Why It's Not As Simple As "Get Some Therapy!"

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 4.824% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Gini and I were creeping up on a divorce, one angry fight at a time. “We need to get help,” we said, so we found ourselves a marriage counsellor.
Our marriage counsellor loved to watch us fight.
Every Monday after work we’d go in, and the counsellor would pepper us with variants of the same question: “So how do you feel your partner is being unfair?” And it would take a good twenty minutes before the room would heat up – but with unerring accuracy, the counsellor would home in on the exact places where I thought Gini was being a cold bitch and Gini thought I was being a whiny bastard.
Then, leading us on with quiet questions, he’d evoke all the ways we constrained each other. He’d ask Gini what her life would be like if she didn’t have to deal with my anxiety. He’d ask me how I’d feel if only Gini respected my feelings. His voice would never rise, but ours did, as he outlined all the crimes we perpetrated on each other.
We’d start yelling.
It’s not fair that you need me to call when I stay out late!
Yeah, well, how fucked up is it that all I need is a call and you can’t even pick up your fucking cell phone?
Maybe I don’t call because I know just calling won’t ever be enough for you! You’ll –
“Let’s bring this to a close.”
And just like that, our forty-five minutes were up. We were in the middle of a screaming fight now, but the counsellor had other patients in the waiting room, and we’d made some breakthroughs today, and we’ll continue this next week.
Like hell we would. We’d go home and fight for three hours, reiterating all the horrors of our marriage in detail until we were so tired all we could do was hold hands and try to remember what it was like not to hate each other.
We lasted four sessions with this counsellor. I don’t know whether he had a plan – maybe if we’d had more time, he would have guided us towards answers instead of raising all the ugliest of questions – but after session #4, Gini and I fought in the parking lot for an hour because the kids were home, and then finally said:
You know what? Fuck this guy.
Yeah. Fuck this guy.
And we left.
Now, I still believe in the power of therapy, and counseling, and professional aid. I’ve had friends who are still together today, only because they found a good therapist who gave them the tools to fix their marriage. Good therapy is empowering, brilliant, life-saving.
The problem is that you have to find good therapy.
And that’s something that doesn’t get discussed often enough. When someone’s in a suicidal depression, we tell them “get some therapy” like a therapist is a magic wand that gets waved in your face, and *poof!* your problems are gone.
And the truth is, therapy is a lot like dating. It’s not that there are good and bad therapists (though there are), but rather that there are good and bad counsellors for you.
Some therapists make a lot of suggestions, which is great for someone who bounces ideas off of people, but can be terrible for someone with poor self-esteem who won’t realize these suggestions are harmful to them. Some therapists are very hands-off, which is great for someone who’ll recognize their own problems if they talk it out enough, but can be terrible for someone lacking self-insight. Some therapists default to heavy medication, which can be great for someone who has a broken brain, but can be terrible for someone who simply needs to talk out a few issues and now is buried under a fog of medical side-effects.
Every therapist has their own approach, and not all approaches are compatible with yours.
And even that caveat ignores the issues you can run into finding a therapist who isn’t qualified to handle your lifestyle choices. There’s the obvious issue of a queer person getting a conservative therapist who thinks that homosexuality is a disorder, but it can be more subtle – a kink-ignorant therapist who sees all BDSM as self-harm, a polyamorous-ignorant therapist who quietly pressures you into finding a primary partner because she believes all relationships should have a core partnered center.
And it gets ugly. Because psychological professionals in all their stripes are good things, but often the people who need them most are folks who are dysfunctional enough that they can’t recognize a bad relationship when they see it. They’ll stay with a therapist who’s clearly not meeting their needs, maybe even a therapist who’s inadvertently doing damage.
I say this because I was talking to a good friend this weekend, and she told me how when she got therapy, she sat down with them and said, “Okay. I’m queer, deep into leather protocol, and polyamorous. Are any of those going to be a challenge for you?” And she could tell by the doctor’s reaction whether this was going to work out for her.
Which was, I thought, the perfect way to handle therapy. Those first few sessions are a job interview, to see whether this person gives you feedback that betters your life. If it’s not working, you leave, and find another therapist.
(An option that’s often sadly not available for the poor or those in court-mandated therapy or simply for those with narrow insurance policies, but in an ideal world it should be as simple as “Not this guy, find someone better.”)
Yet what happens in real life is that we often treat therapy as though it’s a singular thing – “Yeah, I tried therapy, didn’t work.” Whereas what really happened was that you went to two doctors, neither of which were helpful for your needs, and wrote off the entire approach.
That’s like saying, “Yeah, I dated two people, it didn’t work out, I’m not the sort of person who can handle intimacy.” Maybe that final statement is true, maybe it’s not, but there’s so much at stake here that you should probably try more than two people before writing off the entire process.
And like dating, you should be aware that while therapy is an awesome thing, a life-affirming thing, a totally transformative thing, it only really works when you find the right person to do it with.
We often say “Get some help” as though you get a therapist and it’s fixed. Yet the truth is that you need to get the right *kind* of help, and it *is* out there for you, but that getting help is the start of a process where you look over a bunch of options and try them out and see what you feel better after you’ve had a few sessions, and you keep trying until you click with someone who brings you to your happy space.
That marriage counsellor probably worked some miracles for some couples. He came highly recommended. And the fact that he didn’t work for us isn’t proof that couples’ therapy is worthless, it’s proof that we needed to fight the right person to help mend our differences.
And yes, it is totally unfair that when you’re at such a low point in your life that you need a professional to step in and aid you, you may need to do extra work to sort through various flavors of assistance to determine which ones are going to get you out of this mess. You’re tired. You’re depressed. You may not think life is worth living, and yet here you are having to put more effort into it?
But that’s how this works. It’s not a one-size-fits-all shop. It’s like shopping for clothing, and if you’ve got the psychological equivalent of stubby legs and a long torso, you’re gonna have to shop around.
Yet when you’re done, you’re gonna look fabulous. I promise.

4 Comments

  1. Mishell Baker
    May 26, 2015

    Yeah, this is a huge problem with the whole “get help” thing in general. When people spot someone with mental illness they jump to this condescending “please get some help” thing as though that person is some irresponsible diabetic who just needs to bite the bullet and take insulin. But telling someone with mental health problems to “get help” is more akin to telling them “please spend five to ten years trying everything under the sun until you stumble, by chance, on the right combination of things that makes your specific situation a little bit better, and even then, you’ll probably never be ‘normal’ enough to please me.” So yeah. If I never hear “get help” again it’ll be too soon.

  2. NC Narrator
    May 27, 2015

    I started therapy when I was in elementary school. To this day my parents don’t know why, they just know the school recommended it. I’m guessing the fact that I rarely spoke to anyone except teachers (and then, only reluctantly), and read constantly might have been part of it. I think I was probably a creepy kid. I stayed in therapy for 4 or 5 years and then announced I was done halfway through the 8th grade. No one objected – probably because they STILL didn’t know why I was in therapy in the first place.
    Looking back, I could have told them why I NEEDED therapy: I cycled between horribly depressed and incredibly manic. Terrific levels of anxiety made certain I never slept more than an hour or two a night. I never slept on long car trips because I was convinced that if I ever fell asleep we’d crash and everyone would die except me. Yeah, I was a creepy kid. None of my therapists figured that out because I never told them.
    After my first son was born I struggled with what I now know was postpartum depression. (God, I love hindsight.) I went to therapy. The guy I was assigned – I had no insurance, so no choice – was apparently a certified addiction counselor as well. He smoked like a chimney. That bothered me. Then he found out I was adopted. Turns out he was adopted, too. But I was adopted as a 1-month old infant into a loving and traditionally dysfunctional family, whereas HE was adopted at 10 years old by an abusive relative. So immediately ALL of my problems stemmed from my adoption “trauma.” I lasted three visits.
    After our second son was born prematurely, hubby and I were under a lot of stress. A LOT of stress. We decided to try marriage counseling. The woman we went to immediately decided that since I “didn’t work” I was being “borderline abusive” in asking my husband for some help around the house once in a while. Hubby was slightly thrilled (he doesn’t like doing dishes, and this looked like a legit out), I was not. We lasted one session.
    Therapy works, I know it does. I’ve seen it. But seriously, you have to find the right therapist, and then you have to commit to being completely honest and open about your life, and what’s in your head. I suspect it’s the last bit that trips most people up.

  3. Alexis
    Jun 6, 2015

    My husband and I went to three different marriage counselors before we found one that worked for us. The first one had some good insights, but just didn’t dig deep enough into our underlying problems. The second one I seriously disliked. She seemed to think that it’s “normal” for men to say cruel and hurtful things to their wives, and I should just buck up and take my husband’s constant criticism without complaint.
    We finally found someone who helped us get at some of our deeper issues, and after a few sessions of marriage counselling, we each had some individual counselling as well. It’s helped us a lot.
    If I had one piece of advice on finding a therapist, it’s be as honest as you can right from the get go. With our first two therapists my husband didn’t want me to actually give any specifics of our situation and what had been going on between us. He even told me he didn’t want to discuss the past. That worked about as well as you can imagine. The last time I put my foot down and insisted on total honesty, and things went much better.

  4. ladyErin.kaleidoscopeSystem()
    Jan 12, 2018

    There’s one final piece of the puzzle. You have to be VERY careful about how you suggest therapy as an option. “you need help” and “get some help” and other such phrases are used so rampantly as abusive euphemisms for “you’re fucked up and I don’t want to deal with it” that it almost invariably comes across as being shouted from atop a high-horse, even if the person you’re speaking to knows you have their best interests in mind.
    That was one of two barriers that kept us out of therapy for years: People had shoved it down our throat so much whether out of candid intolerance or out of some tactless attempt to help that they’d associated therapy with abuse and hostility.
    Second problem? Phobia… of systematic abuse. We’d a couple times had someone across a desk suggesting that we should feel bad about our lifestyle, whatever it was. We’d heard horror stories of “trying to cure homosexuals” and people getting thrown in asylums and effectively imprisoned for the most idiotic things. We were afraid our anxiety and depression, our being furry, our not being straight, or SOMETHING we didn’t realize at the time, might get us thrown in a straitjacket and pumped full of drugs.
    We didn’t want someone telling us how to live… imprisoning us for being different… manipulating, twisting, skewing… …killing the very things that made us who we were and erasing the “who” in the process.
    And not. One. Single. Person. EVER put genuine effort into soothing and disarming that phobia. After all, they were too busy trying to throw our “drama” onto someone else’s shoulders. (Also welcome to why we FUCKING HATE the mere utterance of “drama”)
    And yes… “we” – because whoever experienced those and all the other traumas is gone now… and what’s left is the system of separate wills and identities that had been brewing all along and the countless, inaudible cognitive voices we never realized weren’t “just me.”

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