Today I wrote a Quora answer about an encounter I had two years ago with a crazed Trump supporter that happens to be a Ph.D psychologist. He’d posted a video on my Facebook wall in advance of the 2016 Presidential election that depicted President Obama as a ‘narcissist’ because he repeated his name a number of times during a campaign speech on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
You’ll have to read the Quora answer (link above) to see how disturbing that exchange actually became. It is pretty strange to be stalked and verbally assaulted through Messenger by a professional psychologist. But then again, perhaps he’s not so professional as he likes to claim.
But here’s the sobering fact: that level of derangement isn’t that uncommon among psychologists, it turns out. As this article in Psychology Today points out, there are a fair number of warped people who go into psychology as a means to figure out their own shit.
I’ve visited therapists on a number of occasions beginning in my early 30s. I’d just come off my own journey of personal therapy in which the primary treatment was massive amounts of running. My therapy sessions consisted of running 10-20 miles at a time at six or seven-minute-mile pace. Typically I’d go into “treatment” with a particular problem in mind. Sometimes I’d contemplate the deepest levels of theology I could imagine. Or think about politics. Or work problems. Solutions. Artistic ideas. Story lines and plots. Even book projects emerged from all that think time on the run.
The other dimension of running psychology was learning how to deal with pressure. All those races served as a refining fire to my spirit and mind. Competition teaches you how to put it all on the line and live with the consequences and the achievements of your efforts. That may be one of the most effective psychological treatments one can hope to have: Learn how to deal with it. Whatever happens.
When I backed off the running I was a relatively new father. Thus new experiences were arriving nearly every day. Being responsible for the first time for the young life of a son and then a daughter brought on whole new levels of second-guessing my values, behavior and self-worth.
Some of these I tried to work out in conversation with my wife. But she wasn’t one to dwell too much on introspection. And thus, in an attempt to gain what seemed like important answers for myself, I booked an appointment with a counselor. From my late 20s on I’d come to recognize some patterns of anger, anxiety and depression over which I did not always have control. I yearned to know the source of those feelings, and decided to try to dig them out through therapy.
That first counselor was a psychotherapist, as I recall. She specialized in family practice, which sounded perfect. But by the end of our session she had not really shown a willingness to go back in the past and dig up the grunting sources of my life’s disaffections. The only thing she could only offer was a bit of cool observation about what my wife really wanted from me: “You seem very well-adjusted. But perhaps you shouldn’t try to involve your wife in your worries along with you. She clearly wants you to be strong.”
It felt good, in a way, to be told that I was “well-adjusted.” But then I wondered: what does that even mean? The other reason I’d visited the counselor was an emerging pattern of co-dependency between my wife and I. As a really social guy, I wanted to get out more with her and meet new friends. She loved our close stable of buddies. As a mildly hyperactive and needy person, I also wanted more affection and affirmation. My wife was a reserved person, not prone to a bunch of compliments or terms of endearment. We had our little jokes, don’t get me wrong. The relationship was not unloving. I just wanted to continue to evolve.
Thus the counselor’s advice wasn’t really that helpful. It only put all the burden back on me to carry the weight of the worries and resolve my own needs, if need be.
The next time I chose to meet with counselors was years later during a period of time when my wife was going through repeated cancer treatments. By then I’d well-learned what true patience really means. Fatherhood had bred into me the will and ability to put the needs of others before mine. Kids barfing down the front of your pajamas at two in the morning tends to temper any attention disorders.
But other people entered life with good advice. My high school track coach called the day he learned that my wife was diagnosed with cancer, and told me, “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.” If you think about it, that’s really close to what that first counselor told me. The difference was context. “Draw on the strength you know you have,” was his approach.
I was definitely psychologically strong most of those years. But time and age also have their effects, while stress and grief do their work as well. So I chose to avail myself of the psychological care of a counselor from Living Well Cancer Resource Center. The sessions were provided free as a part of the programs they offered, and I met bi-weekly with a psychologist named Gretchen.
She dug into my life story, family history and caregiving commitments including the care I was providing for my father during that period. He was a stroke victim and I was his executor, working with a live-in caregiver to take care of his needs. But it was still hard, with many emotional traumas and past associations with which we had to wrestle as my sometimes impatient, exasperating father pushed buttons on many fronts.
So I shuddered a bit from all that stress. Then one day Gretchen asked a question that is probably part of the litany of things all counselors ask their patients. But for me, the question nailed me to the wall. “You’re good at forgiving others,” she observed. “But how are you at forgiving yourself?”
That made me think. And it made a big difference in how I began to look at the world. I’d long seen the power of forgiveness at work when I let go of a workplace conflict and forgave a tormentor all his sins. That resolved the situation in ways that I never dreamed possible. To continue fighting with him would likely have led to my dismissal. As it was, he was the one that got fired for a variety of reasons that had little to do with me. Was God at work in my life? That was my only explanation.
So I began to forgive myself some of my own failures and internal conflicts. That’s a lesson one must repeat on occasion. It’s so easy to look back and blame yourself for failing at one thing or another. It might be a financial, familial or frivolous situation. But one must forgive it and move on.
The surprising effect of that self-forgiveness is that some of the successes come back into a clearer, more rational light. They no longer seem just compensatory. Esteem grows when it is allowed to breathe, not be suffocated under layers of anxiety and self-doubt.
The world opened up somewhat during that period. I even gathered private courage to imagine what life would look like if the treatments for my wife did not work. Could I forgive myself for allowing her to die? Could I get over the grief and guilt of that? Could I ever love again if things turned for the worse?
Eventually, but not right away, she did die. So did her father just before her. And then my father too. My mother had passed away eight years before, in 2005, the same year that my late wife was diagnosed with the disease. All that loss. It has a way whisking away the unimportant things in life.
I talked with one more counselor after that. She was a referral by the hospice agency. We talked a few times and I described how it had all transpired. How I felt that I’d loved my late wife fully and did all I could to keep her alive.
I’d even been sure to get to her bedside and apologize for any failings that I’d had. I asked forgiveness for the things that I knew had bothered her at times. My ADD. The lost keys. Things that got started, but perhaps not finished. And the backwards locks in our house doors. I’m not joking. Some of those things really are bothersome.
But then, most of all, I told her that I loved her. It’s amazing what the psychology of love can do in your life if you let it in.
Still, I accepted an invitation to head downtown to Chicago and participate in a mental health survey with researchers from a university. They survey consisted of a long set of questions and interviews with mental health professionals. They all concluded that while I’d experienced periods of depression and anxiety in my life, my coping mechanisms were robust. With the help of a little Lorazepam during the truly anxious parts, I’d come through the storm with my sails tattered but intact.
Then they handed me a report that said I was not bipolar or manic, schizophrenic or otherwise dangerously disposed to mental health risks. I walked out of that research facility to a bright Chicago afternoon and said out loud, “Well, I’m not as fucked up as I might have thought.”
And that was a liberating notion too.
Emerging from that long period of caregiving, grief and difficulty, I decided it was not healthy to lay too low or stick around the house and mourn all day and night. My friends knew that too, and encouraged my positive attitude toward facing life again. When I began to date, there were quiet words of encouragement and support. That was very important to me. It told me that I wasn’t being selfish or crazy for wanting to find ways to be happy again.
I’d been through so much stress, loss of work and financial challenges during those years of caregiving my brain literally felt beat up. So my friends served as my counselors and praised efforts to get out and live.
Then I met a woman who seemed to understand that too. Over four years of dating our families began to integrate. It wasn’t all easy. I rushed a couple things and it upset my children. But when we got married in 2017, we all became a family.
Like all couples, we had much learn about each other but took it slow enough to let that happen. We talked at one point about going to a counselor to work on any hidden relationship challenges we might not see in ourselves. But she’d been through marriage counseling before and I’d seen my share of thin advice, so we’ve largely decided to trust our own counsel on how to live. It’s our job to encourage our twenty-somethings in their lives and share the challenges and joys of marriage the best ways we know how.
And I’m pretty psyched up about that.