A professor in therapy.

Eingang zum Palais de Roure

Sometimes I love the contradiction of my being: capable yet broken. Other times it’s just painful. I know, for example, that travel saps more strength from me than it does others. That’s part of what it means to have an anxiety disorder. At least for now. But that will take time if it ever arrives. Recovery and coping look different on everyone.

I know for a fact that, as able as my mind is, I cannot do all the things I am able to do. This is when I am most frustrated with myself. I can see what I could do – I could translate that, or respond to this article, or whatever – but I cannot. My body is too exhausted after a long day on full alert, or a flashback rattled my heart loose in its cage. I only have so much of myself to give, and much of me is already given to learning to cope with being myself. Whatever myth taught me that I can do anything as long as my mind is willing is a complete lie. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and the spirit is too.

Sometimes I rage in frustration. I don’t handle anger well. I’m much too conditioned to direct it at myself. So even being angry as I mourn all that I cannot do – even that is very hard.

That’s a whole set of reasons I’m in therapy. I don’t “believe” in therapy because I think that belief only has one proper object: God. But I do think that therapy is helpful and effective, and I think that it is so for academics especially. We’re already stuck in our heads. May as well invite someone in there to help understand what it means to be where we are. We all know that just being somewhere doesn’t mean understanding that place.

Hell, being highly intellectualized means that we’re extremely unlikely to be aware of other very important things: feelings, tired bodies, people.

I’d be in therapy even if I weren’t an academic with a fucked up childhood and adolescence and a fun history of mental illness. I could be a completely normal academic – whatever that is – and I’d still want someone to help me think about what it means to be thinking all the time, how to grapple with my inherent remove from popular society, ways to manage the stress of the job. The benefit of slashing my own throat just means I actually got myself to therapy and have a visceral awareness of my need for it. Therapy doesn’t actually require a bloody story to go and need it.

We don’t wait until we have a heart attack to exercise. Hopefully.

My hope for my own therapy is that it helps me do the things I want to do – including wanting anything at all – and successfully mourn the things that will never arrive to me. I can’t undo abuse. It has taken me a long time to be okay with that, and it’s still hard. I’ll probably never be able to work myself like some scholars do, especially if my workload remains what it is, and I’m not okay with that yet. I know I could be. I could really be okay knowing that I have more stressors than others, more because they affect me more. Okay knowing that will always be a part of me. I’m not yet.

My friend says there’s probably some benefit to the negatives of anxiety. I scowled at her and wondered what the hell that might be. She pointed out that I notice more, and more quickly. I scowled at her, still displeased. I’m not there yet. Someone else go notice things. I’m so tired of watching body language like a hawk.

I’ll just blissfully not know you’re upset.

Therapy lays to bare exactly those kinds of dynamics. Those internal conflicts. In good therapy, I get to determine my own goals. If I have a particular perspective on a problem, okay. A therapist will respect that. A good one will, anyway. My current therapist is very respectful of and open to my religious sensibilities, to the ways Catholicism directs my life. I once had a therapist ask my what “my God” would think of something I’d done. I crossed my arms and glared at her. I didn’t appreciate what I interpreted as a game of pretend. Religious people can be touchy about God. I didn’t have to go to her again, and I didn’t.

Some therapists are awful, and that’s important to know because therapy can make us so vulnerable. Many therapists are really, really good. They’re there for you when you are so very vulnerable. There for you when even the other people in your life aren’t there, or don’t know how to be there, or can’t be.

It’s not at all like confession. As a Catholic, I’ve been asked that a lot. Confession is for the things I know I did wrong, for healing breaks in my relationship to Christ and the Church, for grace to help me heal. The sacrament is medicine applied directly to specific wounds. Therapy is about working through the patterns of feelings that surround the sacrament, that keep me from it or lead me to rely on it in ways it’s never been intended for. We could say that therapy addresses the rush and flow of emotions that accompany me everywhere, including to the sacraments. It’s not about feeling God. It’s about being whole enough to offer myself to God. Baptism and confession address this in fundamental ways. So does therapy. We don’t have to pretend they do the same work.

For example, I never believe absolution when I hear it. Never. I think, “Nope. God hates me. Fact.” Regardless of what the sacrament objectively offers – ex opere operato – I have to do the careful work of learning how to subjectively partake in the offering – ex opere operantis. For the saints, this has always meant confidence that seeking God has a way of untying our inward knots. I agree. Therapy is a profound and helpful way to seek God, to try and open up enough to let Him untie me.

Christians also sometimes worry that therapy supplants religion or spirituality. It can, and it has. As with every instrument, however, it doesn’t have to be that way. A hammer can kill someone, but I don’t have to use it that way. I truly appreciate my therapist for being willing to acknowledge a presence greater than either of us can describe, a presence in the room. It is important to me, and important that he is willing to grant it.

He’s not Christian. I love that he isn’t. He has no particular expectations for what a Christian or Catholic “looks” like. That can be confusing for us sometimes, but mostly it’s a relief. Many of my knots center upon failing to look like a “good” Catholic, after all. Other people want a therapist who shares their faith. That’s fine too.

Also, he’s a man. I don’t trust women, not particularly. So that’s fine by me. Others want someone of the same gender. Whatever is comfortable. And it should be about what is comfortable at a basic level. That room won’t always be comfortable, not at all, so elemental forms of trust need to be in place. If that means talking to a man who gets what it’s like, by all means.

Something hard for me is talking about work, and since work is theology, talking about God has the risk of becoming a chance for me to conceal my actual feelings by talking theory. That is my favorite way to not really talk to people wherever I am. “We’ll talk Catholic and I’ll be safe in this corner right here.” So I’ve learned to use simple, simple words. Words a child might use. Other people need to be given a way of talking about that stuff at all.

What I’m indicating is this: because therapy is interpersonal, it is very flexible. This can lead to bad practice, but also to good practice.

I don’t know that everyone should go to therapy. I think it’s good for people, but I’m uncomfortable offering a universal dictum. Unless that dictum has to do with who God is. That one is actually far simpler than diagnosing what ails human beings. The good is more knowable than evil (which is unknowable in itself).

So, yes, it’s incredibly frustrating and difficult to have the difficulties that I do. Still, I don’t think that the extremes in my particular life make therapy utterly strange. Sure, I need it “more” than others. That doesn’t mean only people like me need it. Everyone needs to do the work of learning how to be open to the world. It’s not about you understanding yourself so much as it’s about you understanding how to offer yourself to the world in healthy ways. In ways that God wants. Because every offering to God is meant to give life rather than take it.

How much more wonderful that is after braving the depths of the self.

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2 thoughts on “A professor in therapy.

  1. This post has been so helpful for me, thank you. I am currently looking for a counselor and I am going to read part of this to him/her in the interview. I especially find helpful that it may be better to have a non, or other than-christian counselor, i was wrestling with that and you have settled my mind. Finding your blog has really been a blessing to me and I am so thankful that you take the time to write here; I share more of your struggles than you might imagine.

    “For example, I never believe absolution when I hear it. Never. I think, “Nope. God hates me.”

    I yelped HA! out loud when I read that sentence. I was recently arguing for a universal salvation (along HUVB lines) with some fundamentalist christian friends who believe otherwise. I realized afterwords that I believed in the universal part but for everybody else but myself! My sins of course are beyond forgiveness and God doesn’t like me at all, but everyone else will be raptured/raised or whatever and here I’ll be stuck on this planet all alone I guess as pilotless planes will be falling from the sky, nuclear reactors exploding, and I’ll be standing on a pile of rubble waving bye–bye up to Hitler and Osama Ben Ladin as they float up into the forgiving arms of Jesus. Oy! One of my other concerns with a counselor was that I’m worried that rather than helping me with my angst/despair/whatever I will infect the counselor and jeopardize their mental health. Oy again! Nevertheless Grace abounds and I keep you in my prayers and look fwd to every post. Blessings and much obliged, Daniel.

    • Once we were going around the table, a bunch of theologians, saying which heresy we tended toward most. I said, “Which is the one where everybody but me goes to Heaven?”

      Happy to be there for and with you.

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