Wednesday, 20 June 2012


In my experience, people in psychotherapy tell other people to go to psychotherapy. This is no doubt good news for those who make their living through psychotherapy, i.e. psychotherapists. When I was in psychotherapy I told whomever I was dating about how fabulous my psychotherapist was, and when they admitted to various long-standing hurts, suggested that they see her. Let's call her Lucy.

I was working in an office at the time, which is a good thing because, poppets, psychotherapy can cost a fair chunk of change. Lucy was a not just a psychotherapist, though, but a Catholic with a diploma in pastoral counselling, and she charged on a sliding scale. This was very handy for little me during a bout of unemployment.

Nothing in my background, incidentally, was pro-therapy. Psychotherapy was seen as something narcissist and foreign: the province of cranks and New Yorkers like Woody Allen, and Woody Allen was not exactly a role model. Mental illness itself was something alarming and almost unmentionable, despite or because one of my great-aunts was certified. When I am old, I shall wear purple and be terrifically eccentric and B.A. will apologize to the neighbours and mention this great-aunt.

Anyway, I rather took a shine to the idea of therapy as one of those 20th century things my neo-Edwardian parents didn't like, and after a series of really awful nightmares following my flight from my first marriage, I called up Lucy. Lucy advertised in the back of my church, which is why I called her up. I knew, from reading Freud and Freudians, that a lot of psychotherapists hate Catholicism and blame it for Catholics' problems. And thus a Catholic or Catholic-positive shrink was my first priority.

Yes, the money thing bothered the heck out of me. However, my first stop had been to group therapy at Catholic Family Services and, poppets, I got what I paid for. I had carefully examined their schedule, and thought I was going to a meeting on Verbal Abuse. However, when I showed up, I found a roomful of chipper elderly ladies, a tear-stained, shell-shocked woman about my own age (27) and two commanding, mannish women who proceeded to lecture us on Lesbians Who Batter.

Lesbians are under a lot of pressure because of the censure of society, which is why they batter, we were told, and all of us were cajoled into volunteering hateful epithets that Lesbians suffered. This was a bit of a poser for the elderly Catholic soi-disant survivors of domestic abuse around the table as they were nice Catholic ladies who didn't know any.

The meeting was simply ridiculous, almost a battle between the leaders who wanted to talk about the sufferings of Lesbians Who Batter and the elderly ladies who wanted to complain about their husbands past and present. The shell-shocked girl my age looked utterly stunned, and I felt utterly mad.

So that was my last group therapy session, and when my nightmares got too much for me, I called up Lucy. And so began almost five years of weekly visits to a battered sitting-room in an old house on a tree-lined street in the rundown city in which I lived.

Not to put a fine point on it, Lucy was a lefty, super-liberal Catholic, and although she kept that firmly in the background, it influenced the therapy all the same. However, going to Lucy was one of the wisest thing I did in that period, and one of the things I learned was that one of the kindest things you can do for yourself and your loved ones is to pay someone to listen to you gripe and cry instead of griping and crying at them. Or seething with homicidal rage.

Lucy said a lot of very helpful things that became a soundtrack in my brain, replacing the former, very unhelpful soundtrack in my brain. Out of her sitting-room, I could almost hear her speaking in my head and although this has faded over the years, I still write out the best, most helpful of her aphorisms, like "Feelings are not facts."

If you are as easily influenced as I am--yet another reason why I am grateful that B.A. is such a cheerful, laid-back man--you have to be very careful about your mentors. For that reason, I wish Lucy had been a better, more orthodox and orthoprax Catholic. However, I am very grateful for those four years of weeping, shouting, complaining and absorbing aphorisms because they purged the anger eating my soul. I had to give up boxing because anger, more than calories, which at the time I rather underconsumed, was what fed my love for boxing. (I suspect I quite literally could have killed somebody when first I went to see Lucy.)*

I mention all this stuff, so supremely about me, because of comments in the combox against therapy and how impractical it is to suggest single people go to therapy when it is so expensive. I think an American made that comment, which surprises me because there are few cultures like the American one so keen on pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps and shouting "Get a job."

I had a job and I made therapy an economic priory, just after rent and right before food. I thought it absolutely necessary to my mental health, and I think I was right. I don't remember those days as deprived although my job was certainly boring and, pension be damned, I felt sorry for those whose mortgages trapped them in it forever.

Yes, there were dribs and drabs of free therapy floating around--and every university has a counselling department--but in Ontario, I found, you got what you paid for. Free therapy meant not being able to choose your counsellor, and to me that is anaethema. To me the biggest bar to getting professional psychiatric help is not money but the attitude that it is shameful to get professional psychiatric help.

I do not think it is shameful to get professional psychiatric help. And I do not think it is shameful to take medication, if one's mental health has deteriorated to that degree. I do not think it is shameful to be mentally ill. I think it is shameful to tell people that it is.

To me it makes as much sense to go to a psychotherapist after a rocky marriage as it does to go to a physical therapist after a painful car accident. And swallowing a mood stabilizer is just as moral, and sometimes as necessary, as a shot of insulin. A depressive has to be just as responsible for her mental health as a diabetic has to be for her physical health, and the two are linked, really. We are ensouled bodies, after all, and the marriage between flesh and spirit is nowhere more obvious than in the human mind.

*I should mention, too, a very good priest, also a lefty, super-liberal, to whom I marched on the one occasion I left the house to beat someone up. I walked half a block one way and then St. Michael or some other angel stood invisibly in my path, turned me around, and marched me in the opposite direction to the rectory.

"I'll bake you a cake with a file in it," shouted the priest when I told him this story. And given how madly traditional I am, lace mantilla on head, missal in hand, it is hilarious to think how much I owe to certain concrete lefty super-liberal Canadian Catholics.


Domestic Diva said...

Amen, Seraphic! Thanks so much for writing this post in defense of good psychotherapy. I owe much to the orthodox Catholic therapist I found, including my own mental and emotional health. I'm now able to use the principles I learned in therapy to cope with life's curve balls. My family & friends are most grateful that I consult them for insight instead of dump on them in a needy way. At the time it felt like I was spending a lot of money, but I certainly would have spent all that and more if I'd had cancer, and I definitely felt like I had a cancer of the mind/heart. Now I consider it the best money I ever spent.

sciencegirl said...

I was also raised anti-therapy; it was discussed as a great way to deal with true trauma and a self-indulgent way to deal with ordinary life.

I only went to therapy 4 times, but it was very good for me, and that's all I needed. It was free because it was from the university, but had I paid for it, I would have felt satisfied. I just wanted someone to talk to about a serious interpersonal problem I was facing at work, without the risk of ruffling the feathers of my coworkers by discussing it with them, and without boring my family. My therapist helped me see things from a better perspective, and I knew what I told him wouldn't get back to anyone. That is so valuable to me!

I find that therapy was a good way to avoid gossiping. I have observed NCG's, post breakup or during a weakening relationship, confide in every other Catholic girl around asking for advice. Had these women gone to therapy, perhaps they would have been more discreet and only needed to talk with their mothers or a very close friend. I have also seen otherwise-wonderful NCBs literally lie on my couch complaining about girls in their past the week prior to trying to ask me out. The second they treated me like a therapist, I lost interest in them romantically. Therapy may be expensive, but running your mouth off to everyone under the sun has high social costs, for you and many other people.

amy said...

Thank you for mentioning the priest, Seraphic! Priestly counseling and confession may be a good and necessary first step for someone seeking help. Many priests are highly trained in pastoral matters and most are happy to listen or to refer the individual to someone who is able to help. And it's free!

"A depressive has to be just as responsible for her mental health as a diabetic has to be for her physical health, and the two are linked, really. We are ensouled bodies, after all, and the marriage between flesh and spirit is nowhere more obvious than in the human mind."
This line is golden. Thank you for defending mental health.

Charming Disarray said...

My point was not to object to therapy, just that there are plenty of people who could probably use it or may like to talk to a therapist but who quite simply can't. Many young people have student loans, rent, food, and possibly out-of-pocket healthcare, and are working low-paying jobs. This isn't a question of prioritizing. It's a question of there simply not being enough money. My only point was to be careful; don't suggest therapy to someone unless you know them well enough to be fairly certain they would be able to pay for it, because if they can't, they're just going to feel even worse. Making a depressed feel even worse is presumably not the goal here.

As for Americans and boot straps, we are in a recession. Something like 50% of college graduates are unemployed. The ones who are employed are not making enormous amounts of money. (With some exceptions, obviously.) So suggesting that a person simply hasn't tried hard enough to be able to afford therapy is another thing that will make them feel even worse if they're depressed.

If somebody can afford it, then they should go right ahead. I completely agree taking care of mental health should not be taboo. It's not for everyone, though. I actually went to a therapist for a couple months when I was going through a really bad spell in college, but my biggest problem at the time was too many people in my life telling me how I should think and feel, so it didn't help me and I quit going because it only added stress to my life. But certainly people shouldn't be ashamed to seek that kind of help, and there is something of a stigma attached to it in Catholic circles, it seems.

leonine said...

Seraphic said it, and I'll say it again: sliding scale.

Not all places have it, but many, many do. So you pay what you can afford.

The therapists role, like the teacher's role, is to help you get to a place where you eventually render them obsolete. Any therapist who keeps having you do the same thing when you're clearly not making progress is not doing his or her job. Find another one.

And it is really important to be able to say, "you know, this isn't working for me," and find someone else. Because one therapist doesn't work for you doesn't mean therapy itself is unhelpful. (I hear this complaint a LOT. I have friends who have one "meh" experience and refuse to entertain the possibility that it could ever be valuable.) I had to really look for a therapist at my university's counseling center: I had to try FOUR therapists and be very, very firm about what I needed before I found one who works for me, and she is fabulous. And I've found that, after spending 7 sessions with her two or three years ago, I now go maybe twice a year, and that gets me back on track.

I've never really understood the anti-therapist bias, but I say this as someone who cheerfully plunks down my hard-earned cash for a doctor's visit when I've got bronchitis and need antibiotics, and who happily pays a trustworthy mechanic so I don't have to change the oil on my clunker cars all by myself. I consider therapy in much the same way. It's a better use of my time, energy, and money than spinning my wheels on my own, and I figure that a little preventative maintenance every once in a while is better than cleaning up a crisis later on.

sciencegirl said...

My completely broke friend -- unemployed and living with her sister -- went to a therapist at Catholic Charities and had a much better experience than Seraphic had. Therapy is not only for the rich, or even the employed.

n.panchancha said...

Yes! Thanks for this. There are so many options for counselling, and you have to be careful (with the issue of training qualification as much as with the issue of clashing value systems), but I think that in North America, anyway, SOME form of counselling is almost always accessible. You just need to able to get out of it, if it's a bad match, and unfortunately that's sometimes a tough point for someone who's feeling particularly low or vulnerable. It is so, so okay to leave! And making contacts through churches is a great option in terms of price as well as orthodoxy.

I have to admit I had a bad-ish experience with counselling, but I have so many friends and family members who have truly benefited from it. As Seraphic says, you save relationships, and do good to your own heart, but saving the tears and rage and angst for someone who's paid to listen (or has at least scheduled time for your issues, specifically) rather than dumping it all on your loved ones.

n.panchancha said...

[PS: Oh, if one of my real-life friends reads the above... I think I'm referring specifically to chronic/longer-term situations! Never feel like you can't come to me/your good friend when things get tough. <3]

Jackie said...

Hi Aunt Seraphic!

I just found your blog a month ago-- love it! (And I will be buying your book, via Amazon :-) ) Thank you for inspiring me to go to daily Mass and continue to pray the Rosary!

Just one more vote here for Catholic Charities counselling services, which has a sliding scale. I am prompted to write because I am currently working through past issues with my therapist, a CC counselor.

My mentor, a Benedictine nun, is the one who encouraged me to go. She said it's about learning how to help yourself, and that's it's *real work.* Mental health, as you said, is just as important as physical health.

Thanks, Auntie S! :-)

WorkedForMe said...

Adding an Amen! I was raised with the good-for-trauma, silly-for-normal-life attitude about therapy. Then I had rather dreadful anxiety all through college, but I was sufficiently mired in the anxiety to tell myself I was just a big selfish crybaby and should learn to cope. I tried some Catholic Charities counseling when it got to be too much, but like you, Seraphic, I got what I paid for. It seemed like decent advice but had little to no effect.

When the problems didn't let up after college, I finally went to a priest, who, upon hearing me describe what was going on, immediately referred me to a good, christian, Catholic-positive psychotherapist (who also had a sort of discount need-based program, which I needed at first). My life has completely changed; the anxiety is gone, my attitude about myself and life and my understanding of myself have all vastly improved.

Even at the discounted rate I was getting, I balked at the money, but for me it simply reached a point where I was so miserable, I knew my behavior was frequently strange and I feared for all of my relationships (friends, family, work...) When a situation is that intolerable, you're willing to make that kind of investment to turn your life around.