To counsel or NOT to counsel, Psychotherapy or No Psychotherapy: That is the question!

I’ve mentioned in a couple of posts that I am a marriage & family therapist. The following letter is from an e-mail I received yesterday from a former client. The twenty-something young man wanted to thank me by sharing with me a letter he sent to a co-worker who he was concerned about and shared how his view of counseling changed from our time together. This continues to be a major issue for many people and I asked him if I could share his letter if I changed all the identifying information. He saw the credibility in my request and replied affirmatively to the request. Please note that there are many, many wonderfully qualified and talented licensed therapists. I do believe I provide a good service and his kind words are welcome feedback, but the larger issue is his change in perspective to the value of counseling or psychotherapy. To provide further context, he “no showed” for a final appointment and I did not hear from him in quite some time.

Dr. Matta,I know that I disappeared off the face of Western Pennsylvania.  I’d say the Earth, but that’s not entirely accurate.  I moved to Austin, TX.  I did it.  And so far…it’s not too bad.

I’m emailing you from my job working with IBM in tech support.  It is by no means a dream job (or one I have any intention of keeping for the long run), but it pays decently and I get to help people out which is always at least semi-rewarding.  My very loose plan was to “get a job” and then hold that position until 6 months later and/or 5k invested (what a time to invest short change, right?) as it would mean I’m established and was willing to make the effort.

I’ve almost hit both marks.  Things with Lucie are still great and I get to see her a few weekends each month now.  My brother flew out here when he graduated and we spent some time catching up and mulling over random things.  He gave me a book to read in hopes I would start reading Christian literature again.  I still have it.  It catches my attention more each day.  I know life is short…but in regards to all things dealing in this area my life feels like a really, really long journey.  Not sure how else to elaborate on that at this point.  I feel like I owe you so much more on my life, but please know this:  things are good and I still have as many questions as ever.  So the two (life rockin’ out and questions/musings driving me crazy) seem to be co-existing nicely.

Anyway, there’s one guy at work who I think is a pretty cool guy.  He’s one of the few people I really go out of my way to interact with and generally enjoy his company.  Recently, he was talking in passing about his life outside of work and made the remark “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t been married so young” (I’m pretty sure he’s just a few years older than me).  At first it was more in jest, but later in the day the same topic came up with someone walking by our desks and a bit more honest venting came to the surface.  And it didn’t sound like anything terrible…but venting is venting.  Anyway, the telling part in the story is that he was asked very light-heartedly “Dude, do you tell your wife how you feel about this?  Ever think of marriage counseling?”  And he said “No way on the couple counseling…this either works or it doesn’t.”

For some reason that struck really close to home.  I felt obligated to share a bit with him.  Afterwards, I realized it might be a good way to give you the thanks I never did, but you deserve so much.  The following is the unedited email I sent yesterday (typos, spellos, and stupidos included).

From Austin, TX,
Thank you,
Ben

I’d queue this except it will probably turn out to be really long (I’m long winded to a fault), but so be it.  And take this with as much salt as necessary…for I can in no way make claims to understand you, any situation you’re in, or really any situation I’m in…but I sure do like to pretend about that last one a lot.  And most importantly, this has nothing to do with me thinking I have any right to be in your business; this is simply my business and the simple thought that it may relate to you.

“I’m not doing [counseling].  This either works or it doesn’t.”

Perhaps you have reasons to believe the way you do.  And I’m not saying you’re wrong.  Who am I to say you’re wrong?  But if you’re willing to at least entertain another school of thought, I’ll do my best to provide the case supporting them.  Why would I do it?  Well, that kind of explains itself, I think; but if I had an opening statement to choose from, I guess it be that I’ve changed my mind about a lot the past few years, and how I feel about counseling is one of them.  In no way do I think it’s some sort of manna sent from the heavens, but I definitely think it has the potential for good in a way I never would have given it credit for previously.

So sit with me for a few dull paragraphs that hopefully elaborate on why I feel this way… (well, you don’t have to, but I definitely have the time to kill this afternoon)

Coming from the middle of nowhere western Pennsylvania, I’d have to say I lived a pretty choice childhood.  My parents work fairly modest middle-class jobs, but they do absolutely everything for their two sons.  Emotionally, socially, monetarily, and in any other type of way that important for young development I was never really in need.  In addition to that, I was born with more than my fair share of gifts (for lack of a better word).  I can only let my personality and actions speak for who I am as a person now; but growing up I was what many saw as the golden child.

I attended a Private University on a rather large academic scholarship.  For the first twenty years of my life, I was destined to be “one of those nice young men who’s done really well for himself.”  I was a computer engineer who could do calculus in his head.  I was an active participant in groups who had fun, and for the most part, good morals.  I could throw one hell of a frisbee.  Perhaps this all seems really off-topic, but let me explain just a bit more…

About half-way through my junior year, as a Dean’s List student at one of the top engineering schools in the country, I realized something very important:  I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  But I realized it in a very pessimistic way.  Introspection revealed that I had no idea or sense of what I felt about myself or my beliefs aside from that which was comfortable and/or popular with those I respected.  I had the sensation that I was in school because “that’s what smart kids do.”  I called my parents the week of my birthday, and instead of greeting them as the glowing child I had always been, completely broke down.  It seemed that in a matter of weeks my life had completely lost any meaning, and it was due to the fact that I was finally trying to establish some, and didn’t know where to start.  I wanted to drop out; I told them as much.  In the end, they convinced me to stay, try and finish my degree “because it’s important” and then figure out the questions that were dominating me.

I tried to do it their way and my life, for the next few years, went extremely poorly.  I do not blame my parents for this in the slightest.  They were doing what they thought was best for me, and working with the only experience parents have with an eldest child: their own.  But I fell apart.  I did not graduate.  What should have been my last semester, I fell away from many of the greatest friends I had, continued to drop out of classes, and ended up 9 credits short.  I tried for a short time to live making money as a card player relying on superior math skills to anyone I was playing against.  And I made enough money to at least support myself, but common sense said it wasn’t for me, and real life said I wasn’t in a state of mind to support the constant ups and downs of such a life style.

At a time where many of my “contemporaries” were moving on to med school, law school, graduate work, and Google, I was moving back with my parents.  My mom, bless her, tried her damnedest to get me to try counseling.  And I tried the best I could to deter any chance of it.  On a prop agreement with them, I went to see someone…and it went so poorly that I got into a fight with them at dinner on the way home and walked out…20 miles from our house.  I felt I had the power to do things myself, and with good reason, for I had always done things myself and had little to complain about.  I felt no different about a problem in my own life than I did about a problem on a test: it was something that could be solved with logic, reason, and application.  On top of that, counseling (psychiatry, psychology, counselors, whatever) of all types is just so easy to stereotype.  All of those stigmas?  They have to be there for a reason.  (And I still believe that.)

Counseling, even if it works…seriously?  I don’t know what you think of it, but I know what I think about it.  And my life should be my life to live.  I don’t need advice, I certainly don’t need “help” or analysis.  Who knows me better than me?  For the most part, all that stuff is for people who are too lazy or stupid or scared to find out the answers themselves.  And the answers given are a crock.  It’s vague so it can be interpreted to be correct without needing to be relational, or pseudo-inspirational to hide the fact that it’s ignorant of meaningful advice since emotion often rules over logic.  (And I still believe these things for the most part as well.)

Perhaps it was a last ditch effort.  Perhaps it was boredom.  Perhaps it was the fact that my mom was willing to lose so much sleep that I felt obligated to try again.  But near the end of ’06 I agreed to try and talk to someone else.  He was a professor at a small college in Erie and did counseling (many marriage counseling) as part of his free time.  My parents told me that should I choose to go, they would stay completely out of it.  And if it helped great, and if it didn’t, at least they could say it was tried.  And so I drove up that winter to meet with he who I would dub as “Dude.”

Dude and I (ok, his real name was Dr. Matta, but as a joke relating to societies need for hierarchies, I referred to him as Dude and he thought it was amusing) got to know each other innocently enough.  He asked why I was there, and I said I wasn’t really sure.  Everyone else seemed to think my life was problems, and I didn’t think it was as much a problem as much as it was a question mark.  I didn’t know what to do, or why I wanted to do it, and the more I sought those answers the more they eluded me.  Dude listened and then offered the chance to listen again.  In fact, I recall very, very little of anything resembling advice or suggestion or pushing me in a different direction.  He simply wanted to hear me out…possibly because he was being paid to do so, possibly because he actually cared, and possibly because he thought no one else was willing to do so.  In hindsight I can honestly say I felt it was much more of the latter two.

It’s important to note that Dude did not fix me.  But it was never his intention to.  Humans are not creatures that are broken or fixed.  We are complicated and dynamic.  Trying to boil things down to boolean values completely negates the truth of how complicated any single human situation and/or emotion is.  To be honest, and it came as a great surprise to me, over the two-thirds of a year that we talked (and it was nearly every week), we rarely ever talked over problems and solutions.  We often talked about how we felt about things.  We waxed poetic on the ironic things in life.  We shared witty or touching stories.  We talked…we just talked. And somehow that always led where it needed to.  Life is magically intertwined like that:  nothing, be it a problem, solution, emotion, or thought, is in a compartment by itself to be inspected in isolation.  Dude, was as deliberate as he needed to be; he said as much.  But, more often than not, the insight and thoughts I was left with was gained through a round-about approach from whatever came up and his willingness to apply it as need be (or more commonly as it simply lent itself to).

Yes, it was Dude’s job.  But it was a job Dude loved.  He did it because he wanted to.  Not because the university wasn’t paying him enough.  Turning my thoughts into words was an invaluable experience.  That following summer, I went to a local state university near my home and finished out those 9 credits so that I could apply for my degree.  And that following fall, I completed a decision that I was going to try and do something with my life even if I did not know what that something is.  In October, I packed my car with my possessions and the small amount of money I had made working at a gas station (and yes, my friends found that situation as ironic as possible), and together with a friend I knew from high school, recently returned from the Marines, who lives life as sporadically as one can, we drove our cars to Texas.  We knew one person and nothing else.

That’s how I landed here.  Not because I want to be here or because I plan on staying here, but because it was the first job I found the first week I was here and I needed to take the bait so I could get my feet on the ground.  It’s actually done it’s job well.  I’m glad I’ve met some of the people I have.  I still have no idea where I’m going…but I’m here, I’m going somewhere, and I don’t plan on stopping until I’ve discovered a bit of this elusive idea of happiness.  I’m convinced, and have been for most of my life, that it truly does exist.  I just want my piece of the pie.

I don’t know you.  Don’t pretend to.  I’m sure that my story has little to know bearing on yours.  But please know this:  in my opinion you’re one of the coolest dudes here.  Your work ethic and your attitude continually impress me.  When I told you to “stick with it” the other day I apologize it was so cliché in words.  I meant it; because if I wanted to hire a tech support person, you’re the prototype.  You’re better than this place.  …but I’m getting off topic.

What I was saying is that I don’t know you, and I don’t know your goods or your bads, or your successes or your problems.  But I do know that I wish you well.  Both as a random human being, and more importantly as someone I’ve come to respect as much as possible given the little bit of interaction we have that would lend itself towards making any change in that area.  And I believe that marriage is as sacred a thing as we have in these lives we live.  If there’s one thing that I think is important, it’s that.

One thing that Dude said that I always walked away with “You know, I’ve always found it funny how people will refuse to admit help of any sort when their problems are personal.  A person with a broken leg would consider it common sense to have it re-set by a doctor.  Those in financial trouble see no problem getting advice from an accountant or planner.  Trouble at work or school is always welcomed, pride aside, with tutoring.  Yet, a person has trouble with their life and, by default, they assume that it is their burden to carry alone.  If you ask these same people what they think about wisdom, they would readily admit that it exists in this world.  But somehow, when a problem arises that may need that very thing, they seem to shy away towards their inner island, refusing to even try such a thing.  That seems reasonable doesn’t it?”

The question struck me dumbfounded the day he asked it.  I wanted to refute it word by word, but logically, and more importantly, due to the level of trust I had placed in him, I couldn’t.

I wish you all the best.  And so, for better or for worse, felt compelled to type that incredibly long wall of words.  I’m not saying I’m right, or that you even need any help.  But if I’m even in a place where my advice would be taken, know that I would try to encourage an open mind.  Dr. Matta was one of a kind.  And we all know how hard those are to find.  But I was lucky enough to find him (or rather, have him found for me by my loving parents), and I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it made a positive impact on my life.  Dude gave me very few fish.  But I could never thank him enough for his willingness to talk about how absurd it is to try and use a fishing pole.  Sometimes that’s all people need and they don’t even know it.

If this was all completely irrelevant and you read it all, I hope you were at least in idle-27.  Seriously.  But on serious note, where I actually mean I’m serious, I wish you the best.  Much more so outside this building than in it.

Regards,
Ben

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1 Comment

Filed under Marriage & Family, My Specialties, Parenting & Kids, Philosophy & Religion

One response to “To counsel or NOT to counsel, Psychotherapy or No Psychotherapy: That is the question!

  1. What Ben (newly) of Austin remarks about self-doubt and existential issues resonates. I know what it feels like to recognize a future of potential blankness and the anxiety and frustration that accompanies questioning one’s self-identity and belief system. Except, my psyche wasn’t shattered b/c it dawned on me after graduating college that I didn’t know what I wanted to do (specifically anymore). I only knew what I didn’t want to do…or what I fundamentally wanted to do but divine intervention was necessary for such things to happen.*

    I thought it was normal to have little to no ambition..perhaps because i was born in the beginning of Reagan’s administration so that by the time I graduated from high school and went to college, Generation X had proved lack of direction as (pop)culturally tolerable if not downright cool?

    I’m glad things turned out for the better for Ben. His inclusion of what you had said to him about addressing physical (tangible) pain vs. emotional (abstract) discomfort..and how people will get stitches or a cast in a heartbeat but not no so much with inner turmoil…. aside from the bad rap that mental health still gets in society (as if it’s not as important as physical health) and aside from the fear or shame some people might feel about seeking this kind of help, maybe there’s a strongly perceived sense of futility. “nobody can help me.” “no human being can help me.” “no mere mortal can make me feel better.”

    *One of my professors suggested, “if you can’t be fair, be arbitrary.” Translation: if you don’t know what you want to do, just pick something.

    Probably works for some folks, but it wouldn’t have for me.

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