I was doing a reading and book club at a library when someone asked, “have you had a lot of therapy, because you seem really normal?”
It’s a loaded question and I hesitated to answer. For many, therapy is life and soul saving. For most of my life, therapy was not an option, a combination of my father’s view that it’s for crazy and weak people and that the cost is prohibitive. For me, therapy was synonymous with shame.
There was a time in high school when my brother got in trouble with the police for breaking into a police compound to steal car radios. The police said he was the look out, but knowing my brother, I think he just happened to be hanging out with his idiot friends who were the master minds of the attempted stealing. I don’t know for sure. The details were never openly discussed the night he came home from jail or in the weeks that followed. My father said my brother could leave home and change his name or stay, but home would be like prison. I suggested to my father that we should go to a family counselor. I mean, wasn’t this clearly one more of my brother’s cries for help? My father grimaced in disgust at my suggestion. I was disappointed, for my brother’s sake, but also for mine as by that point our family dynamics were killing me too. I just coped in different ways from my brother.
As counseling wasn’t an option, I turned to books for my answers. I still maintain that reading is one of the best ways of understanding and healing from childhood trauma. I journaled a lot, until my step mother started reading my private thoughts, no matter where I hid my diary. In college, when my father first told me not to come home again, I turned to a priest. He certainly helped me be strong and to choose love over hate, but he didn’t have the expertise in diagnosing our family dysfunction. I resumed writing in my journal, to unleash my anger, my pain, and to understand. When I look back on decades of journals, I see where I have progressed and where I have not.
Becoming a mother resurfaced a number of my own childhood traumas and fears that I would repeat my father’s failures with my own children. I sensed I needed help. The final straw was the prospect of our moving back to DC, my father’s town. I was working on my MBA at the time so I went to the student health center. Free therapy! But you get what you pay for. This therapist, who was probably a student himself, thought my coping techniques must be fine. I was an A student, a reliable mother, so I must be doing okay, right? No matter that I was dying inside. No matter that as my logic went, if my father and sister were happier without me, maybe my children and husband would be better off without me too. We had a few sessions, then I gave up. I tried a therapist who was covered by my husband’s insurance plan, all the time fearing the repercussions of this; a friend told me never to use insurance lest a future employer use it against me. (Is this a valid fear? I’d really like to know.) She was slightly better than the campus therapist, but it irked me that she ate lunch while I talked. With a baby, a toddler, and school schedule, the time invested with this therapist didn’t seem worth the scheduling effort. As life would have it, we didn’t move to DC and moved to Michigan instead, my immediate crisis averted.
So it was only when my father died on Christmas Eve, suddenly and unexpectedly, that I knew books alone could not save me from that degree of trauma. I asked friends – discreetly – for recommendations. The most recommended therapist did not take insurance. So this is the other issue with therapy: who can afford it? I gave her a budget of six sessions. She was awesome. She helped me heal, changed my thinking, and diagnosed my father as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I have since devoured four books on the topic. It’s not that my work was done in six sessions (that I did up to eight); it’s that she pointed me in the right direction.
I do think therapy can be wonderful with a good therapist and with hard work. But how does one know who are the good therapists? It can be dangerous to pick at wounds without a clear way to close them back up again. I have had some therapist friends of mine comment on patients who don’t want to do the hard work. Should someone really be in therapy for years? Maybe. Extreme mental illness, of course. But when therapy is a superficial crutch, I liken it to going to the doctor for a heart issue; he or she tells you to cut back on butter and to exercise more. You don’t. But you keep going back to hear the same advice, over and over again.
So I wish people used more than just therapy in their journeys to understand and heal. Reading and writing are gifts we all have. They’re affordable, too. I didn’t have the idyllic childhood that makes me “normal.” Instead, I’ve been blessed to have others in my life that have shown me what normal is. Ironically, it’s my father that gave me an unrelenting determination, the difference in that I’ve directed on continuing to heal.
The beach always soothes my soul. This one in Barbados.