We seldom hear it and hardly know it was there at all until it stops. But sometimes we need help to flip the switch.
This time twelve months ago, I decided I’d seek out a therapist. Not because I felt I was in turmoil, that I was anxious or depressed or otherwise at odds with myself, but rather because I was curious.
That was the story I told myself anyway.
I wanted to know what went on in the therapy room and the nature of the relationship between therapist and patient. I didn’t consider myself a patient.
I had a question or a series of questions about myself, and it was almost like they brought me there rather than me consciously deciding to go. It just unfolded. It turns out it was valuable to me in so many ways I could not have known in advance.
The week after booking my first appointment, my mother was diagnosed with aggressive throat cancer, and the prognosis was bad. I had known for a while that all was not well for her even though, on the surface, she put on a brave face. At the beginning of the first lockdown and before her illness was found, we had a chance to talk privately. She was deeply troubled. I thought it was lockdown fever, but now I understand that she knew what was coming. Hindsight provides 20-20 vision, and now as I reflect on that period, everything fits.
The Challenge of Personal Identity
The personal challenge I was fighting wasn’t necessarily that my mother was dying—that was difficult in itself—but rather one of personal identity. What was my place in the family now that the matriarch was leaving? Who are these other people to me now; my father and my sisters?
It was a question of the nature of my own existence.
I thought deeply about my own mortality and my relationships with my children. Have I been a good father? Have I shown my sons and daughter enough love? How will they feel about me when it’s my turn to leave?
It was a time of significant change for me, my dad and my sisters, and we were trying to cope with that. We were trying to figure ourselves out and manage the separation, trying to understand the bizarreness of it all.
These questions and more consumed my thought for months, and therapy gave me a place to voice them, to figure myself out concerning all that was occurring.
What Is Therapy
I call it therapy, and maybe that's what it was, but it feels like something else to me. It wasn’t therapy in the sense that perhaps we commonly understand it — a place we go to get fixed. It was instead a place to talk with someone with whom I could connect on a different level. I could be myself and voice all the questions and thoughts that haven’t had that space before. That’s what psychotherapy is—talk therapy.
I asked my therapist, an older man in his late 60s, as we wound up the final session, why do people come here? He said they come to him for various reasons, but mostly because they feel incredible discomfort, a psychological ailment with which they can no longer cope (if indeed they ever could), and they hope to find a resolution. The therapist’s function is to help them see what they have not thus far seen. It is to help them uncover that something that they have kept from themselves perhaps their entire lives.
Some take many years to iron out their challenges, and although there may be further trauma to come in the process, the understanding of oneself is at the core of psychological healing.
Solutions Make Themselves Known
As I mentioned recently in an issue of Sunday Letters, the final few days of my mother’s life answered several questions and resolved personal unease that sat with me for a very long time. In many ways, I didn’t even know that the problem existed. Like the humming of a fridge in the background, I didn’t know it was there until someone had switched it off.
Something took me to those therapy sessions—a feeling. It drew me to that particular therapist, whom I had come to know through other circles, and it helped me resolve a personal conflict. It was necessary, and it seems I had no choice.
As a younger man, I may have been afraid to broach the subject, to admit to myself that a problem existed. It seemed more appropriate to fight it, to put the blinkers on and the head down. In the last few years, however, I have become less afraid and more curious. I think that’s an important reversal that we must all realise if we are to resolve the conflict.
Because, although it may seem otherwise, the conflict we each feel is with ourselves, not with anyone else. We’ve got to figure that out somehow. And as I come to the end of this six-year period of study and research in psychology, I realise that this is my vocational direction. Working for dollars, to get ahead, to succeed and so on, is a nonsense reason for living. It’s a perpetual cycle of anticipation, material gratification, and disappointment. It solves none of our personal or societal problems, and in fact, arguably makes our problems worse. We do it because we’re trying to soothe ourselves, to fill a vacancy or to ignore a truth.
I have learned that much.
Life is a mysterious thing. So too is death. And I think in this strange life-long experience our questions are always answered if we can be open enough to see them when they come. That three months of therapy helped me through a significant challenge even though I didn’t know at the time why I needed it.
We don’t have to be suicidal to warrant professional help, and in many ways, situations such as that come about because we didn’t seek help early enough. So don’t wait. When the nudge comes, listen to it.