The Gift of Therapy: My own experiences as a therapy client
During one of the first few sessions, clients sometimes ask me if I have been in therapy myself. Not surprisingly, they find the question awkward because they both want an answer and consider it important and because they are not sure if it is okay for them to ask. As with almost anything in therapy, I think a client should ask what they think is important for them to know about me, and then I will hold myself responsible for telling them whether I am willing to give them an answer. Sometimes the answer is no, I do not want to share that information. That exchange itself can be a good therapeutic moment, even if the client didn’t get what they wanted, because I try as hard as I can to ensure that they know I still wanted them to ask, because they couldn’t have known I didn’t want to share the information they wanted from me until I told them. And much of the time, if I think sharing the information will be good for the client, I will gladly answer their question So, this blog is a way to avoid all of that awkwardness, if possible, by answering the question about me and therapy in advance of the first session of all future clients (that care to read this blog): yes, I have been in therapy. In fact, I have been in therapy multiple times, at several different points in my life. Sometimes the therapy has not been helpful, and has even been a real turnoff, and at other times, it was a godsend. I have no magical answer about why it worked sometimes and at others did not. I can give you some clues though, in case you want to know.
First, let me share with you a couple of real turnoffs that will tell you a lot about when and why therapy definitely did not work for me, and which still inform much of what I do in my own therapy practice—to help my clients stay as far away from those kinds of experiences as possible.
When I was 11 or 12, my father took me to a therapist. I can’t tell you what prompted my dad’s exercise in self-help. If I had to guess, someone else told him to do it (like a school or the county). I didn’t want to go, I remember that. It didn’t seem I had much choice though, so I went. I think I thought it was like going to the doctor (first mistake). The guy gave me the whole speech about confidentiality, telling me everything I told him would go no further. I trusted him (second mistake). After telling him all the kinds of things my dad had been doing to me (basically, beating the crap out of me), this guy didn’t believe me, told me he thought I was making it up, and then told my dad (third mistake). Guess what my dad did to me when we got home? Yup, he beat the crap out of me.
Fast forward four years. I’m 16, trying to stay off drugs. Back in school after dropping out for almost a year. Depressed. Bored with school. Hating myself. Not wanting to go back to drugs, but not sure what I wanted to do. I had a good foster mom (bless her heart, for real). She strongly suggested I give therapy another try, knowing what happened before. I trusted her (not a mistake). I went. Nothing terrible happened. Nice guy. Good looking, I think. Nice hair, nice smile, nice office, nice compliments toward me. I didn’t buy it. Seemed to good to be true, or just not very helpful. So, I went for a while, then started missing appointments, then stopped going. Good in a way, because it helped me get over my fear of therapy, and therapists. It also left me feeling therapy was pretty useless.
Okay, one more lame therapy story (I’ll try to put you “there” by telling it in the present tense, like it just happened). I was going through a very painful breakup in my 30’s. I was really sad. I call a clinic in Uptown, Minneapolis. They have several therapists, one is available for a session that day (hmmm….). Okay, I need to talk to someone, anyone. I go. I start to tell him what’s grieving me. I want to say he interrupted me in mid-sentence (doesn’t that sound dramatic), telling me I smelled like cigarette smoke. Um, yeah, I say, cause I smoke (I did back then). So? Well, he launches into this ten minute lecture about how smoking leads to depression, and all kinds of health issues, finally suggesting the answer to what ails me is smoking. He kept at it, despite my assurances that this was not a topic I wanted him to talk about. I knew smoking was bad, and I didn’t care. That was the problem, not the smoking, but the not caring. He wanted to set up an appointment but asked me to promise to quit smoking immediately. I didn’t do either. I never went back, and smoked at him in my mind for about two weeks. By then, I’d gotten a grip on my grief.
Along the way, though, in my late twenties, I had the very good fortune to meet a great therapist, who also seemed to be a great person. Craydon worked at a nonprofit therapy center for poor people in the skid row part of San Francisco (which is where I lived when I was a poor student living there). At the end of our second session, after telling him some details about my childhood, and that much of it was from what others had told me because I could remember virtually nothing from before I was about 12, Craydon paused, looked over his notes nervously. Then he said, “Okay, Michael, I need to tell you that I just graduated with a Master’s Degree in therapy, and I don’t even have my license yet. Based on what you’re telling me about what has happened to you, I do not think I am qualified to work with you. You really need someone with a lot more experience and education. I will need to talk to my supervisor, who has a license, and a Ph.D. I think you should see him, he will be much more able to tell you what you need to do to get a handle on all of this.” (I am paraphrasing here).
His complete sincerity, compassion and humility were so refreshing, like nothing else I’d seen in a therapy office before. I told him I thought he would be perfect. I said I wanted to work with him because he didn’t try to tell me who I was, what I needed to do, he just wanted to listen, to talk with me, and that was exactly what I needed. He smiled, and agreed to try. I saw Craydon every week for an hour and a half for three years, until with a license, his own office in a nicer part of town, more confidence, and no less compassion, he told me, “I think you are close to ready to being done in therapy, Michael.” He was right, for that part of my life, for what I was trying to do then, which was to make sure I understood how the violence inflicted upon me as a child still worked its way through my mind. I’d just become a father before starting therapy with Craydon and was very worried that I would do to my new son what my father had done to me. Now that my son is an adult, I wish I could find Craydon to tell him how much he did for me and for my son—I did not end up becoming to my son what my father was to me, cruel, mean, or violent. This is the power of therapy, and is part of the reason I am now a therapist, because I have seen what it can do at the right time with the right person in my own life.
I have since then, from time to time, sought out therapy to address more specific situations. I have been more selective about who I see because I have learned the importance of the kind of connection you can make with a therapist, either positive or not. Sometimes even when the connection is really good, and the therapist highly competent, the work doesn’t go well. Some time ago, I saw a family therapist to try to save my marriage. The therapist was highly recommended by someone I trusted very much, who is herself a really good therapist. Despite our marriage therapist’s insights, knowledge, and skill, she was not able to help us figure out how to save the marriage. My sadness about the end of that marriage might never completely go away, but I still feel very satisfied that I found a good therapist to work with us. I can look back and honestly say, if she were not able to help us, that’s a pretty good sign that the marriage needed to end, despite my sadness about it.
It doesn’t take a long time to obtain the benefits of therapy if you know what you want, and are willing to do the work to get it. I saw a therapist during a very difficult time in my son’s life, when I was struggling to figure out what I was supposed to do to help him, feeling both helpless and some despair. I saw a sharp attentive solution focused guy. After three sessions, he said, “what seems to be bothering you is that you know you are in a ‘no-win situation’ but won’t accept that is how it is. So, my suggestion is that you remind yourself as often as you can by telling yourself, ‘this is a no-win situation.’” As simple as it sounds, he was absolutely right about what I was doing, and his suggestion worked very well, as long as I kept telling myself the truth—that I was in a no-win situation and had to accept it for what it was. I did not need to return to that therapist. I had gotten what I needed in a short time because what I needed was very specific, very contextual.
As a person who now provides therapy to others, I feel very fortunate to have had a well-rounded basis of experience as a therapy client. I have learned from these experiences some basic and powerful ideas about what works and what does not work. I try to use these experiences in the therapy I practice with my clients now, so I can help them avoid the foibles of my predecessors while hoping to give them some part of the almost miraculous benefits that have been given to me by some of my therapists over the years. Who I am as a therapist now, and what I have learned works for me as a therapy client, does not apply to everyone, and that is how it needs to be. We need to find what works for us, for whatever issue and whatever time in our life we decide to seek the help of someone else in therapy.
Copyright, 2012, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.