“But what is it that you actually want?”
I blinked. Looked somewhat bewildered. Not sure that I understood the question.
“Not the commitments.
Not the obligations.
Not the responsibilities.
Not the excuses.
Forget the over-complications of being a grown-up. The many hats that you wear. The masks you hide behind. Benevolent boss. Diligent employee. Dutiful husband. Responsible father. Supportive son.
Forget all of that. What do you want for yourself? Are you investing in the right things?”
A fleeting look of frustration crossed her face. Her tone becoming slightly exasperated. She was asking a deep soul-searching question. Something that went to the very heart of a person’s psyche.
And I had a deer in headlights moment. Mouth opening and closing like a goldfish. I had nothing.
I was seated on an uncomfortable chair, opposite an earnest and well-meaning therapist who was asking equally uncomfortable questions. She was of the school of thought that the answers to our problems reside within ourselves. The behaviours and blockers of today having been formed and conditioned by the events in our past. I was sceptical, but had decided to keep an open mind and see how it played out.
The journey that had led me to that seat is a tale in itself.
We all use conversation starters like “how are you?” or “how’s it going?”. Questions issued as statements. Part of a conversational ritual. Social convention demanding a throwaway response, “good” or the pessimistic English variant of “not too bad”. The asker is rarely interested in the reply, it is just a polite bridge to the real substance of the conversation.
Except on this occasion, it had been my younger son who was asking. My automatic response of “ok” was met with a raised eyebrow and a troubled expression. “I’m not sure you are”.
Which gave me pause. Kids are perceptive, and young kids have not yet learned to filter their thoughts or censor their words.
Upon reflection, I realised he was correct. I was a great many things, but “ok” was not one of them.
I am descended from a long line of alpha males. Stoics. Dependable providers. Robotic cavemen from the old school. Raised to suck it up when things didn’t go our way. Get over it. Move on.
No time for a pity party. No patience for those who self-indulgently play the victim. “Woe is me” was a character flaw, an unacceptable lifestyle choice.
A simple approach. Straightforward.
One that appeared to perform admirably over many generations, when it worked, which was most of the time. For the rest of the time, there had been alcohol.
For a long time, life had felt like it was spiralling out of control.
Not a single sudden shocking event. Contracts terminated. Getting sued. Terminal diagnosis.
Nor a brief rollercoaster ride involving abject terror and the uncertain feeling that I was about to lose my lunch. Becoming a parent for the first time. Providing palliative care. Visas renewals rejected.
No, this was more pedestrian. Less dramatic. A seemingly endless succession of small things. Accumulating. Piling on. Each a trivial everyday thing. Yet in aggregate becoming overwhelming.
My inner saboteur is normally adept at keeping me grounded. Letting the air out of my tires so that I don’t get a big head when I was winning, and using dark humour to avoid beating myself up too much when things weren’t going my way. However, in this, he only shook his head and offered a “you poor bastard”. Which seemed heartfelt, if unhelpful.
The troubling thing was that I didn’t understand the why of the overwhelm. The only thing that appeared to have changed was my ability to cope. Everything else was as good, or as bad, as ever.
Which was bewildering.
Leading me to swallow my pride.
To fight against my instincts to soldier on, play the ostrich by burying my head in the sand.
To ask for help.
Talking to a therapist was a leap into the unknown. Humbling and scary in equal measure.
Were my problems real or imagined?
Will they criticise, judge, or laugh at me?
Would they be able to help?
What if I didn’t like the answers they helped me find?
The first few sessions were different to what I expected. I had studied two years of psychology during high school, but therapy did not involve any of the things they taught us about. No reclining on leather couches talking about dreams. Nor did it require subjecting random strangers to electric shocks. There were no pop-psychology multiple-choice tests, to make sweeping judgements about personality types or sexual purity levels, with the same degree of vague certainty as a newspaper horoscope.
Instead, there were a series of hour-long conversations, with a seemingly engaged audience.
Someone who actively listened. Asked astute questions, relevant to the topics being discussed. Outwardly at least, they didn’t appear to judge. Objective rather than supportive or dismissive.
Dialogue where the main topic of conversation was me. And to begin with, I did most of the talking.
An experience that was as unfamiliar as it was unsettling. I couldn’t remember the last time I had talked about myself for an hour. It had been years. Possibly decades. Receiving the sort of focussed attention that was only available to those newly in love or those who were paying for it.
We explored my childhood and upbringing. Life and loves. Hopes and fears. Dreams and disappointments. Joys and frustrations. Relationships past, present, and future.
The therapist subtly guiding the conversation, attempting to get a feel for who I was and what had made me the way I am. Periodically reminding me that patients only got out of the sessions what they put in, those unwilling to do the work would be unlikely to achieve the results they desired. Ever conscious that she was receiving a selectively filtered account, viewed through the biases and perspectives of the storyteller. Opinion, not fact. Impossible to independently verify.
And for the most part, that was ok. The facts themselves were not the problem. It was how we perceived and felt about them. The attitudes we carried. Behaviours we deployed.
By the fourth session, the therapist had concluded I was a relatively well-adjusted middle-aged man. With few regrets, fewer demons, and largely unburdened by the ghosts of the past. Which is pretty much how I described myself at the beginning of the first session, when the therapist outlined her philosophy that our problems of today are often rooted in the events of our past.
So we changed tacks. If the answers I sought did not lie within, then perhaps they could be found without. Outside influences and external stressors. Things that lay beyond my control.
Eventually, the therapist was able to piece together enough of a picture from my rambling anecdotes and war stories to put forward a tentative theory. Something that explained much, and left me feeling like a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders. Initially, at least.
I spent the next week trying to tease apart the theory. Prove it. Disprove it. Research it. Throw bricks at it. Analysing it from all angles.
To give credit where credit is due, the therapist’s theory withstood scrutiny surprisingly well. Not perfect. Not a silver bullet that answered absolutely all of my questions. But an excellent starting point, something to work with.
The good news was the world began to make sense again.
The bad news was the things I was struggling with were things unlikely to change.
Railing against them would prove about as effective as complaining about London’s crappy weather.
Which meant the path back to coping lay in acceptance and making my peace with things. An ignoble end to my valiant quest for understanding, which I had hoped would yield the discovery of a magic pill that would neatly deliver some easy answers and allow life to return to normal.
Instead, it led to the sort of searching questions the therapist raised at the beginning of this story.
Questions for which I don’t have good answers. Yet.
The therapy sessions usually left me feeling drained, but better for the experience. A bit like a hard workout or a successful job interview. That day I didn’t fancy returning home, or an afternoon of relentless back-to-back video conference calls. Instead, I dawdled along the river, reflecting on the journey so far.
Mental health is a topic we often hear given lip service to, yet not one I had personal experience with. I have a newfound respect for the challenges people with real mental health problems face, often as debilitating as a broken leg, yet in the absence of visual cues and visible scars they receive far less patience and understanding. In hindsight, I am relieved I got over my ego and sought out help, and grateful that I was fortunate enough to be able to afford to do so. Many aren’t so lucky.
The process has had many parallels with that of good financial planning. Recognising that without understanding the why, it is difficult to find a workable what or how. To put a viable plan together, that stands a fighting chance of succeeding.
The therapist threw down the challenge about whether I had been investing in the right things? Not asset classes or fund choices, but rather devoting my scarce time and energy to the things that really mattered. I was guilty of having misaligned priorities, the money stuff providing a convenient shield to hide behind, offering an illusion of control and a sense of progress while real-life spiralled.
I still have more questions than answers, yet I am beginning to figure out what they are. The illusion of progress? Perhaps. Or maybe realising that I had a problem and needed some help was a tentative first step in the right direction.