible up until the moment I walked into the offices. I still couldn’t see how someone who didn’t know me or anything about me could “fix” me. In fact, I had this concern that I would be balled up into some category and then receive textbook advice. On the other hand, I had never had any real experience with therapy; I only had vague caricatures of therapy from the media. So I put my fears on the back burner and committed myself to the endeavor. Maybe they could give me an answer as to why I performed so poorly; why my mind wandered in class; why I was not inspired to learn any of the material. At the very least, they might recommend psychotropic drugs to improve my mood.
When you go in for counseling they make you fill out this survey about your mental disposition and you answer by filling a bubble signifying the degree to which you feel the statement applies to you. For example: “I feel people are always looking at me.” 1,2, or 3. “I have thoughts about killing myself.” 1,2, or 3. “I eat small woodland creatures.” 1, 2, or 3. This form is then given to an “intake person” who reviews it and then interviews you in order to refer you to an actual counselor. My intake person was this grotesquely obese woman. Her jowls jiggled when she spoke and her joints were engulfed by the surrounding cellulite. Her lower abdomen distended morbidly and her breathing was labored in the way that only fat people can be winded while sitting down. It was unsettling to look at her. This was not the comfort I had hoped to find in therapy.
So the intake began with some legal mumbo-jumbo about disclosure. If she felt there was a very realistic possibility that I would kill myself, then she would have to report that to people who could intervene, such as my family. To have my family know about this was out of the question, but I still wanted to see if therapy could offer me something, so I told her that my suicidal thoughts were more passive than anything else, which was true to a large extent, and this seemed to allay her concerns. We got to talking about my situation with school and how I was down and the whole shebang. This led into my past and family life and whatnot—the kind of thing you expect to find in therapy—along with this lady scribbling mysteriously on a notepad. From there, everything went down hill and I no longer felt like the unique snowflake that I was with unique problems. Instead I felt like a multiple-choice question on a test. There was one right answer and all she had to do was find it.
“René, did your father drink when you lived at home?”
“Sure. Pretty regularly, in fact.”
“Would you say he was an alcoholic?”
“Well, there was a time when I felt he drank excessively, but I wouldn’t call him an alcoholic. He drinks pretty rarely now.”
“Hm, you know a person can drink a couple of beers on the weekends and still be an alcoholic.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.”
“René, has there been any depression in other family members?”
“Well, there were nights when there were family arguments and my mother was pretty sad, but I wouldn’t call her depressed.”
“She was probably masking it.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.”
And that’s the kind of categorizing I didn’t want. My thoughts and observations didn’t matter. She had made up her mind. So after the intake, I was informed that all the real counselors had gone on vacation for the summer and that I would be speaking to an intern. Therapy just kept getting better and better.
My guy was a tall lanky fellow who would sit with his elbows propped on the arms of his chair and hide the lower half of his face with his hands as he stared intently at me through his glasses. Well, I can only assume he stared at me because the lamplight reflected in his lenses, causing a glare that prevented any kind of eye contact. It all felt very impersonal. Before the interview started, we had to get more legal, waiver signing, disclosure nonsense out of the way. Then, in an attempt to give him a better vantage point from which to assess my frame of mind, I gave the guy a copy of my journal on disc. I figured I’ve put some pretty personal and candid thoughts in it. What better way to get a lot of pertinent information about a patient in the shortest amount of time? I was trying to help him out. He simply tossed it on his desk, making no sign that he would read it, and stated something to the effect of that no matter how much information I gave him, he would never truly know me.
After that, I opened up with small talk. I asked him how he was doing. His response, in classic therapist fashion, was to immediately question why I was questioning him. Normally, I would have said that I was just making small talk, but I anticipated he would ask why I was making small talk, so I cut to the chase and said something that was analysis worthy. I told him I wanted to make sure he was comfortable before we started talking.
“Hm, interesting,” was his response.
I suppressed an urge to laugh out loud and then went on to explain why I sought therapy. I talked about all of the things that got me down. I talked about my worries. I talked about my lack of focus with school.
“Why can’t you seem to focus, René?”
“Well, I don’t really feel interested in a lot of the material that’s required and I day dream a lot.”
“What do you day dream about?”
“Oh man, a lot of things.”
“Uh, it really varies.”
“Give me an example.”
“Uh…well, like zombies for instance. I often think about how defendable my home is from an invasion of zombies.”
“Hm, interesting. What else?”
“Uh…I think about the past a lot.”
“What about the past?”
“Situations that I might have handled differently.”
“Hm…what I’m hearing is that you’re looking for control. When we started you admitted that you wanted to make sure I was comfortable. You wanted to control this situation just like you want to control past situations where you didn’t have control.”
“Yeah, I guess so. ” But he left out the zombies. What about the zombies?!
For the next couple of sessions it was pretty much the same thing. Once he had found what chapter of the therapist handbook I fell under, everything I said was about trying to get control, not having control, being controlled, etc. Afterwards, I confided in the friend who had sought therapy at the same place about the whole “control” bit. My friend looked at me wide eyed and explained that they had said the same thing to him. Apparently, his “issue” was all about control, too! I was left with the question, why is control a problem? Control is a good thing. Control is natural. Do we ever — should we ever — want things to be out of control?
A few sessions later, I told my counselor that I was unsure about my academic status with the university. This raised red flags. If I was no longer a student, I couldn’t receive any help from them. Never mind the fact that I had told them I was suicidal. My life was only worth saving so long as I paid tuition. “I think we should be clear about your status as a student before we meet again, René.”
That week I received the dismissal letter in the mail.
Therapy offers very little for people like me. I am too analytical and too self-aware to simply accept what a therapist says without reconciling it with my own diagnosis. Through self-examination I found that the answer was so simple and right in front of my face: Give up. My problem was not that I didn’t see the answer, but that I had misinterpreted it. I had chosen to give up living, which was incorrect. The answer was to give up fighting reality. Maybe this was the great revelation I would have come to if I hadn’t been dismissed and stuck with the therapy: Stop Controlling the Situation. It was right to lose that job. I hated it. Instead, I became a server at a restaurant. It has its downsides, but overall I enjoy it. Getting dismissed opened my eyes. The English major was not for me. I didn’t enjoy reading. I enjoyed writing. I discovered the Creative Writing program and worked my way back into good standing as a major. The girl situation still blows, but no amount of journal writing is going to fix that.
While I was able to resolve my issues myself, that’s not to say that therapy — in the conventional sense — is useless. People who are not fortunate enough to have emotional outlets like my journal can certainly benefit from therapy. A therapist is paid to listen. Therapy can help those too bashful to talk to friends or family about personal problems for fear of becoming a pariah within their own social circle. A therapist is paid to accept you. Therapy doesn’t help me because I’ve evolved beyond these constraints in my search for self-definition. The only person that needs to listen to me and accept me is myself.