At one time I thought psychotherapy was for the mentally ill. That’s because it is. At some point, though, I arrived at the conclusion that an equally useful purpose for the practice is a more prophylactic exercise: to keep yourself mentally sound in the first place.
I have a friend who has been in therapy quite literally since I’ve known her. She began seeing her therapist in a two-fold program that was designed to help her deal with a bad marriage and to foment personal growth, emotional stability, and good mental health. Now I’m out of the judgment business, but 15 years seems like a long time to be in therapy for personal growth. 15 years. That’s a LOT of growth opportunity.
The point is, though, that the more I ask around the more I realize that regular people in regular life seek out life coaches, counselors, and therapists either regularly or from time-to-time when life becomes more of a chore than a joy. I myself have tried several types of mental health therapy on more than one occasion, not the least of which was when my wife Heidi and I were going through a rough patch.
I remember with perfect clarity when I was sitting in one of two, comfortable, over-stuffed chairs next to Heidi in the other comfortable, over-stuffed chair during a visit with our therapist Lisa. We had been discussing the merits of Spontaneity (Heidi’s approach to life) and Routine (a necessary brand element in my life).
I prefer to think of “my routine” as a series of necessary rituals that keep me grounded. Heidi tends to think of it as boring, preferring an occasional change to the same song-and-dance that passes for my evening agenda. The song being provided by Johnny Cash and the dance manifesting itself as the things that accompany it such as calling the dog and grabbing the shotgun so that both are within reach as I sit at my bar.
We were near the end of our session and I remember confessing that although I dearly loved my rituals, I was concerned that I was about to drive my family mad with boredom because of my nocturnal habits. Heidi turned to me and said in a very determined tone: “Honey, that ship sailed a decade ago.”
Moments later, Lisa casually advised my wife: “Well Heidi, I think you need to be a little more cognizant and respectful of both the house rules and the value of planning ahead for things.” I recall trying very hard to combat the feeling of smugness creeping into my Super-ego as I heard the words fluidly tripping over her tongue and into the ether. Any smugness that might have crept in, however, was suddenly obliterated as she turned to me.
At this point I must offer that women scare me. When a man confronts me, I know exactly how to respond to him. There are basically three responses depending on who he is and what he is demanding of me. If he is my boss, I will negotiate a settlement. If he’s my friend, I will tell him he is wrong or ignore him and buy him a beer or demand that he buy me one. If he’s a stranger I will consider very carefully whether to sucker-punch him or to burn the $1.25 investment in the bullet chambered in my pistol. It’s kind of a toss-up because the latter is more expensive, but the former takes much more effort and I’m out of shape.
In the case of a confrontation by a woman, however, I have only one response: complete and utter terror that typically manifests itself as speechlessness. Such was the case when Lisa turned to me after her admonishment to Heidi and looking into my soul with piercing blue eyes said “And Guy you need to be more flexible.”
A myriad of thoughts immediately pressed themselves upon me. “What do you mean?” I asked, my trepidation stripping me of any dignity I could have hoped to muster. “It’s very simple.” She replied. “You need to get out of your comfort zone—and your family needs you to do that too.” Gesturing with air quotes she continued “You need to get out of your box. Instead of sitting at your bar every night with your dog listening to Johnny Cash, you need to think about other ways to entertain yourself that are more inclusive of them.”
“But I like my dog and I like listening to Johnny Cash.” I asserted—but only on the inside. I began to involuntarily squirm and Lisa inquired “Does that make you feel uncomfortable?” “A little.” I retorted as I winced. She looked at me intently for a moment and then she said “OK; close your eyes and take a deep breath.” This is the part of the session where you’re supposed to let go of stress and other things as you exhale, which is what I earnestly tried to do. It didn’t work right away but it eventually began to remedy the knot in my stomach.
A few weeks later: I began to hear this same refrain from my friends. Of course it was only my female friends. The guys are fine doing the same thing with me day-in and day-out, week-in and week-out, year-in and year-out. The women I know, however, merely tolerate the routine that I so highly value, but lately they’ve been objecting—frequently. Perhaps it was my imagination but moving forward as I went through my routine each day, I kept hearing a chorus of voices (several octaves higher than my own mind you) directing me to “get out of your box.”
Then one day, a colleague, Mary, who was desperately seeking a lunch partner, stopped by and uttered the following words dripping with sarcasm: “Lunch at Casa de Luz?” I looked at her and the haunting chorus of those friends trying to “help me grow” suddenly reached a crescendo and it was decidedly more demanding. For those of you who don’t know, Casa de Luz is an Austin icon that’s also a magnet for hippies and radical health-food zealots. On their Web site, they describe themselves as “…macrobiotic chefs … [who] produce animal free, nutrient-rich organic meals for health conscious individuals.”
Notice that the promo copy doesn’t contain adjectives like “delicious“ or “mouth-watering” or “yummy”. I don’t even know what macrobiotic means—but it doesn’t sound very flavor-friendly to me, and I’m not sure you can really call food a meal if meat isn’t involved. Still, I listened intently to the chorus and then without any effort whatsoever I simply said “OK.” Mary’s jaw dropped and she spit out a single-word” “Really?” “Sure.” I replied, trying to hide the uneasiness that was already making me nauseous.
Now about my experience at Casa: we often yearn for something intensely only to find that when it is manifested it never really meets our expectations. On a couple of occasions, however, I have had an experience in which the materialization of the yearning in question far exceeded the wonder I first envisioned. It’s rare but it sometimes happens. In the case of my outing to Casa de Luz, however, it was sort of the opposite of that.
Prior to my jaunt, I perceived Casa de Luz as the way station to my version of Hell. To me, Hell is an eternity at an Austin music festival crowded with hippies on a 110-degree day with $10.00 beer, $5.00 water, and expensive, crappy food. My outing to Casa de Luz was exactly that without the 110 degree heat, the crowds—and with no beer whatsoever. The experience far exceeded any expectation of the horror I could possibly have imagined.
I was relating this story to another colleague, Stephen, and he asked a simple question: “Why did you go?” “I was trying to get out of my box.” I countered. “Sounds like there’s a reason for your box.” He said with a smile. “Hmmm. There’s a reason for your box.” I thought. Words of wisdom from someone 25 years my junior—an unusual experience for me.
OK, compromise: from here on out I’ll swap out Johnny Cash for George Thorogood every third night. Are we good baby?