It takes courage and strength, but it’s worth learning how to benefit from a therapeutic relationship.
I know now, more than 25 years after I first walked into a therapy office and fifteen years after I first saw a client, what it takes to make that call, fill out those forms and walk through that door. And I have great respect for every man who does so. I say “man” because most of my clients are men, but also because the challenge for men is so much stronger than that for women. I also have great respect for the level of pain, desperation and courage that is necessary to get many men into my office. There are not many men who are strong enough to be a therapy client.
Of course, I didn’t have much thought about courage or strength when I walked into a therapist’s office for the first time—and I had no idea that I’d be in the other chair years down the road. All I knew is that I was a fucked up mess.
“Are you man enough to go to therapy?” my enlightened male friend had asked me. It seemed like a really strange question to me. Me? Man enough? Therapy? All of it was kinda hard to put my head around. But then, everything was hard to put my head around at that time. I had just lost yet another relationship, and I had no idea how it had happened. I was feeling so much sadness and hurt and confusion and disappointment and anger that I had no idea how to answer the question. I sure didn’t FEEL like a man in the middle of all that! I felt like a useless, needy barnacle that had just been scraped off the hull of a ship. I felt like a flailing child who needed a mama, but couldn’t get mama to hold me. I felt helpless, and there is nothing worse than feeling helpless.
But then I would find my anger: at God, at Fate, at her, and that would help me feel like a man again. What the hell did she want from me? And why didn’t she tell me? I had asked her as she was gathering her stuff. She smiled sadly and explained that she had told me—many times. I just hadn’t heard her. I had no fucking idea what she was talking about. When had she told me? Was I supposed to read between the lines like some pansy English teacher who can tell that the look in her eyes reveals all we need to know? Why wouldn’t she just say it flat out? “Steve, I know I told you it’s fine that you hang out with the boys tonight, but that was just a test to see if you’d choose to stay home with me.” Or: “Steve, every time I went to watch one of your games and told you I enjoyed it, I expected that you’d be so grateful that you’d watch a chick flick with me and say you enjoyed it.” But no, there was never a sign. Unless turning over and going to sleep was a sign, but she always said she had a headache.
And besides, I had been good to her. I’d helped her out with things when she lost her place, and helped her deal with her boss’s shit, took care of her car, even got her a new one when the first one broke down. I’d take her out to dinner when she asked and always let her pick the place. What more could she want from a guy? And now, she’s leaving me? What the fuck?!
But then, those damn tears would come back again, and I was sure I wasn’t man enough for anything. She’s leaving me? What, what, what happened? I—I—I tried to do shit for her. What the hell else am I supposed to do? She always wanted me to talk about feelings. Feelings! Well, I’ve got your fucking feelings now. And where are you? What would you want with a man who cries and can’t even get out of bed to go to work, and who keeps listening to old messages and reading old notes you sent trying to figure out what happened? This is what you want? Feelings? You are fucking crazy!
I started therapy shortly after that break up. I didn’t know if I was man enough to go or if I was a fucking woman for going, but I did it anyway. I went because my friend said I better do something to stop the unpredictable eruptions of curses and questions every time we went out for beers.
I walked into that therapy office feeling completely defeated, hoping that this lady could help me get it back together, but doubting that she could do anything at all. As it turns out, I was right. She was terrible! In my first session, she told me she was really busy and couldn’t fit me in unless I wanted to come in during her dinner break. I was like, “Uh, sure, if that’s how it works.” For almost every session after that, I talked while she nuked and then ate her TV dinner.
One session, her office was being painted, so she had me come to her house. We met at the dining room table while her husband clanged pots and washed dishes in the kitchen. She didn’t seem concerned that he could hear us, so I just went along. I’m not sure how long I met with her, but I did benefit from seeing her because I eventually found a sustained anger—with her and my ex-girlfriend and women in general—and I didn’t feel like such a collapsed mess anymore. And I did learn a valuable lesson. If you are going to do therapy, be a conscious consumer, because some therapists SUCK!
After that experience, I am not sure how I got through the door of another therapy office, but there I was a few years later talking to the very hot junior therapist who reported to my new fiancée’s therapist. Now this woman was much better, and she paid attention to me, and she helped me start to realize that there were some things I could learn to make my life and my relationship better. This time, I did question whether I was weak for needing therapy. But I’d pump myself up with the idea that I made good money and I’d happily pay $40 to talk to a hot woman who liked me and would comfort me when needed. She didn’t even give me a hard time when I started spending parts of every session exploring my fantasies about her. Fortunately, she also never gave in to all the subtle efforts I made to try to live the fantasies. Therapy ended shortly after I found out she was pregnant. By that point, I was married and figured I was clear of the relationship problems which had plagued my life until then. And it was harder to rationalize how I wasn’t weak if I was paying to talk to a hot, pregnant woman.
As might be predicted, the relationship problems weren’t over. The nature of them just changed. I knew I was getting serious about therapy when I decided to see a male therapist. No more comforting rationalization that my motives were purely misogynistic. However, I did take some solace in the fact that I was now studying to become a therapist, and I could see this therapy as an experiential training rather than an indicator of my failure as a man. I learned a lot from that work, and I still tell the therapists I supervise that my best training for being a therapist was being a client.
One of the things I learned in that therapy was how embarrassed I was about getting therapy. I had fought off all of the stories of weakness and wimpiness with comforting images of misogyny and learning. But the reality was that I needed this work to learn something about how to live in relationship—with myself and with a woman. And the best way that I could learn it was in a relationship with a man who held me to the fire, with love and compassion. Over time, I have transformed my story of seeking therapy. I let go of the story of myself as a weak, needy man. I let go of the story that I betrayed my fellow men by doing the womanly thing of talking about my feelings rather than just getting the fucking job done. I even gave up the cover that I was a wily guy looking for a date or an apprentice looking for training. As I see it now, I was a man who was both brave and desperate enough to overcome the Man Rules, at least in one part of my life, and strong enough to stick to the really difficult work of getting to know who I am, at least a little bit.
These days, in a first session, I always tell my male clients who are new to therapy that this is hard work, but it’s not like any hard work they have done before. This hard work doesn’t require them to ignore their body’s or mind’s limits and push through and get the job done anyway. This hard work requires that they soften and feel the true pain of their work, and the limitations of their capacity. When the work is to feel, to open, to see in new ways, to explore and experience rather than to know; when we are confronted with the limits of our capacity to predict or control; when we are asked to breathe and contain and notice rather than to act and release and fix; the challenges are huge, and the outcome is uncertain.
It is a courageous act—a friend says that it is a “revolutionary act”—to overcome the stigma, the rules and the labels around asking for help, and to work to be a better father, a better partner, a better human, and a man free of the constraints of unexamined habits that close us off from true engagement with the world. A few weeks ago, I talked to a young guy who came to clean my carpets. Chris is recently back from Iraq. He told me a little about what he went through there, and hinted at how hard it is to be in his current life. I offered him a few free sessions and gave him my number, which I assume he threw away. But somewhere along the line, I hope that Chris, who was brave enough to face enemy fire, who lost friends and was injured in the line of duty, who smiles and protects strangers from the reality of what he faced,will find a new source of strength to fight the real and imagined threats to his manhood, and make the damn phone call.
In Canada and the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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