One of my college professors once told me that he didn’t believe in psychotherapy – that all we needed was a few really good friends with whom to discuss our problems. Well, I have some wonderful friends (including him!), but I’ve found great benefit from consulting with various professional practitioners over the years.
Marvin Beck was my friend Elise’s husband and only charged $25, so I went to see him several times in the mid-70s. I was struggling with being overweight; trying without success to motivate myself to exercise and diet “one last time.” After all, hadn’t I dropped 25 pounds in 1973 by fasting for 2 weeks? Hadn’t I gotten rid of 30 pounds on Weight Watchers over 4 months? Why couldn’t I just get myself back on track? WHAT WAS WRONG WITH ME?
I told him about a denim jumpsuit I wanted, but I wore size 18 and this outfit only went up to size 13. Every day I’d gaze longingly thru the store window, practically salivating for it, and then chastise myself horribly for being too fat and not having the pluck to whip myself into shape so that I could buy and wear it. Then I’d devour a couple packages of snack cakes from the bodega. Marvin pulled a Dr. Phil on me, asking “so how’s that working for you?” It didn’t solve my weight problem but it DID make me stop and think about it a little differently – how beating myself up wasn’t the best motivation for change. We never got around to talking about my parents, my love life, or other big issues – but I still feel I got my money’s worth and more from talking with Marvin.
A few years later I began seeing a Christian Science practitioner; Mrs. Alton, a very sweet woman who gently encouraged me to be kinder to myself. I frequently suffered from horrible, debilitating headaches and in addition to her prayerful support, she advised me to soak in a warm tub and have a slice of toast. In other words, “be NICE to yourself! Treat yourself with kindness!” Being reminded that you’re a spiritual being is ALWAYS good medicine.
After a few cross-country moves (known in 12-step circles as “the geographical cure”), I found myself grappling with career and financial challenges and looked into more traditional help. I consulted with the pastor at the church we were attending, but he seemed more concerned about our diminished contribution to the collection plate than addressing my depression. The first place I went for actual therapy was more of a crisis management program and over before it began, so in conjunction with attending OA meetings, I began a longterm relationship with Charlene, an overeating specialist at Lutheran Social Services. I remember waiting downstairs in the reception area before meeting her the first time and starting to cry, thinking, “well, you’ve done it THIS time, kiddo! This is an actual CLINIC where they do actual THERAPY so there really has to be something WRONG with you to wind up HERE!”
Sessions began well and I felt I was making some progress with my emotions, if not exactly getting a handle on my overeating. I attended at least 2 OA meetings/week, checked in with my sponsor daily, and began sifting through and processing family issues, both my own and some troublesome feelings I had about my in-laws. It was rough sledding at certain points because my father-in-law had died suddenly and sometimes it felt like all hell was breaking loose in the family. I told Charlene about an instance a few years previous where I’d been given a baby nephew to hold while the in-laws were admiring the view from the 22nd floor roof of our then-apartment house and how I’d stood frozen, as close to the middle of the roof as possible, as I’d had the terrifying thought, “what would happen if I threw the baby over the edge and he went SPLAT?” I trusted Charlene with this, and other shameful secrets every week I went to see her.
After 6 months, I was encouraged to add weekly group therapy, led by Charlene and one of her colleagues – and my faith in her began to unravel. The two therapists started to conspire to “stir things up”, pitting group members against one another, seemingly only for the therapists’ own amusement. When I questioned this privately to Charlene, I was subsequently shut down and shamed in front of the entire group. At our next private session, Charlene told me about a dream she had had about me, where I was a hermaphrodite (!?) – and then confessed that she was waiting to see ME go SPLAT! – and all my buzzers and bells went off. I called a therapist friend and asked, “is this Kosher?” – to which he replied, “no, that’s a pretty unorthodox treatment model – she should be talking about her dreams with her own therapist, not with you!” He never said, “get the hell outta there!” but I began to think that maybe it was time to leave therapy with Charlene.
The next week on my way to our session, I twisted my ankle, falling painfully to the street, unable to walk, and I immediately called her to cancel the appointment, (for which I would still be billed, of course.) The week after THAT, Charlene stood me up for our session, leaving me waiting in the reception area with no apology. I could clearly see how I was being abused and terminated treatment at our next (and final!) session.
Several years later when my father was dying of cancer, I again sought professional help and found it working with 2 different therapists who weren’t toxic, like Charlene had eventually become for me. One of them encouraged me to take self-defense classes to build up emotional strength and stamina while dealing with the emotional overwhelm, and when the first thing I tried (an 8-week women’s self-defense class at the Learning Annex) wasn’t delivering what I needed, I signed up for Model Mugging http://modelmugging.org/self-defense-articles/confluence/ – which in one intense weekend gave me exactly what I needed. At the final Learning Annex class, I was the only student who was able to defend myself from the instructor successfully!
I’ve tried various religions, spiritual practices, OA, AlAnon and other 12-step groups, in addition to NLP and other therapeutic modalities over the years and found something of value in each of them. Therapy might not be for everyone – (although doesn’t Woody Allen credit his long and productive career to decades of analysis?) The best take-away for me has been the advice recommended by Marvin and Mrs. Alton: be kind to yourself and treat yourself like someone you actually LIKE!